The New York Times
November 15, 2009
Sound and Vision: A Piano Recital With a Multimedia Heart
By Anthony Tommasini
The remarkable Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is a self-effacing, substantive and completely unflashy artist. You would not peg him as someone curious to explore multimedia and reinvent the piano recital.
Yet several years ago Mr. Andsnes approached Jane Moss, the vice president for programming at Lincoln Center, to propose collaborating with a visual artist on a performance of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Ms. Moss embraced the idea as being ideal for New Visions, part of the Great Performers series. After some searching, she introduced Mr. Andsnes to the South African-born video artist Robin Rhode.
The product of that collaboration, “Pictures Reframed,” an intriguing multimedia piano recital 80 minutes long without intermission, was presented at Alice Tully Hall on Friday night. It was the first of two performances, and the place was packed.
Going in, I wondered whether Mr. Andsnes’s playing would be overshadowed by the videos. Some of my fear was justified, especially during “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the major work on this varied program. Mr. Rhode’s strangely haunting, mostly black-and-white and rather busy video was shown on a screen, surrounded by five decorative panels that looked like a theater set, while Mr. Andsnes, almost in the shadows, played Mussorgsky’s popular, technically daunting score.
He played so magnificently that he was not for the most part overwhelmed. Still, we live at a time when we are inundated with visual imagery, especially videos. Inevitably Mr. Andsnes receded at times into the role of accompanist to a quirky if captivating video.
“Pictures at an Exhibition” conveys Mussorgsky’s impressions on attending a memorial exhibition of paintings by the Russian artist Victor Hartmann. Ten of the suite’s sections were inspired by specific Hartmann paintings. The parts called “Promenade” suggest the viewer strolling from one to another. In a program note Mr. Andsnes wrote that this music has always “made me think of the gallery visitor as an innocent, rather naïve soul (perhaps even a child).”
So childhood was the theme of the “Pictures Reframed” program, which included three other works as well as two short Rhode videos without music. Mr. Andsnes began by playing the two existing pieces from Mussorgsky’s incomplete 1865 suite “Memories of Childhood.” “Nurse and I” was a Mozartean delight depicting the composer’s childhood nurse. But “First Punishment: Nurse Shuts Me in a Dark Room,” is a hard-edged, driving toccata that reveals the nurse’s ominous side.
In another fitting selection Mr. Andsnes offered a ravishing account of Schumann’s “Kinderscenen” (“Scenes From Childhood”), played with affecting directness, impressive clarity and vivid imagination. “What becomes,” a new work by the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher in its premiere performance, though often turbulent and volatile, also fitted the overall theme and was accompanied by video. This 20-minute, six-movement piece ranged over diverse styles, with stretches of postmodern harmonies that recalled the bucolic Copland and fantastical episodes that included pitches, thuds and scratches produced from altered strings on the piano. Mr. Andsnes dispatched the piece, which climaxes in a hell-bent, frenetic scherzo, with brilliant pianism and cool authority.
The images in Mr. Rhode’s video for “Pictures at an Exhibition” are related very freely, if at all, to the original Hartmann paintings. “Gnomus” becomes an eerily delicate ballet for coils of thin wire. During “The Old Castle” you slowly approach a clump of trees that, in an aerial view, are seen to be in a pentagon formation. And so on, culminating, for “The Great Gate of Kiev,” in the arresting image of a grand piano, placed deep in the well of a steel-sided canal, being slowly engulfed by gushing water until completely submerged.
For me Mr. Andsnes’s performance was the news. He brought vigor, character and textural transparency to music often subjected to Romantic excess and bombast. I have never heard the “Tuileries,” with its finger-twisting figurations, or “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks,” with its stunning repeated chords and leaps, played with such effortless brilliance and sly humor.
“Pictures Reframed” is to be presented in a multicity tour around the world. Mr. Andsnes is clearly excited about this collaboration, which has also produced a Web site (picturesreframed.com), a DVD and a deluxe art book with images from Mr. Rhode’s video. I am glad to have attended this multimedia experiment. But I am more glad to have Mr. Andsnes’s new EMI Classics recording of the Mussorgsky and Schumann works to enjoy without any visuals.