The forces of Nature made the evening of Saturday 9 June 2018 particularly memorable. From my lofty seat in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, lightning flashed across the copper-clad roof diffusing for a brief moment a sacred glow over the tall supporting Neo-classical ‘palm-tree Corinthian’ columns. Deep-throated thunder shook the church to its foundations. Theatrical enough in effect one might think in an empty church but the pews were full to capacity and the space filled, at first with the harmonies of Timor et Tremor by Giovanni Gabrieli,then with the uplifting spirituality of the Bach Cantata BWV 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort I (O eternity, O word of thunder I) for the First Sunday after Trinity. The almost operatic conjunction of the wild storm outside and the supplicant mood within the church would surely have satisfied the 17th century German poet and dramatist Johann von Rist who wrote much of the frightening text:
O eternity, O word of thunder…
As long as a God dwells in heaven
And moves above all the clouds,
Such torments shall never cease:
Men shall be plagued by heat and cold,
Fear, hunger, terror, fire and lightning,
Which shall, though, not devour them.
For this torment shall only end,
When God is no longer eternal.
Added to this scene, reminiscent in atmosphere of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, was the brilliance of the performers of the cantata, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists under Sir John Eliot Gardiner. It was a magnificent performance, replete with energy, nuance and ardent spiritual weight.
At the beginning of this concert, a pastor had read aloud from the Gospel of John: ‘Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”‘ This was followed by the anguished cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, Wailing, Fretting, Fearing) BWV 12.
The plea for steadfastness in the face of life’s afflictions was most movingly portrayed by this magnificent choir and soloists. One cannot help but be drawn to reflections on negative personal experiences and the healing effect Bach’s music has on one when in distress. They were supported seamlessly by the virtuoso orchestra under a ‘Gardiner’ who understood deeply in his personal life the planting of trees and the tending and bringing into glorious bloom any treasured plants given to his care.
Then two sung motets were sung before the Whitsun cantata BWV 103 Ihr Werdet Weinen und Heulen (You Shall Weep and Lament). The inclusion of motets, sung at the time by choristers of the Thomaskirche, is a practice I only recently learned was common in the liturgical performance of Bach’s Cantatas in Leipzig. They were mainly taken from the Floregium Portense (1618). This was a superb rendition of the cantata, impossible to fault, especially in such an original venue so intimately associated with Bach. The Nikolaikirche was frequented by the more affluent citizens of this great trading capital, unlike the more famous Thomaskirche for the more ‘ordinary citizen’.
Whilst the storm began to break over us, another pastor again read aloud from the pulpit of the ‘Coming of the Holy Spirit’ from the Acts of the Apostles. The reading was theatrically driven from the heavens exactly on cue as if by divine intervention.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
Then followed a festive and brilliant performance of the cantata O Ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung Der Liebe (O Eternal Fire, O Source of Love)BWV 34. Opening trumpets, timpani and chorus absolutely triumphant and splendid. Finally as described above the operatic O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort complete with astonishing deus ex machina stage effects courtesy of Mother Nature – rain, wind, thunder and lightning.
* * * * * *
The ‘iron curtain’ that divided Europe after World War II was not only a political and militarized division. In addition the barrier was cultural and deeply personal. I had always wanted to visit those Central-Eastern European cities so deeply associated with the flowering and establishment of the Western literature and the musical canon, cities so ruthlessly isolated until 1989. Leipzig, Weimar, Dresden, Halle, Zwickau. The major composers associated with them – J.S. Bach, W.F. Bach, Handel, Wagner (born in Leipzig), Mendelssohn, Mahler, Zelenka, Quantz, Weber, Liszt, Chopin, Robert and Clara Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss and Grieg.
So now I was finally in the Leipzig of my imagination, a vibrant and ancient trade and cultural city populated predominantly by the young. This gives the air an affecting contemporary vitality and vibrancy. The city has undergone a spectacular rebirth since the grey communist days when it played such an important peaceful role in the collapse of the GDR. Construction, reconstruction and restoration are everywhere to be seen. The Gewandhaus is one of the greatest concert halls in Europe with an orchestra of intensely committed musicians.
Leipzig on this occasion did not attract me as a general ‘tourist’ but rather to draw into my heart the healing spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach. The story of the Leipziger Kantanten-Ring was an extraordinarily bold conception that was presented from 8-10 June 2018. Cycles determine our lives on many existential levels. The title of the 2018 Bach festival was in fact Cycles. After discussion concerning the Cantata Days, already a customary part of the Bach Festivals in Leipzig, Sir John Eliot Gardiner commented ‘We have to perform Bach’s 30 best cantatas one after the other in a short period of time. The pieces are so incredibly good, they’re in no way inferior to the Passions.’
One might reasonably ask how does one choose 33 among nearly 200 masterpieces to perform in 18 hours of music over one weekend alternately in the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche? A sense of inevitability then that the marathon cycle would be named Kantanten-Ring after that operatic tetralogy composed by another great Leipzig composer Richard Wagner.
The cantatas were grouped according to their place in the church year. Corresponding Gospel or Epistle texts were read before each cantata and the motets from the anthology mentioned above were performed. This ancient musical practice was revived in the Ring and I felt added a powerful and religiously moving immanence to every performance in these historic churches. The attempt to restore a detailed religious context to the performances was a creative idea that was profoundly moving to this ‘lapsed Catholic’.
Invitations were extended to the finest Bach interpreters of our time: Sir John Eliot Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists; Ton Koopman with his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir; Masaaki Susuki with his Bach Collegium Japan and the Gaechinger Cantorey under their conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann all accepted the invitation. I did not attend all the cantatas but a representative selection.
I am not a religious person by any means, yet felt compelled to write in the detail I have below as this cycle of cantatas In Leipzig became such a transformative musical and personal revelation.
Friday 8 June 2018 17.00 Thomaskirche
The opening concert at 5.00pm on June 8 in the Thomaskirche explored works that led to Bach. However it began with a tempestuous opening of the familiar Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 superlatively played by the organist of the Thomaskirche, Ullrich Boehme. The organ is indeed impressive but not the original instrument which was destroyed by wartime bombs. I have always been inspired by the organ music of Bach as so many of us. I remember watching a film of the dancing feet of the neglected musical brilliance of Karl Richter on the organ pedals wearing patent leather pumps. An extraordinary and unique artistic sight in fugal passages.
Two motet cycles followed by two precursors of Bach, the former Cantor of the Thomaskirche, Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630), a master of the stylo madrigalesco, who introduced many modern spacial developments in musical performance from Venice.
Also we heard motets by Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672), ‘the father of German music’ who studied under Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice. Artfully performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra and the eloquent choir of the Thomaskirche of such ancient tradition. The festive Gloria of the Mass in F major BWV 233 by Bach was particularly successful with this orchestra and choir and a joyful contribution to the Cantata cycle.
The acoustic of the Thomaskirche is of honeyed, lightly reverberant sweetness when the church has a full congregation as on this occasion. I anticipated the coming cycle with some excitement. The concert concluded with a superb, rarely performed chorale cantata composed by the 21 year old Felix Mendelssohn – Verleih uns Frieden gnadiglich, MWV A 11based on Luther’s hymn – only two years after his revival of the St. Matthew Passion.
The Leipzig city authorities are aware of the responsibility to make the Bach Festival as available to everyone as possible and not an expensive elitist musical indulgence. The tickets are rather expensive for many young people and students so there was a free open-air concert in the evening of religious works by Bach and Bernstein (to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth), then later jazz improvisations on Bach by renowned groups. Sausages, beer and good cheer – all very much a baroque ‘techno town’ celebration.
Saturday 9 June 2018 Day Excursion Leipzig City
On the morning of June 9th, I decided to some exploring of the city before the concert described above in the evening. The Museum der bildenden Künste (Museum of Fine Arts) is an important European art museum situated in Leipzig. In the face of music one tends to overlook the richness of Leipzig in art, book production and literature. The museum covers artworks from the Late Middle Ages to modernity. I also decided to take part in a guided walking tour of the city. The museum possessed an extraordinarily eclectic collection of art works which I found faintly disturbing, imbued as I was with the positive faith and sense of direction cemented into the inherited tradition that Bach adopted and exemplifies.
The walking tour was most diverting, highlighting many of the pivotal aspects of Leipzig through the ages – a vital European trading hub, seminal book and publishing centre, city of music and great composers and finally a centre of peaceful revolution against the GDR. Just outside the city one can find an extraordinary memorial and large museum to the Battle of Nations in 1813 when Napoleon was roundly defeated by a coalition army of Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden.
Many of the Baroque bourgeois town houses have been exquisitely renovated. The shopping arcades are impressive, alluring to any hedonist. The Maedler Passage arcade, built between 1912 and 1914, is of outstanding historic-architectural importance. Arcades were built to display samples of products – a revolutionary idea in retailing at the time. A rare survival as an architectural feature is the imposing inner courtyard of the Hansa House. Leipzig’s architectural uniqueness lies in the fact that the city possesses such a rich collection of Wilhelminian-style architecture, buildings dating from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Before the magnificent cantata with Sir John Eliot Gardiner described at the beginning of this account, I was taken on a guided tour of the Bach Museum by the Curator. The Bose House in St. Thomas Square used to be the home of friends of Bach who were wealthy merchants. There are twelve thematically designed rooms devoted to interactive exhibitions. Many precious items are on display and many original manuscripts which are deeply interesting. One can even ‘compose’ works using a remarkably imaginative method of adding and subtracting instruments from let’s say a Brandenburg Concerto. Of course one could spend years in the Bach Archive researching arcane Bachian matters. One feels an emanation here as Bach spent 27 years (1723-1750) living here, where he taught the boys of the St. Thomas choir and composed the St. Matthew Passion in addition to the B minor Mass.
I was hugely impressed by the Thuringian-Saxon Bach family tree initially compiled by Johann Sebastian himself. One wonders at the immense influence this single enormous family of 80 composers, musicians even visual artists must have had on European music and its development. The Bach Archive are working hard on tracing every document associated with each member of the family in a vast database called Bach Digital.
The final part of our tour was dinner at the famous restaurant the Auerbachs Keller. This was quite a thrilling experience for a man born in Australia on the other side of the planet who has always had such a deep love of German literature. This renowned place is the second oldest restaurant in Leipzig. It was a famous wine bar even in the 16th century but its reputation lies with the role it pays in Goethe’s play Faust. The young student Goethe often visited Auerbach’s Cellar while studying at Leipzig University from 1765 to 1768.
There he saw two paintings on wood dating from 1625. One represented the notorious magician and astrologer Johann Georg Faust carousing with students, and the other depicting Mephistopheles riding out the door astride a wine barrel – obviously in collusion with the Devil. In the playMephistopheles takes Faust to the Cellar at the beginning of his travels and introduces him to various visions and magic. After befriending some ‘jolly fellows’ Mephistopheles asks them what wine they like best.
Good, if I have my choice, the Rhenish I propose;
For still the fairest gifts the fatherland bestows.
They also answer ‘Champagne’ and ‘Tokay’ ! He drills holes in their table, fills the holes with wax stoppers and encourages them to drink their choice. Astounded by the flow of wine, they do so, even ending up transported to a beautiful landscape. Faust is not terribly impressed and asks to leave. The ‘jolly fellows’ soon realize it was a magic trick after they see Mephistopheles and Faust ride out of the Cellar astride a wine barrel. Before the John Eliot Gardiner cantata concert we had rustic classic Saxon cuisine and dark beer in one of the Auerbach restaurants dating from 1912 known as the Grosse Keller.
Sunday 10 June 2018 11.30 Thomaskirche
The first cantata concert on 10 June was at 11.30 at the Thomaskirche given by Bach Collegium Japan under their conductor Masaaki Suzuki. We began with a reading from the New Testament Luke 16, 19-31 The Rich Man and Lazarus.
Then the cantata Die Elenden sollen essen, (‘The poor shall eat’) BWV 75. This was Bach’s first official cantata in Leipzig after taking up his post and performed first on 30 May, 1723. There are fourteen movements that deal with poverty in opposition to wealth. The first part of the work is predominantly in the style of the fashionable French dance suite, dealing with the spiritual Christian moral dilemma of wealth confronted by poverty. The second part deals even more spiritually with the same opposition. For the first time I heard the perfect pitch, intonation and tuning of the Bach Collegium choir and soloists, a remarkable moment in this church. The orchestral ensemble was simply superb, extraordinarily refined and elegant.
The choir featured magnificently in the next cantata Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (‘Break your bread with the hungry’) BWV 39 (Isaiah 58:7-8) which opens with an immense choral section. An extraordinary variety of musical forms and pathetic moods – fugal, chromatic and lyrical – flow between instruments and voices. The pathos explodes into joy at the conclusion. The Bach Collegium were heavenly and breathtakingly beautiful in this cantata.
It seemed to me that there was such a contemporary relevance to this theme when one considers the current immigrant crisis in Europe, the plight of the homeless, the hungry sleeping rough and the displaced. The settings of such relevant poetry and scripture in the cycle had begun to affect me, morally guiding me to ask rather deeper questions about the conduct of my own life. Bach often has the dual influence of examination of conscience and healing after reflection.
The reading by the pastor before the next Cantata that of The Parable of the Great Banquet from the Gospel according to St. Luke 14, 15-24. Jesus spoke of a great man who had invited many eminent guests to his banquet but who at the last moment cancelled for selfish reasons. The man was furious and ordered his servant to go out into the roads, the lanes and slums and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame to the banquet.
The motet In Domino Deo Gaudebimus was performed as a type of spiritual prologue to the Bach cantata Ach Gott, Von Himmel Sieh Darein (Ah, God look down from heaven) BWV 2. It is based on Martin Luther’s Paraphrase of Psalm 12 (the Second Sunday after Trinity 1724). ‘Resist heresy and all the spirit-babble…’ The effect is rather austere and even written in an archaic motet style whilst the contrasting arias are in what was known as the ‘modern style’ – concertante writing with solo obbligato (violin) instrumentation.
The efforts of man to base his own salvation on his own sad attempts are considered pathetic and hopeless. With the familiar Lutheran fierceness of metaphor ‘…they are like the graves of the dead which, though fine from the outside, contain only rottenness and stench and display nothing but filth.’ Bach turns to allusions of alchemy (incidentally pursued by Augustus the Strong in Dresden resulting not in gold but porcelain) referencing silver purified by fire.
The Bach Collegium again gave us superb ensemble in both choir and orchestra with perfect intonation it seemed to me (although I only possess good relative pitch). The subtly inflected and contrasting emotional melodic lines were eloquently expressed. In emotional moods both piteous and sometimes splenetic, the opposition of Bach’s archaic and ‘modern’ styles was finely accomplished. I found the passionate restraint of this entire cantata ‘Ring’ concert most affecting.
Sunday 10 June 2018 17.00 Thomaskirche
This concert, given by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under their conductor Ton Koopman, was devoted to the quartet of cantatas for the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity. The pastor read from Gospel according to St. Luke, Chapter 7, 11-17. This deals with the miraculous raising to life by Jesus of the only son of the widow of the town of Nain.
The refinement of the ensemble underpinned by rhythmic strength of the Dutch band was clear throughout the performance. In the opening cantata BWV 161 Komm, du süsse Todesstunde (Come sweet hour of death) composed during Bach’s Weimar period in 1715, the Lutheran yearning for death is clear and the call of death becomes a thematic trope. The sweetness of the world’s delights is as loathsome as poison until death transfigures life to shine like the sun. The emotions of this desire were sensitively cultivated in a perfect baroque idiom by the orchestra and Ton Koopman. The extreme nature of these thoughts I found hard to absorb with any spiritual equanimity.
The Motet by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) Si bona suscepimus preceded the next Bach cantata BWV (1724) Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben (Dearest God, when shall I die?). This ensemble has an intimate understanding of the extraordinary orchestral soundscape of this cantata (two oboes d’amore over a muted staccato quaver accompaniment by the upper strings and pizzicato in the bass). Above this a flute hovers and flutters like a bird chirruping, quite out of its normal range of flight. In his notes in the excellent programme book, Sir John Eliot Gardiner refers to the ‘elegiac and iridescent tenderness’ of this first chorus.
Ton Koopman maintained a touching feeling of the questioning Christian on the ultimate question of mortality with his usual robust yet understated strength of harmonic direction. Klaus Mertens in the bass aria (No.4 Doch weichet…) sang with great strength and joy-filled rhythmic drive of the dance (so suited to the Amsterdam Orchestra and Koopman) maintaining an optimistic faith in the better life offered by Jesus.
The next cantata presented was BWV 27 (1726) We weiß, wie nahe mir ( Who knows how near is my end?). The lamentation and pulsating human heartbeat at the core of this moving opening with its interlocked chorale and recitatives by soprano, alto and tenor was desperately moving in the Thomaskirche whose acoustic seemed to concentrate the tragic utterances with deeply felt intensity. I was constantly reminded of both the St. Matthew and St. John Passions in the cries to the Lord. The bass aria ‘Good night, O turmoil of the world!’ was delivered with all the disturbed yearning of the Lutheran for heaven. The Amsterdam Orchestra and Choir expressed this aspiration for heavenly glory to perfection.
Another appropriate motet this time by Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591) Media vita in morte summus which was followed by the final cantata for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity by this orchestra, BWV 95 (1723) Christus, der ist mein Leben (Christ is my life).
From the outset so many wondrous instrumental and vocal moments in this cantata! The battling dialogues of the corno and oboes introducing Martin Luther’s paraphrase of the Nunc Dimittis are full of Reformation conviction. Can one also interpret this conflict as the final struggle between the spirit of life and death? The ‘jazzy’ trumpets, violins, pregnant silences and vitality of these instrumental and vocal choral passages were beautifully realized in Ton Koopman’s intense sprung rhythms and energetic conducting of this brilliant orchestra and choir.
I particularly liked the Aria Ach, schlager doch bald, selge Stunde (Ah, strike then soon, blessed hour) with the marvellous pizzicato on the strings which seems to imitate the clicking of a clock mechanism as the final hour approaches for a man.
One might conclude from the simplicity of these beautiful cantatas that Bach was responding musically to a recent death in his family, his three year old daughter Christiane Sophia just a few months before composing BWV 27.
Sunday 10 June 2018 20.00 Nikolaikirche
I was indeed fortunate to obtain a scarce ticket for the final group of cantatas performed in the Nikolaikirche by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
‘Bach has been like a friend to me. I grew up with his portrait hanging at the top of our staircase and have been dealing with this bewigged, rather frowning character ever since. He spent his life dealing with grief and was not the dry academic everybody thinks.’
Of the 200 Bach cantatas : ‘What I find fascinating about them is this constant variation on two planes at once: you hear them horizontally, as a haunting and beautiful melody, or as counterpoint or polyphony, all against the fundament of the basso continuo; and at the same time you hear them vertically, with all Bach’s rhythmical bounce, his upward aspiration.’
The pastor read from Revelations 12, 7-12
There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
This reading was followed Cantata BWV 19 (1726) Es erhub ein Streit (There arose a war). This St. Michael’s Day work is conceived in monumental grandeur for the brass and in the opening chorus replete with bravura gestures of enormous theatrical variety and drama. Truly an instrumental ‘war in heaven’. The battle between St. Michael and the ‘raging serpent, the infernal dragon’ then follows with more tumult.
Then at the other end of the expressive spectrum, as Sir John colourfully observes of the tenor aria No. 5 Bleibt, ihr Engel,bleiby bei mir! (Stay, ye angels, stay by me!), the tender plea ‘evoking the ever-watchful protection afforded by the guardian angels wheeling around in the stratosphere.’ The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists under Gardiner communicated an intense air of authority and almost operatic involvement at an immanent level in this work. They bring to Bach both power and majesty.
The pastor then read from the Gospel according to St. Luke 19, 41- 48 wherein Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.
This was followed a fine performance of a cantata by that predecessor of Bach, the musical genius, Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) Nim von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, (Take away from us, Lord, faithful God), BuxWV 78 with a plea to the Lord to preserve us from war, famine, epidemics, fire and the greatest harm.
The expressive power and sensitivity of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists was brought to full account in the Bach cantata BWV 101 (1724) Nim von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (Take away from us, Lord, faithful God). The text is based on a hymn by Martin Moller written during the time of the plague in 1584 and sung to the melody of Luther’s German version of the Lord’s Prayer (Gardiner). Here we have an inescapable musical statement of punishment as the wages of sin. The strokes of divine wrath are in the heavy blows of dissonance which Gardiner expressed without restraint. I found this personally rather unsettling.
There are some superb arias in this cantata. One is rather a furious and angry response to the punishment given to the bass No. 4 Warum willst du so zornig sein? (Why wouldst thou be so angry?). Peter Harvey was convincingly emotional in this protest. For me one of the most beautiful arias was the beautifully performed (if slightly theatrical) soprano and alto duet No. 6 Gedenk an Jesu bittern Tod! (Think on Jesus’s bitter death), a delicate imploring plea for compassion in the face of the distress of sin with a most eloquent and affecting presentation of the chorale tune alternating between the obbligato flute and oboe da caccia. We are reminded of Jesus’s compassion in the face of his own ‘bitter death’. For me the emotions of compassion, and the need to relieve suffering is of the highest importance. Bach in the cantatas, possibly because of the religious texts, forces one into moments of self-examination as we are almost always tempted to inaccurately judge actions or motivations.
The pastor then read from the Gospel according to St. Luke 17, 11-19 wherein Jesus cleanses ten lepers. Leprous sin must be cleansed…
This was followed by a great masterpiece among the cantatas, BWV 78 (1724) Jesu, der du meine Seele (Jesus, who has wrested my soul). The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists are surely unsurpassed in the irresistible power and majesty they bring to the great choral lament composed as a passacaglia that opens this work. The sheer virtuosity of this choir and orchestra and Gardiner’s ‘relentlessly demanding’ standards of performance can never be overlooked.
In addition this noble dance (dance obsesses Gardiner) speaks to us of tragedy and magnificence perhaps known to Bach through the profoundly tragic keyboard Passacaglia of Francois Couperin (1716), just possibly Purcell’s Dido’s Lament but not the Chaconne from Les Indes galantes (1735-6) by Rameau. To invest this solemn dance with religious significance was surely a uniquely expressive idea. Gardiner commented:
‘The way I approach Bach is ungermanic. I’m looking for the rhythmic zest. I believe passionately that you worship the gods in the Old Testament way, by dancing – and that of course comes from my upbringing. The aspiration [in Bach] comes from the voices, and above all the trumpets. Whenever Bach gets a trumpet out the heavens open for me.’
In the tenor’s recitative that follows we are movingly introduced to the nature of ‘leprous sin’ and the attendant regrets of the soul. A beautiful aria for tenor with tender flute obbligato then reminds us of grateful redemption through the shedding of Christ’s blood. The soloists of the Monteverdi Choir all have notable and superb voices with perfect intonation.
In perhaps an unusual indication in the recitative for Bass that follows we move from a meditation on the agony of the cross to redemption thorough His sacrifice. Reaching the words ‘When a terrible judge lays a curse upon the damned’ the bass is directed to sing con adore (with passion). I feel this indication more than justifies expressing full-blooded passion, emotion and temperament in Bach (just consider his extraordinarily rich musical and joyful yet tragic personal life). The modern view of Bach’s life is rather sanitized compared to the reality. Gardiner observes:
‘We yearn to know what kind of a person was capable of composing music so complex that it leaves us completely mystified, then … so irresistibly rhythmic that we want to get up and dance to it, and then … so full of poignant emotion that we are moved to the very core of our being.’
Certainly Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his musicians bring great passion, theatre and drama to all their performances of the Bach cantatas. On occasion, in our modern musicologically and structurally dominated times, the strictly ‘historically correct’ minimalist performance too often results in the etiolation of heated human emotion. He commented on his intention ‘to make the singing extrovert, extravagant, passionately delivered, not done in that prissy English way.’ The final aria perfectly balances bass voice against the oboe (almost like a concerto for the instrument) offering ‘hope to the unquiet conscience’ (Gardiner). This was a majestically presented performance of this masterwork of the Baroque.
The current neglect of the Munich Bach Orchestra under Karl Richter is a mystery to my generation whose intense love of Bach was forged in their powerfully creative crucible. They possessed such an alternative, full-blooded rounded view of ‘mighty Bach’ compared to the ‘authentic’ Urtext concerns of our time. After all, Bach in his cantatas was partly limited by the forces at his disposal.
In the final work the pastor prepared us by reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the Parable of the Ten Virgins.
The final work in the Leipzig Ring of Cantatas was perhaps the best known of all the Bach cantatas, BWV 140 (1731) Wachet auf, Ruft uns die stimme (Wake up, cries the watchman’s voice). The great Bach scholar William Whittaker (1876-1944) writes of this work that it exemplifies the ‘glorious ripeness of [Bach’s] maturity … it is a cantata without weakness, without a dull bar, technically, emotionally and spiritually of the highest order.’
The tremendous irresistible inertia of the forward-driving tempo Gardiner developed in the muscularly rhythmic and declamatory French Overture opening chorus was magnificent, bringing that unmistakable electricity streaking along the spine when one is confronted with the greatest in art. Heart-breaking tenderness and sensitive sensuality was brought to the duet Wenn kömmst du, mein Heil (When wilt thou come, my Salvation). In this eloquent siciliano on the violin, can one imagine the glimmering of the virgins’ lamps?
The mood of the opening returns in the familiar choral ‘Zion hört die Wächter singen’ followed by the joy of the duet with oboe obbligato between the the Soul and Jesus Mein Freundist mein. Here I was reminded of the sublimated religious ecstasy contained in the poetry of St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Avila. In such outpouring, of what one must admit speaks of the influence of operatic love, Bach weaves what I might call ‘intellectual emotions’ into his music.
In a gesture of the finest human inclusion, a gesture of warmest ecumenism, Sir John Eliot Gardiner turned to the audience and movingly conducted us all in singing the reprise of the last chorale of Wachet auf once more, as it would have happened in 1731. At the words Des sind wir froh, Io,Io! Ewig in dulcet jubilo (Therefore we are glad, Io,Io! Eternally in dulcet jubilo) the roof of the Nikolaikirche was almost lifted from its palm pillars, the garden of God. Such was the fervent response to both Bach and the inspired conducting and deep inclusive humanism of Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists.
The fulcrum of the liturgical year is the last Sunday of Trinity before Advent. The rousing final chorale Gloria sei dir gesungen (Glory now be sung to thee) brought to a fitting conclusion my extraordinary experience, home of the Leipziger Kantaten-Ring, a musical epiphany that will remain with me to the end of my days. Listening to these Bach cantatas in the original liturgical arrangement, in virtuoso performances musically so close to the original, embraced by the unique ambiance of the churches for which Bach originally composed them, was a musical and spiritual experience of a unique and unforgettable kind.
To view the profile of Michael Moran, the author of ‘From Reviewer’s Notepad’ click his name on the left
Incidentally at home in Warsaw he has an 1844 Pleyel pianino No: 11151 (the type Chopin composed on in Valldemossa) restored by David Winston of the Period Piano Company in Kent and a David Rubio copy (Duns Tew) of the 1745 Johannes Daniel Dulcken harpsichord in the Smithsonian Collection
He has a passionate interest in period instruments and the performance practices associated with them. He seriously studied both piano and harpsichord in London
For my Final Report, Highlights and Conclusions on this Competition
has won the First International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments.
1st prize (15 000 €) – Tomasz Ritter (Poland)
2nd prize ex aequo (10.000 €) – Naruhiko Kawaguchi (Japan), Aleksandra Świgut (Poland)
3rd prize (5 000 €) – Krzysztof Książek (Poland)
Honorable mentions: Dmitry Ablogin (Russia), Antoine de Grolée (France)
Special Prize for the best performance of Mazurkas, founded by the Polish Radio (3000 €) – Krzysztof Książek (Poland)
Prize for the First Prize Winner; founded by: “Siemaszko” company, based in Szczecin (10 000 PLN ) – Tomasz Ritter (Poland)
PKN Orlen prize for the pianist representing Poland most highly rated by Competition Jury (€5000) – Tomasz Ritter (Poland)
An exciting award ceremony full of youthful joy!
Those of you generous enough to read my commentary will be aware of my feelings concerning Tomasz Ritter and his fine musicianship from my hearing of his very first notes at the outset of his remarkable Stage I recital
The other places were fairly predictable except Dimitry Ablogin whom I feel is a significant artist with a remarkable ability to re-imagine and recreate familiar works by Chopin and deserved a higher award
How did the jurors rate the participants? I found many point awards by jurors completely inexplicable.Point totals on this link:http://iccpi.pl/en/news/id/138
Concerning the ‘Time Machines’ I must acknowledge the generosity and dedication of the Edwin Beunk (owner, restorer and competition tuner of the 1837 Erard and the 1842 Pleyel) and Paul McNulty builder of the extraordinary Buchholtz copy, a piano so beloved of Chopin in his youth
For Stanisław Leszczyńsky, the Artistic Director of the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute and the Director Artur Sklener, staging the Competition was the realization of a long held ambition
Congratulations to all those young people who have won prizes and also to those who fell by the wayside on this artistic journey forward
Photographs by Wojciech Grzedzinski/NIFC or Darek Golik/NIFC
I have always considered the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century the perfect ensemble for the Chopin piano concertos. I remember with great fondness the performances in the Chopin i jego Europa Festival under their sadly departed conductor Frans Brüggen (1934-2014). With this orchestra Chopin’s much maligned ‘limited orchestration’ disappears completely as a judgment and in fact it emerges as the superb complement to the soloist.
He began the Maestoso well but it soon became apparent that he had perhaps somewhat underestimated the dynamic range of the Pleyel for this large hall. The sound was not carrying sufficiently and became rather overwhelmed by even this rather small period instrument orchestra. Oddly and tellingly this was a similar observation made on Chopin’s own playing and the instrument he used (a Buchholtz) at the orchestral performance in Warsaw in March 1830. I feel that Ablogin was possibly the only competitor who genuinely attempted to play in the manner described by Chopin’s pupils in the ‘bible’ of Chopin performance: Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his Pupils by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger (Cambridge 1986). Hector Berlioz described Chopin’s playing as soft as ‘the playing of elves’, even requiring one to place one’s ear against the instrument to hear him!
The conductor Grzegorz Nowak seems not particularly sensitive to the volume of the orchestra in relation to the soloist. I felt he could have achieved a far better dynamic balance between the period piano and the orchestra’s rich period sound which would definitely have assisted Ablogin. Audiences still seem to prefer the ‘thunderers’ even today, but not this listener.
The Larghetto, on the other hand being rather more exposed for the soloist, revealed his superb, refined tone and touch on this Pleyel. The movement was expressively ardent, refined and romantic in character particularly the phrasing. He produced a moving, beautiful cantabile and the eloquent bassoon counterpoint only added to the heartfelt yearning of this movement. Beautiful and finest I would hear.
I found the Allegro vivace similarly refined with a graceful even radiant jeu perlé with most expressive dynamic variations and nuanced presentation. His style brillant had very affecting clarity of articulation. Here we had colour, charm and elegance. His ornamentation of the final phrases was appealing and the fioraturas had the texture of Venetian lace. His introduction of what one might call ‘echo effects’ into the Rondo was also delightful and relieved what can all too easily become (and does) a monochromatic virtuoso exercise.
It is a great shame the dynamic of this performance was rather subdued. I was seated quite close to the instrument so could actually hear what he was achieving although I suspect many could not.
He chose to play on the 1837 Erard which possibly gave him an advantage over the Pleyel dynamically and may have suited his keyboard style in a superior way. However I felt the Pleyel a finer instrument expressively for this early concerto.
The Maestoso was quite straightforward without a great deal of personal vision of the work. Certainly he performed it in a virtuoso style. The Larghetto was occasionally persuasive but not often enough for this romantic reviewer who considers it one of the greatest of love melodies. I thought he could have brought more panache and variety of dynamic, nuance and articulation to the Allegro vivace rondo. An admirable but not outstanding performance.
I have often felt at this concerto stage of the competition that young competitors would greatly benefit from a course at the Paderewski Piano Academy in Bydgoszcz where the skill of playing with orchestra is explored, studied and practiced by these young tyros of the instrument and possible Final Stage prizewinners.
Kawaguchi decided very much at the last moment not to perform this concerto on the McNulty Buchholtz but on the 1842 Pleyel. The first noticeable professional gesture was to shake hands with the conductor and the leader of the orchestra in order to set up an immediate rapport. This close connection continued throughout the performance.
In the Maestoso opening, the inspiring energy of youth was ever-present. The pianist also seemed emotionally committed to the performance. This movement was clearly well-planned, well molded and dynamically varied in an imaginative way anticipating what was to come. Very satisfying.
The Larghetto was on the other hand not a sufficiently smooth arc of unrequited romantic yearning. I was not moved sufficiently by his phrasing nor achieved a feeling of yearning for an inaccessible and distant love. I felt the intensity was rather too extreme for adolescent disillusioned love which is rather a slightly melancholic dream for the inaccessible – if I remember accurately!
The Allegro vivace showed great rhythmic invention and I felt came close to the original spirit of the style brillant. There was excellent forward impulsion and impetus here. Varied dynamics were always present and the final stages achieved a marvelous kujawiak dance. The first type is marked by Chopin semplice ma graziosamente. Later there is also a highly energetic and rustic tavern quality to the writing which Kawaguchi captured well. The con legno pizzicato on the strings of this fine orchestra added greatly to this rustic flavour.
Krzysztof Książek from the outset pursued a particularly close relationship with the conductor Grzegorz Nowak and the members of the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. This was reflected in his excellent entry with the orchestra on one of the Chopin Institute’s Erard pianos. The military role of the timpani in this E minor concerto always diverts me. One must remember that a military, uniformed presence was visible everywhere in Warsaw during the Russian hegemony. Unfortunately the loudness permitted by Mr. Nowak again became rather unfortunate.
Książek’s phrasing in the Allegro maestoso was particularly convincing with a great deal of emotional expression. I however felt some absence of finesse and elegance in his articulation despite the obvious virtuosity of his playing, particularly in repeated phrases which were rather similar. His use of rubato was rather sparing in this movement. The Romance. Larghetto possessed a particularly alluring cantabile and remained a beautifully poised movement. However I was still hoping of more intensity in the yearning for unrequited love but that may just be my own romantic temperament. Perhaps I was hoping for a more personal expressiveness. In the Rondo. Vivace Książek captured the required style brillante extremely well with a lovely counterpoint in the left hand. The orchestral ensemble in this movement was outstanding.
An excellent performance of the concerto and hopefully Książek will be able to invest it with more personal expression as he achieves more freedom outside the competition environment.
As you know I have greatly impressed by this pianist so far in this competition. I looked forward very much to his performance with orchestra. It certainly did not disappoint.
In the Maestoso first movement his expression swayed correctly between Classical detachment and Romantic enthusiasm. The main theme of the exposition in the rhythm of a mazur was well preserved and the development was a flurry of activity. The style brilliant came off spectacularly well on the 1842 Pleyel with Ritter. Hints of the Larghetto were subtly expressed in a touching cantabile.
The Larghetto itself avoided any sort of cloying sentimentality. Strength was supplanted or even augmented by poetry. So many levels of expression were present here, some bordering on the divine. His fiorituras were of breathtaking delicacy like cobwebs dew dusted. He performed pianissimos that are only really achievable on a Pleyel or just possibly another period instrument of quality. The explosions of emotion in the Chopin directions con forza and appassionato were utterly appropriate to the expressive doubts and slightly angry emotions of adolescent or young love so full of hopes and illusions. I was deeply moved by the sheer glowing sound he achieved on this glorious piano. The controlled pianissimo final note as the apotheosis of the structure and love song was possibly the most intense and moving musical moment of the entire competition.
The Allegro vivace revealed the orchestra in its true period splendor. Ritter made an expressive sound painting of this movement with perfectly graded crescendos and decrescendos mixed with the youthful joy of exercising virtuosity to its utmost. The exuberant dance of the kujawiak provenance was wonderful in its physical energy, exhilaration and high spirits. He gave us such a marvelous outpouring of the optimistic young Chopin – the dancer, pianist, actor, mimic, writer, practical joker and humorist – as well as composer of genius. The movement danced all the way to the final overflowing joyful chords of this, the expression of Chopin’s first love.
One reason I admire the playing of Aleksandra Świgut is its spontaneity. She often surprises me and makes unpredictable but creative interpretative gestures in her rather theatrical approach to the music. This concerto was no exception.
