Classical: Leif Ove Andsnes; Wigmore Hall, London

There are some pianists who could virtually fill a reviewer's notebook by playing just a single phrase - not through any particular faults or mis-readings, but with a healthy representation of what one might call "interpretative incident". Leif Ove Andsnes, however, is not one of them. Prize-winning virtuoso, chamber-music player and much-praised recording artist, Andsnes prompts more admiration than comment. He does everything right: his control of touch and rhythm is beyond criticism; his tone is full (although he never pounds the keys) while his musical taste and command of the instrument are beyond question. Beethoven's Op 22 opens with a cheeky little semi- quaver motive rich in soon-to-be-realised potential. Some pianists hold the pace steady, others highlight the humour with the subtlest punctuation. Andsnes's handling of the passage was formal, clear-cut and profoundly unamusing. True, he made maximum drama of the audacious development, but elsewhere his clean, meticulously voiced playing (rarely have I heard chords so evenly weighted) polished rather than penetrated the music's surface. The slow movement was just a mite prosaic, the finale elegant and energetic.

Next came Chopin's most outspoken Ballade, the Second in F major, with its tilting principal melody and violent dynamic alternations. Andsnes phrased the opening measures with considerable finesse, then raised a formidable storm for the two presto con fuoco episodes.

But when it came to the Barcarolle (a Fifth Ballade in all but name), he seemed rather less in tune with the work's more complex construction. The final climax, though, was extraordinarily exciting.

The high spot of the recital was, at least for this listener, Frank Martin's Fantasie sur des rythmes flamenco, a relatively late work that - like Chopin's Barcarolle - is musically far more substantial than its title suggests. Bartok, Gershwin and Piazzolla, all are implied (it's a sort of 1970s equivalent of Soler's epic Fandango), though much of the colouring is unusually dark. Andsnes's performance was strong and assured, especially in terms of rhythm.

The Spanish connection extended to the last item on Andsnes's official programme, Schumann's discursive First Sonata in F sharp minor, the first movement of which started life (here I'm indebted to Gerald Larner's excellent programme note) as a Fandango. A further parallel with its recital companions occurs in the brief aria, the principle theme of which bears a certain similarity to that of Beethoven's Op 22 slow movement.

It's one heck of a piece, bold, demanding and substantially over-long. Perhaps it will crop up on Andsnes's forthcoming Schumann disc for Virgin, although whether it quite repays the effort needed to conquer its difficulties is open to question.

Audience response was overwhelmingly positive, so much so that we were treated to three encores, all of them by Chopin: two Mazurkas and a Study.

Here Andsnes didn't quite connect with the Mazurkas' subtle rhythmic language (so few non-Poles do), although the Study - the final piece from Op 25 - was performed with appropriate abandon.

Add a touch more humour, warmth and imagination to the mix, and Leif Ove Andsnes will have us all talking.

ROBERT COWAN

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