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.

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