Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations tax a pianist enough, but when a pianist has to overcome an audience coughing and cell phones going off, you can't help but marvel. Piotr Anderszewski did all this and more in his Carnegie Hall recital Saturday night, when not one, not two, but up to three people could be heard coughing at the same time during the slow and stately fourteenth variation, marked Grave e maestoso. Compound that feat with maintaining concentration of a cell phone or pager beeping for almost a complete minute in the final variation and you're left with nothing short of a triumph of focus.
Anderszewski is known for two things, mostly: Exiting the stage of the 1990 Leeds Competition when his performance of Weberns Variations, Op. 27, wasn't going his way, and his stunning 2001 recording of the "Diabelli" Variations. (That was also turned into a film by Glenn Gould devotee Bruno Monsangeion.) Make that three things: championing the music of Karol Szymanowski.
He brought Szymanowski's ruminative three Metopes to Carnegie, establishing each in its own watery world. Isle of the Sirens sang with great longing; Calypso tinkled and lingered; and Nausicaa conjured the shades of Debussy and Ravel. Anderszewski seemed to be arguing for the work's place between little Beethoven and big Beethoven, coming after the Op. 126 Six Bagatelles and before the "Diabelli," and he made his point.
Anderszewski emerged immediately as a Beethovenian of uncommon power and control in the Bagatelles, beginning before the audience was entirely seated. The B minor bagatelle was especially formidable in its clattering propulsiveness.
But it was the "Diabelli" that compelled the most attention. A few supremely pensive variations pushed Anderszewski's performance up to an hour. He knows the insolent humor of the work well, and if the audience didn't catch it, well, it's just another example of Beethoven's humor escaping modern audiences. Alfred Brendel can write on it and discuss it as much as he likes, but I'm not sure the idea will ever take hold.
Anderszewski reprised the first three bagatelles as his final encore. He preceded them with an effortlessly simple and direct reading of the Sarabande from the First Partita in B flat, which rounded off the "Diabelli" exquisitely. That he returned to Beethoven only made it sweeter.
So, while I'm thinking of it, what do Beethoven, Anderszewski, Olga Neuwirth, and Brian Blade have in common? On the surface, very little, but having heard each of them on record (Anderszewski's "Diabelli", Neuwirth's Lost Highway, and Brian Blade), it can't help but be noticed that only an imprecise copy of the performance is captured. Holding your breath while Anderszewski pauses between variations, getting creeped out by Neuwirth's opera, and seeing and hearing Blade's uninhibited joy cannot be absorbed through headphones. To get the whole experience, you have to go to the source, the live experience. I return to the live experience in Chicago on Sunday, and bid you adieu until then.