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These are fallow times for piano fanciers. The generation of Argerich, Ashkenazy, Brendel and Pollini is fading into semi-retirement and the classical industry, desperate for a flicker of the media eye, has hyped up a clatter of one-line caricatures as the new set of concert stars.
There is Lang Lang, the Chinese wizard who can play anything except pianissimo; Evgeny Kissin, the Russian speed king with an emotional bypass; Helene Grimaud, the French save-the-wolf campaigner; and Yundi Li, the one in the Nike ad.
Diverting as these oddities may be, they inspire little confidence in followers of the grand tradition of piano playing, a chain of interpretation that extends back to Liszt and Clara Schumann, and beyond them to the great 18th century duels of Mozart and Muzio Clementi. Alternately flamboyant and philosophical, eccentric to the point of occasional insanity, the classic keyboard line consists of a scatty riff of finger fliers who renew familiar masterpieces with the magnetism of real personality.
That line would be at risk of extinction were it not for Piotr Anderszewski, an artist in the redoubtable old style. Anderszewski is the Polish entrant who shot to attention at 21 in the 1990 Leeds Piano Competition - not by winning or being unfairly marked down but by walking off the stage in the middle of a semi-final rendition of Webern’s opus 27 Variations, apparently dissatisfied with his own performance.
Disdaining showpieces, he went on to cut his debut disc with Beethoven’s unyielding Diabelli Variations. At the current Proms he has eschewed a blockbuster concerto slot and will appear in the thick of the orchestra as accompanying pianist, barely primus inter pares, in Karel Szymanowski’s seldom-heard fourth symphony.
‘This is not a concerto,’ he declares definitively, to avoid possible misapprehension. ‘To me a proper piano concerto, there is only one composer: Mozart. Beethoven did not write concertos – those are symphonies: God knows what the piano does there. Chopin wrote big piano works with a small orchestra to accompany, not even necessary.’
Anderszewski runs gleefully through the rest of the repertoire, dismissing one beloved concerto after another as generically inadequate until he comes to the Szymanowski symphony which he describes as ‘a 20th century degenerated concerto grosso’, a baroque invention industrially deconstructed. Szymanowski wrote the piano role in fairly simple fingerings for himself to play and Anderszewski is the first world-circuit soloist to take it up since the composer’s best friend, Arthur Rubinstein.
Szymanowski is Anderszewski’s particular passion. ‘He was a genius, not appreciated in our country, still not played much. He was too modern, too European, too original. People were not able to accept it. They wanted him to write polonaises.’
An aristocrat from the eastern borders, dispossessed by the Bolsheviks, Szymanowski was a lone male whose gay yearnings, expressed in song cycles, offended the clerical and nationalist authorities in Warsaw, then as now. He lived in mountain poverty at Zakopane and died of tuberculosis in 1937, aged 54. ‘All they play now are his ballet and some early piano pieces – not the real Szymanowski,’ grumbles Anderszewski.
Although he draws no personal affinities, there is a common outsiderness that underpins his artistic advocacy. Anderszewski, Polish by birth and nationality, is Hungarian-Jewish on his mother’s side and an exile by preference.
When he was a small boy his father, though Catholic and anti-communist, was sent to Lyon and Strasbourg, as a state salesman of ball-bearings. Summers were spent with his grandparents in Hungary. When Solidarity staged its uprising and martial law was imposed, Anderszewski’s parents wanted to stay in France but the teenaged Piotr and his sister Dorota insisted on a return to Warsaw in 1983. ‘It was miserable,’ he recalls. ‘I had the most horrible few years in a country that was totally demoralised. I was sure it would be forever and I would die like that.’
Music had come into his life. ‘My parents decided. They thought one of us should play the violin and one piano. My sister was seven, she chose violin. I was six and started the piano.’ He had good teachers in Lyon and Strasbourg but struggled at the Warsaw conservatoire. A six-year university scholarship to California promised all that America could offer but Anderszewski floundered again. In 1988 he went home ‘to Communist Poland, nobody could understand it. I spent the next year in Poland, practising and studying like crazy while all the political events were going on. And that was the year when I became myself. The following year I went to Leeds.’
His competition walkout launched a bustling international career. He settled in London for six years but ‘couldn’t stand the daily life, the food, the underground, the buses’. So he moved to Paris where he is culturally content but unsettled once more, ready to move on. ‘I am very much a vagabond, a Wandering Jew,’ he affirms.
At the summer's end he will take a five-month sabbatical, mostly in Laos, to consider where life is leading him. At 37, he could easily settle into a transatlantic routine of ten regular concertos with all the big orchestras and an annual slot at Salzburg and Carnegie Hall, but Anderszewski is a quizzical soul with a sense of mission that he has yet to define to his own satisfaction.
At Dartington last summer he sat in on Diego Masson’s conducting class (he likes directing from the keyboard) and played a Mozart concerto of ethereal distinction, the sound unmistakably his own and the atmosphere intimate beyond words. There is a reticence to Anderszewski that many find irresistible. Although tall and elegant, he materialises imperceptibly onto a stage and avoids flashy gestures, almost too shy to receive applause. But the modesty is deceptive, concealing a concrete artistic certainty, a confidence of his niche in the grand tradition and a consciousness of his obligation to take the art beyond its present boundaries.
More than Bang Bang, Gene Missing, Dainty Grimace, Bandy Legs or any other manufactured product of a clichéd music industry, the attraction of Anderszewski is the impression he gives of being unfulfilled, far from the finished star, devoid of greed and vanity, still searching for meaning in his music. His success, popular and critical, cuts against the grain of marketing gimmicks, restoring an integrity to modern pianism that is as much moral as it is musical. Wherever his next move may take him, the wandering Anderszewski is an artist who will last the course.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]