Leif Ove Andnes “How muzak inspired a journey into Beethoven” Telegraph Feature

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Leif Ove Andsnes Beethoven Journey Cover

Leif Ove Andnes speaks with The UK's The Telegraph's Ivan Hewitt about his  Beethoven Journey project in a fascinating feature article - and reveals his unlikely inspiration for this epic four year touring and recording project.

"We all like to curse “lift music”, if we have any musical sensitivity. But even this much-maligned source of noise pollution can have its good side. It was listening to Beethoven’s piano concertos relayed over tinny speakers in a hotel lift in São Paulo that reminded Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes of the glories of these great pieces.

“I thought, oh no, this will drive me crazy. But to my surprise I found I was enjoying it. I was just amazed every time I stepped into the lift at the inventiveness and humour of these works, which until then I had not played very much. That was when I had the idea of focusing on them for a period of years.”

The idea born in a Brazilian lift is now well under way.

Andsnes and I meet in a hotel lobby in Birmingham, where he and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra have just arrived from Norway. It’s one of the last dates in their long tour of Beethoven’s First and Third piano concertos. One of the performances was recorded live, and has just been released on the Sony Classical label. This year, Andsnes and the orchestra will follow the same pattern with the Second and Fourth concertos, and again the following year with the grand Fifth Concerto, known as the Emperor, and the Choral Fantasy for solo piano, chorus and orchestra. Andsnes is a broad-shouldered, pensive man whom you could imagine cast in the role of a country pastor in a Bergman film. Now in his early forties, he’s one of the finest pianists of his generation, much honoured in his home country, and for 17 years director of the one of the world’s best chamber music festivals at Risør in Norway. How does he plan to make these well-worn works appear fresh? In a way, the answer is simple. He can make them appear fresh to us because they seem so fresh to him.


“You know I was thinking about that rhythm that keeps coming back in the First Concerto’s first movement,” he says before we’ve barely sat down, “then finally you hear it in the kettledrums. It just struck me recently that it’s like a heartbeat which underlies everything. It’s so interesting how he can make something so simple and short so full of meaning. He’s so different to Mozart in that way.”

But is the pianistic challenge similar to Mozart’s concerto, in the sense that clarity is all? “Yes, there’s nowhere to hide,” he says, but pauses for a moment before adding: “On the other hand he can be totally different. Beethoven’s lines are often longer than Mozart’s. He actually didn’t like Mozart’s short phrases, and once said he preferred Clementi’s more expansive sonatas.” So Beethoven is both more terse than Mozart, and also more expansive. Isn’t this a contradiction?

“Yes, you’re right,” says Andsnes. (He often says this, with an appreciative air as if I’ve genuinely enlightened him. It’s part of his quiet courtesy, which is the first thing that strikes you about the man.) “But that’s what makes Beethoven so extraordinary, and also so difficult. It means that at times I have to find a completely clear, transparent sound, and other times I need a really big palette of colours.

Read the full article in the 24th January issue of The Telegraph or online

Click here to listen to Leif Ove Andsnes andThe Mahler Chamber Orchestra's recording of Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3, available from Sony Classical

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