Piano Recital: Piotr Anderszewski
Schumann / Mozart / Janáček / Chopin
Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-05-30
Piotr Anderszewski (*1969) was born in Warsaw. He received his musical education in France (Lyon, Strasbourg), at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw, and in Los Angeles. In 1990, he made a splash by walking out of the Leeds Piano Competition during the semi-finals, because he felt that his playing was not good enough. Nevertheless, he debuted at Wigmore Hall in London six months later. Since then, he is pursuing an active concert and recording career as soloist, chamber musician, also conducting from the piano. More information is available on Wikipedia.
This was a concert in the “Meisterinterpreten” (Master Artists) series in the big hall of the Tonhalle Zurich. Less than half of the hall’s 1455 seats were occupied in this recital. That’s not an unusual phenomenon for piano recitals, unless the artist is one of the very top stars.
The door to the stage opened, the artist walked onto the podium, just populated with one of the two Steinway D concert grands of the Tonhalle. The audience greeted the artist with a warm welcome applause. From the inconspicuous, almost shy way in which he took the applause while approaching the concert grand almost gave me the feeling that he meant to apologize for his presence. However, this impression disappeared as soon as the artist sat down at the piano. From then on, he remained focused onto the keyboard and the music. He barely ever seemed to pay attention to the audience while playing. Though, of course, he was well aware of the listeners, and between the pieces, he carefully controlled his gestures, such as to have applause only where he deemed it appropriate.
At a first glance, Anderszewski’s recital program looked interesting, if not even strange. He started off with Schumann’s “Ghost Variations“, moved on to Mozart’s Fantasia and Sonata in C minor. This was followed by an introverted set of five pieces, Janáček’s “On an Overgrown Path“, which was just announced on the evening itself, as replacement for Chopin’s Mazurki op.56. From Janáček he moved on to Chopin’s Mazurki op.59. And the program, which began with Schumann’s “end time piece”, ended in rhapsodic brilliance, with Chopin’s “Polonaise-fantaisie“, op.61. From Schumann’s last composition to brilliance at the height of Chopin’s career: Anderszewski seemed to move backwards in a composer’s emotional development. But let’s deal with the pieces in the order in which they were played:
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) told his wife Clara that in the late stages of his mental illness (1854), in (most likely) schizophrenic phases, he heard ghosts, spirits singing to him in beautiful, heavenly melodies, which intermittently switched to terrible, hellish yelling noises. It was long believed that what became the theme to his Variations in E♭ major, WoO 24, “Geistervariationen“ (Ghost Variations) was what the composer remembered from these heavenly, serene songs. However, that theme has been in the composer’s mind before that: it also appears in the slow movement of his violin concerto in D minor (1853, published much later as WoO 1). A mere few days before his attempted suicide, Schumann finished his past composition, a set of five variations on that “ghost theme”:
- Theme – Leise, innig (silent, intimate)
- 1st Variation
- 2nd Variation – Canonisch
- 3rd Variation – Etwas belebter (somewhat more lively)
- 4th Variation
- 5th Variation
The composer’s family treated this heart-warming, gentle, intimate, almost strangely pensive and melancholic theme as an outgrowth of the composer’s mental illness. They kept the theme & the variations, as well as the violin concerto, locked away for around 100 years. I think that rather than taking these compositions as signs of mental decay, one should value them as the last products of the composer’s creative mind. Sure, as music, it is backward- rather than forward-looking—but what’s wrong with that?
In Anderszewski’s interpretation, certainly at the beginning, the “ghost” theme sounded even more restrained than it is anyway: the pianist started in ppp, as from far away, but then gradually gained (moderate) volume. In its core, this performance already had all the characteristics of Anderszewski’s playing throughout the evening: big phrasing arches in a single, big musical flow. Tension is building up harmoniously, up to a climax, then relaxes again gradually, until the next build-up starts. Variation 3 features two short climaxes, variation 4 (minor) is very expressive, with broad(er) highlights.
