“I DONT WANT to become bigger than this,” says Steinway Artist Leif Ove Andsnes, indicating the space around him, making a series of tight, vigorous circles with his hand as if to summon a small tornado. The gesture is apropos, given the contained, intense tornado of music that spun through the four days of the second annual Rosendal Chamber Music Festival, held in August of last year, which left the pianist exhausted but happy. 

By not becoming “bigger,” Andsnes is speaking to the size of the casually dressed crowd, the length of the festival, the importance of maintaining the intimacy of chamber music — but also perhaps something more: the tight, cozy, even insular nature of Rosendal itself, reached via ferry from the airport in neighboring Bergen. Rosendal is set dramatically in a lush valley and boasts the Baroniet Rosendal Manor Houses and Gardens, which date from 1661. Time passes slowly here. 

The focus of the festival was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which offered great opportunity for breadth or depth. Andsnes and friends managed both. 

Mozart, who died at thirty-five, wasn’t afforded proper early, middle, and late periods. And the real tragedy in his early demise, writer and composer Jan Swafford noted tearfully during a Mozart lecture with Andsnes, was all the wondrous music we were denied that was yet to come.

“With Mozart,” Andsnes warns me the day after the close of the festival, “there is a really fine line between okay performances and really good — and sometimes memorable — performances. There is an elusive quality to Mozart, because after Beethoven, we are listening with Beethoven’s moral imperative in mind, goals for every phrase, and so on.” Andsnes knows of what he speaks, having recently completed The Beethoven Journey, a multiyear recording project of the five Beethoven piano concertos.

“And that’s not what Mozart is about,” Andsnes continues. “He has these complicated moods that can mean very different things. In my opening talk, I said, ‘The G Minor Quartet is not a very dark piece,’ and then I went out and listened to it and thought, ‘Oh, that is a very dark piece!’ And that really depends on the performers and what you emphasize. It’s all very difficult to pinpoint!”

Mozart & Messiaen. Leif Ove Andsnes and Jan Swafford talk Mozart; Francesco Piemontesi revivifies Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, KV 330; while Martin Fröst, Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff, and Francesco Piemontesi perform Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps.

Some of Mozart’s darkness was brought immediately into stark relief at the festival’s opening concert, where Andsnes and Francesco Piemontesi essayed the Fugue in C Minor for Two Pianos, both relishing its dissonance. That concert also featured the Clarinet Quintet in A Major, performed by the Tetzlaff Quartet and soloist Martin Fröst. The clarinetist’s sound is so alive that it really seemed as though he was pouring liquid into a vessel, rather than playing music, his tone bringing color to even seemingly straightforward scalar passages. Fröst also reminded us, in our age of listening to streaming music on earbuds we can constantly turn up, what it’s like to experience a live pianissimo, with birds chirping above it outside. No bigger.

It wasn’t all Mozart. A highlight the next day was Györgi Ligeti’s Sonata for Viola, featuring the soloist Tabea Zimmermann. In a remarkable performance, Zimmermann offered up an unbroken sound and opening-movement false harmonies that dissolved and then took flight into Ligeti as Bach. 

Another highlight was a sublime delivery of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”). The story behind the piece — its penning and performance in a prisoner-of-war camp by a quartet of ad-hoc musicians, Messiaen’s subsequent poor health and dream of angels who announced the end of time, compelling him to write additional movements — is already legendary, and predisposes listeners to expect the transcendent. But this performance, held in the sacred space of Kvinnherad Church, truly delivered musically and spiritually, with Fröst soaring on clarinet, Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff digging in on violin and cello, respectively, and Piemontesi pitilessly driving everyone forward from the keyboard. It was truly a vibrant and reaffirming performance.

Pastoral. The pristine beauty of Rosendal

 

Yet top honors stayed with Mozart, thanks again to Francesco Piemontesi, who made me reconsider the Piano Sonata in C Major, KV 330, which I had heretofore regarded as light. But just as Andsnes had prejudged the G Minor Quartet as “not very dark,” I misgauged the weight of the sonata. Piemontesi imbued the opening Allegro with a light yet powerfully urgent touch. I have rarely heard such transparency packed with such expressive buoyancy. Piemontesi made a meal of each phrase without chewing the scenery, every chord excruciatingly voiced. The following Andante was effortful Mozart, as though seeking out Beethoven. Piemontesi remarkably overlapped sectional transitions as though they were on a cross-fader. The final Allegretto located lightness and strength to cap an utterly — and consistently — engaging performance. I don’t think it is possible to wring any more out of this sonata than Piemontesi was able to squeeze. Inspiring!  

A final moment of inspiration came from another “light” Mozart work, the Divertimento in F Major, KV 138, performed by the young Opus13 String Quartet, founded in 2014. After a brisk opening, the quartet really released the Andante’s theme into the stratosphere. The final Presto was filled with energy and the group’s chemistry drove the Mozart home, and had me reconsidering what I thought I once knew. 

 

This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & CultureSteinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

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