Peter Schlueer
Peter Schlueer

Interview with Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes

by Peter Schlueer, Klassik Heute Magazine

Out of Stillness

Interview with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes by Peter Schlueer Click image to watch Leif Ove Andsnes on YouTube

A five star hotel in a German metropolis. Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has just flown in from somewhere in the world. His boyish appearance and his unpretentious clarity of articulation don't fit entirely in with the baroque atmosphere of the hotel dominated by gold and marble foyers. When we jointly enter the breakfast room shimmering of fine table linen, Leif Ove Andsnes bounces back almost shocked and remarks with a head shake and a wry smile: "What an abundance of white!"


Anyone who gets to know him can feel it: The core of his personality and the nature of his interpretations are entirely in unison. He absolutely doesn't care about the façade of things. What he says and plays is his unaffected own truth, arising from a securely anchored sense of self. His best performances sound as if inspired by the cool, crisp air of the Norwegian Fjords. For example, the Grieg piano concerto and the 2nd by Liszt with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitri Kitaenko: Hardly ever has this music been heard so clearly structured and transparent, yet so daredevil and forward-storming, so poetic and colorful: played in a truly classical style, in the best sense of the word, in which expressive emotion is restrained by inner peace. Already for his solo CD debut, which included a stunningly expressive rendering of Janacek's sonata 1.X.1905, he was honored with the German Record Critics' Award. Shortly thereafter Leif Ove Andsnes breathed new sparkling life into the rarely played first piano sonata by Chopin, and he knew how to express things surprising and touching in his interpretations of the second and third sonatas.


Meanwhile, here and there traces of routine are detectable: Leif Ove Andsnes seems to sometimes remain in a certain practicality and coolness, yes even conventionality. Perhaps only a transitional stage, because the freshness and originality of his sensational debuts keep flashing up again and again.


We quickly leave the linen-white breakfast room. Leif Ove Andsnes feels notably better in the fresh air of the garden. Last night he played the fourth piano concerto by Beethoven with Paavo Berglund and the City of Birmingham Orchestra. A work he cares very much about. Tonight he will perform it in another German city: regular touring routine. Before departure, he practices a few hours. Not for the concert this evening as one would think, but for an upcoming recording session in the studio: Soon a CD with works by Liszt is going to be produced.


Before the practice session, there is just enough time for an interview in which he talks with Peter Schlueer about the coordinates of his artistic and personal life as a pianist.



Peter Schlueer: You just have recorded the fourth piano concerto by Beethoven with Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Orchestra. Were you able to find a common artistic denominator?


Leif Ove Andsnes: Yes, I am very happy with the result. For me, it was a deeply impressive and instructive experience to have the honor of working with Sir Simon Rattle. He always is incredibly awake inwardly during rehearsals, like a whirlwind. One inspiring idea after the other gushes out of him at an incredible speed. The orchestra literally eats out of his hand, which of course makes rehearsals enormously effective. His immense determination is simply intoxicating.


Peter Schlueer: Many music lovers identify this concerto with the grand old pianist names such as Claudio Arrau and Wilhelm Kempff. Isn't it sometimes difficult to stand your ground in the face of such legends?


Leif Ove Andsnes: No. For almost every great masterpiece there are already interpretations in existence which are in some way legendary. If a piece really means something to me, then I know exactly how I want to interpret it. Even in the case of Beethoven's Fourth I had very clearly defined ideas from the beginning: Some play this concert too lyrical and feminine. I tried to discover new sides: First, I played it a little too virtuoso and pretentious, but now I think I have found a good balance between lyrical tenderness and vigorous bite. The score is extremely poetic and colorful, therefore it depends a lot on the color richness of the piano how intense of a result you get.


Peter Schlueer: Also, the dialogue with the orchestra is particularly subtle.


Leif Ove Andsnes: Yes, very true. In this regard, the Fourth is even the most difficult of the Beethoven piano concertos. Much depends on the ability of the orchestra. Some delicate tempo changes must jointly be worked out really well, so the result sounds natural. The Fourth is the most demanding both from a pianistic and a musical perspective, and it is the most incomprehensible of the five Beethoven concertos. Every time I play it, I experience it all over again like a dream when the orchestra – after the opening G major of the piano – sets in with this wonderfully remote B major. A modulation that's always overwhelmingly beautiful. How shockingly this must have come across in Beethoven's time!


Peter Schlueer: With this modulation Beethoven looks far beyond the horizon of his time. With your last CD you looked back to Beethoven's most important role model Haydn. How did you make a selection from the incredible broadness of his work?


Leif Ove Andsnes: For many years I sight-read his sonatas just for myself with particular fondness. As a leisure activity, so to speak. Specifically those ones of the middle period started to challenge me more and more: They easily can come across as academic and somewhat angular. You have to sort of free them first from the confines of the music paper. I especially appreciate their compactness and clarity. The late sonatas, however, are experimental, open, and almost twice as long. And they move more toward the direction of Mozart.


Peter Schlueer: Was it difficult to empathize with the world of Haydn?


