Some artists announce their arrival on the world stage with a youthful fire and passion that settles into a more sedate maturity. Leif Ove Andsnes seems to be going in the opposite direction; always a musician of supreme finish and intelligence, he’s taking more risks as he approaches his 40s. You don’t need to know the title of the disc or to have seen his fascinating collaboration with visual/performance artist Robin Rhode (on DVD as part of a deluxe edition) to feel the impact of his Pictures. For a start, there’s an audacious degree of addition and alteration to the score itself. Anyone who has ever tried to play Pictures will know that in many ways it’s frustratingly unpianistic. Horowitz famously remodelled it, the ends justifying the means. And many others have indulged in the odd spot of octave filling-out and so on. Andsnes goes further than most, not only filling out harmonies but also transposing up or down an octave and generally tinkering with the score. Some of the effects may begin to pall after a while – I haven’t lived with this long enough to judge – but so far the effect is thrilling (and a relief after the relative pallidity of Sa Chen’s recent version, page 98). What comes across most strongly is the work’s iconoclasm: Andsnes isn’t as violent or visceral, or as raw, as Richter in his various readings – but then no one is. Instead, he constantly reminds us of the human element in Mussorgsky’s reimagining of Hartmann’s images, be it the desolation of “The Old Castle”, the gossip in the Limoges marketplace as it reaches a pitch of hysteria, or the terror of “Catacombs”. There’s also a profound sense of the cycle’s dramatic pacing, of the possibilities of reverberation and silence as much as the potency of the notes themselves (again, something Sa Chen misses). He may not reach quite the level of terror invoked by Richter and Kissin in “Baba-Yaga”, but the way he brings out that repeated tritone links it back to the Mephistophelean works of Liszt to great effect. His “Great Gate” is a fitting culmination to a superbly provocative and unsettling experience.
The disc is filled out with miniatures by Mussorgsky, including two intended as part of a suite of childhood reflections, plus Schumann’s greatest work of nostalgia, Kinderszenen. Capturing its apparent simplicity and doing full justice to the swiftly shifting vignettes takes pianism of the first order, but Andsnes has long been a superb interpreter of Schumann, and that holds true here. I wouldn’t be without Horowitz’s mercurial reading, nor the lyrical beauty of Annie Fischer’s, but I’d set Andsnes alongside them: in the tender, mock-pomposity of “Important Event”, in a rather gentler “Knight of the Hobby Horse” than Horowitz gives us, and in a heart-rending “Child Falling Asleep”, he is spellbinding.
In Andsnes’s hands, both these great cycles, utterly different though they are, feel like first-hand, vital and highly personal experiences, and it’s these qualities that make this disc so compelling.