Monday, November 23, 2015

Return of an Old Friend

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is no stranger to Vancouver audiences, and so it was with pleasure to welcome him back to the stage of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts yesterday afternoon for a thoughtfully put together recital programme.

Andsnes began his recital with a series of short character pieces by Jean Sibelius. The artist commenced his performance with the Kyllikki, Op. 41, a set of three “lyrical scenes”, followed by The Birch and The Spruce, from the Op. 75 “tree” pieces, and three pieces (The Forest Lake, Song in the Forest, and Spring Vision) from the Five Esquisses, Op. 114. These are lovely little vignettes for the piano, quite reminiscent of the Lyric Pieces of Grieg. For a composer not known for his piano works, I was struck by how pianistic these pieces are. Judging from Andsnes’ idiomatic performance yesterday, it appears that these are pieces that pianists would do well to explore. Perhaps the pianist can give us the more characteristically Nordic Sonatine, Op. 67 on his next visit?

In the last few years, Leif Ove Andsnes has been devoting much time and effort towards the music of Beethoven, having performed and recorded all the piano concerti with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The artist’s affinity for the works of Beethoven was evident in his completely satisfactory performance of the Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3. In the opening Allegro, Andsnes achieved a wonderful sense of motion and direction, and brought out all the rough and tumble sense of humour so characteristic of the composer. This was especially noticeable in the development section of the movement, with the opening theme being played by the left hand (mm. 109 to 113, and mm. 117 to 122). As well, the two pianissimo chords that ended the movement were timed to perfection.

In the scherzo, Andsnes conjured up a real sense of perpetual motion in the music. The opening right hand chords had a real sense of vertical direction, and never felt ponderous. In the devastatingly funny ending of the movement, with unison passagework followed by pianissimo octaves, the pianist’s sense of comic timing was impeccable.

Andsnes played the Menuetto (Moderato e grazioso) and Trio simply but beautifully. I was thankful that he did not monumentalize the music, but highlighted its almost childlike beauty. In the return of the Menuetto, I did notice even greater warmth in the playing. The breathless Presto con fuoco, a deliberate tempest in a teacup, the pianist was in complete pianistic control, which gave the music even more of a breathless quality. The three triumphant final cadences ended the first half of the concert in high spirits.

Throughout the performance of the Beethoven, there was a sense of unity, that the four movements are part of a greater whole. There was also a sense of, for lack of a better word, “rightness” in his chosen tempi for the movements, as well as in the tempo relationship between movements.

The pianist opened his programme after the interval with Claude Debussy’s La Soirée dans Grenade, from Estampes. It was playing of great clarity, without the great splashes of sonorities that many pianists infused this music with. Andsnes’ interpretation is certainly a valid one, reminding me of Pierre Boulez’s statement that he tried to take away the fog and smoke from the music of Debussy. The pianist allowed himself very little leeway in terms of rhythm, which gave this music even more of a relentless quality.

There was some truly stunning piano playing in three Debussy Études that followed. In Pour les degrés chromatiques, the evenness of the pianist’s articulation was eerie. In Pour les arpèges composés, Andsnes’s beautiful sound really highlighted the resonances of the music. In Pour les octaves, there was an impeccable sense of timing in the many shifts of tempo and moods.

Andsnes seemed to have conceived his final group of Chopin works – four seemingly unrelated works - as an integrated set. One can see this by looking at the character of each “movement” of the set, as well as in the key relationship between the pieces. He began his Chopin set with the popular Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29, and played it with a lightness and sense of motion that worked perfectly for this music. The artist did not try to “squeeze” every ounce of emotion out of the middle F Minor section, but it was clearly playing that was deeply felt. In the Étude in A-flat Major, from the Trios Nouvelles Etudes, he evoked a sound of great beauty, and he made the right hand chords truly float, highlighting the beautiful harmonies and subtle harmonic changes in the music. In the Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1, the shifts between the calm opening and closing and the stormy middle section was very effective. In the Ballade in F Minor, Op. 52, Andsnes played like a guide that was leading us through this incredible musical journey, himself always clearly seeing the way before him. What is more, there was a real sense of organic unity in the massive work, not easily achievable and not often achieved.

After a well-deserved ovation, Andsnes graced us with a stunning and breathtaking performance of yet another Chopin work, the Etude in F Minor, Op. 25, No. 2, playing it at a tempo very close to that indicated by the composer, yet without sacrificing any of the clarity in the right hand triplets.

On the whole, the recital was truly a model of piano playing and music making. Andsnes is playing this particular programme throughout this concert season, and it showed. He had obviously thought about and lived with this music for a long time, and the confidence and maturity he brought to every note yesterday afternoon was truly a gift to Vancouver audiences.

Patrick May