Bergen Festival: Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Grieghalle, Bergen: Norway.

The assumption that Norway’s contribution to classical music began and ended with Edvard Grieg isn’t one that stands up to much scrutiny. Kirsten Flagstad, composer Knut Nystedt, colourful violinist Ole Bull and most recently trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth have all done their bit to bring Norway to prominence on the classical scene, but there is only one musician whose reputation has come even close to rivalling Norway’s national composer – pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

 Now in his forties, Andsnes has grown into the serious talent that he has demonstrated consistently in international concert halls since the late 1980s. His studies at Bergen’s Music Consvervatory make him a beloved son of the city, and so it was only fitting that it should be Andsnes – together with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra – who inaugurated the Bergen Philharmonic’s new Steinway at the 60th Bergen International Festival. In a programme of Beethoven piano concertos, Andsnes reminded a capacity crowd of the distinctive skill that has taken him so far away from his native Norway.

The opening subject of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 can sound Rococo, almost fey, in some hands, but even before it grew to its full strength here there was a muscularity to the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s delivery (directed by Andsnes from the keyboard) that spoke of the strength to come, and threw down the gauntlet in the battle the concerto enacts between soloist and tutti. The woody mesh of tone created by the orchestra is perhaps their greatest strength – a carefully balanced texture through which a whole palette of colours can be refracted, as they later demonstrated so comprehensively in Stravinsky’s Apollo musagète.

 If there is a dominant colour in the 1st Concerto however it is the clarinet (beautifully phrased here by Olivier Patey), leading the orchestra in their battle with the piano. Cast to his strengths, Andsnes here revelled in the Patrician elegance of the solo part, rejecting the orchestra’s brasher advances and instead offering up filigree sequences of embellished runs and trills, and of course the simple elegance of the opening Largo theme.

Yet in the Third Concerto that followed all Andsnes’s fluidity, his graceful understatement, were not quite enough to carry the argument. Altogether stormier than the C major No. 1, the C minor requires an abandon that seems contrary to Andsnes’s tidy nature. Neither the unruffled cantabile lines of the Allegro con Brio nor the spirited semiquavers of the Rondo truly caught fire, and despite furious provocation from the orchestra it was only in the hard-won wit of the presto coda that a sense of human struggle emerged.

 Stravinsky’s ballet Apollo musagète offered a mid-concert showcase for the strings of Europe’s greatest overgrown youth orchestra, directed by Concertmaster Steven Copes. While outwardly much more conservative than the composer’s more familiar works for the Ballets Russes The Rite of Spring or The Firebird, Apollo merely pays lip-service to conformity, treating conventions of musical form and dance with a playful subversion.

Performed by the MCO the work’s bluesy, neoclassical textures emerged both charming and witty, alive from the block chords that herald the Prologue, through Copes’s characterful solo variation as Apollo himself, and on through Terpsichore’s deliciously drunken, wayward Viennese dance to the ecstatic close of the Apotheose.

 The Bergen Festival is the largest annual festival of its kind in the Nordic countries, and with its 60th Anniversary celebrations this year comes the start of a new era. The appointment of Anders Beyer to the role of Artistic Director (as of 2013) will bring with it a new focus on the distinctively Norwegian character of the festival. In Andsnes he already has a potent national hero, and one we can expect (and hope) to see returning again and again.

Leif Ove Andsnes, celebrated pianist and star of the Bergen International Festival.
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Listening to recordings from the Antarctic, I felt I could hear the earth groan

The Science Hour on the BBC World Service.

A weekend of listening to the radio news ­revealed nothing but sounds of the sucker-punched going through their pockets in a panic and repeating, “I thought you had the keys.” So, never was talk of “a perfectly flat area of just whiteness” more alluring. The oldest Antarctic ice yet recorded was recently found. “For millions of years,” the presenter Roland Pease assured listeners  (25 June, 9am), “snow has been falling, snow on snow, all the while trapping bubbles of air and other chemical traces of climate . . . insights into the ice ages and warm periods of the past.” How was this ice located? “The finding part is pretty easy – you just go there and start shovelling, and ice comes up,” the lead geologist, Jaakko Putkonen, said.

There it was, buried under a layer of dirt “in barren wastelands” high in the middle of Antarctica. An “incredibly mountainous and remote and . . . quite hideous region, really”, Pease said, though it was sounding pretty good to me. The world dissolved into a single, depthless tone. Then Pease mentioned the surprising fizzing of this ancient ice – trapped air bubbles whooshing as they melt. Which is perhaps the thing you least expect about ice regions and ice caps and glaciers: the cacophony. Thuds and moans. Air that folds and refolds like the waving of gigantic flags. Iced water sleeping-dragonishly slurping and turning.

On Friday Greenpeace posted a video of the pianist Ludovico Einaudi giving a haunting performance on a floating platform to mark an imminent meeting of the OSPAR Commission, as it decided on a proposal to safeguard 10 per cent of the Arctic Ocean. Einaudi looked occasionally stunned by the groaning around him. A passing glacier popped and boomed like the armies of Mordor, ice calving from its side, causing mini-tsunamis. When last year I spent some time at the remote Eqi Glacier in Greenland, close to the ice cap, local people certainly spoke of the ice as if it were living: “It’s quiet today,” delivered as though gazing at the fractious contents of a Moses basket.

“This huge cake of ice, basically flat”, Putkonen said, perhaps longing for a moment of deep-space silence, for peaceful detachment. He wasn’t the only one being forced to reappraise a landscape very differently.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies