Ever since Piotr Anderszewski took himself out of the running for the 1990 Leeds Piano Competition, walking out during his semi-final recital when he was one of the favourites to take the first prize, his name has been inextricably linked with the Diabelli Variations. By no means regular competition repertoire, the Beethoven had been the main work in Anderszewski’s Leeds programme (alongside Webern’s Op 27 Variations), and a decade later, his recording of it was widely hailed as the finest to appear in many years. That interpretation has clearly lost none of its freshness and vivid commitment over the subsequent decade and a half. As the second part of Anderszewski’s Barbican recital it was an astonishing performance, perhaps the most completely convincing reading of the Diabelli I’ve ever heard in the concert hall.
Some readings, even from indisputably great pianists, can’t entirely avoid squareness in a work that, for all its moments of the transcendence that only late Beethoven can access, sometimes seems to fall back on the mechanics of variation form. But there was no trace of that, or of routine of any kind, in a single bar here. Every one of the 33 variations seemed freshly imagined, with their dizzying contrasts of wit and pathos, explosive energy and communing stillness; it made for a totally enthralling musical journey in which not a single step was misplaced.
The only possible encore after that was more late Beethoven, and Anderszewski duly obliged with the first of the Op 126 Bagatelles. The first half of his recital had been devoted to Bach, with three preludes and fugues from the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by the third of the English Suites, in G minor. That was equally extraordinary in its own way, with a Glenn Gould-like clarity to the textures and rhythmic articulation, informed by a freewheeling imagination that was never wilful. Anderszewski certainly brought his own ideas to the music, but whether in the stream of melodic invention that courses through the C major Prelude, the quiet intensity with which he invested the opening of D sharp minor Fugue, or the spiky, Scarlatti-like exuberance of the pair of gavottes in the suite, they never seemed anything other than quintessential Bach.