Leif Ove Andsnes at Queen Elizabeth Hall – Haydn, Bartók, Debussy & Chopin

Piano Sonata in C minor, Hob.XVI:20
Suite, Op.14
Images – Book I
Waltzes – in F minor, Op.70/2; in G flat, Op.70/1; in D flat, Op.70/3; in A flat, Op.42
Ballade in A flat, Op.47
Nocturne in B, Op.62/1
Ballade in G minor, Op.23

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 29 March, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Leif Ove Andsnes. Photograph: Lorenzo AgiusThe programme that Leif Ove Andsnes is currently touring shows off the breadth and depth of his special musicianship magnificently. The words ‘shows off’ and ‘magnificently’ aren’t really apposite for this fine pianist. You immediately sense that he is a performer with a profound sense of his own artistic intelligence and integrity, with that rare gift of letting you think he is playing just for you. Not only does he make you listen afresh, he also takes you with him into the interior logic that informs everything he plays.

Sometimes you may find the sheer craft of his technique too unflappable and effortless, that his intuitively right sense of balance and form just a bit too cool to leave any room for anything like elemental passion and spontaneity. Some listeners may find his Mozart a bit dry; others may not go the full distance with him in his championing of Grieg. But then you hear him play, and qualities that may seem like modesty or self-effacement, a clearing the decks of unnecessary interpretative baggage, are really a conduit to the finely wrought connectivity of his playing – and, in this respect, he has sustained the same high degree of intensity and freshness for more than twenty years.

Haydn’s great C minor Sonata set the tone of the evening in a performance of poise and controlled passion, Andsnes drawing us into the music’s elaborate, abstract narrative of irregular phrasing and volatile expression with playing of arresting colour and dynamics – making you feel sorry that Haydn was denied such tonal potential in his lifetime. Andsnes completely had the measure of the first movement’s balance between tight form and expansive, expectant fantasy, the seemingly simple Andante blossomed with astonishing romantic force, and the finale, aerated with deliciously teasing accents, had an unstoppable energy.

Bartók’s Suite seemed like an extension of Haydn’s finely constructed motivic work, here taken to an extreme of ferociously rhythmic playing and propulsive concision. It is remarkable music, with elements that anticipate the fury of The Miraculous Mandarin, and was played brilliantly. Debussy’s Images flagged up the refinement and sensuousness of Andsnes’s ear, subtly defined by his range of touch and colour. The longest of the three pieces, ‘Hommage a Rameau’, was a masterpiece of elegant, austere melancholy, which here hovered tantalisingly on the edge of a more subjective style of expression.

Sometimes Andnses’s aristocratic reserve can seem too much of a good thing, and particularly so in Chopin where it doesn’t always go with lyrical grandeur. As it happened, Andsnes’s slightly brittle, very brilliant approach suited his choice of waltzes rather well, in that it tactfully admitted to the mannerisms Chopin brought to this particular genre. There was grandeur and straightforward drama to spare in his barnstorming performances of the two Ballades, separated by the limpid abstraction of the great B major Nocturne, which keeps its song veiled and oblique, and which Andsnes played with that blend of grace and quiet passion that defines his considerable artistry.

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