The Maestoso opening was distinguished for the woodwind section of this outstanding orchestra. She had chosen the 1837 Erard. She made sensitive use of the expressive potential of the movement which is considerable as it moves seamlessly between the Classical and the Romantic. When the mood of the music changes mercurially so does her own mood, sometimes rather dramatically and often theatrically. An almost Latin temperament seems to lie in waiting. On occasion she verges on somewhat sentimental phrasing and dynamic contrasts but this is often the dilemma Chopin offers us. Taste is often such a personal decision can you legislate concerning it? Up to a point of course you can but where is the line to be drawn in 2018, so far in time from the source of the music?
The love song of the Larghetto was sensitively approached with a lyric gift for the cantabile and clearly appreciating the seductive harmonies and dreamy Romantic nature of the movement. She has cultivated an attractive tone and touch on the earlier instrument. The emotional agitation that is embedded within the movement she approached with a strong response perhaps expressing Chopin’s frustration with the unrequited nature of his silent admiration of the soprano Konstancja Gładkowska.
The Allegro vivace has its first theme marked semplice ma graziosamente which she observed and then a sudden rush of temperament and slight accelerando which gave an urgency to the music. Some bucolic merry-making of the jolly tavern type but never crude, coupled with that lovely and inspirational col legno pizzicato-like sound on the strings. We danced along delightfully towards the notorious natural horn call (perfect on every occasion in the final) and the scintillating coda closing the work with a smile of pleasure.
Third day of the 2nd stage auditions of the International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. 10th September 2018, Warsaw, Poland on picture: Aleksandra Swigut photo by Wojciech Grzedzinski/NIFC
Do bear with me if I quote what I wrote in Stage I of this interesting and communicative pianist. I have followed her career for many years after I first heard her at the Duszniki Zdrój International Chopin Piano Festival in recital and at Master Classes there. I was interested in how she would approach these historical instruments. I wrote of her temperament in 2011 and it seems little has changed:
She was always a distinct personality that stood out and her choice of programme indicates she has very clear ideas of what she loves to play.The absolute joy and delight in playing that suffuses her features is quite affecting – the profound pain, sweat and suffering that produces the usual fraught countenance and distorts the face of a young pianist is usually absent. This ‘suffering’ sort of thing is hard to empathize with as a member of the audience when you are not actually playing the work yourself. So we all felt happy for once.
She opened her Stage II recital on the 1842 Pleyel with the four mazurkas Op. 33. I found the G-sharp minor affectingly reflective; The C-major pleasant and diverting; Adored the lively, energetic sprung rhythms of the D-major mazurka; the B-minor had a marvellous variety of dynamic expression as if improvised on the spot. This was coupled with a seductive tone and touch at the instrument. Particularly fine and outstanding mazurkas.
On the Erard she then embarked on the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante. The Andante was as smooth as Thai silk with just enough texture to lift it off the dull plains to the sunny uplands. The Grande Polonaise was replete with theatrical style, élan and panache. There were tremendous contrast here of tone and attack which I enjoyed immensely. Some episodes were style brillante as I understand it and some were almost shocking in too rough a dynamic contrast – a fascinating piece of theater which is perhaps as this work should be considered in many respects. It is not deeply philosophical but an utterly enjoyable brilliant confection written by a high-spirited young Pole named Fryderyk Chopin, a lover of dancing and acting. Świgut also seemed to be enjoying herself immensely.
Her mood changed to something rather more serious when she approached the late Chopin Sonata in B-minor Op. 58. The opening Allegro maestoso combined nobility and strength in the initial statement and later even if dynamically overloading the Erard. The trio was lyrical with a superb cantabile that made the piano really sing with elation. Moods shifted dramatically from turbulence to the quietude of a nocturne. The Scherzo was possessed of a Mendelssohnian atmosphere of fairy realms and dreams as it was articulated demi-staccato which gave it the required light and air. The trio again displayed her gift for outstandingly lyrical Chopin cantabile. Few pianists achieved this quality during the competition.
She adopted a moderate dynamic and tempo for the transition to the Largo. We began an exquisite extended nocturne-like musical voyage taken through a night of meditation and introspective thought. This great musical narrative was presented as a poem of the reflective heart and spirit. With Świgut the moods rose and fell like the tides of the ocean. At the conclusion of this poetic masterpiece, she allowed the meditative flow to almost cease pianissimo. A very beautiful, moving and deeply felt presentation to this fortunate audience. In the Finale.Presto ma non tanto she adopted a rhapsodic approach to this ‘ballade’.
Tomaszewski again who cannot be bettered:
Thereafter, in a constant Presto (ma non troppo) tempo and with the expression of emotional perturbation (agitato), this frenzied, electrifying music, inspired (perhaps) by the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony…’
Certainly Świgut transported us into a world of delirium at the close. A very satisfying competition recital.
His entire recital was performed on the 1837 Erard. He began with the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante. I am afraid I did not find the Andante spianato particularly poetic but rather straightforward. The Polonaise was played accurately and well but for me lacked any real panache, style or elegance which is vital in executing the style brillante for all the reasons I have outlined already. It is a great pity he seemed not to imagine the context in which such a piece might have been performed.
Liszt wrote in his Life of Chopin :
‘…the most eminent minds in Paris frequently met in Chopin’s saloon. Not in reunions of fantastic periodicity, such as the dull imaginations of ceremonious and tiresome circles have arranged, and which they have never succeeded in realizing in accordance with their wishes, for enjoyment, ease, enthusiasm, animation, never come at an hour fixed upon before hand.’
I liked his Mazurkas Op. 30. the C-minor was a pleasant diversion; the B-minor uncomplicated; the D-flat major rather optimistic in mood and the C-sharp minor emotionally interesting.
Then to the final work in his programme, the Sonata in B-flat minor Op. 35. In the opening Allegro maestoso he gave a high degree of emotional commitment to this remarkable movement. There was weight, strength and menace present here, even perhaps sinister intentions. We were thrust forward certainly in the nature of a galloping horse.
One should reflect after this comment that movement during Chopin’s time was restricted either to walking, horse or carriage. So when a composer wished to impart movement to a piece of music he could not envisage all of the extraordinary modes of travel we have at hand. Of the Scherzo the great Polish musicologist Tomaszewski comments: ‘…one might say that it combines Beethovenian vigour with the wildness of Goya’s Caprichos.’ I felt it could have been more energetic.
The beautiful trio could have taken us singing into the further dimension of ardent dreams which makes the Marche funèbre such a shocking jolt from the force of destiny. The reflective trio of the Marche is a contrast of innocence, love and purity blighted by the reality of death (Chopin was terrified of being buried alive – often horrifyingly possible in those primitive medical times). Tomaszewski continues perceptively: ‘The Sonata was written in the atmosphere of a passion newly manifest, but frozen by the threat of death.’ A deep existential dilemma for Chopin speaks from these pages written in Nohant in 1839. The pianist, like all of us, must go one dimension deeper to plumb the terrifying abyss this sonata opens at our feet. Of the Presto which concludes the work, Chopin wrote characteristically with intentional irony of the ‘chattering after the march’ leaving Schumann to write in philosophical and literary frustration: ‘The Sonata ends as it began, with a riddle, like a Sphinx – with a mocking smile on its lips’. I felt Byrdy could have achieved more here to transport us.
Ever since the first stage this pianist has lured me with her charm, elegance and refinement especially in early Chopin and music from less philosophically demanding composers of the period. And there is a very special achievement in that talent for historical and stylistic context let me assure you in 2018!
The set of three mazurkas Op. 50 were idiomatically Polish I felt in rhythm and phrasing and so beguiling. But as a foreigner can I accurately judge their quality?
The B-flat minor Sonata Op.35 opening Grave. Doppio movemento possessed a degree of tragedy and menace but not quite enough for me. I felt it not sufficiently impassioned. The Scherzo began forcefully and the trio had alluring, seductive cantabile tone and touch. The Marche funèbre was begun at an impressive tempo that grew out of the pessimistic conclusion to the Scherzo. The innocence of the trio was as ever with such movements again beautifully expressed with a fine tone and so light a touch, the fragility of life was feelingly expressed. The return of the gloomy theme was unsettling until the Presto erupted in a virtuoso style, the counterpoint and harmonic complexities clearly indicated. There was a huge momentary crescendo at one point which was a shock but strangely relevant to grief and its wildly fluctuating moods.
In a fine Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante her beautiful cantabile tone was again on display. The polonaise was extremely charming, expressive and elegant in a style that may only have been possible before the Great War. Its profound human disillusionments erased much civilization from which we have never recovered and will never recover.
The internal polyphony she found within was rather a revelation to me, extremely beautiful and in the character of an ardent dream. She came close to the ideal of the style brilliant as described below in the review of Kamil Pacholec. There was great clarity and colour in her playing and the glittering tone and light touch she produced for this work and genre was ideal. For the sake of clarity she is sparing with the pedal. There is also an indispensable element of superficial personal affectation she can manage tastefully which is artful and correct for this genre of music.
A recital of charm and elegance rather than exploring the dark night of the soul.
His C sharp minor Polonaise revealed the wonderfully balance sound of this Pleyel in all its registers. Any repeated phrase was played again with different sound, dynamics and articulation. An expressive performance. I found his rubato and phrasing highly musical. The Pleyel allows a particularly cantabile left hand below the right when required. Inner detail and voices were clearly revealed. The bass cantilenas revealed a pianist who understands the sound palette of the Pleyel.
The E-flat minor Polonaise had that profoundly ominous beginning that was deeply expressive. The mood swings throughout the work required a variety of colour (he used the pedals for this) and articulation. Strength emerged from depression and despair in this darkest of all Chopin polonaises. He utilized the power of silence in dramatic pauses and hesitations. However I am not Polish and always feel my Western cultural background insufficient in plumbing the true nature of Polish suffering. It is hard to comment seriously on the existential and historical significance of the Chopin polonaise as a distillation of Polish nineteenth century anguish. I can but try….
Staying with the Pleyel he embarked on the four Op.33 Mazurkas. From the exploratory C-sharp minor he modulated directly into the C-major. The D major was so energetic and rustic in character I was a reminded of a tavern in the countryside. He utilized such natural, musical phrasing with a perfect conclusion it seemed to me. The B-minor possessed two moods of reminiscence – joyful and melancholic. His pauses were eloquent and emotionally charged. There were heartbreaking moments at the conclusion to this mazurka. But then again as a foreigner can I really understand the significance of a mazurka to a Pole and accurately judge any performance?
He chose the 1837 Erard for the Op. 58 Chopin Sonata. Such a noble beginning of the Allegro maestoso was unpedaled. Ritter seems to have an inborn musicality and his phrasing speaks volumes of highly charged emotion. He did so much creatively with the embedded polyphony. The Scherzo was wonderfully light like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the trio full of ardent emotion.
The transition to the Largo was not as forceful as others in the competition. The tempo seemed absolutely appropriate to me. Ritter has a fine tone and cultivated touch. The movement opened out like a great narrative poem of meditation. The voices he revealed possessed a singular life of their own. So many musical ‘destinies’ were played out and the expressive harmonies and transitions were carefully managed.
I could not avoid thinking of the opening lines from the Duino Elegies of Rainer Maria Rilke:
‘Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?
And even if one of them suddenly pressed me against his heart,
I should fade in the strength of his stronger existence.’
(trans. J.B. Leishman)
The Finale. Presto non tanto tempo was deliberate with much nobility rather than hysteria. Although the movement did not really hold together as perhaps it should structurally, (there were a few solecisms too), it was a three dimensional picture with a variety of dynamics, phrasing and breathing. For the listener there was time to follow the resolution of the harmonies.
I have already written about how impressed I was with his master class at Duszniki Zdtoj last year and Stage I here so was greatly anticipating hearing him again in Stage II. He performed his entire programme on the 1837 Erard.
The four Mazurkas Op. 24 were very impressive. The G-minor possessed a lovely spontaneity of invention. The C-major and attractive bucolic spirit and much in the Polish idiom. In the A-flat major, the blithe nature of this mazurka was well captured. The B-flat minor had a very eloquent beginning and a most elegiac conclusion.
In the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante he was certainly ‘flowing and smooth’ with a beautiful rounded tone in the Andante. Fine legato and cantabile. His present teacher Wojciech Switała made a memorable recording of this work for Polish Radio Katowice some years ago (1992?) which is the most magnificent example I have ever heard of the style brillante.
I quote myself on the nature this genre:
The essential nature of the style brilliant of which the Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.22 is an essential and outstanding representative of Chopin’s early Varsovian style, seems rather a mystery to modern pianists outside of those living in Poland. Perhaps I am hopelessly wrong. Jan Kleczyński writes of this work: ‘There is no composition stamped with greater elegance, freedom and freshness’. The style involves a bright light touch and glistening tone, varied shimmering colours, supreme clarity of articulation, in fact much like what was referred to in French as the renowned jeu perlé. There are also vital expressive elements of charm, grace, taste and elegance. One must not forget that Chopin astonished Vienna by his pianism but perhaps even more by the elegance of his princely appearance.
The Andante spianato (which Chopin often used to perform as an isolated piece he loved it so much) was pleasant, understood as a nocturne and a lovely introduction. The ‘call to the floor’ for the polonaise was strident and well handled (an instrumental custom well understood by Chopin who in his youth was mad about dancing, a fine dancer and also an excellent dance pianist into the small hours hence his need for rehab at Bad Reinherz – now Dusznki Zdroj).
However this was not entirely the style brillante as I understand it. The many fiorituras were not presented as Venetian lace, the hand and touch rather heavy, muscular and robust, at least on an Erard, an instrument capable of both refinement and volume not requiring weight. There was not sufficient early Chopinesque refinement or elegance here I thought.
Please, that is not to say it was not extremely well played, even brilliantly performed, just that it was somewhat stylistically inaccurate for me and especially I thought rather a waste of the marvellous potential of an Erard.
In the B-Minor Sonata Op. 58 the opening Allegro maestoso was begun with great nobility, power and resolve. The passionate, almost operatic balladic character of the development was ‘narrated’ well and movingly. The cantilena sang expressively without sentimentality. The Scherzo was agitated and correctly light in texture but I felt the phrases in the trio could have been moulded rather more expressively.
The commencement of the Largo was not as brutal as some. The moderate tempo he chose allowed an expressively meditative atmosphere to bloom. The whole extensive and challengingly long movement was very well sculptured as a whole. The Finale. Presto non tanto tempo indication was observed but the truly frenzied nature of this extraordinary movement was not quite achieved but almost – which is not a particularly helpful observation but there it is. The particular brilliance lay in his instantaneous and seamless correction of a couple of memory solecisms without disturbing the rhythmic flow one iota. An astonishing feat. He was occasionally rough at climactic moments on the Erard through inexperience. The light action tempted him into too fast a tempo on occasion. There was however without doubt an inexorable and emotionally moving rhapsodic forward momentum to the movement which carried all before it with enormous weighty impetus.
All in all a tremendously satisfying recital that showed enormous musical achievement, talent and further promise in one so young. One of the highlights of the competition.
This stage was superior in some ways to her Stage I. She began with the C-minor polonaise on the 1837 Erard which I found was rather too amiable for this type of emotional work. The Trio was played with a tonally beautiful cantabile. The polonaise has been described as containing ‘melodies filled with longing, sorrow, suffering and unassuaged grief’. There is also present ‘pain bordering on despair’, ‘heavenly delight’ as well as the ‘barely stemmed tears’. The E-flat minor polonaise had a suitably ominous and despairing, dark beginning and overall she was impressive in this tragically beautiful piece.
Then to the group of Mazurkas played on the 1842 Pleyel. My first observation was purely aesthetic. The appealing image of an elegant Japanese woman in a crimson silk ball gown, seated perfectly erect at a museum quality mahogany-veneered 1842 Pleyel, about to perform a group of Chopin mazurkas. Not something one encounters often in life…such refined beauty.
Although beautiful too in their way, the four Mazurkas Op.41 were too dominated by legato playing and the pedal for my taste. They did not have sufficient of the authentic Polish idiom and true mazurka rhythm. I wanted more ‘air’ to the phrasing, the articulation and more dynamic and rhythmic invention.
The opening Grave. Doppio movemento of the Sonata in B-flat minor Op.35 certainly possessed tragedy and menace but later although restless and virtuosic, I felt it not sufficiently impassioned. The extreme contrasts in expression, although definitely present as contrasts, were not powerfully enough delineated. The Scherzo began with force and aggression and she allowed the trio to rise beautifully out that passionate section with alluring, seductive tone and touch. Perhaps not entirely appropriate as the Marche funèbre grows out of the pessimistic conclusion to the Scherzo. Sorry to say, this tragic utterance did not communicate itself to me very affectingly. The childlike innocence of the trio, naive and exposed, was as ever again beautifully expressed with a fine tone and so light a touch. The return of the gloomy theme was unsettling in the extreme until the Presto erupted in a fine virtuoso style, the counterpoint and harmonic complexities indicated but avoiding the ‘teacher cliché’ approach. The approach to the counterpoint was highlighted yet understated.
All in all a surprisingly talented and convincing performance given her mixed performance in the First Stage.
Krzysztof Książek has quite a high local profile in Poland and much is always anticipated of a recital. He used exclusively the 1837 Erard. He opened his recital with the F-sharp minor Polonaise. Certainly it was an excellent performance in all respects but I felt the tempo he adopted was rather slower and less ‘military’ than others (this being far more of a ‘military protest’ by Chopin than other polonaises). This robbed it a of a certain urgency, żal and grandeur which was a loss I feel. There was not the driving, almost neurotic, military energy I felt was necessary in this fierce protest against occupation and Russian military hegemony which lies at the heart of the piece.
The Mazurkas Op. 50 were fine indeed with imaginative use of rhythm and silence. This created a strong and attractive sense of relaxed improvisation. The A-flat major seemed perfectly and idiomatically Polish and the C-sharp minor has always appeared a remarkable composition to me. The mazurkas by Książek were superb and it is hard for this foreigner to imagine anything more authentic.
In the Op. 58 Sonata in B minor he made much of the counterpoint in the Allegro maestoso. His playing was particularly transparent in terms of the polyphony. His cantabile is always unsentimental and this maintained the inexorable forward momentum of this movement. He is a player of great authority and seemed in complete control of he complex emotional structure of this movement.
The Scherzo presented as wild in atmosphere which was all to the good, even with a few solecisms. The Largo was also not sentimental or indulgent emotionally which is always tempting in this extraordinarily extended movement. The meditative bass voice was prominent in a way I had never heard before with eloquent dynamic variations, pauses and breathing between phrases. Tensions and relaxations. Is it fanciful to observe that he plays this movement rather beseechingly and offers it as a type of prayer, almost in a religious spirit ? He maintained a rounded tone and sensitive touch throughout. In the Finale. Presto non tanto he observed this tempo indication (which too many pianists ignore) which allowed the frenzied tumult and irresistible forward impetus to rush to its final triumphal conclusion.
