The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes shines in late Rachmaninoff concertos — and again proves he is a pianist for all seasons

February 4, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

You might expect a Norwegian pianist to produce a cooler Nordic vision of Romantic music. After all, “bonbons filled with snow” is how Debussy once described the frosty sensuality of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s music.

And maybe just the right amount of Nordic irony and emotional remove accounts for the outstanding success in Leif Ove Andsnes’ recent EMI recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos No. 3 and 4.

It is simply the best recording I have heard of these pieces – one (the legendary third) so well known and the other (the fourth) so unjustly ignored — in many decades. It is nothing shorty of thrilling.

Now, I have to admit my own bias up front. For my taste, the most exciting and overall best recording ever made of the “Rach 3” is still the live performance by Van Cliburn and conductor Kiril Kondrashin in Carnegie Hall shortly after Cliburn’s 1958 Cold War victory at the first international Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

The worst to my ears is the recording by Australian pianist David Helfgott whose troubled life and career inspired the film “Shine.” A legendary recording by Vladimir Horowitz has its electrifying moments, but overall loses a sense of proportion and displays an uneven technique plus a sometimes appalling sense of ensemble playing.

Some other very good and sympathetic complete sets have been recorded. Vladimir Ashkenazy has done a couple, and the British pianist Stephen Hough has received critical acclaim and terrific sales for set of live recordings he did a couple years ago.

The virtues of Andsnes’ set, a follow up to his release of the equally admirable first and second concertos (below) with the same conductor and orchestra, are many.

The recorded balance is terrific. The sound of the individual parts is clear and close-up, but the piano is never drowned out. One of great excitements is hearing how masterfully Rachmaninoff used counterpoint and classical techniques in his emotionally effusive writing.

Andsnes, for his part, has impeccable technique. lt is not showy, but he plays all the notes without apparent strain – no small feat in music that the composer himself once said was written for elephants so big are the chords and so noted-filled in the score – and, best of all, he knows when to become prominent and when to blend.

His rubato never seems excessive or exaggerated, and his playing exudes a directness. His tempi changes always make sense within the context, and Andsnes never seems to force the music into being other than what it is. It all seems so natural and so good, you end up wondering why we don’t hear a neglected work like the Concerto No. 4 performed more often?

How does Andsnes (below) do it? I think largely by getting out of the way and letting the lush, dramatic and soulful music speak for itself – much the way Rachmaninoff himself played. For this is better music than many critics gave it credit for, although pianists and the public seem to know better. Rachmaninoff was a master, a crafter who was also inspired and knew how to reach people.

Andsnes—who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously judging from publicity photos (look at him below, nude in a fjord and at the keyboard on a mountain top – steps aside for the composer (see Rachmaninoff, below).

Finally, I just don’t think you can find better accompaniment than the one provided by conductor Antonio Pappano and the London Symphony Orchestra. It is hard to hear a weak section or flubbed passage. I certainly didn’t. Both soloist and conductor seem to have carefully thought out and then executed their parts.

The set almost wraps up a complete Rachmaninoff cycle for Andsnes. He has recorded the third concerto before along with some preludes. Now I want to hear him in the “Paganini” Rhapsody, coupled perhaps to the underperformed and under-recorded “Corelli” Variations for solo piano. And Andsnes shows such an affinity for Rachmaninoff, I would love EMI to record him in a complete set of the Preludes and Etudes-Tableaux.

Andsnes (below) knows how to find the greater music, the superior beauty, in Rachmaninoff’s scores, which is a more difficult trick than it sounds since even badly played Rachmaninoff usually gets a standing ovation.

But when such lushly sentimental and emotional music also exudes clarity, transparency and other classical values, it is a rare and remarkable event.

Let me finally remark on what a remarkable and gifted musician Ansdnes is.

He is at thoroughly at home in Haydn sonatas and concertos; Mozart concertos and Schubert sonatas; Nordic miniatures by Grieg, Nielsen and other composers; Chopin’s sonatas, etudes and mazurkas; Brahms concertos and intermezzi; major and minor solo works by Liszt, Schumann and Mussorgsky; Bartok concertos; and contemporary solo works.

He is also a wonderful chamber musician, as you can hear in the piano quintets by Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak and in Bartok violin sonatas. And he is a terrific accompanist as you can hear in his Schubert song cycles done with British tenor Ian Bostridge (below). I would like to hear him in Bach and Beethoven, but maybe recordings of those composers are still to come.

Well rounded, hard-working and refreshingly free of neurosis, Andsnes seems to me a pianist for all seasons, perhaps the closest figure we have today to an Arthur Rubinstein or even a Sviatoslav Richter.

What do you think of Andsnes?

Do you have a favorite recording?

What is he like in live performance?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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