Andsnes displays daunting if cool command in well-balanced program

February 21, 2012

Leif Ove Andsnes performed a recital Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Blessed with a sterling technical arsenal, Leif Ove Andsnes is one of those artists that can seemingly do anything with little visible effort. At times there is a cool interpretive reserve in the Norwegian pianist’s performances that seems to mitigate against a more direct emotional connection, but at his best, Andsnes can be one of the most dynamic and probing keyboard artists before the public.

Andsnes returned to Chicago’s Orchestra Hall Sunday afternoon for an uncommonly well balanced recital program, drawing an unusually full and enthusiastic house.

The pianist has shown a clear sympathy for music of Haydn, as was manifest in his opener, Haydn’s Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI:20. As the key indicates, the sonata probes more deeply than many of the composer’s works in the genre. Andsnes had the full measure of the opening Allegro’s segue from introspection to angular energy, assaying the shifting moods with fine fluency. He brought poised expression to the Andante, playing with a simple intimacy of expression that felt just right. The finale is more restless and chromatic than the usual bonhomie of Haydn’s closers, and was thrown off with fleet virtuosic flair.

By contrast, the opening Allegretto of Bartok’s Suite for Piano sounds like a more aggressive and agitated version of Haydn. Here too, Andsnes surmounted the daunting virtuosic demands with technique to burn, handling the quick hand-crossing of the spiky Scherzo, as surely as the whirling bravura of the Allegro Molto and the meditative introspection of the final section.

One can go a long time without hearing the kind of world-class Debussy playing Andsnes evinced in Book 1 of Images.  He proved fully in synch with this elliptical work, bringing out the searching expression of the opening movement (Reflets dans l’eau) with elegant phrasing and subtly graded dynamics. His supple take on the nostalgic Hommage a Rameau  was imbued with nostalgic musing and rendered with great delicacy.  In the concluding Mouvement, one can see the nexus between Debussy and Bartok in the rhythmic bite and Andsnes put across the music with impressive virtuosity without sacrificing a requisite elegance.

The second half was devoted entirely to Chopin, and here Andsnes’ style is more likely to divide opinion. The faultless technical command and incisive playing  at lightning tempos are remarkable but those looking for charm or poetry are likely to feel somewhat short-changed.

The opening set of four Chopin waltzes (Op. 70, nos. 1-3 and Op 42) set the tone with refined sheen and bright articulation yet the pianist’s clear-eyed, firmly outlined interpretive stance lacked the more limpid and yielding qualities.

Andsnes was more convincing in two of the Ballades, investing No. 3 with a mellow, wistful opening, building fluently to the more dramatic section. The Ballade No. 1 provided the finest performance of the afternoon, epic in profile with the fireworks of the climax delivered with striking power and boldly projected articulation.  An elegant yet coolly rendered Nocturne in B major was the centerpiece.

The vociferous and prolonged ovations brought Andsnes back out for two encores: a bravura take on Chopin’s Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 34, No. 1 and a delicately nuanced rendering of the Spanish Dance No. 5 (Andaluza) by Granados.

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