The excellent International Piano Series at the Southbank Centre continued with a fine recital of music by Haydn, Bartók, Debussy and Chopin by acclaimed and very popular (judging by the full house) Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.
In this age of flashy piano pyrotechnics and daring designer concert outfits, Andsnes comes across as refreshingly understated: a handsome middle-aged man with neatly-brushed hair in a sober grey suit, his stage presence immediately puts one at ease. We were in safe hands. Throughout the concert, one felt he put the music first, above ego and personality, allowing the composer to speak, and he played with a thoughtful, yet commanding, modesty.
The opening Haydn sonata began and ended with a sigh. Composed in serious C minor, the first movement is suffused with drama and darkness, faltering suspensions, improvisatory cadenza-like passages, and abrupt shifts of mood and pace. Andsnes brought a wonderful clarity to the first movement, every note clearly enunciated with tasteful pedalling. The second movement, with an eloquent treble melody tethered to a “walking” bassline, was spare and elegant, again subtly pedalled, while the last movement prefigured Beethoven with its spiky, nervous energy. Delivered with lightness and wit, it set the scene nicely for the Bartók Suite, Op. 14.
In a radio interview, Bartók stated his aim in this work was “the refining of piano technique, changing it into a more transparent style... more of bone and muscle, as opposed to the later Romantic style”. This refinement is evident in an almost obsessive play with motifs and intervals, which gives the music a folksy vitality. Andsnes brought to it an enjoyable percussive stridency, roughness and humour, while retaining a creeping sense of “something nasty in the woodshed”. The third movement has étude-like qualities in its continuous stream of movement, while a sense of forboding reminds us that this suite was written during wartime. The last movement (Sostenuto) was played with the same restrained elegance as the slow movement of the Haydn sonata.
If Bartók delighted in the percussive qualities of the piano, Debussy in his suite Images seemed more concerned with removing the hammers from the instrument altogether. Andsnes’ velvet touch and control came to the fore in these three pieces with rippling fluidity, an articulate gracefulness, and myriad colours and nuances.
The second half was all Chopin. Some people like their Chopin served with generous tempo rubato and overt Romanticism, and for that they should turn to other pianists. For me, Andsnes’ account of the Op. 70 and Op. 42 Waltzes was understated and sympathetic. There was a lilting insouciance and vitality, yet we never lost sight of the foot-tapping Waltz metre. Without any overt exaggeration or harshness of tone, he allowed inner harmonic voices to speak. This was also evident in the Nocturne Op. 62 no. 1, which was played with a refined lyricism. The two Ballades which surrounded it were rhapsodic, their narratives full of tender Nocturne-like episodes contrasting with storms and climaxes. The recurrent “ticking clock” motif of the A flat Ballade was beautifully managed, a physical and philosophical reminder of time passing, which is transformed into a portentous tolling bell.
The G minor Ballade was a thrilling climax, a plethora of nimble scales and soaring arpeggios interspersed with plangent recitatives.
Another Chopin twirling Waltz for the first encore, then one of Rachmaninov’s Étude-Tableaux, played with Chopinesque romanticism, and finally a restrained, yet sensuous, Spanish Dance by Granados.