Wednesday, May 30, 2012


May 23
Obecní dům
May 25
Prague Conservatory
May 28

Andsnes played and conducted from the keyboard.

Beethoven has been a dominant presence in the festival over the past week, with his piano works providing some revealing points of comparison. Beyond the usual differences in approach and style, they provided a showcase for musicians at different points in the careers, all coming to Beethoven with their own ideas and objectives. Was a major composer ever so malleable?

As detailed in this space last week, Norwegian pianist Lief Ove Andsnes came to Prague to start recording a complete set of the piano concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. He performed in an unusual configuration – in the middle of a 45-piece ensemble, back to the audience, lid removed so he could see and conduct the players. It proved to be an effective arrangement. The piano tones lost a bit of depth, but Andsnes’ connection with the orchestra seemed almost psychic, producing a clean, cohesive sound with remarkable consistency and integrity.

It was obvious that Andsnes put a lot of time into preparing concertos No. 1 and No. 3. There wasn’t a phrase that hadn’t been thought through and developed along the lines that the pianist articulated at his press conference – brotherhood, beauty, spirituality. His connection with the music was deep, rendered dramatically in some passages, lyrical in others, all played with a light touch and very fine control.

The orchestra provided seamless accompaniment and surprising sophistication, given its makeup of members from 20 different countries. An interlude of Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète was particularly impressive, performed with elegance and depth without the benefit of a conductor. The only disappointment was the audience, which applauded after the first movement of both concertos. Andsnes said he chose the Rudolfinum for its superb acoustics. Perhaps he should return during the regular season, which tends to attract more intelligent listeners.

Blechacz, all style and no soul.
The contrast could hardly have been more dramatic two nights later at Obecní dům, where Polish piano star Rafał Blechacz performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Warsaw Philharmonic. Just 27, Blechacz already has an enviable set of awards to his credit (including all five first prizes at the 2005 Chopin Competition) and a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon that most musicians would give up their firstborn to have. But his playing was strikingly shallow. Seemingly effortless and technically dazzling, it nonetheless lacked any sense of personality or conviction, a brilliant gloss with no depth. Whereas Andsnes played with electric intensity, Blechacz seemed content with a bright, breezy cover.

The orchestra was also one-dimensional, opening with a respectful but uninspired version of Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel, and offering similarly thin accompaniment on the Beethoven concerto. The second half was better, as it should have been for one of the orchestra’s signature pieces, Witold Lutosławski’s seminal Concerto for Orchestra, which the Warsaw Philharmonic premiered in 1954. With soaring strings, playful woodwinds, deep dynamics and vivid colors across a broad palette, it was a powerful demonstration of the impact the piece had nearly 60 years ago – and still does. Otherwise, it was a lackluster performance, leaving this critic wishing that Antoni Wit and his well-regarded ensemble had stayed with their apparent strengths in the Polish repertoire.

A heartfelt showing by Arnicane.
But this is Prague Spring, so inspiration is never far away. In a recital at the conservatory on Monday night, Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane showed why she won last year’s competition with a refreshing, spirited performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, Op, 10, No. 3. Arnicane’s physical style of playing added zest to the opening movement, and her disciplined but imaginative phrasing created wonderful atmospherics in the second. A clear and distinctive voice was evident throughout the remainder of the piece, which she played with a beguiling combination of gracefulness and authority.

That mix was even more potent in Schumann’s Symphonic Études, which were riveting. Arnicane has soft hands that never lose their finesse even in the most demanding passages, which made for an exceptionally fluid performance and a clear but rousing finale. Though her sound lacks seasoning, her playing comes straight from the heart, a quality reflected in her choice of a second encore – Satie’s familiar Gymnopédie No. 1, a technically simple but emotionally satisfying finish.

In all, a smart and sensitive performance from a very promising young artist. Remember the name Arta Arnicane. You did not hear it here first, but you will definitely be hearing it again.

Photos: Andsnes & Arnicane, Zdeněk Chrapek; Blechacz, Ivan Malý 

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