Monday, February 20, 2017

Warner Classics to Release Musical and Visual Fantasies of Pianist Anderszewski

This Friday Warner Classics will release Fantaisies, its latest solo album of Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski. As usual, has already created the Web page for this album and is processing pre-orders. The album itself actually consists of a CD and a DVD. The former has been structured around a compare-and-contrast examination of how two composers approach the label “fantasia.” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is represented by his K. 475 in C minor, and he is complemented by Robert Schumann’s Opus 17 in C major.

The question is whether or not there are grounds for comparing or contrasting these two compositions. K. 475 might almost be taken as an effort to document a spontaneous improvisation. It was originally published as an “overture” to the K. 457 sonata in C minor. The transition between K. 475 and the first movement of K. 457 is smooth enough that the two can be played with an almost instantaneous segue, which is precisely what Anderszewski does on this album.

Opus 17, on the other hand, gives the impression of having been deliberately calculated from beginning to end. It is in three movements, the first of which is distinguished by a coda that reflects on a motif used by Ludwig van Beethoven in his Opus 98 song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved). As András Schiff demonstrated in his ECM New Series recording of this piece, Schumann originally planned a reprise of that coda at the end of the third movement and then rejected it in favor concluding the movement on the terms of the preceding thematic material. Curiously, Schiff’s album chose to couple Opus 17 with Schumann’s last piano composition. This was his WoO 24 “Geistervariationen” (ghost variations), composed in 1854 only days before his suicide attempt. The 1893 Collected Works edition included the theme but not the variations, perhaps because the editors (Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms) thought that Schumann may have intended more than the five variations he had written. Those five variations were not published until 1939. This is the version that Schiff recorded, and Anderszewski similarly decided to record them following Opus 17.

Thus, Anderszewski seems to have decided that Opus 17 should serve as an “overture” to more Schumann, paralleling the coupling of K. 475 and K. 457. The problem is that, while K. 475 leaves the listener with a bit of suspense as to what will happen next, by the time the listener has traversed all three movements of Opus 17, (s)he is likely to feel that (s)he has had enough! Thus, while the Mozart coupling enhances the experience of listening to each of the two conjoined pieces, the Schumann approach leaves one craving more separation.

The latter case is also problematic in that Anderszewski does not seem to have a clear sense of overall architecture. The result is that his approach to Opus 17 tends to leap from one outburst to the next, leaving the listener more than a little perplexed about when the music will come to the climax that is the “true peak” of the entire composition. One almost feels as if Schumann is there to allow Anderszewski to display his technical prowess; and, while there is no debating that Anderszewski’s technical skills are impressive, Schumann deserves a cerebral approach to establish an impression that there is more to his music than fireworks.

Anderszewski’s command of Mozart seemed more secure, particularly in the sonata. On the other hand his approach to K. 475 suggested that he had not considered the possibility that this music had been the product of spontaneous improvisation. Other performances that have coupled these two pieces have tended to stress the idea that K. 475 amounts to a search for something that is not found until the more secure footing of K. 457 has been established. Anderszewski ran the risk of giving the impression that K. 475 was just another sonata movement, whose best location would be prior to the three movements of K. 457.

The DVD that accompanies this coupling of Mozart and Schumann is entitled Warsaw is my name. It is a half-hour montage of visual impressions of the city of Warsaw. Presumably, the selection and disposition of those impressions were all decided by Anderszewski; and that plan was then realized by a production team led by Julien Condemine. The images are preceded by a rather lengthy crawl of text that outlines the unpleasant history of governance in Poland over the course of the twentieth century. Whether or not Anderszewski’s choice and ordering of images stands as a reflection on that history is left to the viewer to decide.

As this visual montage unfolds, the viewer gets to listen to several of Anderszewski’s recordings. As might be guessed, there is a generous share of the music of Frédéric Chopin, some of which reinforces different artistic impressions of that composer that emerge in some of the images. Almost as much attention is given to the piano music of Karol Szymanowski; and those selections do much to establish the underlying twentieth-century framework of this visual study.

More perplexing is the presence of Anton Webern’s Opus 27 variations. Webern probably appreciated the flaws of both Adolf Hitler and Nazism; but he was still a strong believer in German nationalism, making him not the most “politically correct” source of music for a reflection on twentieth-century Warsaw! This is likely to be particularly problematic because, for the most part, Anderszewski’s selection of images will probably have the most effect on those already familiar with Warsaw, rather than those (like myself) who have never been there. Nevertheless, this film was clearly conceived as a personal impression; and Anderszewski is certainly entitled to his own thoughts about his own city!

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