Comparing an Armenian performing artist and one from Norway is something like comparing apples and oranges, especially when the Armenian is a violinist and the Norwegian is a pianist. But the comparison has merit. It invited itself because the last two performers I interviewed are intensely conscious of their ethnicity. Despite their differing origins, both expansive violinist Ida Kavafian (U.S. 1, December 15, 2004) and post-shy Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who appears in McCarter Theater Tuesday, January 18, are superb musicians.
Opening a seven-city American tour, Andsnes plays a carefully-massaged program. The thoughtfulness of his compelling music-making emerges as he talks about the components of his McCarter program in a cellphone conversation from Norway. He performs Leos Janacek’s "In the Mist," Modest Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition," and Franz Schubert’s Sonata in D Major, D. 850. He knows just how the pieces found their way into his repertoire and just how to handle them. Aware of the value of a trial run, he will have played the program several times in Europe before leaving for the United States.
The Janacek set of four pieces is an established item for Andsnes. "I got to know Janacek’s piano music because my teacher (in my teens) was a Czech. I haven’t played them for 10 years. But I played them so much, I know them well, and recorded them when I was 20."
"Pictures at an Exhibition" is new. Andsnes performed the Mussorgsky piece publicly for the first time at three concerts in November. "I feel relaxed because I tried it out," he says. "I always try to start a new piece long in advance. I started it in late summer. I’ve been reading through it before, finding solutions for fingerings, working on how to do it. The piece is complicated and controversial. The piano writing is kind of thin sometimes, but the ideas are enormous and visual. Clearly Mussorgsky was not a master at writing for piano. Performers do extra things; they add an extra octave here and there. In this specific case, one has to help the composer. Because the piece has big ideas, it’s frequently orchestrated. (When I perform it on the piano) I want it to sound orchestral and big."
The piece is a made-for-Andsnes composition, depicting walking through an exhibit, looking at pictures. Talking to the press, Andsnes repeatedly mentions his penchant for a narrative approach to music.
The long Schubert sonata is the tip of an iceberg in Andsnes’ career. "I always knew that Schubert would be my great love," he says. He told Michael Quinn of Gramophone magazine, "I deliberately wanted to start my career with the Viennese classics; it felt very natural for me to start with Haydn, because there was more to play with – asymmetry, characterization, speaking qualities, so much more fun. And I wanted to do a lot of Beethoven before Schubert because he comes so much out of Beethoven. It was just a case of waiting, but more and more impatiently."
"The music is so great and demands so much of you," Andsnes says of a Schubert sonata, "that whatever you do can never be good enough. It takes you into corners you didn’t know could exist within the sonata form." He made the observation about the Schubert A Major sonata, but it applies equally to all the sonatas, as Andsnes performs them.
Andsnes’ current views on the Schubert sonatas are being preserved in an unusual series of four recordings for EMI Classics, two of which have been released. The CDs pair the piano music with Schubert Lieder sung by tenor Ian Bostridge. The D Major sonata to be played in McCarter appears on the second recording.
Characteristically, Andsnes delivers performances where every note leads someplace. Typically his readings take the listener on a voyage of discovery, evoking a universe of sonic possibilities. In the D Major sonata on volume two of the Schubert series Andsnes portrays storms and serenity, lyricism and flickering moods. He glories in the sounds of the piano and uses them with unaffected sureness.
The nine songs with Bostridge on the CD yoke mutually supportive artists with a single musical vision who bestow intimacy and immediacy. Bostridge’s mastery of the text is extraordinary. His expressivity is heart rending and his diction is meticulous. His shaping of phrases is flawless. It is so easy to absorb what he communicates that one almost forgets that he is singing. Enhanced by Andsnes’ piano, this is a miracle of musical directness.
EMI releases the third volume of the Andsnes-Bostridge Schubert series in February. Here Andsnes plays the expansive, fitful Sonata in B flat Major D. 960, with telling effect. Captivating the listener from the very beginning, he arrives at the top of the very first phrase as if he were completing a journey. The musical distance from the opening note to the highest point of the phrase is only a third, but Andsnes conveys a sense of expanding horizons. The world seems bursting with unexpected possibilities, and continues to invoke wonder for the rest of the recording.
Bostridge participates in three works on the third volume, "Viola," "Der Winterabend," and "Abschied von der Erde." The concluding piece, "Abschied" shocks, at least for a new listener, in having no vocal melody. Bostridge delivers the bittersweet farewell to the world in lucidly pronounced expressive German against Andsnes’ poignant piano.
