Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (video frame, Spivey Hall / OCL)

Review: Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes plays Beethoven, Dvořák and Grieg at Troldhaugen

Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Sunday, 21 February 2021
virtual recital presented by Spivey Hall
recorded at Edvard Grieg Museum (Troldhaugen), Bergen, Norway

Giorgio Koukl | 23 FEB 2021

The Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes displayed his multiple capacities in a virtual recital on Sunday, 21 February 2021, presented by Spivey Hall, Atlanta. This prerecorded streaming was filmed in December at the Edvard Grieg museum in Bergen Norway. This beautiful venue, with a bright window overlooking the cottage where Edward Grieg used to compose his music, pretending maximum of silence, provided a wonderful setting every pianist would dream of. That said, probably the modern and very Scandinavian minimalist architecture was not so great in terms of acoustic response, equally with the recording system which balanced not so well the slightly metallic treble part of the keyboard against a too heavy and dark bass notes of the Steinway piano. Most of the time, anyway, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes managed to handle this handicap.

His choice of a piano recital program was quite a traditional one with Beethoven, Grieg and Dvořák. Mr. Andsnes is well known for his recording achievements and prizes, especially in the field of romantic Scandinavian music. His way of playing corresponds well to his Nordic origins, always technically sure, well balanced but never really breathtaking.

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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1837) wrote his Piano Sonata No. 8 in C-minor,Op. 13approximately between 1798 and 1799. It is dedicated to prince Karl von Lichnowsky. The title Grand Sonate Pathetique is not original from the composer but used for commercial purposes by his editor Hofmeister. Anyway, it seems that Beethoven didn’t disliked it. With its three movements (“Grave – Allegro di molto e con brio,” “Adagio cantabile” and “Rondo: Allegro”) it usually last about 20 minutes.

In his unsentimental approach, Mr. Andsnes has chosen a really slow tempo for the opening “Grave” and a quite speedy “Allegro.” He was less convincing in the slow middle movement. Despite very careful weighting of the leading parts against filling notes the feeling of a beautiful phrase simply wasn’t there. The third part “Rondo: Allegro” went far better, but still lacking a real plasticity of a well shaped “bow.” Maybe this is due to a choice not to apply any form of rubato or other rhythmical irregularities.

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The Lyric Pieces, Op. 54 by Edward Grieg (1843-1997) are a part of a vast cycle of 66 similar works, between them some of the most popular works of the composer, such as March of the Trolls and Butterfly.

Years ago Mr. Andsnes recorded a CD with 24 of the Lyric Pieces on Grieg’s own 1892 Steinway grand piano at Troldhaugen. His choices for this recital were: Shepherd’s Boy, Norwegian March, March of the Trolls and Notturno.

He was immediately more comfortable in this music, the phrasing was naturally shaped and logical. All I missed in Beethoven was suddenly present here. Even the unsentimental approach was far more pleasant in this crystal clear music with its cascades of notes shining like the fresh snow lying right behind the bright window of the hall. This is evidently a sort of music with which Mr. Andsnes is at home. I particularly admired his enormous physical strength in the fortissimo octave passages in the March of Trolls. In the last piece, Notturno, finally a certain sense of elegance emerged.

The composing cottage of Edvard Grieg. (video frame, Spivey Hall / OCL)

The composing cottage of Edvard Grieg. (video frame, Spivey Hall / OCL)

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) wrote his Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85 between April and June 1889. It was divided by his Berlin editor Simrock into three volumes in order to accommodate all thirteen short pieces for piano in a suitable and commercially valid structure.

Dvořák, famous as he was for his symphonic work and for large opera production, struggled quite a lot to become a well-selling author in between the piano solo and “house music” composers of his time. His nature of a more theoretical minded man and far less that of a practical producer of music requested by the consumers was quite a hindrance while trying to penetrate the difficult musical scene between Berlin and Vienna. He has written some music for piano solo and a devilishly difficult piano concerto, all of this material denoting the same problem: the composer himself was not able to play the piano, thus asking a lot from any interpreter, sometimes even in an Unnecessary way. Every interpreter of his music must bear in mind that the technical requests are far beyond the usual level and certainly not heard by any average listener.

Andsnes chose Night Piece, Joking, At the Old Castle, Spring, Goblins’ Dance, Serenade, Bacchanalia and At the Holy Mountain for this recital.

Being spoiled, so to speak, by the rendering of Radoslav Kvapil on an old Supraphon recording, which despite its oldish technical means and a bad piano still remains the top recording available, I started to listen filled with some skepticism. But I was wrong.

The recital hall of the Edvard Grieg Museum. Through the wingow behond the piano can eb sen the cottage that was Grieg's composing studio. )video frame. Spivey Hall/OCL)

The recital hall of the Edvard Grieg Museum. Through the wingow behond the piano can eb sen the cottage that was Grieg’s composing studio. (video frame. Spivey Hall/OCL)

A certain melancholy of his previous Grieg rendering still remained and was very pleasant. What I missed a little was the slower pace of the prestissimo pages present in the Night Piece, which would deserve a more brilliant approach. The second piece, Joking, a surprisingly variegated composition with its quite advanced harmonies, well ahead of its time, was played by Mr. Andsnes in a simply brilliant manner. Dvořák was a great fan of trains and speedy locomotives, he spent hours and hours watching them coming and going from Vienna or Berlin. This attitude emerges quite well in a sense of velocity he gave to this work.

Third piece, At the old castle has a melancholic, rather sad melody decorated by a sort of glittering shimmer. It was well played in all its dynamical differences so as the next piece, Spring. Here the pianist finally seemed liberated of a certain rigidity he showed in Beethoven. All the typical Slavonic charm came to the surface, especially in the middle part of Goblin’s Dance, a sort of “Salonmusik.”

To be mentioned separately is the Bacchanalia, certainly the most difficult piece of the whole recital. Here Dvořák pretends from his interpreter quite the impossible on the technical side with all its triplets played on the limit of achievable. Difficulties were overcomed by Mr. Andsnes with ease and elegance. This was certainly the most impressive moment of the whole recital.

It would have been also a logical end for a concert, but, for some reason the pianist has chosen to add a last, slow piece called At the holy mountain,  a page full of magnificent grandeur finishing in a D-flat major chord played with extremely well chosen timing, a really good moment filled with harmony and nobility. ■

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently completed recording the solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.