Leif Ove Andsnes: ‘the greatest pianist in the world’ gets to know Beethoven

The great Norwegian pianist is focusing on Beethoven rather belatedly. ‘I haven’t been avoiding him,’ he says

Leif Ove Andsnes's latest project is The Beethoven Journey. The Norwegian pianist has already recorded the first and third piano concertos to great acclaim, directing the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard on Sony Classics. I caught up with him playing the second concerto at the Philharmonie in Berlin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Manfred Honeck. The playing had a crystalline perfection; the music sounded pristine.

The effect was of both familiarity and newness. And when it was over, the man two seats away leaned over to my companion and said, as if speaking out of a deep religious conviction, “You have just heard the greatest pianist in the world.”

Andsnes, who turned 43 last April, has taken his time in approaching Beethoven. “It would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that I hadn’t played Beethoven before,” he says. “When I started this project I had played all of the concertos except No 1. But I never made Beethoven the central focus of my activities, and I thought that I would like the luxury to devote a few years mainly to him.

“That’s what I’m doing now: four years, with the central focus being the piano concertos. It’s great. As a pianist you have so much repertoire to choose from. It’s a problem in a lifetime to know what to focus on. Now I’m experiencing the luxury of playing and really taking time to study this most wonderful music.”


There's a real sense of wonder when he talks about studying the Appassionata sonata, which he had never actually played before.

The late start
There is a reason for what is in some sense a late start. "It took me some time to feel that I can see all the different aspects of Beethoven's music. I can't say that I see all of them. You can't. This music is so rich. But I see him now from different angles. When I was a student I was very much attracted to his energy and his revolutionary path. Now there is a more human side that I see as well, a lot of humour, so much life, versatility and expression. It feels like the right time for me.

“I haven’t been avoiding him, other than in terms of recordings. That was also simply respect for what is already out there. It doesn’t make sense to do a cycle of Beethoven piano concertos unless you’re sure you have something to say. I didn’t feel that that time was until now.

“This music has grown more and more inside me. I also got to know more of his music, the string quartets and chamber music, and have more and more seen and felt how uplifting the music is, how great, how spiritual it is. And at the same time it’s the most human music.

“It always comes from the emotions we know as human beings, the struggles, the joy. It seems like Beethoven experienced all these emotions to such a degree that there’s intensity in every note, and also such spontaneity.

“This mixture of his mastery of composition, that he could create something, a wonderful structure, out of a small morsel, and at the same time this feeling that you never really know what will happen around the next corner in the music. The feeling of surprise and irrationality. There’s this irrational aspect of his music which is so important. And it’s combined with his gift for structure. I can’t think of any other composer who has that combination.”

Playing and directing
Andsnes has long been one of those performers who, especially in the concertos of Haydn and Mozart, likes to dispense with conductors and play and direct the orchestra at the same time. He'll be doing that with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at the National Concert Hall on Sunday.

He likes the dual role so much, “because there is such a chamber music feeling in the music, such a feeling of dialogue all the time. Beethoven takes over many aspects from Mozart, but there’s also a new element that appears more and more, the heroic role of the soloist – which makes it more challenging to play/direct.

“The sound of the orchestra is grander, it’s more symphonic as we know it from Beethoven symphonies. And he sets the soloist apart. There are moments of beautiful chamber music dialogue. And there are also moments where the soloist says, ‘Listen, I’m here, I’m the individual who can do this better than you.’ So there’s a friction between the orchestra and the piano. I have to be aware of the fact that we’re not here just to make cosy chamber music. It’s not only about that.”

He has high praise for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. “They have leaders who can lead themselves,” he says. “It’s not that they need somebody to conduct all the time. I love it, but it is a challenge.

“It’s multitasking. And I find often when I start a project directing, the first couple of days I concentrate so much on the orchestral machinery and what I want to do in that area, that my piano playing suffers in the rehearsals. I have to get back to concentrating on the piano.”

The problem, he explains, is that one uses different muscles – and he stretches his arms to conduct an imaginary orchestra and play an imaginary piano to demonstrate.

"Sometimes when I play with a conductor there's a start and stop feeling, on and off, waiting for my bit. The feeling of being in the narrative of the music and simply having the opportunity to get my way is wonderful."

Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra play Beethoven's second and fourth piano concertos and Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks and Septet at the NCH, Dublin, on Sunday