Last night, Piotr Anderszewski, the Polish pianist, gave a recital in Carnegie Hall. He began with Bach and ended with Bach. In between came Schumann. An unusual and interesting program.
The lighting was unusual and interesting too. Carnegie Hall was dead black for this recital. (There was a light on the piano, of course.) It was more like an opera house than a concert hall. You couldn’t read your program. In a great many visits to Carnegie Hall, I had never seen lighting like this (or non-lighting?).
I was reminded of a recital by Ivo Pogorelich, the Yugoslavian pianist (as we used to say). This was at the Met Museum some years ago. The house was black and there was a lamp by the piano. Creepy.
One more word about mechanics or atmospherics, before I get to the playing. Instead of the traditional piano bench, Anderszewski used a chair with a back—à la Radu Lupu, his Romanian colleague.
The Pole began his program with a big Bach work, the French Overture in B minor. Don’t let the name fool you: This is a lengthy and majestic suite, with a first movement labeled “Overture.” I will now make some general remarks about Anderszewski’s playing.
It was nicely sculpted. It had internal tension or rigor. Some of the playing was a little mechanical, but this did no real harm. There were some missed notes, but this only served to remind you that we were not listening to a studio recording. Bach’s dances had their basic character. The pianist showed a keen sense of dynamics. He also knows how to pedal.
As he was playing, I had a funny thought: Those who play Bach, and play him frequently, can be depended on to play him well. These performers are self-selecting. Do you know what I mean? If they couldn’t play him, they wouldn’t.
I had this thought as well: Would Johann Sebastian Bach be astonished to know that people were playing his keyboard suites on a grand piano in a grand hall such as Carnegie (with the lights off)? My guess is, Bach would not be astonished by much.
After the B-minor suite, Anderszewski played Schumann’s Novelette in F-sharp minor. You don’t hear this in a recital often. It was good to have it. Anderszewski played with tasteful Romanticism, sometimes elegant Romanticism. He is one smooth dude. He also has plenty of technique—plenty of fingers.
Pleasingly, he was willing to give in to the spirit of the novelette, which can be a little goofy. But in some parts he was too dry and contained.
The second half of the recital began with the Fantasy in C, one of Schumann’s best piano pieces, and one of Romanticism’s best piano pieces. One of the best piano pieces, really.
I had a concern about Anderszewski: Would he be free enough in it? I don’t think I had ever had that concern about a pianist. Usually they are all too free, and not disciplined enough. I also wondered, “Will he be warm enough? Or will he be Pollini icy?” (Maurizio Pollini, the Italian pianist, is a brilliant fellow, but you sometimes have to bundle up when you hear him.)
The Fantasy has three movements, and Anderszewski played the first nearly perfectly. It was both disciplined and free. It was exceptionally clear, and this clarity did not come at the expense of Romanticism or beauty.
In between the first and second movements, a jazzy cell phone went off. I thought this was pretty good timing. The phone did not disturb the playing, though it may have disturbed the mood.
When Anderszewski began the second movement, he was strangely subdued. “That’s all right,” I thought. “He will build up to grandeur.” Shortly after he began, a cell phone went off behind me, loudly. As she lunged for it, the lady exclaimed, “Sh**!” That was helpful.
Anderszewski remained subdued. This movement was without its freedom, swagger, and grandeur. It was not itself. And in the final pages, Anderszewski was unusually tight, suddenly missing his smoothness and fluidity.
In the last movement, he was equally strange. He was intimate, refined, and inward. Those things are all right. But this music ought to be sublime, rich, and ultimately filling. Anderszewski was stingily small-scale. He played the piano as if afraid to break it. The final movement was a letdown, and so was the Fantasy as a whole, I suppose.
But there was more Bach to come: the English Suite in G minor. Anderszewski brought all his Bach skills to the fore. The music was logical, feeling, and, most of the time, immaculate. The Sarabande was particularly fine. It was liberal but within bounds—a Chopin nocturne avant la lettre.
Some of the audience may have zonked out in the blackness of the hall, but people were enthusiastic for Anderszewski, and he gave them encores. A slew of them. He gave practically a second recital.
He began with Bartók’s Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District. These were impossibly smooth—beautifully sculpted—and marvelously flavored. It was the best playing of the night, probably. And he ended with three Beethoven bagatelles, one after the other, no pausing. He favored the gentle in these bagatelles, but they were first-rate, regardless.
He is an interesting man, Anderszewski. And an excellent pianist, and a distinctive musician.