Smaller-scale piano playing

Music: Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes likes the closeness that comes with intimate surroundings, such as those at Shriver Hall, where he'll solo tonight.

January 19, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In a world that adores orchestras, Leif Ove Andsnes is a believer in chamber music.

"I feel, in a way, that chamber music is kind of the essence of music making for me," says the 29-year old Norwegian pianist. He particularly admires the way chamber works emphasize a sense of communion within the playing. "If I have a successful week with an orchestra, it would often feel like playing chamber music," he says. "I mean, if you play a concerto like the Schumann -- this is pure chamber music with the orchestra."

So far, Baltimore audiences have been able to experience Andsnes only in an orchestral context, through his performances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Tonight, however, Andsnes will offer a solo recital at Shriver Hall (featuring works by Schubert, Schumann and Kurtag), and reveal the more intimate side of his playing.

It isn't just that the lack of accompaniment will reduce the distance between soloist and audience. At just 1,118 seats, Shriver Hall is less than half the size of the Meyerhoff, and that, says Andsnes, is an important factor when dealing with pieces from the classical repertoire.

"A lot of this music was not written for a hall of 2,500 people, or whatever," he says. "I find it, often, a real compromise to play these works in a big hall like that.

"I am the artistic director of a small chamber music festival in Norway, and we are doing almost all of those concerts in this very small, wooden, baroque church, which seats between [400] and 500 people. We used to say it's the only festival where you can not only hear and see the musicians, but you can smell them, too."

He laughs, but it's clear that maintaining a sense of musical scale is serious business for Andsnes. In the last half-century, piano manufacturers have changed the sound of the instrument to try to make solo piano music fit larger and larger halls. It's a change Andsnes isn't sure is for the better.

"I find it very interesting how the instruments have developed," he says. "Not many people talk about that regarding the piano, because, of course, a Steinway looks like a Steinway did 100 years ago. But it sounds very, very different. ...

"The instruments have developed that way also to fill the bigger and bigger concert halls that we are building today," he adds. "Which I don't think always is positive for the range of sounds, or for the palates of the instruments. If you listen to something like the Dinu Lipatti recordings of Bach from the '30s, that is a kind of sound you cannot produce on any piano today.

"I think that's a shame."

Worse, because the instruments have such a "vertical" sound -- a tone that is bright, penetrating and percussive -- many contemporary pianists play into the power of the instrument's sound. They forget that the term "forte" doesn't mean "loud" -- literally, it means "strong" -- and so they develop a technique that emphasizes the forearm power of their playing.

"If you don't have a flexible wrist, you're not going to make a lasting, beautiful, singing sound," agrees Andsnes. "It's going to be that kind of sharp, clanging, brisk sound all the time. That is one direction today which is quite strong in piano playing, and I am very opposed to that."

Andsnes doesn't rely on technique alone to attain the proper sense of scale for his performances. Recently, for instance, he recorded a collection of Haydn sonatas for EMI, and imbued the music with a tone that was as balanced and lively as the interpretations themselves.

"I was looking a long time to find an instrument to suit Haydn, because I find often that on a big grand-style instrument, it often gets too big, and too vulgar," he says. "And then you try to limit the expression too much. You try to play it too kindly, like you often hear Mozart and Haydn being played. And I've never really liked it to be so kind. I mean, they were wild musicians for their day!"

In a recital hall, unfortunately, the pianist's choice of instruments is often severely limited. "All pianos are different," says Andsnes. "Some pianos you should have more time on, and some pianos you will never get to be friends with. That's how it is."

Even with a friendly piano, though, it's up to the soloist to convey the proper musical mood, especially when moving -- as Andsnes will this evening -- between a smaller-scale classicism of a work like the Schubert Impromptu Op. 142, No. 1, or his Sonata in A Major, and the robust romanticism of Schumann's Sonata Op. 11.

"One has to be able to change the atmosphere and the palate within the recital," he says, and laughs. "Because usually I don't have the opportunity to change between four different instruments for four pieces in the recital."

As much as Andsnes tries to recapture the sound and aesthetic of 18th- and 19th-century music, he also tries to be true to his own time.

That's why the fourth selection in tonight's recital will be selections from "Jatekok," by the contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag.

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