Andsnes Gives a Wonderfully Varied Programme – with Some Surprises

 CanadaCanada Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Vancouver Playhouse, 22.11.2015 (GN)

Credit: Özgür Albayrak
Credit: Özgür Albayrak


Sibelius: Kyllikki, Three Pieces, Op. 41
The Birch, Op. 75, No. 4
The Spruce, Op. 75, No. 5
The Forest Lake, Op. 114, No. 3
Song in the Forest, Op. 114, Op. 4
Spring Vision, Op. 114, No. 5
Beethoven: Sonata No. 18 in E-flat major, Op. 31, No. 3
Debussy: ‘La soirée dans Grenade’ from Estampes
Étude No. 7, 11 and 5
Chopin: Impromptu in A flat Major, Op. 29
Étude in A flat Major from Trois nouvelles études
Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52


The superb talents of Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes have long been hailed, and he is now one of the youngest soloists to be inducted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame (in 2013 at age 43). I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him on a number of occasions since his debut for the Vancouver Recital Society in 1993, and his gorgeous, full tone, crystal-clear articulation and discerning structural insight have resonated in my memory each time. With all the repertoire he has previously covered (including a memorable Winterreise with Ian Bostridge in 2005), one might wonder what he would bring to the table this time. Andsnes has turned to Beethoven in recent years and recorded the Beethoven concertos to substantial acclaim; so, yes, he brought a Beethoven sonata. Recalling his youthful love of Grieg and his interest in Carl Nielsen, he carried on his Scandinavian quest, this time settling in fairly obscure territory: the piano music of Jean Sibelius. I’m certain that much of the audience had no idea that Sibelius wrote for the piano. The second part of the programme moved to Debussy and Chopin, which might appear commonplace except that Andsnes has never recorded a full solo recital of the French repertoire, and his last recorded foray into Chopin took place in 1992. Clearly, there was a great deal to sink one’s teeth into here.

I recall my own first experiences with Sibelius’ piano music. About 30 years ago, in one of my ‘discovery’ moods, I eagerly tracked down some of the volumes of the only integral recording of the music then available, recorded on BIS by Eric T. Tawaststjerna, son of the composer’s initial biographer. After wrestling with a number of pieces for a month or two, an initial excitement turned to dismay: a lot of the works were juvenilia, but many that were mature and written pianistically seemed insubstantial. On the other hand, those compositions that had real dramatic force appeared better suited to orchestral development, and were essentially not pianistic. So I left this music alone for a very long time: in fact, until this concert!

I admit that I enjoyed the eight little pieces that Andsnes played, all drawn from the latter ‘dramatic’ category, and given authority by virtue of his dramatic poise and commitment. They were obviously chosen to complement each other. The three Op. 41 Lyric Pieces had some fairly detailed passages that took me fleetingly to Chopin and Liszt, but their foundation was essentially naturalistic, and they built with the dramatic contrasts of a ‘symphonic poem’, perhaps more in a Lisztian spirit than like the composer’s own constructions in this genre. Naturalistic effects and folk imagery were present in the Op. 75 and Op. 114 pieces too, but these were sparser in feeling and more atmospheric in design, some of the music quite soft and haunting. Here one could feel the mythological spirits of The Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. Andsnes’ treatment was undeniably convincing, bringing a strongly sculpted quality overall, an exactness to the rhythmic figures, and an enticing still to the quieter passages. When called for, he made the dramatic contrasts vital and strong. Some of the repeated rhythmic figures in the later pieces seemed to be exactly the figures that the violins would take up in the composer’s orchestral scores; there also appeared to be a touch of Debussy in Song in the Forest. I found this artful juxtaposition of pieces appealing. Together, they created a certain mystery and intrigue, like taking a trip to a faraway place where expressive symbols mean something other than they normally do, and some dimly understood underworld is not far off.

Andsnes’ Beethoven Sonata, Op. 31 was even more striking, full of colour and humour, and gave fresh meaning to the work’s nickname, ‘The Hunt’. This was ‘big’ Beethoven, strong in contrasts and tonal weight, and absolutely ingenious in the way it brought out a myriad of colourful effects without breaking the line of the music, leaving it very fluid. Some of the intriguing ways that the pianist coaxed the complex lines into gleaming coordination really evidenced his astonishing level of pianistic control, and his innovations always seemed to clarify, rather than undermine, the writing. This was playing of rare balance and tonal beauty.  By the finale, we had seen almost everything, tender and lyrical expression from one hand, disruptive bass proclamations from the other, little hesitations in tempo – yet it was all clear, rhythmically astute and full of joy. This is not the only way to play Beethoven, and it is perhaps not for all moods, but Beethoven’s teacher, Papa Haydn, would have been the first to stand up and lead the applause.

The brief excursions into Debussy and Chopin after the intermission did not reveal as much, delightful as they were from a programming standpoint. Nonetheless, the splendour of Andsnes’ pianism was still in force, even if his identification with the idiosyncrasies of the two composers and their respective emotional worlds seemed less complete. One could hardly help but enjoy Debussy’s ‘La Soirée dans Grenade’ (from Estampes) and the three Etudes: an enthusiastic dose of colour permeated the former and sparkling keyboard control informed the latter.

The four Chopin pieces (plus an extra Etude as an encore) featured mainly deliberative, finely structured playing of considerable beauty and detail, with a particularly strong treatment of the 4th Ballade. Perhaps I detected a degree of circumspection, the compositions tending to be moved forward methodically without always mining the composer’s little moment-to-moment changes in feeling or establishing a consistent emotional temperature. The famous Nocturne, Op. 15, No. 1 had lovely poise and control but I would hesitate to say that it found a tender, aching beauty. Ballade No. 4 combined almost symphonic command with subtle detailing and was quite overwhelming in many respects. Still, while its moments of quiet contemplation could not be played more ravishingly and its powerful moments more decisively, I would be hard-pressed to say that I felt full emotional engagement. This way of playing Chopin is strong and elegant but slightly detached, and I would not want to compare it with Krystian Zimmerman, for example.

It would be difficult to think of a more interesting mix of recital repertoire than Andsnes gave us here, and the feeling of fresh discovery in the Sibelius and Beethoven made it special.

Geoffrey Newman


Previously published in a slightly different form on

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