The Proms: ‘Wouldn’t you simply die without Mahler?’

On Sunday the 26th of July, Leif ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra completed their four-year collaborative “Beethoven Journey”. Thus this remarkable concert was, in many ways, the culmination of a relationship that has had the time and space to evolve into something quite unique. 

Prom 12 began with Stravinsky’s Octet, scored for an unusual combination of woodwind and brass instruments. The decision to perform this alongside the Beethoven concerti may have been informed by a sense of looking to another musical era, by virtue of the composition’s neoclassical traits; Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto is frequently evocative of Mozart’s concerti for the piano, whilst the grandeur and scale of the 5th concerto anticipates those of Romantic composers, such as Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. The Octet featured bold, imaginative playing, with particularly memorable performances from the bassoons, especially in the Theme and Variations 2nd movement.

Andsnes then entered the arena with the rest of the orchestra and launched into the 2nd Piano Concerto in B flat major, (confusingly, the first to be composed), meaning that we experienced the beginning and end of Beethoven’s work for this ensemble. As expected, the orchestra was immaculately unified, both in its timing and stylistic approach, with a true sense of intimacy sustained throughout the concert. This was perhaps partly due to the absence of a traditional conductor, whose role was assumed by Andsnes, switching effortlessly between director and soloist. One quite striking consequence of this arrangement was that for the vast majority of the audience, the only sight of Andsnes was from behind. Arguably this provided an experience free from any facial distractions, and for those of us lucky enough to be in close proximity, his hands were a delight to follow. 

Andsnes’ playing revealed a natural balance between power and elegance, and despite the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, we were drawn into the most exquisite delicate playing.  Breathing freshness into works such as the ‘Emperor’ concerto takes a performer of consummate technical skill, and a mature insight; after performing these pieces in over 55 venues, there remained a clear desire to unearth and share these discoveries with the audience.

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As the performance went on the orchestra seemed to become more and more exuberant, and their visible enjoyment was infectious. Encores were almost inevitable as the 6,000-strong, rapturous crowd rewarded the performers’ warm presence. For £5, this inspiring concert was a rare treat.