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Piano mag

Piotr Anderszewski

by Frederic Gaussin

Piotr Anderszewski  Marc Ribes licensed to Virgin Classicsow do you put together a recital program?

Piotr Anderszewski: A recital program is always the result of juggling constraints of many kinds. First of all, you simply cannot play the same pieces in the same hall as the previous season (I call that "practical necessity," the most significant of all the constraints) and the program also needs to make sense, both as a whole and as regards your personal evolution. Szymanowski was not initially part of my repertoire, for example. I got to know his music better and began to understand and then admire it. Over the last few years, Bartók and Janacek have regularly been on my tour programs. The former is a giant. I can't say that I like everything he wrote (who would?), but I love what I have played of him, even though he still has a mysterious side for me. The purely scientific side of his ethnographic approach escapes me sometimes, but we speak the same language, which is not part of the Indo-European language family, and this helps me interpret his music. In Hungarian, the tonic stress is on the first syllable, and this trait has musical significance as well. Janacek, in my mind, transmits the quintessence of the Slavic soul (s?owia?sczyzna), pure, rubbed clean of any Russian pathos and Polish sophistication: imagine a Slavic peasant, rustic and grounded in his land, imagine his coarseness but also his generosity, at times his extreme gentleness... Janacek paints this portrait marvelously and his compositional idiom could never be mistaken for that of any other composer.
What seems at root most difficult for me, and what I feel most acutely during my preparation, is how to find a way to make pieces that I've played for an eternity peacefully coexist with others that I've learned more recently (meaning, make sure that the recital doesn't have dips in quality). In 2009, I began a recital at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées with three Chopin Mazurkas: these pieces are very dear to my heart, but I had not played them in public for quite some time. On the other hand, I programmed Opus 110 to follow them, which I had played in Paris three years prior, and had also played it in several major cities before programming it on that recital. I thus hardly needed to glance at the score before the recital (even though I continually try to bring something new to it and am continuously reflecting on each piece before I play it in concert; one simply cannot set foot on stage without this attitude). However, I had to work to re-appropriate Bach's 6th Partita, which I hadn't touched in nearly ten years, even though I had learned it a good fifteen years prior. It's always surprising to see what's left of a piece after such a long absence. Memory takes many forms: it can be aural, visual, purely intellectual, embodied, or simply finger memory, shall we say, when one remembers only gestures and movements at the keyboard... But which ones wins out, in the end? So many things happen, in the space of a decade; I acquire so much music and so much experience... My point of view changes. In this case, all that was left was a general musical idea of the Partita. I had the feeling that I had constructed a very precise interpretation, especially in the Sarabande, but I had so much trouble picking up where I had left off that I simply explored other possibilities. The new pieces that haven't yet been truly tested, or that you haven't even played in concert yet and which are interspersed among the other pieces – they are much more difficult to deal with. They should sound no different to your audience. That's the most difficult part, I think.

How do you see the relationship between this "smoothing over" of different levels of memory and past experiences and the way in which you work? You obviously work to assimilate a new piece or to get an old one back in your fingers; but I believe you have said that you "hate" practicing.

I don't object to the term though... As far as I'm concerned, playing the piano is a professional activity, at least from an economic perspective, in that it is paid. I certainly have never enjoyed being cloistered for hours, stuck to the bench, as my only true passion is for the music itself. But if I say today that I'm lazy, that I "hate" practicing piano, it's because I'm no longer a slave to the piano.

Bruno Monsaingeon has said that you're a fanatic when it comes to putting your recital programs together.

Above all else, I love beautifully constructed work, it's true, and in my case this consists less of playing an entire recital without a wrong note – of course, it's better without, I'm against wrong notes! – and more of perfectly playing my role as an interpreter: that is to say, sharing a vision of the pieces that is as close as possible to the internal vision I have of them. This is about self-respect, respect for the audience, and respect for the repertoire, all at once. I keep in mind that the people who come to hear me have bought tickets, that they came out just for me: nothing prevents them from spending their evening in a different way, and I don't "take them for idiots" (there's a Polish expression that expresses this idea in a much more subtle way). I don't want to seem pretentious, and I don't think I have that form of arrogance.
Now, in terms of my method, or the way that I work, it's nearly impossible for me to work away from the keyboard. I would love to be able to take advantage of a twelve-hour flight, for instance, but in order to be productive I need both the piano and the score. Both at the same time. I have to be able to see the beast, the notes, the shape. I have to find my fingerings, and I have to write them in the score – this is actually one of the most satisfying aspects of my work at the piano. And to think that some pianists leave this to chance or to the inspiration of the moment... There's nothing worse than a fingering that comes out of laziness. Fingerings have their beauty, for me, they are the choreography of the dance at the keyboard: and to dance, one has to learn the steps. The way I work of course depends on the piece, but I tend to consider all tonal music from a polyphonic point of view...

