You don’t mean to eavesdrop, but you hear things, regardless. A month or two ago, I was at a concert, and I overheard two music-industry pros talking in the aisle. One was saying to the other, “Leif Ove is all about Ukraine now. He won’t do anything else.”
“Leif Ove” is, of course, Leif Ove Andsnes, the eminent Norwegian pianist (b. 1970). He played a recital in Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night. If his program was “political,” you know this only, or mainly, from the words he wrote, to be included in our program booklets.
In these notes, he spoke of Ukraine, Russia, and Iran. (From the stage, he said nothing—which makes him un-modern, which makes him laudable.)
Andsnes began with a piece by a Russian composer, Alexander Vustin, written in 1974: Lamento. Andsnes got to know the composer and was touched by him. Vustin, born in 1943, died in 2020.
Next came Janáček’s piano sonata, nicknamed, or subtitled, “From the Street.” This was followed by the Bagatelle, Op. 1, No. 3, by Valentin Silvestrov. Silvestrov is a Ukrainian composer, born in 1937. Hélène Grimaud, the French pianist, has been playing him too. She played two of his bagatelles in a Carnegie Hall recital on December 1.
Before intermission, Beethoven: his “Pathétique” Sonata. Andsnes has been playing this in recent seasons.
After intermission, there was a single work, but one with thirteen pieces. This was, or these were, the Poetic Tone Pictures, Op. 85, of Dvořák. Andsnes has been championing these pieces, thinking them a neglected masterwork. I wrote about the Poetic Tone Pictures when reviewing Andsnes in April 2021.
“They are something like Czech Lyric Pieces,” I said. (The Lyric Pieces are by Andsnes’s great countryman, Edvard Grieg.) “I also think that we have some Lyric Pieces of our own, we Americans: Edward MacDowell’s Ten Woodland Sketches, of which ‘To a Wild Rose’ is the most famous.”
I like a man with a cause—a good cause. Andsnes is a man with a cause, when it comes to Dvořák’s Op. 85. I’m not sure anyone has given these pieces such loving care since Rudolf Firkušný, the great Czech.
For twenty years, at least, I have written about Leif Ove Andsnes. His playing never changes—and you could hardly want it to. I will be brief, in what I say today, about Tuesday night. About all of his nights, really.
“There’s not a hair out of place.” I have always said this about Andsnes. It is true literally—true of his person—and true pianistically. Andsnes is tidy. He is smart. The pieces he plays have their internal logic. He is masculine (though never brutish). He is practically “objective.” His interpretations—or non-interpretations—often have an air of inarguability. “This is the way it goes. Anything else is wrong.”
Can he be a little cold? Maybe. Yet this coldness is not always unhelpful. In the Janáček sonata, it was downright welcome. Furthermore, Andsnes can be as warm as he wants to be. He played the Silvestrov bagatelle with beautiful, warm simplicity.
The slow movement of the “Pathétique” Sonata is one of the most beloved songs Beethoven ever wrote. (I should put “songs” in quotation marks.) The tempo indication is “Andante cantabile.” “Cantabile,” as you know, means “singing.” Yet sometimes this song is not sung by a pianist. It is thumped. And when the song is thumped—unbearable.
Did Leif Ove Andsnes thump or sing? He sang, warmly, and richly.
I was dying for some Grieg—one of the Lyric Pieces, for an encore, and especially the “Norwegian March,” with its dance (the gangar). Nobody plays this piece like Andsnes.
For his first encore, he indeed played a Norwegian piece, but it was by Harald Sæverud (1897–1992): the Ballad of Revolt, an anthem of anti-Nazi protest. Andsnes played it with marvelous strength, incisiveness, and conviction. There was one more encore: a Chopin mazurka, the one in C-sharp minor, Op. 30, No. 4. Such beautiful, sculpted, wise, unmannered playing. Really good. Like Andsnes.