The Polish pianist has a reputation for refinement of repertoire and perfectionism and, for Anderszewski, it’s not just about the music he likes, the composers have to like him back…
Did you have a musical childhood?
Well, it depends what you mean by musical. My family were definitely music lovers, particularly on my father’s side. They were listening to lots of music, going to concerts, and I always heard discussions and comments about music, but they were not professional musicians. There was an old piano at home and that’s how it started for me.
When did you know that being a pianist was what you wanted to do?
I still haven’t figured this out. It just came naturally and I still actually question whether this is something I really want to do. It’s not as simple a thing as being a matter of choice. Sometimes these things impose themselves. Of course I’m enormously privileged and happy to be doing this, even if there are moments of doubt, but this is a part of my nature so I guess anything I would do I would doubt.
It’s interesting you mention doubt. At one of your earliest appearances at the Leeds Piano Competition you decided that you didn’t want to continue playing. Has that self-reflection always been part of your music-making?
Yes. Always. I’m still trying to come to terms with it, actually, and I hope I’m on my way to accepting this is part of my nature.
As a young pianist did you have piano idols that really inspired you?
Richter was always an idol, partly because as a child I lived in Poland and is was still a communist country. I prefer to say occupied by Russia, because Poland was never a communist country. We didn’t have access to many recordings or concerts and the few recordings that you could get were on the Russian Melodiya label and that’s how I got in touch with Richter. I guess I was lucky that it was him playing on the only available recordings [laughs]. He’s almost like a father for me in terms of music making. Michelangeli was also and still is a great inspiration.
The fall of the Iron Curtain must have had a big influence on your development as a musician…
I was 21 when it happened, so that was actually before the Leeds Competitions. I was brought up for some years in France as a child so I’d had contact with the West and it wasn’t like I was completely isolated in Poland. In fact, I studied in Los Angeles for a bit. When I decided to go back to Poland it was strangely the last month of communism, but it was still there and nobody believed it was going to change. I never believed in my lifetime I’d be living in a country where I could travel and have a passport. And even when it started changing one still had great doubts whether it was real. There wasn’t a revolution, nothing spectacular. There was no blood, there were no lot of people who died and there were no fights. It all happened rather gradually.
You’ve produced perhaps fewer recordings than other pianists with your reputation. Has it been a deliberate decision on your part to be selective?
You say I have only made a few, but for me I feel like I have recorded a lot! It’s true that I am very selective, but also if I go to the studio I have to be convinced that I’m completely ready for this piece to be engraved – and when I say ready, it means that there is something really personal and subjective I’ve found in this piece that was somehow not there before. It’s maybe a bit pretentious to say this, but if I don’t have that feeling I don’t see the point of going into the studio. For me there must be a reason and the only reason is that I’ve found something new and something that hasn’t been said before in this piece. This is perfection and it basically takes time – at least for me.
Your recorded repertoire is concentrated on relatively few composers. Is that a conscious choice?
I think the answer is almost certainly yes, but it’s often unpredictable how those things happen. Obviously I have to be a attracted by a piece, and when I say attracted I have to feel that there is something in this music, in this composer, that yes, basically attracts me. But also it must be a mutual attraction. Often I feel very close to a composer or a piece, but then somehow I feel the piece… [laughs] – it has to go both ways. When I say that the piece doesn’t like me or the composer doesn’t like me it means that I might put all my energy and love into it but I somehow feel it just doesn’t work. I guess it’s like in real life with other people. And sometimes you feel that you don’t just choose the piece or the composer, but the composer chooses you somehow. Of course, I’m talking symbolically. That’s not how it happens really, but the feeling is somehow reciprocated.
A number of other pianists say there’s music they love to play in private but never play on the concert platform or record. Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Of course! I do play lots of Chopin for myself. I do play some on stage and I did a CD of Chopin, but still it’s never been a main part of my repertoire. It’s always in small doses, Chopin. I did one CD about 20 years ago and I remember how much it cost me and what an incredible amount of effort was behind it. I don’t want to say stressful, but what it cost me just to produce this one CD! I think there’s music that doesn’t come to me naturally, that is somehow not completely in accordance with my nature. Those are the composers that I often love and I say to myself, “I could play this for a friend,” but that’s very different to going on stage and playing for an hour in front of people.
One composer who you definitely do have a strong affinity with, Bach, has been a huge part of your life as a musician. How would you describe your connection to Bach?
I’m always a bit embarrassed to talk about Bach because actually he’s one of the few composers with whom I don’t have such a connection – at least one I could describe in words. I could say I have a very personal connection with Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, or with some of the 20th-century composers. With Bach it’s so remote and so mysterious and there is such amazing mystery about his music for me. I think ultimately what does attract me, and keeps bringing me back to Bach, is this feeling of no end. It’s like even when you’ve worked and found a solution for a Bach Suite that seems convincing and has integrity, there’s still this feeling that there are hundreds of others. There’s always this feeling that this is just one way of playing, that this music is so complex and there’s so much freedom for the interpreter that it could be done differently – not necessarily better, but there’s always room to move. With other composers I have the feeling that once I’ve found a way to manage the piece from beginning to end in a convincing way, basically that’s it. This is a very subjective feeling, but that’s how it happens with me. The most extreme for me is Beethoven. If I really feel I understand the piece and I manage to convey it, that’s it. It’s a closed structure. There are no other options possible and that’s how I feel at that moment. With Bach there’s always this feeling that there are openings everywhere. This is what keeps me coming back to this composer, and I guess as long as I play the piano I will play Bach. I can’t see this changing.
Another composer you’re intimately acquainted with is Szymanowski – a rather underrated composer perhaps compared to his contemporaries like Ravel. What attracts you?
He’s someone who makes such an incredible synthesis of French, German and Polish music. Szymanowski, to me, is the most European composer. He’s such an incredible cosmopolitan composer. He took all those different languages from Europe and somehow made a synthesis of all of that. This is maybe one of the reasons he’s not that well known. People like to have very strong characteristics from one country or culture, especially today. But that’s the reason I love him so much. Also I must say there is a tremendous refinement. It’s a banal thing to say, but I really do think it’s extremely refined music – and that’s also maybe one of the reasons it’s not so often played. Something else I particularly love is that it isn’t music that unveils itself easily. You really need to find this inner voice in Szymanowski, which will lead you throughout the piece from the first note to the last. This inner voice, or inner thread, is not always there. You can’t always see it easily. You need to put in a lot of work to discover that hidden thread, and when I discover it there is enormous satisfaction.
You’ve collaborated with a number of other musicians over the years. Are there any that stand out for you as particularly rewarding?
Well, the Belcea Quartet. We are still collaborating but not very often. They were based in London, but they became so cosmopolitan I don’t know where they are now. We’ve been playing for many years and they are friends, so this is a collaboration that will go on and last, you know? Other than that, I’ve not played that much chamber music, actually. I did some projects with Frank Peter Zimmermann. He’s a wonderful German violinist and I hope we’ll do things in the future. Also my sister, who is a violinist. We’ve done a lot and we always travelled together as children and as teenagers.
Are you working on any particular projects that you can share?
I am trying to finalise another Schumann CD. It’s going rather slowly and painfully, but I do hope that it’s going to be finished in the fall. Otherwise, I have decided to play The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, which I started 10 to 12 years ago but I had to stop because it was driving me too crazy – and maybe I was still a bit too young. But this is the music which I’d say interests me the most. Just to go through the polyphony of The Well-Tempered Clavier, especially the second book. I’d like to go through that experience in the next three years.
Piotr Anderszewski plays the Australian Festival of Chamber Music July 31-August 8