One of the most annoying aspects of the absence of the Usher Hall for these last few seasons has been the resulting absence of any international classics season from Edinburgh. We must wait for August and the festival for our international ensembles. Or we can go to Glasgow.
Leif Ove Andsnes and the young Norwegian Chamber Orchestra always seemed an enticing bet, yet at the beginning of this week I was feeling so shattered I wondered if I'd even bother with the trip. Even this on Wednesday morning, I had my doubts. I'm very glad I resisted them.
They began with Mozart's K449 concerto, Andsnes also directing, with the lid off the piano, which was facing into the orchestra (providing a nice view of the keyboard). They gave a crisp reading of the work and the ensemble was nicely tight in a way that isn't always the case when a soloist directs; the fact that this ensemble is conductorless probably helps here. Andsnes' played nicely, though didn't quite seem to have the clarity of, say, Paul Lewis.
He then left the stage, his piano was pushed off to one side, and a small rostra was brought on for leader Terje Tonnesen (also the orchestra's music director). They played Prokofiev's small first symphony. Weighing in at under a quarter of an hour, it always sounds as though it's very difficult to play. I love it though, especially the rapid and witty opening movement. The orchestra kept effortlessly on top of the tricky tempi and at times the piece danced wonderfully. My only reservation concerns my seat - I had managed to end up in the front row of the stalls (not sure quite how, since I normally like to look down for a better view) between the second and third desks of the first violins; this led to a slightly string-heavy balance.
During the interval a member of the hall's staff played with the tuning of the piano. This struck me as odd, since I hadn't noticed anything untoward. A second odd thing happened when I returned to my seat: all the chairs were pushed back, bar three. The strings then returned to the stage to play, from memory and while, with the exception of the cellos, still standing, Grieg's Holberg Suite. Now, this immediately suggested to me some kind of party piece, something which can be a bad omen as it can mean a by the numbers and routine affair. Fortunately nothing could have been further from the truth. They gave a sparkling reading and there seemed to be great concentration and greater communication between the players.
Finally Andsnes returned for Beethoven's third piano concerto, often amongst my least favourite (unless it's played very well indeed, such as by Solomon). It was superb and either I had been tired during the Mozart or there really had been something not quite right about the piano as his playing was breathtaking. Yes, perhaps not quite the absolute clarity of Lewis, but something else too, especially the richness and delicacy he brought to the sublime slow movement, which I would happily have listened to over and over again. The outer movements were also well judged and all in all it was a beautiful performance. So too the accompaniment from the orchestra was of the highest order.
It was a slightly eclectic programme, yet one which seemed to fit together very well. And, when he returned to the stage to announce an encore, something that often winds me up, it seemed entirely fitting: they gave a sparkling reading of the finale from Haydn's D major piano concerto (Andsnes' intricate fingerwork was a joy to behold).
They were justly well received by the modest audience (the hall must have been below half capacity). That more people weren't there is baffling; apparently Scottish Opera's new production opened the same night: more fool anyone choosing that over this. I hope the visitors didn't feel unwelcome and I hope the return soon (if anyone from the festival is reading this, how about booking them next year, go on).