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Leif Ove Andsnes: Pianist on the Precipice

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has a smiling, generous air about him—even when he's been pulled into a radio studio, after dark, to get bounced back and forth between a Steinway and an inquisitive host.

While I always feel like I may be torturing our performers just a bit by asking them to chat, then play, then chat again, then play again, it's always fascinating to see how the dance gets done.

Andsnes has focus. It's there in his mind and it's there in his sound. His hands seem drawn to the very depths—the ultimate bottom—of the keys, and his ear navigates them toward a centered tone, even when the atmosphere calls for a whisper.

Andsnes played music from his beloved compatriot, Edvard Grieg, and some of Claude Debussy's Preludes he's been working on lately. His warm, weighted sound came through, even during the fleeting, surrealistic effects that make this music so magical. He found color in the piano so easily, and created such a focused and exotic atmosphere, that I spent most of the time with my eyes closed. His focus was contagious.

Leif Ove Andsnes and Grieg

From the time he could climb onto a piano bench, Leif Ove Andsnes has played the music of his countryman, Edvard Grieg. Over the past three decades, Grieg's music has figured prominently in Andsnes' quiet climb to the summit of today's best pianists. His playing has been called "meltingly sensitive and fiercely transporting."

Andsnes has been an ardent champion of Grieg's famous Piano Concerto, but lately has focused on the lesser-known Ballade, Op. 24, a complex and introverted piece for solo piano, written during a tormented period just after the deaths of both of Grieg's parents. Andsnes knew of the Ballade, but waited for just the right time before adding it to his repertoire.

"I always found it strangely dark and full of resignation," Andsnes says. "It's sad in many ways. And I didn't know how to build the piece—it's a theme and fourteen variations.

"It just took me time, but once I started studying it, I found that there's so much beauty in the piece."

Andsnes took Grieg's Ballade to new heights, one might say. While making a documentary film (see an excerpt) about the music for Norwegian television, Andsnes and his crew helicoptered a grand piano to the edge of a mountain in Norway's Hardanger Range, so he could perform the piece for the film's final, dramatic moments.

The stunning view is enough to trigger vertigo, but it's also a reminder of the risks Grieg took in his music, the inspiration of Norwegian landscape, and what Andsnes calls the "natural honesty" of the composer.

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