The patient art of interpretation

Leif Ove Andsnes's style reveals physicality, doggedness and an intuitive grasp of silence. Edward Seckerson meets a very Nordic pianist

Five years ago, Grieg finally made it into the Norwegian pop charts. The young man who put him there was Norwegian, too, which probably helped. He looked the part: fresh-faced, spiky-haired, eminently marketable. Times were changing. Nigel Kennedy had come, and was going, with a vengeance. The classics had youth potential, rage potential. Selling the classics was suddenly big business. So Virgin Classics (then independent, now part of EMI) signed this 21-year-old graduate of the Bergen Conservatory, and Grieg's Piano Concerto began climbing the charts. This was one song for Norway that was good for more than nul points.

Leif Ove Andsnes stopped playing the Grieg shortly afterwards. It was his way of moving on. His coming of age. But Virgin's then label manager, Simon Foster - a man of keen musical perceptions (it was he who began nurturing Kennedy's recording career) - had already seen way beyond the Grieg. Here was an intriguing, imaginative pianist. And inquisitive pianists were, by nature, creative pianists.

In 1992, when Andsnes bounded into London's Royal Albert Hall on the occasion of his Prom debut, his own curiosity far exceeded that of the average Brit. I doubt that many in the audience that night will ever have heard Benjamin Britten's Piano Concerto. That in itself will have put a smile on Andsnes's face - it was a shrewd and audacious choice, this three-ring circus of a piece, a piece full of tricks and tricksiness with which to charm and bedazzle. But there was something else about that performance that served notice of his far-reaching talent. At 22, Andsnes had recognised something fundamental to the character of the piece: a wryness, a peculiarly English irony. He had identified the style.

When we met in Oslo recently, we talked a great deal about style, about the importance of national identity in music, the importance of being "local". Andsnes is not alone in his concern that, as the world gets smaller, we are slowly but surely seeing a process of musical "homogenisation". Heaven forfend. He'd appreciate the quaintness of that phrase. Slowly but surely, his curiosity is getting the better of the English: the bewildering complexity and possibilities of the language, the quirkiness, eccentricity, humour, John Cleese and dead "Norwegian Blue" parrots and, most recently, the joys of cockney rhyming slang. Next time "Leg Over" Andsnes - well, it's almost rhyming slang, and he brought it up, not me - plays the Britten in public (he's due to record it next year), his perception of its character will no doubt have sharpened.

He came to know the piece from Sviatoslav Richter's recording under the composer. Richter is one of his idols, "a genius", he believes, a Jack- of-all-styles. But even he was unable to disguise what Andsnes (and Britten before him) perceived as an unmistakably "Russian" response to the work. What is it about our environments, our national characteristics, temperaments, that so colours our musical responses? Andsnes is fascinated by the fact that Britten, such an accomplished pianist, should have composed such "string-oriented" music. Has that something to do with the character of the landscape as reflected in the natural legato of string instruments? What is it about a Frenchman playing Poulenc or Ravel? What makes Russian Shostakovich so pitch-black, or Russian Rachmaninov so melancholic?

Andsnes can demystify the question only in as much as he can offer a few practical pointers. Jiri Hlinka, his teacher at the Bergen Conservatory, was Czech. Among Hlinka's teachers were Gilels and Richter. So, not surprisingly, Andsnes was raised in the "Eastern European" school of keyboard playing. He was only 15 and a calm, somewhat impassive youth when he first went to Hlinka. Hlinka, he says, taught him "attitude", an almost fanatical attitude to the business of making music. He taught him about physicality as it relates to sound, encouraging him to use the whole of his upper body when playing. This, in marked contrast, of course, to the stiffer, more upright carriage of the German school with its origins in the lighter- action hammerklavier of yesteryear.

