An Outstanding Anniversary Recital by Piotr Anderszewski

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Schumann, and Szymanowski: Piotr Anderszewski (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 9.2.2016 (MB)

Bach – Partita no.6 in E minor, BWV 830
Schumann – Papillons, op.2
Szymanowski – Métopes, op.29
Schumann – Variations on an original theme in E-flat major, WoO 24, ‘“Ghost’ Variations’
Bach – Partita no.1 in B-flat major, BWV 825

In this outstanding recital, Piotr Anderszewski celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his Wigmore Hall debut. There was nothing showy about his artistry; there never is. Musicianship and virtuosity were as one; indeed, one barely noticed the latter, since it was deployed in and expressed through his musical tone-poetry. There was, moreover, something approaching, if you will forgive the expression, a ‘third half’, in which one Janáček encore was followed by the whole of the Second Book from On an Overgrown Path: at least as engrossing as anything on the programme ‘proper’.

Anderszewski both began and ended with a Bach Partita; the last would be first and the first would be last, so we opened with the E minor suite. The Toccata began in forthright fashion, almost but not quite aggressive; that certainly did not preclude yielding later. An involved – and involving – fugue offered a mix of shading within phrases and terraced, manuals-style dynamics. Overall mood and tone were unmistakable; so was variegation within. Above all, though, this was Bach that mattered; Anderszewski’s dynamic performance left one in no doubt. There were lightness and depth to the Allemande and Corrente, anticipating, so it seemed, Schumann. They danced, not in some facile ‘stylistically correct’ way – who decides what is correct, and what sanctions should (s)he employ? – but fashioning their own, sometimes wayward but always compelling, path. The highly insistent line of the Corrente suddenly confounded expectations with the nonchalance of the final cadence. Anderszewski imbued the Air with a vocal quality such as can only be achieved by keyboard imitation (or expansion). The quality of proliferation put me in mind of Boulez’s music, similarly its luxuriant sensuality. An unswerving teleology in the Tempo di Gavotta nevertheless permitted graceful yielding. Of that there could be none in a splendidly severe Gigue. Here was Bach in all his grandeur, anticipating, even surpassing, the Second Viennese School. Janus-faced, the music seemed to encompass both mediæval and modern tendencies, as well as the composer’s own. Procedures were as audible, even visible, as in Webern; one could pretty much see the score through listening to it. The telos was as all-determining as in Beethoven. In a sense, this felt like the Art of Fugue, yet more so.

Schumann’s Papillons followed: an opening invitation to the waltz, with Schubertian charm and the composer’s very own impetus to the fantastic. There was a strong element of characterisation to Anderszewski’s performance, almost as if the pianist were having Schumann anticipate Wagner: ‘characters’, sharply and lovingly etched, came centre-stage and took their leave (or sometimes, did not). In its way, this was a performance as vividly pictorial as, say, the Symphonie fantastique, and as ‘poetic’ – a word covering a multitude of sins – as anything else in Schumann’s œuvre. And yet, there was, of course, so much that could not be rendered in words, in images, in anything but music. However much our Hoffmann – or perhaps better, Jean Paul – at the piano seemed to invite such impulses, he just as readily denied them.

It was a joy to hear Szymanowski’s Métopes in concert; if I have heard the work in concert before, it must have been a long time ago. It was still more a joy to hear Métopes in so complete a performance. ‘L’Ile des Sirènes’ sounded Debussyan, albeit through a thicker, or rather more Byzantine, haze. The piano lost its hammers in certain passages, whilst at the same time retaining a more Ravel-like – not for the last time, I thought of Gaspard de la nuit – precision where necessary. This sounded as ‘poetic’ as Papillons, whilst tending to frankly Lisztian (and sexual) heights at climaxes. These were sirens neither man nor woman would have been able to resist; their landscape, moreover, proved just as inviting. Gaspard again hovered in ‘Calypso’: not just similarity but thoughts of dissimilarity too. Certain flickering figures seemed to point to later French music, to Messiaen, even to Boulez, without loss of Scriabin-like perfume; why, after all, should there be such or indeed any loss? The heady mix was Szymanowski’s – and Anderszewski’s – own. ‘Vague dance’, an aptly Debussyan paradox, was my abiding impression of ‘Nausicaa’, which shifted in and out of focus not entirely unlike Schumann’s characters in Papillons. Swathes of music and musical history seemed to lie ahead – even, a little surprisingly perhaps, Stravinsky – yet it was, again, both kinship with and difference from Gaspard that most vividly registered in my consciousness.

Schumann’s Ghost Variations are a distressing experience, not an experience I am inclined to repeat so very often. Here, however, they received at least a compelling a musical performance as I can recall. Anderszewski imparted to the theme an almost Beethovenian dignity, whilst tugging a little in a Brahmsian direction. It was, moreover, those two composers, Beethoven and Brahms, who seemed to haunt the variations’ progress throughout. They were ghosts who, tragically, could not communicate themselves fully, but the sadness and resilience with which Schumann, their apparent mediator, summoned up his resources for the last time were greatly moving.

Out of the closing bar of the Variations, there emerged the ineffable ‘purity’ – however ideological a concept, that is how it sounded – of Bach’s B-flat major Partita. Bach is not ‘pure’, thank goodness; who is? Yet there was something both utopian and grounded to his melody, and counterpoint here, offering consolation so desperately needed. Following that Praeludium, the sense of release and invention were, if anything, quietly intensified in the Allemande. Harmony, in more than one sense, seemed restored – in motion. The Corrente came to life in similar vein, up to a point, yet was imbued with a character, again provoking thoughts of Schumann, that also sounded quite new. Anderszewski spun the Sarabande as if from a single, infinitely varied thread. The first Menuet offered contrast, almost plain-spoken and yet just as lovely in its way. It was beautifully, yet not excessively, shaded, whilst its companion dance offered an ideal match of grace, delight, and the profound. When we heard the first Menuet again, it sounded utterly transformed, and indeed was; this was no mere ‘repeat’. An urgent Gigue, full of life, of potentiality, and of that potentiality fully achieved, concluded the programme. Might it have smiled a little more, I wondered? The throwaway quality to the final bar disarmed, rendered irrelevant, any such criticism. This was great artistry, by any standards.

Mark Berry

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