Was there anything in this performance not to like?
Not only did this solo recital from Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes feature musicianship of the highest order, but the superlative playing was matched by a programme that truly meant something to both performer and audience. All of the pieces resonated with Andsnes, whether it be because of his personal associations with the composer or because of the subjects that inspired them in the first place. In the words of Paula Kennedy, most of the programme’s music ‘goes beyond the sphere of what we might term “absolute” or “pure” music and instead arose from a poetic impetus or came into being as a response to an extra-musical stimulus’. As the themes the music considered were ones to which we can all relate, the result was an extremely engaging evening.
The technique that Andsnes brought to everything he played was simply staggering. It was underscored by immense cleanness and precision, and this meant he could deliver the most intricate runs or complex passages with impeccable clarity, and apply the greatest delicacy or power to notes and phrases as the music demanded. His playing ostensibly felt quite straight forward, and yet that was its genius in that his interpretations were about bringing out to wondrous effect everything that was already inherent in the music, as opposed to applying what might be seen as superfluous slants.
The evening began with Alexander Vustin’s Lamento of 1974, with Andsnes having happy memories of the Russian composer, who sadly died during the first wave of COVID-19 infections, from the 2019 Rosendal Chamber Music Festival. The piece recalls the composer attending a friend’s funeral in which a bird began to sing during the ceremony, and made the occasion even more poignant. Andsnes brought out to the full the way in which the bird, represented by the treble line, does its own thing and hence sings and flies free from the bass line, which is weighed down by its own chord sequence.
“The technique that Andsnes brought to everything he played was simply staggering”
This was followed by Janáček’s Piano Sonata 1. X. 1905 (‘From the Street’) of 1905-06. The composer wrote the piece in response to the death of a worker when Austrian troops attempted to suppress a demonstration calling for a Czech university in Brno. Andsnes feels the piece resonates today when young Iranian protesters are being killed in Tehran, while its anger and sorrow may echo our feelings regarding the war in Ukraine. The piece comprises two movements after Janáček destroyed a third, reportedly ‘a gloomy funeral march’, as he was concerned that such an artist’s response to the tragedy was not necessarily appropriate. In the case of both those that remain, entitled ‘Foreboding’ and ‘Death’, Andsnes ensured the climaxes were built up to with consummate skill before paying equal attention to ensuring the music slipped away again to nothing. He followed this with a performance of Valentin Silvestrov’s Bagatelle, Op. 1 No. 3 of 2005. While the composer describes his Bagatelles as ‘sublime insignificances in which there is nothing but music’ Andsnes’ rendition certainly vindicated his own view that they are ‘dreamy fragments that seem to evoke memories of times past, or perhaps hopes of something better’.
Andsnes’ performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31, Opus. 110 of 1821-22, which took us into the interval, could not have been bettered. Beethoven wrote it while recovering from a period of ill health, and the manner in which Andsnes plumbed the depths of the arioso in the third movement, ‘Klagender Gesang’ (Song of mourning); played with the motifs from the folk songs ‘Unsa kätz häd kaz’ln g’habt’ (Our cat has had kittens) and ‘Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich’ (I am a draggle-tail, you are a draggle-tail) in the Allegro molto, and captured a growing sense of confidence in the final fugue saw him render the piece in all its warmth, humour, despair and optimism.
There are few things more exciting than hearing in the concert hall an undoubted masterpiece, and yet one that is not ‘weighed down’ by us knowing it like the back of our hand. This was certainly the case with Dvorák’s unfairly neglected and vastly underrated Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85 of 1889 that occupied the second half of the programme. The COVID-19 pandemic gave Andsnes the opportunity to study the 13 pieces that make it up, and which were inspired by the time the composer spent at his country retreat in central Bohemia. Despite some of their titles, such as ‘At the old castle’, feeling quite specific, each is designed more to convey a mood than to tell a definite story. Along the way Andsnes caught the levity of ‘Joking’ and ‘Tittle-tattle’, the gravitas of ‘At a hero’s grave’, the exuberance of the ‘Goblin’s dance’, the tenderness of the ‘Serenade’ and the uplifting spirituality of ‘At the holy mountain’ to create an utterly enthralling hour that will undoubtedly live long in the memory.
• Leif Ove Andsnes’ recording of Dvorák’s Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85 is now available on the Sony Classical label.
• For details of all of Leif Ove Andsnes’ recordings and future events visit his website.
• For details of all upcoming events at the Wigmore Hall visit its website.