mon 24/06/2024

Pictures Reframed: Leif Ove Andsnes & Robin Rhode, QEH | reviews, news & interviews

Pictures Reframed: Leif Ove Andsnes & Robin Rhode, QEH

Pictures Reframed: Leif Ove Andsnes & Robin Rhode, QEH

The pianist reimagines Musorgsky's masterwork with video extras

Leif Ove Andsnes: The Norwegian pianist turns Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition into a video show

We watch and listen simultaneously so much today that it hardly seems blasphemous for a superlative pianist to decide to conceive an evening of piano music plus video installation. Leif Ove Andsnes has doubts about the transmittability of classical music to a general audience today - he calls the status quo into question, and he may be right.

So he turned a concert programme into a video show, focusing on Musorgky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Schumann’s Kinderszenen, to which would be set a visual installation around him and his piano.

There is already a CD and DVD set out of this, which I haven’t seen, but performed live last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall it came across as a tricksy but often charming evening far away from the pure concert experience. I thought of old cinema organists rising out of the ground with their Wurlitzers to accompany silent movies. It would have been good to see the hall packed with an audience of children, who would have been enraptured.


The sticking-point is how much you are prepared to be distracted from Andsnes, a master pianist whose playing needs not the slightest extra addition. Surrounded by six screens fielding Robin Rhode’s video and photo installations in rather Escher-like pencil-black patterns, he sat with low light over his piano, soberly dressed, as anonymous-looking as an accompanist (picture above from Norway performance, © EMI).

Grainy and jerky, all the videos and stills have an early-photography quality about them that harks back nicely to the same era as much of the music. Two little pieces from Musorgsky’s Memories of Childhood set the theme before the first video - a strange whited-out photo apparition of a little boy watching a candle drawing itself in front of his eyes, then lighting it, and watching the paper it’s drawn on burning. The combination of freeze-frame photo motion and animated graphics places one imaginatively into the child’s picture world, while the scenes also have a flickering quality that suits the fleeting nature of so much of the music. It adds something, for just a moment, and then you realise you missed something Andsnes did that you probably wanted not to miss.

In Kinderszenen, one of Schumann’s sweetest piano cycles, Andsnes’ tender, complete playing was all I wanted to hear - what a patient father one imagines Schumann to have been with his sprogs, his brief scenes capturing the shyness of one child, the boisterousness of another, or likening a little one’s fearful falling asleep to something like, at least in Andsnes’ intense colouring, a foreshadow of dying.

More techie games came with a new work by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher, What Becomes, for which Andsnes stuck wedges and various other devices into the strings of the piano by torchlight - sabotage in the dark, a pleasingly childlike thing to do. The result was not nearly as eccentric as might have been hoped, but rather tonal and easy-listening - again, children would love the dud thuds of the hobbled notes or the places where Andsnes strummed the piano strings with ghostly fingers.

The little sections (rather like studies, homing in on simple ideas of texture or rhythm) have picturesque names, "Parabolic Bikes", or "Paper Planes", to which Rhode responds with a stop-motion sequence of a child apparently riding her bike along a white line of bricks, until you eventually see the child and bike are flat on the road, it’s the line that’s being moved in perfect timing with the musical pulse - a faintly worrying joke. In "Paper Planes" two children are staring up a white wall on which graffiti aeroplanes are animated into great flocks of flying rhombuses. It’s as if the children are drawing skies-ful of planes in their heads. Finally each ends up with a pencilled plane diving into their hand.

Rhode's childlike eye sprawls rather too copiously over Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. There’s an over-literal substitution of a train for Bydlo (The Ox Cart), but a jolly voodoo chicken-hunt for Baba Yaga: the Hut on Fowl's Legs, which is You’ve Been Framed meets Blair Witch Project, and amid whose distractions I just about managed to notice how staggering some of Andsnes’ pianism was.

The most elegant is the idea used for the various Promenades, starting with a schoolboy headstanding against a wall apparently calling up shapes like Japanese lanterns with his feet. And the final image for The Great Gate of Kiev, of a piano being drowned in a roaring flood, and then filmed spookily underwater like the Titanic wreck, is what is much talked about.

In the end, you see, you keep talking about the images. Instead I should be talking about Andsnes’ playing, shouldn’t I?

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Great pianist, but this being an experiment in how to combine art and classical music, I was somewhat disappointed. Check my review:

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