This made me think long and hard. Andsnes Haydn disc 'gripped' me like no others, not even the great Brendel. Any Andsnes fan out here, in PW's no no land?


From the New York Times:

March 16, 2005
Some Like It Cool

At Carnegie Hall in January, the remarkable Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes had just finished playing the first work in his recital, Schubert's Sonata in D (D. 850), when two young men behind me started discussing the performance. Both had reservations.

"So what did you think?" one asked.

His companion, clearly trying to be fair, said: "Well, of course his playing was commanding and brilliant. But there was no vulnerability."

Though I disagreed, I knew what he was talking about.

For me, Mr. Andsnes' performance was elegant, bracing, intelligent and full of vitality. For all its ebullience and humor, this sonata is a formidable work of nearly 40 minutes. Without making points or disturbing the surface charm of the music, Mr. Andsnes allowed the music's intensity and melancholy to speak.

Still, there is a quality of reserve in Mr. Andsnes' artistry. That quality will undoubtedly be on display tonight at Carnegie Hall when he plays Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

I heard Mr. Andsnes and Mr. Thomas perform this work in San Francisco last year. It was as if they had cleansed the score of the emotive expressivity that so many pianists and music lovers automatically associate (too simplistically) with the Russian Romantic tradition. Mr. Andsnes' playing was tremendously exciting yet also lean, clearheaded, rigorous and rhythmic. It had tenderness and grace but no exaggerated yanking of the melodic phrases.

You might describe Mr. Andsnes' approach as Nordic coolness. But I have noticed a comparable coolness in performers of the new generation who are not Nordic, like the pensive Austrian pianist Till Fellner and the brainy American pianist Christopher Taylor. Even the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, whose radiant voice shimmers with poignancy, favors a cooler interpretive approach.

Of course, there have always been Dionysian and Apollonian performers. Pianists like Walter Gieseking, Edwin Fischer and Robert Casadesus were exemplary Apollonians, as is Maurizio Pollini today.

But there is something more going on now. The new coolness seems generational: a contemporary, anti-Romantic, unsentimental stance. Having grown up in the age of rock, younger performers may place a high value on rhythmic crispness and clarity.

Mr. Fellner, for example, is an almost painfully shy young man whose playing is beautifully soft-spoken. But listen to his extraordinary recording of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," Book 1, released last year by ECM. On the surface, the playing is measured, flowing and aristocratic. But crisscrossing contrapuntal lines leap out at you, and driving rhythmic patterns have a rocklike relentlessness. A magisterial pianist like Fischer could never have played Bach this way.

True, lots of pianists still go for big effects and Romantic fervor. The antithesis of Mr. Andsnes is the exuberant, crowd-pleasing, technically astounding young Chinese virtuoso Lang Lang. He has pianistic panache and strong musical instincts. But in his effort to connect with the audience and show us how deeply he feels every phrase, he often exaggerates and distorts the music.

Three years ago he played the Rachmaninoff Second with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Lorin Maazel. I found Mr. Lang's work self-indulgently expressive. Phrases were sped up and slowed down, pushed and pulled, seemingly at whim. Mr. Lang built up to flinty fortissimos, then suddenly deflated the effect, cutting the sound to nearly inaudible pianissimos.

Hearing him was like watching a film star overact. For most movie buffs, underacting goes over better than overacting, even if a performance winds up being a little stiff. But interpretive subtleties are harder to discern in music.

Perhaps Mr. Lang has taken criticism of his self-indulgence to heart. His latest take on Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto can be heard in a new Deutsche Grammophon recording, a concert performance with the Orchestra of the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, conducted by Valery Gergiev.

At the New York Philharmonic in 2002, Mr. Maazel adapted to Mr. Lang's indulgence. He seemed to take Mr. Lang's exuberance and freedom as a technical challenge, as if to say, "There is no rubato you can take that I can't follow."

But Mr. Gergiev must have worked well with Mr. Lang and got him to focus, to channel his passion, to steady himself. The playing, though free, is more structured and effective.

Still, I much prefer Mr. Andsnes' and Mr. Thomas's calm intensity and unmannered expressivity. They made the Rachmaninoff Second seem not just impassioned but important.

Is Mr. Andsnes consciously "cool" in his approach? He spoke about this late last year from Copenhagen.

"Ideally, I would like to create a listening space for the audience where you can enter and experience the music in the same way as I love the music," he said in a telephone interview. "But there must be a simplicity to this."

Mr. Andsnes thinks of himself as a musical detective, trying to uncover the elements of a piece. But he feels honor-bound to the score.

"I play all the notes," he said. "That's really important to me. I'm allergic to the idea that an accompanying figure is not important. Every aspect of the piece has its place in the cosmos of the piece."

If listeners detect a contemporary sensibility in his playing, even in his Schubert and Mozart, Mr. Andsnes said, that is inevitable.

"I am a child of my time," he explained. "I've listened to Stravinsky's 'Sacre du Printemps,' to the Beatles, to Ligeti, everything. But also to period-instrument performances. Everything influences you."

Some "hot" players have much to offer. No one is hotter than the pianist Martha Argerich, who is so volatile by nature that she typically does her best playing when reined in by colleagues in concertos and chamber music. But every element of an Argerich performance is based on an acute reading of the score and an imaginative response to it.

The pianist Krystian Zimerman is a prodigious technician and probing musician who comes up with bold and pronounced interpretive ideas. He is certainly not cool, though he is never sentimental.

Ultimately, for me, the cooler, self-effacing approach of Mr. Andsnes and others of his generation is a balm. The longer I go to concerts, the more I value performances that do not exaggerate expressive touches or make interpretive points.

But none of this is to say that Mr. Andsnes lacks vulnerability - or tenderness, or sizzle. Hear his Rachmaninoff tonight and judge for yourself.