Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Piotr Anderszewski - Bach and Schumann, 14 December 2010

Barbican Hall

Bach – English Suite no.5 in E minor, BWV 810
Schumann – Six Canonic Etudes, op.56 (arr. Anderszewski)
Schumann – Gesänge der Frühe, op.133
Bach – English Suite no.6 in D minor, BWV 811

I was a little surprised, upon taking my seat in the Barbican Hall, to look up to the stage to see Piotr Anderszewski seated on a chaise longue, reading and drinking what appeared to be a mug of tea. Perhaps there was to be some variety of pre-performance discussion, I thought, but no, when the lights dimmed, the pianist stood up and walked over to the nearby piano to begin the recital. The last thing I should wish to do whilst dealing with pre-performance nerves would be to sit in full view of an audience, but clearly it worked for Anderszewski, since what we heard was an immensely distinguished recital of music by Bach and Schumann.

First came the fifth of Bach’s English Suites. The opening Prelude set out Anderszewski’s stall very well: nicely variegated, beautiful touch, with a fine cumulative effect. Tender ambivalence and magically sung melody marked out the Allemande, courtly yet profound, with some truly ravishing softer tones. The Courante showed that, for Bach, ‘ornamentation’ is never merely that, but always meaningfully melodic. Whatever the truth about the title English Suites, the Sarabande left us in no doubt that this was a French processional, transformed by a German composer, Anderszewski’s command of line second to none. Once again, the pianissimo playing took one’s breath away – and made one listen, really listen. The Passepieds proved well contrasted, the musette enchanting, seemingly performed on a piano without hammers, whilst the first was spikier, though never too much: no Gouldian eccentricity here. Musical play was the thing, and delightful it was too. Finally, the Gigue presented staggering compositional and pianistic virtuosity. Phrases emerged perfectly shaped, so as to tease out the twists and turns of Bach’s contrapuntal chromaticism. The Second Viennese School was almost upon us.

Anderszewski has made his own arrangement of Schumann’s Canonic Etudes, op.56, originally written for player piano, working extremely well in the pianist’s new version. The opening study followed on perfectly from Bach, though Ansderszewski’s pedalling pointed us tentatively, perhaps even more than that, towards Debussy too. Melodic invention came to the fore in the second, Mit innigem Ausdruck, which sounded as characterised in Anderszewski’s hands as any more celebrated Schumann piece. Subtle harmonic undercurrents told without exaggeration; once again, we were treated to some ravishing hushed playing. Hints of Mendelssohn and perhaps Chopin too emerged in the beautiful third study; Anderszewski’s throwaway elicited a smile rather than inflicted brusqueness. The fourth piece presented a true marriage between contrapuntal ingenuity and high Romanticism, played with rounded, generous fullness of tone. ‘Impish’ said Harriet Smith’s uncommonly good programme note of the fifth study, and impish was Anderszewski’s performance, underpinned by absolute security of harmonic structure and motion. Moreover, this was a properly German Romantic impishness, as if freshly conveyed through the dew of a deep forest. The closing Adagio emerged as a typically Schumannesque ‘Epilog,’ suggesting to me an extended successor to that which closes the Arabeske, op.18. At times, though only at times, Bach made his presence clearly felt, as if we were returning to elements of the English Suite in the light of what had thereafter been heard. Anderszewski’s sheer beauty of touch never faltered; one could hear ample suggestion both of organ sostenuto and Romantic piano – as if a player piano had been reconstructed before our ears.

For the second half, Anderszewski again emerged from his chaise longue, this time to perform Schumann’s late Gesänge der Frühe. The pianist clearly feels attached to this disturbing late set; he performed them at the Royal Festival Hall only last year. The coming of dawn, at least as much metaphysical as physical, is the ‘idea’; what disturbs is the flickering ability of the composer to express it. As Smith noted, the first piece sounds Brahmsian; its plain-spoken gravity and hints of harmonic instability are combined, and were performed, with an unsettling general restlessness. Bifurcation is familiar throughout Schumann’s œuvre; in the second piece, Belebt, nicht zu rasch, it sounded both modernistic and something else – a something else very dark indeed. Anderszewski’s performance nevertheless brought out unsparingly, yet with deep sympathy, the characterisation of whatever it might be. Faschingsschwank aus Wien puts in an appearance, or seems to do so, in the third piece, yet its high spirits can no longer really be achieved – as Anderszewski knew. Split personality again comes to the fore in the fourth piece, likewise Schumann’s obsessiveness, both heightened by a sense, both in composition and performance, of fragmentation; the pianist’s beauty of tone rendered the music all the more fragile. The final piece seemed to collate forgoing tensions. A very Romantic – certainly not expressionistic – abyss opened up, all the more chilling on account of abiding sweetness.

At the Festival Hall, Anderszewski had requested that the audience refrain from applause following the Schumann pieces; here, he pre-empted the possibility, by running them into Bach’s Sixth English Suite. And so, the Prelude opened as if no man’s land: telling, yet frightening. The quiet rhetoric of its introduction, quite spellbinding, led into virtuosic thematic working out – by composer and pianist. Not for the first time, even in this recital, I felt that Bach was not only the greatest Romantic, but the greatest composer for piano – and that in the company of exquisite performances of Schumann. There were occasions when I felt that Anderszewski might have yielded a little more, but the echo of Schumann’s obsessiveness was compensation enough. The Allemande emerged truly contrasted; both Bach and Anderszewski demonstrated that somehow, suspended melodic animation and harmonic motion could coexist, perhaps even further one another. More than once, late Beethoven came to mind – and, make no mistake, this music is every bit as great. After that, the Courante proved the perfect foil: purposeful and teutonically frenchified. The world of the Orchestral Suites was summoned, but with the piano as our more flexible guide. As in the earlier suite, the Sarabande was the work’s still heart. Heartstopping, however, was Anderszewski’s pianissimo playing Bach’s music rendered too good – Mozartian? – for this world. Mozart, or rather the Mozart most influenced by Bach, came still more to the fore in the melodic profusion of the Double, likewise the Salzburger’s deceptive simplicity. Time went on and stood still. Anderszewski despatched the pair of Gavottes with ease, and rather teasingly. The catchiness of the first contrasted with the musette-quality of the second, the variety of touch mesmerising. Finally, the Gigue poured forth, Romantic in tooth and claw, implacable in jaw-dropping chromatic explorations and divine fury. The music sounded as thoroughly pianistic as anything by Liszt. Now could your harpsichord do that…?

Both composers returned in a brace of encores: a good-natured, yet ambivalent Schumann Novelette in D major, op.21 no.5, originally programmed along with another of the Novelettes, and a limpid Sarabande from the Fifth French Suite.