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27.4.06

Piotr Anderszewski at the NGA

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Bach/Beethoven/Webern, English Suite/Piano Sonata op. 110/Variations op. 27 , Anderszewski

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K. Szymanowski, Piano Sonata No. 3, Métopes, Masques, Anderszewski
The draw of the renowned pianist Piotr Anderszewski and perfect weather last Sunday somewhat balanced attendance at the National Gallery of Art’s free concert: the house was full for all but a few seats, none had to sit outside the West Garden Court. On the program were promising items: Mozart’s Fantasia and Sonata in C minor (K. 475 and 457, respectively) played, as they often are, in tandem with the Fantasy serving as a grand overture to the sonata that is barely longer. Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles, op. 126, and J. S. Bach’s sixth English Suite, BWV 811, followed.

Anderszewski has a way of playing so naturally, so unburdened, that it makes you question what could possibly be special about him or any other particular pianist… why anyone might be considered better than another, or what it is that makes us think one good, another less so. Well, what is special about this Hungarian/Polish artist is precisely that ability to appear unmannered and matter-of-fact that one cannot think of the music any other way while played, as containing any ideology or aesthetic statement. It simply is. And that’s what he did in the excellent Fantasia and, playing as at least as well, in the sonata which, however, is musically less interesting to these ears. Adjusting for the acoustics, he took care to provide a pedal-easy, light touch without being kept from ringing out those low bass notes when the Fantasy called for it. It’s easy to hear Beethoven on the horizon in that work (in the way Mozart shifts gears from fast to slow or subtle to bold); it’s surprising how that spirit is all but missing in the contemporaneous (1785), more conventional sonata.

The Beethoven bagatelles from 1823 hark back to earlier works for solo piano, far less challenging or daunting than any of the preceding late sonatas (op. 111 was finished in early 1822). They are a most welcome contrast to the overarching, fierce-looking God of music, his often gloom and meaning-infused late works that bear an unbearable, intimidating greatness. The step from the Mozart Fantasia to these Bagatelles is a notably smaller one than one would have expected comparing the two composers’ piano sonatas. Played with just enough brio to be joyful, enough restraint to be audible, it was a gladly heard appetizer to the English Suite.

Here, again, the program provided more contrast on paper than in sound: these suites, at least No. 6, are a work that – when played on the piano – sounds appreciably less like Bach… fuller, less concerned with counterpoint or playing one line against the other. (Coincidentally or not, the pianist does not have to cross his hands, playing it.) On a modern grand and in the West Garden Court acoustic, it sounded warm; warmer than it already does. Only in the Sarabande avec double does ‘typical’ Bach break through, it was followed by sensual, meditative Gavottes and the playful finishing Gigue. Anderszewski’s notes reminded of supple, purple grapes, not little pebbles. Then again, short of rolling a harpsichord into the West Garden Court, that’s about the only way it can sound. His nimble playing having been excellent, I don’t suppose anyone in the audience had any complaints about this highly competent performance of a most pleasing recital.