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Born in Karmøy, Norway, Leif Ove Andsnes is one of the most in-demand pianists in the world. The Wall Street Journal describes him as "one of the most gifted musicians of his generation,". Andsnes champions the fringe repertoire, and in 2012, was made artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival. Next Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Symphony and SF Performances presents him in a solo recital of works by Sibelius, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin. Below is the transcript of our November 4, 2015 conversation with Leif Ove Andsnes.
EH: It was once said of Pablo Casals and Josef Hofmann that they sounded too modern. Today, both are part of the Golden Age of classical performers. What are your thoughts on the young artists of this current generation ? Many complain about the blandness of their sound. Will they one day also be admitted to the pantheon of pianists ?
Andsnes: This is a difficult question to answer. But you have extraordinary talents today that are also very different personalities. But of course, we are being highly influenced by globalization and the flexibility to hear everything, just two clicks away on the internet. I find there is a huge freedom in our generation, certain things that inform our music making. If I think about pianists, there was a very strict generation after the war. When it came to repertoire, the generation of Brendel, Pollini, Ashkenazy, etc., they would very rarely touch the outside repertoire. It was always about the important absolute music, the big Beethoven cycles, Brahms cycles, etc. That was a reaction to the previous generation, showing off with their encore music, etc. After the war, they had to show the serious side. And now, with our generation, we have a new freedom, which is great, because it was getting a bit narrow, I think.
EH: The fringe repertoire is something that very much interests you. Amongst others, you’ve performed the music of Neilson and Szymanowsky. What do the names Nicolai Medtner and Harald Saeverud mean to you ?
Andsnes: Medtner, I have never played a note of. I do admire the music and I have listened to some recordings. I don’t find it memorable. I find it very enjoyable to listen to in the moment, but it doesn’t stick with me in the way, for instance, that Rachmaninoff, who is somehow writing in the same style, does stick with me. That’s probably why I haven’t played Medtner.
Saeverud, I actually got to know when he was an old man. I was a student here in Bergen, where I’m speaking from. He was in his 90s, but I do have a personal connection. Some of his music I like very much; some of it is thorny and very dry. But he had a very distinct voice and he doesn’t sound like anybody else.
EH: I can’t help but ask: a work that not many pianists have played is Grieg’s Ballade Op. 24, which you, Rubinstein and Godowsky have recorded, and Vladimir Horowitz believed was a wonderful work. What can you tell us about this piece, which seems to have trouble fitting into the standard repertoire ?
Andsnes: That’s a good question. Grieg is not known, except for the Piano Concerto that everybody knows. People think of him as a miniaturist, and very few pieces in large scale. I think one of the criticisms about the Ballade - of course, it’s a variation piece – is the theme is so wonderful. The harmonic inventions in the theme, especially, are so special, and then, with the variations, it maybe doesn’t feel like it’s developing enough, they’re not contrasting enough, maybe. It has this very special kind of beauty. Grieg didn’t make it so easy for himself with this haunting theme in the beginning. Think of the masters of variations: Beethoven and Brahms. The themes of the Handel Variations or the Diabelli variations, are themselves not very profound, but the master then shows us what he can do with it. You don’t get that with the Grieg. The theme is already so beautiful. And then some of the variations can seem a little one-dimensional, even awkward pianistically. But it’s a very heartfelt and epic piece, which makes a real impact in concert. If people knew it, more pianists would play it. It’s a real concert piece.
EH: Turning back to the classics, Leon Fleisher believes there are certain unique dimensions of awareness that the celebrated German repertoire offers. I would love to hear what Beethoven, the composer you spent the last few years recording, means to you: you’ll be performing his Op. 18 No. 3 in San Francisco next week.
Andsnes: The diversity of invention, emotion, the character of his music – all of these are just so overwhelming. The magic that he can just take the simplest of elements in the music and turn it into something very profound, something very universal that still speaks to us today. That, I find the most unbelievable thing. Sometimes you think, what is here ? there is so little, not even a melody, just a motif, a few chords, etc. But I think Beethoven knew so well how these different intervals vibrate in us, how they make an impact on so many levels that it’s always so profound. Beethoven’s notes just seem to be more important than with absolutely most other composers.
“The Hunt” is a very optimistic piece. Beethoven was always working with contrasts when he was doing these different opuses with different pieces. In Op. 31, he’s searching for huge contrasts between the rather humorous and light, funny first sonata in the group; “The Tempest” is rather tragic; and this last one is very lyrical but also playful.
It starts with a question mark. There’s a lot of nature here and it comes in the program after the Sibelius pieces. I’ve been very surprised by how well the program works. I was hoping for the transition to seem natural, and it is. This sonata is very open with the way it starts and you don’t know where you’re going exactly, very playful, without actually giving much melody. There isn’t much of a tune you can sing until the third movement, this memorable minuet melody where he shows that he can actually write one. You know, some believe Beethoven couldn’t write a good melody, but I strongly disagree with that. He waits until the third movement with this long, beautiful melody. And the last movement is so vivid, so full of character changes, the irrationality and the surprises that go so hand-in-hand with his organic form, in a way, that makes the music so spontaneous.
EH: Chopin is a composer you haven’t recorded much of either. The Fourth Ballade, which you’ll be performing next week as well, is arguably one of his greatest works.
