Leif Ove Andsnes: The End of a Journey
Many classical pianists over the years have taken on the five piano-concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven.
When playing Beethoven you need a technical and musical overview that is so demanding, many struggle simply trying to play the correct notes. Beethoven himself was an eminent and flawless pianist, as is surely heard in his concertos, and as a composer he knew well how to challenge his performers.
One of today’s most prominent interpreters of Beethoven’s piano-concertos is Leif Ove Andsnes, who just concluded his own “Beethoven-Journey.” We are thrilled to bring you this exclusive interview with him.
Enjoy these exquisite interpretations of some of the mostly beloved pieces of music and with an artist that more than fulfills the daunting task of bringing these pieces to life.
- Morten Ernst Lassen, Classical Editor
Over the past four years, celebrated chamber pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has been entrenched in one of his life’s biggest projects, which he calls The Beethoven Journey.
An intense collaborative project between Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the core of the “journey” has been the recording of all five of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concerti as well as his Choral Fantasy. Now the charismatic and acclaimed Norwegian has just released the conclusion of this journey, Beethoven’s fifth symphony, also known as the “Emperor Concerto.”
In these years Leif Ove Andsnes has also made Beethoven’s concerti the focus of his stage activity. With the project’s recording complete, he’s still occupied performing live across the globe, from Beethoven’s birth town of Bonn, Germany, to four sold-out concerts at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, led by star conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
- I am in an incredibly fortunate situation when I can just fly to Los Angeles in a few days to play for 7-8000 people.
As a father of young children, he has found the peace in Norway’s provincial capital of Bergen, where he also studied. During a cold, rainy visit to Oslo to promote the final studio album in the project, we sat down for a sofa-side chat about repertoire, audience and life as a classical musician.
- I was 19 when I had this magnificent idea of becoming a concert pianist and doing all the concertos by Rachmaninoff and Beethoven. Now I’ve actually done both. [laughs]
You are in a position where you can choose any repertoire you please. Why Beethoven?
- You have to remember that Beethoven also was a fantastic pianist. He was both a performer, a composer and a major improvisor. He was widely known for his “sessions,” where he competed along with other great pianists of the time. Of course, he surpassed all the others. His genius was in a meeting with the piano, so it’s fantastic for me to work with his music – this was his entrance.
At EMI, prior to moving to Sony Classics, he documented all four primary piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff, together with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. Only a few of the foremost contemporary pianists can have this honor, though perhaps the honor is mostly ours, his audience.
- Beethoven for pianists is very much like Shakespeare for actors. The compositions are part of the core. They changed all of music at the time and had inseparable effects on subsequent music history.
You’ve called this project a journey – is that also accurate on a personal level?
- Absolutely, that is one of the main points for me as an artist. My first thought is never about recording and selling my music. I basically chose to devote the next three or four years of my life to Beethoven. You know, there’s so much music to choose from for a pianist: from Bach to the present day, there is a wealth of material. For many years I have bounced between Haydn, Schubert, Rachmaninoff and some newer music, every season could offer different things. But it has been such a relief to just do this. I also think you become better at what you do a lot of. It’s almost about mastering a single language.
Five piano concertos have been recorded, with the Choral Fantasy as tail on his latest release.
On stage, Andsnes has included even more of Beethoven’s work, including his sonatas. And concerts have been many, at least 150 concerts during these years.
There are many recordings of Beethoven’s piano concertos, the ubiquitous and puzzling Glenn Gould or the romantic and explosive Vladimir Ashkenazy. With room for many interpretations, Leif Ove Andsnes opted out of having a symphony orchestra instead playing with the lauded Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
- That’s the peculiar thing with Beethoven. The music has such strong bones that it takes a lot to knock it down. The music can be approached in many different ways. This is a key focus of my project, giving myself time and space to immerse and work in different constellations. With the L.A. Philharmonic I play with an orchestra that sounds solid and thick, compared with Mahler where it’s more flexible, explosive and dynamic. It also highlights the revolutionary nature of Beethoven’s music. And I must add that flexibility comes with such a great chamber orchestra, their excellence is both in size and quality.
With the chamber orchestra, you chose to work without a conductor. I assume that’s the same as you taking the lead?
- On the stage, I work with a lot of different conductors. Together with the chamber orchestra, I have found an exciting way to work. I have done it a lot before with Mozart’s music. In some parts, where the music should be precise and synchronised, it’s tough. It really needs to be rehearsed so that everyone feels the music equally in the orchestra.
