When most of us get into an elevator, we find ourselves looking straight ahead, listening to the rush of the elevator, waiting to exit. When Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes entered his hotel elevator in Sao Paulo, Brazil, what he heard was Beethoven. "And every time I entered the elevator, they played the first and second piano concertos of Beethoven in a loop for the whole week," he recalls. "And I thought after a couple days I would go mad, having to listen to this music. But the opposite happened. I heard, every time, 40 seconds of this music and it dawned on me how incredibly fresh, original, beautiful, true this music is. And I think that triggered something in me and I thought, 'I have to work on this music now. I've turned 40, I have to be an adult and dive into this world now!' That's why I started this project."
That project is The Beethoven Journey, which marks the first time in his more-than-20-year career that he's recorded music of Beethoven. "It's not like I haven't played Beethoven over the years, but it has never really been a centerpiece of my repertoire and I now feel like this music is just great. It's the most uplifting, it's the most comforting, it's the most spiritual and human at the same time. I therefore wanted to dedicate a period in my life to this music and I have made a huge Beethoven journey for three or four years, where centerpieces are the five piano concertos. But I'm also playing sonatas, and really trying to understand this great giant of a composer."
On his first recording in this series, Leif Ove features Beethoven's Piano Concertos No. 1 and 3 as he performs with and conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. "It's an interesting and challenging journey," he admits. "In Beethoven, you don't have the same sort of dialog with the orchestra like you have in Mozart. In Mozart, it's so operatic. You have dialogs with the oboe, with the bassoon, with different string groups all the time. With Beethoven there is that element, which is wonderful, but there is also a new element which separates the soloist and the orchestra. There's a new heroic role for the soloist."
"I'm directing the orchestra, because I have to feel both like a separate entity in cooperation with the orchestra. I'm not sitting there separately, waiting for my next entrance like I often do when I play with a conductor, I'm part of the storytelling all the time and that's an amazing experience.
"The first piano concerto starts with the most simple material you can imagine," Leif Ove explains. "The simplest chords, the simplest rhythmic pattern and you think, there is almost no music. But there is this expectation that something will happen, he's going to show his cards later on. And he does. In the 13th bar already, there's an explosion of a crescendo and he grabs you by the neck and he says, 'Listen, listen to what I can do with this rather naïve material! He's building a palace out of very simple stones."
Leif Ove says Beethoven is even more daring in the Piano Concerto No. 3. The first movement ends very dramatically in the key of c minor. The slow movement that follows starts in the key of E major. "It comes like music from very far away, like a dream," Leif Ove explains. "It's a challenging balance in that movement because it looks so busy on the page. It's full of 32nd notes and 64th notes. Obviously he didn't mean it as a fast movement: it's a Largo, it's broad, it needs time for all these passages to develop. But I think there is a Baroque feeling about it. It's like some pieces by Bach, that also look very busy on the page. He was influenced by Bach, Handel, and probably that's why this aesthetic was important to him. But it's a balance to find this calm feeling with so many passages of notes in the middle of it."
The music of Beethoven surprised Leif Ove Andsnes in that Brazilian elevator, and launched the Norwegian pianist on a new journey. He's experiencing the unexpected, the same experience Andsnes hopes you'll find inside The Beethoven Journey, the first in his new series of Beethoven piano recordings.