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From the Archive: Leif Ove Andsnes and Jon Tolansky

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25 Nov 2020

This week you’ll find us once more exploring our interview archive, travelling back to 2012 and listening in to a conversation between Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and Jon Tolansky about the piano work of Beethoven.

I mean there’s so much real Beethoven in the two first piano concertos, you know. You have that new sound both in the orchestra – that very symphonic sound, the provoking chords, the space – and a new joy in the piano virtuosity you know – show what I can do, look what I can do, I want to show you both compositionally and pianistically this is fun – Leif Ove Andsnes


Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. This week you’ll find us once more exploring our interview archive, travelling back to 2012 and listening in to a conversation between Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and Jon Tolansky about the piano work of Beethoven.

Leif Ove Andsnes: And it’s just so haunting you know, you can’t go wrong with it. There’s something about those notes – you play them together and they sound totally magical, and they sound like the most beautiful melody you’ve ever heard. And it all comes from down somewhere which is very, very deep.

BE: We’ll hear the pianist and conductor’s thoughts on what he considers some of the most significant piano music ever written, which he brought to the ears of the audience at the venue back in 2012. Let’s learn now about the pianist’s approach to Beethoven’s tempestuous, tuneful, beautiful and uplifting piano sonatas. Over to Jon Tolansky.

Jon Tolansky: The music of Beethoven – his first Piano Concerto, played by one of the most greatly acclaimed, virtuoso artists of our time: Leif Ove Andsnes. Accompanied by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and they’re conducted by… Leif Ove Andsnes. Yes these set of recordings of the Beethoven concerti that are coming out are all featuring Leif Ove Andsnes playing the piano and also conducting, and if I may say so, obtaining wonderful detail, rhythm and nuance from the orchestra. It’s part of a very big international project over a long period of time that Leif Ove Andsnes has called the Beethoven Journey.

And indeed Beethoven is the composer that features right through his Barbican recital on March 4 [2012] at half past seven, in which he’s going to be playing music from Beethoven’s early, middle and late periods and a particularly interesting, rarely performed work that was written at a very critical time in his life. And so Beethoven is particularly a concentrated part of Leif Ove Andsnes’s extremely wide repertoire at present.

He’s here for this Barbican classical music podcast to talk about Beethoven and of course about the recital on March 4 [2012]. Leif Ove, that was a very long introduction from me, but it’s nice to see you again, thank you for coming along here. The Beethoven Journey would be an interesting starting point if we may. Let’s hear how you conceived it and where you’ve got with it.

LO: Well it grew with me, this idea that I had to devote a period of time to this great composer. And you know as a pianist you have such a privilege of so much repertoire. Actually the main challenge is often to know how to choose, and what to choose, and when to choose it. I have never devoted a period to one composer like this, I’ve always spread myself… Ok I’ve done some projects – Schubert Sonatas over some years – but I always at the same time played Rachmaninov and whatever. Now I thought, I never made Beethoven the focus of my activities and I love more and more this music and I see how much this music is just so human, so spiritual, so important to both me and to the audience. And I want to devote three of four years to it. Then actually, this becomes also a very long answer now, five or six years ago I played concerts in Sao Paolo in Brazil. I stayed in a hotel where every time I entered the lifts I heard a fragment of the First or Second Piano Concerto by Beethoven. It was played in a loop. I thought this would make me mad, but actually the opposite thing happened and I think every time I heard 37 seconds of it, what a wonderful idea, how fresh, how beautiful, how true, how provoking. And I started thinking this has to happen now, this period with me and Beethoven. Now is the time. Yeah, then I decided to do that.

JT: Your Beethoven Journey of course which is taking you around the world isn’t it?

LO: Yes so it’s geographically a journey very much because I’m playing these concertos and sonatas on different continents, and my aim is also to play them, the concertos, with different conductors, different orchestras, and then also play without a conductor to lead the orchestra myself, which I am then ultimately doing when I’m recording them with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. So it’s a journey in many respects, but it’s also of course an inner journey for me to try to get closer and closer to the heart of this great music.

JT: And when you take this journey on it is almost, isn’t it – you were talking about Beethoven being very fresh – it is almost, isn’t it, like looking at a journey of the most cataclysmic change really in music I think that’s almost ever taken place in a short period of time because of one composer. If we look at this astonishing development and trajectory in his style, at the beginning of his life where he was in musical perspective historically speaking, and by the time he’d died which was what only 30 years after he’d started composing really, how the world of music had changed in so many ways because of him. So that’s a tremendous span isn’t it, to take on?

LO: And of course how it influenced the future of music after him as well so greatly. Yes, you’re right, this development is enormous. And at the same time I always think when I read things about the five piano concertos, they are written within a relatively short span of time, 11 or 12 years or so, but there is a development. One always reads the first two piano concertos are very much in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart and then by the third he finds himself and there’s the personality of Beethoven. I tend to disagree with that. I mean there’s so much real Beethoven in the two first piano concertos, you know. You have that new sound both in the orchestra – that very symphonic sound, the provoking chords, the space – and a new joy in the piano virtuosity you know – show what I can do, look what I can do, I want to show you both compositionally and pianistically this is fun. There is so much of that in the two first piano concertos. And the slow movements have a new space also between the chords that you don’t find in Mozart for instance. So it’s a completely new world you know. He was in a galaxy of his own.

JT: Well that was part of the second movement of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto in the new recording, relatively new recording, with Leif Ove Andsnes playing and also directing, conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and if I may say so, getting a really wonderful style and tension there. So this is something I hope you will develop more and more and more as time goes on: conducting.

LO: Well thank you. But I don’t have any ambition to conduct symphonies though. I find it very challenging but also lots of fun to be directing or conducting if you want chamber orchestras in these concertos. It’s challenging because it is a different world from Mozart, which is so much about dialogue and listening to each other and a kind of an extended chamber music. In Beethoven you find that there is a new element of also friction between the soloist and the orchestra. The soloist is taking the material and is ‘hey I can do it better than you, I can do it in a different way’. And the orchestra has to be also very strong, there is this new sound. So the challenge is for it not to become just another session of cosy chamber music-making, the music is more ambitious than that. But it’s psychologically very interesting for me then to do this double role, because I have to be very strong as a soloist and also give them impulses as a leader. And there are moments where we meld together in great chamber music-making and then other moments where we’re really separate. And I couldn’t do it without you know the great quality of this orchestra. It’s such an injection for me to work with them, I get so much back from these musicians.

JT: Well you mentioned the word challenge, but you’ve taken a big challenge on yourself with your recital, because it’s a huge span of Beethoven’s life as a composer, beginning around 1799/1800 with the Sonata in B-flat major, no 11 op 22, going through the Variations in F major, op 34, which was around 1802, then the Appassionata sonata which was about 1805, and ending up with the opus 101, which was written probably around 1816. And those dates aren’t really anyhow relevant, because what’s relevant is the extraordinary variety and development of these works and styles. Starting off with the op 11 [sic] in B-flat major, op 22, some people think of this as the end of an era, don’t they? I’m not so sure I do feel about this, I mean even the quirky opening I always think could only be Beethoven, couldn’t it?

LO: Yes. But it has all the marks of the early style, in the joy of the virtuosity and of the gestures. You could say that it’s influenced by the Haydn gestures, that quirky opening. It’s a little bit also like op 10, no 2, F major, you know those kind of openings. And then there’s this very brilliant first movement. What marks maybe a new development is the slow movement I think, which is so spacious, it’s a sort of, what do you call it, rollicking slow adagio, which just opens up so many doors in this cantilena. It’s a long aria basically but with so much space. I can’t think of any other of the early sonatas that quite has that in it, and I find it a very unique movement in the whole by Beethoven actually.

JT: It’s a very interesting point isn’t it, because already in this very early stage of his life he was writing these endless, spacious, meditative movements before he went through his big emotional crisis. That’s interesting to me that.

LO: Yeah, though I mean if we talk about his handicap of course of becoming increasingly deaf, he knew about that remarkably early. I mean you know when he was about 20 he probably discovered that this was a problem and then gradually it developed, so by this time it has developed into a problem, and so already these moments of loneliness which is so much part of these slow movements… You know I don’t know if it comes from that, but he was alone in the world, that’s for sure. And if we turn to the late sonata, op 101, where he was very isolated as a person, at the same time this is some of the most happy music I can think of. It has such a spirit sometimes of inner peace and harmony, do you know, also turbulence, but incredible light and you think how could this person also find that within?

JT: The Variations in F major, op 34, we don’t really hear those terribly often?

LO: No. I think it’s a terribly neglected piece and it’s such a wonderful piece. It’s a relatively short set of variations, but like often with the great composers when they write great variation pieces, the theme itself is not so remarkable. It’s beautiful yes, but then what they do with it, what Beethoven does with – I of course think of the Diabelli Variations which is like a metamorphosis – but in this piece, just after a very simple F major adagio theme, he turns to D major, a completely different soundworld and like birds singing in the first variation. And from there he goes there’s a march, there’s a very lively 6/8 allegro, there is a minuet, and so many wonderful characters, I just love that piece.

JT: And despite the originality of it – and there are parts of these variations that seem to be looking, particularly the fifth variation perhaps, at a later Beethoven – but despite that I still think that the contrast in style between that and the next work chronologically that you’re playing, which is the sonata no 23 in F major, the Appassionata, which is only three years later, I mean it’s just a different world straight away isn’t it, in so many ways, extraordinary.

