Talking Heads: Leif Ove Andsnes

interview by Ben Hogwood

Arcana has time with celebrated Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, appearing via Zoom from his home in Bergen. A recent winner of the ‘Special Achievement’ at the Gramophone Awards for his inventive Mozart Momentum series for Sony Classical, Andsnes is now extolling the virtues of a discovery he made during lockdown, which forms his latest release on the label.

To many listeners and fans of classical music, Antonin Dvořák is best-known for his symphonies (especially the Ninth, the New World), other orchestral works and then perhaps his chamber output, headed by the American string quartet. He certainly hasn’t – until now, at least – received many column inches devoted to his piano music.

Yet this is the realisation made by Andsnes over the last couple of years, that Dvořák’s set of Poetic Tone Pictures, published in 1889, are long-lost gems of the Romantic piano repertoire. Before we get to the pieces specifically, the pianist tells me how they represented an unlikely first encounter with the composer’s music. “Funnily enough I think my introduction might have been with these pieces, which is strange because they are so neglected in the world. It so happened that my father brought with him a random collection of LPs once he was in London. He was just shopping, and I don’t think he knew what had come home with really – although one of the LPs was the Dvořák Tone Pictures, with the pianist Radoslav Kvapil. I listened to these pieces when I was very little, and I mostly listened to the first three or four. I liked them very much, and played the first one in a youth competition when I was 12. Strangely enough, that might be my first memory of Dvořák. I might have played the famous Humoresque when I was seven or eight, but before I got to know his famous music this was part of my world, though I didn’t think of playing the whole cycle until three or four years ago.”

Until now, Dvořák’s entire solo piano output has languished in the shadows, with other character pieces, waltzes and a Theme and Variations barely played. This doesn’t seem right to Andsnes. “For me, this cycle is exceptionally good”, he says. “It really stands out. Some of the other music is also interesting, but you do feel sometimes that maybe the piano wasn’t his natural idiom. Dvořák was not a natural pianist. When you come to these pieces, though, it’s like his imagination is freed. One theory is that it has to do with the idea of programme music, because he started writing much more of that around this time. I am thinking of the Eighth Symphony, which was originally going to have a program, and then later come all the symphonic poems. He is much more about imagery and stories, and so it is like he is finding his real personal voice at the piano.”

The personal significance is artistic, too. “For me, it’s a real joy that I find consistently through the 13 pieces. I was so happy than to find this quote from him a few years ago, where he said that he had tried to be a poet in the form of Schumann, though it didn’t sound like Schumann, and he hoped that somebody would play all 13 pieces of this cycle together – though he doubted anybody would have the courage to do that. So I took it up! He meant it as a cycle, for sure – and even if they are 13 short stories, and very different pieces, he builds it very cleverly, so that you have some of the climactic pieces towards the end and this wonderful farewell with the last piece, At The Holy Mountain. It is a wonderful journey as a whole, even if there are many, many different characters.”

The characteristics of Dvořák revealed here are very different to those found in his orchestral or chamber works. “I think so”, Andsnes agrees. “It’s like he is opening a book and saying, “Let me tell you a story. I have something interesting to tell you.” It’s a very intimate and magical world, and he was right in the way that it is reminiscent of Schumann, with something you open – along the lines of a cycle such as Kinderszenen.”

One of the pieces in this cycle is The Old Castle – which draws parallels with another cycle to use this imagery around the same time, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. “It has this bell like quality”, enthuses Andsnes, “and the kind of space it gives brings out the grandeur of the castle. At the same time it’s full of pedal, and you could imagine it in the fog or mist. It’s interesting you mention Mussorgsky, I hadn’t really thought about that. I’ve been thinking more about the piece called Tittle Tattle, which I was thinking could be a little reminiscent of the woman at the marketplace in Pictures. Who knows? It would be interesting to know, if he knew those pieces.”

