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31 May 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 4:00am

Bergen Festival: Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra

By Alexandra Coghlan

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.

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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.