Piotr Anderszewski’s Bach Steps Back

United StatesUnited States Bach: Piotr Anderszewski, Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York 6.12.2012 (SSM)

French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816
English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808
Italian Concerto, BWV 971
English Suite No. 6 in D Minor, BWV 811

Encore: Sarabande from Bach Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 525

I first heard Piotr Anderszewski on his recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. I found it special, and it remained so for me until Ashkenazy’s recent CD of the same work. The common critical praise of Anderszewski’s performance is his ability to let Beethoven speak for himself. There is so much vibrancy, complexity and variation in the work that it doesn’t need to bear the weight of a pianist’s personality. But there was one point when Anderszewski disregarded Beethoven, and it was at a crucial moment. The penultimate chord in the score is followed by an eighth-note rest immediately followed by the final chord marked f. Anderszewski takes the eighth-note rest as if it were a five second fermata before striking the final chord as a p not an f. Looking back at it now, it seems as if he were making a statement that he may have followed Beethoven’s score to the tee, but he didn’t have to.

There was some magical Bach at Carnegie Hall. Anderszewski’s well-judged use of ornamentation, flourishes and arpeggiation on the repeats was exemplary. In the Loure of the French Suite No. 5, he brought out clearly the melodic line for the left hand buried in the B section. In the gigues, he matched Glen Gould in velocity. He executed the repeat of the second gavotte of the sixth English suite an octave higher than Bach wrote it, reproducing what it might have sounded like when played with an open lute stop on the harpsichord. The dark D minor prelude to the sixth suite hearkened back to the improvisatory style of Frescobaldi preludes, toccatas and canzones. In the Italian Concerto the lines of the “soloist” against the “orchestra’s” accompaniment sounded so authentic that it seemed the pianist might be coming in slightly ahead or behind the “orchestra.”

But the moderately paced dances such as the allemandes, bourées and gavottes lacked, at times, a rhythmic pulse. The faster dances had speed to spare, but when played too fast, as he did, the essential contrapuntal lines blurred: the voices dropped out in a whirlwind of virtuosity. The sarabandes, particularly the one from the sixth English suite, were as slow as any I’ve heard. It’s hard not to compare this lumbering interpretation to the notorious 25th variation of the Goldberg Variations played by Glen Gould in his 1955 performance that consumed 6:30 minutes out a total of 39 minutes: the time it took him to finish the 30 variations. Let us hope that Anderszewski comes to his senses as Glen Gould did in his second recording of the Goldberg Variations in which he played the 25th in a more sensible 4:16 minutes.

Few purists these days still defend the notion that Bach has to be played on a harpsichord for the listener to experience the real thing. To do this would be to miss out on some of the best piano performers of recent times: Glen Gould, Andras Schiff and Angela Hewitt, to name a few. Gould was certainly eccentric, but rarely failed in the qualities one might think Bach himself would have admired: clarity of line, control of phrasing and technical finesse. Since Bach’s rediscovery in the mid-19th century, we’ve had to listen to overly personal, soulful Bach that steals the heart of this joyful music. Although we may have gone overboard in the other direction in an attempt to recreate the true Bach, we are now willing to enjoy the possibilities inherent in the piano: that is, when the piano is used to expose the music of Bach rather than as here cover it with overly virtuosic speed-fests or Romantic histrionics that put our understanding of Bach back a century.

Stan Metzger