Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes gave a solo recital co-presented by San Francisco Performances and the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony. Having recently completed his four-season Beethoven Journey project through Ludwig van Beethoven’s music for piano and orchestra, he prepared a program with a much heavier emphasis of shorter compositions. He also chose to begin with a selection of such short pieces written by Jean Sibelius, probably best known for the full-voice rhetoric of his orchestral music.
Sibelius was relatively prolific in his composition of solo piano music, as is evident from the ten CDs in the BIS Sibelius Edition collection. However, many of the pieces recorded in that collection were never published during Sibelius’ lifetime; and many others were piano reductions of music composed for other resources, many originally composed as incidental music for stage performances. There are only nineteen published works which cover the period between 1893 (the six impromptus of Opus 5) to 1929 (the five “sketches” of Opus 114).
Andsnes’ selections spanned the period between 1904 and 1929, the latter represented by the second, third, and fourth of the Opus 114 sketches. He opened with the earliest work, the three lyric pieces of Opus 41 entitled Kyllikki, named after one of the Kalevala characters. She shows up in the first song in the cycle about Lemminkäinen, the Kalevala character that is probably most familiar to Sibelius listeners. She is Lemminkäinen’s first love, but their romance does not last beyond that one song (the eleventh in the entire Kalevala).
There is nothing programmatic about Opus 41. In fact, it is almost a sonatina with a few suggestions, particularly in the first piece that alternates Largamente and Allegro, that Sibelius may have encountered the piano music of Alexander Scriabin. However, as “lyric pieces” go, Sibelius was definitely less inclined to flat-out repetition than was his Norwegian predecessor, Edvard Grieg; and Andsnes made a solid case that these miniatures deserve more exposure.
Both the Opus 114 pieces and the two selections from the 1914 Opus 75 collection, which Sibelius entitled The Trees, are far more denotative, rather than connotative or reflective. Andsnes’ first selection depicted a birch tree, capturing both the rustling of the leaves and the suppleness of the branches. It was followed by the representation of a spruce, whose leaves still rustle but are anchored to firmer limbs. The first of the Opus 114 selections shifted attention from trees of a lake in the forest. It was followed by a song, presumably by a trekker through that forest; and Andsnes concluded his set with a piece entitled “Spring Vision.”
This part of the program was particularly exciting through revealing how much Sibelius could express with almost microscopic brevity. However, Andsnes missed a golden opportunity in his overall program, since he decided to complement his Sibelius selections by beginning the second half of his program with Claude Debussy. Much of Debussy’s piano music involves highly sophisticated approaches to depiction; and, sadly, Andsnes presented only one aspect of his technique, the “La Soirée dans Grenade” (the evening in Granada) from Estampes (stamps). Unfortunately, he chose to follow this with three of the études (two from the second book and one from the first), while a few selections from the two books of preludes would have made for some much more fascinating compare-and-contrast moments.
Nevertheless, there was more than enough contrast in the Beethoven sonata that Andsnes selected to follow the short Sibelius pieces. This was the third of the Opus 31 sonatas, composed in E-flat major and consisting of four movements, the inner two being a Scherzo followed by a Menuetto. Among the many compositions that make a convincing case for Beethoven’s capacity for wit (perhaps inspired by his teach Joseph Haydn), this sonata is probably the most raucous.
The first movement deliberately stumbles through a sequence of fits and starts with lots of gaps of silence and just as many single-note outbursts. The Scherzo churns away like an infernal machine, while the Menuetto serves up a trio with chords echoing each other with an almost naïve rhetoric. The concluding Presto con fuoco apparently inspired some publisher to call this sonata “The Hunt;” but that movement is a wild tarantella, reflecting the possible origin of the dance depicting the exertions required to get the poison from a tarantula bite out of the dancer’s system.
The Debussy selections were followed by four relatively unrelated pieces by Frédéric Chopin, an impromptu (Opus 29 in A-flat major), an étude (the second of the Trois Nouvelles études), a nocturne (Opus 15, Number 1, in F major), and the last of the four ballades (Opus 52 in F minor). None of this was particularly compelling, even if Andsnes displayed a keen sense of managing his dynamic contours. Indeed, the overall effect was one of a large and overly-sweet dessert tacked on at the end of an imaginatively conceived menu that would have required little more than a small plate of cheese.
Nevertheless, this was the sort of audience that clearly loved its desserts and made a great show of loving them. They were rewarded with encores of two more Chopin pieces, the too-many-notes-running-up-and-down étude in C minor from Opus 10 and that most notorious of crowd-pleasers, the Opus 53 (“Heroic”) polonaise in A-flat major. The crowd was definitely pleased, energetically exceeding its “bravo quota” for the night. Fortunately, Andsnes continuing sense of dynamic control brought an exquisitely light touch to Opus 10 and made a noble effort to escalate Opus 53 above the trivial; but, since many members of the audience had already left their seats to leave, any sense of this being a compelling reading was lost in the shuffle.