The New York Times
, July 2009
An Ear for Mozart, a Taste for Paradox
From the pianist Piotr Anderszewski’s first comments in “Unquiet Traveller” (“Voyageur Intranquille”), a new documentary film that follows him on a concert tour by train through his native Poland, you would think that this fiercely individual artist found being a pianist an agonizing impossibility.
In a winter coat and a hat with thick wool lining, Mr Anderszewski walks solitarily along snow-covered train tracks at a railroad station, as we hear his reflections in a voice-over, in English.
“When I play with orchestra,” he says, “I sometimes tell myself I’ll never play a concerto again. Too many artistic compromises.”
Yet, he continues, when confronted with “the extreme loneliness of the recital, the heroism and also the cruelty involved, I sometimes think that I’ll never do recitals ever again. I’ll only make recordings.”
Then again, he says, in the recording studio, when he is free to repeat the work as often as he desires, the possibility of always doing better creates another kind of terrible pressure.
“In fact,” he concludes, “the real, the ultimate temptation would be to stop everything, lie down, listen to the beat of my heart and quietly wait for it to stop.”
…In the documentary (available as a Medici Arts DVD), Mr Anderszewski, who speaks Polish, Hungarian, French and English in the film, is shown during a recording session, playing and conducting Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen.
On the concert tour, he travels in a specially appointed train car, complete with a kitchen, a dining area and a place for his Steinway grand, which we see being lifted onto the train by movers. In one scene he hosts a New Year’s Eve dinner party on board for friends.
Early in the film, right after Mr Anderszewski’s confession about his frustrations with the pianist’s profession, he is shown in concert playing the lively Gigue from Bach’s Partita No. 1. Though he takes a brisk, nearly breathless tempo, the playing is so articulate that all the notes come through. Sometimes he really thumps out the bass notes, with clanking tone. Yet there is such zest in the playing over all that the effect is wonderfully ambiguous — like dangerous whimsy.
There is something extreme in this performance, exactly the quality that gave me reservations about Mr Anderszewski’s early work, which was unquestionably brilliant and intensely expressive but strong-willed and feisty. Maybe he has mellowed or maybe I have gained insight into his approach. But in recent years I have found almost everything he does riveting.
I tend to like straightforward music-making and quickly lose patience with performers who exude expressivity, who cannot resist putting interpretive tweaks into every phrase. There is a whole repository of musical gestures that can easily resemble stock bits of histrionic acting.
When an interpretive gesture in a performance comes not from the artist’s desire to demonstrate feeling for the music but from an acute perception of some element in the music, the difference is subtle yet enormous. Revelatory scenes in the documentary convey the piercing insights that account for the freedom and daring of Mr Anderszewski’s playing.
Responding to a question, he talks about the music that first marked him as a child. Of all pieces, it was Mozart’s popular string serenade “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” which Mr Anderszewski remembers having heard when he was 3.
He plays the opening phrase of the first movement, which is like a simple rising fanfare in unison, then explains that it was the next phrase that hooked him, the one in which the theme is more or less inverted. Playing that second phrase, Mr Anderszewski scrunches his brow, brings a slightly veiled coloring to the notes and makes this seemingly simple music sound quizzical. For a moment he is a little boy again, instinctively alert to the strangely curious elements of music.
During several scenes Mr Anderszewski animatedly plays excerpts from Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” an opera he finds “the most extreme in its ambiguity,” with music that perfectly juxtaposes “the sad, the joyous, the luminous, the divine, the impertinent.” He plays the orchestra music on the piano, singing, sometimes grunting all the vocal parts, attentive to every quirk. During the long Act II aria in which Papageno searches for his lost Papagena, begins to despair and threatens to hang himself, Mr Anderszewski’s one-man performance is utterly insightful and completely charming. Papageno’s despair “never lasts,” he says, grinning warmly while he plays. “It’s a ludicrous kind of despair.”
In another scene, while playing a complex passage in the first movement of Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, Mr Anderszewski stretches out the music to expose the harmonic richness and contrapuntal intricacy in each phrase. “Everything goes too fast with Chopin,” he says, “that’s the problem.”
Playing Chopin’s Barcarolle, which evokes a Venetian boat song through a long-spun melodic line floating atop an undulant accompaniment, Mr Anderszewski says, “One thinks of a plate of macaroni.” This gondolier’s song is “like French variety music of the worst kind,” he adds, yet so beautiful.
In a perceptive summation of Chopin’s artistry, Mr Anderszewski asserts that no one expressed Poland better, “its heroism and its ravages.” Here, he says, “you have the Slavic soul in all its breadth and depth, its generosity, the expression of a whole continent extending eastward, all dressed up in an impeccably tailored French suit.”