Lucid Culture


Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the New York Philharmonic Think Outside the Box

It’s almost twenty years to the day that virtuoso Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. In another stroke of fate, he was playing a Rachmaninoff concerto, with a Scandinavian conductor on the podium, just as he will during his first stand as artist-in-residence with the orchestra, which starts tonight at 7:30 PM, featuring Rachmaninoff’s relatively rarely programmed Piano Concerto No. 4 and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony.

In conversation with the Philharmonic’s Isaac Thompson at Lincoln Center last night, Andsnes revealed that he’s played New York more than any other city in the world – in that sense, he’s one of us, and he feels it. Yet another happy coincidence, Thompson revealed, was that this will be the first time in quite awhile where both the Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence and composer-in-residence will be represented on the same bill, in this case by a New York premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Paavo Järvi conducts; Andsnes and the Philharmonic are back on Oct 13 at 11 AM, Oct 14 at 8 and on the 17th at 7:30. The most affordable tickets are in the thirty-dollar range and still available as of today

As a programmer, Andsnes isn’t satisfied with merely performing standard repertoire. He’s fresh off a world tour playing Beethoven concertos, but also served for seventeen years as artistic director of a Norwegian festival, a role that greatly influenced him, not only through the expected exposure to all sorts of different music, but also the need to think outside the box and celebrate lesser-known works from across the centuries. In some lively banter with the audience, Andsnes spoke of his fondness for the seldom-performed solo piano works of Dvorak as well as Shostakovich’s haunting, World War II-era Piano Sonata No. 2, a recent discovery for him. His latest album celebrates the solo piano music of Sibelius.

Andsnes animatedly reaffimirmed his advocacy for the Rach 4, a vastly different beast by comparison to the composer’s previous concertos. Famously, Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist was the only guy in the world at the time who could play faster: Art Tatum. “Rhythmically, it’s very jazzy sometimes,” Andsnes explained, “The second movement begins like an improvisation by Bill Evans,” a confluence of jazz-informed harmonies and nostalgia.

“The harmonies are so juicy in late Rachmaninoff, with the Third Symphony, with the Symphonic Dance – truly heartbreaking. Rachmaninoff would always dismiss composers like Prokofiev, but in the final movement there’s a lot of Prokofiev along with the long, sweeping melodies Rachmaninoff was so famous for” 

The Rach 4 is also very hard to play from memory, Andsnes admitted. “Maybe this is the jazz influence: very few downbeats, very few obvious rhythms between the orchestra and the pianist. It’s very easy to get lost and for them to understand what I’m playing. I have a few scary memories with this piece,” he grinned, referring to his first live performances of it.

With his new album, Andsnes leaps to the front of an admittedly small circle of advocates for Sibelius’ solo piano music, which he admits is “much more uneven” than the composer’s orchestral output but is still full of rare gems. His wishlist for future recording includes Chopin preludes as well as Mozart and Debussy: he likes to focus on one particular composer at a time, to get a full sense of the diversity of their work.

As the interview went on, Andsnes offered plenty of insight into his own development as a performer, not to mention a sharp sense of humor. Which composer does Andsne find the most challenging? Bach. Surprisingly, Andsnes didn’t get much exposure to Bach as a young piano student: to Andsnes, Bach is like a language, best learned sooner than later in life. Does Andsnes ever get the urge to compose? No. “Not even once,” he smiled, “There’s already so much bad music out there, and there’s so much exciting music waiting for me to discover.”

What were his most dramatic moments at the keyboard? As a sixteen-year-old, headlining with the Grieg Piano Concerto on the final night of the annual festival in his native Bergen = he’d never heard the piece before, beyond its first few famous bars. He also mentioned a colorful, satirical Britten concerto whose big keyboard-length glissandos left the pianist bleeding all over the ivories.

And the night’s funniest moment was when Thompson asked Andsnes to talk about his frequent side gigs as a chamber musician. Andsnes got a kick out of that one. “Friends get together. We play music,” he laughed. “What’s so exotic about that?”

October 12, 2017 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Gloria Cheng – Piano Music of Salonen, Stucky and Lutoslawski: World Premiere Recordings

As has become almost paradigmatic in piano music programming, the compositions on this cd are as diverse as can be. The segues may be jarring, but what sets this apart from so many predictable jack-of-all-trades recordings is Gloria Cheng’s characteristically fearless yet spotlessly fluid attack on the keys. Whether she’s taking a starkly dramatic staccato approach to one of the Esa-Pekka Salonen works here, or gliding warmly through one of the cascades in an early Lutoslawski work – one of the four world premieres on the cd – there’s a playful brightness in her approach. Another way to describe it would be to say that an awful lot of this cd is pure fun, a delicious antidote to the sterility that sadly hasn’t disappeared yet from the world of solo piano. The compositions here give her plenty of opportunity to indulge.


Two brief suites by Stephen Stucky, Four Album Leaves and Three Little Variations for David bookend the cd, the opening partita using the theme in the closing work as a stepping-off point. The high point of both is a murkily beautiful, rubato section in the former, with a considerable debt to Satie, Cheng stretching it out suspensefully for all it’s worth. Then toward the end there’s a fortississisissimo passage where it sounds like she’s trying to break the keys. Contrast duly noted!


Witold Lutoslawski’s Sonata for Piano, a 1934 student work, gets short shrift from Stucky in the cd’s liner notes. Sure, it’s hardly the Lutoslawski that he and Salonen and plenty of others draw so deeply from: it’s an almost bizarrely pretty, consonant, high Romantic three-part piece, its second section, the Adagio, offering an intriguing glimpse of what was to come later in the composer’s career with its portentous dissonances.


Esa-Pekka Salonen has two compositions here. The world premiere is Three Interludes, which begin somewhat predictably icy and macabre, but deliver a payoff if you stick with them. The other work, Dichotomie divides itself into Mecanisme and Organisme, but the contrast is vastly subtler than the titles would indicate, the stately minimalism of the first mutating more with melody than with actual dynamics. Props to both the pianist and the label (Telarc) for having the imagination to pull all this out of the archives in such rewarding fashion.

February 15, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment