Arts: Modest brilliance

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The Independent Culture
AT TWENTY-NINE, Leif Ove Andsnes has already distinguished himself as one of the strongest pianists of his or any generation. He's also one of the most generous and, in his performing manner, the most straightforward. He does his job more than well, and looks pleased when the audience respond.

He had the Steinway put as near the front of the Barbican Hall stage as possible in his "celebrity" recital last Thursday. It brought the sound just a little closer than is usual here, although the different registers still seemed dispersed in various directions, and there was nothing Andsnes could do about it. A pity, for it meant we could not properly appreciate balance as he judged it, or hear a really integrated sound picture. I know that they have all sorts of means of adjusting the acoustic in the Barbican, but have they ever thought of putting a screen behind the piano?

A celebrity Andsnes may be, but his programme conceded little to popular demand, made up as it was of music from the early 20th century, mixing composers from widely differing backgrounds.

Versatility is one of Andsnes's many qualities, but you wouldn't particularly associate him with highly "scented" playing, or think of him relishing the most refined shades of tone quality as, say, a Pletnev or Pogorelich would. His interpretation of Debussy's Estampes, consequently, was forthright rather than atmospheric, the dynamic range hitched up a few notches. He could barely suppress a smile as he split the final top E at the end of "Jardins sous la pluie", having hesitated needlessly before it. "Serve me right!" he might have thought.

He then played the whole first book of Janacek's On an Overgrown Path - 10 pieces that are perhaps too similar in their procedures to constitute a satisfying set, although that is the way in which they are usually heard. Andsnes perfectly captured the urgent, ejaculatory idiom of these pieces.

I wonder what induced him to play two short works from the 1920s by the self-styled "bad boy of music", George Antheil's Toccata No 2 and a sonatina called "Death of the Machines". Anyway, it was certainly novel to hear them in a recital. The toccata is built on a recurring habanera rhythm that is made to sound mechanical, while the sonatina is a petulantly cacophonous and percussive piece - highly symptomatic of its iconoclastic time, but not a good survivor.

After that, Prokofiev's furious one-movement Third Sonata sounded like real music, and Andsnes played it hot, and with immaculate control.

Finally, as a relief from all that steely stuff, he performed a group of pieces by Rachmaninov, though even here he chose none of the popular preludes, but two of the Moments Musicaux and three of the Etudes-tableaux, ending with the massive chords of Opus 39 no 9.

It was characteristically generous of Andsnes to grant an extra long encore, Liszt's First Mephisto Waltz - which was both brilliant and massively secure - and, after persistent applause, another, contrasting sort of waltz, Debussy's sultry "La plus que lente".

Adrian Jack