There was magic in the air, in Page Auditorium, on the evening of January 22, as Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski ( [inactive 5/05]) made his local debut with a very unusual program. We’ve come to expect that visiting artists will strut their flashy stuff in the Southland, pulling out those proverbial stops to ensure those rapturous ovations that audiences in some of our cities give so routinely… and, some would say, indiscriminately – especially when concert finales are both fast and loud. There was none of that nonsense at Duke, on this occasion. So the recital was unusual in that regard, and unusual, too, in that the program was largely, but not entirely, devoted to the music of Bach. When Bach specialists come calling here, they tend to do all Bach. Here, the mix also included music by Chopin and Szymanowski, so this program represented a bit of a departure from the norm in that regard, too. Anderszewski has built a big reputation already, and his performances and recordings of Bach, on what a wag once called “real” pianos, have garnered special praise, but his repertoire is large, and it was refreshing to hear not only three mazurkas from the same set but also the much less rarely performed Metopes by Szymanowski, composed in 1915 when that master was in the thrall of Debussy and French impressionism.

The concert began with a pair of preludes and fugues – the programmed set, in A, S.888, and a last-minute, unannounced addition, the Prelude and Fugue in a minor, S.889; these are Nos. 19 and 20 of Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Since the Landowska era and particularly during the HIP (historically informed performance) decades, selections from the so-called “Mighty 48” have appeared with dwindling frequency on mainstream piano recitals. That’s why Andras Schiff’s recordings were greeted with such curiosity, mixed of course with praise, when they came out in the late ’80s, and why Murray Perahia seems, to some, a bit of a throwback. But these artists and Anderszewski, too, make convincing arguments for playing Bach on big pianos, and all have given readings that are, in a word, revelatory. In Page, despite the quite noticeable and often distracting noises that emanated from the HVAC blowers (is a bearing on one of the fans on the verge of going out?), Anderszewski’s playing was consistently refined, subtle, elegant, and, when all was said and done, captivating. In a way equaled by few artists on the circuit, he drew his audience into his sound world, commanding undivided attention from his listeners and rewarding them with playing of exceptional clarity and precision. The results, devoid of flashy showmanship, delivered the music in ways both fresh and inspiring.

This continued in Bach’s Sixth English Suite, S.811, one of the largest and most absorbing of the set. The Prelude, the longest single section of any of the so-called “English” Suites, is huge, and in the hands of lesser players it can easily become disjointed. Again, Anderszewski’s pacing, technique, and interpretive skills allowed the music itself to come to the fore, and the pianist became merely the deliverer of the art. This was art with a capital A – he was selfless and spellbinding at once.

The second half began with the three mazurkas of Chopin’s Op. 59, surprisingly subtle pieces in A minor, A-Flat and F-sharp minor that formed an arc of sorts, starting from virtual silence and ending with enough bravado to demonstrate the visitor’s certain ability to deliver virtuosity when the scores demand it. There was a similar dynamic progression in the three little tone poems that constitute Szymanowski’s Metopes , Op. 29. Like Masques (Op. 34), these wonderful pieces, known mostly to inquisitive pianists and a handful of specialist record collectors, could fool even our most seasoned concertgoers into thinking they are by Debussy himself. They’re that good, and hearing them here was a special treat.

The concert ended as it began, with Bach. The First Partita, in B-flat, S.825, glowed from within, its structure, forms and content expertly revealed. Anderszewski was recalled several times, but he and most members of the audience knew that the program had been more than sufficient on its own, so there were no encores.

This concert was in every respect right up Duke’s and this venerable series’ alley, especially recalling that the very first concert in this long-running series was given by Ignacy Jan Paderewski! And as happens from time to time, this was no warm-up gig leading up to New York, either – Anderszewski had played this program, apparently minus the A Major Prelude and Fugue, just days earlier, in Alice Tully Hall. The afterglow persists here, as it must there, too.