She opened her recital with the two polonaises Op.26. The C-minor began well but I felt that the glorious song trio did not emerge with sufficient lyrical character. I think her fiorituras could be far better phrased and considered not simply dashed off. The E-flat minor polonaise was better conceived but requires maturity to fully explore. For me this is close to being his greatest expressive polonaise with an extraordinarily deep conception of tragic beauty from the opening. The remarkable use of silence, pauses and varied dynamics can be heartbreaking and requires close attention. Silence is as powerful or on occasion more powerful than sound. Explosions of energy occur in this extraordinary work and few pianists of any stature can grasp its dark implications.
Her Op.17 Mazurkas on the 1842 Pleyel were expressed with idiomatic Polish charm and grace. I would not presume to ever tell a Polish pianist or musician anything at all about mazurka rhythm. Even Chopin almost had fisticuffs with Meyerbeer over the question. I do not really understand it fully myself – much to the not so secret satisfaction of my Polish friends!
Then to that immense masterpiece of Western music, the Sonata in B minor Op. 58. The opening Allegro maestoso began strongly and purposefully the development of this ‘balladic’ form was handled well structurally certainly but I was yearning for more emotional possession and exaltation. The Scherzo and trio adequately ushered in that remarkably meditative Largo which possessed moments of moving nocturne-like cantabile (reminiscent of the Nocturne in C minor) achieving a remarkable immobility. During the Finale. Presto non tanto I was not always carried away unresistant by this frenetic, distraught, thrilling music with its inexorable forward drive teeming with images of galloping horses or the Furies. However it was a satisfying enough rendition on many levels.
This perceived limitation may well have been the Erard or the increasing dislocation of my own ears programmed with recorded utterances of sublime power and virtuosity on Steinways by the greatest pianists of last century or our own time. This is one aspect of the competition that I find supremely instructive and thought provoking. How programmed, even brainwashed we have become to a certain view of Chopin’s music through concerts and recordings on the D model Steinway. In this competition we are constantly presented with an alternative soundscapes for his music. Alternative instruments of great variety of timbre and sound palette would have been available to him for concerts (but not for us) and used to stimulate his imagination. He writes of these offered choices often in his letters.
Also the competition is an extraordinary opportunity to hear his music on period instruments with an intensity and variety never before experienced anywhere. Utterly unique. Perhaps in London or Warsaw one has attended an isolated concert now and then on an Erard, perhaps even a Pleyel, but at this all enveloping level of exposure all day for over two weeks ? Remarkable and utterly unique…..oh, and I have never become bored by the variety of sound. Incidentally the Erard seems to have largely supplanted some of the other instruments in Stage II like the Buchholtz, the Graf and the Broadwood. Perhaps not so surprising it is almost always the most popular choice. The action and feel resemble our modern instruments so closely.
Her conception of many works on her programme were so individualistic and so far at variance with my own I would prefer not to comment. Also her physical treatment of the period piano for me left a great deal to be desired. I still greatly miss Katarzyna Hajduk-Konieczna (Poland). I find this exclusion from Stage II inexplicable in light of other far less appropriate choices.
Anyone who reads my posts will realize I have had faith in the outstanding talent of this artist for some considerable time. She began her second stage with the Chopin F minor Polonaise Op.44 performed the 1837 Erard. Mme. Sand complained of Chopin to Marie de Rozières during its composition:
‘Two days ago, he said not a word to anyone the whole day. Has someone angered him? Did I say something to worry him?’ In a letter to Doctor Gaubert, her account was more colourful: ‘Chopin’s up to his usual tricks, fuming at his piano. When his mount fails to respond to his intentions, he deals it great blows with his fist, such that the poor piano simply groans. […] he considers himself idle because he’s not crushed by work’.
Klinton began with nobility, loftiness and dignity coupled with an heroic tone. Rather defiant and sinister with hammering chords and snarling trills. Liszt commented on the energetic rhythms of Chopin Polonaises that they ‘thrill and galvanise the torpor of our indifference’. This is certainly true of this polonaise. The mazurka embedded at the centre had a beautiful glowing tone and fine legato, the music of moonlight. Despite rough handling on occasion, due I imagine to her relative inexperience on period instruments, the militaristic aspect of the polonaise returned unrelenting with an unbending, resolute vengeance until the powerful conclusion.
The four Mazurkas from Op.40 were replete with nostalgia and delicacy (C-minor); the B-minor captured extreme swings of mood; the B-flat minor opposes the ‘rustic’ or the ‘tavern’ with the different nature of ‘civilized’ reminiscence; the extraordinary narrative of the C-sharp minor was performed with grace, refinement and elegance. As a foreigner what do I know about how mazurkas should be performed ? So often contradicted….
Finally the foray into the Sonata. The Sonata Op. 35 was perhaps modeled by Chopin on Beethoven’s own funeral sonata Op.26 which he taught and played. Here Klinton gave us a searching interpretation of immense individuality and fatalistic penetration especially the Marche funèbre. Threat and tragedy hovered above this entire reading. The Grave. Doppio movimento had a suitably hectic and powerful atmosphere, ominous with threats and foreboding. She made a great deal of the embedded polyphony, counterpoint and judicious use of rubato. The urgency and ominous passage of a rider, occasionally even in a reflective even nostalgic mood, yet galloping inexorably towards his doom. I still felt a certain classical restraint of emotion which is so important to this work. The Scherzo was neurotically agitated and the reflective trio sang in glowing tones like a true operatic aria. This movement, although wild, was splendidly structured with great internal melodic and harmonic logic.
A properly eloquent tempo and dynamic for the Marche funèbre is difficult to achieve. So many people seem to think it ought to accompany an imaginary military band with a heavy dull tread lacking in poetry. However pall bearers in a cemetery move and sway with the heavy bier rather in slow motion as she depicted. I felt the tragic inevitability of death for all of us, a deep and haunting melancholy, an almost childish innocence within the cantabile nocturnal central section, a forlorn cry of the soul facing its inevitable destiny. Played piano to pianissimo with great poetry, it was unsentimental and unaffected. The singing tone carried throughout the hall. Absolute silence reigned there as the force of destiny was revealed. Death floating over us – I was very moved – something that has happened rarely in this competition.
The polyphony and desperation of the grieving mind and heart, or wind over the graves or skeletons rattling (is it any wonder Chopin objected to the English titles) depicted in the Presto was highly emotional in view of the Marche funèbrethat preceded it. A fine performance that presented the sonata a cohesive structure (rather than four unruly children as Schumann perceived it) in competition or out of it. This was a reading suffused with a variety of melancholy, dare I say in 2018, specific to the Slavic soul.
After the imaginative brilliance of his Stage I performance I was really anticipating this recital in Stage II.
He began with the C-sharp minor polonaise. His ‘attack’ on it (and I use the word advisedly in the military Samurai sense) I felt was exaggeratedly precipitate but this soon gave way to the superb cantabile of the love song at the centre of the polonaise. True singing with glorious tone on the 1837 Erard. Hardly surprising poems have written abut this song. The E-flat minor polonaise had an ominous beginning with extensive but controlled dynamic contrasts which only added to the drama of the presentation. the articulation was varied and full of imaginative gestures. I felt at times he was pushing the sound ceiling of the instrument. Highly imaginative conclusion.
The Mazurkas Op. 24 were performed on the Broadwood. Again, the G-minor was highly imaginative. In the C major I found a wonderful contrast of the ‘rustic’ or ‘bucolic’ with the nostalgia of a civilized mind for the reminiscences of Chopin’s youth in Mazovia. He was able to utilize the timbre of the Broadwood to great effect. The A-flat major mazurka was also remarkable as was the B-flat minor in articulation and rhythm. His conclusions to the mazurkas were almost always pianissimo which added greatly to the idea of a fondly remembered but slightly faded watercolour – if that does not sound too sentimental.
The Grave. Doppio movimento of the B-flat minor Sonata on the 1842 Pleyel began with an extraordinary ‘rumble of destiny’ one might say before his rethinking of the work opened before us. Despite magnificent highlighting of the counterpoint, revelation of internal details, the inexorable forward momentum was maintained to a tremendously triumphal conclusion. The Scherzo could perhaps have been lighter if not particularly playful (as scherzos should be but not perhaps those of Chopin). The lyrical cantabile trio could have had more bel canto about it to my mind. The tempo he selected for the Marche funèbrecertainly indicated the tread of the pall bearers. The trio or cantilena that lies at its centre sang beautifully – he also added discreet ornaments. The movement seemed to rise on gossamer wings and hover above us, disembodied memories perhaps of happier times with the departed. Dark and grim reality then returns as the Great Reaper cannot ever be stopped even by a Napoleon. The Presto on the Pleyel achieved a fitting grotesquerie of extraordinary power to evoke sepulchral associations.
I felt from the first stage that although this pianist was certainly accomplished he had not sufficiently accommodated to the period piano to give of his best. This feeling was rather confirmed in his Stage II recital. He opened with the Sonata Op.58 on the 1837 Erard. A well prepared but not particularly individual view of the extraordinary Allegro maestoso as I felt it was not a true maestoso in character. The movement begins with great strength of character and then a doubt creeps in. Another resolute moment until the ecstatic lyrical rhapsodic theme takes over. The fluctuation of moods is extraordinary in this movement. I felt there was not quite enough dramatic differentiation of these moods in his account.
He began the unrealistic dream world of the Scherzo well but did not sufficiently utilize the fairy lightness achievable on the Erard. The beginning of the Largo was conventionally violent (when I feel it should be eased into despite the fortissimo indications which can simply be interpreted in this context as louder and certainly not as sforzandos as we must soon come down to pianissimo then sostenuto) . The movement then moves a serious cantabile nocturne, a true meditation on life and entry into an almost Chopinesque stream of consciousness thought process. His cantabile was quite beautiful however and in this way he has cultivated a delicate touch on the Erard. We returned to the harshly masculine tone in the Finale. Presto non tanto. He was sensitive but tended to get carried away into ‘rough territory with the strength of his own virtuosic velocity. The movement did not emerge into a three dimensional rounded view.
The Mazurkas from Op. 30 on the 1842 Pleyel were pleasant but not sufficiently differentiated in character for me. I was most impressed with the C-sharp minor.
The essential nature of the styl briliant of which the Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.22 is an essential representative of Chopin’s early Varsovian style, seems rather a mystery to modern pianists outside of those living in Poland. Perhaps I am hopelessly wrong. Jan Kleczyński writes of this work: ‘There is no composition stamped with greater elegance, freedom and freshness’. The style involves a bright light touch and glistening tone, varied shimmering colours, supreme clarity of articulation, in fact much like what was referred to in French as the renowned jeu perlé. There are also vital expressive elements of charm, grace, taste and elegance.
The Andante spianato (which Chopin often used to perform as an isolated piece he loved it so much) was pleasant, understood as a nocturne and a lovely introduction. The ‘call to the floor’ for the polonaise was strident and well handled (an instrumental custom well understood by Chopin who in his youth was mad about dancing, a fine dancer and also an excellent dance pianist into the small hours hence his need for rehab at Bad Reinherz – now Dusznki Zdroj). However this was not style brillante I’m afraid. The many fiorturas were not presented as Venetian lace, the hand and touch far too heavy, too muscular and robust, at least on an Erard, an instrument capable of both refinement and volume not requiring weight. Not a great deal of early Chopinesque refinement or elegance here. Please, that is not to say it was not very well played, a courageous decision to perform it, just stylistically inaccurate and especially a waste of potential on an Erard.
Eric Clark began his second stage with the three Chopin Op. 56 Mazurkas played on the 1842 Pleyel. The B major was energetic with good rhythm, the C-major impressively nostalgic and idiomatically Polish and the C-minor maintained an impressive contrast between the ‘rustic’, ‘bucolic’ and ‘village tavern’ associations of the Chopin mazurka with the nostalgic reminiscences of a civilized and sophisticated mind.
His performance of the great F-sharp minor Polonaise on the Erard was an excellent choice given the anger and protest that suffuses this piece. The Mazurka ‘trio’ was presented as an extraordinarily lyric contrast to the fantasy nature of this polonaise. I felt it to be a rather uncomplicated and straightforward ‘masculine’ Chopin performance (as with much of his recital) if I might be so gender prejudiced in 2018. And none the worse for that point of view. From the piano sound aspect that insistent almost aggressive left hand repetition that on a Steinway in the wrong hands can become almost insupportable, but on an Erard or other period piano it is much attenuated in the bass (straight stringing on such instruments) and far better balanced.
The B-flat minor Sonata opens with a marvelous deep and mysterious resonance on this Erard. Clark here presented Chopin as a man of great strength of character in an eloquent opening movement that did not explore other boundaries of interpretation to the usual magnificence of the music. The Scherzo was suitably agitated but the trio for me could have had far more of a bel canto song-like character. The Marche funebre was at an moderate, well-judged tempo – so important in this grief stricken work. The trio beautifully expressed the nostalgia of past joys experienced with the departed. The Presto was virtuosic and fascinating in its internal counterpoint which I felt on the Erard created an atmospheric scene of rattling skeletons and a mind in torment wandering through a blighted landscape by Salvator Rosa.
However I also felt his tone and touch at the instrument not particularly captivating. This raises an important observation I have considered during the entire competition. Tone and touch, the quality of the sheer sound produced, are so little spoken of today in appraising a pianist, so obsessed are we with structural, historical and biographical concerns. Is this a result of the massively ready-made, technologically perfect sound of Steinway and Yamaha? On period instruments the player must work at producing an alluring sound, something that is becoming increasingly and interestingly obvious during this competition. The same instrument can sound dramatically different with each and every player. Chopin spoke obsessively of the absolute importance of producing a beautiful tone and touch (the Pleyel being more difficult than the ‘ready made’ tone on the Erard as did in more modern times the great pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus.
He chose to play his entire programme on one instrument, the 1842 Pleyel. He began with two Polonaises. The C-minor could have been begun with slightly more nobility as it still contains elements of the highly stylized dance. The Trio has always been respected and as Tomaszewski writes:
Interpreters generally see this…[close to operatic aria]… as bringing highly-charged erotic moments to this generically heroic work, citing the contrast between ‘pain bordering on despair’ and ‘heavenly delight’, as well as the ‘barely stemmed tears’.
The E-minor was much more successful in terms of the nobility of protest. More yearning for freedom, despair and the overwhelming presence of Polish żal (melancholic bitterness). His phrasing was most eloquent and the whole emerged as most atmospheric. The greatest polonaise in so many ways to my mind but also the one containing the most darkness and despair.
More pleasant ‘preluding’ to introduce the Op. 50 Mazurkas. I liked them all but was particularly impressed with the extensive C-sharp minor where he controlled this developed narrative with great emotional insight. Then to a quite visionary and unique view of that masterpiece of composition, the B-flat minor Sonata. George Sand wrote in her The Story of My Life:
‘His creativity was spontaneous, miraculous’, wrote Sand , ‘he found it without seeking it, without expecting it. It arrived at his piano suddenly, completely, sublimely, or it sang in his head during a walk, and he would hasten to hear it again by recreating it on his instrument. […] But then would begin the most heartbreaking labor I have ever witnessed. […] He would shut himself up in his room for days at a time, weeping, pacing, breaking his pens, repeating or changing a single measure a hundred times, writing it and erasing it with equal frequency [here the writer seems to have got carried away], and beginning again the next day with desperate perseverance. He would spend six weeks on a page, only to end up writing it just as he had done in his first outpouring.’
The opening Grave. Doppio movimento was restless with remarkable forward impetus and a feeling of almost sinister mystery. The association of galloping horses on a dark night was inescapable. Ablogin often gives one this feeling of creative improvisation. The Scherzo continued the rather forceful mood already created and he made much of the song in the Trio. His tone glows without aggression and his touch is refined and elegant, so unlike the prejudices one might have concerning the Russian School of Chopinists.
One should not perhaps forget the patriotic associations of the Marche funebre. Lento for Chopin in commemorating the November Uprising. The universality and inevitability of death now associated with it has grown inexorably over the hundred and eighty years or so since its composition. The stories of the composer beset with sepulchral visions and monstrous forms emerging from his piano during performances and the composition of the piece may not be apocryphal.
Ablogin’s return of the Funeral March up tempo after the disembodied, reflective and melancholic Trio (superb and haunting pianissimos here) was quite otherworldly and utterly inspired. The unhinged mind and the madness of Lucia di Lammermoor were inescapable associations. The left hand began a deeply moving tolling of funeral bells – something I have never encountered before in performance and profoundly effective and affecting emotionally. The tragedy and the darkness of unavoidable grief. Ablogin revealed in the Presto a quite extraordinary control and transparency of polyphony and counterpoint, as he had done throughout the other movements, but with uncanny effect here. For me it was an expression of the unhinged grief of the mind.
Yes a visionary and unique view of this masterpiece of Western music. In competition terms this was a far finer stage for Ablogin than his initial presentation.
The sonata began in the most seductive way imaginable on the 1842 Pleyel. The tempo was absolutely appropriate to the nobility inherent in the Chopin indication Allegro maestoso. The luminosity of the cantabile was divine in a word. Visovan understands the sound and colour palette of this instrument intimately. The internal details became abundantly clear throughout but never dynamically overwhelming, never exaggerated or ‘hysterical’. Unsentimental, yet so desperately moving. The transparency and colour she extracted from this instrument put me in mind of gazing in wonder at the radiant stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral.
The Scherzo was light and airy (as a Scherzo should be) using the sustain pedal with discretion as the sound simply warms and changes the timbre under its influence. The demi-staccato articulation was balanced and superb.
The Largo began at a far lower dynamic level than the usual aggressive statement which can often be so inappropriately brutal on a Steinway. The most striking aspect of this movement was the tempo. Rather fast for what one normally associates with the indication ‘Largo’. Do we really know accurately the nature of such an indication on the lightweight action of these pianos? Not all Italian tempo indications translate accurately in terms of their conception into all world languages. But her breathing and phrasing was so musical it became irrelevant. The Largo became almost rhapsodic rather than emotionally indulgent and dragging interminably which is all too common. There was a wonderful Pleyel sound in this movement with the balance of right and left hands. In short a revelation.
