Eight years ago, it may be remembered, the honor of closing the Bergen Festival with the Grieg Piano Concerto - the traditional finale - went to the Utah Symphony and pianist Karl Engel. Last year it went to Leif Ove Andsnes, who was all of 18 at the time.
Grieg likewise figured on the young Norwegian pianist's program Sunday evening at Kingsbury Hall, in this case the Op. 65 Lyric Pieces, as did sonatas of Schubert, Chopin and Janacek. And if one sometimes felt the need of some added maturity, there was little to quarrel with in terms of technique, or overall excitement.Andsnes certainly knows how to achieve the latter - witness his darkly dramatic Schubert and strongly characterized Janacek. But whatever the piece there is a tendency in his playing to exaggerate speeds and dynamic contrasts, often for sheer effect. Nor was he helped Sunday by some awkward pedal releases, which despite the last-minute tuning one heard going on both before and after the first half suggested the technician may well have been working on the wrong end of the piano.
Those contrasts were most pronounced in the Chopin, here the Op. 35 Sonata in B flat minor, stormy and impetuous in the first two movements but so slow in the slower sections - particularly the central pages of the "Funeral March" - as to approach the trancelike.
Continuity likewise suffered in his Schubert, the A minor Sonata, Op. 143 (a substitution for the Haydn sonata listed in the printed program). Here again, though, one admired the power and variety of his playing, as well as the ease with which he tossed off the ringingly propulsive finale.
From Janacek we had the Sonata "1 October 1905" ("On the Street"), the composer's response to the death of a Czech workman in a political uprising. The work as we have it is only a partial representation of the original, the pianist who was to have played the premiere copying the manuscript of the first two movements, "Presentiment" and "Death," before the composer could destroy them as he had the finale.
Nonetheless its unique power still comes through, here almost eruptively in the opening movement, shot through with color and that distinctively Janacekian air of longing. Even in the largely elegiac second movement Andsnes did not fail to bring out the jaggedness of the rhythmic punctuations (assisted by what sounded like a creaking-seat obbligato).
Although less personalized, the Grieg Op. 65 Lyric Pieces are also somewhat autobiographical in content, the opening "From Early Years" foreshadowing the concluding piece, the familiar "Wedding-Day at Troldhaugen." For that reason alone one was glad to hear them played as a unit, even if the couple in the last did seem in an awful hurry to get to the altar.
Nor did Andsnes dawdle early on, given his mercurial view of the first piece, here almost too fast in places. Still, its various sections were nonetheless well-integrated and he proved himself always alive to its color and songfulness. Thus the brooding melancholy of the third piece was offset by the wit and lyricism of the fourth ("Salon"). And although I wouldn't have minded a little less contrast between fast and slow in the "Wedding-Day," it really did manage to achieve a joyful outpouring at the end.