For fans of Mozart concertos EMI has issued a CD where Andsnes conducts the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and solos in Concertos Nos. 9 and 18. The fast movements bristle with energy; the slow movements exude a taut calmness. The entire performance gives a sense of inevitability. I was particularly taken by Andsnes’ courting danger in the opening movement of Concerto No. 18; he lingers hazardously long on a high note before allowing the rest of the passage to cascade down from it. The Mozart disc was among the New York Times’ list of the best classical CDs of 2004, as was the Bostridge-Andsnes recording of Schubert’s "Winterreise."
Two days after his Princeton recital Andsnes appears at Carnegie Hall in a modified version of the Princeton program. Schubert’s D Major Sonata and Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition" remain. A new element is the world premiere of a commissioned composition by Bent Sorensen. The concert is the second of seven programs engineered by Andsnes as part of Carnegie Hall’s "Perspectives" series, which entrusts selected performers with devising their own concert series. The chosen performers design their own formats for the programs and participate in performances to the extent they desire. Andsnes, 34, is the youngest performer yet chosen for the "Perspectives" assignment.
Choosing to play in all of the programs, he opened the series in October, inviting Ian Bostridge to join him in Schubert’s "Winterreise." He includes a recital with his long-term recital partner, violinist Christian Tetzlaff, with whom he has performed at McCarter (U.S. 1; January 23, 2002). The series ends with three chamber music concerts in May, reflecting Andsnes’ strenuous involvement with chamber music as artistic director of the Risor Festival, which takes place at the end of June in southeast Norway,
"’Perspectives’ is my programming," Andsnes says, "with just a little bit of impulse from dialogues with Carnegie Hall. I was undecided about whether to focus on specific composers. In the end I decided to choose programs important to me personally, and to focus on pieces central to my repertoire. I’m happy that Carnegie Hall agreed to do the [Sorensen] commission."
Andsnes knew Sorensen, but refrained from giving him advice about the composition. "I’ve known him about three years," he says. "As we both live in Copenhagen, I got to know his music. I don’t like to give a composer clear directions. He wrote the piece with me in mind. It takes 15 minutes and is very beautiful. It’s shimmering and haunting."
Andsnes is undecided about whether Sorensen’s composition is idiomatic for the piano, but he is clear about the experience of learning it. Responding to the idiomatic question, he says, "yes and no. Always when I play a piece for the first time it’s like a new language. It didn’t come easily under my fingers at first. It’s well-written about which sounds to get out of the piano. There’s a lot of movement, a lot of physical gestures. It feels organic, like breathing. It has very fleeting, fluent, movements. It’s very rarely vertical (having few chords). There’s a lot of passage work, so there are a lot of fingering problems."
Born in 1970 in Karmoy, an island on Norway’s southwest coast with 35,000 inhabitants, Andsnes comes from a family where the default profession is teaching music, and the default instrument is piano. Both his parents are trained in music. His aunts teach piano. "Listening to this," he says, "I insisted that I had to play at four and a half." Of his three younger sisters, two play piano.
"I had no friends who played piano," Andsnes says. "Practicing was lonely. At 11, I wanted to stop piano. I didn’t know that I would become a pianist till I was 14 or 15.
"I always remember piano playing as being very serious," he says. "It was when I found the space to explore important internal things. It got so serious that there was no way back; it was taking over my life." From age 16 Andsnes studied in Bergen with the Czech pianist Jiri Hlinka. He made his Norwegian debut at age 17.
Gathering momentum internationally, he appeared with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Jarvi, with the Berlin Philharmonic, and at London’s Proms concerts. He won the Gilmore award in 1998. The prize, an honor thrust on a performing artist every four years, without the need to compete, consists of $50,000 in cash and $250,000 for what are called "career enhancement" projects.
Andsnes maintains residences in Bergen, Norway, and in Copenhagen, Denmark. To sustain himself he retreats as often as possible to a house in the sparsely-populated mountains three hours from Bergen by car. "I feel very much from the north," he says. "I always want to go back home and be close to nature. There’s good hiking and, in winter, good cross-country skiing." But he doesn’t want to be there alone, either in Norway’s long winter nights or its long summer days. "It’s very important in my life to have a base, a home and family close to me," he says.
Leif Ove Andsnes, McCarter Theater, Tuesday, January 18, at 8 p.m. $33 to $46. 609-258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.