Caleb Gardner’s Review of Leif Ove Andsnes’ “Poetic Tone Pictures

CD Review:
Leif Ove Andsnes
Dvorak: Poetic Tone Poems

by Caleb Gardner (Photo credit: Sony Classical)

Decorated Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes boasts a comprehensive discography stretching back to 1989, which includes works for both solo piano and ensemble. For the last decade, as a Sony Classics artist, he has approached some of the greatest and best-known pieces in the piano repertoire: Beethoven’s piano concertos, a Chopin collection, and, more recently, a set of recordings focusing on the compositions of Mozart in the years 1785 and 1786. 

His latest effort, Dvořák: Poetic Tone Pictures, joins 2017’s Sibelius as an exploration of a very popular composer’s least popular works. According to Andsnes, “this is the great forgotten cycle of nineteenth-century piano music.”  “Forgotten” may be a bit of a misnomer. Dvořák’s piano works, though full of musically compelling ideas, do not always utilize the instrument’s capabilities as one expects of music from a titan of the Romantic era. It follows that professional concert pianists would choose to “forget” these works in favor of performing and recording familiar virtuosic pieces which may be impressive to their audiences. Andsnes seeks to remedy that musical loss with his skilled interpretations here.  

Some of the pieces across the nearly hour-long set fit comfortably in the category of idiomatic, Romantic-era piano music. The lyrical melodies and rapidly arpeggiated accompaniment of “Spring Song” are reminiscent of similar works by Liszt or Chopin, while the pianistic flourishes of “On the Holy Mountain” contribute to its elegant atmosphere. At other moments, particularly during “In the Old Castle” and “Bacchanalia,” Dvořák seems to be searching for textures and effects for which the keyboard isn’t quite designed. The balance of works presented contributes to the success of the set as a whole: it feels like a narrative vacillating between familiar and unfamiliar, shifting between light and shadow.  

Andsnes demonstrates the mature approach typical of his interpretations; he asserts the artistry of his phrasing and dynamic choices in thoughtful deference to the composer’s intent. His playing in the first piece, “Twilight Way,” is emblematic of his work throughout the set, seamlessly transitioning between cloudy textures, racing dyads, and forceful chords. During “Furiant,” Andsnes articulates a moving melodic thread through a restless set of textural transformations, and he delivers a passionate conclusion to “At the Hero’s Grave” with mournful style.  

This sublime performance of Dvořák‘s composition is captured in great detail by an excellent production team, who work closely with Mr. Andsnes to deliver a listening experience both pleasant and dynamic.  Taken as a whole, Poetic Tone Pictures is a graceful and memorable presentation of a long-neglected, if not quite forgotten, piano cycle.