Prior to hearing The Beethoven Journey: Piano Concertos 1 & 3, the only other recording by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes I had access to was his collaboration with the Artemis Quartet, Schumann/Brahms: Piano Quintets. I arrived at this recording by way of the Artemis Quartet, and I came across that group when my search for recordings of Ligeti led me to Ligeti: String Quartets 1 & 2. It’s a long way back from Ligeti to Beethoven, but the current cliques of professional classical musicians appear to keep these degrees of separation tightly wound. No musician wants to be professionally bound to any one era, and this includes Leif Ove Andsnes who has covered his share of Bartók, Schubert, Grieg, and even Janáček.
For The Beethoven Journey: Piano Concertos 1 & 3, be prepared to go back to early Beethoven – back when the young lion had yet to lose the dark colors in his hair, his hearing, his sanity and had not yet exploded into the immortal voice he left behind known as the dawn of the romantic era. Listening to the first and third Beethoven piano concertos paints him as a student at the boots of Mozart and Haydn. They are derivative and reverent to the styles of his teachers, holding fast to form only as a student would. The repeated patterns aren’t for the sake of repetition but for gradual expansions of the straightforward melodies and the surrounding string arrangements. It’s all laid out very plainly on CD; six tracks, each piano concerto containing the same track names (“I. Allegro con brio”, “II. Largo”, “III. Rondo Allegro”) and each track’s length being proportionate to one another (long, not as long, then a little bit shorter).
Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra give an immaculate twist to a symmetrical release. If it’s a journey, as the title suggests, then it’s the start of one. That seagull on the cover can’t be too far off the ground. The naivety of Beethoven’s early music doesn’t make The Beethoven Journey: Piano Concertos No. 1 & 3 a big emotional home run. The third concerto does outdo the first one in this department, but it’s still no ninth symphony. Leif Ove Andsnes plays the piano with what I can only call great understanding. His approach to the fat of the classical era is never cold, mechanical or dangerously flamboyant. Mahler Chamber Orchestra aren’t exactly doing Mahler’s ninth here (did you really expect them to?) but they are professionally sympathetic to their conductor and pianist. There have been plenty of recordings of early Beethoven committed to budget-priced CDs over the years, and they all featured crappy mixes. I won’t name names, but some labels really flooded the market with classical music where the musicians didn’t have any greater knowledge of subtlety and blending than my high school concert band ever possessed.
I end up looking at The Beethoven Journey: Piano Concertos No. 1 & 3 as a do-over for negligible stuff like that. The class that Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra bring to these two Beethoven piano concertos is the antidote, a reboot for the early Beethoven repertoire. It doesn’t stir up extreme emotions on its own but it does get the job done professionally. If this journey is an ongoing one, then we will be in for a treat later on.