Leif Ove Andsnes feels at home in New York. He admires the New York Philharmonic, he finds the city itself “tremendously exciting.” And the audiences? “They don’t leave you cold,” he says. “They are really in there.”
The Norwegian pianist, this season’s Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, enjoys the interplay that keeps the Philharmonic on top of its game. Given the steady presence of topflight visiting ensembles to this city, he says, “This orchestra has to give its best, every single night — my goodness, that’s a hard job! — and they deliver.”
Described by The New York Times as “one of the alpha dogs of the musical world,” he recalls an incident about 15 years ago when he played Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto, with its whirlwind coda that concludes the final movement’s chaconne, with the Philharmonic. “It’s kind of surreal — it is not very clear where it will end and when. The moment it did end, someone immediately shouted ‘Bravo!’ so loudly it was almost as exciting as the end of the piece itself. We laughed about it afterward, but it was so wonderful, so typically outspoken New York enthusiasm. I absolutely loved it.”
On the other hand, after he first attended a Philharmonic concert he realized that the audience “doesn’t spend extra time in the hall unless they are really, really enthusiastic. To keep an audience takes some effort as well.”
Andsnes has not had difficulty holding the audience over 28 previous Philharmonic performances since his debut in 1997. To start his residency, this thinking-man’s pianist brings one of Rachmaninoff’s lesser-known concertos, the Fourth, which he has been championing recently. It is not in the composer’s familiar, high-Romantic, singing style. “It is a piece that I think is misunderstood, underestimated,” he believes. “It is a very restless concerto, full of modern times in a way. It is full of speed and quick transitions. It might be difficult to whistle melodies from the Fourth.”
As for the Britten Piano Concerto (he’ll play it in February), which Andsnes describes as “a virtuoso piece for himself as a pianist,” he perceives possibly political overtones. The then 25-year-old pacifist composer wrote it in 1938, with World War II on the horizon, so it is meaningful when Andsnes hears “a rather sarcastic waltz” and “an ironic sort of march.” Nevertheless, he feels that it’s “a mostly happy piece, a wonderful concert piece. I am very surprised it is not more often done.”
The pianist considers the Debussy Fantaisie (his April Philharmonic collaboration) to be a different case: “You could almost call it a student piece,” he says. Although written in 1889, when the composer was 27, it was not performed until 1919, a year after his death. “I guess he wanted to revise it, but never got around to it. It is not fully formed Debussy as we know him. It has tremendous beauty. One feels this big personality being formed, but, at the same time, the heritage of French Romantic music.”
The Philharmonic residency aspires to show many sides of an eminent artist’s musicianship, so Andsnes’s gifts as a collaborator — reflected in the concertos and chamber music he is performing — are complemented by a virtuoso solo evening. His May recital is a bit of a mixed bag, he explains. In the second half he sandwiches Idyll and Abyss, by the German composer Jörg Widmann, between two works by Schubert: Two Scherzos, D.593, and Three Piano Pieces, D.946. The latter was composed only a few months before the composer’s death, in 1828.
“It’s absolutely wonderful, haunting music,” Andsnes says. The Widmann, written in 2009, is “a very touching tribute to Schubert.”
From the restlessness of Rachmaninoff to the haunting strains of late Schubert and a contemporary tribute to him, in this residency — his only appearances in New York this season — Andsnes is sure to be at the top of his game.
Peter W. Goodman is an associate professor of journalism in the School of Communication at Hofstra University. He was a longtime music critic at Newsday and New York Newsday.