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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era