I purchased my ticket to hear Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski almost a year ago, to avoid disappointment: he is a pianist I’ve long wanted to hear live, in particular after seeing ‘Unquiet Traveller’, the wonderful and quirky film about him by Bruno Monsaingeon. In it, Anderszewski revealed himself to be a sensitive, thoughtful and original musician, and his comments about the need to “sing to Mozart” struck a special chord (forgive the pun!) with me as I was, at the time of seeing the film, involved the final work on Mozart’s Rondo in A minor K511 for my diploma, a work full of arias and operatic statements, with an opening melody that looks forward to Chopin at his most intimate.
Anderszewski is a famously perfectionist musician (he walked off the stage during the semi-finals of the Leeds Piano Competition in 1990 because he wasn’t happy with his playing) and is one of the few musicians I’ve encountered in interview to talk openly about performance anxiety and the loneliness of the concert pianist (more here). But there was no sense of a precious personality at work when he strode onto the stage at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Thursday night, to a full house, and launched into a sprightly and colourful ‘Allemande’ of Bach’s French Suite No. 5, its melody streaming forth. Bach’s French Suites are more intimate than the English Suites, and Anderszewski offered a persuasive and thoughtful account, particularly in the exquisitely measured Sarabande and the stately Loure. The faster movements were dancing, witty and playful.
Despite being called English Suites, there is nothing especially English about them: they are essentially French in the dances featured in them, and are ‘player’s music’ rather than concert pieces. Anderszewski brought the grandiose opening ‘Prelude’ to life with a strong sense of the orchestral textures and fugal elements, and the following movements were elegantly presented. It was in the ‘Sarabande’, a movement which fully exploits the dark hues and gravity of G minor, that Anderszewski’s exquisite control, sensitivity and beauty of sound really came to the fore. He is also unafraid of exploiting the possibilities of the modern piano to the full, including the use of the pedal to create rich, warm sounds and shimmering pools of colour, and to highlight the melodic aspects of the movements. A marked contrast to the rather more mannered, traditional interpretations of Bach’s keyboard music.
After the interval, the less well-known Book 2 of Janacek’s On An Overgrown Path, a suite in five movements written at a time when the composer was coming to terms with the untimely death of his daughter Olga. These intensely introspective movements are emotionally searing and highly personal, imbued with references to Moravian folk music and harmonic fragments akin to Debussy’s soundworld.
It was in these pieces that Anderszewski’s ability to move from the most delicately nuanced pianissimos to rich, full fortes was most evident, and the subtleties and shifting moods of these poignant works were highlighted with great sensitivity and insight.
If we were wondering whether Anderszewski could also offer passion and sweeping virtuosity, without compromising his beautiful quality of sound, we were left in no doubt after his performance of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, Op 17, a work the composer described as “a profound lament” for his wife, Clara. It was a grandiose, declamatory and heartfelt close to a superb evening of piano playing of the highest order.
After several curtain calls, Anderszewski returned the piano and announced he would play the French Suite again. The audience laughed, a little uncertainly, perhaps not sure that he meant this, but by the time he reached the Sarabande, it was quite obvious he intended to complete the entire suite. It is rare to be given such a generous encore: indeed, I could have happily listened to Piotr Anderszewski playing Bach all night, such was the allure of his sound, understanding and musical sensitivity.
Piotr Anderszewki – Unquiet Traveller. More about the film by Bruno Monsaingeon here