Alberti bass figures are not "simply" accompaniment figures for you...

Indeed. They are part of the discourse, and I never lose sight of the voices that give structure to it. Thus, in a piece with tight counterpoint, I really need to define my fingerings with precision and rigor, in order to create the most assoluto legato in the way the different lines are divided up. In cases where this is physically impossible, I force myself to find the most fluid, elegant solution (which is rarely the most obvious). Finding fingerings for Bach fugues is of course the first task you should undertake when studying the Well-tempered Clavier. Fingerings are also essential in Chopin and in Mozart's fast passages. That said, I am not an unconditional fan of old editions, edited and with fingerings by my illustrious predecessors. They are interesting documents, but I prefer to do this work myself and find my own solutions.

Your thoughts on gesture, fingering, the quest for the best legato, inevitably call to mind the pedagogical precepts of a certain French school of piano. For this reason alone, I was struck by an image from the Diabelli video: in the Fughetta, for example, your overall position at the keyboard (your body's angle, posture, hand position, etc.) is often identical to that of Alfred Cortot in the rare films we have of him. Do you think, in Strasbourg, you inherited this from his student, Helene Boschi (1917-1990)?

I remember Helene Boschi's teaching distinctly. I feel a lot of fondness for her. I studied with her from the age of 11 to 14, and I remember seeing her in Alsace shortly before she passed away. She had an unquenchable passion for Mozart, Schumann, and Debussy. She didn't need to transmit her love for Mozart to me, even though that period corresponded with a slight "lull" in my relationship with him, but she did pass on her love for Schumann, of which she first had me work on the 8th Novelette (the most elaborate of the collection – I wonder how on earth I managed to play that piece – it must have been so difficult for me to understand at that age), then the Sonata in g-minor, which I thought was extraordinary. Helene Boschi indeed gave me this sense of legato. Relaxed playing was very important for her. She would say, while drawing an arc in the air, "Look, you can go over the whole keyboard legato, from the middle to the ends, with just one finger." There are things she said, gestures like that which come to mind. Aside from that, she felt it was important that I play pieces that I liked. I was crazy about Chopin, of which I played pieces that were much too difficult for me (the formidable 4th Scherzo, for example). My hands haven't grown at all since – I could stretch a twelfth at the time. At times, Helene Boschi teased me about the fact that slow, profound movements bored me, and all I wanted to play were the fast, brilliant passages. She later heard me play the Diabelli, and indeed, perhaps she was right!

What would you say about the teaching you received in Poland as compared to your studies in the United States?

When I was living in Warsaw, I received a scholarship to study at a prestigious Californian university. That was a dream: America was a kind of myth in communist Poland at the end of the 1980s. It was very difficult to leave the country at the time. I was quickly disappointed, though. I'm not speaking about my personal experience, but I was shocked to see this frantic race for success, for career, which is omnipresent there. In Los Angeles, I found that my teachers felt no sense of responsibility for their students. We had to make our way alone, in the middle of the desert, without any guidance or mentoring. This system can bear fruit, and it didn't hurt me, but I really think that this is not the proper way to work on this craft. Our discussions were at a very high level, but I expected that we would at least talk a bare minimum about how to actually do certain things at the piano. No one knew how to correctly cross their thumb under. How can you possibly play Opus 111 without a very basic mastery of scales? I saw some playing there... which I didn't know if I should laugh or cry over, I'm sorry to say. I preferred to go back to Poland. Life there was gray, my teacher was not a fantastic musician, but he respected a minimum level of decency with a lesson every Wednesday.

Did your country apply Soviet principles in art education?

Not at all, and I would add: unfortunately. In Russia, when a child demonstrated extraordinary talent, he was favored; he was pushed all the way to the top. They would turn him into an artist, even if this made him suffer, even if he was exploited (I of course do not condone the inhumane side of this teaching). In Poland, it was the opposite. Students were considered to be equals who needed different kinds of teaching. Of course, this method has its advantages, but Polish conservatism hindered students' development by blocking their personal development. At the music high school in Warsaw, we were taught math, science, sociology, languages, history, and geography, in addition to ear training, harmony, counterpoint, and piano. What's ridiculous, for a music school, is that an insufficient grade in chemistry would make you have to repeat the whole year, including the year of piano instruction you had just finished. That terrified me at the end of each year. Unfortunately, I also don't have a very high opinion of the piano teachers that were there at the time. The situation is most certainly worse today. Our education system can bring students up to a certain level, but it is definitely not capable of pushing them up to an international level. You can see the results: Poland has 40 million inhabitants. How many internationally-known professional pianists has it produced these last few year years? Hungary is a quarter the size, but it doesn't nip talent in the bud.

Are competitions partially to blame for this situation?