Hlinka taught him patience, too. Andsnes worked on Rachmaninov's Third Concerto for a full year and a half before going public with it. Of that time, the notes themselves took only a matter of weeks to get under the fingers (though in this case, of course, we're talking a veritable Niagara of them). The "music" took a lot longer. "An interpretation has to mature. You have to have transcended the technical difficulties long before you put a major piece before an audience. Sometimes it's hard to separate what is conscious and unconscious when you begin to develop a piece. But I do know that I don't ever approach a new piece - even one as well-known as this - with a mind to do something `different'. It's an instinctive response, the way I experience the piece."

And if that means turning the whole tradition of performance on its head, then so be it. Andsnes's highly individual reading of the Rachmaninov (as captured in a live recording under Paavo Berglund) is no splashy crowd- pleaser a la Horowitz. He deliberately chose the Third for its deep and abiding melancholy. He was drawn by its inwardness more than its theatricality, by its symphonic as opposed to its pianistic challenge.

"This incredibly simple and beautiful melody comes out of nothing and develops into something," he says. "That's what interests me about the piece. The audience should feel drawn to the first movement cadenza. I believe it's the logical climax of the movement." Which is why - if I may quote from the review I wrote in these pages - "Andsnes, true to character, elects to give us the bigger, braver original cadenza. And even that is made of sterner stuff than is customary."

It's not often in this business that artist and critic get to discuss a review in any detail (except through lawyers), but Andsnes was intrigued, indeed encouraged, that so much of what he sought to achieve - for better or worse - had communicated itself to me. "It's a very Nordic-sounding performance," I went on. "The tone of it is challenging, hardy. It's the darker, mysterious hues you remember."

Bringing us back to the elusive question of national identity. Andsnes was brought up on an island off the west coast of Norway: surely his experience of silence and the sound of silence will have had some bearing on his musical development? There's a stillness, a concentration about his playing that is rare and unmistakable. It's the way he hears silence. He makes you hear it too. Listen to his Janacek disc - in particular, the pieces On an Overgrown Path and In the Mist. Andsnes reveals to me that they were recorded at two and three o'clock in the morning. "It was probably excessive because I've listened to this recording during the day and actually felt that it was too slow. But it's true, I do prefer to record in the evening. Your tempo feeling changes between day and night, the pulse is different, the quality of silence is different, you listen differently. Sound engineers will tell you that there is a difference between an absolutely silent room in day and at night. And then if you add one or two listeners - not enough to change the acoustic - the intensity of their listening will change the nature of the sound and the silence yet again."

Bottom line: musicians need listeners, good listeners. Without them, says Andsnes, it's too easy to lose that "contact" with the human qualities of a piece, "to play out your concept in a vacuum, so to speak". Hence the upsurge in live recordings. Mind you, he cites Carl Nielsen's piano music - the subject of his latest album - as an excellent example of music "heard" almost in isolation. "I'm thinking particularly of the very spiritual, very inward, very special." He is unequivocal about this music - "the greatest in Scandinavian literature". And there'll be more where that came from. Stenhammar and Geirr Tveit (who? wait and see) are other names on his calling card. And his curiosity will prevail. In October, he will perform and record (with Rattle and the CBSO) Szymanowski's Sinfonia Concertante (or Symphony No 4). Before I ask, he reminds me of a "strange" Rubinstein recording with Wallenstein and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Andsnes is not one of those musicians who deny listening to other musicians' records (but do so anyway). Favourites of his include Michelangeli in the Ravel G major Concerto, Richter in Rachmaninov 2, Lipatti in Bach, Carlos Kleiber in anything (a discussion ensues: was Kleiber's "radical" Beethoven the natural precursor to the period movement?). He never worries about being "influenced". As Bernstein said, "If you're going to steal, steal classy!"

"Of course you hear bad copies - students who want to be Glenn Gould, which is really stupid. But if you are a strong personality, you will always develop in your own way. However much I might strive to be Richter, I could never be Richter." Leif Ove Andsnes will do very nicely, thank you.

n Andsnes plays Beethoven, Chopin, Martin and Schumann, 7.30pm tomorrow, Wigmore Hall, London W1 (0171-935 2141)

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'