Leif Ove Andsnes will celebrate the 25th anniversary of his recital debut next month in Oslo, and this distinctive Norwegian pianist has made periodic visits to Washington for most of that remarkable career. The Washington Performing Arts Society brought him to the Music Center at Strathmore on Sunday night to play the same program he will perform in Oslo. Andsnes held audience members in rapt silence, controlling with hieratic authority even the impulse to applaud, hypnotizing us with his almost obsessive concern for the finest details of sound.
Andsnes opened with an introspective reading of an introspective Haydn sonata (C minor, Hob. XVI:20), distinguished by a delicacy of touch and multicolored shading of phrases. The fast movements were perhaps a little too fast, leading to some slightly smudged decorative elements in the moderato first movement, especially evident in the breathless sextuplet accompaniment of the development section. This was not merely overblown showmanship, though, even in the breakneck finale that was more vivace than simply allegro, but more fascination in the busy burbling of figuration. Small poetic moments were finely polished, such as the pause for reverie at the adagio mini-cadenzas before the closing sections in the first movement. The second movement’s slightly pointed quality was thankfully softened on the repeats.
In an exquisite and revealing pairing, Andsnes then took a similarly classical approach to Bartok’s Op. 14 Suite, more sensuous than barbaric in spite of the more dissonant harmonic vocabulary. Much like a baroque suite, each movement had an intriguing character, especially the dancing mischief of the scherzo, the sharp-edged toccata of the third movement and the velvety smoothness of the sostenuto. The three movements of the first book of Debussy’s “Images” were equally understated: a dreamy watercolor of iridescent refractions in “Reflets dans l’eau,” the murky sarabande of carefully balanced sounds in “Hommage a Rameau” and the fleet sparkling of “Mouvement,” constrained as if shining through glass.
An even more idiosyncratic second half was devoted to Chopin, but not the sort of Chopin one might expect. Imagine — just imagine — if one played the music of Chopin in the meter indicated in the score. If you have fixed ideas about Chopin, that is, if you do not like your Chopin to be too fixed, Andsnes’s playing may have seemed affectless or cold. Four waltzes (the three of Op. 70 and one of Op. 42) purled by, all elegance and refinement, without much rhythmic stretching or fussing, recalling the triple-meter dance form that is often eclipsed by the oozing of other pianists (in imitation of how Chopin was said to have played his music, it must be said). Not that there wasn’t some tasteful rubato, because there was, but the form and meter were rendered with utmost clarity, even in two ballades (Nos. 3 and 1), which are among the most often played (and often overplayed) of Chopin’s works, and in the outbursts of running notes in the B Major Nocturne (Op. 62/1). The encores continued in the same mold: another Chopin waltz (Op. 34/1) and one of Rachmaninoff’s etudes-tableaux (Op. 33/2).
It showed again how Andsnes has made his own way as a performer, touring and recording at a prodigious rate, all without winning a major international competition.
Andsnes thankfully can keep his head above most of that sort of rigmarole. This recital happened to coincide with the ceremony for the Grammy Awards, that annual Los Angeles ritual in which members of the recording industry pat themselves on the back. Andsnes received two more nominations this year, in the categories of Best Engineered Classical Album and Best Classical Instrumental Solo, for a recording of two Rachmaninoff concertos on the EMI label. He won neither award.
Downey is a freelance writer.