Leif Ove Andsnes at Carnegie Hall, New York City

Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City 7.4.2011 (SSM)

Beethoven:     Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53, “Waldstein”

Brahms:         Four Ballades, Op. 10

Schoenberg:  Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19

Beethoven:     Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111

Leif Ove Andsnes may have scaled the Norwegian cliffs to breathe the pure air and be inspired to play Edvard Grieg’s music on a concert grand perched on a precipice.  [See: How I Found Grieg on a Mountaintop.] Maybe Andsnes needs to do the same atop the Siebengebirge Mountains of Bonn to receive the spirit of Beethoven, born not far from there.

There was certainly thought put into the choice of works on this program, but Andsnes’s attempt to find commonality among the pieces ended up sacrificing each work’s uniqueness. The two compositions before the intermission do have moments where the composers hover near atonality, but by any standard these are exceptions not rules. There is not a tremendous amount of leeway for the performer to change tempo when the composer entitles a movement, such as the first movement of the “Waldstein,” Allegro brio.  Aside from a few Accelerandos and Ritardandos (even the brief eight-measure Molto tranquillo near the end of the first movement is marked ma in tempo) there is no excuse for playing as slowly as Andsnes did; nor is there much room to play with dynamic changes. Although starting out softly at pp, the first crescendo to f occurs at measure eleven and to ff at measure thirty. One could as readily rewrite Beethoven’s music as to ignore his dynamic marking as Andsnes did here.

I always think of the opening theme of the “Waldstein” as sounding like a train with nearly identical repeating chords in the bass (sixteen in fact.) Andsnes played the movement rigidly without any forward momentum. The same kind of playing occurred in the next two movements with no shaping of phrases, no regard for Beethoven’s notational comments. It seemed like Andsnes was trying to draw out meaning from the score that was already there had he played it the way Beethoven meant it to be played. The end result was a dull fireless affair.

Brahms’s Four Ballades fared better only because, in general, ballades are meant to be taken slowly, which the pianist did. But again, in the center of the first one, with a clear reference to Beethoven’s most famous phrase from the Fifth Symphony played here ten times over, Andsnes failed to capture Brahms’s intensity. The lovely second one was not played with enough contrast between the opening Espressivo e dolce, the middle Allegro non troppo and the return to the first tempo. The short third ballade started off energetically then wilted. The fourth was funereal.

The highlight of the evening was Andsnes’s playing of the key work around which the other pieces on the program were supposed to orbit. These six short pieces by Schoenberg, barely tonal, sparkled like diamonds. Here Schoenberg showed what potentially could be done by writing music on the edge of tonality. Not surprisingly, the audience, waiting for the moment when they could properly and sincerely applaud Andsnes for his accomplishments, gave their loudest approval.

The concert ended with Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the Opus 111 in C-minor. What I would call the crux of this work occurs in the final movement when the meter suddenly changes to 12/32 but the tempo stays the same (L’istesso tempo). Beethoven here goes into a catchy, heavily syncopated segment that when played properly has a jazzy feel that makes it hard to keep your fingers from tapping out the beat. I found myself speeding up the music in my mind as if to encourage Andsnes to keep up with me, instead of slowly and “meaningfully” following behind me.

What did the audience feel about this performance, applauding enough to bring Andsnes out for three encores? I’m not sure, but the gentleman in the seat in front of me who was continually being poked awake by his wife during the concert, jumped up at the end to shout “Bravo.

Stan Metzger