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.
The Depths of Hell
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Review: “Self-Portrait as Hairless Dog”, Alex Jones, 2018

Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

The self-portrait as self-abasement has a long history in art: Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of Goliath being held aloft by the young sword-wielding David; Stanley Spencer once depicted his sunken haunches, grey skin and squashed genitalia (alongside his wife’s sagging body) next to a carefully depicted leg of mutton; Michelangelo meanwhile showed himself as an empty flayed skin in The Last Judgement  in the Sistine Chapel.

What to make, then, of the mocked-up photograph currently scarring Twitter’s collective eyeballs which the radio host, conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones posted, portraying him as a hairless dog lying on a kitchen hob?

This strange, Hieronymus Bosch monster, stares expressionless at the viewer anticipating a moue of distaste. The Jones-hound is unapologetic, fleshily pink in a pose that carries uncomfortable references to Renaissance nudes.

Titian’s Venus D’Urbino shows a voluptuously sensual woman: the thoughts she is meant to evoke can only be carnal. But it is harder to see the Jones image, however coquettish, as drawing the panting male gaze. Is his nakedness a reminder that we are all born of original sin and creatures of shame, like Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden? Is his canine persona an acknowledgement that we nothing but animals?

The kitchen hob on which this squidgy hybrid lounges clearly alludes to the flames of hell. Rogier van der Weyden showed the flames licking at terrified sinners in his Last Judgement of 1450: this, he says, is what happens to those who err from the ways of the Bible. Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

It is hard not to interpret the Caravaggio, Spencer and Michelangelo depictions other than as as expressions of self-loathing, of a disgust so profound it came to the fore almost despite themselves. Jones, though, looks complacent, even contented. Medieval bestiaries are full of such fanciful creatures; often they are emblems of evil, the Devil’s playthings that are beyond redemption and settled in their fallen state. This, perhaps, is closer to the truth.

However, the cleverness of the image ultimately lies in something it doesn’t show. The animal’s plump tail covers, almost coyly, its genitals and what Jones’s expression says is: don’t worry, if you are looking for bollocks, well, that’s me.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.