Mark Gresham | 25 JAN 2023
Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes returns to Atlanta to perform a recital at Spivey Hall this weekend featuring music of Beethoven, Dvořák, and Janáček, plus contemporary works by Russian composer Alexander Vustin and Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov.
EarRelevant’s publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham recently talked with Andsnes by phone about his recital, especially Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85, which he recorded and released last year. The Q&A below is drawn from that conversation and is edited for length and clarity.
Mark Gresham: What inspired you to perform and record Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures?
Leif Ove Andsnes: I’ve known about these pieces since I was little because my father had picked up a random selection of LPs once when he was in London, and one of the LPs was indeed this piano cycle played by the Czech pianist Radoslav Kvapil. I listened to these pieces, and I was especially drawn to the first one in the set when I was a child. I told my parents I would like to play the first one. So they got hold of the music, and I played the first one when I was 12 in a youth competition. Then I played a group of them in recitals when I was in my mid-twenties, maybe six of them. And it had been in the back of my mind that maybe it could work as a cycle.
I was very happy a few years ago to come across a quote from Dvořák where, after having finished these pieces, he writes to a friend that he has tried to be a poet, alla Schumann, in these pieces, though it doesn’t sound like Schumann, and that he hopes that somebody will have the courage to play all of them together continuously because only by doing that could one truly understand his intentions. I thought that was really interesting because we’re talking about almost an hour of music. That’s a very ambitious cycle. That got me even more interested in studying them all. When we got to the pandemic, and I had a bit more time at home, I was studying the whole cycle. So it became a sort of pandemic project for me.
MG: I often hear people, especially musicians, talk about understanding the difference between French and German music or Italian music, but rarely do I hear talk about differences between characteristics of, say, Czech and Norwegian music. Just for quick comparison, some years ago, you recorded some of Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. With Dvořák, what’s your secret to understanding the difference in styles and how to capture the flavor of his music?
LOA: I had a Czech teacher from when I was 15 years old, Jiří Hlinka, who moved to Norway in the seventies and was phenomenally inspiring to me. I studied with him at the Bergen Conservatory of Music. So I played quite a bit of Czech piano music with him. Janáček especially was the composer that I discovered. He also gave me pieces by Smetana, but not so much Dvořák.
It’s funny how Dvořák’s piano music has a strange reputation, also in the Czech Republic. I played this cycle two months ago in Prague. There is this perception in Prague that this music is not well written for the piano and that it’s awkward to play because Dvořák wasn’t himself a pianist. He was a string player and an amateur organ player, but he wasn’t a professional pianist. It’s partly true that some of it does not feel as natural for the hand to play as Chopin, Schumann, or Debussy, but, my goodness, he really uses the instrument to its full range, and the music is absolutely glorious. So I don’t understand why this has become such a hindrance for the music to be played.
I don’t think this music is terribly difficult to understand. It has some Czech dances and folk rhythms, but I think Dvořák’s language is pretty universal. There are some parallels with Grieg. They both were quite central in their countries’ striving for independence and were part of the national romantic movement wanting to use folk dances and folk music of their countries. Grieg limited himself mostly to piano music and to songs. Dvořák wrote in so many genres. He saw himself as an opera composer, symphonic composer, and lots of chamber music and church music. He also wrote piano music, but he wasn’t famous for that in the same way Grieg was famous for his piano music. So it’s quite a different story, even if there are some similarities between the two in the two different countries.
MG: That Dvořák cycle constitutes your program’s entire second half, but the first half features music from four other composers. Could you tell us about that?
LOA: I’d love to say something about the first half of the program because that’s become quite a journey. A central piece in that half is the piano sonata 1. X. 1905 by Leoš Janáček. I started studying that a few months back. I played that when I was young, 25 years ago. And now, coming back to it a few months ago, it occurred to me how relevant the piece is today.
The piece is based on an event where a worker got killed during a demonstration in Brno on the 1st of October 1905, and that’s why the sonata has this date as its title. It has these two movements “Foreboding” and “Death.” It’s a dramatic piece, and it’s a piece full of anger and anxiousness and tragedy and real beauty and sorrow. When I studied this, I was thinking, oh my goodness, how relevant this is today, with all the demonstrations we see in the world: in Iran, people get killed on the streets; in Russia, obviously, with the Ukraine situation. I started thinking about how this is a piece for today and how I can do something more in this program to reflect that.
I wanted to include and surround the Janáček with two short pieces. One Russian piece and one Ukrainian piece. The first piece is by the Russian composer Alexander Vustin, a composer rather unknown outside Russia, but I got to know him in 2019 when he came to be a composer-in-residence at my festival in Norway. Very sadly, he died of COVID in 2020 in Moscow. It’s a beautiful piece called Lamento. And then, after the Janáček, I’m going straight into a Ukrainian piece by Valentin Silvestrov, one of his Bagatelles, which is dreamy music, nostalgic. It’s like he tells us a story about what was or hopes for what that could be. So for me, this first half has become quite a personal journey. It says something about where we are today, and it gives us time to reflect on the situation in this world.
And then I have the “Pathétique” Sonata after that. Beethoven sort of has everything in it. There’s the anger, and there’s the comforting. Then the Dvořák is a life-confirming piece, all about Czech life in the 19th century — the dances, the high and low, the joy and mystery of life.
MG: You were the first the perform a recital on Spivey Hall’s “Clara” Hamburg when it was new, almost right out of the shipping crate. In the interim, they purchased a second Hamburg Steinway, named “Robert,” as a companion instrument to Clara. Your most recent concert for Spivey Hall was a remotely streamed video recital because of the pandemic, but have you had any opportunity to play Robert in the intervening years?
LOA: This will be my first chance to be inside this relationship with Clara and Robert in Spivey Hall and to feel the friction and the affection between them. And I will have to choose. That’s the difficult thing. I’m curious. So no, I haven’t played Robert yet.
MG: When given a choice of pianos for a recital, what characteristics do you look for between them? Is it a matter of which will best fit the repertoire you are playing? How do you choose?
LOA: Sometimes it depends slightly on repertoire, but I would say that I’m good with a good piano. With an all-around good piano, you can play most music. I’m looking for a piano that I feel has generosity. It has evenness between the registers. It has a singing tone, not brittle but open, and has a full bass. And my fingers feel comfortable with the action. It’s pretty intuitive how I choose a piano in the end, and I do it quite quickly. I know after a few minutes that I prefer one to the other. Not always, but usually. It will be interesting to see who I prefer of these two personalities. ■
• Leif OIve Andsnes will perform a solo recital of music by Dvořák, Janáček, Vustin, Silvestrov, and Beethoven this Saturday, January 28, at Spivey Hall.