Talented, on any score Music: Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has a sure touch for works both familiar and obscure.

November 19, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Leif Ove Andsnes doesn't always play popular standards, such as the Schumann Concerto in A minor which he will perform starting tonight in his concerts with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony.

The tall, blond Norwegian, who looks more like a professional tennis player than a pianist, is among today's most curious musicians when it comes to finding (and performing) out-of-the-way repertory. He has performed and recorded works of Carl Nielsen, Karol Szymanowski and Benjamin Britten. He also investigates neglected works by well-known composers, such as Liszt's prophetically modern "Mephisto Waltz No. 2," which other pianists of his generation are either too timid or too lazy to learn.

This past summer at the Aspen Music Festival, for example, Andsnes and Zinman revived Britten's long-forgotten "Young Apollo" -- a 10-minute work for strings, string quartet and piano -- that almost any other pianist might have dismissed as not worth the effort to learn.

"It's very early Britten -- and he withdrew it after the first performance," Andsnes says. "But it's a fascinating little piece, especially because of the light it throws upon the man who would become one of the century's greatest composers."

Andsnes is no specialist in the forgotten and the unappreciated, however, and he doesn't exactly shy away from the competition in the big pieces of the standard repertory. In the opinion of many aficionados, Andsnes, along with Evgeny Kissin and perhaps one or two others, ranks among the most prodigiously gifted pianists of his generation.

He was introduced to record buyers about 10 years ago by a two-disc set of works by Chopin (still available on EMI's Virgin line) that set the pianistic world on its collective ear. The teen-ager's performances of the two mature Chopin sonatas compared favorably with the best in the catalog. And some of the performances -- such as one of the composer's "Octave" Etude -- made even experienced listeners shake their heads in disbelief at the thunder of Andsnes' octaves and the exquisite tenderness with which he etched the central melody.

That album was followed by others, equally impressive, of music by Liszt, Grieg, Schumann, Nielsen and (to come later this year) Brahms, Szymanowski, Shostakovich and Britten.

Last year, the pianist received the Gilmore Award, a prize worth $300,000 that is sort of a Pulitzer for excellence in piano performance.

"Fifty thousand of it was for me personally," Andsnes says. "The rest is for what are called 'career enhancement possibilities.' "

And what might those be?

The pianist laughs.

"It means that I'll be able to establish a chamber-music festival in Norway, where I and like-minded friends can perform familiar music we love and less familiar music we might not otherwise get a chance to play.

"It means that I can commission new works by composers whose music I like. And it means that if I want to record a work I think is important but my record company deems uncommercial, I can underwrite the recording myself."

Last year with a friend, British conductor Sir Simon Rattle, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andsnes recorded Szymanowski's "Symphony Concertante" -- a huge, difficult and demanding piece the composer dedicated to pianist Arthur Rubinstein, a boyhood friend. Even the great Rubinstein had to fight to record it and experienced resistance in his efforts to persuade orchestras to perform it. Andsnes is experiencing some of the same difficulties.

"But I'm not frustrated," the pianist says. "I've already had the privilege of playing it so much with the conductor and orchestra who wanted to perform it as much as I did."


What: Leif Ove Andsnes performs Schumann Piano Concerto with David Zinman and the BSO

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: Tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $21-$55

Call: 410-783-8000

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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