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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 17 JUNE 2013 — "My love of Beethoven goes back to my early childhood", Leif Ove Andsnes, the Norwegian pianist told me shortly before his concert at the Théatre des Champs Elysées in Paris in April. "But although I played some of his music in my twenties, it isn’t until now that I felt ready to record his works and had something new and different, something really personal, to add to the many very good recordings already around. I can’t put into words what it is; if I could, I wouldn’t have made the recording," he laughed, "but I’m working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and leading them, conducting them if you prefer, as well as playing the concertos, and that’s not so common. It’s rarely been done on a recording, but it gives me complete control. I love being so involved with the story the music is telling. I’m completely in the drama when I’m playing and conducting at the same time instead of simply sitting and waiting for my next ‘entrance’."

"Perhaps the main reason I have made this recording is because I really enjoy playing his work which moves me profoundly. Beethoven’s music is the most human and deeply spiritual there is, and each time I play there is a surprise round every corner. There is the discovery of something new and original; each of the five concertos, too, is so very different."

The pianist, now aged 42, told me that his first memory of Beethoven was probably of the "Moonlight" Sonata when he was about six, when he remembers being aware of the energy in the music as well as feeling that Beethoven, very ‘foreign’ to him, was really big and substantial.

"Of course there are child-like elements in his music, but they are not so easy for a child to understand as he uses extremes, writing very high in the trebles, or down in the bass," he continued. "I felt better and more cosy with Mozart, for Beethoven is anything but! He almost seems to be preaching and always has something important to say to humanity.

"Then, when I was 13 or 14, I got all his scores from the local library and settled down to get to know the music. We had many recordings at home," he added.

His parents were not professional musicians, but taught music to children in schools, as well as having private pupils at home, which prompted the young Leif to ask to play the piano too. As soon as he could coordinate his two hands, he began to play pieces, not by ear, but by reading the music. "I could probably say that music was my first language", he smiled, "for I certainly knew how to read scores before I could read children’s books."

Leif Ove Andsnes

One of the questions I asked him was why he chose to call his recording, The Beethoven Journey.

"It might seem a pompous title, but that’s how it feels to me for several reasons," he replied. "It’s a personal journey for me, and I wanted to play these pieces everywhere, in different concert halls, in different surroundings. I want to know what it was like at the beginning of the 19th century. Although I’ve played many of these pieces before, there are still others which are new to me. It’s also a geographical journey, for I’ve been playing and will play this music all over the world. The Beethoven Journey covers a four year period, where I will have played in over 50 cities, giving over 150 performances.  

"Moreover, the recordings don’t take place in Norway, where I now live, nor Germany, but  at the Dvorak Hall in Prague’s Rudolfinum which is a wonderful concert hall with outstanding acoustics. It’s great there, and the sound is so rich. And as the recordings are live, we have two concerts to base the final recording on as the Spring Festival in the city offers us two concerts a year.

"It was also an important place for Beethoven too, where some scholars say he actually performed his first piano concerto.

"I’m also happy to undertake this journey with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra," he continued. "It’s an orchestra so full of vitality and capable of being both forceful and playful. It is much more intimate than larger symphony orchestras as there are less musicians, an advantage with this music. If there are too many string players, there is a carpet of sound which isn’t flexible. The sound becomes massive. Also, since there are less of us, everyone is much more involved and it helps me find an active way of phrasing which I love and which brings a greater diversity of ideas and expressions to these magical pieces. When I play, I’m often looking at the other musicians and listening to them playing. There’s a real dialogue between us."

Leif Ove Andsnes is currently working on the 2nd and 4th concertos in preparation for further recording, always in Prague, at the end of May. And future projects include Beethoven concerts in Chicago and Carnegie Hall, New York, before playing all the concertos in Los Angeles with the L. A. Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

Will he miss conducting the orchestra? "If I was a viola player with a small repertoire of pieces, then yes, I would be very tempted to take up conducting, but there is such a variety of music for the piano that I want to play. I’m rational enough to realize that with so much great music out there for the piano, why make a fool of myself as a conductor. I’d love to spend time with the French composers and am very attracted by Debussy. And then Henri Dutilleux wrote a superb piano concerto in the 1950’s which he considers one of his greatest pieces. I would love to play that."

Meanwhile, when not touring, and since having a young family of his own, Andsnes is spending more and more time at his home in Bergen, where he studied at Conservatoire of Music, and that despite the climate and lack of contact with other international musicians.

"It’s a small town with only 200,000 people, but it has a very fine symphony hall and a good festival at the end of May where I play every year. It’s probably the best festival in the Nordic countries. I stopped playing in the South of Norway after 17 years, when I became a father, and the peace and quiet in Bergen is the perfect place to work. Perhaps all that is in contradiction to how I felt ten years ago, but times have changed!" 

The Beethoven Journey
Beethoven: Piano Concertos, Nos. 1 & 3
Leif Ove Andsnes (conductor, piano)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra   
Sony Classical

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque. She last wrote onGustav Klimt: The Complete Paintings  By Tobias G. Natter.

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