Leif Ove Andsnes always brings a whiff of the fjords when he takes the stage. As the pianistic voice of Norway, he sees it as his duty to reflect the airy spirit of his small but intensely musical nation, and the spirit of Grieg in particular. His programme for his forthcoming Royal Festival Hall recital seems more eclectic than usual (with a Bach Toccata, Beethoven's Sonata "Quasi una fantasia", some Sibelius pieces, and a selection of Debussy Preludes), but Grieg's 10-minute Ballade in G Minor will be its centre of gravity.
Andsnes has just released a DVD, Ballad for Edvard Grieg, which is largely devoted to his quest for the meaning of this work; that quest took him all over Europe, retracing Grieg's steps as he studied in Leipzig (which he hated), chilled out in Copenhagen (which he loved), and came home to Bergen, where he settled for the rest of his life. Andsnes explains Grieg's never having given a public performance of it by suggesting that it was too closely associated in his mind with the deaths of his parents, and that it may also have been technically too demanding for him.
"I myself always felt put off by the piece," says Andsnes. "It's dark, and few people perform it. It may be called a Ballade, but it's actually a set of variations on a Norwegian mountain song, and its melancholy is powerfully enhanced by Grieg's marvellous harmonies. He wasn't a master of the Variation form, and you sense the struggle he had to create it. You also sense the resignation it reflected: he was in a deep depression when he wrote it. But it has such beauty, and communicates such a sense of space; I didn't know it contained such greatness until I began to get into it."
Last year, Andsnes released a CD of Grieg's Lyric Pieces, those charming miniatures that every student pianist is expected to play. "But it's not commonly realised that in the Miniature form he had deep, even existential things to say," Andsnes says. "And his harmonies are so individual: after two bars, you know it can only be Grieg."
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