On Sunday, Oct 26 2008, I saw Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall and learned, yet again, that reviews and recordings are utterly unreliable predictors of live performance. Often spoken of in reverential terms as a musical literalist who presents 'the closest thing to an x-ray of the score one could hope for' —is that really what one hopes for? musical fundamentalism?— Pollini turned out to be a master impressionist of the keyboard, much more interested in texture and color than in any literal rendering of music (the program that day was Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin).
I had no expectations whatsoever going to hear Piotr Anderszewski, since I'd never encountered him in either print or recording. So much the better, because my mind was completely open to a new experience -- and Anderszewski's recital was definitely unlike any I'd ever heard.
He padded onto the stage just after 8 o’clock, gliding lightly and gracefully to the piano. He’s only 40, but looks even younger; he was wearing a black crew-neck shirt with a black suit. I just wish some publicist hadn’t decided he should look like a rock star (i.e., with a mop of hair brushed forward to touch his eyelashes); photographs of him in the program (with a more reasonable coif) reveal a comfortably handsome, open, engaging face. No matter; he sat down, and without hesitation he opened the recital with Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor.
If Pollini was sartorial, concerned with texture and color, Anderszewski was architectural. One felt— one could almost see— the structure of each phrase within the whole: in the faster dances of the set, he sweeps you through arches, under ribbed vaults, up grand staircases and down them again; in the slower movements, he directs your attention to details you never realized were there—embellishing a spandrel, a cornice, an entablature. I think Bach’s music lends itself to this, but very few pianists create such “sound castles” in the air. It was exhilarating. This guy also has a mean pianissimo: he can send the softest, tenderest tones ringing through the auditorium without a loss of texture or energy. The only time this couldn’t be appreciated was during the soulful, yearning Sarabande, when not one but two—TWO!— people entered coughing fits that lasted the whole movement and didn’t have the grace to remove themselves from the auditorium. And the recital was being recorded! I sorely wanted to hurl my program at them, but having only one, and there being two people convulsing in distinct parts of the Hall, I couldn’t decide which direction to aim. Anderszewski seemed unfazed, but I did note that he attacked the next dance, the Couperinesque Rondeau, rather pointedly. A boisterous Capriccio brought the partita to a close and roused the audience to exuberant applause.
The program continued with Faschingsschwank aus Wien. I’ve never been that keen on Schumann, but Anderszewski’s intense, tender romanticism in the slow movements convincingly evoked exquisite longing. No doubt it was about Clara.
After intermission came “In the Mists,” a very impressionistic, atmospheric work in four movements by Janácek (sorry, I can’t figure out how to do the “ ˘ ”over the c). No architecture here, but a pronounced sense of narrative progression within the filmy, Debussy-inflected textures. The work is a musical palimpsest, suggesting that memory both retains and erases the past. One felt ghostly traces of loves and losses slowly emerging, becoming full-bodied again, perhaps asserting themselves against one’s will, playing out wounds or longings time has failed to dull. It was a truly remarkable experience.
The program closed with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major (Op. 110). The first movement, marked both “con amibilità” and “sanft,” was colored by the Janácek: it felt ephemeral, nostalgic for something very distant. And it was here that Anderszewski’s astonishing dynamic control was used to greatest effect. One almost held one’s breath to listen to those exquisite quadruple-pianissimos… the dialogue between performer and audience felt, paradoxically, very intimate. I remember noticing that I didn’t notice when he pressed the keys — I simply became aware that the notes had changed. The finale, alternating between the operatic arioso and the fugal subject, was achingly beautiful and also (I think) tied to the Janácek. Last night I looked at the score and realized not only that the fugue is a variation on the gentle theme of the first movement (I’ve never listened carefully to this sonata before) but that the music is marked “perdendo le forze, dolento/ ermattet klagend” at the second presentation of the arioso, then “poi a poi di nuovo vivente/ nach und nach wieder auflebend” when the fugue returns, inverted. My hunch is that Anderszewski was playing with the musical expression of remembering and longing (and their mutual influence) throughout the program, so the relation between the pieces was not musical but emotional.
Three encores finished the evening. The first I didn’t recognize, but it sounded like Bartok; the second was Bach (a prelude from one of the English Suites, and as wonderful as the partita); the third was the slow movement from Mozart’s C minor sonata. Perhaps all that concentration and breath-holding had tired me (or Anderszewski) out, but I found the Mozart more wispy than dreamy and it seemed to lack the emotional richness of the other performances.
In sum, there’s a tremendous intelligence and sensitivity at work in this pianist, and it goes entirely into the music— no ego. No virtuoso showpieces for the encores, and Anderszewski tends to make you forget how difficult the music is, rather than make you marvel at his technique. (Which is, in fact, a marvelous trick.) Even his posture at the piano is relaxed and still. In any case, he’s definitely a pianist worth looking out for. Few performers sculpt a program with such care to show links between pieces; Murray Perahia is the only pianist I have heard in recent years to do this with any regularity. It will be interesting to see, when this recital comes out on cd, whether a recording is able to capture the emotional impact of the recital.