Dynamic and tempo changes are gradual, flowing, the pianist avoids harsh contrasts and signs of hardness. His keyboard touch is extremely controlled and transparent in polyphonic segments. Anderszewski’s articulation is dominated by a mellow legato, with an occasional hint at arpeggiando playing. Overall, the impression was dominated by the beauty of sound—even though one could call the composition sad and broken overall. As a listener, I could not resist being pulled into the magic of the performance. But Anderszewski did not end the phrase here—he extended the arch beyond the piece: after holding the last chord until it faded out, he kept his hands over the keyboard, carried forward the tension and attention, hence preventing any thought of applauding …
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed his Fantasia for Piano in C minor, K.475 in 1785. He published it together with the piano sonata No.14 in C minor, K.457, that he had composed the year before. The joint publishing may just have served to avoid publishing a single sonata on its own, which at that time was rather unusual. The Fantasia features five segments, all played attacca:
- Più Allegro
- Tempo I
Just a mere few seconds, in which the listener’s mind was still preoccupied with Schumann’s music (see above), Anderszewski started with the earnest, introductory motif of Mozart’s Fantasia.
Mozart’s Fantasia featured the same, mellow keyboard touch, very expressive agogics and dynamics. But also this composition was retained in the slow parts, introverted—and hence fitting to Schumann’s variations. Even in the Allegro parts, I did not see signs of rebellion or provocation, as often attributed to Mozart, almost throughout his lifetime. But of course, there were build-ups to emotional, dramatic moments, much more than in Schumann’s “end time piece”. I particularly liked the carefully crafted bass notes in the Più Allegro part. The concluding Tempo I section leads back to the opening segment—though it now sounds more weighty, “larger”. At the same time, the pianist carefully followed the dynamic instructions in the score, between f, p, and pp.
Anderszewski further joined the movements of the subsequent sonata K.457 (in the same tonality of C minor) to the Fantasia (and the Schumann variations), without opportunity for (or disruption by) applause. This way, the entire first half of the concert formed a single, large dramatic arch. Actually, it was an arch that absolutely made sense to me, despite the fact that the character of Mozart’s music is entirely different from Schumann’s.
As mentioned above, Mozart wrote this sonata in 1784—one of only six sonatas that he wrote during his years in Vienna. He published it together with the above Fantasia in the same tonality. The sonata features three movements:
- Molto Allegro
Piotr Anderszewski played the first movement quasi attacca after the Fantasia. He left a short gap after the first movement (no applause, of course), but kept movements II and III tied together, attacca.
The C minor sonata is more “rebelling”, revolting than the Fantasia—clearly, an intensification, overall.
In the first movement, I was intuitively reminded of the piano concerto in D minor, K.466 (not as a quotation, but in its “attitude”). And again, a key aspect of the interpretation was in the harmonious flow, in the “dramatic pull” across the entire movement. The pianist did both repeats here.
The slow movement is a retained, serene, transfigured idyl. Even the short cadenza appeared to end in introverted spirituality. Emerging emotions, conflicts remained tamed, softened, moderated.
The Finale is quite a contrast—it is the dramatic culmination in this sonata. With its sudden changes in atmosphere and (intended) structural ruptures, this reminded me of Beethoven. Upon writing this up, I checked Wikipedia—just to find that others, including contemporaries, came to the same the same conclusion: the similarities are quite obvious!
Janáček: On an Overgrown Path, Book II
At the turn of the century, Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928) started collecting Moravian folk melodies, initially writing them up as 6 pieces for harmonium. The cycle further grew to 10 pieces for the piano, which were published in 1911, as Book I of a cycle named “On an Overgrown Path” (Po zarostlém chodníčku). In that same year, Janáček wrote a second series, published only after the composer’s death, 1942, as “On an Overgrown Path” (Po zarostlém chodníčku), Book II. This cycle features five pieces only, which (presumably in the interest of the dramatic concept / flow) Piotr Anderszewski played in modified order (1 — 2 — 4 — 3 — 5):
- Andante (1/4 = 80) — Con moto — Meno mosso — Adagio
- Allegretto (1/8 = 144) — Poco mosso — Presto — Tempo I — Adagio
- Vivo (1§/4 = 152) — Presto — L’istesso tempo (Vivo) — Tempo I — Presto — Adagio
- Più mosso (3/16 = 69)
- Allegro (3/8 = 60) — Meno mosso — Adagio
Harmonically, Janáček’s music brought us into totally different spheres. I find that music to be melancholic, introverted, introspective, with frequent changes in atmosphere and tempo. The composer sometimes leaves the listener in the dark about the rhythm and meter. Most of this music is retained, sometimes almost disjointed, but also with emotional, even briefly dramatic, virtuosic outbreaks. It is music with an atmosphere that I haven’t encountered anywhere else—except that maybe it remotely appears to anticipate piano music by Nikolai Medtner (1880 – 1951)?
