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Humanity Meets Divinity

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/07/2011 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53, "Waldstein" – Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
Johannes Brahms: Four Ballades, Op. 10
Arnold Schoenberg: Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19

Leif Ove Andsnes (Pianist)

L. O. Andsnes (© Simon Fowler/Emi Classics)

How glib it would be to say that the first three pieces by Leif Ove Andsnes last night were merely preludes to the final monumental Opus 111 of Beethoven. Yet glib I must be. The Norwegian pianist, one of the most original and thoughtful on the concert stage today, performed more than satisfying accounts of the “Waldstein”, Brahms’ Ballades and Schoenberg’s aphoristic Six Pieces. By the time he finished the C Minor Sonata, they were already fading into the memory.

This is patently unfair. But Mr. Andsnes, who makes certain that every concert he plays has a thematic unity, unified this recital with the most serious German works of the 19th and early 20th centuries. But their consequential intent was plainly subverted by Beethoven’s enigmatic, structurally solid late Sonata.

True enough, the “Waldstein” broke the bounds of Classical restrictions, and Mr. Andsnes was judicious enough to respect both the tradition and the iconoclasm. He could play those endless trills and fierce runs up the piano using little pedal, allowing his fingers to do the exercises. Equally, he allowed Beethoven to show off (for in a way, the composer was flashing his might before unsuspecting audiences) the momentary humor, the sudden changes in the slow movement, the dazzling technique. The final rondo, though, was played without flash, but more a blossoming from the first theme into something full-bodied and respectful.

The Brahms Ballades showed the most inward Andsnes. They are indeed stories, and Mr. Andsnes let himself tell the tales, ruminating, pausing, taking particular phrases with judicious care. Some listeners felt he was too slow, and indeed he hardly wanted to push the music. This was Brahms the philosopher, and while that can be plodding, Mr. Andsnes has the sense of color–and in the last Ballade, of pure beauty–to make them live.
I have never heard Schoenberg applauded so vehemently by a Carnegie Hall audience as last night. Perhaps they were thankful that the little jewels were so short (about six minutes for the six piece). More likely because Mr. Andsnes understood that these atonal works–not 12-tone pieces with meticulous regard for careful rows, but more like the equivalent of liberated jazz–that relied on sonority alone. Yes, the third could almost have been written by Brahms (and Andsnes ruminated within its few-second duration), but the sixth, with its tolling bells was as beautiful a work as Schoenberg ever wrote, and the pianist knew it.

(In an equally short encore, by György Kurtág, he was just as sonorous, even more mysterious.)

After these three, the C Minor was Mr. Andsnes’ mighty triumph. Not mighty in being a “perfect” or dynamic Beethoven. But in being the Beethoven who no longer had to show off, whose music could begin with a certain anger (and the pianist took those passages with electrifying energy), but which was transformed into a very human exploration of inward equilibrium.

Mr. Andsnes played it with proportion, grace, and, as always, understanding. So fine was this that I felt he shouldn’t break the spell with an encore. He did, with the Kurtág (and Chopin and Schumann). But the recital as a whole was meant for that one final C Minor Sonata. Mr. Andsnes made it both divine and personal.

Harry Rolnick



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