Interview by Jonas Pulver for Le Temps
To play Schumann is to contemplate those emotional crevasses which are the mark of the poet. It's to return the composer's gaze, find one's own reflection in the score, and thus glimpse the trauma of otherness. The pianist Piotr Anderszewski is one of those who accepts this pact. Like few others he gets inside the fragile logic of Humoreske, the Gesänge der Frühe or the Faschingsschwank aus Wien, which he recorded recently for Virgin Classics, live from Carnegie Hall.
Jonas Pulver: What image do you have of Schumann's character?
Piotr Anderszewski: I see him as someone of extreme sensitivity, with at the same time a bourgeois side and a strong sense of family. Very methodical in his work, meticulous to the point of mania. Schumann is for me very German (more so than Brahms), he has that mad, poetic, idealistic side. There is in his music an almost religious depth. He is a protestant, unlike Chopin, the Polish catholic aristocrat. Even if Schumann's music is also frenetic and unbalanced, with its rythmical asymmetry, its digressions, its sudden fortissimos, I hear in it something reminiscent of Lutheran choral music.
You've had the idea of making a Schumann disc
The idea has been with me for a year and a half. I went into the recording studio twice with the intention of recording Humoreske. I played the piece three times in succession, isolating and analysing each detail as I would normally do. But I gave up. In Schumann there is something so spontaneous, unstable and whimsical, not to say weird, that the idea of setting all this down on a disc seemed unnatural to me. The music is too elusive. I still very much want to do it, though. (Laughs.)
It's often said that Schumann is very constraining for pianists, technically speaking.
I never had a physical problem with my hands except once. It was after working a lot on Humoreske. There is something in Schumann's music which works against the hand, which contorts it.
In what way is he different from his contemporary Chopin?
Chopin is much more fluid. He knew his limits and always remained true to his nature. Schumann loved to go for what was unnatural. His writing is angular, he propels you in one direction and then suddenly sends you in the opposite one. Yes, it's not very good for the hands, but it doesn't worry me. To a certain extent, failure is part of Schumann's make-up. His career as a pianist didn't work out, nor did that as a conductor. He even fails in certain compositions. There is a vulnerability about him and his music which touches me.
The absolute opposite of his wife Clara
I don't have a great deal of sympathy for this virtuoso wife, very outward-looking, effectively everything that Schumann wasn't. But at the same time, their love was such a source of inspiration, the whole Schumann oeuvre revolved around her. Besides, it's an aspect which bothers me a little: the fact that the music of a genius could depend not on a love for something universal, for God or humanity, but for an actual person, for someone made of flesh and blood. There is something unstable about that, and at the same time very moving.
Weakness, a lack of solidity, is Schumann's music a sort of eulogy to fragility?
To ineffectualness, really. There are no end of so-called failures in his catalogue, but in fact they aren't that. Historically, his orchestration has been much criticised. Today, some dare to say that he was an attractive orchestrator, and I'm more of this opinion myself. To put it simply, his orchestration was not fool-proof. Brahms, on the other hand, had the necessary know-how: with him, the orchestra sounds good even if the conductor is mediocre. The orchestral works of Schumann demand a really experienced interpreter to extract all their meaning. Schumann's music has an extreme fragility in which he loses himself sometimes, but with such beauty and poetry! His work is a wonderful contradiction of our age, obsessed as it is with efficiency, success and personal happiness.