The Craftsman and the Artist
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata in C Minor, BWV 914
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major, Opus 27, No. 1
Jean Sibelius: Four works: Commodo, Elegiaco, The Birch, Barcarole
Edward Grieg: Ballade in the form of Variations on a Norwegian Folk Song in G-Minor, Opus 24
Claude Debussy: Selections from Préludes, Books I and II
Leif Ove Andsnes (Piano)
Brilliant as this pianist is, one felt a certain discomfort in the first half of his recital last night, as if his music wasn’t worthy of such musicianship. Nothing was wrong with an opening Bach toccata, nor even a short early Beethoven sonata. Ending, though, with four piano works by symphonist Jean Sibelius was a bit of a push. And while it is de rigueur for a Norwegian pianist to play Grieg, the Theme and variations was a bit pedestrian.
But nobody in the audience at Carnegie Hall actually realized this until the second half. For Mr. Andsnes’ own choice of 11 preludes from Debussy was so magnificent, such pure poetry, that they put the other works in the shade.
Yet nothing was wrong with the Bach. Mr. Andsnes offered no apologies to the 18th Century with his generous pedal-work (Bach didn’t have that luxury), nor with his graceful phrasing. Taking the title literally (“toccata” means “touch”), his touch was firm but with dynamic never known to Bach himself.
The Beethoven sonata showed the composer in his most amiable mood. The music is like a series of practical jokes, with abrupt changes of mood (“Gotcha!”), amiable musical practical jokes, a dance or two, and a finale song almost of Thanksgiving. True to form, Andsnes was understated, letting the music speak for itself.
Following were too rare works. Sibelius’s piano works are almost never played, since, unlike the haunting songs and massive symphonies, they seem made for the salon. Yet, Mr. Andsnes played with virtuosic joy, but they resembled Edward McDowell rather than Sibelius. The last, Barcarole, had nothing in common with the Venetian dance. Instead, its somber minor music was like a lake above Finland’s Arctic Circle during the long winter. A quite memorable work.
The Grieg “Ballad” was actually a series of 14 variations on a folk tune. They were crafted well, had a Brahmsian confidence, and several had interesting resonant sounds, but their simplicity of form was hardly the best of Grieg.
After the intermission Andsnes the craftsman became Andsnes the poet. First in his choice of preludes. He shunned the more frivolous (“Minstrels”, “Homage to S. Pickwick”, “General Lavine-Eccentric”). But he did include the meteorological (“What the West Wind Saw”, “The Wind on the Plain”, “Steps in the Snow” “Mists”). He included a fair share of Spain and Italy (“The Hills of Anacapri” “The Gate to the Vineyard”), and the exotic.
But Mr. Andsnes now did something almost unthinkable. He transformed these 11 works into one beautiful painting. Perhaps cubistic, perhaps a collage, but a single 30-minute work of the most variegated moods. They ranged from the solitary “snow-steps” to the whirling “What the West Wind Saw” to the shadows of gypsy and Spanish dancers, and, in Canopes, the sadness of Egypt.
What had begun with an uneasy appreciation ended with the sublime. Except that that was not the ending. Yes, the third encore was an amorphous Sibelius. But the first two were Scarlatti sonatas cut as sharp as diamonds, glimmering with iridescent light.