Review: Dvořák – Poetic Tone Pictures

Coming off a two-part series of Mozart works, Leif Ove Andsnes explores a different avenue in presenting Dvořák’s Op. 85 Poetic Tone Pictures. These works are hardly the composer’s most prominent. However, that might be just the point for the pianist, who has had an inclination for the path less taken: his 2017 Sibelius album also presented the composer’s less-featured piano works.

The Poetic Tone Pictures were written in 1889 and comprise 13 vignettes. Despite their relative obscurity, they are significant as they show the composer’s willingness to diverge from more conventional forms (like his symphonies) to explore a more scenic and atmospheric world of sound. The opening “Twilight Way” is under 5 minutes but is chock-full of variety, including some unexpected twists and turns. The way Andsnes plays the sparkling B major section calls to mind reflections of the setting sun on the water; the fiercely spirited B minor (with staccatos most crisp) erupts into moments of ferocity. Meanwhile, the G major middle, lyrical and at times lush, lets us appreciate Dvořák’s lovely harmonic color changes.

In “Toying” (track 2), the composer takes a similar sort of staccato texture we heard earlier but puts it in a different context, this time with energetic humor. The way Andsnes interprets the work’s character gives it an eager and almost childlike quality that nicely counterbalances the underlying virtuosic nature of the writing. The middle bit is reminiscent of a Schubert lied (texture-wise) with the right hand melody floating over a water-like accompanimental figure.

The “Peasant’s Ballad” (track 5) has a scampering energy in the dotted rhythms, which the pianist enunciates nicely. Once again, it also shows Dvořák’s exploration of rich tonal colors and the instrument’s registers to evoke moods that can be drastically different. The moment at 0’55” starts plaintively enough but, with the expansion into the bass register (and Andsnes’ emphatic octaves), quickly turns impassioned. It is precisely these vibrant dynamic shifts that drive the work and also give it its programmatic, if not even story-like quality.

Listeners expecting a doleful tragedy in the “Sorrowful Reverie” (track 6) won’t find it, and maybe for the better. Here, Dvořák pairs a graceful, dancing sway in the left hand (which Andsnes plays with evenness and careful attention to voicing) against a lovely melody. The piece consequently possesses its requisite sorrow that still charms with its simplicity. But even within the calm, there are exciting moments. When the accompanimental texture disappears at 1’04”, a feeling of suspense makes its entrance in most satisfactory fashion with the pianist’s emphasis on the yearning high notes.

Another highlight of the set is the vibrant “Bacchanale” (track 10), which is in many ways an exercise in intricacy for the performer. Quickly repeating notes, frilly runs, and interlocking chords all make up part of the work’s persona, which is anticipatory and occasionally frenzied. Once again, the pianist not only shows comfort with the technical precision, but he also allows us to fully savor all of the different moods that appear. One thing that makes this possible is the appropriate amount of breathing space he gives between phrases (especially the short ones) and larger sections–all without giving off a sense of choppiness.

The penultimate “At the Hero’s Grave” is yet another fine display of musicianship. With its gently shimmering sounds, the lyrical section that begins at 1’00” is a beautiful and complementary contrast to the austere chords of the preceding minor section. Could “On the Holy Mountain” (track 13) possibly be a response to or even a commemoration of the Hero’s death? We hear chordal and arpeggiated textures of the prior work not separated across sections, but this time in active dialogue. The way Andsnes plays these chords also leaves us with a sense of profundity and reflection.

It’s no doubt that the Poetic Tone Pictures should be welcomed into the piano repertoire far more than they have up until this point. At the very least, Andsnes does these gems justice with a highly imaginative performance. He manages to simultaneously highlight the uniqueness of the individual pieces but still reminds us that each is a part of a greater narrative. A delightful listen and an enthusiastic recommendation.

Dvořák – Poetic Tone Pictures
Leif Ove Andsnes – Piano
Sony Classical, 19439912092

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