At age 43, Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski is known for his sensitive touch, technical versatility and probing musicianship, with a wide repertory that spans the works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Janáček, Schumann and Szymanowski, among others. As part of the Leisure and Culture Services Department’s “Encore” series, Anderszewski made an important return to Hong Kong in a solo recital last month, devoted to the works of Bach and Schumann.

Piotr Anderszewski © Robert Workman
Piotr Anderszewski
© Robert Workman

Bach’s English Suites, like his French Suites, are a collection of six suites, each of which consists of six dances in a sequence of Prelude, Allemande (a German-style dance), Courante (a French-style dance), Sarabande (a Spanish-style dance), a French dance (Bourée, Gavotte, Menuet or Passepied), Gigue. Thus, the term “English” identified with these suites is largely a misnomer, aside from a possible association to their dedicatee – “an Englishman of rank”, according to Bach’s biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel. The dances of the suites encompass an array of contrapuntal and rhythmical qualities of European origins. In fact, during Bach’s time, it was not conventional to play all six dances in completion as is customary today. Rather, the specific choice to perform any or all six would be up to the whimsical discretion of their performer or the particular occasion.

Anderszewski’s reading of Bach was simply a treat. Whether a seasoned listener or a casual concertgoer, the experience was gratifying. The unique quality in his Bach playing could be attributed to one important word: balance. His was a balance of critical analysis of the score with spontaneous adventurism and athleticism. Witnessing this chemistry, the audience ranged from music students and teachers, social personalities and government officials, to Anderszewski devotees. From the moment he stepped on stage, there was a stream of positive energy radiating, both of concentration and of genuine devotion to his art. An attentive audience group reciprocated with unparalleled focus.

The intriguing aspects of Anderszewski’s interpretation of the two colossal English Suites – the G minor (no. 3) in the first half, followed by the D minor (no. 6) in the second – were qualities of timelessness and liberation. The reactions of sound and silence brought upon by a dichotomy of thought and action illustrated the very fabric and complex musical voices of the suites. It was as fascinating to see how Anderszewski’s fingers danced and galloped between the black and white keys, particularly in the heightened Gigue of the G minor. Here, Anderszewski made clear the stylistic and instrumental challenges playing Bach today sets on performers – namely, how to stylishly articulate a work written originally for a clavichord and to blend with the tonal possibilities and layers of sonority innate to a modern concert grand piano. To achieve this task, Anderszewski did not appear to follow a particular school of Bach playing, but rather, convinced with a liberated style of music-making that conjured a sense of universalism. Anderszewski’s style was one that captured the best of modernity with the Renaissance. Unlike other pianists who create a romanticized approach to Bach, Anderszewski effected a clarity of musical lines and youthful rhythms that came almost effortlessly.

The D minor Suite, with one of the most demanding (and longest!) Preludes, showed off Anderszewski’s intelligence in dissecting Bach’s heavy counterpoint. What was his modus operandi? Perhaps, it was his ability to create an aura of luminous simplicity around Bach’s complex writings that made his approach effective and at the same time genuine. This may also explain why Anderszewski has a natural affinity with the musical language of Mozart. Overall, this evening’s encounter could only enrich one’s liking of Anderszewski’s world of Bach – defined by interesting contrasts in phrasing, energetic playing, and individualistic expression of profound pleasure.

The other piece that captured much anticipation was the only Schumann work of the evening – his Fantasie in C, Op. 17. This piece is considered one of the most demanding compositions in the piano repertory, written in 1836 at a time when Schumann was deeply in love with Clara Wieck (later Clara Schumann). The Schumann Fantasy is a new addition to Anderszewski’s repertory, and while he did offer interesting fruits of thoughts that complemented the work’s emotional tension and drama, his first movement was hindered by instability and fluctuations of tempi, while the latter parts of the second movement (especially the leaping jumps with both hands) were far from technically polished. Granted, the entire second movement is technically known to be extremely challenging. These limitations aside, Anderszewski did provide a deep emotional voyage into the world of Schumann, with expressive subtleties that could only come from a senior pianist.