Leif Ove Andsnes: A Norwegian wielding hammers...and strings
Leif Ove Andsnes has awesome musical powers, yet in person he is quiet and contemplative. Because, he says, the piano is his true voice.
(classical piano music)
Leif Ove Andsnes seized the world through music,
and over his almost four decades on the stage,
the greatest discovery of this world-renowned
Norwegian pianist may well be how to unite
a room full of strangers
by tapping into something divine.
- That is magic.
And then you can't explain with words
what is going on anymore.
- [Jim] Andsnes was born and spent his childhood
on the island of Karmoy, off the west coast of Norway,
and from early on his parents, both music teachers,
recognized and nurtured their son's unusual gifts.
- I loved from the very start
to play for other people.
I'm extremely grateful that I got this talent,
and that I discovered quite early on
that when I played the piano,
people were actually listening,
and they seemed to rather enjoy it,
and that inspired me and found out that
this was my language.
- Did you ever play anything besides classical music?
In fact, I also have,
I have a quite diverse background in music,
because I played euphonium in the school band.
- [Jim] That's right.
- My father was a band conductor.
And I would say when I was 10, 11 years old,
I was as fanatic about brass band music
as I was about piano music, in fact,
because it was a very social thing to do, as well.
- You ended up marrying a horn player,
so proof in the pudding, right?
- (laughing) Yes, yes.
- The ultimate social instrument.
- [Jim] That horn-playing life partner
is Ragnhild Lothe, and today, they and their three children
live in Bergen, Norway's second-largest city.
But before embracing family life,
Andsnes spent 20 years married to another, his piano.
This relationship started to get serious in his teens
when he met the Czech-born piano Jiri Hlinka.
Hlinka insisted that if Andsnes really wanted
to realize his potential, he needed to commit, now.
So at 16, Andsnes moved 100 miles from home
to study with Hlinka at the Bergen Conservatory.
It was here that he began to understand
what it meant to be all in.
- You have to be a nut. You have to be a fanatic about,
this is what I want, and I'd sacrifice everything for this.
At least for some years
between the age of 15 and 20,
there wasn't much life outside the piano.
I mean, this was.
- And did it feel like a sacrifice at the time?
- Yeah, sometimes.
But I was, you know, I was also quite a shy boy
from an island on the west coast of Norway,
and I was just so happy to find somewhere
where I could really express myself,
because I wasn't very good at expressing myself
in other ways always.
Of course, I mean I wasn't,
I had friends, and that.
But when I came back to the piano,
I felt, okay, here I can really open up.
(classical piano music)
- [Jim] This growing comfort with who he was
and his ability to commit to an idea
have stayed with Andsnes,
and he's reveling in dedicating sometimes years
to exploring, performing, and understanding
Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Sibelius.
- And I've always liked that,
to have a project, that I often worked
with certain recordings, I had a Liszt period,
I had a Schubert period, Haydn.
So I think it's necessary to focus.
- [Jim] But one composer in particular
has been ever present in Leif Ove Andsnes' world,
his compatriot, Edvard Grieg.
The great Romantic era pianist and composer
lived and worked in Bergen,
and today he and Andsnes are probably the most well-known
sons of this picturesque port city,
with many regarding Andsnes as the keeper
of the Grieg flame.
Andsnes helped commemorate the 100 anniversary
of Grieg's death in 2007
with a CD and documentary called "Ballad for Edvard Grieg".
In the film, he performs some of his favorite Grieg pieces
including a breathtaking rendition
of "The Ballad in G Minor",
surrounded by Norway's famous fjords.
The project also served to demonstrate
how much of Grieg's music is deeply rooted
in Norwegian culture, and Nordic folklore,
and alive in the very souls of Norwegians today.
(solemn piano music)
We do like the mythology,
the idea of, Grieg works from folk melodies,
and then he puts Grieg harmonies on them,
and which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Is Grieg intensely Norwegian because we've had time
to make him Norwegian, or was he Norwegian
to begin with, you know?
- That's always the question isn't it?
He has become such an icon
for the Norwegian culture, but I think so much of that
was his invention, his harmonies.
And he took some folk music, and of course
if you are Norwegian and you've grown up
with that music, like I've played these pieces
since I was five years old,
then maybe you have a different relationship to that
than when you come to it all,
but on the other hand, Gilels apparently discovered
this music when he was in his 60s,
and he made a beautiful recording for Dutch Gramophone
with Grieg lyrics pieces.
So you can give a lot
by discovering this, and get this late love
in your life as well.
- Right, but also I think we're fed that idea
of the majesty of the fjords,
and when you hear the piano--
(laughing) No seriously, when you hear the,
I mean, when I hear the piano concerto
I see towering cliffs.
