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Interview with the Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes

Thursday, 13 March 2014 , ora 10.31
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Leif Ove Andsnes, one of the most popular musicians of the moment, whom New York Times described as ‘a pianist of magisterial elegance, power, and insight,’ has been on a large-scale tour since 2012, which is called ‘The Beethoven Journey,’ along with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Together with this ensemble, the pianist plays all of Beethoven’s concerts and the Fantasy in C minor for piano, chorus, and orchestra in over 60 cities around the world. The opuses have also been recorded and have been released by Sony Classical on CD. Less common for the performance of Beethoven’s concerts – Leif Ove Andsnes also conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The Norwegian artist added a series of solo recitals to this tour. One of these, given at the Barbican Hall in London on 4th March, 2014, was broadcast live by Radio Romania Music. The recital included only works by Beethoven, of course! On this occasion we were able to find out details about the Beethoven music universe from Leif Ove Andsens’s perspective.

Mr Andsnes, over the past years you have focused on Beethoven’s creation; but before we speak about the tour you called ‘The Beethoven Journey,’ I would like you to look back to your childhood and tell us if you remember the first Beethoven opus you have ever played and what impressions it gave you at the time.

I actually thought about that. I don’t remember exactly, but it might have been the famous ‘Für Elise’ or the first part of the ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ I remember my piano teacher at the time gave me several such famous creations that were not too difficult to interpret. When I was a child I felt it was very important (Beethoven’s music – editor’s note) and it was related more to adults’ world. I would only understand and appreciate Beethoven’s music properly later in life, but of course there were things that truly impressed me: I remember the harmonies at the beginning of the Moonlight Sonata – so sad and with such deep emotions.

How old were you then?

7 or 8, I suppose.

I began with this question because I wanted to know if Beethoven was love at first sight or rather a feeling that evolved over a longer period of time.

It certainly evolved over time; at the same time, though, Beethoven left an important impression from the beginning. My father was and still is a great lover of Beethoven’s music. We had recordings of the five piano concertos, for instance, and he played for me certain fragments that he loved in particular; for instance, the transition between the second and third part of the Imperial concerto. I remember my father showed me how the theme began like in a dream, at the end of the second part, only to break into dance in the third part. I remember the joy I felt when I listened to these moments over and over and how happy I was to experience all of these things with my father. And yet his music has grown a lot inside me over the years and continues to do so – and this, I believe, is one of the signs of extraordinary music.

Sometimes you mention Dinu Lipatti, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli or Sviatoslav Richter as the musicians that inspired you the most. For such a musical journey – like this tour of yours – do you need role models? Or would you prefer to remain fresh, uninfluenced?

The greatest model is Beethoven himself, and in the case of his music it is very strange, but I don’t think I could say of a single pianist that he offers a comprehensive image of the composer’s creation. Perhaps because Beethoven is so great and his creation is so varied, there are so many opuses – I like some played by a pianist, others by another one, I appreciate certain recordings of Schnabel, others of Michelangeli and so on. But I’ve generally found my own way through Beethoven’s creation, influenced, of course, by certain interpretive aspects that I have heard at other pianists.

The recital at the Barbican Hall in London is part of a series of 19 solo recitals that you are giving in the United States of America, Europe and Japan, and this evening’s programme includes opuses from various stages of Beethoven’s creation. Which were the other ideas that the programme was based on? For instance, I noticed that you included a less performed opus – the Variations op. 34 on an original theme.

Actually it is the first time I’ve given a solo recital made up only of Beethoven’s compositions and I find it amazing, this music is very powerful. I wanted to bring together contrasting works from different periods. I wanted to play Appassionata, a famous dramatic sonata which, strangely, I have never played before in concert; I wanted it to close the evening. Then I thought I had to choose something lighter and less popular next to such a famous creation – which is why I chose the Variations op. 34. I love them, they’re built on a very incoherent theme, but each variation is like opening a different room, each variation is written in another key, which is very unusual for Beethoven, for any composer, in fact. I’m also playing two more sonatas: op. 22 and op. 101, so an early and a late one, and, as I was saying, Appassionata at the end. I thought that along these three sonatas, which are very structural, referring to the conflicts inside men, looking for the answers to important questions, the Variations would be welcome – a little lighter, a little closer to the concept of entertainment, if you will, although everything has a purpose in Beethoven. So I am very pleased with this programme.

In other words, the variations give balance to this dense programme.

Yes, this is one of the reasons why I chose that, but I like the composition very much and I think it is unjustly underrated.

Barbican Hall is a wonderful place, a very large hall, with almost 2000 seats. Do you consider that a proper stage for a solo recital? Isn’t it a bit intimidating to play by yourself in front of such a large audience?

You know, everything depends on the programme and I must say that this programme requires a large hall. During this tour I have also played in two smaller halls and I wasn’t very pleased with it. This is a very powerful programme and it needs a large space to unfurl. If you play short compositions by Schubert, Mozart or Debussy, then Barbican Hall is too large. But for Beethoven it is very good. I often wish to play in a large hall, to have enough room.

Beethoven was clearly a complex composer. Which side of his personality is closest to your own? What exactly do you feel binds you to him?

I have discovered, as time went by, that more and more aspects of his personality find a reflection inside me. When I was a student I was definitely attracted to the revolutionary character of his music, to the energy he released. For young people it is important to play Beethoven, because he tells you how to build drama, it is a very dramatic music. You feel that the music tells a story about something, although it is not always clear what. He is so human. He always looks up, trying to find answers, ways, which he often finds too, in fact. You feel how the fight moves from darkness towards a kind of victory, perhaps in his late years not necessarily so much towards victory, but towards light and spirituality. There are so many aspects that fascinate me.

I have to say that now, working on Appassionata,’I notice some sort of obsession in this music, a special one, which I haven’t found in any other composer. Just think about the time the sonata was written: the beginning of the 19th century. Before that we have sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Clementi, but Beethoven uses the keyboard differently. The same happens with the rhythm: there is this feeling in the last movement that a theme keeps coming back and cannot get out – just like an obsession – only to turn into a truly mad coda. It is a truly extraordinary creation that I worship.

The Beethoven journey you are still taking is not just musical and geographical, but also psychological, I would say. Do you feel it has changed you in any way?

Certainly. It is a very interesting question. What is extraordinary in Beethoven is that everything he writes is so honest, it comes from the heart. It may sound naïve or even stupid to say this about a great composer, because obviously every creator is honest. But Beethoven has something of his own: he is never vague, he is very straightforward, he tells you exactly what he wants, straight from the heart. In the case of another great composer, like Chopin, for instance, there is a mixed psychological baggage: sometimes you feel you’re only listening to beautiful salon music and then you have the key moments, and you don’t know where those come from. It is strange, it is mystical, it is enigmatic. I don’t feel like this with Beethoven. Everything is always so open with him: his heart, his search, his purpose. This straightforward honesty is good for people and it is truly wonderful to have the chance to work with his music for a longer time.

Because you are going through a period where you focus exclusively on Beethoven’s creation, do you think you will ever reach satiety about his music?

Not in general, but perhaps I will with some compositions, because I play them so often that sometimes I feel I am stagnating and what I want is a process, I want to develop. This is the goal. But Beethoven’s magic is that his music is so spontaneous. It is built on a foundation made of motifs and themes that he develops so organically all the time, but of equal importance we have the somewhat irrational aspects, all the accents, all the surprising elements, the fact that you never know what is waiting around the corner. This combination gives spontaneity to his music, so it is difficult to get bored.

Irina Cristina Vasilescu
Translated by Irina Borțoi and Elena Daniela Radu
MTTLC, The University of Bucharest