Any new release from the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski is cause for celebration, and this new disc of Bartók, Janáček, and Szymanowski is no different. Here, he combines pieces from Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path, Szymanowski’s 20 Mazurkas Op. 50, and Bartók’s 14 Bagatelles Op. 6. 

The connective tissue is that each of these pieces works with folk music (of Moravia, Poland, and Hungary, respectively), although these are sometimes simply inspired-by rather than direct quotations. This music is sometimes angular and intellectual, sometimes playful and unassuming, and sometimes all of those things within a few bars, so it certainly takes a pianist of Anderszewski’s skill to meld those elements into one cohesive whole.

Of this release he says that “The works on this album are imbued with a sense of rebellion … there is no place here for stylisation or decorum. These works plumb the very roots of music”. A previous release of Anderszewski’s had him describe the music of Mozart and Schumann has having “an unobstructed directness to their music, in which the purity of intention remains intact”; I wonder, though, if we should see the lack of “stylisation and decorum” in these works as very much like the directness of Mozart or Schumann – a similar result, if perhaps done by looking in the opposite direction.

The disc opens with Book 2 of Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path, and within moments Anderszewski’s performance was conjuring delicate imagery. Given that this overgrown path is by these days a pretty well-beaten track, it’s incredible how passages that seem to slip by most other pianists were shaped with the utmost care; the opening Andante is slower than most, for instance, but that simply gives Anderszewski more room. Likewise, the following Allegretto grows little by little as each phrase progresses, but always with the sense of having all the time in the world.

Szymanowski’s 20 Mazurkas Op. 50 are gorgeous works, flitting between pianistic styles at the drop of a hat. Anderszewski plays a selection of works from the first ten, which does make for some surprises – some of Szymanowski’s polytonal-ish harmonies make the ear work, but then again No. 8 is a densely harmonized but surprisingly hummable little piece. This is familiar territory for Anderszewski (he recorded a full Szymanowski recital in the 2000s), but these snapshots are nonetheless a superb way for him to demonstrate his extraordinarily clear touch at all times.

Finally, Bartók’s 14 Bagatelles Op. 6 close the disc. Like the Szymanowski, these are incredibly varied works that demand the pianist be as equally comfortable with thick clusters of chromatic chords as with spiky melodic lines that always seem to twist just where you don’t expect. I’ve always found that Bartók’s piano music can easily tip over into outright ugliness if not balanced just right, but Anderszewski gives us plenty of light and shade – harsh chords juxtaposed with an amusingly wry little tune, for instance.

A superb release that feels like a new benchmark for these works.

Listen on Apple Music

Title: Bartók, Janáček, Szymanowski
Works: On an Overgrown Path, Mazurkas, Bagatelles
Performer: Piotr Anderszewski p
Label: Warner Classics 5419789127

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