The Finale. Presto non tanto began with an ominous subterranean rumble in the bass. The movement as whole achieved what one might term an existential urgency. The counterpoint and polyphony were so clear and affecting as were the harmonic transitions. Inspired and utterly brilliant pedaling. Again the bass perfectly balanced against the treble and a rhapsodic conclusion.
In the Mazurkas, Visovan was so sensitive to harmonic transitions and rhythm. The C-major possessed an incandescent sound with the superb cantilena one can produce in the left hand, singing magically below the right. Pleyels can achieve this balance of voices like no other piano. The A-flat major with its legato and subtle changes of harmonic mood were so savoured by this artist. The undamped overtones provided a magical sound landscape. Not for the first time I was reminded of Dinu Lipatti. I suppose all Romanian pianists adore his Chopin. In the B-flat minor it was if we were witnessing a hesitant soul coming to life. So tasteful and deep a vision of life did Visovan present: Joy to Reflection to Resignation to Acceptance. Such a panorama of emotions and emotional narrative. Some of the most beautiful Mazurkas I have ever heard.
The so-called ‘Heroic’ Polonaise was not played in the conventional manner as ‘majestic and magnificent’ but more as a memory or reminiscence of heroism. The cavalry section in the whirling left hand sounded like real horses to me and conjured up pictures in my mind of the Uhlan paintings of Jerzy Kossak. No theatrical depictions here and not a single doubt of her self-effacing integrity.
After such a recital I have come to the conclusion that on this particular 1842 Pleyel the entire Chopin sound landscape has changed for me in a truly inspired way…
In her opening Bach on the Erard I felt the prelude lacked stylistically but the Fugue had excellent clarity and polyphonic lines. The Ogiński Polonaise was charmingly performed but lacked a ‘Polish’ feel for me, a quality Chopin referred to as the ‘Polish element’ he felt was missing from otherwise good performances. The Chopin Polonaise on the 1847 Erard revealed she has not handled the transfer from Steinway to period instrument particularly well. The sound she produced from the rather forgiving instrument was not at all seductive. Her need for more experience on these instruments in terms of sound colour, touch and tone was obvious. In the Ballade, although perhaps acceptable on a Steinway I received the distinct impression she was playing with far too much weight – period instruments benefit more from finger legato and lighter touch.
Her interesting CV indicates she is a prize-winner of many prestigious Asian piano competitions so I was keenly anticipating this recital.
The Bach Prelude and Fugue on the 1842 Pleyel were excellently performed with a good understanding of style and balanced polyphony. She adapted rather well to the 1847 Erard in the Kurpiński polonaise with an attractive tone extracted from the instrument and refined touch.
However with the Chopin Polonaise, also on the Erard, I came to the conclusion that she does not understand sufficiently deeply the idiom of the Polish polonaise dance with its nobility and emphasis on the noble Polish male with his moustache and sabre constantly adjusted ostentatiously in rhythm and ‘Maestoso’ throughout. However I felt she had natural musical gifts and a finely honed talent.
The Ballade on the 1842 Pleyel I found less satisfactory as it had clearly been almost too carefully prepared which gave little room for spontaneity, perceived spontaneity and deeply felt passionate emotions. This music must be felt to grow organically and powerfully from within the impassioned shifts of mood of the composer’s heart and spirit as well as maintaining its dramatic narrative flow. The Chopin Ballades are rather like small operas and should intensely reflect the fluctuating toy-shop of the heart. Is it possible for an interpretation to be over-refined?
In the Bach I felt he was unused to he colors possible on an Erard and thus rather expressionless although certainly full of energy. I wanted to know what was happening within Prelude and Fugue.
The Chopin Etude and Polonaise seemed to me Steinway performances transferred directly the Erard without modification which is not what this competition is about. The Chopin polonaise indicated he was still rather locked into ‘Steinway Mode’ in a performance that may have worked well in a large hall on a D model concert grand but not here. Apart from this observation, these early youthfully illusioned works do not benefit from inflation to the ‘heroic’ proportions of political resistance inherent in the later Chopin polonaises.
The Szymanowska polonaise was pleasant enough but again I felt this player did not fully understand the feminine ‘salon style’ and the exquisite tonal range of the 1842 Pleyel he chose to play. Sometimes he showed a feeling for the unique qualities of the instrument but not often enough.
The Barcarole opened with rather a crash and developed not on a lagoon in Venice. I fondly imagine the work on an instrument of Chopin’s day as a romantic and tender dream that becomes somewhat agitated at times, not an unrelenting storm aboard the Titanic on the Atlantic. He should explore more the riches and the unique understated tonal qualities of the Erard.
Interestingly she has studied in the harpsichord class of Olga Filippova in the Department of Contemporary and Historical performance at the Pyotr Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. This may account for her very light touch on these instruments.
In the Bach on the 1847 Erard, apart from a far too up tempo Prelude, she extracted perhaps the best tone from the Broadwood of any competitor so far. The demanding Fugue was dynamically varied and the polyphony highlighted sufficiently for a listener to decode the conversation within.
The Chopin Etude was less successful as the thirds in the treble register could on occasion scarcely be heard which disrupted and unbalanced the work for me. The piano or the pianist? However it did sound less ‘hysterical’ and overbearingly virtuosic on the Broadwood than it can on a less expressive Steinway.
The Kurpiński polonaise did expressively capture the feminine, charming ambience of the ‘salon’ well. The Chopin polonaise on the other hand, also on he Broadwood, had attractive fiorituras, tone and touch but I felt she had no real feel for this piece. The Ballade gave me the impression she has no real temperamental affinity with Chopin. There were all sorts of sudden sforzandos and bursts of energy for no apparent reason. The musical narrative she was engaged upon did not seem to be particularly coherent. There were quite a few solecisms as we progressed through it as there also were with the polonaise.
This talented young pianist is a laureate of many national and international competitions
and has performed throughout Europe and the US.
He opened with Bach on the Erard which was excellent but not particularly individual. The Kurpiński polonaise on the other hand was rather idiomatically Polish with interesting phrasing. Delightful. The early Chopin Polonaise caused some general questions to form in my mind. Should the early polonaises of Chopin have dramatic shifts in mood given his youth when composing them and the fashionable possibly ‘salon’ historical context? How should they be played? Pacholec was rather stylish but there was not a great deal of elegant polish or finesse. Again this is not an ‘heroic’ polonaise and Poles are rather moody creatures! So how to approach and judge these works?
The Chopin Etude did not indicate overwhelming command of ‘technique’ which for this particular Etude is useful. I felt there could have been a great deal more expressiveness. All this slightly quibbling criticism was rather overturned in his account of the G minor Ballade. He began with an excellent narrative tempo that allowed us as listeners to decode his harmonic intentions and also more importantly those of Chopin. A coherent musical story of great clarity and meaning began to evolve. Although sometimes perfunctory, an excellent sense of structure and a mood at once reflective and philosophical. His control over the Erard in terms of tone produced and touch indicated insufficient experience on period pianos but his understanding of the Ballade musically was never in question. There was a true triumphal conclusion to the musical ‘argument’ of the work. A fine account of this piece among the best I have heard for a very long time.
This pianist is studying the fortepiano and interestingly chose the copy by Paul McNulty of the 1819 Graf for the Bach. The clarity and tone of this instrument with its leather-covered hammers made it particularly suitable for the polyphony and counterpoint of this baroque composer. Chopin loved instruments by this maker. She had some unlucky moments.
For the Kurpiński she stayed with this lovely instrument using the moderator to great expressive effect for the subsidiary theme (the Graf has four pedals with various functions). Great delicacy was possible in the treble which seduced the attention of the audience, unlike being beaten into submission as some have attempted here. She also performed the Chopin Etude on this instrument. It was so suitable for this composition one could again see or hear why Chopin preferred these, one might say, ‘Classical’ instruments, on occasion. They are beautifully balanced in tone colour and dynamics in the various registers.
Then to the Erard for the Polonaise which she played with great charm and sensibility but nervous insecurities continued to plague her. For the Ballade she chose the 1842 Pleyel and adopted a surprisingly deliberate tempo. Was this justified I wondered as she must have given it deep thought. There were a few unpredictable hesitations which disrupted the smooth narrative eloquence of the work and the overall structure began to become somewhat ‘lost’ and incoherent. This rather radical rethinking of the piece did not do it any favours I am afraid. Clearly though this pianist thinks and analyses a great deal which gives one optimism for the future.
She began her recital with Bach on the 1847 Erard with good articulation in the Prelude but the polyphony became rather unfocused in the Fugue.
Her conception of all the other works on her programme were so individualistic and so far at variance with my own I would prefer not to comment. Also her physical treatment of the period piano for me left a great deal to be desired.
Tomasz Ritter has had a distinguished career associated with both the harpsichord and the historical piano with his outstanding teachers. He has won prestigious prizes and performed with fine orchestras under well-known conductors. I expected his recital to be remarkable and so it was.
He began unexpectedly with a stylish rendition of the Kurpiński polonaise on the Buchholtz with most attractive phrasing which added greatly to the period feel. The Chopin polonaise was possessed of the same charm, elegance and nobility. From the tone and touch he was clearly experienced playing earlier historical instruments. The phrasing again revealed great sensibility and expressiveness using the evocative colour spectrum of the instrument to great effect. He has fine control of touch, tone, dynamics and articulation – a nuanced performance.
The Chopin Etude on the 1842 Pleyel was highly expressive and indicated the presence of an authentic individual voice. He brilliantly modulated from this study into the Ballade seamlessly at pianissimo (E minor to F minor was it?). This was a magnificent performance of this masterpiece with finely drawn internal cantabile lines, the bel canto radiant. The musical narrative was musically coherent and unfolded like the wings of a moth at dusk. So much detail and nuance were organically revealed here, growing from within not merely applied to the surface. He wound up the drama like a tight watch spring to the passionate coda and then the relaxation and final triumphant statement chord of faith suffused with resignation which concludes the work.
But in an inspired decision of brilliant creative design in his programme, he performed the Bach Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor BMV 853 from Book I of the WTK on the 1842 Pleyel. The Bach cantilenas within the lyrical, eloquent and ardent Prelude sang with fine cantabile followed by the profoundly introspective, philosophically monumental Fugue with its own glorious voices. Such a blessed commemorative offering to Chopin who loved Bach to distraction. Such a summation of the music passed before us. A truly great recital in or out of competition, on an historical instrument or not.
This pianist has won many prizes and performed with many fine orchestras as well as attracting the attention of many distinguished teachers.
The Bach which she began her recital on the Buchholtz was clear, well articulated and finely wrought. I found the Chopin polonaise on the Erard extremely engaging from the artistic point of view. She has cultivated an eloquent tone and touch on the instrument which is only added to the charm, grace and tasteful elegance of her interpretation. I felt it one of the very finest I had heard in the competition. The entire remainder of her recital was on this instrument. She gave a perfectly moving and emotionally affecting Ogiński polonaise ‘Farewell to the Homeland’ that captured the Polish idiom superlatively. Oddly I found the Chopin Etude rather poor in execution.
The Ballade was slightly mannered with a great deal of deliberation and rather sentimental dreaming. The final half was rather more up tempo but I felt the whole still did not quite hold together as a convincing musical narrative with internal musical logic. Yet it was a highly emotional account of the G minor which I enjoyed greatly despite these reservations.
Yes a fine pianist of intelligence, charm, sensibility, emotion and grace.
I have followed the career of this pianist for many years after I first heard her at the Duszniki Zdroj International Piano Festival in recital and at Master Classes. I was interested in how she would approach these historical instruments. I wrote of her temperament in 2011 and it seems little has changed:
She was always a distinct personality that stood out and her choice of programme indicates she has very clear ideas of what she loves to play. Haydn was followed by a similarly elegant account of the Bach French Suite in C minorBMW 813. The absolute joy and delight in playing this music that suffused her features was quite affecting – the profound pain, sweat and suffering that produces the usual countenance and distorts the face of a young pianist was absent I noted! This ‘suffering’ sort of thing is hard to empathize with as a member of the audience when you are not actually playing the work yourself. So we all felt happy for once.
The same happiness suffuses her features but her Bach some seven years later has developed great contrapuntal strength. I felt on the Erard the Chopin Etude had rather too much dynamic weight which probably comes from inexperience in playing on these instruments. The Chopin Polonaise on the other hand on the Broadwood was possessed of great charm and grace with fine tone and a soft eloquent touch. As one might imagine it was idiomatically and intensely Polish with the fullest understanding of the dance. The Szymanowska Polonaise had a similar elegance and charm as the Chopin. Utterly convincing in period these two polonaises, perfect in their way concerning touch, tone, phrasing and nuance. Beautifully balanced dynamically and tastefully colourful.
In the Barcarolle she had chosen to play on the Erard, the opening was simply pushing off from the wharf before the excursion across the lagoon. The rocking motion of the gondola or skiff in the left hand was so delightfully sustained throughout. The lyrical narrative of serene then followed by troubled love on this romantic outing was superbly expressed. I had reservations about the dynamic chosen to play on this historic instrument as a Steinway seemed more robust – but survive Mediterranean passions the Erard did. The highly passionate conclusion was rather overwhelming but then the floods of passion faded into the mists that settled into the damp night as the will-o’-the wisps came out to dance on the waters and the lovers fell asleep….
It was a most welcome injection of French joie de vivre into the proceedings when he began his Bach on the 1837 Erard. Energetic, lively with good articulation and sensitivity to the polyphony. Some life-enchancing emotion in Bach is always welcome for me. The Chopin Polonaise was full of life but was not as affected in its elegance or charm in the early aristocratic ‘salon’ sense as this chronic Huysmans aesthete might wish. the phrasing was lovely but perhaps the expressive gestures rather too broad and robust for the original intentions behind the composition. Who knows in 2018 we are so far from the source, a world without electricity – imagine that for a moment! The Chopin Etude I felt rather rushed but tremendously impressive pianistically. As I have warned once before in this commentary, the listener must decode whilst the player encodes the very familiar score. Antoine is certainly a performer who communicates his musical intentions! i am afraid the Szymanowska polonaise revealed this artist’s restricted appreciation of the ‘salon style’ which of course in 2018 we perceive as affected and artificial but that is how it was before the Great War.
The Ballade was of course perfectly suited to this magnificent 1842 Pleyel. I fondly wished he caressed the instrument more – being a Frenchman with such a romantic reputation to uphold! He seemed tempted to play the Pleyel in much the same manner as the Erard but they are utterly different instruments as Chopin appreciated deeply. I felt more poetic delicacy was in order here, despite his obvious pianistic command of the instrument. The forte passages were slightly too robust. I think he could have explored the imagined musical narrative of the Ballade more as we progressed through the harmonies. It is not merely a virtuoso piece but has significantly deep musical and ‘balladic meaning’ in a sense that was familiar to educated people of those days but we have lost almost entirely.
From the outset in the Bach, and ‘preluding as an introduction’ she revealed herself as an experienced concert artist with excellent polyphonic utterance and understanding. In such an enormous and challenging fugue she maintained appropriate touch and tone on the 1837 Erard. I felt occasionally she played over-legato but that may simply be my own programmed prejudice. She chose the Pleyel for her Chopin Polonaise and although her musicianship is beyond reproach I felt she failed to capture the elegance capable on this instrument, the seductive tone and the sheer charm of it. The central lyrical section was better. Certainly she managed to make a significant work out of this early piece which showed great imagination.
An interesting choice not made before was the Elsner work performed on the 1819 Graf (Paul McNulty 2008). What a massive contrast in sound between this Viennese instrument (with leather-covered hammers, no metal frame, single escapement mechanism) to the others we have heard so far. The pianissimos she cultivated on this were truly seductive. The theme or motif played with this sound was magical. Period charm was certainly present in this performance. The Chopin Etude on the Pleyel was rather overpedalled to my taste and again I felt she did not make the most of this enchanting instrument.
The Ballade on the Erard seemed an excellent choice of instrument but I was not deeply moved by the unfolding destiny within the piece. It was a fine presentation of the work with this accomplished musician but she seemed a little rough with the instrument, perhaps through inexperience. The conclusion did not have the inevitability and summation of what had preceded it.
This pianist has had extensive experience on the fortepiano, has won a number of important prizes devoted to them and studied with the distinguished fortepianist Richard Egarr. We were not disappointed with the anticipation generated by his glowing and relevant CV.
Unlike almost every other contestant he began with the Kurpinski Polonaise. His creation of a graceful cantabile arc was immediately obvious. He extracted a charming tone from the Buchholtz with his refined touch yet I felt his expression had a touch of the artificial appliqué about it. Then to the Chopin Polonaise on the same instrument. I do love the way Japanese pianists approach Chopin, carrying with them an inordinate love of the composer. He attempted to engage the audience with his good humor and excitement by smiling in their direction even whilst playing. Francois Couperin advised this in his L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin. The Buchholtz tone was very like bells. The Buchholtz instrument is a veritable chameleon! It adopts another identity as each pianist approaches it. He used the sordino pedal to achieve the ultimate pianissimo at the close of the work.
Then to Bach on the Erard. What a contrast in sound! This was excellent Bach with finely hewn polyphony, crystal articulation and dynamic. Also the tempo was perfectly correct. He stayed with the Erard to tackle the Chopin Etude. I felt he was prone to exaggeration as these studies seemed so different on the various instruments. No true bel canto with a touch too much of the sustaining pedal.
Finally his highly dramatic and passionate account of the Ballade, where I must consider an issue with the refinement of the sound ceiling of the Pleyel. Although clearly an impressive and accomplished performer, he must have liked the immediacy of the action. He played on occasion with a slightly a heavy hand in some sections and rather too much pedal in others. ‘Never bash the keys, always caress them.’ Chopin admonished or used similar words.
Despite minor reservations, I feel sure the competition will be a great success for him. With his extraordinary musical imagination I will look to him for his attractive spontaneity and the imaginative spirit of invention to the point where he seems almost overburdened with it!
It seemed rather risky to begin any recital with a Chopin Etude when one is almost sure to be slightly nervous. She used the 1842 Pleyel for this. Then to the 1825 Buchholtz and the amazing contrast in sound. The Bach was well played with use of the sordino pedal on the instrument without inevitable musical logic but I felt more for attractive effect. It has four pedals with functions that resemble registration changes on an organ or harpsichord rather than the functions we are more familiar with on a Steinway or Yamaha. In the Chopin Polonaise she used all the effects possible with this instrument but I felt the dynamic contrasts were far too great to be fully acceptable. There surely has to be a musical logic here which escaped me. Even Francois Couperin did not suggest many changes of registration in his L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin.