Is it too far-fetched to hear premonitions of 20th century Czech piano music, such as Janáček, in the distance of Dvořák’s writing? “I think that is true. Of course the folk music is always there. I haven’t been thinking so much about the direct connection to Janáček, but it’s there also, I had a Czech piano teacher when I was a student, who was really important to me – Jiří Hlinka, who lives in Bergen. He came here in the 1970s and was on a contract from the communist regime in Prague, and had 10 years before deciding to stay and become a Norwegian citizen He’s still with us here, and he’s been a very crucial part of my life. I suddenly discovered Janáček through him, but he was also very much in to Dvořák’s piano music. I remember he would have certain pieces like the Silhouettes. He would emphasise more of Smetana’s piano music, and as a student I played several of the pieces. The big Concert Etude and On The Seashore were two of the pieces I played – and with his piano music it is clearly written by a very accomplished pianist. They are wonderful things, but maybe not with the same strong signature of Dvořák.

Leif has been able to play the cycle as part of a European tour, and when we spoke he was contemplating the upcoming performance at the Rudolfinium in Prague. “I’m actually playing the pieces until the middle of February, so it is spread out a little bit. These pieces are in the second half in each concert, so in three or four months I will have very much more experience on how it works for the audience. Before I made the recording I had the opportunity to play a few times for audiences in Scandinavia, and it was very heartwarming to see how they reacted to hearing the whole cycle. There is something special about having time to get into that world, which I felt the audience really appreciated. That convinced me that it really works as a as a cycle, even if it’s a long one at 55 minutes.

Typically for Dvořák, the cycle contains a great deal of memorable melodic content. “It’s fantastic”, agrees Andsnes, “and for me it’s the blend of textures and colours. The chamber music of Dvořák that I have played the most is the Op.81 Piano Quintet, which is also written around this time by the way, it’s one or two years before. Often I ask why it is so extremely attractive, and I think it is the blend of the instrument, the way he uses them together. It is very imaginative, using these bell like qualities and fluid qualities of the treble of the piano, which mixes with the strings in a very original way.”

He gives examples. “I have to say he achieves that in several of these pieces for solo piano – there are very original textures. The second piece called Joking has a middle section which is so fluid and wonderful, and there is something very original about that sort of writing from him for the piano. In other places you feel that he is taking from other composers things that he knows will work, like the Spring Song. You could imagine that is a very Mendelssohnian or Lisztian way of developing the piano texture, the accompaniment and the melody. In the Bacchanale it is very clear that he was inspired by Chopin, the Third Scherzo in the trio section, it is very reminiscent of that. You can see that he takes from things he knows will work for the piano, but there is a very original voice there in the piano writing itself. Part of the attraction, in addition to the melodies and these wonderful harmonies, is the blend of voices and the textures he creates, even on the solo piano.

Andsnes has recorded solo piano music by composers such as Nielsen and Sibelius, bringing forward these private aspects of composers not necessarily known with the piano as their primary form of expression. “I recorded the Sibelius a few years ago”, he recalls. “There I did feel that I had to very consciously select pieces that represented him in the best way. He wrote at least 150 piano pieces, most of them short character pieces, and I have to say it is very uneven. He didn’t particularly like the piano himself, he said terrible things about it! But he wrote all those pieces, and of course you can’t deny that he was a great composer. I think the 25 pieces or so that I chose really represent him in a wonderful way.”

“This is so different though, because there is a whole cycle of pieces that are ‘prime time’ Dvořák, the best period. It’s very strange that you have such a famous composer, with such a cycle, and that it’s not known in the world. We have piano students, sitting in their practice rooms playing the same Beethoven sonatas and the same Chopin pieces over and over again. You can ask 1,000 of them, and maybe two or three would know these pieces. That’s a kind of mystery and shows how imaginative we are sometimes.”

Does this highlight a lack of imagination in concert programmes? “Sure. We all want to play the great music, and I had this Mozart project recently where I dive into the really famous and most incredible piano concertos. But that’s only so much, and I was always thinking that it has an added value to bring forward something that people don’t know. There is such a wealth of repertoire that you can have something totally underrated like this to bring forward. I’m very grateful that I’m playing this instrument and have the possibilities to find these works.”

