On October 28th, 2022 Sony Classical released the latest recording from the exceptional Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. This latest CD features Antonin Dvorak’s rather unfamiliar thirteen piano pieces that are called his Poetic Tone Pictures.
This music is quintessentially Czech, but has the same intimacy and friendliness as Robert Schuman’s great piano cycles. Each of the pieces in the Poetic Tone Pictures paints a musical picture or postcard of a very specific mood or character; each of the pieces telling their own very distinct story.
Written in the spring of 1889, the Poetic Tone Pictures were composed at a time when Dvorak was turning more and more towards programmatic music.
All of these pieces are real gems for the piano. After hearing them, it raises the question for the listener, ‘why are these pieces so obscure?’ “It’s very curious, “states Andsnes, “He (Dvorak) has a reputation of not being able to write well for the piano. It derives from the fact that he was not a pianist…he was a string player. There are some awkward moments when you play these pieces…on the other hand he writes so colorfully, so wonderfully for the piano…so full of different textures for each piece and different technical challenges, as well as the music which is of course glorious! It’s just a miracle to find this kind of music that people don’t really play.”
Andsnes has had a long relationship with these pieces. “I’ve known at least some of them since I was a child. My father picked up; rather randomly in London an LP of these pieces with the Czech pianist Radoslav Kvapil…and I remember listening to the first ones when I was a child and I liked them very much. I played the very first one in the youth competition when I was 12, and it’s been in the back of mind that I should look at more of them,” explains Andsnes.
The pandemic offered Andsnes the time to learn all of the Poetic Tone Pictures. The drive to learn all thirteen of them was spurred on by a quote by Dvorak. As Andsnes explains “I found a quote a few years ago by Dvorak that said ‘Only by playing all of the pieces together can one really understand my intention’...this quote got me very curious, and when the pandemic was over us then I thought maybe that is one of the things I should study now that I have a bit more time at home. And so I did. It has been a great discovery!”
The decision to perform them all as a cycle now makes sense to Andsnes. “It is a very special feeling to play them all as a cycle. I do understand what Dvorak meant. It makes for such a contrasting journey between sort of very spiritual mysterious pieces and other very playful ones, and very intimate ones. It makes us all feel like we’ve all been through this great journey. I love the way it feels at the end, when we have been through it all.”
The Poetic Tone Pictures by Dvorak are a very welcome discovery for any listener. These are pieces that should be performed in concert much more frequently than they are. Andsnes plays them with all with beauty and style and with all of the captivating colors and textures that Dvorak demands.
Let Leif Ove Andsnes be your guide on this Poetic Tone Picture journey. You won’t regret it!