Awash in notes? Piano "drowns" in Andsnes concert

Thu Nov 5, 2009 1:23pm EST
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - It could be one of the most disturbing images in classical music since Charlotte Moorman played the cello in the nude and brought out the New York City vice squad.

Video footage of a black grand piano under tons of water in a Bergen dry dock isn't going to result in indecent exposure charges against Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and South African artist Robin Rhode, which is what happened to Moorman in 1967 when she played in the buff for Nam June Paik's "Opera Sextronique."

But traditional concertgoers may squirm in their seats when they hear Andsnes play Mussorgsky's extraordinary feat of piano gymnastics "Pictures at an Exhibition" to a video accompaniment by Rhode which includes a piano meeting a Titanic-like fate.

What does it mean, hearing Andsnes, at 39 one of the world's leading pianists, play the magnificent "Great Gate of Kiev" theme from Mussorgsky's masterpiece while a screen behind him shows an old German grand being swamped for video art's sake?

Andsnes, in London for a chamber concert, discusses the upcoming U.S. and European tour of "Pictures Reframed" and whether younger audiences will be attracted to what he and Rhode have concocted.

Q: When Mussorgsky wrote "Pictures at an Exhibition" in 1874 he was inspired by paintings and sketches by the painter Viktor Hartmann. They were very different from the mix of abstract, cinematic and even goofy images (the "Promenade" theme is accompanied by an upside-down man whose footsteps turn into bubble-like shapes) that Rhode has created. Artistic license?

A: This is a wild, psychologically interesting piece and it has always been in evolution. (French composer Maurice) Ravel orchestrated it, and pianists have always done things to it, rearranged it. (Russian painter) Kandinsky did an art project in the '20s with it. So it's interesting, it's such a potent piece which always seems to be moved around in so many different ways.

Q: Do people feel they can take liberties with Mussorgsky because he was a hopeless alcoholic, and while he wrote some of the greatest music in the Russian repertoire, he died young at age 42 and maybe he didn't get his own pieces quite right?   Continued...