The Oginski on the 1847 Broadwood provided us with another amazing contrast in sound. Finally the Ballade on the 1842 Pleyel which I found rather mannered in approach especially the beginning of the work. I felt spontaneity and invention was lacking here.
She began promisingly with some excellent ‘preluding’. Her Bach on the Buchholtz I found quite ravishing with the registration she selected. The Prelude with its spread chords sounded like a beautiful harp or lute being strummed. Such an unusual and alluring sound like musical Bruxelles lace. The Fugue was on the full instrument and pedalled. For some reason I was not so impressed by her grasp of the contrapuntal nature of the work. The Chopin Polonaise was on the Broadwood. She added some tasteful ornamentation and improvisations to the score which is a performance practice perfectly in period. One must however guard against exceeding acceptable bounds and ‘over-egging the pudding’. Certainly this was one of the most idiomatic versions of the Polonaise I have heard so far. It requires great courage and musical self confidence to tinker with the score in this way during a competition. Highly imaginative.
The Chopin Etude on the Erard was very accomplished. The Ballade opened like a cradle rocking or lovers in a gently undulating gondola on the Venetian lagoon at night. Certainly there was a clear musical narrative here of shifting moods or landscape of the soul, a sort of dream. I was put in mind of lying in a rowing boat in the summer gazing hazily at the sky above. She built the drama of disorientation embedded in this work to an almost irrational intensity of emotion. A coherent structure leading to calm reminiscence on the storm that has passed through the heart – a wonderful panorama of tensions and relaxations.
Finally the Oginski on the Buchholtz which I found wonderfully decorated and improvised. The sordino well utilized here. There was often an eruption of dance rhythms and images of a danced Polonaise came to mind with the noblemen stroking their prominent mustaches and arranging their sabres. Yes a scene from Pan Tadeusz. And so the dream or rather the ache of a Farewell to the Fatherland on the double sordino was truly wonderful and quite transporting in a way rarely experienced. I was very moved. A marvelous recital that fully utilized period performance practice and the instruments on which such practice was performed…
The Kurpinski was performed pleasantly enough on the Buchholtz. The Bach on the Broadwood was adequate certainly but lacked any truly personal interpretative view I felt. His attempts to explore the idea of added ornamentation to the Chopin Polonaise on the same instrument although imaginative were not entirely successful. I felt the improvisations were planned rather than felt to be spontaneous. The Ballade on the 1842 Pleyel was a highly competent rather than an inspiring and imaginative performance. The Chopin Etude possessed great clarity and fine articulation.
The superior authority of her pianism and sheer piano ‘technique’ over other contestants was obvious from the outset. But then if you consult her record in competition it is an enviable one at the highest international level – Cleveland (3rd prize in 2016), the Paderewski Competition in Bydgoszcz (second prize 2013), the Busoni in Bolzano (second prize 2007), the Tchaikovsky in Moscow (second prize 2004).
The Bach on the 1842 Pleyel was very fine indeed showing a natural affinity for the earlier instrument and complete control over contrapuntal and polyphonic voices. The early Chopin Polonaise was full of creative and imaginative expression but her relative inexperience performing on these period pianos did betray itself on occasion with rather sudden dynamic expressive gestures that touched the sound ceiling of the Pleyel harshly and may have been more at home on a modern instrument. The Chopin Etude was simply superb in its limpid cantabile, evenness, light virtuosity and expressive qualities.
In the Szymanowska Polonaise on the 1837 Erard she applied varied phrasing and articulation to alluring effect and varied the tonality imaginatively. There was always an alluring professionalism about her playing that one could simply not ignore. The Chopin Barcarole was a courageous choice given the difficulty of this work and performance on an 1842 Pleyel. I found it inhabited an imaginative interpretative sound world of great refinement of piano tone, touch and sound that gave me no difficulty in picturing the Venetian lagoon and the lover’s agitation.
The Bach Prelude was fine but the Fugue came across as rather too laboured for me. I felt she could have used the colour palette of the Pleyel (which she used exclusively throughout this recital) far more, possibly in the manner of organ registration or even cribbed some ideas from the clavichord. The Szymanowska was straightforward and pleasant but then it is hardly a visionary work. Concerning the Chopin Polonaise I think she approached it rather too seriously and through the filter of the ‘heroic’ polonaises and the fierce anger Chopin would later incorporate into these works. Many of the young contestants did this. Perhaps they should try to imagine Chopin as a carefree young man writing rather light but seductively melodic music in the Polonaise genre. Just a background flavour of the resented Russian military occupation loomed above like a dark but thin watercolour wash on a painting.
The Etude could have been a little lighter on this Pleyel. The Ballade provided us with much visual suffering but this was seldom reflected in the playing. Francois Couperin in his introduction to L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin suggests a mirror placed on the music desk to cure this tempting aspect. I could not help feeling with her significant musical talents she would have offered the listener no musical dilemmas on a Steinway and there is no shame in that!
One should remember that all these period instruments were hand built and each would have had its own very specific character. She may not have had enough experience on this particular instrument to extract the best from it. She occasionally broke through the fragile sound ceiling which tended to spoil her carefully constructed musical narrative and subtle affecting harmonic or dynamic transitions that spoke such volumes to us in the Ballade.
Justyna Kreft has accumulated quite a lot of experience on harpsichords and period pianos and has won a number of prizes. Her excellent understanding of Bach and the polyphony on the Pleyel immediately indicated this background. The Chopin Polonaise suited the 1847 Erard and its more straightforward sound and touch. However I felt she could have extracted a more beautiful tone from this instrument. Her ‘technique’ is certainly advanced but has yet to achieve what one might term ‘virtuoso elegance’. She performed in a perfectly Polish polonaise idiom but perhaps it could have been more stylish and elegant as Chopin was in his personality in those early days – the ‘Polish Mozart’ after all.
The Szymanowska also on the Erard was rather stylish, even elegant and idiomatically Polish. I felt this piece may have benefited from being performed on the Pleyel given its ‘salon’ character. The Chopin Etude was a brilliantly expressive interpretation and much appreciated. She approached the Ballade in rather a broad manner without being too preoccupied with inner details. The passionate nature of the fluctuating moods could have been more accentuated.
Here we have the Polish star of the competition whose portrait adorns walls and CDs are readily available just now in Warsaw. I was greatly anticipating this recital as I have listened to him developing with great pleasure since his masterclasses in Duszniki Zdroj many years ago now.
The Bach on the copy of the Buchholtz was excellent but a distinguished or unique voice was not present as one might have expected on this instrument. He began to utilize its expressive potential with the Oginski Polonaise. For example he repeated the main affecting and emotional theme with the double sordino stop engaged. He concluded the work with the single sordino which was remarkably effective in communicating the deep sadness of enforced exile, the carriage crossing the frontier leaving the treasured earth of Poland tearfully behind save for a canister of soil secreted in the luggage.
Strangely I felt the youthful Chopin Polonaise did not indicate the energy, melodic gift and creative strength of youth. So disappointing. It emerged as a rather weak composition and the echo effects he adopted added little to the overall impact. These effects merely seemed to etiolate the polonaise for me and turn it into a display piece for the instrument.
The Etude was impressively performed with some ‘hidden voices’ revealed which I had never been fully aware of. The Ballade has clearly been fashioned into a fully coherent musical ‘story’ with its wide-ranging moods. I felt here we had what I dare to call in 2018 the ‘masculine’ Chopin which is less finely detailed and effete than other less declamatory approaches to his music. The conclusion was beautifully elegiac.
Stage 1 Day 1 September 4
Click on the links for biographical and musical information
Clearly a fine pianist and cultivated musician on a modern instrument but on the Erard I found her rather straightforward approach to dynamic variation and absence of any significant extent of varied articulation rather worrying. Her approach to the period instrument seemed to me not particularly idiomatic. Despite her obvious musicality, this continued throughout her recital on the 1825 Buchholtz copy with her expressive phrasing rather too broad to be accommodated on these older instruments which require a rather more restrained, specialized approach and familiarity.
He began with an improvised Prelude, the activity known as ‘preluding’ in the nineteenth century, which is perfectly in keeping with these period instruments and performances on them. A lovely touch which he placed before each piece on his programme.
The Bach was satisfyingly played on the 1825 Buchholtz copy but I longed for a little more intensity in his approach to this, for me at least, a rather emotional composer (even in the Preludes and Fugues) that requires a stronger sense of forward momentum. The playing was gentle and clearly a full transition had been made to the period instrument in terms of tonal control and understated touch. The Kurpińsky Polonaise was a charming and pleasant return to the salon environment. He then moved to a magnificent 1842 Pleyel for the Chopin Etude. This instrument has a ravishing tone and range of colours which suited his cantabile. The seductively melodic, youthful Chopin Polonaise in B-flat minor was perfectly suited to the colour palette and chiaroscuro of this fabulous instrument and Ablogin’s rather understated approach to the keyboard. I can quite hear why Chopin may have called Pleyel the non plus ultra of pianos.
I was less pleased with the Ballade which was narratively incoherent at times. Sometimes a phrase was extremely well fashioned with seductive tone, touch and texture but then the narrative flow would be interrupted by a seemingly inappropriate ‘rush’ in the tempo and a harsh sound. One might say his expressiveness in the piece was occasionally inconsistent which was troubling.
This pianist is in possession of personality, charisma and character which was immediately obvious in his individualistic playing. His approach to the Kurpiński and young Polonaise of Chopin on the 1825 Buchholtz was idiosyncratic but rather fascinating in such a radical rethinking particularly of the rhythm. One could not help but ask once again where is the line drawn between acceptable individual interpretation and the dots on the composer’s stave. The Bach on the Pleyel was excellent and observed all performance practices without pedal and any overt interpretation – in fact it was such a return to normalcy that it seemed almost shocking to me.
The Barcarole unfortunately began with a crash into the wharf before the love voyage across the Venetian lagoon could begin. I wish pianists would realise that the opening sets the calm tonal mood of the beginning of the piece, rather like an atmospheric Turner watercolour of Venice. To my mind it is not a sfortzando statement. The only pianist who seems to recognize this is Kevin Kenner and his recent superb recording of this glorious masterpiece. An important lesson can be learned here from playing this piece on a period instrument. On the Pleyel, the dynamic range of the work is much restricted compared to the freedom a Steinway gives the player to exaggerate the passions beyond measure (and dynamic indications) as the excursion progress. The lovers have a disagreement over their commitment to each other perhaps, but this is not a storm in the Atlantic on the Titanic. It is merely an agitation of the spirit in a gondola on a Venetian lagoon. On such a magnificent instrument Chopin’s directive to ‘caress the keys, never bash them’ (or words to that effect) seems singularly appropriate.
Her wide and extensive experience playing the harpsichord and fortepiano was clear from the outset. The tone she produced and touch she adopted on the 1825 Buchholtz was very fine indeed. It sounded like a completely different instrument to those that had played it before. The Bach was excellent with the polyphony beautifully focused. The Szymanowska Polonaise was expressive as were the Chopin etude and youthful Polonaise. How I adore these early Polonaises of Chopin performed idiomatically with style and elegance as well as musicality and understanding of the colour palette of these period instruments.
The Ballade on the 1848 Broadwood was a coherent narrative, very expressive and poetic but for me the tempo was occasionally taken rather too fast and I just wished (like many young pianists) she would give the listener a chance to decode the harmonic developments taking place in the work and allow her phrases to breathe in a more relaxed way with more maturity and patience. Playing and listening are two different brain activities. Playing is encoding (to borrow a term from Linguistics) whilst listening is decoding, a completely different brain function. As listeners we need time!
Wota only performed Bach on the Buchholtz and the entire remainder of his programme om the 1848 Broadwood. I found his Bach more expressive than others with attractive articulation and clarity. He understands this instrument and its potential. In the Oginski Polonaise there was a rather attractive ‘Polish element’ (as Chopin might have termed it) to his playing. The early Chopin Polonaise could have possessed the Mozartian nobility and elegance that is present even in these early works of Chopin’s youth. I felt this pianist was academically very well prepared for this recital but could have been emotionally rather more ‘unbuttoned’. The Chopin Etude was rather unfortunate shall we say. The Ballade showed excellent understanding of this demanding genre and timbre of the period piano. I feel the work has such extreme mood swings throughout – beginning with this miraculous expression of childhood or childish innocence so rudely interrupted by the adult passions of experience. Much more could have been made poetically of the expressively emotional contrasts Chopin wove into the work.
The Bach on the 1838 Erard was rather too straightforward for my taste as were many of the approaches to Bach in this competition so far. On a recent visit to the Bach Museum and Archive in Leipzig I became graphically aware just how highly emotional in his work and turbulent employment relations and productive a man in private life Johann Sebastian actually was. This deep emotional side of his private life is plainly expressed in the passionately felt Cantatas. Why should this not be inescapably present in his keyboard writing even if the works had a mainly pedagogical intention. However I found his Kurpinski very attractively stylish and idiomatic – highly enjoyable and of period. The Chopin Polonaise although it opened rather heavily was expressive and poetic in such a youthful way. The tone he produced from the Erard was round and richly satisfying.
The Chopin Etude I found far too rushed and unsatisfying for the same reasons outlined above. The Ballade could have possessed more childish innocence in the opening but I liked the strong contrast of the storm of emotions unleashed. He built the narrative drama well yet I still desired more passion and urgency. Not too academic please!
He opened with Bach on the 1838 Erard and although he has a pleasant tone and touch on this instrument I felt there could have been far more nobility in this great work. He controlled the expression of the polyphony very well. The Chopin B-flat minor Polonaise is such an elegant early work with such an aristocratic demeanor. On the 1842 Pleyel I found his performance both tasteful in the Mozartian sense and was so alluring in sound quality on this fabulous instrument. The Szymanowska too was performed with a surprising degree of elegance and refinement. The Chopin etude was approached with excellent tempo and lovely tone on the Pleyel. There is such superb balance of registers on this instrument, so many sound colours available. This player produces a truly lovely rounded tone, ‘unctuous’ might describe it with a refined and elegant touch perfectly in period. In the Ballade he maintained an understanding of the musical narrative with beautiful cantabile, phrasing, articulation and rubato and some winning flashes of expressive feeling.
He chose the 1837 Erard for Bach but again I must confess I found it rather unfeeling for all the reasons outlined above considering Bach as a deeply emotional man. I found his dynamic rather unvaried. The Chopin Polonaise could have retained more lightness and charm as is typical of these early works – they are begging for expressive gestures of the ‘salon’ type with poetry and bon goût rather prominent. The concept of the ‘heroic polonaise’ we are more familiar with had not yet entered his cultivated mind. The Kurpinski was suitably pleasant for such an undemanding work. The Chopin Etude on the 1842 Pleyel was very professionally performed (he clearly has mastered the approach to period instruments) which reflected this pianist’s high level of training. The Ballade on the Erard was rather too emotionally mannered to my taste. But bear in mind that everyone has his own Chopin! I know of no other composer who so divides people emotionally as Chopin, a composer that a listener and his individual interpretation of ‘how it should go’ will defend his view of a work to the death !
Many of my observations concerning Bach as above still apply. She chose the Broadwood of 1843 but I was not attracted to the tone and her rather heavy touch on this instrument. However in the Chopin polonaise on the 1825 Buchholtz she utilized the colours and different keyboard registers very successfully. Certainly the ‘Polish element’ (as Chopin termed it) was clear and the interpretation was full of winning sensibility and charm. She also added some very tasteful ornamentation which I found affecting and perfectly in period. She produced a lovely ringing tone from this instrument. I found it astonishing how the same instrument can sound so utterly different under different fingers – something not quite so apparent on a modern Steinway.
In the Chopin G minor Ballade she used the different ravishing colors of the 1842 Pleyel very skillfully, particularly the magisterial rhapsodic bass one can produce. This sound world and the emotional connotations and associations in the heart and mind are utterly different to the evocations of modern instruments. She produced a luminous cantabile and in some of the chromatic scales that range over the entire compass of the keyboard, the colours available were displayed like a great rainbow of sound. A very satisfying performance altogether at a high level of accomplishment pianistically and in command of the period keyboard.
This was a highly refined and extremely promising recital. The Bach on the 1825 Buchholtz began for me perhaps rather too slowly and philosophically introverted and deliberate but developed perfectly. Her tone was seductive and her touch like velvet. This long and profound Fugue was built magnificently into an edifice with great control and understanding of the interplay of the complex and demanding polyphony. Again the instrument sounded so different under her hand!
She chose the 1848 Broadwood for her Chopin Polonaise. Such a beautiful piece in her interpretation, civilized life with a few hints of military undertones. What struck one immediately was the tremendous contrast in volume of the Broadwood compared to the more Viennese character of the Buchholtz – the masculine strength and full-blooded English character of these instruments – something that was always commented on in Chopin’s tours of England and Scotland. The contrast with the Pleyel used here in the competition is that between the English (le rosbif) and French character – we know what rivalry, even war, that led to in the past!
Of course I find the Oginski Polonaise on the Broadwood entitled ‘Farewell to the Homeland’ deeply affecting for quite inexplicable reasons, not being the slightest bit Polish but Australian. This was a finely ‘finished’ and beautifully prepared performance. An excellent choice of instrument. On the 1837 Erard she gave an outstanding account of the Chopin Ballade. The elevated musical accomplishments of this tremendously promising talent were evident to me from the first notes.
* * * * * *
As I did not attend the second Inaugural concert on 3 September as the programme was identical to 2 September and I know the approach of both artists to these familiar concertos well.
Inaugural Concert 2 September 2018
Witold Lutosławski Studio of the Polish Radio
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century
Pawel Szymanski À la recherche de la symphonie perdue
This composition was a world premiere of a work especially commissioned by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute for the inauguration of this competition. The work was dedicated to the memory of Frans Brüggen who died four years ago. He conducted so many memorable concerts with this outstanding orchestra in past Chopin i jego Europa festivals. I reviewed many of them in glowing terms and they have certainly not been forgotten. The Proustian reference in the title is rather clever and appropriate despite the lack of cake and tea to set us reminiscing.
The work consisted of rather well-orchestrated baroque and nineteenth century ‘symphonic’ reminiscences broken up by many unexpected interruptions and silences. There were also episodes of humorous aleatoric music reminiscent of more contemporary abstract compositions. The effect of this fragmentation for me was as if the composer was tossing and turning in bed in the small hours unable to sleep but fitfully dreaming and searching for, yes, la symphonie perdue. For the listener it was as if sound memory came in snatches of musical interludes of different lengths and densities, perhaps after a particularly impressive orchestral concert by the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, shall we say, conducted by Frans Brüggen in the Warsaw Filharmonia. The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century under Grzegorz Nowak coped well with all the sudden stops and starts and were clearly delighted by his lightweight and entertaining sense of humour as well as his more serious and heartfelt memories.