See, we like the idea that that brings out,
and you've sort of fed into that,
taking a piano to the top of a mountain
for the centenary of his birth,
and that was really saying the landscape is here
for you to hear this music.
- Well, and actually there is a force of nature
very much in this music, I think.
I think that's one of the strong things about it.
(gentle piano music)
- [Jim] And there's a force of nature
in every new musical project Leif Ove Andsnes embarks on.
He takes on new projects only when he feels
he is truly ready, and for the first half of his career,
one composer loomed too large to touch,
Ludwig Von Beethoven, who wrote some of the most
intense, extraordinary, and intimidating music
of all time.
But in 2010, fate intervened to let a 40-year-old
Andsnes know it was time.
During the week-long stay in Sao Paulo Brazil,
he was confronted with Beethoven's first and second
piano concertos several times a day,
every time he got into the elevator of his hotel.
But instead of being driven mad,
the repetition sparked an epiphany.
- I was thinking, I heard new sections all the time,
and just this section, I thought oh that's amazing,
actually, how he goes from that harmonic transition,
or the character there, or the humor,
it's so surprising.
And I thought, this is the most amazing music.
I now have to do this.
And it wasn't like I didn't know the pieces,
but just hearing these very short fragments did something.
- And out of sequence?
- Just getting, isn't it like that often, though,
that the greatest musical impact--
- Revelations. - Revelations can be made
by very surprising situations.
- [Jim] From 2012 to 2015, Andsnes dedicated himself
to Beethoven, recording each of the composer's
five piano concertos, performing them across 108 cities
in 27 countries,
and ultimately releasing a documentary
about the entire journey.
And though in the popular imagination,
Beethoven is often remembered as grumpy and severe,
Andsnes said the man he spent all that time getting to know
was first and foremost profoundly idealistic.
(gentle piano music)
- It's almost like it's preaching,
and that grand feeling in the slow movements.
I didn't really understand or appreciate it earlier,
and now I find it one of the most touching things,
because it's just never about himself, is it?
It's about something bigger.
(gentle piano music)
And there is no self-pity in this music,
I mean, when you think about the life he had,
enormous difficulties, his handicap, he turned deaf.
All that, it's always somehow music which looks
to the light, and to the hope.
I think that's very touching.
But there's no theater here with Beethoven.
There's no, he doesn't hide behind anything.
- Did you have to
deal with any of your own cynicism
to play this?
Because-- - Yeah.
- In ways, he's kind of naive.
He never gives up believing in the greatness of humanity,
or the possibility of the greatness of humanity.
- And that's a very child-like,
I don't mean childish,
but that's a very child-like purview on the world,
the fact that everybody's capable of goodness,
everybody's capable of greatness,
everybody's capable of doing good.
We just have to encourage them.
- And we live in a time of so much cynicism, don't we?
And we are ironic about everything,
and my generation, we can hardly talk to each other
without using irony.
So it really, it takes time to understand
that incredible honesty.
(gentle piano music)
- [Jim] For the first few years of his Beethoven journey,
Leif Ove Andsnes thought he understood
what the concertos were all about,
until in 2015, he found a new level of understanding.
He stopped performing to return home
when his wife gave birth to their twins prematurely,
and then on the final show of that tour
his replacement dropped out.
Fortuitously, the concert was in Bergen,
and when he knew all was well at home, Andsnes performed.
Then, as he played the last movement
of the 4th Concerto, something awoke inside of him.
- It was an enormously emotional experience,
and just that ending of the 4th,
which is so ecstatic, it's like he wants to fly,
and he goes off, and I always have wondered
what does he do there?
It's just G major, D major,
it's just so simple,
but he creates some kind of ecstasy through the rhythm,
and the sound, and he flies up.
And now in this situation that I was in,
it was, I've never been so touched in my life
after a concert.
Music got so directly to me.
Suddenly I have three children,
and that child-like beauty was just sometimes
in Beethoven's music, I didn't see so clearly before.
There's enormous tenderness there, actually.
- [Jim] In the years since his Beethoven odyssey,
Leif Ove Andsnes has delved headlong into the works
of two contrasting composers, Frederic Chopin,
who wrote almost exclusively for the piano
and created some of the most lyrical and melodic music
ever for that instrument,
and Jean Sibelius, the thorny Finn who's reputed
to have once said of the piano
"it does not interest me, it cannot sing".
Yet these disparate composers find a new life and vigor,
and a new musical voice, in the hands of Leif Ove Andsnes,
the now 50-year-old former shy boy
from the west of Norway.
(inspiring piano music)
- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.