Leif Ove Andsnes: It's never easy. But I think for today's musicians, it's still much more difficult to identify with the romantic world of Franz Liszt, since there are so many more prejudices to clear away. My next CD will strictly contain works by Liszt. His music is often played too fiercely and virtuosic. Contemporary witnesses report that he himself played a lot more lightly and more noble, even if he was a passionate virtuoso who made use of pianistic effects. It is not easy to really accurately capture the beauty of his music.


Peter Schlueer: How much are you interested in the literary models that inspired Liszt to compose his works? The myth of Hero and Leander, for example, which forms the background of the second ballad?


Leif Ove Andsnes: Yes, I have read quite a bit about it. But basically, the essence transmits itself through the score. Of course, the source of literary inspiration can help you immerse yourself in the romantic imagery of that particular world, but the much more complex message of the music goes far beyond that.


Peter Schlueer: How do you approach this complex message when you study a new work?


Leif Ove Andsnes: On the one hand intuitively, and on the other very pragmatically. The fingerings are a very central aspect which I try to work out as precisely as possible from the very beginning. I leave myself a lot of time for this part of the process, and I write down into the score any new insight I gain. Some of my old scores I almost cannot read anymore as I've scribbled around in them so much. This is the first and foremost foundation for technically mastering a piece.


Peter Schlueer: Did your teacher Jiri Hlinka inspire you to use this studying technique?


Leif Ove Andsnes: Yes, he often suggested very surprising fingerings to me, which I never would have thought of. For example, he pointed out to me how you can use the thumb as a sort of base for the entire hand. Or, that the weak fourth finger, the one which Robert Schumann attempted to train with his famous cigar mechanics, can be the strongest finger for some passages, if you only correctly use it. His teaching helped me a lot in finding fingerings which are natural for me.


Peter Schlueer: Did this teacher also trigger your interest in the Norwegian piano repertoire?


Leif Ove Andsnes: Yes, he familiarized me with this world very early on. By now I've recorded a CD with a selection of the best works of Geirr Tveitt, David Monrad Johansen, Fartein Valen and Harald Saeverud. Saeverud is Norway's most famous composer from the generation after Grieg. His son Ketil Hvoslef wrote a piano concerto and a triple concerto for me. Norwegian music tradition is still very young. You have to remember that our country has only been independent since 1905. A large part of the Norwegian compositions are very much based on folk music. At the time one was attempting to find a style of expression with a strong emphasis on national aspects. Especially Edvard Grieg did so, and he represented the crucial starting point for almost all later composers. The results often are very intriguing, but sometimes the reign of this folk music idiom seems to have confined creativity within too narrow limits.


Peter Schlueer: Before you were introduced to this musical world by Jiri Hlinka, you were taught by your own parents. Was it them who discovered your talent?


Leif Ove Andsnes: Actually, I was the one who took the initiative: When I was four years old, I asked if I could have piano lessons, just like the students who came to our house. Because my parents are both music teachers. For three years they taught me by themselves, but then I became too bored with them and I got another teacher in my hometown: In Norway, each small community has music schools which are state funded. Anyone who wants to can take classes, regardless of their personal financial situation. I went to such a music school for eight years, until I was admitted to the conservatory of Bergen to study with Jiri Hlinka.


Peter Schlueer: And after a relatively short period of studying you already started appearing publicly.


Leif Ove Andsnes: At the age of seventeen I made my debut in Norway with four recitals in Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger and my hometown Karmoy. Fortunately, this was all received very attentively and positively by the press. One year later, I won second place at the Eurovision Competition. The first prize at the time went to violinist Julian Rachlin. A few days later, I had the chance to play Grieg's piano concerto at the Bergen Festival. A concerto which I subsequently performed abroad very often.


Peter Schlueer: Also during your solo debut at Munich's Herkulessaal you played compositions by Grieg, as well as works by Chopin and Nielsen. The critics that night found the program to be too exotic...


Leif Ove Andsnes: I always try to find a good mix between the familiar and the exotic. My teacher encouraged me very much to explore the unknown realms of the repertoire. I'm always amazed by how many masterpieces there still are to be discovered.


Peter Schlueer: Equivalent to a discovery was your recording of the first sonata by Chopin, since with the quality of your interpretation you clearly drove the few other performers of this work from the field...


Leif Ove Andsnes: The idea of tackling this sonata I have to thank my teacher for. Today I would probably not study it, because it is very long and difficult, and yet has some weak points. But considering the youth of the composer, one can only marvel at it. Maybe I'll play it again someday, since I still have it in my fingers.


Peter Schlueer: Not just in this recording it is remarkable that your studio productions sound as if they were recorded in one piece, as if there were no cuts.


Leif Ove Andsnes: Yes, I very much dislike piecing together a studio recording as a puzzle bar by bar, as some musicians apparently do. Because when you play a piece, you must be able to feel its arc of tension inside. Only then can you evoke atmosphere and a continuous rhythmic character. An electronic puzzle can of course also sound very impressive, but then the emotions are faked, the matter has nothing to do anymore with music! I would always prefer a poor live recording with lots of errors, in which something happens artistically, in which some life pulsates.


