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.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.