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No doubt about it: Duke Performances hosts the best series of visiting recitalists in this neck of the Central NC woods - bar none. Better still, it's mostly pianists - solo pianists. And they present enough solo pianists often enough that the audiences can begin to develop real relationships with the players, hearing them in sometimes unusual repertoire and experiencing sometimes some truly unexpected artistic insights. DP's decision to host these recitalists in Reynolds Industries Theater is a plus as well, inasmuch as the venue offers fine sightlines and acoustics that are in all respects superior to Page Auditorium. (It remains to be seen how much things will improve when, next year, the series shifts to Baldwin, on the East Campus.) And last but hardly least, while patrons must still pay to park on Duke's West Campus (even, someone said, for free programs in the Chapel…), only the most curmudgeonly among us would complain about the very short walk from the deck, where there's ample space, even on double-header nights.
The return of Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski (who debuted at Duke almost nine years ago) turned out to be one of the happiest musical occasions of the season, thus far. Yes, it was part of a double-header on West Campus, with the University's annual run of Messiah kicking off at the same time in the Chapel, up the hill. But Anderszewski drew a big crowd of his own, and for good reasons. Music by Bach - the artist's specialty, if one may say that of a player who seems capable of performing anything and everything with comparable brilliance - and Robert Schumann - delivered with insights and understanding that seemed to belie Anderszewski's comparative youth (he was born in 1969) - were here enriched by a great rarity, part of Janáček's magnificent set of character-pieces known as On an Overgrown Path.
He began with Bach, drawing us into a wonderful and wonderfully refined sound world with the well-known Italian Concerto, in F, S.971 (or, as Bach put it, Concerto in the Italian Style), followed by the Suite No. 6 in D Minor, S.811 (which one might as well say is in the English style, more or less). Anderszewski sat on a conventional straight chair for these, but there was nothing conventional about the renditions. Sections of these works dazzled, to be sure, but the pianist's poetry and sensitivity are always evident, so rarely has the three-movement opening work seemed so right, so correct, in its integration as a unified composition. The spirit of the first movement seemed to hover over the truly radiant Andante, and the precision, pacing, and many subtleties of that then flowed into the brisk finale, here suffused with light. It was enough to make an old guy want to jump up and cheer! And there was more of this sort of keen understanding in the sixth English Suite, too - those long, sinuous lines in the introduction have rarely seemed as magical as on this occasion, and they were the perfect set-ups for the breathtaking dexterity shown in the rest of the prelude. Those dances, too - the Allemande, the Courante, that sublime Sarabande, the two Gavottes and that rip-snorting Gigue, with its crowning fugue - were here not a series of separate and distinct movements but instead parts of a single composition with a finite start and finish and a logical arc of intellectual purpose in between.
Part two saw the visitor revert to a conventional piano bench, a good thing, in retrospect, for he was physically far more animated in the Janáček and the Schumann. First up were the five numbers from Book II of The Overgrown Path, a set we'd be pleased to hear more of, more often. (Part I is ten numbers, all bearing descriptive titles; Part II's five short numbers have Italian tempo indications. The program erroneously listed "Paralipomena" as the third of six parts, throwing off listeners who were trying to keep track as the music unfolded; the word means "things [originally] passed over, included as a supplement" - a reference to the collection of solo piano pieces.)
If these numbers sound like a cross between Scriabin and the French Impressionists, that will work. They are atmospheric mood pieces with some spiky psychological twists - hardly unexpected by those who know this master composer's stage works, in particular. It would not surprise one in the least to learn that some of these began as sketches for parts of the operas. Anderszewski gave them his all, and only the little glitch in the program seemed to make the audience hesitate just a bit at the end.
Last but hardly least there was Schumann's big Fantasy in C, Op. 17, a fairly last-minute substitution for the previously announced Intermezzi, Op. 4. (No grousing issued from anyone in the crowd.) The Fantasy is virtually a sonata, as Susan Halpern's excellent notes reminded us, but with a twist, in that its last movement is slow and comparatively restrained. "Comparatively" is the operative word, particularly in Schumann of this period. It's a very famous work, despite the almost-inconceivable fact that it went unpublished for nearly a score of years after the composer's death. Perhaps Clara thought it too personal to share? In any event, this was an important performance of a major work, and once again the visiting artist demonstrated his exceptional skills and abilities at both technical and interpretive levels.
The encore brought us full circle, to near where we'd come in. Duke pianist Randall Love takes the evening's prize for pinpointing what some of us thought was one of the little pieces from the Anna Magdalena Book; in fact, it was the Sarabande from Bach's fifth French Suite, S.816 - as serene and lovely as any slow passage played at this recital.
He's on YouTube, of course. Click here for a performance of the Sarabande from the English Suite No. 6.
Finally, if you consider this man a comet, then his trajectory may interest you. From Duke he goes to Baltimore on 12/2 and then to Carnegie Hall (as in Stern Auditorium, not one of the lesser recital venues there) on 12/6. Catch him if, when, and where you can!