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Review: Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes Rises Above an Unruly Audience and an Ungracious Acoustical Setting

Leif Ove Andsnes

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, May 4, 2018

Leif Ove Andsnes deserves an apology for the unsupportive behavior of the New York audience at the start of his recital at David Geffen Hall which concludes his artist-in-residency at the New York Philharmonic this season. Alas, amidst a stream of latecomers, a cacophony of coughing and hacking, a shocking number of people dropping their keys onto the floor (what is this about?), not ten seconds into the beginning of the opening piece, someone’s cell phone rang loudly. Mercifully, they had chosen the nostalgic ringtone called “Old Phone” from the “Classic” series, and not one of the newfangled musical varieties. Nonetheless, this interruption forced Andsnes to abort and regroup.

It’s a shame that the evening began so frustratingly, because Andsnes is a pianist of the highest caliber and the program he chose was insightful and impressive in breadth. The Norwegian pianist made a point to feature some Nordic repertoire that is under appreciated in America, beginning with Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s Chaconne, Op. 32, completed in 1917. Taking some influence from Bach’s famous chaconne (a series of variations atop a repeating bass line), also in the key of D minor, the piece begins searchingly and journeys to unexpected places. Nielsen has the pianist dashing all over the instrument, with bursts of frolicking decorations, and Chopin-esque figurations which Andsnes dispatches with great ease and virtuosity. He keenly plots the grand architecture of Nielsen’s rhapsodic work.

Like Nielsen, Jean Sibelius is better known for his symphonies than for his piano music, but Andsnes has made it his business to promote the Finnish composer’s neglected piano works, having recently recorded an entire album of them. He played a curated assortment of short pieces representative of this oeuvre, beginning with an impressionistic reading of the wispy The Birch Tree. Sibelius’s piano music indeed sounds like the Sibelius we know, but he writes surprisingly idiomatically for the instrument, as in the Impromptu, Op. 97, No. 5 in B minor, which cloaks a long, melancholic melody in breezy, flowing arpeggiations of aching harmonies. Here, and in the Romance in D-flat, Andsnes excels at highlighting the various planes in the music, making the accompaniment mere atmosphere, bringing the singing melody to the fore.

Leif Ove Andsnes

Leif Ove Andsnes in a previous appearance with the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall; photo: Chris Lee.

Andsnes is a pianist rooted in a mid-twentieth century refinement. Every tone carefully planned, with particular attention to voicing (deliberately emphasizing a particular note in the chord) and linear phrasing. He has a high-strung energy and poise, making stylish use of agogic accents (a stretching of time different from rubato). His large physical stature commands the Steinway with quiet power and adroitness.

Beethoven’s Sonata in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2, (the ‘Tempest’) rounded out the program’s first half. Andsnes interprets the tempestuous middle-period Beethoven with great poetry and drama. But here, especially, I was distracted by how ill-suited this concert hall is to a solo piano recital. The acoustics simply don’t work for the medium, rendering Andsnes’s sharp articulation awash in echo, and the incessant coughing in the audience competing against the piano (and winning), leaving me straining to appreciate Andsnes’s splendid pianissimos. He makes vivid use of dynamics.

The recital continued with two sets of Schubert pieces sandwiching a contemporary work by Jörg Widmann entitled Idyll and Abyss, six movements inspired by Schubert. Andsnes played the Two Scherzos, D. 593, with grace and panache, emphasizing their dance-like quality. The Widmann piece, with its smearing, dreamlike tapestry provided a window into Andsnes’s coloristic imagination, calling for creative use of pedal and texture.

The evening’s finale, Schubert’s Three Piano Pieces, D. 946, had the impact and breadth of a sonata, and the elegiac profundity of Schubert’s other late piano works. Andsnes tosses off the last piece’s torrents of running scales with indefatigable vitality. Two encores, delightful works by Sibelius and Debussy, crowned the evening, and the initially reluctant audience finally plied into submission, rose to their feet in appreciation.

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Leif Ove Andsnes, New York Philharmonic’s Artist in Residence, in recital at David Geffen Hall on May 2, 2018.

NIELSEN  Chaconne

SIBELIUS  The Birch Tree, Op. 75, No. 4

SIBELIUS  Impromptu, Op. 97, No. 5

SIBELIUS  Rondino II, Op. 68, No. 2

SIBELIUS  The Shepherd, Op. 58, No. 4

SIBELIUS  Romance, Op. 24, No. 9

BEETHOVEN  Piano Sonata No. 17, “Tempest”

SCHUBERT  Two Scherzos, D.593

JÖRG WIDMANN  Idyll and Abyss

SCHUBERT  Three Piano Pieces, D.946

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Cover: Leif Ove Andsnes; photo: Oezguer Albayrak.


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