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Colorful Pictures Upstage Moonlight

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
11/05/2008 -  
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in C minor, D. 958
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No.2, ‘Moonlight’
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Leif Ove Andsnes (Piano)

Leif Ove Andsnes (© Felix Broede)

‘The perfect 21st-century ambassador for Mozart’ – this is how the Observer described Andsnes. In 2005’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, Andsnes’ delicate, innocent, and improvisatory interpretation of Mozart concerto conquered every heart in the Cultural Center. This evening, he stepped down his role as a Mozart ambassador, displaying his every-questing musical attitude by exploring new repertoires and painting new colors on his sketch book.

Andsnes’ playing is always spontaneous, flowing, and somehow casual, just like his dress tonight, without white-tie and tails. In the opening piece, Schubert’s C minor Sonata, he put aside his Mozartian delicacy and simplicity, focused on the naturalness and vitality of this work. Although his fast tempo slightly sacrificed some refined details, it drew out the flowing motion and coherence of Schubert’s grand architecture. While most pianists highlight the mellow and cantabile character of the main theme in the slow movement, Andsnes’ reading was relatively plain-spoken and elegant. Instead, he showed more interest in the ebullient middle section, bringing dramatic contrast to the main theme. His well-honed architectural instinct was telling exemplified in the forward-moving final movement, in which every rest and sectional pause was carefully measured. The brisk pace and compulsive drive magnified both Schubert’s surface drama and the underlying passion. But if one is looking for Schubert’s trademark singing style and songful tune, Andsnes’ reading may not be your cup of tea.

Schubert’s piano works are Andsnes’ central repertoire – the sonata he performed tonight was recorded and released by EMI Classics early this year, as one of his five Schubert recordings. However, among his numerous recordings with EMI, which include works by Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Grieg and Rachmaninoff (just to name a few), there is not even one piece by Beethoven. Tonight, Andsnes chose one of Beethoven’s widely-popular works – Moonlight Sonata as his breakthrough. Unlike the mainstream interpretative approach, which outlines the introspective side of the first movement, Andsnes adopted a relatively fast tempo in the first movement, bringing together the top notes into long arching lines. The technically demanding third movement was a full display of Andsnes’ virtuosity. All the technical hurdles simply disappeared and were sublimated beneath an eloquence that brought out the passion and sparks. The upward arpeggios were delivered with utmost dexterity and clarity, with minimal pedaling.

However, all this excitement was upstaged by his Mussorgsky in the second half. Andsnes was a skillful painter, drawing every color of the spectrum onto these pictures. At the same time, he was also a world-class conductor who can bring to surface the most wide-ranged orchestral sound from his keyboard. Alfred Brendel once said, “the most ideal pianistic tone is ‘non-pianistic’ tone”. Today, Andsnes demonstrated his ability to transform 88 black and white keys into 88 orchestral instruments. When I closed my eyes, it was Ravel’s orchestrated version of Pictures at an Exhibition in front of me. The profound and pounding Promenade and Gnomus, light-aired and crystalline Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and The Limoges Market, whispering and vaporous Con mortuis in lingua mortua, all evoked the best instruments in a best orchestra. The bass register was played with extremely heavy and profound tone, without being harsh or percussive. If Andsnes were in an orchestra, he would be a superb double-bass player. Once again, all the technical challenges in this virtuosic piece were overcome without any stress or the slightest concession to difficulty. This impeccable rendition far outstrips Yundi Li’s playing of the same piece, at the same place two months ago.

The audience simply could not be satisfied without an encore to resolve the climax. Andsnes generously offered two Debussy’s Preludes and a Scarlatti’s sonata, the former two with imaginative and colorful harmonies and the later one with utmost delicacy and simplicity. It was a pity that the concert hall was just 60% occupied. I am sure many people will be sorry for missing this wonderful “Exhibition”.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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