Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has been taking the music of Ludwig van Beethoven on a journey occupying three concert seasons and involving repeat visits to three continents. The voyage began in the 2011-’12 season with the composer’s piano concertos. In addition to appearing as a soloist in the concertos with some of the world’s best-known orchestras, the pianist has conducted certain performances from the keyboard.
For spring, 2014, the new wrinkle in the midst of the concertos is an all-Beethoven piano recital program scheduled for 19 cities in 11 countries in Europe, the United States, and Japan. Princeton is one of the stops. The performance takes place Monday, March 17, at 7:30 p.m. at McCarter Theater, one of four venues in the U.S. where Andsnes plays the recital. He performs it again in Carnegie Hall Wednesday, March 19.
Interviewing Andsnes by telephone from his home in Norway, I was surprised to learn that he has never before given all-Beethoven piano concerts. He gave a gloriously reviewed half-Beethoven recital in Carnegie Hall in April, 2011. “For the first time I am playing all-Beethoven recitals,” he says. The ‘Journey’ is a three to four-year program. The only concertos I’m doing are by Beethoven. I’m playing very little by other composers.”
The identical recital program travels with Andsnes around the world. It consists of Sonatas Opus 22 and Opus 101 before intermission. Following the pause, he plays Variations Opus 34 and his Sonata Opus 57 (“Appassionata”). The second half of the program is new to Andsnes’ concert repertoire. “It’s very exciting to me,” he says.
“In a recital, I try to make a contrasting program. In an all-Beethoven sonata program I wanted to include a non-sonata. The structure of the sonatas is tight. They deal with the human struggle and the quest for answers and conclusions. The Opus 34 Variations is a piece without that feeling [of pressure]. It relieves tension, especially before the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata,” he says.
The pianist feels that Opus 34 is also different in another way. “It’s wonderful what he could do with a simple theme. Oh, my goodness! Each variation is in a different key. They are so different from each other. It’s as if he was saying, ‘Let’s see what I can do with my simple theme.’”
Andsnes does not necessarily wait until he has mastered a piece before he plans to play it. When one’s career is global, programming a particular composition depends not so much on when an artist feels ready to play it, but, rather, on the realities of international concert life. “Plans are made two to three years ahead of time,” Andsnes says, “so concert programs include pieces you have not seriously studied before.”
Performances of the “Beethoven Journey’s” recital program began February 12 in Norway. Andsnes says that he worked seriously on the “Appassionata” Sonata, one of the recital pieces new to his repertoire, since the summer, a period of about six months. He had been exposed to the work without rigor before he took it on in earnest.
His procedure for learning a new piece varies, Andsnes says. “If I don’t have an overview, I try to get that first. I play through the piece, repeat passages, and find out what the piece is about. I break it down into passages.”
“Finding the right fingering is a first step. I go after the more difficult passages first. It sounds mechanical, but I’m constantly working on musical expression. You cannot separate the two. Fingering affects expression,” he says. “The fingering will change while you’re studying the piece. You learn that a particular fingering does not work technically, or is not so comfortable.”
Andsnes does not vary the fingering for expressive effect when a passage is repeated. “It could be very confusing for the brain,” he says.
Once a piece is learned, it continues to change over time, as the artist gets increasingly familiar with it. “The first time you play a big sonata or concerto, there’s a psychological barrier,” Andsnes says. “You prepare yourself in the practice room or in rehearsal. But there’s always something about meeting with an audience. You don’t know how you will react.”
“You build a piece when you return to it in performance. You feel that it becomes more organic. You’re not caught up in every detail; you don’t make every detail important. At first, in every bar you’re thinking very much ‘What is coming up?’ ‘What are we aiming for?’ But then the piece becomes part of your subconscious and you can concentrate on the big picture. Performance is breathing.”
Andsnes is acutely sensitive to what goes on as he takes a new work into his life. Terse and articulate, he can deliver paragraphs full of insight in each sentence. Try reading the following very slowly, and letting yourself approximate his experience of having a new score change from something unfamiliar into an independent entity that begins to assert itself.
“From the first note to the last note in a piece there is an arch,” Andsnes says. “After living with a piece for a long time, you feel the continuity more clearly. You learn which transitions move in a tempo where you can take time. The greater the piece is, the more it starts showing me how it ought to be. That happens a lot with Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, and Bach. It has not so much to do with analysis; it has to do with the material starting to have a life of its own. The piece becomes an organism.”
“You have to keep your ears and your soul open for these changes. Music making is always a process — a search for something, through playing and living with a piece.”
Still, performing seems to be quite devoid of striving. “It’s a strange thing,” he says. “In performance there are so many things to think about. Concrete thoughts, in a way, are too slow. You have to listen while you’re playing. It’s a matter of living in both the present and the past. That can only exist with a great focus on concentration. But there’s also a wonderful flow where you don’t think about what you’re doing. I often go in and out of this state; I think of dinner after the concert, or of a conversation with a friend. When everything works, I feel that I’m in a state of mind with extreme focus. But I’m not thinking about what comes next. I feel that I’m creating here and now. That’s what performers really long for: being in the moment.”
Born in Karmoy, Norway, in 1970, Andsnes, 43, is the son of two music teachers. His three sisters are also music teachers. He started piano at age five and studied at Norway’s Bergen Conservatory with Czech professor Jiri Hlinka. His precocity was notable.
At age 19 he signed with Virgin Classics and made more than 30 recordings, ranging from Bach to 21st-century composers, for EMI Classics. In 1992, at 22, he co-founded the Risor Chamber Music Festival on the balmy southern coast of Norway with Norwegian violist Lars Anders Tomter. In the 2004-’05 season he was the youngest artist to curate Carnegie Hall’s “Perspectives” series.
Today he records exclusively for Sony Classical and has released two recordings of concertos from the Beethoven Journey. On the discs Andsnes performs with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and directs from the keyboard.
Andsnes lives in Bergen, Norway, and Copenhagen, Denmark. His wife is Norwegian horn player Ragnhild Lothe. The couple has three children, a daughter born in 2010, and twins born in 2013.
The year his daughter was born Andsnes resigned as artistic director of the Risor festival. “After almost 20 years of being artistic director, I wanted to spend time and energy on other things,” he says. “My family needed my attention.”
Andsnes thinks his children are probably musical. “The twins are only nine months old now, so it’s too early to tell. But my three-year-old sings the whole day long.”
Although the Beethoven Journey continues until July, 2015, Andsnes has simultaneously begun a major project with German baritone Matthias Goerne. Over the next three or four years the pair intends to perform all the Schubert song cycles.
Andsnes has already started thinking about what to do after the Beethoven winds down, besides finishing the collaboration with Goerne. “I want to play more French music,” he says, “Debussy and Ravel and Faure. I have a particular affinity for Debussy.”
“For many musicians,” Andsnes says, “playing music is like an actor playing a role. Music is a direct language. It’s similar to reciting a poem.”
When Andsnes speaks in that direct language, he communicates in a distinctive manner. Yet he finds it difficult to describe what is unique about his playing. “I seem to have an ability to tell something through my music making,” he proposes. “I cannot explain it in words. If it could be put into words, I would not need to play music.”
Leif Ove Andsnes, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Monday, March 17, 7:30 p.m. $20 to $61. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.