Thursday 11 April 2013

Andsnes - Beethoven, Bartók, Chopin and Liszt, 10 April 2013

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, op.54
Bartók – Suite, op.14
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.28 in A major, op.101
Liszt – Pensée des morts, S 173/4
Chopin – Nocturne in C minor, op.48 no.1
Ballade no.4 in F minor, op.52

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Let there be no doubt about it: Leif Ove Andsnes is a pianist and a musician of great distinction, and this was a recital of distinction. Beethoven’s op.54 sonata opened the programme, Andsnes’s tone and touch announced as being to die for. (There would prove no exception whatsoever to that.) The pianist captured to perfection Beethoven’s marriage of stylisation and human warmth; then came the still shocking canonic disjuncture. Control of line during the reprises of the minuet stood almost beyond praise, as did the meaning imparted to its progressive decoration. The second movement exhibited a rare kaleidoscopic quality – such light and shade! – throughout its moto perpetuo; tempo was strict, and yet the music breathed, rhythmic propulsion achieved without the slightest exaggeration. It was riveting from beginning to end.

Bartók’s op.14 Suite was granted a rare performance. The Allegretto showed a perfectly judged balance between insistence and flexibility, Andsnes’s voicing quite mesmerising. Much the same could be said of the scherzo, whose vivid theatricality evoked the world of The Wooden Prince and even, peering into the future, that of The Miraculous Mandarin. Neo-Lisztian diabolicism, albeit more ‘Hungarian’ in Bartók’s terms, was the hallmark of the Allegro molto third movement. Fullness of tone was never sacrificed to technical necessity. The final movement emerged beautifully from its predecessor, as seductive as Liszt and indeed as ‘suspended’ as anything from his late years. It was unsettled and unsettling in its almost Schoenbergian beauty.

A major, wrote William S. Porter, in his 1834 Musical Cyclopædia was ‘Golden, warm, and sunny. Its brilliant effect is shown in many passages of Haydn’s Creation.’ That spirit and perhaps still more that of Mozart in A major – think, for instance, of the great KV 488 piano concerto – was captured in the exquisite yet honest presentation of the first movement of Beethoven’s op.101 sonata. Except, of course, quite rightly, there was always a sense that Elysium was already unattainable, the tragedy of Beethoven. Syncopated chords tolled like ambivalent Mozartian bells of joy; here Beethoven, like Mozart, smiled through tears. Andsnes, without in the slightest sentimentalising the music, imparted to it a poignancy that hinted at Schubert, whilst retaining echt-Beethovenian quirkiness. The second movement offered contrast, but a dialectical contrast, connected even if one could not explicitly say how. ‘Melting precision’ was the somewhat paradoxical – or perhaps better, dialectical – phrase I summoned up to describe Andsnes’s performance, delivered with a lightly-worn rhythmic insistency that was indubitably generative. The trio integrated characteristics both from that march and from the first movement, its almost seraphic quality preparing the way for a third movement that spoke with the integrity and beauty of a Bach arioso. I wondered slightly about the tempo for the finale. Was it a shade too fast? What it perhaps lost in sublimity was gained in a Haydn-like sense of play, in context a perfectly valid alternative to the ‘finale problem’.

The second half opened with Liszt’s Pensées des morts. Mysterious, sepulchral, the ‘voice’ remained eloquent. There was nothing murky to the left-hand chords; one imagined that, like Liszt himself, it would simply not be possible for Andsnes to do other than elicit a beautiful tone from the instrument. Understanding and communication of harmonic rhythm were impeccable. It would be wonderful to hear more Liszt from him, perhaps the Sonata, the Années de pèlerinage, or indeed the rest of the Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses.

Chopin’s C minor Nocturne, op.48 no.1, was uneasy from the start, benefiting from a dramatic tension I have rarely heard here, tension apparently arising from the conjunction of well-chosen tempo – it is easy to take the piece too slowly – and voicing of the left-hand line. Cumulative power was awe-inspiring, the nocturne heard as if in a single breath. Chopin was granted dignity without sentimentality. The Fourth Ballade followed on in wonderfully ‘natural’ fashion, a splendid piece of programming. It spoke initially with a similar unforced eloquence, to which again a well-judged tempo and equally finely-judged rubato contributed. What ultimately I felt it lacked – and this was really my only disappointment of the evening – were the electricity that a great Chopin player such as Maurizio Pollini would impart to the work and a more revealing approach to voice-leading. Some avenues were smoothed out rather than brought into relief. Otherwise, however, I shall repeat myself in describing this as a recital of distinction.