On Monday night, 1998 Gilmore Artist Award winner Leif Ove Andsnes astonished and delighted a modest crowd among the gilded trim and glittering chandeliers of Kalamazoo's Chenery Auditorium.
The Norwegian pianist brought intensity and flair to a repertoire of lesser-known and underappreciated compositions by Carl Nielsen, Jean Sibelius and Franz Schubert, along with a fresh interpretation of a Beethoven sonata and a contemporary piece by Jörg Widmann. After receiving a standing ovation, Andsnes returned for two encore performances: an additional Sibelius Impromptu and a piece by Claude Debussy.
The Gilmore Keyboard Festival performance was contextualized beforehand by David Abbott, a professor of music from Albion College, who gave an earnest lecture on the works by Nielsen and Sibelius that Andsnes would be performing later that evening. According to Abbott, some of the pieces that Andsnes chose to perform were not properly appreciated by critics of their time, one of whom labeled Sibelius's piano compositions “ineffective” at best. The following performance certainly proved those critics wrong.
Andsnes opened with a sprightly rendition of Nielsen's Chaconne, Op. 32. He followed it with the crown jewel of this set of hidden gems: a collection of Sibelius pieces featured on an album titled Sibelius that he released last September on Sony Classical. He selected Björken (The Birch), Op. 75, No. 4; Impromptu, Op. 97, No. 5; Rondino in C-sharp Minor, Op. 68, No. 2; Der Hirt (The Shepherd), Op. 58, No. 4; and Romanze in D-flat Major, Op. 24, No. 9 for his first performance of the festival.
Andsnes's performance is at its most engaging and enjoyable when he is pounding out a difficult bass melody or surprising the audience with a sudden change in tempo or tone, and the selections from Sibelius offered more than a few opportunities for those delights.
On paper one might find Beethoven's Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 (“The Tempest”) an ill-fitting pick for a recital centered around underappreciated compositions — it is, after all, well-appreciated. But once Andsnes launched into the Sonata, its inclusion made perfect sense. The pianist's penchant for dramatic tempo changes and sharp contrasts in dynamics were showcased brilliantly by his performance of this piece; he masterfully flitted from gentle keystrokes to forceful, thunderous strikes and back again.
After the intermission, Andsnes returned to the stage for a thoughtfully organized program consisting of two Schubert Scherzos; “Idyll and Abyss – Six Schubert Reminiscences” by Widmann; and three unpublished pieces also composed by Schubert.
Simply put, it was a treat to watch Andsnes perform. It's made clear by the flutter or pound of his fingers across the keyboard, by the rigidity or sway of his shoulders, by the gentle or sharp tilt of his head to the cues of the music he's creating: this is a man who deeply loves and reveres his craft.
It's not a solemn reverence, though; there was plenty of room for play in the performance, too. At one point during one of the middle installments of Widmann's reminiscences on Schubert, composed in 2009, Andsnes paused playing entirely during a lyrical section to whistle along with the melody. The crowd giggled in response.
Andsnes responded to the audience's prolonged applause and standing ovation with two encores. The first was another selection from a Sibelius Impromptu, and the second was “Gardens in the Rain” by Claude Debussy. In contrast to some of the challenging and complex selections from earlier in the program, “Gardens in the Rain” was pretty and airy, and Andsnes finished joyously with a playful flourish of his arm. It was met with grins, cheers and another standing ovation.
Those who attended the concert at Chenery on the evening of April 30 were treated to a gorgeous, unique performance by a world-class pianist.
Leif Ove Andsnes