Peter Schlueer: In Germany many sigh about the economic crisis of the classical music industry. Do you experience any of this in your career?


Leif Ove Andsnes: I actually hardly think about that. Of course there are places where fewer concerts take place, but then elsewhere entirely new initiatives are brought to life. A real problem, however, I feel is the cult created around the great stars of the classical music scene, and the astronomical inflation of concert fees going with that. Some stars demand such extreme amounts that organizers who want to engage those musicians hardly have any funds to spare for the rest of their season. And yet no one wants to do without the stars, because everyone believes to be dependent on their prestige. That's a really scary trend of the past decade.


Peter Schlueer: Some even believe that the classical music audience is about to become extinct.


Leif Ove Andsnes: I don't see the situation that dramatically. Our audience on average always has been pretty old, that's nothing new. The interest in classical music in general seems to awaken only after you have reached a certain age, after some calm has come to your life. But apparently it's becoming increasingly difficult to prepare the young generation educationally for this step into musical life. And such preparation is necessary. One can no longer take it for granted that people sing in church, in a choir, or with their children, or that music is an integral part of everyone's life in some form. It's a shame when music is relegated to being background noise trickling from speakers at every corner of daily life. The meaningful connection with music is something that has to be learned.


Peter Schlueer: Do you feel you have a mission as a musician?


Leif Ove Andsnes: No, the word 'mission' is altogether alien to me in respect of music. Because music represents nothing other than itself. That's why it is so difficult to talk about it. It's as simple as that: I have no choice but to make music. I love music so much, it is so much a part of me, that I just have to do it. I am driven by music from the inside, and need the connection with it. And I want to share it with others, so I play concerts. I could not imagine any other life. I don't know whether music brings forth better people. But perhaps music makes us be somewhat more content and more balanced human beings.


Peter Schlueer: Are there other things besides music you need for your personal balance, for example, the nature of Norway?


Leif Ove Andsnes: I grew up near the sea, on an island off the west coast of Norway. There was a lot of wild nature. I still love the sea a lot, but meanwhile I feel content as a city person as well. For two years now I have had a flat in Copenhagen. From there I can reach the big cities of Europe faster than from Bergen, where I also spend part of the year. My friends in the city are more important to me than the solitude of nature, although I sometimes like to briefly retreat to such places where you meet nobody, and where it is completely peaceful.


Peter Schlueer: Do you already feel you've created a home for yourself in Copenhagen?


Leif Ove Andsnes: I spend a lot of time there with my friends, and at least I try to create a feeling of home. Even if, as so often, I'm only at home for a few days. Because if I only put down my bag and not even unpack, just because in four days I'm gone again, then the traveling life becomes a burden. I have learned a few tricks of how I can stir feelings of home. Piano I do play very little at home though. I practice more when I'm on the road, in the times between concerts. I also study works on tour regularly which I don't have to play in concert at the respective evening. The traveling life is never really comfortable, it's pretty lonely.


Peter Schlueer: A time when you are not at all lonely is when you drive to the Norwegian coastal town Risor each year, where you founded your own chamber music festival...


Leif Ove Andsnes: That's right! Jointly with violist Lars Anders Tomter, who is artistic festival co-director with me, I invite international musicians to Risor on the southeast coast of Norway for one week every year, and arrange the musical program. This year we will be traveling to London with the entire festival, where five concerts are planned at Wigmore Hall. The festival gives me much joy. It's very nice to see how wonderfully the plans are being implemented that once were forged together. I think such festivals are very important for musicians. Even though we only can pay very small fees, all participants return to Risor very happily every time, and stay the whole week. They can meet their colleagues there, and the atmosphere is much more intimate and personal than in the institutionalized international music scene. For example, we come together for all meals, which are prepared by a special gourmet chef. He is also considered as one of the artists and gets his own artist fee.


Peter Schlueer: For a long time you have envisioned to treat yourself to a sabbatical from your highly active musician life. Will you realize that anytime soon?


Leif Ove Andsnes: Yes, definitely. From fall next year, I will take a half year completely off from concerts. Then, among other things, I want to devote myself to thoroughly studying Bach. Between concerts this is impossible, because for Bach you need time and tranquility. When I was a child, I never was pushed to play Bach, which I very much regret today. Because it would of course be nice to have a very immediate connection to polyphony. I just started with the fifth Partita. I'm not sure to what degree I can achieve the necessary freedom in this music. Glenn Gould, for example, could do anything he wanted with a fugue, for example present the theme in new ways again and again. I think one has to achieve a very elementary freedom to play Bach well. This is also true in other ways for Schubert, to whom I find myself drawn even more strongly. I have a feeling that Schubert could be my great love. His music is like a hidden treasure that I've wanted to lift now for a few years, and which I perhaps will love more than any other. Maybe the time is right now. I for sure am very much looking forward to it.


Peter Schlueer


Original published German version of this Leif Ove Andsnes interview available online here at Klassik Heute Magazine


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