Grieg
Lyric Pieces –
Evening in the Mountains, Op.68/4
Gade, Op.57/2
The Brook, Op.62/4
Phantom, Op.62/5
March of the Trolls, Op.54/3
At Your Feet, Op.68/3
Homesickness, Op.57/6
Sylph, Op.62/1
Cradle Song, Op.68/5
Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, Op.65/6
Liszt
Ballade No.2 in B minor
Schubert
Eight Landler (from D760)
Schumann
Faschingsschwank aus Wien

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
There is a prejudice of the modern age, believes Leif Ove Andsnes, that pieces of classical music must be in big chunks to be good. This recital was a polemic against such a theory – a showcase of jewelled miniatures, fleeting moments of inspiration, whimsies. Andsnes took this lightness seriously, giving each piece concentrated attention. Conversely, the bigger pieces, the Liszt and the first movement of the Schumann, were played in an episodic, dissected manner.
The fragment is a key concept in Romantic philosophy, the Romantics’ challenge to Enlightenment, to ’classical’ values. One did not have to have completeness to have structures – a moment of emotional truth was enough.Charles Rosen, for example, uses precisely this argument to show that modern interpretations of Schumann, as well as Schumann’s own afterthoughts, miss this point, and smooth out the rawness of the heart for the sake of the reassurances of traditional forms and harmonies. There was no danger Andsnes would fall into this particular trap.He speaks of Faschingsschwank as being like a trip through a circus – in each tent “something different is going on”. This was how he played the piece, making a conscious effort to vary the repeats in the first movement, breaking up the episodes, so that the unexpected appearance of the ’Marseilleise’ was a self-conscious fairground turn in itself, rather than something stealing unnoticed into sonata form. Equally, the ’Intermezzo’, with its echoes of the supernatural, esoteric world of Eichendorff, and its evocation of the Op.39 Liederkreis, which sets his poems, reminded very forcibly that this was Schumann’s last piano work before he embarked on the year of song-writing in 1840.
Andsnes had carefully chosen his programme. The Grieg pieces that preceded Liszt contained a number of echoes of Liszt’s Annees de Pelerinage (Book 1). Schubert and Schumann were linked too. The Landler not only prefigured his ’Death and the Maiden’ String Quartet and the Piano Sonata, D840, but also Schumann’s Papillons.Again, this is how the Romantics perceived formal unity – a tissue of suggestion and allusion that uncovers a truth deeper than can be stated by simple exposition.
I have to question how much the detachment, even objectivity, of Andsnes’s playing was consistent with this Romantic view of the piano. His Liszt was at times charmless, fiercely differentiated between gruff drama and melting lyricism, his Schumann anxious to eschew frailty from heroic paragraphs and self-indulgence from reflective passages – it was easier to admire his pianism than love the music. Here is the central problem: the recital seemed a very intellectualised attempt to convey something the Romantics themselves considered as pure emotion.
Andsnes is about to record a CD of Grieg’s Lyric pieces on Grieg’s own piano (and in Grieg’s own living room) at Troldhaugen. He speaks of the ideally “transparent” qualities of this piano for interpreting Grieg, characteristic of his playing of this composer. The cool poetry of Andsnes’s Grieg was this recital’s highlight – an expert blend of technique, communication and affinity. While for pure imagination I would still turn to Gilels’s legendary DG recording, Andsnes has no equal for a sense of poise and proportion, self-contained image-painting and phrasal judgement. He knew when to let the music speak for itself – the middle section of the Trolls’ March, or the simplicity of Gade; the calm cadences of Homesickness, the expansive folk-dancing of Wedding Day, or the sympathetic mimicry of Niels Gade’s musical style – this was as the composer himself might have played.
Before criticising the thinking behind this recital, let me make it clear: Andsnes is indubitably one of the world’s leading pianists. He is technically commanding and always musically interesting. And yet … two days before this concert, Andsnes played the identical programme in Manchester, broadcast on Radio 3 in the evening in between. In the fragmented environment of the car, his recital charmed me completely. So would it in the salon or on CD. However, on the formal, brightly-lit stage of the Barbican Hall, these many jewels, pretty and perfect though they were, remained locked-away. Those Landler, wonderfully self-sufficient bagatelles when caught by chance, seemed too slight and intimate here – accidental moments of sentimental froth, not a felicitous encapsulation of heightened intensity. That’s the prejudice Andsnes is trying to counter!

 

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