Fryderyk Chopin Piano Concerto in F minor op. 21
The eminence of Kevin Kenner as a pianist needs no introduction after winning the First Prize in the 1990 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (together with the Peoples’ Prize and prize for the best Polonaise), the recipient of the International Terrence Judd Award in London, and the Bronze Medal at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow (together with the prize for best performance of a Russian work). This is quite apart from appearances with distinguished world orchestras and conductors and his important academic, masterclass and professorial teaching work.
He has developed an enviable experience playing period pianos and I was very much looking forward to this performance. Even more as he chose a Pleyel instrument (1846) from the collection which as everyone knows Chopin considered the non plus ultra of pianos. These instruments provide challenges for a pianist that an Erard does not pose such as the single escapement mechanism (Sebastian Erard invented the modern double escapement) which limits the speed of repetitions and greater control over the sound one produces. The seductive colours and range of dynamics are alluring.
Together with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, this was a superb performance of the first concerto Chopin wrote. This orchestra is ideal for the realization of Chopin’s much discussed orchestration, in particular the beauty of the original instrument woodwind section. One never felt any limitations of inspiration here and the dynamic balance between piano and orchestra Kevin Kenner and the conductor Grzegorz Nowak achieved seemed ideal. There was such charm, grace, taste and elegance in this rather understated view of the work that I found absolutely appropriate to the unpretentious style brillante keyboard writing.
The opening Maestoso movement put one directly in mind of Hummel who so influenced early Chopin, although the melodic invention and development could have been written by no-one else. The Larghetto, arguably the most lyrical and beautiful love song of illusioned youth ever written, was deeply affecting. Chopin was 19 and studying at the Warsaw School of Music when his eye first embraced the soprano Konstancja Gładkowska. The yearning of a sighingly distant, unrequited, possibly undeclared love was beautifully understood by Kenner and the orchestral accompaniment. The con forza and appassionato were never exaggerated. Molto con delicatezza as directed by Chopin. The Allegro vivace is a Rondoand had all the vital exuberance of the kujawiak dance.
On a Pleyel,the delicacy and refinement of Chopin fioraturas,his luminous tone, the varied colours of the different registrations the period keyboard can produce (particularly the restrained bass) seduced us all. The ‘Classical’ in the process of transformation into the ‘Romantic’. Kenner allowed the music to speak naturally for itself which magically brought us so much closer to the inspirational source of Chopin.
As an interesting and diverting encore, Chopin’s last Mazurka in F minor Op. 68 No. 4 with some added charming embellishments and ornamentation by Kenner himself.
Fryderyk Chopin Piano Concerto in E minor op. 11
Szymon Nehring is one of the most gifted and promising pianists of the younger generation in Poland. He is the only Pole to win First Prize at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world. He has been at the forefront of Polish thinking and inspiration about the future of young Polish pianists ever since.
The E Minor Concerto Op. 11 of 1830, although the first to be published, was the second that Chopin wrote after the F Minor Concerto Op. 21. His rapidly increasing compositional skill is evident. The period of its composition was a period of chronic indecision for Chopin. He discussed endlessly with his family if he should venture out from musically relatively provincial Warsaw to the sophisticated worlds of Paris or Vienna. He wrote with uncanny prescience:
‘I’m still sitting here – I don’t have the strength to decide on the day […] I think that I’m leaving to die’
The concerto was premiered in Warsaw three weeks before Chopin left Poland forever. I speak often of historical context as it is vital to complete the musical picture. Surprisingly, even incomprehensibly for us, there was an intermezzo after the first movement of the concerto (‘thunderous applause’ Chopin wrote) when a singer, one Anna Wołkow, sang an aria by Soliva (a nineteenth century Swiss-Italian composer of opera, chamber music, and sacred choral works appropriately from a family of Swiss chocolatiers). Only then was Chopin able to play the final two movements.
A second singer after the conclusion, the very source of his adolescent romantic yearning, was Konstancja Gładkowska. Such poetic moments and reflections transport one out of this blighted world of ours into a more civilized realm of human endeavour.
I thought Nehring extracted much colour from the Erard (1849) with great refinement of touch, articulation and nuance too – I was most impressed with his approach to the period instrument. His control of pianissimo was subtle and moving, perfectly in keeping with the descriptions of Chopin’s own playing which Berlioz described as soft as ‘the playing of elves’ even requiring one to place one’s ear against the instrument to hear him!
The Romance. Larghetto in particular was exquisite tonally with rubato of great sensibility and affecting nuance.
The Rondo.Vivace was spirited and I really felt Nehring is a natural player of such period instruments. He had excellent rapport with the orchestra who are certainly the finest to ever accompany the Chopin concerti. The inaccessible ‘Polish element’ Chopin spoke of was present in abundance. A far superior performance of this concerto to the one he gave during the Chopin competition in 2015 – a curious thing music, ‘this cabbalistic craft’ Thomas Mann once observed.
As a popular encore, the delightful Chopin Mazurka in B major Op.56 No.1 played delightfully and with youthful energy.
This is the famous picture Chopin’s Polonaise – a Ball at the Hotel Lambert in Paris by Teofil Kwiatkowski now in the National Museum Poznań. This palace (the Hotel Lambert) was the Parisian home of the Polish magnate Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski and a centre for the volatile discussions of the ‘Polish question’ in the mid nineteenth century. There was an annual Polish Ball and Chopin is seen playing a small Pleyel instrument when the artist could easily have depicted him seated at a far grander piano. These instruments were not played against a wall as uprights are today but wheeled into the open area of a drawing room thus freeing their marvellous sound. As is clear the pianist could feel in close contact with the dancers. They were customarily equipped with ormolu handles on either side of the case and castors for the purpose of placement.
On the anniversary of Poland’s regaining of independence the Fryderyk Chopin Institute organized an event of extraordinary character. The 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments took place in Warsaw from 2-14 September 2018. Subsequent editions will be organized every five years. In collaboration with Polish Radio Dwojka or Polish National Radio 2, the Institute presented a full, all encompassing schedule of broadcasts and and critical commentary from period piano and Chopin specialist broadcasters. Some broadcast stages were covered by TVP Polish television.
In this context, restoring the authentic sound of music by Fryderyk Chopin and composers contemporary to him is particularly important. Approximating the original color and mechanics of the instruments the composer had at his disposal permits us to grasp the unique, specific character of Chopin’s music, with its one-of-a-kind articulation and harmonic language, in large measure lost in interpretations on contemporary instruments.
The Competition participants are pianists from all over the world, aged 18 to 35. The Competition jury is comprised of outstanding representatives of the music world whose artistic and professional activity situates them among the most distinguished specialists in the field of historical performance.
The Competition schedule provides for three rounds: the first and second are solo recitals whose repertoire – apart from works by Chopin – will include selected works by Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as polonaises by Polish composers active in the first half of the 19th century. In the third round, the six finalists will perform the Chopin works with orchestre of their choice, accompanied by the legendary Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, well known to the Polish audience.
The Competition participants have at their disposal period pianos from the collections of The Fryderyk Chopin Institute (Erards from 1838, 1849 and 1858; Pleyels from 1846 and 1854; and a Broadwood from 1843), originals and copies of period instruments brought in by European restorers and collectors. Aside from monetary prizes, the winners will also receive offers of prestigious concerts with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, as well as recording projects.
One of the main programming premises of the Competition is to popularize performance on period instruments. Thus, the expert commentary and coverage on Polish National Radio 2 (Dwojka), similar to the example of the 17th Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition, is of particularly importance. There will also be high-quality audiovisual broadcasting of some competition stages via Polish Television. The Fryderyk Chopin Institute is also creating a multimedia platform responding to the needs of music lovers all over the world.
The main prize winners shall be entitled to the title of “Laureate of the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments”.
The remaining finalists shall receive equal distinctions of 1000€ each.
30 Participants in the 1st International Chopin Competition on
We know the names of the 30 pianists who will take part in the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments.The young pianists’ battle will take place from 2 to 14 September at the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall.
The most numerous group of artists admitted to the Competition are representatives of Poland – 16 persons. Beyond this, the Competition’s participants will include 4 pianists from Japan, 2 each from Russia, China and France, and 1 each from the United States, Romania, Belgium and Ukraine.
One of the main programming premises of the Competition is to popularize performance on instruments from Chopin’s era.
Period Pianos – Institute’s Collection
The instrument was made in Paris 1838. According to the Erard company’s records, it was first sold on 12 December 1838. Mr Forkel and Mr Vigvier of Bordeaux became its owners. The piano’s serial numbers 14214. Made of mahogany wood, the instrument has an ivory keyboard with 80 keys [CC – g4]. All parts are original and in excellent condition, except the felt pads and the strings, which were replaced in the Erard factory in 1922. The action, especially its repetition part, is typical of the period in which the instrument was made. The piano has a beautiful, rich tone and works perfectly well.
Erard Piano 
This instrument was built in Paris in 1849. Marked with the serial number 21118, it is of identical construction to the instruments familiar to Fryderyk Chopin.
Its metal frame comprises a hitch pin-block [the strings are stretched between the hitch pin-block and the wrest pin-block] and six braces [counterbalancing the combined force of the taut strings, reaching up to 20 tonnes]. It is the predecessor of the cast-iron piano frame used today. The keyboard covers a total of 7¼ octaves, as in modern concert grand.
The original, historical substance of the instrument is preserved in its entirety, with the exception of the elements routinely changed with use. The instrument was restored using identical elements, made from the same raw materials and with the same technology, as in the mid-nineteenth century.
[The piano was a gift for the Fryderyk Chopin Institute from the Ryszard Krauze Foundation]
The instrument was built in Paris in 1858, marked with serial number 30315, rosewood veneered, inlaid with ormolu frames. It has an iron frame connected with screws, consisting of pinning table and six stress bars, a predecessor of the today’s full iron cast frame. Keyboard compass covers seven octaves (AA-a’’’’), like in modern instruments. The piano is equipped with a typical Erard’s hammer action, a prototype of the today generally used double repetition English action.
The instrument was built in 1846 in Paris. It has 82 keys [CC – a4]. It was purchased by the Chopin Institute in 2005 from the collection of Chris Maene. The instrument is typical of Chopin’s times. Its original, historical substance is preserved virtually intact, with the original hammers and soundboard. It has a single English action.
Pleyel piano [c.1854]
Pleyel piano no. 20042 (c.1854), from the collection of Adam Zamoyski, straight-stringed, in a case of veneered palisander with rich bas-relief elements of classical decoration, English Pleyel action with single repetition, keyboard range of 6⅔ octaves from CC to a4, possessing una corda and damper pedals. It is almost identical to the ‘petit patron’ model D, that Chopin used 1845-1846 in his flat at 9 Place d’Orléans in Paris. Until 2013 held at the Château du Lude on the Loire river in France, now in deposit at the Fryderyk Chopin Institute.
John Broadwood & Sons [c.1843]
A grand piano (serial no. 16000) made by a renowned English firm whose owners introduced many improvements to the construction of both upright and grand pianos.
Originally ordered from Broadwood by Georges Wildes of Manchester. Rosewood veneered, pie-crust model. Straight-strung, composite frame with six metal stress bars. English single repetition action with over dampers. Keyboard compass C2-f4, 6½ octaves; two pedals, una corda and dampers. According to company archives, twice repaired in 1855.
Fryderyk Chopin played on a similar instrument in a Gentlemen’s Concert held on 28 August 1848.
Fully restored, it has regained its original technical efficiency as a concert instrument. Purchased in 2014 by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, it now stands in the Birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin in Żelazowa Wola.
Pianoforte Graf [copy of an instrument from c. 1819]
A copy of the Schubertian instrument from c. 1819, made in Paul McNulti’s workshop in 2007. It was commissioned by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute. This type of piano was very popular in the early romantic era. Chopin probably composed some of his youthful pieces on a similar one. The instrument has the Viennese action with the so called single repetition. Unlike modern pianos, its hammers are covered with leather. Most of the strings are from iron wire, except the bass strings, made from brass. The instrument does not have any iron frame. It has four pedals – moderator, double moderator, sustaining and una corda – allowing to get a wide range of both dynamics and tone colours.
Fryderyk Buchholtz [copy of an instrument from c. 1824-25]
This instrument is a copy of a wing-shaped grand piano by Fryderyk Buchholtz of Warsaw from c.1825–1826, held in the Museum of Local History in Kremenets, Ukraine. It was based on the Viennese model which was popular at that time (built by the leading Viennese maker Conrad Graf, among others, and also employed by Polish makers). It was characterised by a case with rounded corners, resting on three turned column legs. The copy made by Paul McNulty is pyramid rosewood veneered, straight strung in plain 2- and 3-string unisons, with a Viennese action, hammer heads covered with several layers of leather, wedge dampers and a 6½-octave keyboard with the compass C1-f4. This keyboard is broader than the original Buchholtz keyboard (6 octaves, F1-f4), with several additional notes in the bass, making it possible to perform the works Chopin was writing in the late 1830s. This piano also has four pedals operating mechanical registers: una corda, moderator, double moderator and damper
This was really a lovely occasion and actually confirmed the decision you see below. They all played rather short pieces extremely well. Most of the competitors were absolutely exhausted mentally, emotionally and physically by this stage.
There was one outstanding moment however among this excellent playing – the performance of the Grand Duo Concertant pour Piano et Violoncelle sur des Themes de Robert le Diable Op.16A. The cellist Romain Garioud allowed himself to become the true artist that he is and did not hold himself back for the benefit of the pianist as he had done in praiseworthy fashion during the competition. Yeon-Min Park with her crystalline tone matched the rich tones of the 1760 Gagliano cello perfectly as did her complete understanding and command of the stile brillante. They understand each other musically and I hope they make a recording of some of these early Chopin works for cello and piano inspired by Chopin’s friend Auguste Franchomme and Prince Antoni Radziwiłł.It was a brilliant performance by any standards as was confirmed in conversation with me by the great violinist Kyung Wha Chung who happened to be in the audience. She has recently made a particularly fine recording on Warner Classics of Bach Partitas and Sonatas for unaccompanied violin.
Many people asked me did I agree with the jury decision and I answered that by and large I was in agreement but there are so many personal observations and emotions involved it is hard to come to a consensus in competitions. My notes indicate my fluctuating competition feelings I think…
The competition closed on a particularly happy note. All the contestants seemed to like each other immensely with great and affecting camaraderie. I could not help reflecting on a remark made by the famous French conductor, composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger when asked ‘Madame, what do you think makes a great as opposed to excellent performance of a piece of music?’ She replied ‘I do not know. It is some magic element that descends. I cannot explain it.’ So let us all hope for this magic element to invest the playing of all these remarkably courageous, hard working and extremely talented young people who take part in the grueling nature of piano competitions. My admiration is boundless.
Piotr PAWLAK (Poland) € 10,000
Katarzyna GOLOFIT (Poland) € 7,500
Yeon-Min PARK (South Korea) € 5,000
Michał SZYMANOWSKI (Poland) € 3,000
Nagino MARUYAMA (Japan) € 2,000
Misora OZAKI (Japan) € 1,000
Encouragement Prize for the best Polish non-Prize Winner Joanna GORANKO € 1,000
Mazurka Prize Michał SYZMANOWSKI (Poland) € 500
Chamber Music Prize Yeon-Min PARK (South Korea) € 500
Improvisation Prize shared between Piotr PAWLAK (Poland) and Angelo-Thomas CURUTI (Romania) € 500
Encouragement Prize for the best Finalist who was a non-Prize Winner XIN LUO (China) € 500
[Photographs by Hartmut Stolzmann]
Round III (Finals)
The eight finalists are:
Katarzyna Golofit (Poland)
Joanna Goranko (Poland)
Xin Luo (China)
Nagino Maruyama (Japan)
Misora Osaki (Japan)
Yeon-Min Park (South Korea)
Piotr Pawlak (Poland)
Michał Szymanowski (Poland)
Sunday October 15th
Before continuing with the contestants I really feel I must say a few words about the superb French cellist Romain Garioud who played the chamber music section with the finalists. On completion of the piano and cello pieces the jury gave him a standing ovation which is most unusual in the competition environment.
Romain Garioud was a laureate at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2001 and the Paris Rostropovich competition in 2002. Many other awards and prizes decorate his illustrious career. He is famous for his sound and inspired phrasing. Most recently he was invited to play for the Martha Argerich Project in Lugano.
The unctuous sound of his cello under his fingers and bow is absolutely magnificent – a mahogany, opulently rich timbre so suitable for the glorious melodies Chopin wrote, melodies that soared above us in the Orangerie like great birds on the wing. It is a cello by Nicolo Gagliano made in 1760. Gagliano is the name of a famous family of Italian luthiers from Naples dating back to the early 18th century. Nicolo Gagliano (1730-1780) is the most famous maker of the Gagliano family. They are so remarkable in sound they are occasionally mistaken for cellos by Antonio Stradivari.
Xin Luo (China) – Introduction et Polonaise brillante in C major op.3
This pianist always has an astonishingly original sound to my ears. He produced an appropriate glittering stile brillante for this early piece. The cellist was particularly warm and ardent in this work and achieved perfect co-ordination with the pianist despite the fact that one artist was operating in enveloping darkness. I felt it an astonishing human achievement. The conclusion was particularly stylish. Luo achieves a superb pianissimo denied many other pianists.
Nagino Maruyama (Japan) – Introduction et Polonaise brillante in C major op.3
Of course as mentioned before Chopin described this work written in Antonin at the end of October 1829 rather disparagingly as ‘nothing but glitter, for the drawing-room, for the ladies.’ It was written specifically for Prince Radziwiłł, a fine amateur cellist. Chopin took great pleasure in teaching the piano to the two young daughters of the Prince ‘two young Eves in this paradise’. It gave him great pleasure ‘to place her little fingers on the keys’. I felt this a good choice as the piano part is rather more exposed than in the sonata.
I feel Maruyama’s technique and sound are particularly suitable for this type of stile brillante music in the early Chopin repertoire. The cellist was both eloquent and supremely stylish in the French manner. I kept remembering the great Paul Tortelier, his sublime artistry too often forgotten today.
