Entertainment » Music

The New York Pops: Piotr Anderszewski

by Jonathan Leaf
Contributor
Monday Dec 10, 2012
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Piotr Anderszewski
Piotr Anderszewski  

A well-know journalist once said that "trying to be a first-rate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on a ukulele: The instrument is too crude for the work, for the audience and for the performer."

I suppose that the same principle applies to being a critic for a website. So I would ask readers their forbearance in regard to my take on heralded pianist Piotr Anderszewski’s performance of four Bach suites at Carnegie Hall this past week.

It’s not easy to explain why the performance was so special.

We do not even, after all, have much idea of what J.S. Bach himself would have made of the concert. For Bach did not, of course, write any music for the piano as it was not yet invented during his lifetime.

Moreover, we have only a vague idea of how the composer would have wished his music to be played on the harpsichord or what he would have thought about performing it on a modern concert grand. And tempi, temperament and pitch of the different notes have all changed over the nearly three centuries since he wrote his keyboard suites.

Glenn Gould first approached these problem by using a specially retrofitted piano that could be played as fleetly as a harpsichord. Others have chosen to treat the piece’s dance markings (gigue, gavotte, etc.) as literally as possible. By contrast, some others have played the pieces with an exceptionally languid style, performing Bach with such a deliberate and unrhythmic pace that one might think the composer was Debussy.

So each performer today is making a series of wild assumptions about Bach’s music and hugely debatable choices the moment he strikes a note, and each critic is simply asserting his prejudices about the music in setting forward praise or censure.

Anderszewski, a Polish-Hungarian pianist who has won increasing acclaim both here and abroad, chose to follow a somewhat middle course. He did not focus on the marked dance tempi. Nor for the most part did he try to awe his audience with virtuosity, only once showing off his speed in his right hand during one famously difficult passage and never banging at the keyboard to produce a big, showy sound.

Yet Anderszewski’s pace was far from slow, and he was never inaudible. In fact, he tended to play at a moderately brisk speed, and he had no trouble making himself heard in the large but famously reverberant hall.

The pianist always seemed to be focused on finding the poetry of the music, the delicacy, the connection that the composer insisted existed between harmony and spiritual enlargement. This was not theatrics or showmanship but the search for feeling and for art.

To achieve that aim, Anderszewski limited his task.

He performed just four of the composer’s "suites" in the one hour forty-five minute long concert: the French Suite No. 5, The English Suite No. 3, the brief Italian Concerto for solo clavier and the English Suite No. 6. These are all late works, and they have the overpowering depth and grandeur of all Bach’s late compositions.

When music of such profound grace and power is performed by a pianist of such refinement one cannot be both touched and astonished.

The Carnegie Hall 2012-2013 season continues through June 6, 2012. For more information and tickets call 212-0247-7800 or go to www.Carnegiehall.org.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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