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Music – It Has To Become Part of Me – An Interview with Piotr Anderszewski

This interview was conducted in 2011 in Salzburg and initially appeared as part of the long-defunct and deleted Classical WETA blog. I have rescucitated it now, to go with a Critic's Notebook review of a recital of Piotr Anderszewski's at the Musikverein.

Piano troubles? Piotr Anderszewski is preparing in the Mozarteum his concert later that night and is interrupted not just by me—late for my interview, coming from another interview and having gotten the time wrong—but by technicians that need to move the piano he had been playing on to another room. He near-imperceptibly rolls his eyes to an equally faint smile and sits down for a quick chat. Being late already, I lose no time: Are you a pianist or a musician?

P.A.: Hmhmmmmmmmmm. He takes a short while to take the question in, assess its treachery, and then continues quickly, almost as if in free verse: More musician than pianist / but even musician / I’m not sure / if I’m a musician… / Pianist / definitely not.

Did you start out with the piano?

P.A.: Yes. Well, I started composing a little bit, actually.

Before you took up the piano?

P.A.: Well, together with the piano. But I was more interested in the composition part and listening to music than I was actually fascinated by the instrument itself. It never really interested very much.

But it’s the way you can express yourself best in music, so that’s why you do it?

P.A.: Ahhhhhh, I guess yes… and it’s the most complete instrument, the most, maybe complex, in a way… and also the repertoire, you know, is so amazing and I think I would feel very frustrated on any other instrument.

Where you ever fascinated by the idea of playing the organ?

P.A.: I played the organ a little bit, yeah…” he says with distinct lack of enthusiasm… “yeah… uhh…” he winds down to a faint grunt before hitting upon a new thought and continues with unexpected vigor: “What I liked about the organ is the setting, the beautiful church, and there is this huge echo, and this whole atmosphere and this I like very much. But the piano has this incredible capacity of suggesting, you know. It can suggest singing—which is astonishing for a percussive instrument. It is an instrument about giving the illusion. And it’s truly a magical instrument. And I mean in a bad sense, as well. It’s a dangerous instrument, because it’s not real. The piano, if you look at the mechanism, at how it works… how to activate the whole mechanism just in order to produce the sound: it’s complex but extremely easy compared to, for example, the violin. Just extremely easy, you know. But then there’s everything that happens between the notes. How do you balance the chords? How do you space notes? It’s very, very… it’s a very mysterious instrument, I think. Why, for example, does one pianist play one note and another plays the same note and it sounds completely, completely different. Despite this mechanism where you’d think you would have very little impact on the outcome. But, in fact you, have a huge impact.

How do you satisfy your own desire for a certain sound?

P.A.: It’s of course linked to the music I play. For me, for example, when I work, when I practice, I always practice with the instrument. When you asked the first question, ‘are you a pianist’… frankly, I didn’t know what to say because in a way, yes, I am. I know some colleagues who study scores and they study it on the train or in the plane and they can really study their piece without actually touching the instrument, without actually activating the sound.

[He gets distracted for a moment by the worry that there is milk in the tea that is approaching—but there is not.]

For me, practicing the score doesn’t make any sense. I cannot—I tried… but for me it’s the score and immediately I have to hear it… it has to be both. I cannot practice on the piano without the score, either. For me it doesn’t work to practice the piano without looking at what I am playing in terms of the score.


P.A.: He squirms a bit: Ahyhhhww I don’t know, I need to have this connection of both, of what is written… Now I’m speaking not as an improviser or composer but an interpreter of a certain piece. I need to be in touch with the text, always.

Do you use the music when you play?

P.A.: No. Not during the concert.

Would you like to, if the audience didn’t care?

P.A.: No. I prefer not to use it. The performance is something else, you try to forget… try to forget everything, it’s a state of amnesia of sorts, in the best sense. The more I forget, the better I play.

So you distill the enormous complexities of a score into an impression which you then interpret?

P.A.: Yes… I suppose. Yes. It’s… there has to be the visual contact, somehow. It’s what the composer left us, so there needs to be this material contact. At the end of the day that’s all we’ve got. Of course we have biographies and we know about a composers’ life, more or less, but then practically what we are left with is the manuscript. Or a good edition, at least. And then that’s like a—how to say—it’s just like a drawing. Like a code that you need to decrypt. That you need to translate, actually properly translate, into the world of sounds. So I need to look at while I am translating, while I am doing the work, while I am deciding… I need to see this and be in touch with this text, even though I know it by heart, of course. For me, memorizing is not such an issue… the work really only starts when actually the music is memorized.

Are there any contemporary composer you particularly cherish, either to listen to or to play or both…

P.A.: Hmmm… not really. Honestly, somehow in the last years I haven’t explored this at all, you know. And, frankly, I don’t know why.

But you must be approached by composers?

P.A.: I’ve been approached, people send me scores… but I just feel saturated with all these possibilities… there’s so much already in the classical repertoire I feel I need to do and taking one small piece, taking a Chopin Mazurka, for example, it’s sometimes months of practice for me. I learn rather slowly and deciding to commit to a piece to learn a piece is a big decision for me because I know I will spend months and probably years with this. It’s sort of, well, it’s not a marriage, but almost. I internalize it, somehow—it has to become part of me. So it’s a very, very intimate process; basically a decision about who I let into my life. I don’t know why I am like this. I see other colleagues of mine that have a much lighter approach: ‘Well, it’s just a piece of music and you try to do it as well as you can.’ And for me, it really seems to affect me very personally and very deeply. Every piece has to become myself, somehow, otherwise I just cannot interpret a piece if I don’t have this feeling.

Is there a Liszt-piece you have ever internalized?

P.A.: No… Never. Not a composer that speaks to me, particularly. But maybe… you never know, these things change.

Photo #2 © K.Miura (2007)

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