Aleksandr Vustin: Lamento
Janáček: Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, ‘From the Street’
Valentin Silvestrov: Bagatelle, op.1 no.3
Beethoven: Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Dvořák: Poetic Tone Pictures, op.85
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Leif Ove Andsnes’s performances are always very well worth hearing; this programme, mixing the familiar and unfamiliar was no exception. The first half offered short pieces by Russian and Ukrainian composers, either side of Janáček’s tribute to František Pavlík, a worker killed demonstrating for a Czech university in Brno, followed by Beethoven’s penultimate sonata: however one considers it, and however clichéd this may sound, a sublime song from and to the human spirit and what it might yet achieve.
Aleksandr Vustin, invited by Andsnes in 2019 to his Rosendal Chamber Festival, in what was only Vustin’s second journey outside Russia, died the following year, an early victim of the coronavirus pandemic. His Lamento, itself inspired by the funeral of a friend and its sounds, is tonal, yet moves in often surprising ways. Opening two-part left-hand writing soon has a right-hand melody soar above—a recollection, I learned later, of a bird that began to sing at the funeral and would not stop. It made for an interesting prelude to Janáček’s Sonata 1.X.1905, ‘From the Street’, its first movement in Andsnes’s performance both precise and suggestive: like work and composer, one might say. Proudly turbulent in its post-Romanticism, passages of its music seemed almost to acquire proto-filmic character, perhaps in slow motion, in remembrance. The composer’s profound national pride sang forth still more directly in the second movement, the stubbornness of his writing, not least in sheer persistence of figures, transmuted once more into a declaration of spirit, made with a fine sense of musical drama.
One of Valentin Silvestrov’s Bagatelles offered cool contrast, behaving (at least I fancied) not entirely unlike Vustin’s piece. The quiet dignity of Andsnes’s performance again made for an interesting prelude to a sonata, this time Beethoven’s in A-flat major, op.110. Its first movement sang with a simplicity both fragile and strong. Welcome, one might say, to late Beethoven. Fractures were often only implied; this was not the most modernist of accounts, nor was there any reason it should be. Yet implied they were. The turn to the minor was communicated with ineffable sadness, yet never mawkishness. Again, this was Beethoven. The scherzo’s gruff humour did not attempt to conceal the difficulties of the trio. The overriding impression was of shocking concision. Mournful dignity characterised Beethoven’s ‘Klagender Gesang’ in the finale, the fugue first offering release and intensification, its voicing to die for: beautiful, no doubt, yet above all truthful. Contrast and complement of material registered and developed throughout, the inverted fugue enabling yet in no sense guaranteeing ultimate triumph. There was, rightly, no easy path.
The second half was given to Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures, op.85: new, I confess to me, and quite a discovery. Andsnes had explored them during lockdown, welcoming the discovery of ‘life-affirming music of the greatest invention and imagination’. Dvořák can occasionally pale alongside Janáček, but not here. This work emerged as a Schumannesque collection, played with affection, characterisation, and acute understanding. Indeed, the scene-setting of its first piece, ‘Night journey’ immediately brought Schumann to mind: not that it sounded ‘like’ Schumann, but in terms of the role it played in introduction, and its vein of fantasy. Andsnes’s communication of the charm and Romantic snares of this night was finely judged indeed. A wonderful procession of characters, scenes, sketches in a strong sense ensued: not unlike a good novel, or perhaps better, a collection of short stories. ‘At the old castle’ haunted. A vigorous ‘Furiant’ put Andsnes’s fingers duly through their paces. Dances of all kinds, goblins and all, invited us in—not always without danger. Exuberance and introspection informed one another across more elevated canvases and earthier songs. Andsnes’s cantabile in the ‘Serenade’ was just the thing, as was his Lisztian grandiloquence in ‘At a hero’s grave’. Fascinating—and nourishing.