Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Leif Ove Andsnes Review

Leif Ove Andsnes
Chicago Symphony Center
April 3, 2011

Sonata in C major, Op. 53, "Waldstein"

Four Ballades, Op. 10

"Six Little Pieces"

Sonata in C minor, Op. 111

I'd like to begin this review with a bit of self-effacement.

I am a 27 year old pianist, composer and piano instructor. I don't have a degree from a big name school. I haven't studied extensively with anyone whom you've probably ever heard of. In the broad scheme of things, I'm a reasonably good pianist, but I have my own limitations. So, when it comes to writing any kind of criticism about any kind of musician, I have to ask myself what I'm doing. What gives me, or any critic, the right to mount a platform and espouse an opinion about someone who could probably (heh) execute anything they choose to better? Who am I to say that my understanding of the artistic ideal is ever a valid supposition? I'm going to be straightforward: I am an active, detail-oriented listener. I have a very good memory and I am reasonably well educated in the field of western music. But I have to call everything into question when I write a review about a musician like Andsnes. I write this review with an informal tone because I have to. I wish I were good enough to be able to give myself a review I could be proud of. Who knows, at the end of the day, I might be better off keeping my mouth shut and using my time to try implementing some of the things I'm about to say in my own playing.

I first became acquainted with Andsnes when I heard one of his recordings on the radio. It was his recording of the Haydn B minor piano sonata. The speaker, whose occupation I'm forgetting, was asked what his favorite recording was, and he cited that one. It was perhaps one of the first times that I had ever heard something that I would classify as a "perfect" recording.

Never in my life had I heard that level of clarity at high speed (the "presto" third movement) in classical repertoire pulled off with such poise. I was astonished. Naturally, when I heard that he would be playing Brahms' second piano concerto with the CSO this year, I jumped at the chance to hear him.

That Brahms concert was in a word...tantalizing. I heard incredible and outstanding detail in the solo sections, and the combination of having full orchestra alternating with such a touchingly delicate solo performance whetted my appetite to hear his solo playing immensely. To close before moving on, the only thing that could be said against that Brahms concert was that there wasn't enough Andsnes!

Now, moving on to the solo concert this Sunday.

I'd like to preface my first comment with an adage one of my college composition teachers put to me. "Whether we like to admit it or not, music performance is a theatrical event. The visual matters."

Andsnes walked on stage wearing a black, single-breasted suit, a white shirt with a spread collar and a black necktie. I don't remember what he wore for the Brahms, but my first impression of Sunday's concert was that he looked as though he had dressed for exactly the middle of the road. His shoes were not ostentatiously shiny, the cut of his suit was well-suited for his body, but not remarkable. There was nothing out of place with his hair, he had all of it, and it was perfect. Neither understated, nor overstated, it made the statement that it chooses to make no statement. Andsnes' concert manner was polite, dignified, and unruffled. Neat, trim and calm, he had no outward appearance of "artist pathos" or any overindulgence, self-absorption or anything of any kind. There was no extraneous motion during his performance, and his countenance was perfectly appropriate to what was going on the music at the time.

Usually artists show up on stage wearing outfits which call attention to themselves. Sometimes they wear standards, or flat-colored, unobtrusive outfits which can hide from the eye, or which shift the focus away from them and onto the piano. I could go on about what I saw for quite a while, but my first overall impression was very strongly affected by his looks–by what I saw. And what I saw was a person who could easily have been any kind of professional of any field, working anywhere in the world at any time in the last 20 years.

That, in itself, was unusual.

Then he played.

Probably the first thing I noticed with the Waldstein was the beauty of his sound. The double octaves at the end of the sections, every chord capped with an octave, every octave, every scalar passage, repeated chord passages, broken chord passages, everything was perfectly balanced in terms of sound. The level of polish in his playing was as high as anyone could ask for. However, after the first movement was about two-thirds over, I stopped being astonished, and began to take his endlessly polished tone for granted. I turned off my "piano teacher as audiophile" ears and started listening to what one might call "the bigger picture".

