mon 17/06/2024

Leif Ove Andsnes, Wigmore Hall review - brooding richness and fiery fervour | reviews, news & interviews

Leif Ove Andsnes, Wigmore Hall review - brooding richness and fiery fervour

Leif Ove Andsnes, Wigmore Hall review - brooding richness and fiery fervour

Diverse programme of bold, physical music plays to the Norwegian’s strengths

Leif Ove Andsnes: a distinctive voice at the pianoAll images © Helge Hansen Sony Music-Entertainment

Leif Ove Andsnes has a distinctive voice at the piano; clear, controlled and powerful. He sits upright; his body barely moves, and his head sways gently to the melodies. But he never loses himself in the music, he is always in control.

Andsnes is a player of considerable power, especially as it all comes from the forearms, and he really engages with the mechanics of the instrument, exploiting all its physical properties, from the richness of quiet bass lines to the fiery fervour of top-register ostinatos. It is a sound that requires rhythm and focus, and the five composers he presented at the Wigmore Hall each provide the physical and tactile textures in which he excels.

The Janáček Piano Sonata was composed in memory of a protester shot by Austrian troops on the streets of Brno in 1905. In the programme note, Andsnes writes that this theme is “chillingly relevant” today, and links it with ongoing demonstrations in Iran and Russia. His reading grows out of the naked simplicity of the opening theme, presented simply, with emotion but no excessive sentiment. Janáček often changes direction unexpectedly, with sudden metric shifts or jumps to unrelated keys. For Andsnes, this is the essence of the music. He doesn’t downplay those contrasts, but he integrates their emotional twists into his narrative. And the sheer physicality of Andsnes’s playing underlines the raw emotions, the restless, angry grief vividly conveyed.

In order to highlight the contemporary relevance of the Janáček Sonata, Andsnes framed it with two short contemporary works, one Russian, one Ukrainian. Alexandr Vustin’s Lamento was composed in 1974, at a time when Christian spirituality and techniques from Western Minimalism were joining the mix of Russian music. Vustin recalls the funeral of a friend, at which a bird sang loudly throughout the ceremony. In the piece, a simple chorale in the left hand, in bare fifths, contrasts loud, strident birdsong in the right. Again, this is a perfect choice for Andsnes, vivid and forthright, with a stark, angular beauty. Valentin Silvestrov’s Bagatelle, Op. 1, No. 3 (2005), is an even simpler piece, delicate melody with simple accompaniment, its shades gradually shifting through modal inflections. The clear focus and round tone of Andsnes’s playing were his greatest strengths here.

Beethoven is a major composer for Andsnes, although he is more often heard in the concertos that the solo music. The Piano Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, is mysterious and emotionally complex music, but Andsnes takes a direct approach, illuminating and diminishing that complexity. Again, the physicality of his playing is key. The mid-range chords that open the work are played dark and warm, more a colour than a harmony. Then the main theme erupts, bright and rhythmically alert, with real physical impact. Andsnes is typically muscular, and his dynamics are often loud, too loud, perhaps, for the intimate Wigmore acoustic. But the result is that the textures tell the story, and Andsnes emphasises all the contrasts between the loud, brash music and the quiet, dark asides. That is most effective in the fugal finale, where the dark chordal episodes repeatedly interrupt the smooth flow of the fugue themes, but then transform into the resolute and darkly triumphant coda, all delivered with unwavering power and conviction by Andsnes.

The second half was devoted to an hour-long piano cycle by Dvořák, Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85. As the title suggests, the pieces sit somewhere between programme and abstract music, each movement with a title – “At the old castle,” “Goblin’s dance” – but expressed in the music as a mood rather than a story. Comparisons with Grieg’s Lyric Pieces arise, and given that the Grieg is Andsnes’s calling card, this Dvořák seems a good choice. Again, Andsnes bases his reading on a clear, unsentimental performance of the simplest music, from which the more complex textures then naturally grow. Some movements open with a melody in bare octaves, one with an opening motif identical to the Janáček (coincidence?), but soon develop into surprisingly sophisticated textures. The work clearly requires the virtuosity of a concert pianist – these are not salon pieces – yet it is not a bravura showpiece. Folk melodies appear, and Andsnes gets several chances to stamp out the heavy bass of rustic dance tunes. But it is the subtle sophistication that he brings to this music that makes it work. Dvořák may or may not have intended the 13 pieces to be performed together as a cycle, but Andsnes weaves them together convincingly. His reading was physical and direct, but with many moments of simple, uninflected beauty. This is an obscure work, but for Andsnes a perfect choice.


The physicality of Andsnes’s playing underlines the raw emotions, the restless, angry grief vividly conveyed


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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