Settling into the hard plastic chair that he favours above the customary piano stool, Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski began this recital by embarking upon the attention-grabbing dotted rhythms of the Ouverture from Bach’s French Overture. His relaxed meter rendered the rhythms of the following fugato sections all the more insistent. The five-part arch form – alternating these two contrasting textures – makes for a movement of considerable length, which was shaped impressively by Anderszewski’s fine articulation and dynamics. The Courante and Gigue movements are more pensive in character and less dynamic than is normally the case, which shifts the piece’s energetic high points to the Gavottes and Bourrées. These paired dances employ varied regions of the keyboard and Anderszewski’s touch ensured clarity even in the murky low register.

Piotr Anderszewski © Robert Workman
Piotr Anderszewski
© Robert Workman

Bach’s Sarabandes often sound distant from the dance floor, occupying an introspective, even pained emotional territory; as played here today, the Sarabande seemed to suggest quiet dignity in suffering. In contrast, the most dancelike movements of all were the Passepieds, the first of which Anderszewski managed to infuse with a coquettish character. The volatile Echo which closes the suite was a showcase of dynamic control, whether on a macro scale to define sections or on a micro scale to mark out echoed phrases.

After that, the romantic character of Schumann’s Novellette in F sharp minor was clear from the outset. Forgoing introduction or any notion of classical exposition, it dives straight into its harried-sounding opening theme. This soon makes its way to the lower extremes of the piano, thundered here with arresting conviction. We were then treated to contrast of almost everything: register, tonality and mood, all of which Anderszewski pulled off with springy articulation. A similar touch was later employed in a theme reminiscent of hunting horns. Anxious as much of it was, Schumann’s Novellette had some certainties: key and meter were only lightly threatened by chromaticism and syncopation respectively.

The opening moments of the second half were the complete opposite. L’île des Sirènes, the first of Karol Szymanowski’s Métopes, seems to have neither key nor meter. However, the mood and the playing felt exploratory rather than lost. The harmonic haziness had a magical quality which Anderszewski communicated wonderfully. Oddly, though, despite the metric ambiguity, there seemed to be moments where a kind of syncopation added a spring to the music’s step. Although not ostentatiously technical, this piece demands great control, as much of its slow-moving texture is achieved by trills and tremolandos. There are also many wide-ranging arpeggios and their execution uses the keyboard’s full extent. Anderszewski’s dynamic range was huge, the loudest moment possibly representing Ulysses’ torment when his sailors, their ears filled with wax at his own earlier instruction, ignore his obsessed commands to change course towards the Sirens.

The second movement, and (as I learnt from Gerald Larner’s fine programme notes) the second female portrait from Greek mythology, is Calypso, Queen of the island of Ogygia where Ulysses was shipwrecked. She promised Ulysses eternal youth should he agree to remain with her. This temptress is symbolised by a descending five-note theme, though not the first five notes of a major or minor scale; who could be thus seduced? The Debussy-like soundworld was enchanting. Anderszewski’s tone was lovely in a passage which, unlike much of the music, settled, albeit briefly, in the piano’s mid-range. The movement’s final minute contained some gorgeous harmony, occasionally with startlingly wide intervals. Anderszewski’s leap to these far notes was like that of a ballerina, the landings beautifully soft. Thanks to a pedal note, the opening harmony of Nausicaa felt less at sea. Could this be because it was she who returned Ulysess to the care of his father? Nevertheless, playfulness rather than homeliness was the dominant mood and Anderszewski clinched this mood very effectively, especially in one passage where the dynamic left hand requires the agility of stride or ragtime.

This Bach-bookended programme finished with the English Suite no. 6 in D minor. Although sharing its minor tonality with the opening work, the mood was very different on account of a much more legato feel. The lovely Sarabande movement had a wistful quality, in particular in the second half, which Anderszewski began very quietly. The two Gavottes exhibit as arresting a minor/major contrast as I can recall hearing. This was enhanced by the second Gavotte’s journey into a very high register, which was beautifully delivered here.

The pièce de résistance, though, was undoubtedly the Gigue. Taking off at an exciting tempo, it soon featured an amazing example of the schizophrenic nature of pianism: one hand anchored by means of a trilled pedal point while the other whirls in a cyclone of syncopated triads. What a thrilling sound! When this movement landed on its final, triumphant major chord, delivered here with a flourish, the audience erupted. This was an excellent recital.