No longer the provocateur...
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasia in C Minor, K. 475 – Sonata in C Minor, K. 457
Fryderyk Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61 – Three Mazurkas, Op. 59
Johann Sebastian Bach: English Suite No. 6 in D Minor, BWV 811
Piotr Anderszewski (piano)
P. Anderszewski (© Christopher Smith)
After his latest sabbatical, the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski (who sometimes also likes to be called Hungarian-Polish) returned to Carnegie Hall with a program presenting two of his favorite composers (Bach and Mozart) and one that he plays surprisingly infrequently (Chopin).
The Mozart Fantasia and Sonata were released recently on his newest CD and it turns out they were previously recorded about a decade ago: yet Mr. Anderszewski had not played them until now in New York. Neither did he ever program a work that would seem ideally suited to his temperament: Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie. I wondered if juxtaposing the Mozart works with the Chopin was a matter of convenience or whether it held a deeper meaning. What unites them, making them in a way kindred spirits, is the extent that they both inspired future composers: it doesn’t need a musicologist to hear that this Mozart Fantasia and Sonata directly affected Beethoven.
Even a moderately aware listener will recognize in Mozart’s work, especially in the dramatic Fantasia elements and motifs, what we will later recognize in Ludwig van’s Piano Concerto in C minor, Symphony No. 5 (also in the same key!), or the Piano Sonatas No. 5 or No. 23 “Appassionata”. Could Beethoven have composed the aforementioned masterpieces without the “motivic help” of Mozart? Undoubtedly, but nonetheless the strong relation between those two composers remains. Chopin, on the other hand, in his Polonaise-Fantaisie seems to have found a beneficiary in Liszt: as never before in his large forms, here Chopin relies on motivic development – the themes appear and reappear in quite different guises- and that technique can be observed in such later works as the Liszt Sonata in B Minor. It always struck me as implausible that Liszt, being such an ardent admirer of Chopin, and who understood his genius perhaps better than other contemporaries, apparently had a problem making sense out of this most rhapsodic of Chopin compositions.
The two Mozart works were written not at exactly same time but were published together: the idea of performing them a one whole is based likely on that premise as well as their similar mood and style. Both parts of the pair K. 457 and K. 475 are striking, ardent, deeply felt and forward looking: Mozart, after all, saved the key of D minor and C minor for works that exhibit the dramatic content and there’s no doubt that the opening Fantasia reaches into the operatic realms. Anderszewski approached the Mozart with energy and a clear eyed view which was admirable. He demonstrated in his approach a huge dynamic scale. There were numerous moments where the listener was swept by the power of the sound and energy; it was almost like “where do I know this Beethoven piece from?”. The only aspect of his sound production that momentarily would diffuse the tension was the unvarying, bit too pronounced use of diminuendos at the end of each phrase. Both in the Mozart and later in the Chopin, he seemed to misjudge the properties of the hall: what may be perfectly acceptable in a smaller venue backfired in a large place like Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall. His reliance on super-delicate and refined colors or the sound disappearing into nothingness from where I was sitting did not always bring the desired results. Still, he is one of the great colorists and there were abundant moments where his piano sung with unbelievable clarity and a beauty of sound we hear only from the greatest pianists (many who are no longer living). What I greatly admired was this pianists’ need to give the music proper breathing space, respite, and rest between the phrases: something too few pianists bother to implement.
I expected that a piece like the Polonaise-Fantaisie would be an ideal vehicle for this Polish pianist somewhat impulsive, whimsical personality: after all, it is also the character of this most dramatic, fragmented composition of so many shades and moods. As the famous Polish scholar and authority on Chopin’s music Prof. Tomaszewski comments: “as in no other work in Chopin’s output, this one combines the unity of two mights: the Polish, heroic gesture and Romantic melancholy; what is closest to polonaise with what is closest to nocturne”. His was a deeply personal statement and, I suppose, one through which prism I will judge future performances. At moments, it was a furious version, played in one–breath, relentless, rebellious; the next moment, as the score demands, would be dreamy, faraway, painted in pastels again with a magnificent, luminous sound. The last chord is placed sometimes too hastily: here under the fingers of the young master, after a very long pause, this final chord sounded tragic and resigned. The group of three mazurkas which opened the second half of the program received a very stylish, very personal and in the end very convincing reading: they were less disciplined than Anderszewski’s Chopin CD recorded nearly 14 years ago, but more impulsive and impetuous, yet played also with a natural rubato and a beautifully underscored baritone line, where Chopin brings his themes to the lower register of the instrument. The last of the three sounded audacious, masculine, and almost defiant.
Bach’s English Suite No. 6 concluded the official part of Mr. Anderszewski’s program. It was bold choice, but not all that difficult to defend: both Mozart and Chopin owed a lot to the Cantor from Leipzig and he was an alpha and omega to both. And the stormy, turbulent final Gigue of the Suite in D minor was no less an exciting ending than any Romantic composition with triple forte chords in the coda. Anderszewski played this as if his life depended on it.
In general, he plays Bach in an unabashedly pianistic style, with spare use of the sustain pedal and a full range of dynamics. I guess he correctly believes that playing Bach for nearly 3,000 people demands a different approach than the harpsichord-like attempts of other players. Again, in the “Double” of the “Sarabande”, he sound was barely reaching us, for our pianist seemed to rather sing under his breath; elsewhere, as in the “Gavotte II”, he switched registers and played that section an octave higher: a nice effect! His clear, varied articulation, judicious though modest use of ornamentation and loving attention to detail makes him one of the most compelling players of that repertory. I felt much more comfortable listening to his Bach than Bach specialist Angela Hewitt, who for the next few seasons will traverse Bach’s entire keyboard repertory at the 92nd Street Y.
For an encore, only one but an extended one, we heard the first of the Six Bagatelles op. 126 by Beethoven, which this pianist likes to exploit to conclude his recitals. Some years ago, a New York critic described Anderszewski’s playing as provocative: I guess those times are over as there was nothing provocative, nothing controversial, and nothing that could really cause a major disagreement. If there was one piece of advice – or a request a reviewer can make – for this pianist: “don’t shy away from Chopin; program his works; you play them fine”.