That's an entirely different question. Here we're speaking about basic musical education, the elementary opportunities you're given when you want to devote your life to music. In Poland, there is only one international competition in any case: The Frederic Chopin competition. Everything revolves around it: if you're a bit above average, you will get to compete. Actually, it's ridiculous the way we inflict Chopin on everyone. Chopin is not for just any pianist: his music is unique, you have to understand it, you can't overplay it or make it overly sentimental. Now the Warsaw airport is called the Chopin airport. The composer even has word in our language: just imagine, in Polish, rather than being a musician or artist, you can be a "chopinist!" Magnificent. So I was a very bad chopenista; I fled to Leeds because I didn't want to participate in the Warsaw competition.

But had you not integrated any of the "chopinist" tradition, either real or mythological, as far as phrasing or dotting rhythms in a particular way?

Oh! No - that didn't exist anymore. Poland is a country which has long been very diverse, with its great cultural, social, linguistic, and religious richness, but it was extremely traumatized during World War II. Its borders changed. The portion of the intelligentsia which was not destroyed by Hitler was decimated by Stalin. The few survivors from a specific, strong, pianistic and musical tradition were surely teaching this in the 1950s and 60s, but when the early 90s rolled around, all this had disappeared. It was all dead. Poland today, for me, is nothing but the scraps of what it was before. It's a shadow of its former self.


In Bruno Monsaingeon's portrait of you, "Piotr Anderszewski: Unquiet Traveler", he presents archival footage after the Pamina and Sarastro duet that you play at the piano. Gunshots bring it to an end, and we see a dazed man wandering amongst the ruins of the Polish capital, a bag slung over his dark coat.

That's a poignant image... I still grieve over the destruction of Warsaw. The city that I love passionately no longer exists.

Are you this survivor that we see in the image? I wondered if this historical footage might be a symbolic echo of the images at the beginning of the film, where we see you walking alone in the opposite direction, wearing a long black coat, suitcase in hand, along the railroad tracks.

I must admit that I never made that connection. You would have to ask Bruno... We discussed the screenplay at length. The risk was to make it quaint, due to the very cinematographic nature of the initial idea, but I think that we went far beyond a simple portrait.

The trip you take across Poland and Hungary in a specially-equipped train car made me think of Paderewski's travels, or even those of Richter in Siberia.

Well, with the train I can avoid the insufferable routine of traveling virtuosos: taxi rides, airport security, hotels, all that wasted time... I couldn't do it everyday, but I could see myself traveling more now... in a big, comfortable car, with a driver, which would make it possible to do my tours in a civilized fashion, and to rationally organize my trips – rather than having to play in Madrid and Brussels in less than 48 hours (though that would be an extreme case). Why not make a pit-stop in Poitiers? Richter would just look for a beautiful church, and drop his suitcases off in the village and declare that he wanted to play there. Obviously that's a bit excessive, because you need an audience if you're going to have a concert.

Are you like him in that you take your pianos as they come? I was surprised to hear you say that each time you play, you have to adapt to the atmosphere of the hall, to a new audience, and also to a new instrument. Do you not ask to be able to try it first, or even choose your piano or have it regulated to meet your needs?

Unfortunately, that's not always possible. And even if I could try out the piano for hours beforehand, it would still be relatively unfamiliar. I often have the feeling that the pieces we end up sacrificing on the program are those that we play first, because we're not yet comfortable enough to communicate. I've ended up replaying entire pieces at the end of a recital for precisely this reason. What makes the difference, today even more than before, is the ability to adapt – it makes a concert pianist's life bearable, but it unfortunately often takes precedence over artistic aspects. That's an observation that saddens me, which I've become more aware of over the last few years.

Do you not find this paradoxical, in a world which is becoming more and more standardized?

It's less standardized than you think. At the end of the day, I think I would prefer pianos to be identical everywhere (although I'm sure that would actually make me crazy!). Before, there were more piano makers on the market, and their instruments had more unique traits. Today, if Fazioli tries to gain ground, for example, it's faced with a quasi-monopoly by Steinway on the concert circuit. But Steinway remains a house of high fashion, which makes hand-sewn products: every one of their pianos has its own personality. The tuning, maintenance, storage, the general state of the piano makes each one different – a Steinway from Hamburg is different from one from London, New York, or Tokyo. That said, I hate nothing more than talking with technicians who come to ask you if you want a piano with a ringing sound or a more muffled one, rich or brassy, heavy or light action. That doesn't make any sense! I want it to ring and be muffled, I want brassy and rich, I want heavy and light! The worst is when a technician assures you that, if you don't like the regulation, they can "have it all fixed in 5 minutes" – nothing is impossible, they can change everything – in 5 minutes! That makes me scratch my head. I prefer technicians who tell me outright, "You're looking for something that this piano cannot do."
The same thing goes for sound engineers: we don't speak the same language. I just express my point of view (the idea being of course that I be able to recognize my playing), but this kind of conversation seems rather vain to me. I don't understand anything, really nothing at all, regarding the changes they say they have made on the tracks. For me, in any case, it's just as bad as it was when they started! I don't know a thing about all this business of spacing, placing, positioning mikes. I'm not an expert in instrumental mechanics. Is that wrong? Should I be more like my compatriot Krystian Zimerman? Whatever the case, there is no such thing as a good piano in the absolute sense: you always have to account for the space around it that you have to fill with sound. That's why I don't think traveling with my own piano would solve anything. At times, I've chosen a piano to record an album in a warehouse or in a backstage room, then once the piano is in the recording studio, I think there's been a mistake: I'll check, realize that the serial numbers are the same, but nonetheless I don't recognize it any more, not the touch nor the sound.

