Leif Ove Andsnes’ epic four-year Beethoven Journey project with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra was a huge success and I’m sure it’s still fresh in people’s memories. So how do you follow such a monumental project? Well, Andsnes has now gone to the other end of the spectrum and has recorded a disc of piano miniatures by Jean Sibelius. I began by asking him how he got to know these rarely-performed pieces.

Leif Ove Andsnes © Özgür Albayrak
Leif Ove Andsnes
© Özgür Albayrak

“I’ve known some of them since childhood, but it was actually the conductor Leif Segerstam who played some to me when I was performing with him over twenty years ago. He played me the Op.75 pieces about the trees and said “You should know these pieces.” I have included two of them, “The Birch” and “The Spruce”, in this CD. I got a little fascinated with what Segerstam told me, but never really went deep into it. Then five or six years ago, I found out that Breitkopf had published all of Sibelius’s piano works and I ordered them. Also, my Norwegian colleague Håvard Gimse had recorded all of them for Naxos which made me interested too. I listened to his recordings and thought some are wonderful pieces.”

Actually Sibelius composed for the piano throughout his lifetime and there are about 150 pieces in all, but Andsnes admits that the quality is rather uneven. “There are some pieces that doesn’t really have the voice of Sibelius, but then there are these pieces that are such gems. So, on my CD, I have selected the works that represent him at his best in piano music. I’m happy that we have a chronological journey, from the Op.5 Lisztian pieces to his Op.114 set, which was written between his Sixth and Seventh symphonies and sounds much more complex harmonically. Here he finally found a sound for the piano.”

“Sibelius had many models for his piano music. In a work like Kyllikki (Op.41), it’s as if he decided to write a very big piano piece that sounds almost like Mussorgsky. Romance (Op.29 no.6) could be a piece by Tchaikovsky, a piece of Russian Romanticism but with a Nordic tone inside. Then when we get to the middle period, such as the Sonatina, The Shepherd and Rondino, it’s much more spare. The Sonatina, with just two voices, is like a modern Scarlatti. It gives the harmonies that are there so much significance. I think this is one of the real masterpieces. Such an intimate world and such simplicity, yet it keeps you guessing all the time.”

Andsnes will be playing some of these Sibelius pieces in his upcoming recital at the Royal Festival Hall and around Europe, in a programme that also includes Beethoven, Schubert and Jörg Widmann. “In the first half, I wanted to start with a selection of Sibelius pieces. Then there’s a real connection between the Widmann’s Idyll and Abyss and Schubert’s Klavierstücke D946, because the Widmann is a piece about Schubert’s mind. I think it’s a fantastic piece and I’m impressed by how he has been able to incorporate Schubertian harmonies and style within a modern language. One moment it’s light-hearted like Schubert’s dances, and then the next moment you are in the other side of Schubert – extremely dark and touching. Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata which I’m playing in the second half is a new piece for me – I’m really obsessed about it – and will fit really well with Chopin’s Ballade no. 1. There’s also a connection there.”

Leif Ove Andsnes © Chris Aadland
Leif Ove Andsnes
© Chris Aadland

Chopin’s Ballades will be his next recording project. “I have played them much of my life and I really want to record them now. Chopin is always so complicated, a mixture of abundance, Romanticism and classic form, but it’s the greatest music, and I hope to do the works justice.”

Andsnes has always come across as a thoughtful and focused musician who has carved out a world-class career while maintaining his Nordic identity. I asked him about the advantages and disadvantages of growing up in Norway in terms of achieving an international career.

“It’s difficult to say as I don’t know any other way than the route I have taken. I grew up in the countryside, on the island of Karmøy, and I was lucky to have parents who could play the piano and started to teach me. I was also lucky to find a good teacher at the age of 8 who was educated in Oslo, but I had no friends around me who played the piano or worked on music. Also, I wasn’t surrounded by professional musicians at all. I never met any until I was 14 or 15.

Things changed when I met Professor Jiri Hlinka, who taught in Bergen. At 16, I moved to Bergen to start at the conservatory and I was suddenly surrounded by a professional environment and a teacher who was very passionate. I also started practicing much, much more, because this was now my life. I remember one day I came out of Prof. Hlinka’s lesson and the first thing I wanted to do was to go straight into the practice room and work on what he had told me. It cannot get much better than that. Then you are really filled up with impulses and inspirations.”

His love for chamber music and his interest in lesser-known repertoire such as the Sibelius also stem from his student days. “When I started at the conservatory, I discovered chamber music at the same time as solo. Often I would use as much time for the song cycles of Mussorgsky and Schumann or the viola sonatas of Brahms as I would do with concertos and solo pieces. In those days, there wasn’t this pressure that you have to do this and that to become a solo pianist. Sometimes I think it may have been good to have been pushed to do more pieces at that time, because I had to really study the big pieces later; on the other hand, there was still room to do other things, and do chamber music with friends. Also Prof. Hlinka taught me to be interested in music which was not only the mainstream, and he used to play me pieces by Janáček and Smetana.”

Chamber music has always formed an important part of Andsnes’ career but in recent years he is doing less during the season in order to spend more time at home with his young family. Instead, he now directs a summer chamber music festival in the idyllic village of Rosendal in Norway, where he enjoys creating chamber music with close colleagues and young Norwegian musicians. “I wanted to have a compact festival with the highest quality. It’s just 4 days and 8 or 9 programmes, and I prefer to have a theme, so last year the theme was “the year 1828”, consisting of mostly late Schubert works. This year was simply a celebration of Mozart’s chamber music. Next year will be something very different.” It certainly sounds like a festival to watch out for.