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Pianist Piotr Anderszewski on Bach, the allure of dance and the ever-elusive ideal interpretation

By John Terauds on November 23, 2012

Piotr Anderszewski brings an all-Bach programme to Toronto on Sunday (Robert Workman photo).

I caught a few minutes on the phone yesterday with Paris-based pianist Piotr Anderszewski in between an Asian concert tour and his arrival in Toronto for a solo recital at Koerner Hall on Sunday afternoon.

This is Anderszewski’s first visit to the Telus Centre and his first return to Toronto since a Music Toronto début nearly 10 years ago. He is a compelling, slightly lonely figure who puts his own stamp on everything he plays.

The Polish-born pianist has carved his own path through the music world, eschewing conventions, politesses and expectations, in return offering compelling interpretations of his chosen repertoire.

He is a study in contradictions. The most sharply drawn of these goes back to the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1990, when he walked off the stage in the middle of a performance because he wasn’t happy with his playing. He really meant it, but he also got a lot of great publicity from it. He disliked competitions but had signed up anyway.

In our conversation, Anderszewski repeats how he dislikes concerts because of never feeling in complete control of the music. But, after an 18-month sabbatical, the 43-year-old is back on the road with a vengeance, maintaining a touring schedule this fall that would make a 21-year-old wilt.

He is also of two minds about his Toronto recital programme, which is entirely devoted to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which features one French and two English Suites as well as the Italian Concerto.

It is a very unusual programme, with the lyrical and intimate suites punctuated by the muscular virtuosity of the Italian Concerto.

Anderszewski says there is no intellectual explanation for his Koerner Hall programme. “It’s a mix of factors,” he explains in French. “It comes down to practicalities, about what you are ready to play. It’s not always an ideal choice.”

He chose the suites because they show a softer side of Bach’s music. “It’s a bit different,” he says of the multi-movement pieces built on the outlines of courtly dances — Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Bourrées, Doubles and Gigues,

“Dance really attracts me,” says the pianist. “I don’t dance and I don’t know how people can dance, but dance in music interests me. I play so that others can dance.”

Anderszewski has spent time with all 19 of Bach’s keyboard suites, but will only perform those for which he can shape an overall narrative.

“Some are harder, some are easier,” he says. “Some partitas I don’t understand at all. Partita No. 4, it is impossible; I have no idea what Bach was trying to say… I need a vision from beginning to end, of why it starts one way and ends another. Otherwise, I don’t have the courage to play.”

Anderszewski underscores how all music is a “more or less abstract story.”

“If I don’t tell a story while performing, I don’t feel well,” he adds.

That’s where his stated aversion to live performance comes in, because there are far too many times that he doesn’t feel so well. “It can be the piano or the hall or the audience, but it causes me not to say what I want how I want,” he explains. “In the recording studio, I can prepare and control everything. It is so much more human.”

I point out that this places him in Glenn Gould’s company. “Absolutely,” he says emphatically. “One day, I might stop giving concerts, too.”

But that’s where any similarity with Gould ends. Anderszewski plays Bach on and for the modern piano, unabashedly using the sustaining pedal and making free with speed and dynamics — much like New Yorker Simone Dinnerstein, but with a slightly cooler voice.

I ask the pianist if there is a particular set of factors that help shape an ideal Bach interpretation. “All research helps, but I haven’t found a key to figuring out Bach’s music. I have searched for 20 years, and still always takes me by surprise. It’s not easy and we’re always balanced on a very fine wire.”

It’s a balancing act that should make for a compelling afternoon of music.


For all the details on Sunday’s recital, click here.

Here is Anderszewski playing the English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811, which closes Sunday’s programme (and with apologies for the awful audio quality):

John Terauds

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