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Andsnes, BBCSO, Bělohlávek, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Andsnes, BBCSO, Bělohlávek, Barbican Hall

Andsnes, BBCSO, Bělohlávek, Barbican Hall

Norwegian pianist brings a grand design to Rachmaninov, but sober Bruckner ends in disappointment

Leif Ove Andsnes: a grand design for Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto

Pundits have always yoked architecture and Bruckner together, touting void and mass at the expense of the dynamic experience music ought to be. Abbado and his Lucerne Festival Orchestra favoured sinuous instability in the Fifth Symphony earlier this week, making the very foundations gyre and gimble. Relatively solid ground last night was due to a more sober conductor and Bruckner symphony: a mixed blessing.

The grand design, in fact, came from Leif Ove Andsnes in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, making overall sense of a work which has always seemed swooningly resistant to it.

If that meant throwing out the epic grandeur and misery favoured by the Russian school of orchestral pianism, so be it. Andsnes’s rock-solid technique was a marvel in itself, and deftly followed by Jiří Bělohlávek's velvet BBC army. It depended, apparently, on where you were sitting as to how well the balances came across: right at the back of the stalls, the piano sound pinged so insistently off the back wall that it felt as if the volume might never go below mezzo-forte, while another audience member seated some way back upstairs told me the soloist's fortissimos couldn’t be heard above the orchestra.

Such is Barbican concert life. What’s for sure is that Andsnes not only mastered the longer and more relentlessly chordal of Rachmaninov’s alternative cadenza-part-ones in the first movement – an option of which Horowitz once said, “It’s like an ending in itself, and it’s not good to end the concerto before it’s over” – but made the ensuing soft answer that turns away its wrath the lynchpin of the whole adventure, so that the movement could sink calmly to its temporary grave.

Bělohlávek’s straightforward engagement with Bruckner's Fourth Symphony made a suitable enough alternative to the still-glowing memory of Abbado in the Fifth

Least successful was the poker-faced turbulence of what sounded like a very overwrought Intermezzo, though its sudden bout of valse-tristing found Andsnes in top chamber-style partnership with the BBC Symphony woodwind. And the finale truly crowned the work, that central fantasy which so often used to get the chop making sense as a will-o-the-wisp pursuit through the forest of memory. The final cavalcade was both exhilarating and utterly in command, with a confidence that merited the ovation. Andsnes lowered temperatures graciously with a personable encore stroll through the Norwegian March of compatriot Grieg; Rachmaninov would have warmly approved.

Belohlavek conducting the BBC Symphony OrchestraIt was the Bruckner which took some adjustment. Throughout the first three movements of the Fourth Symphony, dubbed – as all the early ones might be  - “Romantic”, Bělohlávek’s straightforward engagement (the conductor pictured right by Chris Christodoulou), his easy spaciousness for the mountain peaks and atmospheric command of the twilight zones, made a suitable enough alternative to the still-glowing memory of Abbado in the Fifth, even if one missed the sheer finesse of the world’s finest orchestral soloists (the collective BBC strings sounded in very good, echt-Austrian health, though).

The second-movement funeral march needs a little help, and got it; the violas shone in their disconsolate little meander and Bělohlávek lifted the whole by swinging through the first brighter processional in village-band style. But the finale has always seemed to me beyond redemption, especially last night with the miraculous solution of the Fifth still blazing in the brain; and here one really could have done with an injection of the Abbado/Lucerne hallucinogens. Instead Bělohlávek’s dogged sobriety made me want to bolt from the hall as Bruckner goes into two repeat modes too many, and with some of his dodgiest thematic material. A shame I left feeling almost as Mahler the conductor did about the piece, that the passing beauties don’t quite make up for some of the more tedious absurdities. Had composer and conductor been able to stop at the end of the big, horny Scherzo it would surely have been a different story.


It was indeed a pleasure to listen to Leif's materful interpretation of Rach 3. The Grieg encore was also utterly exquisite (I intend to buy that piece, hopefully he has recorded it). But thank you for a very erudite review. The Bruckner was let down by, well, Bruckner. the final movement dragged on and on. However, it remained an incredibly enjoyable night.

One wouldn’t wish to welcome the ‘English problem’ with Bruckner, but one gets equally unsettled when suddenly the whole establishment to a man stand and speak out to applaud such a thing as Bruckner’s Fifth. All of a sudden the English know how Bruckner should be performed, and Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra show that even Bruckner can be as comfortably suited to English taste as their beloved Brahms. So it’s gratifying to read that David Nice can’t be doing with the 1880 finale of Bruckner’s Fourth – though it’s hard to believe that he’d find Mahler’s truncation of it (available on CD conducted by Rozhdestvensky) really any more amenable. No sooner has it begun, than suddenly you’re into a paltry abbreviated coda – the whole thing quite inconsequential, proof, if such were needed, that Bruckner had it right in the first place. Similarly the 1888 version that Bruckner made together with Löwe and Schalk and was performed – once again to almost universal critical acclaim – by Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra at the Proms 2010 – doesn’t seem to deliver the structural security and beauty and uniquely Brucknerian ‘oddness’ required. It’s very hard to understand what it is that has singled out this particular finale of Bruckner’s for the invariable criticism in the English-speaking world. Mind you – you can find plenty of punters prepared to attack the finales of the Third, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth (and even to claim that the Finale of the Ninth would have been impossible!). But it is almost a cliché of English Bruckner commentary to dismiss this finale, and even Tovey – who was dealing with the 1888 version, but was all in favour – forbore to quote the full second subject ‘lest the enemy blaspheme’. But to my ears it’s one of the greatest joys of Bruckner’s output, and one of the first things that drew me to love Bruckner’s music. Well, obviously one can’t argue people into liking things that they don’t – so maybe it’s pointless for me to say that the themes are amongst Bruckner’s best, nicely incorporating elements from the first movement and the scherzo. The shattering, octave-drop main theme that stalks the movement like some great behemoth, and the slightly melancholy lilting Austrian second subject group (Gesandsperiode) – performed wonderfully lyrically and slow by Belohlavek and the BBCSO – how could anyone find that repeated ‘too often’? - one goes away wishing for more!!! Indeed, there should be more, because the strident third subject group is neither developed nor recapitulated. Maybe the problem is that people just don’t relax enough, stop their brains urging forward all the time instead of delighting in this glorious stuff. And I think one needs to trust Bruckner: understand that he wrote this at the height of his powers, after the Fifth Symphony and String Quintet, whilst composing the Sixth and just before he made the first sketches for the Te Deum, and he was no fool. He thought it was right (well, he did at least until 1888!); if we don’t, we need to try again, come at it from a different angle, remain humble before the music and its composer. If we don’t get it, we need to think twice before assuming the fault is with the composer.

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