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The Art of the Esoteric

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/31/2023 -  
Alexander Kuzmich Vustin: Lamento
Leos Janácek: Piano Sonata I.X. 1905 “From the Street”
Valentin Silvestrov: Bagatelle III, Opus 1, No.3
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.8 “Pathétique”, Opus 13
Antonín Dvorák: Poetic Tone Pictures, Opus 85

Leif Ove Andsnes (Pianist)

L. O. Andsnes (© Gregor Hohenberg)

People are dying! What are you Kremlin devils doing?
Valentin Silvestrov

The worse the time, the quicker the avalanche of ideas for composition.
Leos Janácek

While unorthodox programming is hardly rare, the great Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes linked the unorthodox with several links, both historical and artistic. Two Czech works influenced by his Czech teacher. An opening from an almost unknown Russian, who died of Covid. The first three works embracing revolution, martyrdom, and anger. And a Ukrainian composer whose simplicity belies a look at an alien world.

And finally a 53‑minute series of piano tone poems which–in the words of Antonín Dvorák–are obviously unorthodox. “Few pianists will have the courage to play them all one after another,” wrote the composer. “But only this can the listener form the right picture I had in mind.”

Mr. Andsnes has more than aforesaid courage. He is the artist without affectation. His choices may have been challenges to his full‑house Carnegie Hall audience. Yet his calm, his confidence, his measured fluidity immediately offered an emotional joy (if not hardly comfort) to Carnegie Hall’s full house.

Mr. Andsnes’ Janácek and Vutin literally “spoke” in music. His Pathétique became a–certainly controversial– segue to the dark Bagatelle of Valentin Silvestrov. Yet in his hands, both the music and the “narrative” made perfect sense.

That musical story started with a bird. Rather, a bird which the late Alexander Vutin heard during an outdoor funeral. Thus, his Lament was equally a passacaglia-like left hand for the obsequies and a dazzling right hand, the bird as symbol of life within death itself. This and the composer were new to this writer, yet it was a beguiling opening.

Leos Janácek’s only Piano Sonata was tribute to a laborer murdered as he protested for higher learning. Janácek was a cultural Russia-lover. Yet one has no doubt that he would have written this work for the victims of Ukraine had he lived today.

So meaningful was the event that Janácek almost threw the music away, feeling it not worthy. Yet the feelings are unfettered. And it needed an unfettered artist to bring them out. Mr. Andsnes didn’t deny Janácek’s musical “words.” He was never afraid to pound out the feelings with an Anguish with a capital A. The music was roiling, boiling, with rubatos where you least expect them. Any attempt to prettify that “Death” movement would have denied Janácek’s genius. Mr. Andsnes, calm at he seemed at the Steinway, was ready to make these sudden jolts, the explosive pain of the composer.

V. Silvestrov/L. Janácek

Valentin Silvestrov’s Bagatelle was typical of a composer who extols silence as much as he loves jazz and popular music. The trick here–since no applause was heard until the very end of the first half–was merging the Silvestrov with the opening of the Pathétique.

Mr. Andsnes accomplished this by a link of Silvestrov’s ppp with an even quieter pppp opening of the Beethoven. Almost a whisper. With the Grave introduction hushed to where one had to strain to hear the notes.

Not everybody wanted this kind of Beethoven. And the Molto Allegro, turned into a Presto, could have been badly jolting. Except–and a big except–Mr. Andsnes gave it perfect fingering technique. Granted such speed, in this and the final rondo, lacked architecture, lacked pauses, the velocity was so great that it precluded shape.

Never mind. This was beautiful playing, and a good way to prepare one for the final works, Antonín Dvorák’s Poetic Tone Pictures. Titles notwithstanding, derivatives from Schumann and Chopin and Brahms not important, these thirteen works, ranging in length from three to seven minutes each giving a massive picture of Dvorák’s varicolored genius. Yes, we had Dvorák’s Czech dances, a “Furiant” and a “Bacchanalia”, we had the picture of “An Old Castle” (shades of Mussorgsky!), a “Serenade” far more complex than its name, and a gorgeous noble finale “On The Holy Mountain.”

Under Mr. Andsnes’ fingers, the dances and molds and dreamy moods were each masterpieces. And if one might have preferred more symphonic repetitions and variations, these were far more than mere Schumannesque bagatelles.

The two encores, like the program itself, were unknown and familiar. A bumptious Ballad of Revolt by Harald Sæverud and a Chopin Mazurka. They were both played with typical Andsnes fluidity and unalloyed art.

Harry Rolnick



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