Tuesday, May 22, 2012


May 22 & 23

Andsnes, left and Richter laying out their big plans.

Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes’s concerts with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra this week mark more than his return to Prague Spring after a 20-year absence. They are the beginning of an ambitious three-year effort to tour and record a complete set of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. By 2014, Andsnes plans to have the five concertos on three Sony Classical discs, and 70-plus concerts scheduled to present them to the world.

The project, which started with performances in Norway, Italy and Germany earlier this month, holds special significance for Prague. For one thing, Concerto No. 1 may have premiered here in 1798. “We are still trying to find out,” Andsnes said at a Monday press conference with MCO General Manager Andreas Richter. “It might have been Vienna.”

More importantly for contemporary audiences, all the recordings will be made at the Rudolfinum, starting Tuesday night. Asked about that decision at the press conference – particularly given the choice of so many other spectacular concert halls – Andsnes shrugged and made it sound simple. “We discussed all the very best places we could think of,” he said. “And we decided this was the best.”

Certainly there’s no arguing with the Rudolfinum’s excellent acoustics. But Andsnes also has a personal connection to Prague – his first piano teacher, Jiří Hlinka, who trained here and moved to Norway in the early 1970s, becoming an instructor at the Musikkonservatorium in Bergen. Andsnes studied with him for eight years, the first before he was even enrolled in the conservatory, and had to make a three-hour commute to see Hlinka.

I was a rather shy boy from the west coast of Norway, and I needed to meet someone who was passionate about the music,” Andsnes said. “Jiří was extremely inspirational. I learned many things from him, including Czech music. Janáček is still one of my favorite composers.”

As for Beethoven, Andsnes speaks of him with almost religious devotion. He came to the composer as a child, fascinated by what he called “the power of his music, the violence of it.” Now, at the age of 42, Beethoven has deeper meanings for him.

The last four or five years, I’ve come to feel his music is not just radical and modern, but spiritual and meaningful,” Andsnes said. “Beethoven had such a belief in the beauty and power of music – he hoped it would change the world and bring people together. The idea of brotherhood is a strong motivating factor in his music.”

For this project, just getting it right will pose a challenge. In his performances this week, Andsnes will not only play concertos No. 1 and No. 3, but conduct them from the keyboard. At the press conference, he was quick to downplay that part of his role.

I can only do that because this is such a fantastic orchestra,” he said. “You need incredible players to do it. I will be partly leading, partly conducting, but partly they will be playing by themselves.”

Andsnes also seemed eager to convince his audience that conducting is not a gimmick.It will be very different from the normal soloist situation, where you’re sitting away from the orchestra,” he explained. “I will sitting in the middle of the musicians, playing a piano with no lid so that I can see everyone. There’s an element of dialogue in the first three concertos, and this will allow us to react to each other directly, musician to musician.

It’s what I’ve always dreamed of – a collaboration. Discovering the wealth in this amazing music is something we will do together.”

The recording and tour dates for the project are carefully mapped out, with more cities being added all the time. But exactly where the Beethoven concertos will take Andsnes and the orchestra musically, not even GM Andreas Richter can tell.

We are embarking on a journey,” he said at the press conference. “And we’re not entirely sure what will happen.”

For more on:

The Prague Spring concerts: http://www.festival.cz/en/program_detail/54
Leif Ove Andsnes: http://www.andsnes.com/
Mahler Chamber Orchestra: http://www.mahler-chamber.de/

Photo: Ivan Malý

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