Royal Festival Hall
Schumann – Gesänge der Frühe, op.133
Bach – Partita no.6 in E minor, BWV 830
Janáček – In the mists
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
What an intelligently constructed programme! Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe – songs of dawn, or at least so the composer hoped – disintegrated, without a break, let alone applause, into the labyrinth of Bach’s minor-mode chromaticism. Janáček’s mists gave way to the sunlight of Beethovenian serenity, albeit with a great struggle to come. With Bartók (Three folk songs from the Csík district) and more Bach as encores, the programme extended with discernible purpose. And how intelligently it was performed too! Any reservations I might have entertained were almost negligible in the face of Piotr Anderszewski’s artistry.
I find the Schumann pieces profoundly disturbing. Fascinating, yes, and too good, at least in parts, to languish unperformed, yet ultimately indicative of the composer’s mental decline. ‘Because of the very unique [surely something is unique or it is not...] character of the work,’ the programme advised us, ‘Mr Anderszewski has asked if the audience could kindly restrain from applauding after the piece.’ And so it did. Anderszewski’s performance was aptly, indeed frighteningly, withdrawn. The first piece’s opening simplicity was striking, all the more so given the honest beauty of the pianist’s touch, and the underlying fragility thereby projected. Inner-part dissonances told without exaggeration. The fits and starts of the following piece I found straightforwardly distressing. With the following piece, marked Lebhaft, we heard disturbed and disturbing reminiscences of the composer’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, both in the rhythms and aspects of the melodic profile. The fourth piece sounded beautifully Chopinesque, a weakened Eusebius making his final bow. And then the opening, noble stillness of the final piece faded into a chilling nothingness.
From this, emerged the opening flourishes of the Bach partita’s Toccata. For me, this movement was the sole disappointment of the recital. Reminders of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue notwithstanding, the movement wanted grandeur, presenting in its place a surprising rhythmic straitjacketing (especially surprising given Anderszewski’s flexibility elsewhere). The fugue rightly revelled in Bach’s chromaticism; yet, the subject was hammered out a little too much at times. However, the following movements soon made up for this. Anderszewski managed an extraordinary yet necessary balancing act in the Allemande: a strong yet delicate rhythmic profile. Likewise in the ensuing Corrente, which proved nicely quirky in the handling of melodic twists, syncopations, and their harmonic implications. A strong sense of structure underpinned the dance, so much so that I wished it would go on forever. The melancholic Air proved an object lesson in projection of harmonic motion. Then came the emotional core of the suite, the Sarabande. A heart-stopping dignity characterised this magical, inward performance, its extremely slow tempo utterly justified by Anderszewski’s artistry. Rhythm was once again very much the thing for the Tempo di Gavotta movement, which led us into a sharply edged fugal Gigue of abiding, prophetically Beethovenian, cumulative power.
Janáček’s voice was nailed immediately in the performance of In the mists (V mlhách). The individuality of the composer’s piano writing was clear to all through Anderszewski’s wondrous, magical touch. Echoes of Chopin were heard in the second movement, yet quite transformed, both in the rapt, slow sections and the virtuosic Presto writing. Urgent insistence intervened and shattered the already broken lyricism of the following movement, preparing the way for Moravian melancholy in the final piece. Hints of Bartókian night music vied with almost operatic vocal lines and angry, yet never grotesque dissonances.
And so, the sun emerged for the paradoxical – or better, dialectical – opening of the Beethoven sonata. Anderszewski judged to a tee the opening’s innocence and experience. The turn to the minor mode, however, brought a sudden wintry cold, albeit a cold soon warmed by magical, Schubertian modulations. The Allegro molto proved a true scherzo: rhythm and gruff humour (unlike in Chopin’s scherzi) to the fore, and violence too, though never of the attention-seeking variety. With the Adagio ma non troppo instrumental recitative, we stood on the brink of the still centre of this work, a parallel to the Bach Sarabande. What must follow a recitative? An aria, or at least an arioso, but Beethoven’s Arioso dolente is a rare example indeed. Anderszewski’s performance was just what Beethoven’s title says it should be, but how it was sung, and how unutterably sad it proved! It was simple, yet anything but, another typical late-Beethoven dialectic. The fugal subject grew out of the conclusion to the arioso, just as the opening movement had emerged from Janáček’s mists. The pianist’s voicing was more exquisite than one could imagine, though never at the expense of real power in the bass octaves and indeed in his structural command. With the return to desolate arioso, the pain of Neapolitan harmony reinforced the composer’s nobility of utterance, which in turn led to a truly mysterious transition to the inverted fugue. This, rather like Mozart’s miracle of quintuple invertible counterpoint in the finale to the Jupiter Symphony, sounded like the most natural thing in the world. Beethoven and Anderszewski proved equally expert pupils of Bach. And yet, there remained something defiantly strange – or should that be strangely defiant?