'The great Czech piano cycle' arrives at Carnegie Hall

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'The great Czech piano cycle' arrives at Carnegie Hall
The Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes with music sheets from Dvorak’s “Poetic Tone Pictures” at the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center in San Francisco, Jan. 22, 2023. Andsnes will perform an 1889 piano cycle by the Czech composer for the first time at Carnegie Hall in New York. (Aubrey Trinnaman/The New York Times)

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- Carnegie Hall might have hosted the premiere of Antonín Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony in 1893, but it’s not every day, 130 years later, that a major work by that Czech composer is heard there for the first time.

Still less, a solo piano cycle that lasts almost an hour. That’s what the unerringly sophisticated Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes will offer Tuesday, in a recital anchored by Dvorak’s “Poetic Tone Pictures,” 13 character pieces, written in 1889, that Andsnes recently recorded for Sony.

Andsnes has known the work since he was a boy; his father had one of its few recordings in his collection. But he came to study it properly only in the time afforded by the pandemic.

“Most of my colleagues won’t even know that Dvorak wrote this wonderful cycle for piano,” Andsnes, 52, said in an interview. “There is such a strange reputation around his music because he wasn’t a pianist, and people think that he didn’t write very well for the instrument.”

But, Andsnes added: “He uses the piano in a very colorful way, in a very versatile way, every piece has new textures, new techniques. For me, this cycle really stands as the great Czech piano cycle.”

Tuesday’s concert will be Andsnes’ first solo recital at Carnegie Hall since 2015. Clive Gillinson, the hall’s executive and artistic director, said that the lapse was a matter of bad luck — injury, the pandemic — but also, more tellingly, that it spoke to the breadth of interests that makes Andsnes special.

“We’ll say we’d love to have you back, and he’ll come back with an idea of collaborating with others, rather than just doing a piano recital,” Gillinson said. When Andsnes has appeared at the hall, it’s been in Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartets, the Edvard Grieg concerto with the Boston Symphony and a “Rite of Spring” as a duo with Marc-André Hamelin.

Andsnes’ latest solo recital is a case study in sensitive programming. Czech nationality connects Dvorak to Leos Janacek, whose early 20th-century sonata, “1.X.1905,” commemorates a murdered political protester. That work’s relevance to demonstrations today, particularly over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, prompted Andsnes to surround it with a “Lamento” by Alexander Vustin, a Russian who was little known outside his country and died early in the pandemic, and a bagatelle by Valentin Silvestrov, whose music has come to represent Ukrainian resistance. Ludwig van Beethoven rounds out the program, because, as Andsnes put it, “Beethoven always seems to have a message.”

In the interview, Andsnes discussed the “Poetic Tone Pictures” and more of Tuesday’s program. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: The standard view of Dvorak’s piano music, and especially his concerto, is that it is poorly written because he wasn’t a virtuoso himself. Could we say instead that he wrote pretty well for someone who didn’t play to a high standard?

A: Absolutely. Sometimes when you’re not playing the instrument you might come up with solutions that are new, and unheard-of. I remember Christian Tetzlaff said a few years ago that, you know, who were the composers who wrote the groundbreaking new violin concertos? They were all pianists: Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bartok. Nobody could imagine these shifts and sounds on the violin, and they didn’t know its limitations.

I think Dvorak wrote wonderfully for the piano, most of the time. It’s not as comfortably written as Chopin or Schumann or Debussy, but there’s a lot of music like that. The imagination, the richness of melodic and harmonic invention and characterization is so wonderful, and so unique.

Q: Did Dvorak intend the pieces to be played as a cycle?

A: I found this quote from him. He wrote to a friend after finishing these pieces that he’s tried to be a poet, à la Schumann, but that it doesn’t sound like Schumann. And then he says, I hope that someone will have the courage to play all the pieces continuously, because only by doing that could one really understand his intentions.

That was extremely interesting, because we’re talking about an hour of music here. If he thought about it as a cycle, that’s a very ambitious undertaking, and a much bigger cycle than any that were known at the time. Clara Schumann would always select pieces from her husband’s music, rarely playing “Kreisleriana” as one, or “Carnaval” as one. Sure enough, one gets into a state of mind and it seems to work out well — the contrasts between the pieces, and this wonderful farewell, “On the Holy Mountain,” which is such a benediction. It’s a real journey.

Q: Listening to your recording, I wondered whether the music’s fate has not just been about preconceptions about the writing, but the fact that an hourlong cycle is tricky to program.

A: Even the single pieces are not known. I played these pieces in Prague in November, and I met the daughter of Rudolf Firkusny, the great Czech pianist. She said, “Maybe I can remember that my father played the third piece a couple of times as an encore,” but she didn’t know the music. Can you imagine? Firkusny played so much Czech music, and was famous for playing the Piano Concerto.

Q: Does the cycle have a narrative to it, or is it more a series of tableaux along the lines of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”?

A: More like that, maybe a picture of Czech life. What I love about the cycle is, you have very spiritual pieces, the mystery of “The Old Castle” and “Twilight Way,” and on the other hand you have a piece called “Toying.” Another piece is called “Tittle-Tattle.” It’s everyday life, which you also have in “Pictures at an Exhibition,” or even in late Beethoven.

Q: Do you have a favorite piece among the 13?

A: I love them all in very different ways, but there is one piece, the ninth, called “Serenade.” It’s such a great example of Dvorak’s real strengths. It begins as such a trivial piece, it has this very simple melody, serenading a loved one, with a guitar accompaniment. There’s almost no harmony in the beginning, and you wonder, is this really it?

It isn’t, of course, because he suddenly changes the harmonies and it becomes so much richer. It gets to a middle section which is a sort of slow siciliano, which has a feeling of prayer, or a really beautiful love song, the most tender one can imagine. You just wonder how he went there, with the same melodic material. For me, he has such an ability to develop a very simple idea into a real jewel.

Dvorak always suffers a bit in comparison with Brahms, because they were contemporaries and admired each other. Brahms has this obvious counterpoint and resistance in the music, we always feel that every voice is so rich. Dvorak doesn’t have that, and one can feel that the music is a little bit too easy to swallow. It depends on the performer to bring out all these subtleties.

Q: Has it become more important for you to reflect the world in your playing?

A: It became quite special with this program. If one can find a relevant conversation with the music that we do and what is going on with the world, it’s wonderful, but I wouldn’t want to always look for something. It can be fabricated.

The Janacek was speaking to me about now. Like so many, I felt affected by what’s going on, also being in this part of the world. As Norwegians we are a neighboring country to Russia, it really has affected so many of us everywhere; of course in the United States, too, but maybe even more in this part of the world.

Q: And in grim times, we often turn to Beethoven.

A: Yes, so often there is a feeling of going through struggle, or fight in Beethoven’s music, trying to find solutions, or answers, or victory — somehow.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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