As the leading pianist of his native Norway, Leif Ove Andsnes has traded very effectively on his easy manner and camera-friendly looks, and the Queen Elizabeth hall was predictably packed.
He’s dreamed up some eye-catching stunts, playing a Steinway on a snowy mountain-top to publicise his film about Edvard Grieg, and sending a Steinway to the bottom of the sea for the climax to a film accompanying his presentation of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. His well-received Cds cover the waterfront of the Romantic repertoire, but somehow he’s not become identified with any particular composer. Might the unusual mix of this programme give a clue as to his natural musical habitat?
First up was Haydn’s Sonata in C major, a characteristically wayward piece by this (in pianistic terms) still underrated composer. The challenge with Haydn’s keyboard works lies in the fact that he left no indications as to phrasing or dynamics: all we have is the bare notes on the stave. But this also allows great freedom, as you can make of this music what you will. Andsnes put his cards firmly on the table at the start, with a resonantly noble sound: this work may count as ‘small’ in comparison with the sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, but his conception was on the grandest scale.
Haydn’s structure is freewheeling and episodic, and Andsnes paced its declamatory shouts and sudden shifts into enchantment with persuasive force, while somehow preserving the intimacy of the fortepiano on which it would originally have been played. Next came Bartok’s rarely-performed Suite Opus 14, designed, in the composer’s words, to turn piano technique ‘into a more transparent style, a style of bone and muscle’ – a prescription which Andsnes’s muscularity fulfilled to perfection.
But then we left this exalted plane. Debussy’s Images Set 1 had no trace of the requisite mystery or suggestiveness, and there was nothing fanciful about the cantering perpetuum mobile of Mouvement. Devoting the rest of his recital to Chopin, Andsnes then systematically laid bare his own limitations. I have never heard the late Waltzes played with such a hard, metallic touch, and though the first and third Ballades were efficiently despatched, one had the feeling that he was coolly watching the music, rather than passionately inhabiting it.