Why isn’t this a review? Because I don’t go to enough piano recitals to have developed a keen enough ear for the subtleties of great piano playing. I feel somewhat secure in opining on things like Mahler, since I’ve heard the symphonies many times in live performances, have countless recordings, and have sung in the symphonies with choral parts. But even though I listen to the piano repertoire often, I don’t have the same comfort level. So I can only jot down my impressions, without pretending to claim that I’m making any sort of critical appraisal, or that I’m even getting it right.
It’s tempting to fall back on national stereotypes and accuse Andsnes of a Nordic coolness and reserve. This was a comparatively serious program: Beethoven’s Waldstein and op. 111 piano sonatas, Brahms’ Four Ballades op. 10, and Schoenberg’s Six Pieces op. 19. None of the usual Romantic, virtuosic crowd-pleasers (at least, on the scheduled program). And Andsnes was not one to pound away full-throttle, or stretch every phrase with heaps of rubato. Romantic rhetoric was missing from this recital, which might have bothered those who view it as indispensable for Brahms and Beethoven. Instead, we had something I found just as valuable: the transparent quality of Andsnes’ playing, and his ability to draw strikingly beautiful sonorities from the piano.
Consider the opening of the Waldstein sonata, which starts with a strumming figure in the lower registers of the keyboard. Instead of rendering the notes crisply for a hammer-like effect, it seemed to me that Andsnes very slightly broke the chords, creating a murmuring sonority. His playing throughout had a limpid quality, making sure that each note sounded fully and clearly without resorting to pointillistic percussiveness. His playing became noticeably broader and more powerful for the Brahms Ballades, works that I do not know well; again, my impression was that clarity and sonority were more important than rubato or dramatic effect.
The Schoenberg was the highlight for me (but clearly not for some others in the audience, squirming and coughing away). The performance sparked more thoughts on these works, so I’ll blog about them later. Suffice it to say that the coughers didn’t throw Andsnes off his incredible concentration; every note of the spare texture was perfectly weighted and shaped, with amazingly subtle gradations of color and timbre. He played the last of the six pieces,which was allegedly inspired by Mahler’s funeral, with almost no attack from the keys–just a sequence of disembodied, floating tones. The last, subterranean note was preceded by a cough, and then, as if on cue, the N/R/Q subway started rumbling by.
Andsnes took one curtain call, then immediately launched into the gruff, abrupt opening of the Beethoven op. 111 sonata, underlining the commonalities between this work and the Schoenberg. The first movement, again, eschewed monumentality for momentum and clarity. The second movement had unusual rhythmic drive and tightness. It was as if Andsnes was swinging to the syncopations of the later variations; the piece sounded almost jazzy. Some might have found this to be too lucid, not expressive enough, but I found the close of the movement wonderfully poignant, with flawlessly executed trills and a beautiful pianissimo tone.
Andsnes gave us three encores: a piece from György Kurtág’s collection Játékok (“Colinda melody, faintly recollected”), Chopin’s Waltz in A flat op. 42, and Schumann’s Romance in F sharp, op. 28 no. 2. All beautifully done, especially the Kurtág. Andsnes didn’t announce the piece beforehand, so the audience had no preconceptions as the childlike, almost banal melodic material spun itself into a web of hazy, hovering tones much like the Schoenberg.
Andsnes gave an identical recital in Chicago three days before this one, right down to the encores. The reviewers there (Chicago Tribune; Chicago Classical Review) approved of the 20th century repertoire but thought Andsnes too reserved in the Brahms and Beethoven. Reserve might be one way of describing the concert, and I imagine that at the end of the day, I too would reach for pianists on the CD shelf with a more Romantic approach to the earlier repertoire. But for me Andsnes’ concentration on sonority and clarity yields its own expressive rewards, far removed from percussive bombast or overheated rhetoric.