William Ford | 30 JAN 2023
One of the advantages of living in Atlanta is that there are 57 colleges and universities in the area. Many provide concert/recital programs that provide an opportunity to enjoy famous musicians in sometimes intimate settings. Among the best is the concert series at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia. Not only does it host world-class musicians, but it has an acoustical gem as its home base, that is, the renowned Spivey Hall. Not only does the hall sound good, but it also looks good; it is decorated in a refined spare Italianate style.
On January 29, 2023, Spivey Hall was nearly filled with patrons eager to hear a solo piano performance by Norwegian-born Leif Ove Andsnes, who is a multi-Grammy award nominee, a Gramophone award winner, and recipient of honors from around the world. Maybe with a bit of hyperbole, he has been named “The No. 1 pianist of all time” by Classic.FM!
Andsnes’ program consisted mostly of unknown works beginning with Lamento, composed in 1974 by Alexander Vustin, a Russian composer mostly known in his home country. According to the program notes, the music recalls that during the funeral of a friend, a bird started singing during the ceremony and continue throughout. In this piece, the left-hand plays mournful funeral sounds, while the left chirps the bird’s song. At times, the clash between sadness and happiness of the two threads is represented in dissonances such that everything sounded not quite right or even out-of-tune. The overall effect was at once moving and disquieting.
The second piece was Janáček’s Sonata 1. X. 1905, “From the Street.” The composer wrote this piece to express his outrage at the killing of a carpenter by Habsburg forces during a demonstration supporting the establishment of a Czech-speaking university in Brno. Janáček, his own worst critic, destroyed the work but a copy was secretly saved by pianist Ludmila Tuckova. Some twenty years later, the pianist confessed that she had secured a copy, and Janáček sanctioned then sanctioned its publication. The sonata, like others in the composer’s oeuvre, draws upon childhood songs, folk music, and the rhythms of Czech speech. It consists of two movements, “Presentiment,” and “Death.” The music is full of melodic and rhythmic turmoil, with musical ideas occasionally thrust in, giving it a disjointed character that nevertheless is a powerful statement against oppression.
The next work was Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s 2004 Bagatelle, Op.1, No. 3. Despite the composer’s censure by the USSR for writing music that was too avant-garde, this Bagatelle is anything but. During its just under 4 minutes length, it is gentle, dreamlike, and hints at inspiration from Debussy and even Einaudi. However, about 3 minutes in, someone’s cell phone rang with a raucous old telephone ringtone. Not only was it unnecessary it was incredibly jarring and disruptive. Andsnes seemed to ignore it and finished playing without a hitch.
The final work of the concert’s first section was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 8 in C minor, Op. 14, “Pathetique.” While controversial in 1799, it is heard often today and is unlikely to cause raised eyebrows or clutched pearls. Some claim that the work is inspired by Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 14, K. 457 or even Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor, but regardless, it is firmly entrenched in the Western Art Music canon. The melodic second movement cantabile theme was chosen by pianist Karl Haas to be the introduction to his radio show Adventures in Good Music, which ran from 1970 to 2007. Andsnes’ playing was superb and wrested every emotional opportunity from the music.
It should be noted that the first four pieces were played with silence between each at Mr. Andsnes’ request.
The second half of the concert featured Dvořák’s 1899 Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85. Dvořák is a popular composer, known particularly to U.S. audiences for his symphonic works (especially the overplayed No. 9, From the New World”) and his cello concerto. These piano works, while popular shortly after their publication, have fallen into disuse over the years. Mr. Andsnes seems to be on a campaign to resurrect them, especially with his recent recording that features them. The thirteen sections each have a programmatic title that does not appear to make a direct link with the music. Some of the section titles include “Twilight Way,” “Peasant Ballad,” and “At a Hero’s Grave.” Each has a principal theme and three contrasting sections. The composer incorporates folk themes, childhood songs, and rustic dances in various sections. The work is pleasant but does not make the case that Dvořák was a master of composing for the piano. But Andsnes’ advocacy for the work is admirable.
Based on this performance, Andsnes solidified for the local audience his reputation as a great pianist. His program was creative and reflected a carefully curated playlist that introduced some gifted, yet fairly obscure, composers and their works. Andsnes is a visually subdued player — he does not use his body to reinforce the message that his hands and fingers alone can successfully convey. He uses the piano’s pedals sparingly, giving clarity and directness to his playing. There is no doubt that he is a master of the instrument.
There was one small issue with the sound of the Spivey piano, at least for me. It seemed that when a forte note was stuck in the middle of the keyboard, the decay of the sound seemed to go very slightly off-pitch. From what I have read, this can be a symptom of the need to adjust the piano’s voicing (adjusting the density of the felts covering the hammers). A friend didn’t notice it so maybe it’s just me! ■