Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is a frequent and welcome visitor to Prague, where his affinity for Czech music has special resonance. Influenced at an early age by a Czech teacher, Andsnes included a Smetana étude on his debut recording, made when he was just 17, and several years later released an album devoted entirely to Janáček’s solo piano works. Now he has taken on Dvořák’s daunting Poetic Tone Pictures with a new recording and tour that made him an ideal choice to open this year’s Rudolf Firkušný Piano Festival.

Leif Ove Andsnes
© Pražské jaro | Petra Hajská

An artist attuned to his times, Andsnes started with a triptych that he calls “frighteningly relevant”, melding Alexandr Vustin’s Lamento, Janáček’s unfinished Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 “From the Street” and Valentyn Silvestrov’s Bagatelle, Op.1 no.3 into a continuous, unbroken elegy. The framing has both political and personal significance. Russian composer Vustin was a friend who died in the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, leaving a brief, somber reflection on life’s impermanence that Andsnes played with quiet elegance. Silvestrov, a well-known Ukrainian composer with a history of resistance, wrote a series of delicate bagatelles that offer notes of hope and reconciliation. Andsnes’ thoughtful treatment of the subdued emotions in this one was spellbinding.

The muted quality of those bookends added to the electricity of Janáček’s two-movement Street sonata, which he wrote in reaction to a worker being killed during demonstrations in Brno, his hometown. Andnes captured the immediate disquiet and growing intensity of the piece with strong contrasts and powerful expression, wringing anguish and anger from almost every bar. Most striking was his phrasing – already a complex business in Janáček’s unique musical language, lent even more impact by Andsnes’ dramatic pauses and expansive dynamics. His style and mastery of the piece gave it both immediacy and universality, an intimate response that echoes on the streets of Ukraine and Iran today.

Leif Ove Andsnes
© Pražské jaro | Petra Hajská

Andsnes says that he also finds anger in Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (no.8 in C minor), although this performance seemed to be more about the passion in the music, especially the sharp, almost frantic outbursts and pulsing rhythms in the first movement. After a gentle second movement, the concluding Rondo seemed almost giddy in suddenly being set free, with dazzling runs flowing up and down the keyboard like water. A student of Beethoven’s work, Andsnes prefers to let it speak for itself, playing in a clean, well-articulated style that gives the music a full sound with just a bit of an edge – no additional interpretation needed.

The reason usually given for the dearth of performances of Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures is its length, which runs to nearly an hour. But after just a few minutes it’s clear that the cycle sets a high bar of virtuoso technical skills and eloquent lyricism, a combination few pianists can offer. Hearing Andsnes play them as a complete set was a revelation, with ringing rhymes both within and between movements, and a through thread of colorful melodies. There were individual highlights – a joyous, animated Peasant’s Ballad, raucous Bacchanalia and the simple melody of Serenade turned into a deeply felt love song. But it was the synergy of the whole that was most striking, which in Andsnes’ hands traced a compelling emotional arc brimming with kaleidoscopic imagery.

Leif Ove Andsnes
© Pražské jaro | Petra Hajská

And what more appropriate encore than the Ballad of Revolt, Norwegian composer Harald Sæverud’s protest against the Nazi occupation of his homeland? Played with both strength and tenderness, it offered a reminder that if art is timeless, so is the struggle against oppression.

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