A late starter, Leif Ove Andsnes entered the Bergen Conservatory when he was a comparatively old sixteen. Andsnes made up for it by making his American and British debuts and his first recording — a coruscating Prokofiev Third Concerto that made his name around the world — just three years later. Is Andsnes that good? He's certainly got the chops. A modernist supervirtuoso with an unstoppable technique, Andsnes has played everything from Bartók's immensely difficult Second Piano Concerto to Rachmaninoff's impossibly difficult Third Concerto, and he's played all of it with complete command of the keyboard. He's also got a sculpted tone that shapes Chopin's sensual mazurkas and carves Nielsen's monumental Chaconne out of solid blocks of musical marble. Plus he's got a cool sound that clarifies the passions of Janácek's In the Mists and elucidates the cruel geometry of Nielsen's Lucifer Suite.
Andsnes is more than a modernist supervirtuoso. Listening deeply and widely to his recording reveals that below the virtuoso surface, he makes vital music. He's also a soulful Chopin player — his sonatas are achingly expressive, and his mazurkas sing with effervescent ease — and a sensitive accompanist. His Schubert lieder with tenor Ian Bostridge are luminously unified, and his recording of Schumann's Mrchenbilder with violist Lars Anders Tomter is magically fused. But the ultimate proof of Andsnes's quality is in his Grieg recordings. Radiantly rapturous, ecstatically joyous, and wholly at one with the warm heart of the music, Andsnes's Grieg is as good as it gets.
Ann Arbor listeners will also find out how good Andsnes is as a director when he appears at Hill Auditorium on Saturday, January 14, with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. Founded in 1977, the NCE lists Terje Tnnesen as its "artistic director" and Andsnes as its "principal guest leader." In practice, this means pianist Andsnes will direct from the keyboard Mozart's elegant E-flat Major Concerto no. 14 and driven D Minor Concerto no. 20, while violinist Tnnesen will direct from the concertmaster's chair in the works without piano — Mozart's enchanting Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Beethoven's otherworldly final string quartet in Tnnesen's arrangement for chamber orchestra. How this will work out in practice can be partially predicted by the excellence of the recordings Andsnes and the NCE have made. As Neil Young always says, however, "Live music is best," and anyone who cares about great music should be there.
[Review published January 2006]
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