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Leif Ove Andsnes @ Strathmore

Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist (photo courtesy of NRK)
Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist (photo courtesy of NRK)
Washington Performing Arts Society brought Leif Ove Andsnes to Strathmore on Tuesday night. While the Norwegian pianist may be less famous than some of the musicians who are reliable WPAS favorites, he drew a respectable audience who impressed by their silent attention, the sort who glare at a dropped program. Although we have recommended several recordings by Andsnes, including his Mozart concerti, Schubert (with Ian Bostridge), and Bartók (with Christian Tetzlaff), this is the first live review at Ionarts, and it was worth the wait.

After opening with Bach's E minor toccata (BWV 914), Andsnes launched into Beethoven's E-flat major sonata (op. 27, no. 1 -- see this online score). The work has been often in my ears recently, in recordings by András Schiff and Paul Lewis and, most importantly, on Alfred Brendel's farewell recital. Like Brendel and Lewis, Andsnes took the indication of "Quasi una fantasia" as a prompt for a detached, dreamy style for much of the piece, with a gentle approach to the first movement's first subject and aloof wonder at those unexpected C major chords. By contrast, the Allegro section was a wash of very fast notes and hammered accents. The second movement was even and clear-themed, and after holding the final note for a long time, Andsnes proceeded into an easy, straightforward third movement, as if it were marked attacca. The only complaint was related to the register shifts of the fourth movement's theme, which sounded a little hammered, although Andsnes never gave ground on the fast tempo.

Aspen eye
Birch, the national tree of Finland
The high point of this program was at the end of the second half, a set of lesser-known Scandinavian works, introduced with brief and entertaining comments by Andsnes. Four short pieces by Sibelius, left off the official program, gave glimpses into the Finnish composer's sound world, known primarily for orchestral works and less for the piano. The final piece of Kyllikki (op. 41, based on an episode from the Kalevala) was a flighty account of the inveterate party girl's late night adventures, with a murky ballad in the middle. A waltz marked Elegiaco (op. 76, no. 10) recalled a tragic memory, leading into The Birch (op. 75, no. 4), a folk-inspired evocation of Finland's national tree. Oscillating chords seemed to recall quivering leaves, and the pentatonic melodic snippets were redolent of the mythic north (once, visiting rural Sweden, I was struck by how much it looked like my own home state of Michigan where, above the tree line, white birch and conifers dominate). A gloomy Barcarola (op. 24, no. 10) was more appropriate to a skiff among icy floes than to a gondola, Venice by way of Finland.

Concluding the set was the G minor ballade by Grieg, which Andsnes has played everywhere since the Grieg centenary last fall, including on top of a Norwegian mountain (the video of the piano being lifted up there by helicopter -- to the strains of Grieg's piano concerto, of course -- is a hoot). Composed after Grieg's parents had died, it is akin to Chopin's ballades (and their connection to the poetry of his native Poland) in its nostalgia for family and home. However, much like Grieg himself, the piece joins together Scandinavian folk elements and more southern, extended harmonies that would fit in with Ravel, Debussy, or even Poulenc.

Grieg, Ballade in G minor, op. 24, Leif Ove Andsnes

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Pianist Andsnes, Better Than the Hype (Washington Post, April 24)
To seal that connection, Andsnes closed with a second-half selection of less familiar Debussy preludes, mixed together from Books 1 and 2. Was it my imagination or were preldues chosen for their possibly nordic connection? There were murky chromatic clouds of fog that wrapped the listener in veils of ambiguity (Book 2/1), jerky melodic bits tossed up by the wind in the plain (1/3), footsteps on white snow in dusky silence (1/6), and a glacially beautiful Ondine (2/8). Andsnes was at his best creating a varied palette of color, as in the ethereal enigma of Canope (2/10), the Spanish dance and clanging guitar of La Puerta del vino (2/3), the playfully interrupted serenade (1/9), and the bucolic heather lea of Scotland (2/5). In pure virtuosic displays, as in the wild toccata of Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest (1/7), he was formidable but slightly constrained toward squareness. This detracted not in the least from an innovative program, one of the high marks of this season's piano recitals.

For the next WPAS concert, Kurt Masur will lead the Orchestre National de France next Monday (April 28, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 2) and Bruckner (Symphony No. 7) are on the program.


Mark Barry said...

Ok, was that piano airlifted in? He must have very good sales.

Charles T. Downey said...

Watch the video. You see it arrive by helicopter!

Anonymous said...

So where exactly was this? Is that the Hardangerfjord below? On which side of the fjord is the piano? Near what town?

Anonymous said...

It's Prekestolen (the pulpit) by Lysefjorden.

Try this link:

Charles T. Downey said...

Thank you so much, Anonymous! I had no idea how I was going to answer that question.