Think of Sibelius and many of us might say: quintessentially Northern, weighty, rumbling orchestral works, perhaps those LPs our teachers dutifully played to fire us up about music at school. But piano pieces by Sibelius? No. So, it was indeed surprising, thanks to Leif Ove Andsnes’ concert at the KKL in Lucerne to find that of 117 opus numbers by the great Finnish composer, no fewer than 19 are works for piano. What’s more, the gifted Andsnes, recognizing those works’ remarkable merit, says that he has made it his mission to bring them out of obscurity.

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

As the fourth recital in Lucerne’s annual Piano Festival, Andsnes’ highly demanding and varied programme began with five selected Sibelius pieces, all composed between 1901 and 1920 as testimony to the Finnish composer’s appreciation of the sublime natural world around him. While The Birch was close to Impressionist in style, Impromptu, by contrast, showed the artist was able to pull out the mellow, even opulent sounds of a richly woven score. Rondino was filled with unexpected contrasts and changes of colour, and the final Romance was mastered at close to warp speed. But of all five, I found The Shepherd the most compelling; as creamy and light as something Baroque, the pianist ended it on a gesture of curling his hand as if around a veritable staff.  

Jörg Widmann’s suite of six short movements Idyll und Abgrund (Idyll and Abyss), a tribute to the aesthetic of Schubert’s late works. Obliquely familiar Schubertian phrases sprouted up, but were destined to be disrupted and distorted. There were moments when a sustained phrase might sound as if it were being pulled out from under a glacier, released to flourish momentarily, but then be drawn down again into quagmire. As opposites abounded, the third movement evoked a dream landscape; the pianist actually whistled at a high pitch as part of the score in the fourth. Overall, though, and as the astute Thomas May cited in the programme notes, Widmann’s contrast of turbulence and heavy pathos with lyrical ornamentation was likely meant to reflect the widely disparate poles of true genius.   

For me, Schubert’s stunning Drei Klavierstücke D946 of 1828 included the evening’s most lyrical passages, and I was also impressed by the noticeable attention Andsnes paid to the active dialogue in the work. He sometimes used the scripted pauses to look straight ahead as if to ask the composer, “What, that?” Further, and particularly in the third movement, his momentum was rousing, such that the piece just shone with ebullience.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 17 in D minor “The Tempest” was no less stellar. Already in the first movement, Andsnes showed himself a master of timing and suspense. The start of his second movement was unusually slow, but the return to the main, melodic theme was a like a breath of alpine air. In short, the fluidity of his rendition, rich fabric of tonalities, and sovereign command of the motif was superb, and anyone who loves the changing colours and furious temper of a storm would attest to that. One critic wrote eloquently that Andsnes plays Beethoven with “Chopin-like clarity, and Liszt-like pianistic grace”. In light of this performance, I couldn’t agree more.

The concert ended with a small feast of two Frédéric Chopin works, both from the 1840s. The Nocturne in B major, Op.62, no. 1 moved from the delicate to emphatic in a heartbeat: sheer magic. Then, given its audio loops, ribbons, tempi changes and rotund, robust melodies, the dance music of the Ballade no. 4 in F minor, Op.52 was just as inspired. In the finale, a whole universe of notes was played furiously, and Andsnes had to master a huge physical challenge: one could hear him pacing his breathing even from the 15th row. Yet as challenging as that effort was, so tremendous was our enjoyment!