The Norsemen are back! Instead of running for cover in your local round tower, going to hear them in the NCH is the advised solution. This concert kick-started the Nordic series in the NCH, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and the Helsinki Philharmonic all making an appearance later this autumn. Given Leif Ove Andsnes’ luminous account of the Beethoven piano concerti last time, expectations were high. And nor were they disappointed by this ever-thoughtful, intelligent Norwegian pianist.

Leif Ove Andsnes © Özgür Albayrak
Leif Ove Andsnes
© Özgür Albayrak

After his epic four year “Beethoven journey”, Andsnes opted for miniatures in last night’s concert. With a nod to the sesquicentenary of Sibelius this year, Andsnes started with a medley of eight of his recherché pieces, concluding the first half on more familiar ground with Beethoven’s “The Hunt” Sonata. The second half was equally divided between Debussy and Chopin. Both Debussy and Sibelius acted as palette cleansers to the more staple fare on offer. What was refreshing and quite rare nowadays, that apart from Beethoven, Andsnes cherry-picked certain pieces from a group, not unlike piano recitals in the Romantic period.

While Sibelius’ orchestral and violin works are still frequently heard, the same cannot be said of his 150 solo piano works. Each piece heard last night, had its own story to tell, encapsulated in the titles; The Birch, Spring Vision, Song in the Forest. Andsnes is a masterful story-teller: setting his own unhurried pace, he draws you into his interpretation so that each phrase seems to have been perfectly positioned in relation to the overarching structure he spins. This was as evident in the vernal freshness of the third piece of Kyllikki with its quirky rhythms as it was in the pruned musicianship and bleak phrases of the Andantino also from this group. The gradation of dynamics in The Spruce was expertly judged with the fortissimo of the low notes dying away and melding with the pianissimo of the top notes. His tone, too, is just as impressive: from the fulsome sound of the opening allegro of Kyllikki to the effortless projection of the left hand over the murmuring arpeggios.

Beethoven’s Sonata Op.31 no. 3 is a jolly romp, sometimes swaggering along, other times, chivvying the semiquavers and octaves. While Andsnes’ interpretation was not the most rambunctious account I’ve heard, he captured the good humour cheer well enough. If the offbeat sforzando accents of the first movement were dutifully observed the upward scale passages at the opening sparkled with almost Mozartean glee. In the busy scherzo, the fortissimo chordal interjections were explosively done amid the relentless semiquavers. Andsnes showed his thoughtfulness in the graceful poetic phrasing of the third movement creating a tender lyricism and a respite between the vivaciousness of the other movements. While resisting the temptation to exaggerate the drama of the finale, Andsnes nonetheless captured the essence of the hunt: horses pranced, hounds yelped, the clarion sounded clearly. And as the piece bounded towards its finish, Andsnes carefully held back the excitement for maximum effect.

What impressed me most in the Debussy of the second half was the consistently sensitive tonal gradations of which this great Norwegian pianist is capable: whether it was the exquisite differentiation between piano, pianissimo and ppp in La Soirée dans Grenade or the glistening arpeggios in Pour les Arpèges composés. Debussy’s études present the pianist with formidable challenges both technical and musical or in the words of the composer himself “they all conceal a rigorous technique beneath flowers of harmony”. The three hand trick of no. 7 Pour les degrés chromatiques never fails to astound. Here Andsnes managed to project and shape an inner melody among the constant activity all over the keyboard for both hands. The ludic element was never far from the surface either in numbers 11 and 5 and the octaves in the latter were as child’s play in the hands of this virtuoso.

As with the vinous delights of the wedding feast of Cana, the best offering was kept to the end. This was superlative Chopin playing: charming, meditative, always poetic and at times broodingly passionate. The opening of Nocturne no. 4 in F major was touching in its utter simplicity, a world apart from the angry yearning of the middle section while the filigree of the Impromptu no. 1 in A flat glistened and sparkled under his mercurial touch. It was in the complex and mysterious fourth Ballade in F minor that Andsnes showed a nobility of vision. This was a mature, reflective account, happy to explore the myriad of ideas and yet with the overarching goal ever in mind. The suspense of the long ppp chords towards the end was wonderful before bursting into the fiery coda. A shimmering rendition of Chopin’s étude Op.25 no. 2 as an encore brought this magnificent concert to a close.