London Symphony Orchestra/ Andsnes, Barbican Hall

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The Independent Culture

Purposefully written for his concert tour of the USA in 1909, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto was designed to impress.

It’s a show-off piece and then some. But, as the gifted Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has been demonstrating time and again in recent years, there is another way of playing it.

The piano’s very first statement – so relaxed as to be almost horizontal – was pitched by Andsnes in such a way as to allow the singing counterpoint in the bassoon to make almost more of an impression than the piano itself. At once he was establishing the symphonic nature of the piece, the undisputable fact that the orchestra leads as surely as it supports and that the real mark of a great performance is the degree to which the soloist can convincingly integrate into the whole.

Andsnes’ often understated manner and self-effacing approach was his triumph here. Which is not to say that his performance did not dazzle – quite the contrary. But nor did it draw attention to itself, nor did it assume primacy. The real beauty of the playing was in its quiet luminosity and luxuriant tone – meaningful, never merely showy. Only in the mighty first movement cadenza, where the piano briefly mutates into an entire orchestra, did Andsnes deploy the full force of his technical armoury. There was, of course, flash, too, in the barnstorming finish of the piece, but some of us left the hall remembering the reflective sequence of chords just prior to the home run far more than we did the glittering prize of the coda. Impressive.

Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra shone, too, turning on the ardour and shimmer of the score and achieving such impressive unity with their soloist. But Pappano in the concert hall is inclined to let his natural dynamism run away with him. His account of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony “Pathetique” was full-on, to say the least, but did it really take us to that dark place far beyond the surface histrionics? Pappano’s intensity of feeling is never in doubt but how I wish it had expressed itself more inwardly here and with a greater range of true pianissimo. At least no one applauded as the third movement brashly frogmarched us to the abyss. But the dying moments of the symphony revealed too strong a pulse and this heart resolutely refused to break.