Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes dedicated his second and final encore, Chopin’s Polonaise, Op. 53, to the people of suffering Paris, and when he played it Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the piano was pushed for the first time to a full-throated roar. Andsnes can make a big sound, but he doesn’t very often. He prefers to work in the quiet zone, exploring nuance, detail and myriad shades of color.
The Norwegian artist, who was presented by Washington Performing Arts, is one of the finest musicians working today, an intelligent and meticulous player without a trace of bombast or showmanship. His program mixed Debussy, Chopin and Beethoven with lesser-known works by the Finnish symphonist Jean Sibelius. The Sibelius morsels aren’t often played and are generally scorned by critics: “absolute hackwork,” one writer said succinctly. Those who don’t know them generally assume they are salon trifles, note-spinning for amateurs written to raise cash in between his serious work for the orchestra.
But Andsnes made a strong case for them, or at least for those he selected from different suites and collections. The three lyric pieces the composer named after Kylikki, a character from the Finnish national epic “Kalevala,” are substantial, exploratory studies, loose, episodic and improvisatory. The first piece opens with a gesture one recognizes from the composer’s symphonic style, a low pedal point over which a grand descending motif suggests a melancholy sense of stormy, wide-open spaces. The suite includes a delicate andantino and a kind of scattered scherzo conclusion.
Andsnes respected the music’s seemingly disjointed construction, its tendency to interrupt itself with new ideas, afterthoughts and sudden detours. He played these and other Sibelius selections from Op. 75 and 114 as if he were listening intently to them for the first time, allowing them to be garrulous without losing the narrative thread. Played this well, there is real beauty in them, even their reliance on tremolo effects, rather like some of the short piano works of Janacek.
The Beethoven Sonata in E-flat, Op. 31, No. 3, flowed curiously from the Sibelius, the context heightening the sense that this is one of the composer’s most brilliantly overstuffed and frenetic scores. It is bumptious music, with sudden dynamic and textural contrasts and Haydn-esque humor. Andsnes’s pianissimo ending of the scherzo, his delicate articulation of the rising chord figures in the trio of the minuet, and his speed and clarity in the final presto con fuoco made this an entirely satisfying performance.
Chopin and Debussy finished the program. Andsnes has been intently focused on Beethoven in recent years, but the four Debussy pieces (including three of the fiendishly difficult Etudes) suggest he is no less masterful in this repertoire. And his Chopin is thrilling, too, played with delicacy, nervous energy, and a spare, almost dry tone. Andsnes’s exceptional articulation — in music a bit like diction in speech, but essential to a range of effects, including color — serves him well in anything he plays. But in Chopin it can cause goose bumps. When Chopin repeats the haunting, opening melodic line in the Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1, he ornaments it with two delicate triplet figures, wispy, inconsequential little things tossed off quickly and with no particular importance. Except there’s a world of finesse and grace in this kind of detail, and anyone who heard Andsnes play them Saturday knows that everything that matters about Chopin was there, concentrated and complete in eight little notes that collectively last perhaps a fraction of a second. Great artists, like Andsnes, make nanoseconds indelibly memorable.