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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Concert Review: Beethoven's Heirs

Leif Ove Andsnes at Carnegie Hall
A fearless artist: Leif Ove Andsnes confronts the flood. Photo © EMI Classics.
The Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes took Carnegie Hall by storm this week, in a Thursday night recital that explored the relationship between Beethoven, Brahms and Schoenberg. The concert featured Mr. Andsnes signature style, a bold attack with the left hand and agile figurations with the right, combined with liberal use of the pedal to make the Steinway sing.

The concert opened with a charging "Waldstein" sonata, its opening ostinato taken at a rapid clip by Mr. Andsnes. He leant on the pedal for the legato runs up and down the keyboard, presenting a kaleidoscope of emotions for the listener to process. Suddenly, the movement would stop, and the second, soft singing theme would emerge, quietly at first and then with more confidence.

The hesitating introduction to the finale led into a rich, singing final movement with the famous, expansive theme proudly stated in the upper register. Mr. Andsnes balanced this famous movement expertly, racing along the keyboard as he drove the work into its final chords.

The four Ballades by Johannes Brahms followed. Mr. Andsnes showed how these early Brahms works, played together, form a sort of symphony for solo piano: four movements of a cohesive whole. He found the Romantic coloration in this music, whether in the first Ballade or the lyrical passages in the later movements of this "symphony."

Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces last only seven minutes, but mere mention of this innovative 20th century composer is enough to scare concert-goers. Mr. Andsnes played with lyricism and a jazzy flair, bringing out the inner beauty of these little gems.

The concert climaxed with Beethoven's 32nd, and final piano sonata. Op. 111 is a challenging work. Like the Brahms ballades, this two-movement sonata packs enough musical ideas for an entire symphony. In fact, the works bears some points of similarity to Beethoven's Fifth in that genre, as the composer revisits the tonal conflict between the keys of C minor and C Major.

Mr. Andsnes brought a fiery approach to the first movement, conjuring up the stormy figures and near-fugal textures common to late Beethoven. The second movement was far more lyrical. The slow Arietta was played with quiet, poetic restraint. The transition to the Bach-like central section was handled smoothly. Mr. Andsnes saved his finest playing for the last third of the final movement, a series of descending figures: the sound of Beethoven at play. The last bars died away softly--the sound of transcendence and a kind of cosmic bliss.

Three encores followed. A welcome exploration of György Kurtág's "Scraps of a Colinda Melody--Faintly Recollected" featured a gossamer-like series of short, lifted keystrokes to make the two ends of the instrument talk to each other in easy dialogue. A rugged, cheerful performance of Chopin's a-flat waltz was next. The trio of treats concluded with Schumann's second Romance, played with deep profundity and understanding. Beethoven would have been proud.

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