Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Phil in Beethoven's "Eroica"… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
With Obama and Romney on the brain, it becomes next to impossible a day after the presidential debates not to perceive the candidates in all walks of life. The Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes — who participated in an all-Beethoven concert with Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall — are not exactly stand-ins for American politicians.
But one of them advocates big Beethoven, the other small Beethoven. Andnses has a new recording of the composer's First Piano Concerto and Dudamel of the "Eroica" symphony, the two works on Thursday's program. Their radically different approaches express seemingly irreconcilable points of view.
Ensemble performance, however, differs mightily from, and could stand as a model for, the way Washington operates. With an accommodating Dudamel on the podium Thursday, the pianist and conductor simply worked it out, and splendidly so.
Andsnes has begun what he calls a "Beethoven Journey," devoting the next three years to performing the five Beethoven piano concertos, which nearly all pianists play and audiences take for granted. His recording of the First and Third concertos is with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (he replaces the First with the Third for the Saturday and Sunday repeats of the L.A. Phil program and will do the others with Dudamel in later seasons). For the disc, the pianist himself conducts from the keyboard.
The performances are light, lithe and have the airy transparency of chamber music. Tempos are brisk. Everything is exposed. There is no safety net.
Dudamel's recent "Eroica" recording was made in Caracas with his Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in February just after he completed his massive Mahler Project with that orchestra and the L.A. Phil. No judicious three-year project for him, Dudamel instead immersed himself in all of Mahler for an intense month. You can hear the echo of that in his "Eroica," played with a huge orchestra and made hyper-expressive. This is not about the individual but about collective music making, Beethoven as a social conscience. The tempos are slow. The scope is grand.
Both Beethovens were on display Thursday. For the piano concerto, Dudamel utilized a smallish orchestra, although larger sounding than what Andsnes chose for his recording (which he made in Prague in late May, just before heading to the Ojai Festival, where he was music director in early June). The tempos were only a tad slower. The orchestral sound had more heft.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 is really Beethoven's second piano concerto — the numbering reflects the order of publication, not composition — and it can be seen as the transitional work that moves away from a Classical-moderated concerto form to something more of the Romantic era, in which the soloist becomes the individual standing up to the orchestral masses.
Andsnes seems to want to have very little of that. His playing is exuberant. He doesn't physically interact with the orchestra the way some soloists do, but he listens to the players and enters into dialogue with them.
Dudamel gave him the necessary elbow room. There were marvelous intimate moments, say when clarinetist Michele Zukovsky (the woodwinds thus far this season have been marvelous) picked up a little inflection from the pianist at the end of the slow movement.
Andsnes' considered pianism is ever admired, but there are times when he can be too considered. His placid performance of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata at Ojai this year hadn't much more warmth than an Oslo winter night. But in Disney Dudamel supplied the heat.
His fortes with the orchestra were real fortes. The last movement had guts, which almost seemed to throw the pianist slightly off and kept a listener on the edge of his seat.
Andsnes' encore was the Allegretto of Beethoven's 22nd Piano Sonata, Opus 54, the sonata that follows the "Waldstein" that Andsnes played at Ojai. As if newly energized, he gave it vitality.
For the "Eroica," Dudamel enlarged his string section. His overall approach was again Mahlerian — broad, epic, heroic. He took the funeral march second movement as slowly as Carlo Maria Giulini had on his controversial 1978 L.A. Phil recording of the "Eroica."
But the difference was that Giulini accepted the somber, mellow weight of the world on his shoulders while Dudamel enthusiastically got inside the sound and let it ring and ring. National characteristics suddenly stop mattering, because this kind of slowness reminded me of another Norwegian named Leif. Leif Inge's "9 Beet Stretch" sound installation digitally slows down Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to a 24 hours, so that every chord becomes an immersive experience on its own, pulsing with energy.
All four movements of Dudamel's "Eroica" pulsated, whether fast or slow, although he couldn't quite equal the vibrancy he brings to Beethoven's Sixth or Seventh. He is perhaps asking slightly too much of this earlier symphony, ground-breaking as it was in extending the scope of orchestral music.
Who did the audience vote for? Andsnes was enthusiastically received. But grandeur typically wins out. The "Eroica" got the biggest applause.