For Gramophone Hall of Fame inductee Leif Ove Andsnes, the destination of “The Beethoven Journey” – his monumental four-year focus on the master composer’s works for piano and orchestra – is finally in sight. Perhaps his most significant achievement to date, since its launch in the 2011-12 season the project has not only taken the Norwegian pianist to 108 cities in 27 countries for more than 230 live performances, but has also seen him release three hit Sony Classical recordings that, issued together as a boxed set, have just been named among the “Best of 2014” by the New York Times. All three albums feature the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Andsnes’s fellow traveler since his project’s inception, and it is with the MCO that he returns to the U.S. next month to crown the formidable series of top-flight international residencies and engagements that make up his epic journey’s final phase. In a two-night residency at New York’s Carnegie Hall, where he gave a “magisterial” (New York Times) all-Beethoven solo recital last spring, he leads a complete Beethoven concerto cycle from the keyboard, giving accounts of the Second, Third, and Fourth concertos on February 23 and of the First and “Emperor” concertos two days later. He and the orchestra also offer a preview of their first program at the New England Conservatory, in Boston’s Celebrity Series (Feb 22).
As his journey’s end approaches, Andsnes reflects:
“There is no end to the discoveries that can be made about the character of Beethoven and his music. ‘The Beethoven Journey’ has opened my eyes to just how much freedom there is in this music. When I started 25 years ago, Beethoven was a mystery. I knew he wrote in the Viennese classical period. I checked off the box that said he was a revolutionary. But working on these concertos for three years has proven to me that you can’t put Beethoven in any box! His music has total freedom and you have to recreate everything. … The spontaneity that one can achieve with these pieces is greater than in any other piano concertos I can think of. We think of the piano concerto as an exciting genre with all these splashy colorful pieces written later on. But the content of Beethoven’s pieces are so explosive. Over and over again I have felt the fresh impact of these works.”
It is the pianist’s partnership with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra that anchors “The Beethoven Journey,” and their outstanding musical rapport consistently draws especial praise. The UK’s Guardian comments: “You’d be hard put to find a pianist and orchestra better matched,” while Gramophone magazine observes: “There’s so much more to this partnership than just exceptional playing; there’s a palpable sense of discovery, of living the music.” As Switzerland’s Neue Luzerner Zeitung noted after Andsnes and the orchestra performed a complete Beethoven concerto cycle at their recent Lucerne residency, “The musicians followed him with immense sensitivity; voices came to light that one has never heard in the orchestral writing, as if personally coaxed from the piano.”
Their Beethoven Journey CD series on Sony Classical, for which label Andsnes records exclusively, has already proved a resounding success worldwide. The first album, on which he and the MCO play the composer’s First and Third Piano Concertos, was named iTunes’ Best Instrumental Album of 2012, awarded Belgium’s Prix Caecilia, and hailed by BBC Music magazine as “an all-round winner of a disc, with superlative playing from both soloist and orchestra, and a recorded sound to match.”
On their second volume, Gramophone found Andsnes and the orchestra “joyously unbuttoned in the Second concerto while the Fourth is, quite simply, one of the most moving renditions in the catalogue”; in a five-star review, the UK’s Telegraph concluded: “This leg of Andsnes’s interpretative journey is a landmark of artistic integrity, intelligence, and musical insight.”
Completing the cycle with a coupling of the “Emperor” Concerto and “Choral Fantasy,” the series’ final installment was pronounced “exemplary” by Germany’s Fono Forum, and “gripping from the first note to the last” by the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR). “Every note speaks in Mr. Andsnes’s distinguished playing. And he proves an insightful conductor,” agreed the New York Times. Naming the disc a Gramophone “Editor’s Choice,” Harriet Smith declared: “To have arrived so soon at the end of this journey seems almost a pity. … Having used up my stash of superlatives, all I can say is: go buy.”
When released as a three-CD boxed set, The Beethoven Journey continued to inspire rare and heartfelt acclaim. Germany’s Klassik magazine called the collection “revelatory,” and counseled: “Do acquire this box: it will make you feel happy to be alive.” Including the set in its list of “Top Music Recordings of 2014,” the New York Times paid tribute to its “exceptionally lucid, fresh and insightful performances.” As Germany’s Rheinische Post put it, in Andsnes’s “revolutionary” Beethoven,
“You hear details you’ve never heard before. … The trite appellation ‘definitive recording’ applies absolutely and unreservedly to this Sony cycle.”
* * * * *
Additional “Beethoven Journey” residencies take the pianist and the MCO to the world’s great musical capitals. Having kicked off the season with complete concerto cycles in Hamburg, Bonn, Lucerne, and Vienna, they now reunite for a residency at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris (Feb 17 & 19), before embarking on a major Asian tour, with full residencies in Shanghai (May 8 & 10) and Tokyo (May 15 & 17), plus performances in Hong Kong (May 3), Taiwan’s Taipei (May 5) and Pingtung (May 7), South Korea’s Gyeonggi-do (May 12), and Shizuoka City in Japan (May 14). The project’s grand finale takes place in London, where Andsnes intersperses a three-concert, full-cycle residency with works for chamber orchestra by Schoenberg and Stravinsky (July 23–26). Rounding out his partnership with the MCO is “Feel the Music,” an integral component of their “Beethoven Journey,” which was recognized with the 2013 European Education YEAH!Award; inspired by the composer’s own hearing loss, the project enables hearing-impaired children around the world to explore ways of experiencing music through their other senses.
Since the outset of his “Beethoven Journey,” Andsnes has not only performed the composer’s concertos with the MCO, but as guest soloist with many of the world’s foremost orchestras. In October he returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall, where he and Gustavo Dudamel brought their three-season Beethoven cycle to a climactic conclusion with renditions of the “Emperor” Concerto and “Choral Fantasy” that prompted the Los Angeles Times to report:
“Andsnes … seeks freshness through clarity and care. He plays with cool eloquence. He purposefully balances every note against every other. He studiously avoids eccentricity. Looking through scrupulously clean lenses, he takes in familiar landscapes with new eyes. … You can never get too much of Andsnes’ elegance.”
All told, as leading Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten concludes, “The Beethoven Journey has been a storming success.”
High resolution photos are available here.