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Pianissimo

Photo by Simon Fowler

Andsnes in Depth


The Philharmonic has had the admirable idea, for the last couple of years, of inviting some of the more interesting guest artists to tarry in town for more than the usual one-week stint, to display a broader range of their interests than just a single concerto. Last year’s “on location” visitor was Emanuel Ax; this year, Leif Ove Andsnes took part in four different programs (nine concerts in all) and departed a respected, valued and well-known friend. He returns in May in yet another kind of program, as participant in a Lieder recital with Ian Bostridge.



At 35, handsome and plain-mannered on the stage, Andsnes seems phenomenally right for his time and for ours. He has followed the proper paths, won the right competitions, paid his dues with the apposite number of Grieg Concerto performances to honor his Norwegian ancestry, recorded the requisite Rach 3. In his first concert here, he played Mozart — the G-minor Piano Quartet and the Piano-Wind Quintet — with Philharmonic members at one of the Chamber Music Society programs, and it was all very correct and well-balanced, if somewhat dry. In his final concert, he again played Mozart, the E-flat Piano Concerto (K. 449), the first of the series composed for Vienna; this time he, Esa-Pekka Salonen and a small Philharmonic contingent joined in exploring the sheer delights of a work too often undervalued: whimsy, surprise and, in the slow movement, melody to charm the senses — nearly half an hour of wise, airborne music making.


Turning to music of our own time, Andsnes accomplished some eloquent pleading on behalf of two major, unalike masters: Hungary’s quixotic, secretive György Kurtág, whose thoughts unwind in lapidary nuggets of often little more than a breath’s duration, and the supremely rational Marc-André Dalbavie of France, who works in grand designs subtle but clear. At a Green Umbrella event, there was music of both — a night of spine-tingling discoveries. At the start came a clutch of Kurtág’s “Game” pieces for solo piano, some of less than a minute’s duration, small, flashing, uncut gemstones to dazzle eye and ear at once. At the end, there was the Tactus of Dalbavie, music for nine instruments with the piano of Andsnes serving as a rhetorical pivot. This I found even more extraordinary, a work that seemed to balance major dramatic material with a remarkable clarity of organization that made the geography of the music clear and involving at every point. Not much strong new music these days treats its listeners with that degree of respect. Dalbavie — whom I know also from a disc on the Naïve label with a big Violin Concerto and a piece rightly titled Color — is someone eminently worth our attention. Andsnes performs his Piano Concerto in Chicago sometime next year.


Anyhow, the Umbrella concert had other small pleasures along the way, including a madcap piece by Kurtág with toy trumpets and harmonicas deployed through the hall. Andsnes did, of course, get to play the Grieg Concerto during his time here — at the end of the “Northern” program I wrote about last week — and he played it with all the notes in place. That concert began with Salonen conducting Sibelius’ Finlandia. To every man his albatross.



88 x 2


Piotr Anderszewski began his Disney Hall recital (the night following Andsnes’ departure) with Mozart (the C-minor pairing of Fantasy and Sonata) and ended with Bach (the D-minor English Suite): serious stuff, in other words, with performances to match. I have missed previous appearances (and recordings) by this Polish-born pianist of Hungarian-Polish parentage, which was a mistake; this was a terrific recital. It was so, most of all, in the Bach. No two pairs of ears will ever agree on piano Bach, and the sins committed in the matter are egregious and legion (see below). Anderszewski’s performance was notable for its detail and its perspective. It was not a piano trying to be any kind of older instrument, and it was not a piano taking off on old musical patterns to indulge in a virtuoso spree (see below). It was a re-creation of superb musical designs whose light and shade had possessed a certain integrity on its original instrument, but which can be reconstituted — with a new outlay of integrity — on another.


In this great work, perhaps the most complex of all the English Suites, the splendid young (36) pianist had found the way to preserve the power of that complexity. I’ve been trying to remember hearing another performance of that suite on a modern piano in which I was left so free to concentrate on Bach and less on its performer — Glenn Gould or Edwin Fischer or that self-indulgent Tureck woman or whoever; I don’t think I can. The Mozart pairing also drew a big, thunderous performance — which this music can stand. The set of Szymanowski’s Métopes — three gorgeous pieces full of the aura of Greek ruins and reminiscences of Odysseus’ sea journey — moved me to acquire that music, by that pianist, on the Virgin label.


The pianist Sergey Schepkin was a curious entry in this season’s Monday Evening Concerts lineup, which is otherwise devoted to heroes from past seasons. Who knew him, and from where? A program note identifying him as a laureate of a Maestro Foundation Fellowship should have been a red flag, since Maestro is a dilettante operation devoted to good food and innocuous music in a Santa Monica private home. Schepkin was booked to LACMA on the strength of his promise to perform a work of the Monday Evening Concerts’ late guiding spirit, Dorrance Stalvey, but he then found the style of the music too difficult and backed down. We were left, instead, with a short work by Sofia Gubaidulina not at all representative of her style, and a performance of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations that might raise words like disgraceful to new expressive heights: slippery glissandos, drooling rubatos — the kind of virtuoso spree (see above) that might appeal to Maestro’s dilettantes, but to nobody that you or I might care to know. That he decided, properly, to honor all of Bach’s specified repeats only intensified the annoyance.