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On 'Fantasies,' Mozart and Schumann Shimmer In The Shadows

Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski's new album, <em>Fantasies</em>, features music by Mozart and Schumann.
Warner Classics
Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski's new album, Fantasies, features music by Mozart and Schumann.

Piotr Anderszewski might be one of the most revered pianists of his generation, but he's also one of the most impulsive.

In 1990, at age 21, the young Pole entered the prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition. He was nearly finished with his semi-final performance when he quit playing — just walked off the stage. He felt he wasn't good enough to continue. It was a gutsy move that actually helped launch his career.

These days, Anderszewski is still taking chances — taking time off to direct a wistful documentary about his hometown of Warsaw (watch an excerpt below), and releasing Fantasies, a new album filled with arresting music, beginning with Mozart.

In Anderszewski's searching performance, Mozart's Fantasy in C minor slides from shadowy, agitated moods to delicate, bittersweet spaces of diffused light.

Mozart, Anderszewski says, seemed to have the entire piece in his head, and then effortlessly wrote it down without a hitch. It didn't work quite that way for Robert Schumann, the other composer on this album. Anderszewski is drawn to both composers because they seemed to have a short, direct line from brainstorm to finished masterpiece.

Schumann could write as quickly as Mozart, but from a more vulnerable heart. In his Fantasie, Op. 17, Anderszewski isn't afraid to let the music struggle, laying Schumann's heart right out on the sleeve in huffing, puffing, syncopated beats.

The pianist closes the album with music from the other side of Schumann's career — at the very end, when the composer's mind had started to crumble. Hardly anyone plays Schumann's Ghost Variations, but Anderszewski's detail to light and color makes a strong case for this undervalued music. The tender, gently swaying theme came to Schumann in the middle of the night.

Five variations on that theme follow, including an agitated one where Anderszewski lets the tune smolder in the bass while sparks fly above. It closes with a kind of musical enigma as the theme gets swept up in a whirlwind of notes.

I guess we're lucky Anderszewski makes albums at all. He's prone to sabbaticals, and he's fussy. He doesn't like to perform with orchestras, doesn't like solo recitals. And he complains about recording studios. Maybe it's tongue-in-cheek — and I certainly hope so — but he's even said that the ultimate temptation is to lie down and wait for the beat of his heart to stop.

Meanwhile, we'll look for more from this gifted, restless artist, who's willing to rethink just about everything.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.