United Kingdom Beethoven, Sibelius, Debussy, Chopin: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Barbican Hall, London, 19.9.2016. (RB)
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.18 in E Flat ‘The Hunt’ Op.31, No.3
Sibelius – Selected works
Debussy – Estampes
Chopin – Ballade No.2 in F major Op.38; Nocturne in F major Op.15, No. 1; Ballade No.4 in F minor Op.52
Leif Ove Andsnes is one of those rare pianists who seem to be able to play absolutely everything. I remember listening to him at the Proms many years ago giving a stunning performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and I formed the view then that he was a brilliant Romantic interpreter. Since that time I have listened to him giving outstanding performances of works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Grieg, Schumann, Bartók and Prokofiev. In short, everything to which Andsnes directs his attention turns to gold and this concert was to be no exception.
The recital opened with the third of Beethoven’s Op.31 sonatas which was written in 1802 when the composer was becoming increasingly deaf and socially isolated. Unlike the preceding ‘Tempest’ Sonata, the so called ‘Hunt’ Sonata is sunny and optimistic in outlook and it gives no indication of Beethoven’s personal circumstances. Andsnes brought enormous wit and charm to the opening movement and I was particularly impressed with the articulation and close attention to detail. In the scherzo the left hand staccato semiquavers were dispatched tightly and evenly and I loved Andsnes’ handling of the chattering passage work. The dynamic shocks were calibrated perfectly and the movement unfolded in a completely unbuttoned and thoroughly delightful way. This sonata does not have a slow movement but Andsnes’ perfectly judged tempo in the Menuetto, and his warmth and depth of sound, all combined to draw us in to this lyrical heart of the work. The final tarantella with its offbeat accents and hunting horns was played with enormous verve and Andsnes’ handling of the whirling passage work was a model of clarity.
We moved from Beethoven to six works by Sibelius which were written in the last decade of the 19th and first two decades of the 20th Century. I am not at all familiar with this music and this was the first time I had encountered it in the concert hall. Glenn Gould did record some of Sibelius’ pieces but I have rather mixed feelings about those performances and was interested to hear how Andsnes would approach Sibelius (albeit playing different repertoire). The B minor Impromptu with its cascade of glistening harp-like figurations was mesmerising and Andsnes’ control of touch and the way in which he sustained the line against this intricate accompaniment was superb. The Rondino No. 2 is a mercurial scherzo which was played with an elfin lightness of touch and punctuated by offbeat accents and dissonances. The third of the pieces from Kyllikki (which Gould did play) has unspecified links to Finnish legends and saw Andsnes creating a series of enchanting vignettes through highly imaginative use of texture, colour and vibrant rhythms. Andsnes’ playing of all the pieces was superb but, while I enjoyed listening to the other three pieces on the programme, they did seem to be of variable quality. Andsnes clearly has form in Scandinavian repertoire having recorded the piano works of Grieg and Nielsen so I would like to hear him play more of this music.
The second half of the recital opened with Debussy’s Estampes which the composer wrote in 1903 with the intention that the pieces should form a triptych of musical prints or engravings. Andsnes did a wonderful job conjuring up the sound world of the Javanese gamelan in ‘Pagodes’ and the there was impressive control of the shifting textures and sonorities and exemplary layering of sound. This was subtle, graduated and beautifully controlled playing which allowed the music to speak for itself. The sultry heat of Granada was evoked in a highly evocative way in ‘La soirée dans Granade’ and Andsnes’ handling of some of the colour changes was absolutely gorgeous. The rapid toccata figurations of ‘Jardins sous La pluie’ were dispatched with alacrity. Andsnes brought an extraordinary degree of clarity and definition to the passagework and I loved the play of light and shade and the glowing tone he summoned from his Steinway.
The recital concluded with three of Chopin’s most famous works including the F minor Ballade which is regarded by many as one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire. The Chopin Ballades were inspired by poems by Adam Mickiewicz although there is some dispute as to which of the poems they are based on. Andsnes certainly brought a clear overarching narrative to the F major Ballade and the shifts in mood from the serene opening to the engulfing turbulence of the presto con fuoco sections were well handled. He brought a rich burnished tone to the F major Nocturne’s bel canto melody and a whimsical quality to some of the more decorative elements. The performance of the F minor Ballade was a masterclass in how to play this most extraordinary of works. Andsnes conjured up a majestic tone poem full of rich colours, imaginative textures and lush counterpoint with each section emerging organically and naturally from the last.
Just as we thought he had run out of energy, Andsnes returned to the stage one final time and performed Chopin’s Polonaise in A Flat as an encore. This was played with aristocratic swagger and bravo for keeping the right hand so legato during the left hand octave ostinato. Overall, this was an outstanding recital by one of the world’s leading pianists.