Piotr Anderszewski drew the attention of the classical world in 1990 when, after performing Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations in the semifinals of the Leeds competition, he abruptly walked off stage in mid-performance of Webern’s Variations, Op. 27. Regardless, the pianist’s career was launched. Myriad abums and recitals later, Anderszewski remains a musician’s musician and an artist’s artist, meticulously approaching music and projects that speak to him. Anderszewski recently took a sabbatical and made a film, Warsaw Is My Name, about the city of his birth and the city he loves. His recent album of Mozart and Schumann Fantasies is Fantaisies (Warner); a deluxe version of the album will include the Warsaw film as well.
You recently took a sabbatical from performing. Is this something you planned far in advance or something that crept up on you and you felt you needed to do?
Well I’ve taken even longer periods without playing concerts before. It’s something that has to be considered in advance because otherwise you end up canceling lots of concerts. So you have to plan it a year and a half, two years in advance.
So what did you do with this time off — which has now come to an end, I believe?
Well I directed a small film about Warsaw, the city where I was born. I was shooting and directing the movie.
What was your focus for this film?
I focused on my own, very personal perception of this city. I have a very great attachment to this place, and it’s also a very painful place for me because of its history. So this movie’s very much a personal reflection and a personal poem about the city. There is no text, there is no real story, there was no scenario [plot]. Basically I went to Warsaw and spent some days there with the camera, and I was shooting places that spoke to me in that moment, that somehow I could imagine in a frame. It’s very interesting when you shoot, you have three-hundred-sixty degrees around you. Obviously the camera can capture whatever is in the frame, often without the context of what is around. It’s a very interesting exercise to imagine and then see what picture will speak, will actually say something, ja? So the whole movie was just shooting a lot and the real action, the real drama of the movie was created during editing — and that was my initial idea.
Was editing film a new experience for you?
Not completely new, because I contributed some editing to documentaries that were done on me [Bruno Monsaingeon’s Voyageur intranquille and Piotr Andersewski Plays the Diabelli Variations] so I participated in the process of editing there. And the process of editing is something that interests me. In music, I edit my own CDs. It’s all about architecture, really, you know?
Were there discoveries that you made during this process of literally taking a lens to Warsaw?
You know what surprised me? Of course when you film in that way you have to expect that there will be accidents and what surprised see was how often the accidents that happened were actually positive. You shoot something and let’s say someone accidentally passes by in front of your lens and you sort of swear at them that they’ve ruined your shot, but then the second after you realize that’s exactly what you needed. So you have to be open to accidents in life. Since, as I said, this was a movie without a precise, planned narrative, but rather shooting life itself in the city, it’s just a matter of having an open eye to what’s really happening around you and let events around you speak for themselves. So that was the surprise for me, that these accidents were ultimately quite inspiring.
What’s not an accident comes later, in the editing room, when you have to take these shots and put them in a context and put them together. Why would these men passing through your frame for these few seconds actually make sense? There the accidents stop and where I start the very conscious and precise work of putting these images together and finding a narration that makes sense. And first and foremost I’m a musician. And so of course I put a soundtrack behind it. And the interaction of the sound and the film creates the narration — ultimately an abstract, musical narration. The film is only thirty-six minutes, but thirty-six minutes without words practically — there were two football fans I captured for their sound, set over another image — but there’s no story, it’s not a documentary. And that was very much my intention.
How did creating this film differ from, say, curating a recital program?
For recitals, I have so much experience, I have such an exigence and perfectionism that stands in the way of any kind of decision, very often. I’m very indecisive and I feel this huge responsibility. When you play Carnegie Hall, for example, you have twenty-eight hundred people and I want to speak to this audience and convey something very personal. And the recital is just a moment: the moment you play your phrase, it disappears. It’s a very cool thing. The film for me was easier because it’s not my profession —
It relieved you of the burden of expectation.
Exactly. And I was completely free, being an amateur in the field — it was the feeling of a child playing, playing with his blocks and building a castle.
You know how it is in art: sincerity is something very dangerous. . . . There are very few composers who I think actually show themselves truly, and I think Schumann is such a composer.
