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The Truth About Ludwig Van

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/19/2014 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 11 in B-flat Major, Opus 22, & No. 28 in A Major, Opus 101 – Six Variations on an Original Theme in F Major, Opus 34 – Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Opus 57 (“Appassionata”)

Leif Ove Andsnes (Pianist)

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

If Leif Ove Andsnes had been crass enough to describe his recital last night, he might have said, “By coincidence, I’m sitting here and pressing the right keys. But don’t bother even pronouncing my name. The only name to think about is Ludwig van Beethoven.”

Which, not so coincidentally, was exactly how Carnegie Hall reacted.

For the record, Mr. Andsnes’ middle name rhymes with Groové, but he is hardly a groovy pianist. He is business-like in a business suit, he is without mannerisms, he doesn’t lean into the keyboard or wave his hands or smile or try to ingratiate himself. So happily–okay, ecstatically–the name to remember was Beethoven.

Mr. Andsnes hasn’t been reputed for the German composer. His very successful early years have been based on other composers. So when he turned his attention to Beethoven a year ago, he went all the way. His “Beethoven Journey” has included recordings of the concertos and, in this recital, an almost 100 percent Beethoven performance. (The one exception, an encore Schubert Moment Musical.)

Even more important, he had arranged the Beethoven like a deconstructed time trip. He began with an early sonata, went on to one of the last sonatas, showed Beethoven as the champion game-maker (a series of early variations) and ended with one of the most familiar, yet always welcomed “Appassionata”.

As we have heard before in New York, Mr. Andsnes is a flawless technician. In the Opus 22 opener, one doesn’t imagine that he performed it as the composer, since Beethoven might have improvised his own eccentricities. Instead, he played it as pure Classical piece (although the all-too-proper Minuet whispered irony, as Beethoven might have wanted).

Yet those rolls and arpeggios executed here didn’t sound like a keyboard at all. Mr. Andsnes worked the Steinway like it was a Stradivarius, with virtually no space between the notes. Pianos don’t do glissandi, but Mr. Andsnes gave these the effect of a violin melody.

And while trying to recover from this finger-perfect sweet and gentle Beethoven, we found ourselves adjusting to Beethoven’s Black Hole of a mind. The Opus 101 A Major Sonata was the Beethoven who had not graduated from his earlier days, but had found a greater depth. Mr. Andsnes didn’t even try to explore this mind. The notes said it all. The opening was played with a springy airiness before the main themes. The march was sprightly, not quite serious.

The final two movements made their own journey. For Mr. Andsnes didn’t play the introduction as a transition to the finale, but gave it a heaviness which led to this Allegro climax. With other pianists, one could note the themes, wait for an academic self-conscious fugue, relish the victory. With Mr. Andsnes, the movement was such a complete entity, that the fugue didn’t seem like a classroom exercise: the counterpoint was an integral part of his straightforward performance. It was cool, not a personal triumph for the pianist, but a very personal one for the composer.

The early Variations were pure delight. Like a 21st Century physicist playing around with equations on a blackboard, Beethoven let his mind wander, take flight, go back to earth, tell a riddle or two and finish with the usual bang. The usual tormented picture of the composer is nowhere to be found.

Finally, the great 23rd Sonata, played here just last week with Murray Perahia. Mr. Perahia performed it as an angry, shattering, highly emotional effort. Mr. Andsnes started even softer than Mr. Perahia, and the following excitement, while no less emotional, was far more pianistic. One didn’t feel that Beethoven was falling off his seat when banging the chords. It was just as loud, the finale was just as quick. But Mr. Andsnes retained the emotion of the piano rather than the personal emotion of the composer.

This was energy, yes–and the final Presto was as fast as I’ve ever heard it. But Mr. Andsnes didn’t send his body flying with the fingers. Like his entire demeanor, he was controlled, there was never even the hint of a blur or extra pedal. It was…well, Beethoven as the composer, not the mythological giant.

The three encores were perfect: a Bagatelle, the Allegretto from Opus 54 (faultless scales here), and the Schubert. They were quite enough.

Perfection itself is apt to be dull, over-emotion is ephemeral. Leif Ove Andsnes was technically perfect, and the emotional import was balanced with the pure musical significance. The result was a recital that last much much longer than the final ravishing chord.

Harry Rolnick



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