Did you listen to the recital at Carnegie Hall that was released on CD, for example?

Just in fragments. That was my first live recording. I had already played twice in that legendary hall, so full of memories. I decided that it was the right place to give a live recording a go. I rarely listen to my albums – once they're released, I don't want to come back to them. A live recording is nothing like recording in studio. There's one operation that I refuse to delegate, and that's the editing, simply because it's musical, not technical work. If you've had the experience of editing, even just once, you'll realize that it has nothing to do with reality. Measure 31, recorded at 2:30pm, may end up preceding measure 23, recorded at 2:31pm, in the final cut. A recording studio makes it possible to work outside of time – best to take advantage of this. The process of selecting takes is dangerous only because it can be unending (where can I, where should I stop?), but I find it very rewarding from an artistic point of view. It's much more rewarding than work at the keyboard – editing spares us all the mechanical, bodily problems, the difficulties of the matter (a keyboard that doesn't react as I'd like, this disobedient hand). Editing allows you to work directly with the sound material, to make my visions reality. For me, it's like sculpture.

Regarding recording, you recently took on Schumann. Why?

I fell in love all over again with his work when I played the Humoreske. Schumann, for me, is a humanist par excellence: his work and life transcend his music. His naivete, his honesty – that of the Gesänge der Frühe, Nachtstücke, Humoreske, or the extended cycles, of course, Op. 12, 15, and 16 – move me tremendously. I think all teachers should have their students work on his pieces. Schumann is a great even in his failures as a composer (I'm speaking of orchestration and form). Nonetheless, he doesn't attain perfection like Chopin, Brahms, or Mendelssohn. He even failed at his own suicide – but what beauty, what a world! What a fascinating psychological case!


You also arranged the Studies in Canonic Form for Pedal Piano.

Arranged is a strong word. The bass was written an octave lower. I just adapted the score to the range of a modern piano and made it possible to play these studies with just ten fingers, nothing more. Playing the original score is not easy: these days, only Luigi Borgato is still building pedal pianos, in the region of Padua. But I don't like arrangements, and I especially don't like transcriptions – those of Busoni, for example.

Even his Mozart transcriptions? It's clear in Bruno Monsaingeon's film that you venerate the composer of the Enchanted Flute.

The Flute resolves the very paradoxes of life, with grace and perfection... I can't think of a single other composition that's as dark and lively, somber and gay, profound and irreverent all at once as the Enchanted Flute. It speaks to my contradictory ambitions. Mozart's Sonatas are extremely difficult to communicate, but it's really his concertos that are the summit of the genre: the c-minor [K. 491] is in my opinion the most beautiful of all. I composed a cadenza for it with a style similar to that of Schumann, harmonically speaking, but in the manner of Beethoven, by condensing all the thematic material of the Allegro (Mozart, on the contrary, left us an incredible cadenza for his concerto in A-Major [K. 488], which has almost nothing to do with the motives heard up to that point in the concerto). With Beethoven, we can feel an uprightness, the power of a quest, a thirst for the ideal. Mozart wasn't on a quest for anything. His music, and himself I would say, is on the order of the absurd that has meaning: Mozart doesn't struggle with the elements, he makes all the different facets of existence float and spin in his crystal ball. Mozart is drama, dialogue, constant characterization of his characters. You can formulate any judgment you wish about him, and the opposite would also be true. Beethoven is the first composer in history to have understood his "ego" in music, whereas Mozart doesn't talk about himself, he is speaking of all of us, he's writing the music of the human race, while holding a thread that binds him to the divine. And his laugh! His terrifying, diabolical laugh! By comparison, Liszt's demons seem like child's play – his pseudo-mystical pretentiousness is patently absurd. Mozart takes hold of our souls, sweeps us up in his oracle, yanks us around like marionettes. I love more and more his city of Vienna. Prague has become an amusement park, whereas Vienna hides something very profound, obscure, and difficult to discern. It has the feel of a city under a spell. In my mind, the two cities that have most profoundly and permanently shaped the European continent and its civilization are Vienna and Paris – the city of esprit.

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