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10 Questions for Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes

10 Questions for Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes

Norway's premier pianist on Beethoven, elevator music, conducting from the piano and being big in Korea

Leif Ove Andsnes concludes his Beethoven Journey at the Proms this weekChris Aadland

Though perhaps not quite the "long strange trip" once hymned by the Grateful Dead, Leif Ove Andsnes's Beethoven Journey has been a marathon undertaking. It has spanned four years, during which the Norwegian pianist and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra have toured the world, performing all five of Beethoven's piano concertos with Andsnes conducting from the keyboard.

This week, they bring their trek to a close by performing the concertos, plus Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, at the Proms, opening on Thursday (23 July) and continuing on Friday and Sunday. Along the way, pianist and orchestra have committed the concertos to disc, courtesy of Sony Classical, and earlier this year their recording of the Second and Fourth strolled away with BBC Music Magazine's Recording of the Year Award.

"I was very happy about that," admits Andsnes, "because Record of the Year is quite something if you think you're competing with 1,500 titles or whatever. And then somebody says 'okay, this is the record I most appreciate from this year'. It's an acknowledgement of what I do and therefore an inspiration for further work."

Now a youthful-looking 45, Andsnes is recognised as a premier interpreter of such titans of the piano repertoire as Chopin, Mozart and Rachmaninov, and he has found a particular affinity with the music of his fellow countryman, Edvard Grieg, whose piano concerto he played at the Last Night of the Proms in 2002. An eight-time Grammy nominee and winner of six Gramophone Awards (and, since 2013, a Gramophone Hall-of-Famer), Andsnes is doing a fine impression of an artist at the peak of his powers. Nonetheless, now he's a father of three with his partner, Ragnhild Lothe (a horn player with the Bergen Philharmonic), he's finding that there can be more to life than music, though there will always be music in it (Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, pictured above by Holger Talinski).

Theartsdesk talked to Andsnes in the dimly-lit bowels of the Royal College of Music, in the aftermath of the BBC's launch of the 2015 Proms. The distant strains of music students at practice made an appropriate accompaniment. 

ADAM SWEETING: Can one ever have enough of Beethoven?

LEIF OVE ANDSNES: No I don't think so, actually. For me maybe that has been one of the discoveries of this journey, that I felt how important this music is. It's sometimes very boring to go back and practise it, which one has to always – I mean, it's five big piano concertos. But when I'm there working with the musicians of an orchestra onstage in front of an audience, there's always something spontaneous and fresh about this music. So no – I haven't had enough! But I think it will be also quite nice after the end of July when this journey stops to be able to play other composers, because it's been intense, and it's been three or four years. I want to do a lot of Chopin. I want to do more French music, Debussy in particular. I'm also looking at some unusual things like Sibelius's piano music, which has never been done before, though it's a very uneven output. And I want to get back into Mozart.

What started you off on this Beethoven cycle?

I think it grew inside me and I felt more and more that this is the most important music there is, and I really need to devote a period of time to Beethoven's music. Then I was staying in São Paolo for a week in a hotel, and every time I walked into the lift there was a CD on playing Beethoven's First and Second piano concertos. I thought after a day it would make me mad to have to listen to this again and again, because they didn't change the CD, but actually the opposite happened. Hearing 40 seconds of this music every time I got in the lift made me aware of all these episodes of these pieces. Hearing these fragments made me think how incredible this music is and how original and how fresh and how beautiful, all these kinds of things. That triggered something in me and I thought okay, maybe now is my time. So after that I made plans.

Do you know whose recording it was in the lift?

I have no idea! That's the funny thing. It must have been a good one [laughter]. 

Did you find yourself thinking about Brendel and Ashkenazy and Barenboim and Perahia and all these pianists who have recorded these concertos?

