14 October 2021
This month we are celebrating 20 years of Pianist Magazine! Our very first cover star, back in October 2001, was Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. He was just 31-years-old back then, and was already a much loved star. Writer Jessica Duchen had the pleasure of meeting with him at his Kensington Hotel 20 years ago...
by Jessica Duchen, 2004
Like most musicians, pianists are not, on the whole, ‘morning' people. They have to be at their most alert for performances in the evening; they work hard then and play harder afterwards, take time to wind down and go to sleep very late. So it's no surprise to find Leif Ove Andsnes very slightly bleary-eyed as he relaxes in his Kensington hotel the morning after his performance at this year's Proms. Even if he's risen late this morning, the soft-spoken, easygoing young Norwegian has risen early in musical terms: over the last decade he has become one of the world's most loved and respected pianists. EMI is soon to release ‘A Portrait of Leif Ove Andsnes', a retrospective disc of highlights from his many recordings. And Andsnes is still only 31.
You can watch his 2001 BBC Proms performance below.
A normal childhood
Despite his youth, Andsnes was never a child prodigy as such; rather, he had the best possible luck at the best possible moments. ‘My parents were both music teachers and played the piano,' he explains. ‘They had pupils coming to the house and they started teaching me. At first I only practised an hour or two a day; it was only when I was 14 or 15 that I began to take it more seriously. I had a very normal childhood and I'm glad I was not pushed into anything more professional too early; in the long run, it's better for your development to have this basis.'
Born in Karmoy, Norway, Leif Ove attended a local music school and later the conservatory in Bergen. There his teacher was the Czech emigré Jiri Hlinka, who brought his young pupil under the influence of a particularly central European approach to piano playing – something in evidence if you listen to his disc of Janácek's piano music, performed with a beauty of tone, simplicity of expression and an intense inwardness that suits the composer's sensibilities to perfection.
‘I worked very hard,' Andsnes reports, ‘and developed very fast. It's so important to have those years – you are so open to things at that age.'
Hlinka, however, was not his only influence. Andsnes always loved to listen to pianists such as Schnabel, Horowitz and (most of all) Sviatoslav Richter. 'I got to a point where I was completely obsessed with Richter's playing,' he says. 'I couldn't listen to anyone else. Still, there were things I didn't understand; he had such a dark side to him.' What Andsnes loved about Richter was, he says, the fact that the musicianship was so profound and always took precedence over the pianism: 'It was almost just by chance that he played the piano.'
Karmoy, Norway – the town Leif Ove grew up in. ©Visit Norway
The young Leif Ove had entered some competitions for children, but later never undertook the gruelling and frequently demoralising circuit of piano competitions that so many of his contemporaries did. He gave his professional debut concert in Norway at the age of 17; the following year, within the space of just two weeks, he was the winner of the Eurovision Young Musician of the Year Competition and was the soloist for the customary performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto on the last night of the Bergen Festival.
Andsnes soon became the clear candidate for tours abroad as a soloist with the country's leading orchestras, notably the Oslo Philharmonic, which took him to the Edinburgh Festival. At 19 he played in New York, Washington DC and Canada; after his first appearance in Gothenburg, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra's principal conductor, Neeme Järvi, invited him to tour to Cleveland.
Accolades and record deals
Everywhere he went, accolades followed; so, too, did a recording contract with Virgin Classics and subsequently its parent company EMI. Youth and Nordic good looks were on his side, but there were never any doubts about his musicianship – as accomplished, serious and mature as performers many years older and more experienced. More recently, awards have followed him effortlessly – the Gilmore Artist Award in 1998, a Gramophone Award for his Haydn Piano Concertos disc in 1999 and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Instrumentalist of the Year award in 2000.
There are potential bear-traps facing any performer who begins an international career at such a young age, however. It took Andsnes time to acclimatise to the solitary round of constant travelling, hotel rooms and performance pressures. More serious, perhaps, was the fact that, as he now admits, 'At first I had very little repertoire.' For the first few years he had toured with only a handful of pieces: 'I really held back and was very careful. Eventually, when I was about 23, I got to a stage where I decided I really had to start doing more things than I did, and that gave me a new sense of freedom.'
For one thing, he had become thoroughly tired of performing the Grieg Piano Concerto, which had been his national trademark; at one point, he decided to stop playing it altogether for a while.
