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Bach's Ideal Balance
Wednesday 1 January 2003

Playing Bach on a modern piano is far from a simple case of reading what he wrote, as Piotr Anderszewski explains to Stephen Plaistow.

I cross a courtyard and Anderszewski calls down a welcome from the first floor. There is a serious looking bike in the hall. He has been in the kitchen, trying to finish a log of instructions for the editing of the B flat Partita, which has to be completed by Monday if the CD is to appear as scheduled. We drink green tea and sit at the kitchen table, the pages of the Bach between us.

I am thinking he has been playing Bach for ever, but it is not so. 'I have taken my time. There was never a coup de foudre for me with Bach. I began seriously to play him about 10 years ago, maybe a bit less, and of the suites I started with the Overture in the French Style, which people sometimes call the seventh Partita. As to the Partitas proper, I've done Nos 1, 3 and 6; maybe the other three will follow, I don't know. Finding a way has taken me ages. There is such subtlety in this music. I would never teach it because what one arrives at is so personal. For me, it's a question of using the potential of the piano balanced by awareness of what the harpsichord and clavichord can do - a juggling of elements.'

So he doesn't banish the constantly inflected dynamic life, the play of light and shade, that the piano can bring? 'Absolutely not; I think it's essential not to falsify the piano. Terraced dynamics may be appropriate here and there in what one does, but not applied over the whole texture; there should be terracing between right hand and left, for example, and between one voice and another. Above all, you have to know the rhetoric of Bach's time and reveal the drama in this music.'

'It seems to me that its spirit, as so often in Bach, is bigger than any one instrument. And if what you do on the piano is a transcription, of sorts, so be it - Bach himself was a tireless transcriber. The Partitas should not be confined by the instrument.'

We talk of their variety. Each of the opening movements has a different title and character - the 'Preambulum' in No 1 distinctly preludial in feeling; the 'Fantasia' in No 3 a two-part Invention, brilliantly setting off the richness of texture of the following Allemande; the Toccata (with fugue) of No 6 in E minor is a gateway to the rest on the grandest scale. 'And the Sarabandes are so different too: the E minor in No 6 is almost like a guitar piece, as if to recall the origins of the dance in Moorish Spain. And I'm specially intrigued by the A minor (No 3) which has the air of something ancient, antique, as if coming from a long way back. Actually, I've played the Third and Sixth Partitas longer than No 1 in B flat - it's the youngest.'

Now I am intrigued, since pianists (though not harpsichordists) usually pass over No 3 in favour of the others. Anderszewski points out that three editions of it based on the original engraving preserve a different, altered version of the inversion of the fugue subject in the second part of the Gigue - 'so why not mix the versions if one likes to play the repeats, as I do? The Gigue can otherwise seem rather long.' He talks too about tempo and rhythmic detail and what Bach may have expected to be understood from the conventions of his notation, almost as if some of it were in code. 'You need to know so much - you can't read this text as you would Mozart, or a text from Mozart on.'

Anderszewski doesn't exactly like recording but he enjoys taking a hand in the editing ('You get to know the pieces better - but the editing of No 6 was a nightmare!), and he finds satisfaction in being able to choose one possible version after setting down many. 'Then, after five or six years, you can forget the kitchen business and treat the whole thing as if it were an old photograph. Yes, this was me! And it's nice to have something, a trace.'

He is pleased the Mozart concertos have been liked. That was his first recording with the Sinfonia Varsovia, though he had worked with them a few times; they are led by his sister, Dorota. He takes well to directing from the keyboard. 'For me, it is the only way to bring the Mozart concertos fully alive. They are often so close to opera, as if with people talking and listening to each other.' There are to be more: he is wondering about the D minor and the G major concertos, K466 and K453. He wonders what I think of the so-called Coronation Concerto in D, K537, and the 'sublime plainness' of its Larghetto. I love it, as he does; once so popular, the work is now rather maligned. I have the impression it may be in his sights, and we recall the celebrated recording by Wanda Landowska.

And Chopin? What he has to say persuades me that Chopin ought to be the main topic of another conversation with him, later on. He will certainly come back to Chopin, in his own time, and will record some. In earlier years he played lots.

'If you're a Pole and a pianist and growing up in Poland it is accepted that you play Chopin and enter the International Chopin Competition. Other routes to becoming a pianist do not exist. I said, no way. I did not want to be a Chopinist, which seems to be a separate, different activity from that of being an artist. The pressure to be groomed for the Warsaw Competition, where you play only Chopin, in all the rounds, nearly killed the whole thing for me. So Leeds was an escape.'

He is referring to the 1990 Leeds Competition where we, in the UK, knew him first: on that occasion he gave an acclaimed performance of the Diabelli Variations, then left the stage before finishing his semi-final recital, so disqualifying himself from the final round.

There is to be no more Beethoven at present. But there will be more Bach - the Second Book of the 48, the Well-Tempered Clavier. 'It's the most difficult thing I've ever done. Whereas in the Suites you have dance movements in the background to help you when you come to the fugal Gigues, in the fugues of Book 2 there is such a variety of contexts and characters, free or strict, even vocal or liturgical, to be suggested and realised by the player. Yes, I shall do the lot eventually, but perhaps not in a very large hall.'

The morning has nearly gone and there have been many infusions of the tea leaves. I reflect that he has talked hardly at all about himself, always about composers and the traces of their inspiration that it is somehow for the pianist to uncover from the notes they left. And the notes are really all we have.


© Gramophone. Reproduced courtesy of Gramophone and the author and first published in January 2003.
Web link: www.gramophone.co.uk


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