Sure, of course. That's also a main reason why I waited until I passed 40 to do it. But the funny thing is when you really work on this music you find that somehow this music is about freedom, and I don't any more think about what other people are doing with this music. Of course I've listened to other recordings in the past and also in the process sometimes getting inspired and maybe getting ideas from others as well, but with this music, it's possible to make it your own in a way. It's like Anton Rubinstein, the old pianist, said, that you have to recreate Beethoven every time. It's such a creation and it's such a direct language. He never hides behind make-up or theatre. He wasn't a great theatre composer. He wrote one opera which is quite good but that was not his world, but there is something so sincere about the music "which goes from heart to heart", which he said in a letter. Also the music has such a backbone, you can really wrestle with it and it will survive. If you do certain things with a composer like Chopin, who is for me an amazing composer, you can easily destroy the sonorities. If you don't have the proportions of sound right between the hands and between the voices and so on, and you play the 3rd Ballade of Chopin, it just seems wrong. You do it with Beethoven's Appassionata sonata or any major piece actually, you can still hear that this is great music. You can hear a student play the Appassionata and it's still great music. Beethoven is always very grounded. You have a lot of bass, you can exaggerate things harmonically or bass-wise, and it doesn't destroy the structure. I think one thing that makes this music so fresh again and again is that it has an irrational aspect to it. It's organically built on these motifs but there are accents in the wrong places and all these strange transitions, and that's what makes it so fresh.


How much progression as a composer can you hear across the five piano concertos?

Of course quite a lot, but it's not an enormous span of time, though the Second concerto, which was the first composed, was a sort of work in progress for him. He composed the first sketches in Bonn before he came to Vienna, then spent eight or 10 years writing the piece. And the First and Second concertos are quite influenced by Haydn and Mozart, but I still think they have such a stamp of Beethoven. He was getting closer to 30 when he wrote those pieces, he's not a teenager, he's not a student, but one often reads that they're kind of student pieces when they are not at all. This is real Beethoven. But from the Third there is more of an epic feel, and the last three concertos are undoubtedly real masterpieces in their very different ways. When you get to the Fifth, one of the aspects that he has developed so much is the sort of heroic role of the soloist. You have just a chord in the orchestra and then you have these enormous wave-like passages in the piano, and that paves the way for the Romantic piano concerto, this sort of heroic piano concerto.

Everything from Liszt to Rachmaninov and Prokofiev basically, everything that came after was so influenced by the Fifth concerto and that new heroic soloist model. You never had that in the Mozart concertos, it was always much more of a dialogue with the orchestra. You feel it already in the Second Beethoven concerto – you feel that it's there, he's making a bit more of a separation between the soloist and the orchestra, but then he develops that very much. So that's a big difference. Another one is the role of the orchestra, it becomes more and more symphonic. It's not any more a backing band. You get to the Third and you have that enormous introduction from the orchestra, and you just feel okay, this is getting really serious now. It has symphonic proportions, it sounds different. In the first two concertos there are more shorter phrases, but from the Third you feel alright, here is a new element. One of the best places in the Third concerto I think is after the cadenza, when the timpani comes in – bom, bom-bom, bom-bom. It's like that theme has been turned into a heartbeat, isn't it? It's amazing, it's one of the first moments that got me when I first listened to those concertos. The Third for me still is the perfect concerto, from beginning to end. But Beethoven was making all these radical choices – think of the Fourth concerto, beginning with the piano. That must have been such a shock when audiences first heard it.

But it's very hard to recreate that shock now?

Yes because we know it so well, but the second movement is such a startling dialogue between orchestra and piano and they being in such different worlds. All these things. It's full of it. Beethoven does what Mozart did in his last concertos, he never begins with the same material as is presented in the orchestral introduction. Then when you get to the Third for instance, you just have these scales – [Andsnes sings scales in a dark rumbling tone]. There's no music, it's simply the soloist saying "Here I am, I am the boss. Listen to me, I'm in charge." It changes the whole psychology of the piano concerto I think. The soloist is being thrown out onto the gladiator stage to show what he can do. As the soloist, you have to feel that backbone and pride and that provocation in a way. I am not always playing with the orchestra, I'm playing against them sometimes. That's what's interesting with these concertos, the psychological play. And if you're leading the orchestra yourself you're being a bit schizophrenic, which I'm doing here, because I want to lead them and at same time the soloist is setting himself apart.

Was it a difficult decision to perform the concertos without a conductor?

