First published in the Guardian on 22 November, 2013
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Andsnes
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
If ever proof was needed that the ethos of an orchestra affects the sound it makes, look no further than the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It’s been 16 years since this exceptional ensemble grew out of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. It still lives by its founding principles of democratic decision-making and its sound is full of vibrancy and youthful spark. Despite a measly audience turn-out (the Usher Hall can’t have been more than a third full for one of the world’s classiest chamber orchestras), there was a sense of drive and ownership from every musician on stage: rank-and-file string players as much as pianist/conductor Lief Ove Andsnes.
The programme of Stravinsky chamber works and Beethoven piano concertos showed off the MCO’s cool flexibility, from lithe seven-piece to big-boned ensemble of 40-some. Their sound was irresistibly plush throughout: a velvety blend of glowing strings and warm, nutty winds. But there was also something charmingly simple about their Stravinsky. This neoclassicism wasn’t sarcastic or knowing. Lyrical passages were just that, and the spiky wind solos were playful without becoming mean. The Septet was crisp and intricate; Dumbarton Oaks was graceful, almost serene.
Andsnes conducted from the keyboard in beautifully-judged accounts of Beethoven’s Second and Third Piano Concertos. He’s an arrestingly understated pianist who builds his drama subtly from the tugging insistence of a repeated phrase the second time around or a flash of urgency towards a cadence. The earlier concerto was light on its feet, pristine and shapely, with gorgeously proportioned cadenzas and a frank, tender slow movement. The Third simmered with dark, volatile energy and a real sense of adventure. It would be hard to find a pianist and orchestra better matched.