English profiles

Utrecht, 28 December 2006

Willem Boone (WB): Were you happy about last night’s concert?

Leif Ove Andsnes (LOA): Yes, I like this hall (main hall of Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht, WB), it’s one of the best modern concert halls

WB: Do you like it better than the Concertgebouw?

LOA: That’s a magical hall, but it’s impossible to compare them!

WB: Was there a problem with the piano?

LOA: Yes, one of the strings broke, which hasn’t happened to me in a few years!

WB: Was it fixed for the Brahms (The Piano Quintet was played after the intermission)

LOA: Yes, it was.

WB: You played chamber music last night with a group of musicians with whom you probably don’t play very often, isn’t it a bit frustrating with relatively little time to rehearse?

LOA: It can be frustrating, but it can also be fulfilling!  There can be the excitement to meet other musicians for the first time, it’s a lot of give and take. You loose something, but you also gain something. The other musicians were wonderful last night, which made the performance special.

WB: You said in an interview from 1997 that you liked playing the piano so much that it made up for all the travelling, practising, loneliness and jetlag. Do you still feel the same way?

LOA: Yes, of course! Playing the piano is a source of energy and gives me inner calm. I don’t think in terms of stress.

WB: But it’s still a very hard life after all?

LOA: Many lifes are hard....

WB: How long in advance are you booked for concert dates?

LOA: We are now speaking about the year 2009, so I am booked three years ahead.

WB: Isn’t that frightening in a way?

LOA: Yes, it is... Next year, I will play Brahms’s 2nd Concerto for the first time. The pressure can be hard if you think of something you haven’t done before.

WB: It’s certainly a difficult concerto, but then again, you said that Rachmaninov’s third concerto wasn’t that difficult and very well written....

LOA: There is an enormous amount of notes, but they are so well written for the hand that I feel a physical pleasure when I play it. Brahms’s writing is more vertical by comparison.

WB:  It doesn’t stop you however to play the Brahms 2nd concerto!

LOA: No, that’s because of the music...

WB: How long can you stay away fromt the piano without touching the instrument?

LOA: I can stay away from the instrument, but if I don’t practise my muscles feel less supple. On the other hand, I got so used to practise, it’s almost a kind of meditation. If I don’t play, something is missing, I start to feel stressed.

WB: Do you feel unwell?

LOA: No, it’s more a mental thing.

WB: Can you learn scores away from the piano? It seems that Rubinstein learnt Franck’s Variations Symphoniques during a train ride!

LOA: I can’t entirely learn a piece without the piano, but I can go through a piece when I sit in an airplane. Or before a concert, I think through the movements of the hands. If you can remember the movements, you know a piece really well, a lot comes from the physical movements.

WB: Do you have a good memory?

LOA: I don’t have too much trouble, although mine is not photografic.

WB: Speaking of the life of a pianist, there are a few cases of musicians who suffered from a nervous breakdown, such as Ivo Pogorelich and Andrei Gavrilov. This may be a very personal matter, but could it have anything to do with the constant pressure you are experiencing as a performing artist?

LOA: Every case is individual indeed, but there is certainly a lot of pressure. You can get very absorbed in your own world. If you can’t reach out to other people, you get into trouble.. I like being on my own, but music is also about communication. It’s a two way thing. If I play a Rachmaninov concerto, I am sitting alone at the keyboard, but at the same time I am communicating to 2000 people, it’s a paradox. That’s also the beauty of music, it can draw a lot of people together!

WB: Are you aware of the presence of an audience when you play? You may get very absorbed and focused on your performance..

LOA: I am aware of the silence of the audience or of the non-silence when they are coughing. If I listen to myself in the hall, I also listen to what goes on in the hall.

WB: Do you manage to find that balance you just described between being on your own and reaching out to others?

LOA: The balance is not always perfect. That’s why musicians love festivals like this one (chamber music around the Dutch violonist Janine Jansen, WB). It’s fantastic to come together and perform after so much time spent alone. The work on the music has been very intense during this festival.

WB: And you have your own festival now, why did you start with that?

LOA: I didn’t start, I joined during the third year. It takes place in a fishing village, Risor. During a week, there are 20 concerts, that are always very crowded.

WB: Are you artistic director of the festival?

LOA: Yes, along with a viola player, Lars Anders Tomter.

WB: Do you have carte blanche for the programmes?

LOA: Yes, I do. We do not only invite friends, but also musicians we hear about. I got to know a lot of people through this festival, which is wonderful.

WB: Did you have any pleasant surprises?

LOA: Yes, for instance the Artemis String Quartet. When I got to know them, they weren’t that famous and now we regularly perform together. A lot of musicians have met each other thanks to this festival.

WB: In the French magazine Répertoire, I read a column by the French critic André Tuboeuf, who compared you to both Arrau and Serkin, because of your seriousness, sound, depth and intensity. Does that mean anything to you or does it leave you indifferent?

LOA: I take it as a compliment, knowing how much Tuboeuf admires these two pianists. I admire them too. I feel part of a pianistic tradition.

WB: Which tradition are you refering to?

LOA: Richter, Michelangeli, Lipatti, Schabel.

WB: But what do they have in common, since they are very different? In what way do you feel part of this tradition?

LOA: They are very different, but they found all truth in music, they played very well and they were all serious..

There are also other pianists I admire, like Horowitz.