Leif Ove Andsnes in 2001. ©Thuen
That doesn't mean, however, that he dislikes his compatriot's music: ‘I do have an affinity with it - which is rather fortunate, since life would be very difficult if I didn't! I especially love the Lyric Pieces and the songs, which have a very special quality about them. As Grieg said himself, he was not able to build castles or palaces like Bach or Beethoven, but he was able to build homes and cottages where people felt comfortable. His music does not have that grand scale and there are not hundreds of layers - but it has a simplicity and directness that is very touching, in a way perhaps similar to Chopin or Schubert. I think the Piano Concerto is his only large-scale piece that is really perfect; in the solo sonatas and chamber works there's always a feeling that he doesn't really succeed. But there's also a fascination in that he tries very hard, and I like that side of him - that he's trying to be, but just isn't, a Schumann. It is always very human.’
Among Andsnes's recording plans for the future is a disc to be recorded in Troldhaugen, Grieg's beautiful home on the outskirts of Bergen overlooking a wonderful panorama of fjords and islands. Andsnes will play some of the Lyric Pieces on Grieg's own grand piano. 'It's actually a very beautiful-sounding piano, with a very warm tone – a Steinway from 1892. The treble is a little thin, but very bell-like and it suits those pieces very well indeed.'
Fireworks with feeling
Such empathy and humanity is evident in Andsnes's own playing, which melds many different influences with his own very direct, unpretentious and appealing personality. Although he is certainly capable of fireworks – just listen to his recent recording of the Liszt 'Dante' Sonata - it is the musical content that comes first. Pyrotechnics, it would seem, are just a way for him to achieve his solid musical goal. For his Proms performance he played, unusually enough, Rachmaninov's First Piano Concerto, a work long overshadowed by its big siblings Nos 2 and 3. So why did he choose it? 'I love Rachmaninov, almost without reservation,' he says simply. 'And I think this piece is very strong. I don't know why it's not as popular – maybe it doesn't have the very long, sweeping melodies that you find in the Second and Third Concertos and it's shorter and very concentrated. But it’s so full of feeling.'
"I wanted to play more Beethoven before I moved on to Schubert, I always knew that Schubert would be my great love."
Andsnes is now 'expanding in both directions' in terms of repertoire. He would like to play more Bach; and Schubert is in the ascendant in a big way. This August he recorded the A major Sonata D959: just the beginning of a much larger involvement with Schubert's music on disc that will see him tackling a number of the major sonatas, plus a Lieder project with much-lauded British tenor Ian Bostridge.
'It will be exciting for me to do a project like this with one composer because I've done so many different things before.' he says. ‘I had a phase where I felt I wanted to play more Beethoven before I moved on to Schubert, but I always knew that Schubert would be my great love. There's a special quality in Schubert of "sleep-walking”. Beethoven always has a goal – he always knows where he's going – but Schubert leads us into corners we didn't even know existed, even within the very organised form of a sonata. In the second movement of the A major Sonata, he seems to be breaking down the form and improvising into some sort of chaos.’
Andsnes is also turning his attention to some of the finest 20th-century composers and contemporary works. 'I’m starting to play the Lutoslawski Concerto, which is a marvellous piece – it carries some of the traditions of the great 19th- and 20th-century piano concertos and his pianist writing comes from Chopin via Bartók.' Andsnes singles out György Kurtág as another favourite and this summer greatly enjoyed performing the composer's Hommage à Robert Schumann at the Verbier Festival, with violist Gerard Caussé and clarinettist Michael Collins (who also had the task of closing the piece with a single gentle boom on a waiting drum). 'It's difficult to follow everything that's going on, but I try to, as much as possible,' says Andsnes. 'It's too easy for pianists to get lazy about contemporary music; we have so much repertoire already!’
One of the highlights of Andsnes’ annual calendar is the Risør Festival in south-east Norway, of which he has been co-artistic director for eight years. Risør, he tells me, has the distinction of being the sunniest town in Norway: ‘It's a very beautiful little fishing town with white wooden houses – a beautiful place to experience music in, very relaxing.' The festival is always held around midsummer, towards the end of June, at the time when lazy Norwegian summer days are at their lightest and longest. ‘It’s so concentrated: there are 19 concerts in six days so even if you are only there for two days you can actually go to five or six concerts.' The festival focuses on chamber music but involves a considerable range of musical styles; for instance, this year's guest artists included baroque violinist Andrew Manze and fortepianist Andreas Staier. Next year's programme will be published in the new year.
Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of Leif Ove Andsnes. And who can blame them?
Main image: ©Gregor Hohenberg
October 2021 marks 20 years of Pianist Magazine! Download our latest issue (122), our birthday issue, today.