I was thinking about it for a long time, but I had done a lot of Mozart and Haydn concertos before this, and I was getting some experience in playing without a conductor and I thought it could work. I did a project with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra where we did the Third concerto and I thought wow, this really has some potential. I was afraid of the Fourth and especially the Fifth, because in the Fifth you're playing all the time basically. There's not much time to give any signals. When you work with an ensemble like the Mahler Chamber Orchestra you do things together and they listen so well you can do things without having to mark every bar, but it's still a challenge. The first three concertos are much more natural in that way, they lend themselves to that approach. And with the Choral Fantasy, people ask me about that because they say it must be very difficult when you have the chorus coming in at the end, but actually the tempi just lend themselves very naturally, and at the end the pianist doesn't have so much to play. I don't know if Beethoven was thinking about that, that he would have to conduct the choir, but that's not so difficult (Andsnes photographed by Oezguer Albayrak, above right).

You've been touring with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra but also playing with the San Francisco Symphony, the Los Angeles Symphony and others. When you move from conducting yourself to working with Gustavo Dudamel or Michael Tilson Thomas, what's it like?

I just have a different frame of mind then. I'm concentrating on my playing. Of course when I play with somebody like Dudamel I'm just throwing at him what I think about the piece and so on, but ultimately I then have to leave the orchestra work to another musician and I'm happy to do that. I'm happy to learn something each time. Sometimes it works better than other times, sometimes I think "hmmm, I don't really like how this score is going", but that's normal. That's normal also if I play Brahms, which I would never conduct. It's like I have two different frames of mind. If I'm leading an orchestra then I would always be thinking about what I do and how to work with them, but sometimes it's quite nice to leave it to that other person and say okay, now it's only the playing.

How did you develop this close relationship with the Mahler Orchestra? (pictured left by Holger Talinski)

I had only done one major tour with them, which was in 2002. They really wanted to do this, they had never done a Beethoven cycle like this, so they were really keen on it and then we made lots of plans. I was very nervous when we started in May 2012, because I thought if this doesn't work I have a problem, because I've made three years of plans. But it's been fantastic working with them. Claudio Abbado started the orchestra, and what a lot of people don't realise is that they've been the core of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra [which was regularly conducted by Abbado]. They have spent the last 10 summers with Abbado, so of course when he died it was a big shock for a lot of those musicians. They really felt so close to him, but you feel it in their musicianship, this kind of listening that was always so important for him, listening to each other, not only following the conductor. He was very special in that way and they have had amazing experiences with him for so many years, and that does something to musicians if you work on that level. So for me it's quite a unique chamber orchestral. It's such a democratic group as well. It doesn't feel like it does with so many orchestras, where you have the most engaged players on the two first desks and then maybe it's a bit uneven. No, here everybody is involved, they'll ask questions and be really engaged. That's great.

Now that you're a father of three, what do you think about the young generation and classical music? Will they listen to it?

I'm worried about schools, because there are too few where one really gets into this kind of music, or into art in general. A friend of mine who's my age, and is a pop musician, was telling me that he remembered when he was in eighth grade or so they had to lie down on the floor and his teacher played a recording of Smetana's Moldau for them, and he still has such a strong relation to that music because of that. These days I have a feeling they don't do that in school, because everything is measured by tests and what you know about things. Everybody should lie down on the floor and play some music, because where else do you do that? Very few people do that at home, and to get that sense of wonder which classical music is so much about I think, it needs somebody to introduce it for you. But I'm not as pessimistic as others about the classical audiences. In London, aren't people actually going to more concerts than ever? There may be a crisis in the classical music industry, because everybody's streaming music and maybe they won't pay for recorded music, but going to concerts still seems to be attractive to a lot of people. And if you go to the Far East, classical music is really happening and you play to a very young audience. I played in Seoul and it's the only place I've ever felt like Elvis.


Just fascinating to read through an artist's thoughts like this, at length, and how insightful Andsnes is.


I found the performances of Beethoven by Andsnes really lacking - we listened eagerly but it left us cold - particularly the 4th piano concerto. We like Beethoven and of course everyone has personal tastes where they prefer this or that pianist. I was interested to look for reviews today but everywhere a universal and blanket gushing about Andsnes. Makes me wonder if the classical musical world has not succumbed to hero worship. Not for us this performance - we switched off before the end of the last movement. We like many different interpretations of Beethoven's great concertos - but sadly not these - technically excellent though they might have been. We discussed this evening whether we might need new equipment to listen on our reactions had been so different.

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