Among the five pieces, the last one is the most multi-faceted one, with dramatic segments, accentuated rhythms, but equally with soothing melodies. Towards the end, it even turns joyfully serene—happy enough for even the strong tremoli on the last pages not to be seen as menace.
Chopin: Three Mazurki, op.59
Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) composed the 3 Mazurki, op.59, in 1845. Altogether, from 1825 on, Chopin composed around 70 Mazurki—his most personal type of piano music.
I. Mazurka in A minor: Moderato
As he already did prior to the intermission, Anderszewski “just briefly held the breath” (or caused the audience to do so)—and continued with the Mazurka op.59/1, almost attacca after the music by Janáček, starting entirely retained, hesitating. Even though Janáček’s and Chopin’s music styles are vastly different, the transition felt seamless—it wasn’t a disruption of any kind. After the soft beginning, the first Mazurka soon picked up pace, life, and remained fairly fluent, building up in waves, with rather distinct rubato, remaining both simple, as well as exploring emotional depth.
II. Mazurka in A♭ major: Allegretto
The second Mazurka is quite a contrast: is based upon a joyful atmosphere, building on (Polish) folk-like melodies.
I. Mazurka in F♯ minor: Vivace
Also the last piece in this small series draws from its atmosphere, the harmonious flow, and the pianist’s distinct rubato. I found it excellent how Anderszewski was able to capture the atmosphere in this music: that’s what he focused on, rather than trying to highlight details in articulation and phrasing. He not only convincingly formed a dramatic arch in this piece, but he also magically offered a compelling dramatic flow across Janáček’s pieces and these three Mazurki.
This was the only time in the program where there was a short applause between programmed pieces—still, Anderszewski did not leave the stage, but soon sat down at the piano again for the final piece:
The well-known Polonaise No.7 in A♭ major, op.61, is also known as “Polonaise-fantaisie“. It was written and published 1846, one year after the above Mazurki. With 288 bars (3/4 time, Allegro maestoso), it is one of the bigger single-movement compositions for solo piano by the composer. Interestingly, the Polonaise-fantaisie only gained widespread popularity around the middle of the 20th century.
With its completely different atmosphere and attitude, this last piece seemed to fall outside of the series of all preceding compositions. Yes, it certainly does also have pensive moments—but the dominant characteristics of this music differ substantially. In Anderszewski’s interpretation, I found the piece to be dominated by harmonious build-ups / waves, with rhapsodic eruptions and very emotional rubato.
I found the performance to be organic, maybe a tad willful, but still very good, overall. The beginning may have been slightly too dramatic and expressive: this may have caused the interpretation to lose tension in the Poco più lento part. Unlike with other artists, the prominent multiple trill in the second half was not a climax, but merely a preparative step for the final build-up. The latter starts at the Tempo I, after the flow almost came to a rest.
The applause indicated that there was a fair amount of fan community in the audience. Piotr Anderszewski offered two entirely unpretentious encores:
- From the 6 Bagatellen, op.126 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) the first one, in G major (Andante con moto, Cantabile e compiacevole — L’istesso tempo): an excellent choice for calming down after the brilliance and the emotions in Chopin’s op.61!
- From the Partita No.1 in B♭ major, BWV 825 (published as “Clavier-Übung, Teil I“) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) the fourth movement, Sarabande. This was certainly a romanticizing interpretation, but also a good, fitting choice to end the program. Anderszewski aptly used extra ornamentation in the repeats. Sure, the ornaments were “piano-like” (not trying to imitate a harpsichord), but in my opinion still exhibiting “proper baroque attitude”. Also here, the pianist focused on the big lines / phrases, rather than on details in the articulation.
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.