The best performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto I ever heard was by Leif Ove Andsnes with the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel. That was in the 2002–3 season. Let me quote from my review:
As a Norwegian, Andsnes might be expected to play the Grieg Concerto, and that is indeed what he presented with the Philharmonic. This is, of course, an easy piece to make ridiculous—all you have to do is play it ridiculously. But if you treat it with dignity and seriousness, the true excellence of the piece will emerge. That is exactly what happened under Mr. Andsnes’s hands. He brought an almost Classical discipline to the piece, taming its excesses, limiting—even removing—all bombast, and making each section cohere. From beginning to end, the pianist was resolutely unsentimental. I do not say that his reading was without beauty—it had plenty. But it had an iron that made the Griegian beauty all the more beautiful, and palatable.
Yes. Two seasons ago, I reviewed Andsnes in the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 4, saying,
He played like he usually does: with elegance and self-possession—with an air of aristocracy. Not a hair was out of place. Also, Andsnes is an excellent tamer of bombast, as he proves in, among other concertos, the Grieg, of which he is my favorite player of all time.
I added, “It is good for a Norwegian to be good in the Grieg—even better if he is great.”
Is Leif Ove Andsnes tired of playing this concerto, with orchestras all over the world? I don’t know, but he played it again last night in Carnegie Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its music director, Andris Nelsons.
He was good in it, of course, very good. But he was also, in my judgment, cold and business-like. This was especially true of the first movement. The playing had a sense of clock-punching about it. In the second movement, the Adagio, the piano’s entrance was extraordinarily blunt. Baldly unmusical.
But Andsnes did some great playing as well—how could he not?—and he had a fine orchestra behind him. I will single out the French horn, who was nicely stable. Also the cello, who contributed a fabulous buzzy sound in the last movement.
Andsnes played an encore—more Grieg, one of the Lyric Pieces, “Gangar”—which was true Andsnes: perfect in technique and musical expression. Simply perfect.
After intermission, Nelsons and the BSO performed a Mahler symphony, No. 4 in G major, sometimes known as the composer’s “Classical symphony” or “Mozart symphony.” It is probably Mahler’s most relaxed and smiling.
From Nelsons and the Bostonians, it started fast and clean. The first movement was unusually intense and driven—even nervous. Is this a correct approach? If you can make it musical, sure, and Nelsons did so. There was a healthy dose of the rustic in the music. Also, the orchestra was very clear. I heard things—inner voices—I had never quite noticed before in this work.
In the second movement, we were truly in the countryside. It was practically a vacation to Austria. And may I say, too, that there is a lot of trumpet here, as elsewhere in the symphony? This reminded me that Nelsons was a trumpet player, pre-conducting. He played in the national opera of his home country, Latvia.
(I once asked him, “What do trumpets do in opera?” This was in a public interview, at the Salzburg Festival. Nelsons said, “Well, they announce things.”)
The third movement of the Symphony No. 4 is one of the great slow movements in Mahler, and therefore in all of music. Last night, it started out as it should: warm, songful, reverent. Then it took on pain, or at least melancholy, as it must. In my view, the final pages of this movement were too slow: stagnant, unbreathing.
But there was plenty of air in the last movement, for which Genia Kühmeier joined the orchestra. She is an Austrian soprano, born in Salzburg. Kühmeier was clean, fresh, and—may I use this word here?—idiomatic. She was not singing so much classical music as music—just a song (and a great one, to be sure). Nelsons conducted with intelligence and musicality, and the orchestra followed suit.
A satisfying concert.
I would like to offer a footnote, please. The principal clarinet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is William R. Hudgins. The head of the percussion section is J. William Hudgins. No relation. What are the odds?
And maybe one more footnote. Owing to quirks of the calendar, I have heard a string of orchestral concerts, in two different halls. One orchestra concert after another. And it occurs to me: Recordings are great, for all sorts of things. I find myself listening to a lot of piano music, on recordings. And songs. But orchestral music? You almost have to be there.