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
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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)