Pianist Andsnes, Better Than the Hype

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes pulled out all the stops during the Grieg Ballade.
Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes pulled out all the stops during the Grieg Ballade. (By Simon Fowler -- Emi Classics)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008

So much praise has been heaped on the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes that a music lover comes to a performance freighted with expectations. The 38-year-old Norwegian has been called brilliant, exceptional, vibrant, poetic. He is something of a maverick (in 2000, he took six months off from performing to live alone in the remote Norwegian countryside) and has led his chamber music festival in the small village of Risor, Norway, to international prominence.

So it was no surprise that his recital at Strathmore on Tuesday, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, was absolutely wonderful. But it was fascinating that the actual playing both surpassed and countervened expectations -- surpassed them because it was so vivid, so richly colored, so real; and countervened them because there was nothing the least bit deliberately "poetic" or "artistic" or mannered about it.

The heart of the program was Scandinavian, particularly the Grieg Ballade in G Minor, a massive set of variations on a Norwegian folk song that is one of the composer's largest-scale piano works. But the lead-up to this was at least as important in establishing the tone. For Andsnes's Bach (he played the Toccata in E Minor) and Beethoven (Op. 27, No. 1) are also Scandinavian, not in that he is untrue to their style but in that he makes them so thoroughly his own.

From the opening notes of the Bach, Andsnes showed the self-evident presence that is the hallmark of a master musician. He neither tried to make the music do what he wanted, nor assumed it like a mask, but simply spoke with it: in a warm partnership with the Bach, in a delicately foursquare dance with the Beethoven that was informed by the spirit of the classical era without seeking self-consciously to replicate it.

There is a current vogue for this sonata, marked "quasi una fantasia" -- it was performed by Yefim Bronfman at Carnegie Hall in December and by Alfred Brendel in his farewell performance at Strathmore last month -- and hearing the differences between Brendel's approach and Andsnes's was especially enlightening. Andsnes's reading could be described as fundamentally solid, for all its delicacy; he exudes a basic good health, while Brendel's approach was more conventionally poetic. This is not to say that there is no poetry in Andsnes's playing: He seemed to delve inside the sound, offering a trill that quivered as if the note's essence had been exposed.

The pianist introduced the Grieg with a few spoken comments -- winning over the public -- and a set of miniatures by Sibelius, little snapshots that reinforced the impression of robustness (in the waltz marked "Elegiaco," he showed that he is not a melancholy spirit, his reading more lyrical than wistful). But the Grieg was where he pulled out all the stops. The piece was written during a difficult time in the composer's life and represents a pinnacle of emotional intensity. But it showed, here, as well-bred grief, someone wrestling with sadness while trying to move forward as if nothing untoward had happened.

What made it extraordinary was the range of color and mood in the playing, which remained robust even when it was at its lightest, and explored every musical nuance without straying from its sense of purpose. The piece builds, finally, to a painful outburst that seems wrenched out of the score almost against its will before the theme reappears in a hushed, well-mannered coda, as if to say, unhappily, "Never mind."

In the program's second half, Andsnes showed that his particular combination of talents made him an ideal interpreter of Debussy, offering a range of the Preludes with strength, color and a kind of appealing ease. His "Des Pas Sur la Neige" ("Footprints in the Snow") was both gentle and powerful, dying away at the end into silence while remaining, counterintuitively, very much there.

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