Andsnes: I played Chopin quite a bit when I was a student, as a teenager, and I always loved him. I’ve had periods where other composers were my obsession: Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven, etc. I came back to realize how incredible Chopin is, that he’s somehow underrated. People think he’s rather one dimensional, with a beautiful melody and some nice accompaniment. But if you think of the Fourth Ballade, it’s just incredible to think of the kind of web he creates, the emotional diversity that goes everywhere, the polyphony in just those 12 minutes. He really loved Bach, he played him every day, and there are endless connections there.
EH: I would love to hear about the rest of your November 18 program in San Francisco. What are your feelings about Sibelius, the composer Virgil Thomson famously described as “provincial beyond description” in his first review for the Herald Tribune ?
Andsnes: (laughs at the Thomson reference) Sibelius’ piano works are mostly miniatures. A friend of mine actually recorded all of his piano works for Naxos, and it’s 5 CDs. So there’s a lot of piano music there (laughs). My feeling is it’s a very uneven output, and Sibelius would say he didn’t know the instrument very well. He was a violinist, an orchestra composer, and it’s not pianistic piano music, not written with a deep understanding of the instrument. But I’ve selected very carefully. Sibelius cannot hide the fact that he’s a great composer, and most of these pieces are short miniatures, they seem quite normal when they start, then with something in the nature of the phrases or the way the rhythm develops, there’s a sort of irrational element of the music that makes it intriguing. He is by far the greatest Nordic composer, and I see these connections in the piano music all the time. I adore and am in awe of his music. I’m planning on making a recording of some of these pieces, something I’m trying to champion at the moment. People don’t really know it, even in Finland. They know three or four of his piano pieces, but the rest is quite unknown.
EH: One of the most commonly accepted ideas of our time is that of relativism. Along these lines, is there such a thing as bad music ? What are your thoughts on pop music ?
Andsnes: Well, I’m not very interested in it (laughs). There are obviously very creative artists in that field as well, but it’s for me a very different thing. I don’t know what to search for in that music. It doesn’t appeal to me, absolutely most of what I hear, and it seems very one-dimensional. What I love about classical music, the real masters – what Fleisher would define as German music, which is a little bit limited because other masters have those dimensions, too - let’s say the music of Beethoven and Mozart, the diversity is so enormous. You can start a piece with a fanfare in the first bar, suddenly have a lyrical moment in the second, and a playful character in the third. That makes the music so complex and so aligned, and these kinds of things, I don’t know where to listen for them in most pop music because there isn’t this diversity. So, I find it boring (laughs).
EH: Are you happy with the direction that classical music and the recording industry has taken, commercially ?
Andsnes: We could always dream about a more human world and put what we listen to in our old pirate recordings, in the 50s and 60s, on CD, but I don’t think it would work today. We are used to perfection, and in the digital techniques we have today, I don’t think it would survive very well, a sloppy performance. I don’t really believe we can go back. It wouldn’t work for me. The recording industry is not exactly booming, but I believe there will still be people who will want to hear the music they love so much in the concert hall as well. But it has become a much more niche thing than it was 20 years ago. I’m very lucky I started in a sort of boom, in the 90s, and we were allowed to do anything, really (laughs). For me, I feel I have to deliver something that’s very personal, something I can stand for. And maybe that’s good. Maybe there are far too many recordings out there.
EH: With the decline of the newspaper industry, the rise of blogs and online content, what are your thoughts on the role of music critics today ?
Andsnes: I fear that our classical music field is becoming less and less relevant for the media. I mean, there’s just less and less space for music critics, and as much as there are problems about music critics, giving a concert, etc., I will for sure miss that part if it disappears. Because it shows it’s something relevant for society, and we need to know that somebody’s actually thinking ‘How was this ?’, ‘Was this a true performance of a piece by Brahms ?’ That critical thinking is important. It’s not just about going to a concert, thinking, ‘well, that’s a nice sound, now let’s go to dinner’. How did this match with the composer’s intention, historical connections, all of these references ? I would certainly miss it if it disappeared -- it would be bad for society. There are many blogs today, but it was great in the good old days, to find politics, sports, and the arts. You could read about a contemporary string quartet performance, reported like it was the latest football match.
EH: In 2012, you were the artistic director of the Ojai Music festival in California. If given the chance, is there anything you would do differently with respect to programming ?
Andsnes: With such a festival, there is such an openness, such possibility with respect to programming. I was told that the Ojai audience is unique. I hadn’t been there before the year I was artistic director, and I was told about this need for the new and the surprising, that the audience really wanted to hear things they hadn’t heard before. Maybe if I had known how open, how craving for unusual things, maybe I would have been more adventurous in the programming. I decided on some Nordic contemporary music, other connections, and I had a fantastic time. I was really taken by the atmosphere and the sheer listening of the audience in this intimate outdoor space. The sound equipment just worked so incredibly well. I was incredibly taken by the experience.
EH: A question we ask every pianist: which Chopin Etude is the most difficult for your hand ?
Andsnes: I think the very first one. I would probably choose three, actually: the first, the one in thirds as well, and the octaves. To bring those out in a very convincing way is very hard. The octaves is such a piece of desperation. In a perfect performance, it should be at a tremendous speed, and to go on for so long with this technique… (sighs). With Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, it’s not static like that. You have many octaves, but you have other technique, too. You have two pages of just the same thing here (laughs).
EH: Leif Ove, thank you very much for taking the time. Best of luck to you in San Francisco next week.
Andsnes: Thank you, Elijah. I enjoyed our conversation.