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REVIEW: Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes makes a case for Dvorak’s rarely heard ‘Poetic Tone Pictures’

San Diego Union-Tribune

Christian Hertzog

January 20, 2023


Antonín Dvořák was a master of orchestral and chamber music. But think of his piano music, and what comes to mind?

That old recital chestnut the Humoresque Op. 101, No. 7 and the ever-popular Slavonic Dances — both better known in arrangements for violin and piano and orchestra respectively.

In 1889, when the most talented composers of piano music — Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Brahms, Satie, Grieg, Albeniz — focused on small works or suites, Dvořák wrote a cycle of 13 pieces lasting nearly an hour. His “Poetic Tone Pictures,” Opus 85, were intended to be played as a single work, although they rarely appear that way on recordings or recitals.

The extraordinary Norwegian pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes, believes this cycle is a neglected masterpiece, enough to record it for his most recent album.

On Thursday evening at a La Jolla Music Society concert, Andsnes let a capacity audience at Baker-Baum Concert Hall judge for themselves the merits of Dvořák’s Opus 85, devoting the second half of his concert to the work.

About Andsnes’ musicianship, there can be doubt. He has enviable control of a wide palette of pianistic colors, and is masterful at projecting the various moods — playful, tragic, exuberant, earthy captured by the composer.

But despite his poetry and finesse, I found sitting through these 13 character pieces ultimately trying. There’s no real sense of progression or arrival through the cycle, and not enough textural contrasts. How many times can one hear an unaccompanied melody doubled in left and right hands, punctuated with arpeggiated filigrees in the highest register? I’d gladly sit through isolated movements such as the “Furiant” or the “Bacchanalia” on a recital, but I don’t think I ever need to hear this entire work again.

The first half, which contrasted Eastern European composers with Beethoven’s ineffable Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, Opus 110, was a transcendental experience. Themes of death and loss prevailed, beginning with the “Lamento” by Alexander Vustin, a Russian composer who died during the Covid-19 pandemic at the age of 76.

His “Lamento” captures a funeral service. The left hand oscillates bare, somber chords, while the right hand interrupts above with the twittering of birdsong, an eerie effect which ultimately resolves with right and left hands together in full consonant harmonies.

Janáček’s “Sonata: 1.X.1905” commemorates the death of a young Czech at a protest against Germans opposed to creating a Czech university in Brno. Motives are repeated in jagged rhythmic outbursts, a harmonic stasis that creates the sense of immense violence that is bottled up, threatening to explode.

Valentyn Silvestrov is Ukraine’s best-known living composer, although he fled Kyiv after the Russian invasion last year. His Bagatelle, Opus 1, No. 3, illustrates the difficulty in a composer capturing an improvisation, although in fairness to Silvestrov, he had been playing this work for some time without notating it when he sat down in a studio to record it in 2005. The resulting score is paradoxical in its over-elaborate notation to capture something that sounds so simple and direct. Andsnes quietly channeled Silvestrov’s sincere mystery.

The last movement of Beethoven’s Opus 110 alternates a “Song of Lamentation” with a delicate and joyful fugue, threatening to fall apart the whole time. It takes a special artist to walk Beethoven’s musical tightrope, which Andsnes did with supreme musicality.

For an encore, he chose the “Ballad of Revolt” written by his fellow countryman Harald Saeverud in protest of Germany’s 1940 invasion of Norway. The powerful repeated eighth notes rang out through the venue, thrilling the audience.