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Of Innocence and Experience
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B minor, S. 178 (1849-53) [30:31]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kinderszenen, Op. 15 (1838) [19:21]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata” (1804/06) [25:36]
Kristian Ofstad Lindberg (piano)
rec. November 2019, Sofienberg Church, Norway.
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
2L RECORDS 2L161SACD [75:27]

Kristian Ofstad Lindberg won the Norwegian Young Pianists Competition in 1997 at the age of 17, took first prize at the International Grieg Concours in Oslo in 2007 and won the Levin prize in 2012. He has appeared on the Harmonia Mundi label, but from what I’ve seen this release is his first major solo recording.

You would expect at the very least solid performances from a player with this kind of pedigree, but this is musicianship at the highest level, both artistic and technical. Liszt’s Sonata in B minor has been recorded by all the great pianists, and for a reasonably recent modern comparison I would pick Paul Lewis on Harmonia Mundi (review). Both players are exceptional in the first movement: hard-hitting but pin-sharp accurate and always holding onto that feel of poetry in the music no matter how dramatic and turbulent things become. Climaxes need to be transcendent and Lindberg excels, helped by a recording that gives you the feeling the instrument has been moved into your living room. Timings between Lindberg and Lewis are as close as to make no difference. I think Lindberg’s pedalling is more subtle and refined in the central Andante sostenuto, and the depth of tone in the piano sound is toothsome to say the least, with the definition in those lower chords something you just want to dive into and bottle. Lindberg can pull the music around as required, but remains tasteful even when Liszt himself is pushing those boundaries. The rich acoustic plays its role in the final movement’s staccato passages and swirling textures, but there is still plenty of clarity, and this is a disc you will want with you when sampling new H-Fi, Lindberg delivering those climactic moments in a way that will have people gathering around in the shop in admiration.

Schumann’s Kinderszenen is lighter in tone, and Lindberg proves himself perfectly equipped to create lyrical expressiveness and that playfully translucent sound that this collection demands. If there is a version of this music I return to then it’s Radu Lupu’s Decca recording that draws me back more often than not (review). The piano sound is not as rounded and ‘complete’ as with this 2L recording, and I was happy to hear that Lindberg need have no fear from this or in fact any other competitor. Choosing preferences by such close margins can take us down rabbit holes of decreasing value. Lindberg takes his time where he feels the need, and pushes on without overdue haste where Schumann is reflecting the knockabout fun of innocent games. I can’t imagine anyone not being charmed and delighted by such an authentically honest and richly sensitive performance.

Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata is another pianistic warhorse, but by this time we’re only too keen to hear what Lindberg will make of it. This is very much a work of darkness and light, and Lindberg brings out both, contrasting the turmoil of the first movement with luminosity in the second - where Beethoven allows it. There is a theatrical feel to the first movement which is delivered emphatically here, but also with a hint of restraint: a recognition that the real storm has to be held in reserve for the final cataclysmic Allegro, ma non troppo, that last instruction from Beethoven by way of return a recognition that even here the notes need their space to have their fullest impact. Igor Levit has recently taken the laurels as top Beethoven pianist on recordings at the moment with his set on Sony Classics (review), and with his brisker tempi he is indeed spectacular in the Appassionata. Once again I find it impossible to declare an absolute preference, there being a place for both depending on the mood you want to conjure - fire and ice from Levit, or a more human scale, with eloquence and tragedy and that Beethovenian fist at the forehead from Lindberg. With that fantastic piano sound and a feel of late-night profundity it’s Lindberg I find more persuasive at time of writing. Tomorrow I might equally need Levit’s superhuman inspiration, but the conclusion is once again that Kristian Ofstad Lindberg can take on all competitors in a field that shouldn’t really be in competition with itself at all.

Despite the familiarity of the repertoire here, this is still one of the best piano recitals and piano recordings I’ve heard for a long time, so go ahead, turn up the volume and test your Hi-Fi on this one. You won’t be disappointed.

Dominy Clements

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