My weekend has been piano recital-heavy, not that I would have wanted it any other way. On Saturday I saw Piotr Anderszewski at Peterhouse in Cambridge, and last night I saw Yuja Wang at the Barbican. You can currently listen to the latter recital here. Two very different recitals, but I came away from each one thinking about the same thing: the encores.
Anderszewski gave two, both by Schumann — ‘Einsame Blumen’ from Waldszenen and the Novelette, op. 21 no. 8. Wang gave five (five!) — a transcription of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, elephantine and spangly by turns, Prokofiev’s op. 11 Toccata, Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor, op. 64 no. 2, the Bizet-Horowitz Carmen Variations, and finally ‘Tea for Two’, after Art Tatum. Tatum is one of those pianists it is foolhardy to try and imitate, but it was a performance of winning insouciance.
What is an encore? It’s a treat for the audience, but it’s more than that. It’s a reflection on the music that has gone before. Anderszewski’s encores, though fun, proceeded naturally from a serious programme of Bach, Beethoven and Janáček. Wang’s encores were more of a mongrel selection, a mixture of the sweet and the fiendish, as I suspect she is herself.
Recognition can be an important part of the effect of an encore. I remember a Queen Elizabeth Hall recital by Marc-André Hamelin seven years ago in which the encore, his own left-hand study after Tchaikovsky, was the most affecting piece for being unfamiliar, unlike the well known Schubert and Beethoven sonatas that formed his programme. By and large, though, the audience wants to hear something it knows. With Yuja Wang’s Rachmaninov, I could tell from the first triad what was to come, and smiled. When she got to the Prokofiev, I felt something else — a thrill, both because it’s such an exciting piece, and because I knew what it was in spite of its relative obscurity. I won’t pretend I don’t like my knowledge of music to be flattered. It’s shallow, I know. Sadly nobody asked me afterwards if I knew what it was. I did look around, I promise, but they just weren’t biting.
The encore that really blew me away was Anderszewski’s ‘Einsame Blumen’. It was just so unexpected, so perfect, in that moment. It’s a piece I play, but hadn’t for years. I almost shuddered as he played the first notes. It had a physical effect. But this reaction is particular to me. If I’d been a boy who had been practising the piece for the last month, I might reasonably have felt a little different.
Now, as usual, to the diaries of Alan Bennett.
26 August, 1999.
Switch on the radio after supper and catch most of Elgar’s First Symphony, music which invariably transports me back to boyhood and walking up Headingley Lane on a summer evening after a concert in Leeds Town Hall. The evocative power of music is, I suppose, greatest when heard in live performance. This is a recording but it still casts a spell because I have come on it by accident. Had I put on the recording myself the spell would have been nowhere near as powerful because self-induced. Why this should be I can’t think, though doubtless Proust would know.
Given how music can have such a strong effect on us when we don’t expect it, why not have mystery recitals? Pianists of the calibre of Anderszewski and Wang at any rate could make a go of it, given that people would queue up to hear them play Chopsticks. Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales were famously given their premiere at a society concert in which all the music was unidentified. Although it seems quintessentially Ravellian to the modern listener, the audience then were by no means unanimous in their guesses as to the identity of the composer. The names suggested included Satie, Koechlin, d’Indy and Kodály.
Piotr Anderszewski’s recital was not entirely unlike that one, in that the programme originally advertised consisted of Schumann, Bartók, Szymanowski and Schubert. Most of the audience, I suspect, turned up expecting, hoping even, to hear that music. Was it a crushing blow to find that the entire programme had been changed? No, and to some it may have been a joy to find they had to approach the concert afresh.
The only encore I didn’t recognise was Anderszewski’s second, the lengthy Schumann Novelette. A frustration? No, a challenge! I determined the composer, then tried to work out the piece. A set of character pieces I didn’t know, perhaps? Spotify did the rest in about five minutes. A triumph for the internet.