Piotr Anderszewski, Taking the Path Less Played

Austria Schumann, Szymanowski, Bach: Piotr Anderszewski (pianist), Großer Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna. 26.11.2014 (SS)


Scuhmann,Geistervariationen WoO 24
Fantasie in C major op. 17
Szymanowski,Métopes op. 29
Bach,English Suite no. 6 in D minor BW V811


Seemingly disinclined to invest in a dimmer switch, the Musikverein maintains the one basic light setting and the audience is brightly lit during concerts. The Konzerthaus has a fancier lighting system, enabling the darkened space preferred by a few pianists in their recitals. How many of them, I wonder, are aware of the wartime Dunkelkonzerte which took place in this same hall? The tendency to view dimming of lights as a sacralization of space was a notion the Dunkelkonzerte fed off, with Bruckner symphonies performed as if holding Holy Mass, but with just a pianist and instrument on an otherwise bare stage, the solemnity has less of a public character.

With Piotr Anderszewski there’s a sense of an acutely private occasion which the dramaturgy of darkness merely enhances rather than enables; put him in a floodlit interior and he’d show just as little outward sign of being observed. He’s a pianist, then, for whom the act of watching becomes voyeuristic, but what of the listening? That too felt like listening in, above all in Anderszewski’s anti-rhetorical Schumann. Reduced dynamic scope and an intense inwardness placed his Ghost Variations in a suspended state of slipping away, teetering on the verge of nothingness. The speculative parallel of Schumann’s sublimating his fragile state of mind into this work needs hardly be belabored. The op. 17 Fantasie was essayed with similar fragility, Anderszewski’s only nod to conventional practice here the virtuosic display at the close of the second movement, observed with the usual pyrotechnics (what shock, when that emerges ferociously out of nowhere). The march character was also there at the beginning of the second movement but refined considerably, and the leading voice at the beginning of the third movement was articulated as an independent sung line with not much body to the surrounding texture, which Anderszewski made sound more fully-fledged as a melody than it is on the page, and also very beautiful. But as the second and third movements wore on they returned to the inscrutability of the first movement, with its disintegration of material which then circled around, sounding adrift.

Szymanowski’s Métopes make a great alternative to Gaspard de la nuit and it was a treat to finally hear them in recital. ‘Wyspa syren’, an evocation of the mythological Sirens, in fact sounded almost as watery as ‘Ondine’, despite the thicker texture. Careful pedaling kept basic pools of sound topped up here, across which trills and repeated notes made their ripples without any blurring, a good example of the kind of technical feat which goes unsung at this level because it isn’t flash. None of these three miniatures sounded as fragmented as the Schumann, although there was some random exploration of byways, and again the accompanying sense that Anderszewski sees narrative as this banal thing that calls for the occasional pre-emptive purging.

The Schumann and to a lesser extent the Szymanowski had been good old cultish pianism which I suspect communicated more to admirers of Anderszewski than the uninitiated. The Bach was quite different, featuring the most outwardly dramatic playing of the evening and even a hint of light-heartedness in the nimble movements of the first Gavotte. Elsewhere the playing retained great clarity, in the densest of thickets and with both hands at the bass end of the keyboard, although always in a drama-supporting way and not pursuing transparency as a virtue in itself. The Sarabande brought out Anderszewski’s penchant for drawing out the endings of quiet phrases and letting them hang in midair, daring the thread to break. There had been a great deal of this in the Schumann but not much contour for the thread to hang on, and in that respect Anderszewski was more obliging here. The bat-out-of-hell Gigue was a neat note of defamiliarization on which to end the evening: relentless accentuation of the chromatic notes made this sound like an initial Schenker reduction, or performed analysis along the lines of Hans Keller, whose surreal scores belied the unity they were supposed to promote.

Seb Smallshaw

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