Sometimes being in a rut can feel like being in a groove. We can get to a point where we need to push ‘reset.’ The opportunity — for those who fortunate enough to have it — to take some time off and recharge can be a blessing. I wonder now if you’re able to return to music you’ve encountered before with a fresh ear?
That’s my hope, yes, with much more oxygen! And this is why I take these sabbaticals. I find the routine of concerts, all the adjustments you have to make, adapting yourself, to the piano, the acoustics, et cetera — you have to perform that evening: whether you feel well or you don’t, whether you want to play Schumann or you don’t, you’ve committed to something and you have to do it. I find myself incredibly lucky to be doing this, but doing it for many years, I think one has to be careful not to let it become a routine. Routine is the enemy of art, really! And that’s the last thing I want.
I would have to imagine that your relationship with composers — living and dead — changes over time. Are there certain composers and works you find yourself returning to?
I always return to Mozart — especially the piano concertos. He’s the only composer I return to with greater and greater joy, a joy that is completely without bottom. It’s hard to even understand why. It has something to do with all the layers his music conveys. There’s some higher intelligence behind the whole thing. One keeps pumping into another relation one has not seen before, whether it’s a rhythmic relation, a harmonic relation, a formal relation. And often it all feels so — I don’t want to say simple, but effortless and obvious. And you start thinking to yourself: ‘I could write this, as well,’ but then when you actually start to play Mozart and study Mozart you see how incredibly actually complex it is, and how incredibly sophisticated the whole thing is. With Mozart, the feelings he conveys are rarely extreme. It’s very often a mixture: sadness in Mozart has optimism and optimism has sadness. It’s never black and white, and this gives the music a freedom; I think his music adapts itself to you. That’s why I think I never tire of him. There is always an opening into Mozart. It’s so incredibly well written. Mozart just makes sense, and there are so few things that make sense in this life, you know?
I know that you are also a champion of [Leoš] Janáček. What speaks to you from his music?
There is a raw quality in Janáček that speaks to me, a very pure and raw expression of the Slavic soul, something I never came across in Poland, though it is also a Slavic country. But Poland was always looking toward the West, toward France especially; it’s a very Latin country, Poland, in that way. But Janáček for some reason is completely raw: there is no decoration, no pretense to be Western, civilized, formally concise — just an incredibly direct and pure expression of the Slavic soul.
Let’s end with Schumann. I know you’re a Schumann man, as well.
We’ve spoken about Mozart, Janáček and now Schumann and I have to say these are my three favorite composers, those closest to my heart.
I do my homework.
[Laughs.] But all three have something in common. When speaking of Schumann, I think again there is a directness, a lack of filter, if you understand what I mean — someone who puts his heart directly onto the paper and into the notes. If you take somebody like Brahms or even Beethoven, someone who worked on his scores, making sure they are perfect, that every note and nuance is where it should be — especially Brahms, who threw away most of his compositions. . . yet with Schumann you have this impression: ‘I feel this, and I put it straight on the paper.’ Even if it’s not perfect, even if it’s awkwardly formatted — which it sometimes is! As an interpreter I think Schumann demands so much from the player, because his music is less balanced, and, it’s a bit of a sin to say this, but it’s very often less well written. Somehow you have to get above this and get straight to the soul of this man, which he reveals with such generosity. I think the generosity of Schumann is what touches me most. It’s like the soul of a child who just hands you absolutely everything, and there is no hiding, it’s frightfully sincere! And you know how it is in art: sincerity is something very dangerous. Even if we talk of art, art could come from artificiality, ja? And showing something that is not necessarily true, and there are very few composers who I think actually show themselves truly, really, and I think Schumann is such a composer. It’s a very dangerous thing to do, and we all know how he finished.
And we can hear that in post-illness Schumann.
We do hear that obsessive soul; he’s not hiding his obsessions, like, say, Chopin, who was extremely intelligent, but very restrained with what he was going to show and not show, with what he was going to write and not write — just writing for piano because that was what he did best. And Schumann would never do this! Schumann would just explore all musical and instrumental forms, even knowing that he was not excelling in everything. That what I love about Schumann, this generosity.
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.
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