Without getting out my score of the sonata and giving you measure numbers I can say that there were several moments (and this is the part where I don't need to remind you that music criticism is perhaps one of the five most subjective things anyone can do) where a section would end, and the next would happen–suddenly. In the first movement, between the very large sections (and anyone who has played that movement will tell you how imminently possible it is to lose focus of the music's trajectory through the tempo changes of the two themes, and the sheer length), there were several moments where I was left feeling like saying, "Well! That transition was abrupt."

Beethoven originally intended a long series of variations for use as the second movement but they were eschewed in favor of the improvisatory movement included. For me, the second movement is purely an emotional experience. Its main impression is conveyed through the intensity of its pathos and the changes in color. Beethoven probably thought it up one night while he was improvising, wrote it down and polished it. It is no great (compared to the outer movements) structural achievement in itself.

His perfect sound notwithstanding, the second movement was agonizing for me to follow. Not to listen to, to follow. I left it feeling like everywhere when the music could have been allowed extra time to breathe, he gave it either no breath or or too little. The free flowing feel of an improvisation was not there at all. As he played, he made me wonder if he's ever improvised before.

In improvisations, because the music is made up on the spot, there are necessarily passages where the improvisor allows himself time to think. Remember those spots I mentioned earlier where the music needed unaccounted-for time to breathe? The good improvisor specifically, intentionally creates those moments so that he can think of what he's going to do next. Mr. Andsnes clean missed that point. At the end of the second movement, I was terrified to think of what he was going to do in the second movement of the last sonata.

Now, the third movement of opus 53 is a colorful, bombastic rondo with all kinds of great contrast and other goodies in it. Individually, he pulled off the parts (the episodes and the recapitulations of the main theme) very well, but again, between the sections, I was left feeling like he was lacking freedom, or that things were happening too abruptly. The ending of the sonata (and if you have the score out in front of you, you'll understand how easily this can become a problem) was entirely unsuccessful for the same reason the second movement felt disjointed. It was like those pianissimo chords just snuck up on him, like he didn't see the last page coming.

The Brahms was very successful, but it made the first half of his program too long. Again, his phrasing and articulative prowess were in full force, and the result was sonically glorious, but in the 25 or so minutes that these pieces took to go through I looked past Andsnes' golden sound and listened to his manipulation of the larger parts of these works. I started to feel myself growing anxious whenever an emotionally charged transition would take place–Is he going to cut it (us) short? I found myself thinking thoughts like, "I know these are pretty young Brahms pieces, but gosh, that sure sounds like a lot of cadences." Or, "Is he going to set us up to expect a glorious execution of this next moment only to dash us with cold water again?" I felt like he was missing the broader ideas about what was driving the storytelling in these "ballades". When themes and subjects returned, they always came back abruptly, with an emotional (not dynamic) bang, so to speak. He left me wondering if he knew what these pieces were about.

The Schöenberg was perfect. Nothing more to say. The pieces are beautiful ideas fleshed out as far as is possible for "atonal" music, and for "six little pieces", I think they are perfect pieces. He was matchless. (I wonder how many of the people in the audience would agree with me.)

The final sonata on his program, the last Beethoven sonata, is indisputably one of the most profound utterances in occidental music. It begins with a searching and meandering introduction which leads to a movement that is straightforward Sturm und Drang. The second movement is an ascension of the spirit from earthly bounds into heaven.

There is nothing to say about how Andsnes' played the first movement, except that he added a low c at the end. (Beethoven could not possibly have written that C. It wasn't anywhere near being on any of the available pianos at the time. I don't object to adding notes outside of range when the music calls for it, but in my humble opinion that one stuck out because of its anachronism.)

The second movement? Ah, the second movement. I am certain that it wouldn't be fair to start making conjectures on why a pianist of Andsnes' stature would fail to make a convincing interpretation in these Beethoven sonatas so I won't. I just know that in the second movement, as in the second movement of the earlier sonata, (and to a lesser degree in the Brahms cycle) in the works as a whole, he didn't make them sound like whole, complete works. On the microscopic level, it felt like he didn't always understand how or why one moment led to another.

In these works, Andsnes' playing was a shining example of beautiful trees which somehow, confusingly, somehow failed to make a convincing forest.