LO: A different world but it’s also a very different kind of piece. I mean we’re going from a variation where he’s within the very lights of what he can do with different characters to a very ambitious new form of sonata. But also you’re right, the way that he also uses the piano, when it comes to the other sonata, it’s just extraordinary and I think this piece is so loved, also so much, because of the sheer sounds that he created. How he uses the bass, how he uses the extremes of the keyboard is just remarkable. One of the most magical places for me is actually the beginning of the second movement because that’s – is it a chorale? Is it melody? What is it? – and it’s all down in the lower end of the keyboard and it’s just so haunting. You can’t go wrong with it, there’s just something about those notes. You play them together and this sound, totally magical and they sound like the most beautiful melody you’ve ever heard. And it’s not really a melody, it’s a chorale and it all comes from down somewhere, which is very, very deep and of course then the theme develops through a set of variations in a way as so often in middle and late-period Beethoven, going up the treble and ends up by the angels.

JT: It is this feeling of, isn’t it, almost gratitude for nature or whatever, and that as you have said, it isn’t really melodic, it’s harmonic, but the performer brings it to sound melodic because of its extraordinary progressions and I think this is one of the great things in Beethoven. I think it’s a terrible generalisation what I’ve said, because what’s a melody? But Beethoven’s sometimes spoken of as not being so melodic shall we say as some composers. But I think the way you’ve described it tells us it’s a different concept of melody, isn’t it.

LO: Yes, I think you’re right. I think the feeling of something melodious and something singing can come from so many aspects in music. I can’t think of any other composer who knew so well the value of an octave, of a third, of a fifth, how it sounds, especially coming from the bass. That is something just extraordinary. So by the sound itself he creates something sounding so wonderfully melodic. Of course, he could also write beautiful melodies, you think of the last movement of the Ninth Symphony and so on, but they often, it doesn’t start there. It starts with rhythm; it starts with harmony and the sound, I think.

JT: That’s the thing, isn’t it, what you’ve just said. It doesn’t start there, it’s conceived in terms of the harmony, which is where he pushed music forwards. So that when we come to the Opus 101 of course, there are some extraordinarily daring harmonies and that you now, you alluded to before which I was very happy you did, that a lot of the brightness and beauty and light in this work. But at the same time of course, we are now on the cusp of late Beethoven, on the cusp I would say. And here, even now, after all these years, this work can in places sound very strange and very modern.

LO: Yeah, and it’s a very diverse piece of music within itself. Talking about melody just now. I just think the first movement of this sonata is one of the most beautifully lyrical things that any composer has ever written. It just sounds like a total unbroken melody for as long as it lasts, what is it, three minutes or so. And then you have this march-like movement, which is really only march-like, it’s not really a march and it’s a very quirky march the second movement, which always makes me think of Schumann, because I think Schumann clearly has loved that movement so much, all that dotted rhythm stuff going on, you find that in so many Schumann pieces. Then a very, dark, slow, very short, slow movement. The most wonderfully quirky, ingenious movement of all is the last movement, very long, contrapuntal but breaks up into all kinds of dancing rhythms. And here is, I think, this is such happy music. It’s so young at heart in a way. Where he found the energy to feel that, it’s unbelievable, in his situation.

JT: For the pianists at the time it must have been an enormously demanding thing, to take on a work. Most of these sonatas of Beethoven, but particularly the later ones, where the contrasts are so diverse and that’s a big challenge, isn’t it.

LO: For us it’s a big challenge, in our time, when we have been used to so much different, diverse piano repertoire. We can imagine that at that time, I remember as a child, also as a student, I found it very foreign sometimes to play Beethoven’s piano music because you felt there was often nothing in the middle in the keyboard, there would be things at the extreme of the keyboard they had at least. And if you think of the radical change from a Mozart sonata, where you deal so often with things going on in the middle, it’s much more comfortable to play. And then the space that Beethoven tries to create with his melodies very high up in the register and the bass, very enigmatic in a way but so rich when you start to go into it and find out how to use this for space in the music.

JT: Well you have, I’m right in saying I think, already recorded certainly the next of the Beethoven journey concerto discs, and I think it’s coming out as we’re recording this, it will be virtually coming out, your next Beethoven recording on its way.

LO: Which is Nos 2 and 4 and I’m very excited about that, and then in May we’re recording already No 5, the Emperor, and the Choral Fantasy. So then we have done all of them.

JT: And the Beethoven journey will continue there, as a geographical journey? Psychological journey? A musical journey?

LO: Well for me the peak season in this journey with the concertos is then the next season, when I’m doing many residencies in many cities, playing all five Beethoven concertos and the Choral Fantasy in 10 or 12 cities around the world. We’ll be finished in July ’15, and then I think I will say goodbye to the Beethoven concertos for a while at least, because it’s been a very intense period. When it comes to other pieces like sonatas and so on, I will certainly continue to play in the next years. This is music that will follow me for the rest of my life of course.

JT: And this brings us to the end of this podcast. Leif Ove Andsnes, thank you enormously for joining me today.

LO: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure.

JT: And we will say au revoir to you for now with the last movement, a little extract, of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, played by you in your Beethoven journey recording and conducted by you with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

BE: Thanks for listening to this archive edition of the Nothing Concrete podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts, and if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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