Leif Ove Andsnes

Sonata in D, D850
In the Mists
Pictures at an Exhibition

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 6 January, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A packed, attentive audience gathered for Leif Ove Andsnes’s recital; how different from the intimate surroundings at his festival in Risor, the tiny baroque church holding an audience of barely 400.

In a world where ‘icons’ regularly turn out to have feet of clay, Andsnes is the real thing: a musician whose technical command is invariably placed at the service of the music; technique and musicianship in miraculous equilibrium. This occasion was no exception and the combination of Schubert, Janáček and Mussorgsky worked remarkably well; another great pianist, Rudolf Firkušný, also yoked Janáček and Mussorgsky together to similarly good effect.

The Schubert Sonata that opened the programme is evidently an Andsnes favourite: he played it at the Wigmore Hall a few years ago and has recorded it for EMI on 5575092. This brought the only slight caveat in an otherwise outstanding recital. There seems some discrepancy as to the marking of the Sonata’s first movement, either Allegro or Allegro vivace; at least three CD booklets (including Andsnes’s) state Allegro, and the Barbican’s programme opted for the latter. However, ‘vivace’ is more to do with mood than speed, and, anyway, Andsnes plunged into the movement at such a whirlwind tempo as to undermine distinction between quavers and triplets, leaving himself precious little room for the coda’s increase in tempo. So headlong a speed had the effect of undermining the movement’s stature, however superb the actual playing. This would be less important were it not for the fact that the Con moto second movement is conceived on the grandest scale and the first needs to form an effective counter-balance. That quibble aside, Andsnes hit the perfect tempo giusto: forward moving but slow enough to allow a full measure of introspection, the pauses at significant moments suspended in mid-air and all the more affecting for his restraint elsewhere. The scherzo and the finale (with its ticking accompaniment) were near-miraculous in poise, minimally pedalled and maybe a little short on Viennese lilt – but with playing this good the point was made without recourse to spurious charm.

The repeated patterns of Janáček’s In the Mists found an ideal advocate in Andsnes, the pieces’ folk-roots never far away, especially in the oriental-sounding arabesques of the final movement. Even in the simplest, most repetitive phrases, Andsnes’s technical control made it possible for him to vary tone-colour in ways which other pianists simply aspire to, whilst, at the same time, enabling him to encompass those sudden eruptions which form so essential a part of Janáček’s soundworld.

Pictures at an Exhibition is, of course, a sure-fire success but it is also a profoundly serious work written in memoriam of the artist Viktor Hartmann, Mussorgsky’s close friend. Here it received a performance that combined power and subtlety. For example, the three quick movements (‘Tuileries’, ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ and ‘The Market at Limoges’) are often despatched at high speed and little more; Andsnes distilled their different characters with extraordinary finesse. By contrast, the forceful sections (Gnomus’, ‘Catacombs’, ‘Baba-Yaga’ and ‘Great Gate of Kiev’) came across with the kind of visceral focus and contained power which one seldom encounters, even in performances of the various orchestral versions.

In purely pianistic terms Andsnes has one knockout advantage, a left-hand fully the equal of his right. This makes it possible for him to extend the dynamic range, at both ends, from the merest whisper of sound to the most thunderous climax; as said, all at the service of the music.

Two imaginative and substantial encores, by Mompou and Schumann, completed this musical feast.

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