WB: Tuboeuf also said that your Schubert reminded him of Serkin’s, he called it “strict, austere and without concessions”. What do you think of that?

LOA: (laughs): I never heard any Schubert by Serkin!

WB: That’s funny, because Tuboeuf indeed wrote that he wasn’t sure whether you were familiar with Serkin’s Schubert...


WB: I have a few questions regarding Grieg. In the same interview I quoted earlier, you said you stopped playing the Grieg Concerto around 1997, because you weren’t sure people invited you to play it as a fellow Norwegian or simply because you are a good pianist. Does that mean you were bored with the piece?

LOA: No, I wasn’t bored with the piece, as I still find it a very fresh and amazing concerto. I did get bored with practising this piece, that’s why I stopped playing it in 1994, I said: “I am an established artist now, they should ask for other pieces than the Grieg Concerto”.

WB: However you took it up again, what made you change your mind?

LOA: That was in 2002, I was curious to see how it felt to play it again and it felt very good. I also recorded it again and occasionally play it, but not very often. Next year, I will do it three times.

WB: It’s often coupled to the Schumann concerto on CD, why is that? I can’t see many similarities apart from the same key and the beginning of the first movement.

LOA: There are formal similarities, especially in the first movement. In both concertos, there is a middle section with a dialogue between the piano and wind, in Schumann it’s with the clarinet and in Grieg with the flute. For Grieg, Schumann was a model, he was only 25 years old and needed a model. He also stole from Beethoven’s fourth concerto, the slow movement and the way he starts the last movement. He took from his classical ideals... What is interesting to me is to see how emtionally different both concertos are; the Schumann is schizofrenic, it pulls you in two directions, although it’s mainly inwards, the Grieg is not so advanced in compositon technique, it’s more outwards.

WB:  Do you consider it as his best piece?

LOA: Yes, I do, it’s virtually the only big piece that was really succesfull. Maybe the third violin sonata (opus 45) we played last night is another succesfull work. He had problems to write large scaled compositions.

WB: That’s interesting, because I had the same feeling when I listened to the violin sonata last night; it sounded as if there were no real themes, but a lot of fragments..

LOA: It’s true that there are a lot of episodes in the first movement, although there are some beautiful melodic finds in the slow movement.

WB: Back to the Concerto, I spoke to a colleague of yours the other day, Elisabeth Leonskaja. She said regarding the Schumann concerto that the last movement should be played like a waltz and that a lot of pianists don’t do this, are there any passages in the Grieg concerto that are “misunderstood” in your eyes?

LOA: It sounds often too sentimental and it suffers from that image. If that happens, it becomes sirop and kitch... Grieg was a strong man and there is a lot of sincerity in his concerto.

WB: Who are your references in this work?

LOA: Lipatti. Michelangeli is very good too.

WB: You recorded  CD on Grieg’s own piano, did that add any new “dimensions”?

LOA: I knew the place, since I lived in Bergen. I know the museum, the instrument is very beautiful, if not very big, it’s a Steinway B, but it has a beautiful sound, it’s kept in good shape.

The room also added to the sound with a lot of wood.

WB: What about his input for piano solo, apart from the Lyrical Pieces? The Sonata is a youth work, there is a Ballade, which I am not familiar with...

LOA: Yes, it’s interesting that you mention that work, I will play it for the first time in January (2007). It’s his most personal piece, that he wrote when he went through a personal crisis: his parents died and he had problems in his mariage. It’s a very strong piece I feel.

WB: What do you think of Gilels’s selection of Lyrical Pieces on Deutsche Gramophon?

LOA: It’s one of the recordings of the past I really like!

WB: Richter also played a large selection of Lyrical Pieces, didn’t he?

LOA: Yes, I heard that live, he was very old, it was at the end of his life, it was a bit uneven...

WB: Do you feel playing chamber music, a recital or a concerto is very different?

LOA: Yes, it is. As a soloist, you have to shine among seventy other musicians, but ultimately, you listen to your surroundings and it’s the same music making, accompanying a singer or playing a recital is not a different profession!

WB: Your colleague Martha Argerich does not want to play recitals any more, as she suffers from the loneliness on stage. What about you?

LOA: (laughs): I quite like being by myself during a recital, it’s just me and the piano, I am more in control.

WB: I heard all of your recitals in Amsterdam in the “Meesterpianisten series”, you played last year the Moussorgsky Pictures and was wondering which version you used, was it the Pletniev arrangement?

LOA: No, I did my own arrangement, I feel the original writing is quite thin. No wonder that people are intrigued to make their own versions or orchestrations.

WB: What do you think of the Horowitz version?

LOA: It’s very convincing, although it still sounds very much like Horowitz..

WB: Speaking of Pletniev, you worked with him as a conductor, what is he like as a person? I don’t think I would ever ask him for an interview as he seems to be a rather moody person...

LOA: He probably wouldn’t say much.... but I feel very confortable playing with him. His orchestra, the Russian National Orchestra is wonderful! We performed during a commemoration of Richter’s birthday (who would have become 90 this year) in Moscow and I did both the Grieg and Rachmaninov second concertos. It was very special to do the latter piece with that orchestra. Pletniev listens very well when he accompanies.

WB: And what do you think of him as a pianist?

LOA: There are unique aspects in his playing, especially his creativity in passage works, he creates colours and waves I haven’t heard with others.

© Willem Boone 2006