- Especially in my challenging parts, I have to ally myself with the first violinist, also known as the concertmaster. He or she becomes the backbone of my own playing, but it requires a lot of work. There is also a natural distance between the orchestra and the pianist. Sometimes we are in strong dialogue, while at other times there’s friction. It’s definitely been challenging and exciting.
- Musically, Beethoven is more challenging than Mozart; his music is less based on dialogue between piano and orchestra. In Beethoven’s music the soloist moves into a heroic role, paving the way for romanticism where the soloist is the center.
As a student, Andsnes played a lot of different music, largely due to a piano teacher who constantly encouraged him to find unusual repertoires.
One such example was Czech composer Leoš Janáček, whose music was given a tremendous boost in the film The Unbearable Lightness of Being around the same time Andsnes was playing it.
- It was a fluke – suddenly I could sell thousands of CDs. It was well in the middle of the CD boom and classical music got a renewed upswing. It also meant that I could record a lot of music in a few years.
A Danish newspaper recently wrote an article about the proportional growth in of classical music consumption as listeners moves from CDs to streaming. Perhaps streaming has the potential to create a new boom for classical music, when a new audience has access and information to the vast archive that exists.
We talk briefly about TIDAL, and its unique offering of the world of music in HiFi quality. He asks if he can test TIDAL out and seems interested in the new digital possibilities.
What do you think about the general development of classical music?
- There are both positive and negative signals for classical music. The major concert houses tell a story of falling subscriber numbers, but at the same time doubling the number of unique visitors. That means more people going to the concerts. It’s absolutely fantastic. People are much more open to different musical expression today than in the past, but the status and icons may have been offset by popular cultural figures. It’s definitely a myth that the audience keeps getting older, but there is greater competition, and the public can choose from many offers.
Talking about new audiences, in 2009, Andsnes travelled around the world with the visual art project “Pictures Reframed,” a revisualization of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” created together with video artist Robin Rhode.
- It was very exciting, with many different experiences. One of the performances was at the Barbican in London, with a late start to the concert. It was marketed toward a young, smart and artsy crowd, with DJs in the hall and all sorts of stuff going on. Many came solely because of the visuals, but it was a wonderful audience. For the more traditional audience, it was a visually demanding performance, even provocative. I was both reviled and carried in triumph during these performances. I found it inspiring overall.
After several years on one project, Andsnes’ Beethoven Journey ends in July 2015.
- There will be concerts in Lausanne, Vienna, Paris, New York, Shanghai, Tokyo and London, and, he exclaims enthusiastically, we will actually play in the small town of Bodø in northern Norway with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.
In terms of recordings, the journey has already reached its end.
What can we expect to hear from you in the future?
- I’m actually in a luxury situation now. I have worked with Beethoven for several years, and will do so until July next year. Beyond that I’m enjoying the fact that I don’t have any particular plans. I’ve obviously planned some performances and repertoires, but not in the way I’ve worked in recent years. Especially on the recording side, things are completely open. I enjoy being in limbo.
If he decides to explore more contemporary music, he has no choice but to give the baton back to the conductor.
- I can’t go any further than Beethoven’s fifth without a conductor. We are completely at the breaking point. Newer music gets so flexible that both the orchestra and I need a conductor.
We asked Leif Ove Andsnes to pick three albums of personal importance:
Conductor: Carlo Maria Giulini
“A classic from the ‘60s. This hit me right into the ground when I was 18. I think I listened to the entire work every night for almost two weeks before I managed to calm down. I haven’t been able to get this one out of the system.”
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
Conductor: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
“I have to select a piano concerto. When I heard this, I suddenly realized that there is much I don’t know about playing the piano. I’ve never even played this. Why should I try, if it can be played like this? I think I need to have some things that I haven’t played so it remains special for me. This I just want to admire.”
Brahms: Symphony No. 4
Conductor: Carlos Kleiber
“I moved to Copenhagen in 1997, and found myself in a completely empty apartment with a CD player on the floor. Music was my only company as I started a new chapter in life. The chords of the last movement were symptomatic on how I felt. I moved to Bergen at age 16, before feeling the need to get out. For a while I considered moving to London, but it seemed laborious. Suddenly I had bought my apartment in Copenhagen. I actually kept the place, to rent out, while Bergen has become our base.”
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