Some people are lucky in their names. Take that of the prodigious Russian pianist, Evgeny Kissin. Most people mispronounce it, but don't hesitate to do so.
Now consider that of the Norwegian virtuoso, Leif Ove Andsnes. That's a name whose pronunciation one can't fake phonetically and that inspires fear of making a fool of oneself. Could that be one of the reasons that Andsnes, who is almost exactly Kissin's age and equally gifted, is not as well-known in the United States?
"It's really not that difficult," says the pianist, 26, speaking by telephone from California where he was performing Beethoven with the San Francisco Symphony.
"It's 'LAYff oo-VAY ANS-ness'," he says. "Just keep in mind that, in Scandinavian double first names, the second one is as important as the first -- like 'Billy Joe' or 'Jean-Pierre.' "
Baltimore music lovers should have no problem remembering his name after Andsnes' performances this week of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and conductor Christopher Seaman. He is a player who -- to judge from his remarkable recordings on the Virgin label -- combines power and poetry in equal measure.
"He is one of the greatest pianists we have," says the well-known Latvian conductor, Mariss
Jansons, the music director-designate of the Pittsburgh Symphony and music director of the Oslo Philharmonic. "Who is better, Leif Ove or Genia [Kissin]? Who knows, who cares? There is not even a sixteenth note between them."
Andsnes possesses a staggering technique that allows him to justify taking Chopin's most difficult etudes at blistering tempos, an intellect sensitive to the classical architecture of the Chopin sonatas or the Romantic expansiveness of those by Schumann, and a curiosity about the repertory that distinguishes him among other big talents of his generation.
"My repertory is not very vast," the pianist says.
"Compared to whose," one is tempted to ask.
It is difficult to think of another young pianist with such wide interests. Like Kissin, he plays superlative Chopin, Schumann and Rachmaninov. But he also performs all of Leos Janacek, large quantities of Paul Hindemith, off-the-beaten-track Liszt (such as the late "Mephisto Waltzes"), works by Karol Szymanowski (he will record his "Symphony Concertante" with Simon Rattle this fall) and Carl Nielsen (Andsnes' disc of his music is scheduled for release early this summer).
Nielsen is a particular interest, and it should be a pleasure to hear Andsnes apply himself to the gritty sonorities of the "Chaconne" (opus 32) and to the inexorable musical argument of the "Suite Luciferian" (opus 45) -- particularly because the great Dane's music is so unaccountably neglected. The pianist believes, for example, that the "Suite," which was written for and dedicated to Artur Schnabel, is one of the 20th century's great piano works.
"Certainly, it is the greatest Scandinavian piano music of this century," Andsnes says.
While his programming is more adventurous than Kissin's, Andsnes -- like the more conservative Russian -- tends to proceed cautiously.
"I used to play only a few [standard] works repeatedly and then record them," he says. "Then a few years ago I began to feel that I had a greater capacity, and I began to take more risks. I feel I have a more interesting life than I did, but I still take [learning and performing new music] step by step. I like to concentrate on doing a little very well."
There can be no doubt that many leading lights of the classical music business agree with the pianist's methods. While not well-known here -- despite having made an enthusiastically received New York debut as far back as 1989 -- he is already a regular guest of the nation's most prestigious orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony.
And he's not in a hurry. He adores the music of Schubert, for example, particularly the "big" A Major Sonata. But he is putting off Schubert's sonatas until he learns more of Beethoven's than the seven he currently performs.
He seems content so far with a musical identity that is as difficult to pigeonhole as his name is to pronounce. He is equally at home with the predominantly Russian Slavic repertory as he is with the classic Austro-Germanic repertory.
"The Nordic mentality has always been attracted to Russian emotions," he says. "On the other hand, most Scandinavian composers have always been most influenced by German models.
"It's an interesting combination -- because we're caught between a strong Russian and a strong German musical life," Andsnes adds.
"I couldn't prefer one to the other, and I'm glad that I don't have to."
Pub Date: 5/20/96