With the Mozart releases, Andsnes has presented the concertos with contemporaneous pieces, allowing different explorations of how Mozart writes with the piano. The series wrapped up with a concert in Salzburg, completing an examination of 1785 and 1786. “We had three cancelled tours during the pandemic”, he reveals, “but we were also able to do things. When it came to recording we had already done the chamber pieces, but we were able to miraculously meet in Berlin and do the first recordings of the 1785 concertos.”

Andsnes clearly drew much creative impetus from the project. “It was very interesting thing to look at just these two years and see what happened in Mozart’s life, to see the diversity and see how things were affecting his writing, particularly with the piano concertos and the operas. He was writing The Marriage of Figaro at the time, and you see how operatic the piano concertos become after a while. In the Piano Concertos nos. 22-24 the use of wind instruments is like singers, and bringing the clarinet into the orchestration. We also learned about the relationship with Freemasonry and how the music is influenced by it. I think the C minor fantasy, the Funeral Music for orchestra – this is a very different side of Mozart, not the seductive melodies but more about an atmosphere. It’s been really interesting to play the different music from these years.”

Is Mozart as difficult to play as is often famously claimed? “I think the piano concertos are the greatest joy to play”, he says, “and especially these concertos, because they are so alive and there are always things happening. There is not a foreground and background only approach, there are middle voices with things for the viola, the bassoon. It is bubbly and full of ideas, and is such a joy to work on. Of course Mozart is sometimes challenging in terms of finding the right expression, he can be more ambiguous than Beethoven. With Beethoven you always feel that he has a goal in sight, and we go through a struggle and find answers, but with Mozart, there is more theatre, and it is psychologically more complicated. Sometimes there is a feeling that you just need to trust, you know? I liked the expression ‘heavenly boredom’, because it is part of his music – simply it is just beauty. How do you define beauty, and how do you give expression to it? Sometimes there is a childlike quality to that which one just has to trust. Earlier I found that difficult but now on stage I feel these are some of the great musical moments.”

Extra insight came from Andsnes’ decision to conduct the concertos from the keyboard. “For me that is the best way of doing these concertos, because they are so full of dialogue, and one has to be so conscious of who is talking with whom. If you are sitting in the normal soloist position, with a conductor in between the orchestra and yourself, it can work wonderfully, but you are further away from each other and the orchestra don’t hear you so well. When I sit inside the orchestra, with the piano lid off, there is a heightened awareness of what the other one is doing, and the sort of quicksilver response that you need in Mozart is easier to achieve.”

Dvořák wrote a single, large-scale piano concerto in 1876, which Andsnes has also encountered. “My teacher, Jiří Hlinka, played a recording of that when I was 16 and in his class. He played the Firkusny recording, and got very teary about it because he was missing Prague and everything. I got to love that music so much, and I got to know the famous recording with Richter and Kleiber, where he plays the original version:

The others used to play modified versions of it, because again that comes down to Dvořák having this strange reputation as not writing really well for the piano. I do think it’s wonderful music, but I never got around to studying it. I think I have also have been slightly afraid of that piece! Of course it does have its challenges, with the piano writing having to cut through the orchestra and to make sense with an orchestra. I do remember also hearing Richter having said that he hadn’t thought it would be such a problem to study this piece, but it took him half a year just to learn it because it was so complicated pianistically. He compared it to Bartok second piano concerto which he thought would be very challenging, and which he learned in three weeks! That made an impact on me, and I really have respect for that piece. You should never say never, but the Poetic Tone Pictures became the project. I do like it a lot though, and I think it’s an underrated piece, as is the Violin Concerto which is an absolutely fantastic piece.

As to future projects, Andsnes is in dialogue with Sony about what to do next. “It has been rather productive with recordings, so I am taking a little bit of time to think about what to do next. I don’t have any projects in mind for the next few years, but there is a great freedom in that as well. I am thinking about several things but too early to tell where we will end up. It can be a good thing!” For now, though, he has the Dvořák to play live. “So much colour in the music, so you can come in from the rain and enjoy it!”

Leif Ove Andsnes’ recording of Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures is out now on Sony Classical. To listen and for purchasing options, go to the Presto website

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