Leif Ove Andsnes salutes ‘prime-time Dvořák’ with his Poetic Tone Pictures

For his latest disc, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has zeroed in on what he calls “prime-time Dvořák.”

The work in question is Poetic Tone Pictures, Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s 1889 cycle of 13 solo piano works.  “I think it is the great forgotten cycle of 19th-century piano music,” said Andsnes, who will perform the collection on his current recital tour, which stops Jan. 29 at Symphony Center. “Maybe those are big words, but I do feel that.”  

Sony Classics, which released the disc on Oct. 28, describes Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures as a “rich palette of various different moods, from romantic and dream-like, to wild and furious. Its poetic temperament and technically rewarding piano stylization make it a gem.” 

The cycle reveals a very different side of the composer best-known for his symphonies and string quartets. “It’s a real discovery for me,” Andsnes said. “It’s a major piano cycle of 13 pieces that’s rarely performed, even though it’s very imaginative, is full of melodic and harmonic inventions, and offers surprisingly colorful writing for the piano. Although Dvořák was not a pianist-composer, he uses the full range of the instrument convincingly.”

Poetic Tone Pictures also represents a stylistic shift away from the formal constructions of Dvořák’s earlier instrumental writing toward a freer, more programmatic aesthetic. Ranging in mood from profound to playful, the pieces evoke magic and mystery (“The Old Castle”), rustic dances (“Furiant” and “Peasant Ballad”), nostalgic moods (“Twilight Way”) and solemn remembrances (“At a Hero’s Grave”).

The recording has received universal acclaim. British critic Rob Cowan writes: 
“Leif Ove Andsnes whose teacher was Czech, melds a seemingly limitless command of keyboard colors with a deep understanding of this immediately appealing repertory. ... Andsnes could as well be Czech himself. ... Here is a player whose arsenal of technical strategems elevates him way above the norm, his seemingly effortless virtuosity, his sense of timing, his varied tonal palette, mastery of rubato and his appreciation — and ability to project — the music’s dance elements. Andsnes must now take pride of place, certainly in the digital field [for this work]. A potential award-winner, I’d say.”  

As Andsnes discovered, Dvořák intended the set to be played complete. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “Regrettably, precious few pianists will have the courage to play them all one after another, but only thus can the listener form the right picture of what I had in mind.”

At age 12, when he first attempted the cycle, Andsnes performed only a few selections. During the COVID-19 hiatus, he decided to commit to performing and recording the complete set. “It feels exciting to take Dvořák at his word, and I think he is absolutely right,” Andsnes said. “I feel a very strong, wonderful narrative in the work. It’s a cycle of many stories but it also feels like one big story.”

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