Misora Ozaki (Japan) – Piano Concerto in E minor Op.11
Just a few words about the orchestra and conductor before I begin this review. The Russian Chamber Philharmonic St. Petersburg is a significant musical ambassador for Russia and is a much sought-after chamber orchestra in Europe. They have attracted eminent soloists, conductors and performed in many prestigious venues. I felt they were not over-familiar with this Chopin concerto but under their conductor since 1998, Juri Gilbo, made a sterling effort with this deceptively approachable orchestral score. Gilbo is a distinguished conductor with an international reputation.
Seconds into the opening of the Allegro maestoso there was an almighty bangfrom inside the instrument. Sabotage by the masked inhabitants of the ceiling? A string had broken! Rather rare on a concert Steinway. A technician on standby was called and we were back to normal in about 25 minutes.
Always so disturbing for a competitor, any such interruption increases dramatically the psychological pitch they work themselves into. This may have caused her slightly restrained approach later. The movement had excellent and irresistible forward momentum with great clarity and intensity. Lovely beautifully prepared phrasing, leggiero passages brought off with delicacy and élan, a tone whose fineness struggled to be heard against the dynamic Russian orchestra. Everything was perfectly correct but I confess to being only occasionally emotionally moved by the impassioned passages. Excellent understanding of the movement’s structure and good co-operation with the conductor.
The Romanze-Larghetto possesses such an affecting immortal melody it is hard to imagine it ever being misrepresented. Ozaki maintained an aura of ardent yearning but it was rather too ‘straight’ in expressiveness for my admittedly slightly sentimental taste. Perhaps her youth only permitted limited emotional commitment.
The Rondo danced along agreeably. An excellent and at times electrifying stile brillante. Excellent rhythm as she began to wind the concerto up to its explosive final pages and coda.
Katarzyna Golofit (Poland) – Piano Concerto in E minor Op.11
There was a fine noble and measured grandiosity in the opening of the Allegro maestoso. Golofit is in possession of a lovely yearning tone in this movement, a definite communication of tragic and significant loss. A great deal of emotion is expended here and projected into the audience. Graceful rhapsodic sweeps reminded me of eagles taking updrafts in the High Tatras. There were calm moments of reflection and fiorituras as delicate as Koniakowska lace. She is able to build tension marvelously to spectacular climaxes and then to release and sail into the calm refuge of a harbour after the storm. With her superb phrasing, she communicates a feeling of unconditional love very effectively – expressive, emotional, sensitive, ardent and moving. The pianist seems terribly emotionally committed to this work.
The Romanze-Larghetto took me on an imaginative poetic flight. Bear with me as I fight to describe in concrete words the effect this movement had on me that day.
The divine melody at this slow tempo was perfectly ardent. Lethargy from dreams began to awake in a slow movement of unblemished, illusioned rapture. In sunlight-dappled groves, lovers lie in long grass by a stream among birches and willows as summer clouds drift hesitantly towards the horizon. The heart rises with the swallow as leaves fall and drift on a slight breeze. Gossamer spider webs glisten in the sun in this slow dance of the heart. A threatening shadow of doubt and a sudden cool chill in the air soon passes, the last pianissimo note of love thrown towards us by hand. Perfection.
The Rondo was a return to active life as opposed to dreams through the eruption of a joyful krakowiak dance. She built the momentum well here, but at moments fell slightly out of synchronization with the orchestra. Not a great deal of connection with the conductor yet the stile brillante articulation and building of tension was inevitable. Slowly we moved towards the final extraordinary pages with an irresistible energy that was quite marvelous. The concerto emerged as a complete coherent structure.
Yeon-Min Park (South Korea) – Grand Duo Concertant pour Piano et Violoncelle sur des Themes de Robert le Diable Op.16A
Another interesting choice by Yeon-Min Park. This rather marginal work was written for and dedicated to the great cellist Auguste Franchomme whom Chopin met in the spring of 1832, through Hiller and Liszt. Their friendship would last until his death.
In this work themes are initially presented then paraphrased.
The first to appear is the theme of Alice’s romance from the opera’s first act. In the Grand Duo, Meyerbeer’s theme is heard in E major – singing and graceful, between dolce and grandioso. The next theme (Allegretto in A major) was taken from the introduction to Act II. In the opera, it is sung by a choir. In the Chopin-Franchomme version, the choir retains the lightness and nimbleness of the operatic original, and even surpasses it. Finally, the third theme comes from the fifth (and last) act, part of a trio sung to the words ‘O, mon fils, ma tendresse…’ In the Grand Duo, it is played andante cantabile, in the key of B minor, The cello is to sing con sentimento. [Mieczysław Tomaszewski, Polish musicologist and editor]
The opening was suitably dramatic and operatic. Park blended perfectly and very musically with the graceful cello part (possibly written by Franchomme himself). She was lively and absolutely charming in the ‘salon’ style in which this piece was composed. She supported the cello augmenting it most skilfully. The cello playing by Garioud was absolutely marvellous and richly eloquent on this superb Gagliano instrument. So ardent and rich in timbre. I thought Park suited this type of chamber work brilliantly with elegance, lightness, élan and spirit, her sound and phrasing blending so well. This rarely performed work may have been presented in competition but it was truly a superb performance. The audience (and the cellist) highly enthusiastic. A natural chamber player. I a;so found the Mazurka in A minor op.17 No.4 played by Michał Szymanowski deeply moving and extraordinarily sensitive.
Piotr Pawlak (Poland) –Grand Duo Concertant pour Piano et Violoncelle sur des Themes de Robert le Diable Op.16A
I will not repeat the above save to say that Pawlak approached the work in a more jaunty, shall we say informal and rather ‘laid back’ manner, clearly enjoying his playing. The quality was very high, the rapport between the players excellent, it was just that the style of approach was rather different. Who is to say what is most appropriate in such a cosmetic piece? Highly enjoyable as testified by the audience enthusiasm. Why cannot our sometimes deadly serious piano recitals be leavened by such charming works rather than consigning them to the ‘unworthy of the composer’ outer darkness?
Joanna Goranko – Piano Concerto in E minor op. 11
The Allegro maestoso began in a suitable august and dignified manner at a moderate tempo allowing for the great expressiveness and authority of this pianist to show. I found her rather penetrating tone easily rose above the huge dynamic declamatory nature of this orchestra. However I did feel that it was a rather ‘angular’ Chopin without many nuances and did not quite flow as seamlessly as others. However in someone so young (16) she clearly has a precocious talent and extraordinary virtuoso authority. I did not find the Romanze-Larghetto particularly moving as she has not developed that elusive ‘giving’ nature that some pianists have in their emotional relationship with the audience. her relationship with the orchestra and conductor was not always ideal.
The Rondo was rhythmically charged, high-voltage and full of irresistible forward moving energy and momentum. Unfortunately this came at a cost of a few musical solecisms, possibly due to mental weariness – not at all surprising. Overall an understanding of the structure of this concerto but on the last night of the competition…
Michał Szymanowski – Piano Concerto in E minor op. 11
He opened the concerto with a noble and rather grand Allegro maestoso and maintained the extraordinary momentum of this concerto movement throughout. This was a robust, ‘masculine’ performance which is often a welcome respite from other more mannered and over-refined accounts. A few musical infelicities of a minor nature crept in at the edges like thieves in the night.
The Romanze-Larghetto was an excellent example of controlled emotion which was rather too restrained for a slightly sentimental person such as myself. Perhaps I have too ‘Romantic’ a view of Chopin. I know I should remember that he lies on the cusp of Classicism and burgeoning Romanticism. Szymanowski’s tone was warm and very engaging in this movement.
The Rondo had the excellent sprung rhythms of the krakowiak dance ‘as only a Pole can play it’. Chopin himself complained that ‘the Polish element’, as he put it, was often absent from otherwise excellent performances of his music. Here the understanding of Polish dances was certainly in evidence (as it was when he won the Mazurka prize). His stile brillante was clear, lively and also exciting, an indispensable element in this movement. The conclusion in the fingers of this most professional-seeming and authoritative of pianists was like a whirlwind that unleashed the irresistible force of Nature. Marvelous coda.
Saturday October 14th
Joanna Goranko (Poland) – Sonata for cello and piano in G minor Op. 65
She chose to play the opening movement – Allegro moderato. An impressive beginning with broad phrasing so suitable for this ardent cello partnership. Such a close musical connection between them was maintained throughout. She is an excellent chamber musician and brings her art forward with authority and full rich tone when required and retires modestly into the background when the cello sings with its ardent love melody. A precociously talented and very musical young lady indeed.
Michał Szymanowski (Poland) – Sonata for cello and piano in G minor Op. 65
He also chose to play the opening movement – Allegro moderato and the difference in style and approach was instructive. I felt it was a musical interpretation that revealed the character traits of modesty and co-operation, so essential in maintaining the gift of being a natural chamber musician. He worked well with this gifted and deeply musical cellist in a sensitive performance that involved many ‘conversational’ exchanges in the phrasing. He controlled his dynamic range well so that the ardent voice of the cello was never overwhelmed. Natural playing, organic and professional.
Yeon-Min Park –Concerto in E Minor Op. 11
I felt her Allegro maestoso opening had a suitably noble characterwhich is more than I could say for this orchestra which is rather variable in its quality of sound and dynamic. Once again the forward momentum so characteristic of Chopin was well established. Her playing was often dolce ed espressivo and I like so much the crystalline quality of her tone and extraordinary accuracy bordering on the immaculate. A lovely cantabile and bel canto rubato with a formidable build-up of energy towards the conclusion of the movement. Excellent grasp and command of the stile brillante.
The Romanze-Larghetto was elegant and graceful even though she did not seem to have established much eye contact with the conductor. Very fine playing but strangely enough for me, although so exquisitely beautiful in presentation, could be slightly more emotionally moving. However the music of Chopin wings above all such ‘dainty reservations’ and probably says more about me than the pianist. One must never forget that in any performance there are at least two people, it ‘takes two to tango’. Both performer and listener have to be in an ideal state for music at concerts to work perfectly on the emotional level.
The Rondo was dispatched with glittering stile brillant. I found this energetic krakowiak satisfying from many pianistic points of view. However the orchestra in this hall did tend to overwhelm this type of refined pianist. I felt she understood the structure of the movement, indeed the entire concerto very well, the conclusion being a marvelous display of glistening virtuosity.
Piotr Pawlak – Concerto in E Minor Op. 11
I liked a great deal the idiomatic noble Polish phrasing of the opening Allegro maestoso. I found his approach authoritative yet youthfully relaxed and carefree in attitude (he is about the same age as Chopin when he composed the concerto). A rather ‘masculine’ approach if I may be so bold in 2017. I found his phrasing and rubato natural and Chopinesque. However I feel he could (and many others too) at least vary identically repeated phrases. I cannot imagine Chopin playing a repeated phrase exactly the same. In fact he was well known for not playing even the same piece exactly the same twice – a characteristic of the composer pianist. I did not feel he had yet mastered the finesse of the stile brillante.
The Romanze-Larghetto had a charming sense of line and of course that ravishing melody. Simple but without sentimentality. I felt it to be rather too ‘straight’ for my taste but then again everyone has their ‘own Chopin’. However he approached it with the freshness of a youth with many illusions, as did Chopin I expect when he wrote it.
The Rondo was rather stylish and pursued with élan and panache. As it progressed I felt it was not quite as impressive as the earlier movements. The heady energy that builds throughout this movement must come to its culmination in the structural crescendo of the final pages which it did brilliantly. None of the earlier criticism of the concerto by mean spirited commentators in Chopin’s time was evident in this performance. I felt the orchestra, despite some reservations, was a real partner with this soloist and a useful dialogue existed between soloist, orchestra and conductor.
Warsaw in Chopin’s youth from the terrace of the Royal Castle by Bernardo Bellotto (called Canaletto)
Nagino Maruyama – Concerto in E Minor Op. 11
A noble opening to the Allegro maestoso with excellent idiomatic Chopin phrasing and a rhapsodic sound palette. I like the refinement of her tone and touch at the instrument very much. This is exciting playing which preserved Chopin’s miraculous genius for maintaining tremendous forward momentum in his piano writing. Cascades of pearls or sparkling water by this pianist preserved the stilebrillante influences of Hummel on the youthful Chopin.
Despite all this spectacular virtuosic playing and immense natural musical gifts, as I said below, I feel this pianist needs to immerse herself more deeply in the wider cultural context of these pieces. I do not single her out – many younger pianists (and older for that matter) need to read the poetry of the time, visit art galleries, absorb the spirit of the architecture and immerse themselves in the social and political history of the day.
The Larghetto had an inescapable beauty and her cantabile tone and eloquent legato suited this reflective music. The Rondo was bright and rhythmically exciting. She is a master of the glitter in the stile brillante and maintains that forward impetus so vital in movements of this kind in Chopin. Her relationship with orchestra and conductor was constructive.
Xin Luo (China) – Concerto in E Minor Op. 11
As with the true nature of love, words cannot capture musical experience. The emotional effects and time dependency of music really lie beyond the power of language to engage. However I try in these notes to at least offer a snapshot of one person’s response to an ephemeral art.
Anyone reading my reviews of this pianist will realize my inescapable emotional engagement in his having overcome an affliction through sheer courage and unimaginable perseverance. I will remain as objective as I can.
The first thing to remember as the concerto opens is that the pianist cannot see the conductor which puts great pressure on both soloist and conductor to co-ordinate and synchronize their efforts throughout.
The entry to the highly original Allegro maestoso was excellent. His playing is very musical and I am so taken over by his tone, colour and timbre which lead to such refined and sensitive fiorituras, so important in Chopin. There is a certain restraint in the energy and conviction he can bring to this movement as might be expected in the circumstances. His phrasing and bel canto rubato I feel is so idiomatically Chopinesque. In repeated phrases, the repeat is always differently articulated or dynamically inflected.
The Romanze-Larghetto, a miraculous ‘tone poem’, was tenderly laid over us like a silken sheet as we rode this magic chariot, taking us into the dream world of Chopin, a so gentle love song of still illusioned youth. Tempo seemed to be perfectly balanced with the emotional content. Pure sentiment but not sentimental or mawkish as it can be. Simplicity and beauty in his beautiful cantabile that seemed to move forward without motive force. Exquisite diminuendo and rallentando which only sought to emphasize the gossamer effects he was able to produce. A delicatissimo touch is possible for this pianist, a touch of velvet, so important in this concerto as a whole and a quality not given or utilized by many pianists.
The Rondo posed difficult challenges for this pianist clearly playing at the limits of what was possible for him. The miraculous dance momentum that Chopin produces in this krakowiak movement was preserved in the main but not always. Yet he managed to maintain a true stile brillante with delicacy and panache, even though the closing pages at the tempo he adopted seemed to defeat even his authority him on occasion. Ultimately the concerto emerged as a coherent cultural and structural entity with is deeply expressive purpose preserved. What more can one ask of a pianist sighted or blind ?
Misora Ozaki (Japan) – Sonata for Piano and Cello in G Minor Op. 65
In the three movements she chose to play (II, III, IV) she showed good co-ordination with the cellist and she listens closely to him. In the Scherzo she was lively and bright. The affecting Largo, which has quite an almost embarrassing emotional effect on me, was sensitive and had a lovely cantabile quality to it. In the Finale. Allegro there was a true dialogue between cello and piano which worked up to a satisfying conclusion.
Katarzyna Golofit (Poland) – Introduction and Polonaise brilliant in C major Op. 3
Chopin described this work written in Antonin at the end of October 1829 rather disparagingly as ‘nothing but glitter, for the drawing-room, for the ladies.’ It was written specifically for Prince Radziwiłł, a fine amateur cellist. Chopin took great pleasure in teaching the piano to the two young daughters of the Prince ‘two young Eves in this paradise’. It gave him great pleasure ‘to place her little fingers on the keys’. I felt this a good choice as the piano part is rather more exposed than in the sonata.
She played this charming piece with all the elegant panache I have come to expect of her. Excellent rhythm and a beautiful stile brillante. She has such an emotional commitment to her playing, clearly enjoys it immensely and warmed towards the cellist. She plays with joy and delight as well as communicating these affecting emotions to the audience.
Friday October 13th
Xintian Zhu (China)
I found this pianist very interesting but perhaps not for conventional reasons. She has such extraordinary facility and virtuosity at the keyboard it tends to almost distract one from the emotional content of the music. The F minor Ballade Op. 52 displayed her skills to a marvelous degree but I felt she needs maturity and perhaps more interdisciplinary studies to understand the literary nature of the Ballade and come to her own view of the genre in the time of Chopin. When she performed the group of Preludes (Nos 4, 7, 8, 9, 10) her virtuosity elevated No 8 in F sharp minor into a truly neurotic agitated work full of ominous apprehension. No 9 in E major came across as rather noble and majestic and No 10 in C sharp minor was absolutely stunning with her technique. I imagined gulls over white capped seas swooping for fish…a fabulous fragment.
In the Sonata Op. 58 matters became slightly more complicated. May I say she ‘commanded’ the Allegro maestoso. With her technique the Scherzo skittered along wonderfully and unusually she made the central section into rather a dance than a poetic meditation. In the Largo I again had this uncanny feeling of being a bird of broad wingspan, possibly a Polish stork, gliding over green meadows and fields. Soon clouds begin to gather which make me the nervous in flight and fretful. The length of this extraordinary movement remains a challenge.
For Xintian the Finale becamea tremendous display of technical facility with addictive rhythmic excitement and irresistible forward momentum. I felt her remarkable technique allowed her to take the work into a rather different world of meaning to that normally considered valid. An interesting phenomenon. A way of seeing Chopin filtered through Liszt. Remember Chopin once commented that he envied Liszt the performance of his own Etudes. Few pianists have the technical equipment to mange this.
All this being said, she would benefit in the depth of her interpretations with more background reading on the inner philosophical meaning of the sonatas and Chopin himself. I have always found the ‘Chopin Bible’ Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his Pupils by Jean-Jaques Eigeldinger (Cambridge 1986) an excellent beginning of one’s life’s work unraveling this composer, so mysteriously accessible yet at the same moment inaccessible to the young.
Angelo-Thomas Curuti (Romania)
Quite a display of courage to begin with the most substantial work on the programme, the Sonata Op.58. Jim Sampson in his book on Chopin for the Master Musicians series refers to the sonata we have heard so often in this competition as being ‘chiselled slowly and painstakingly from a rich and increasingly recalcitrant vein of inspiration.’ (p. 222). In other words Chopin found the composition of this late masterwork difficult in the face of his failing powers.
Curuti took the Allegro maestoso at a far more considered tempo than the other contestants, more ‘Germanic’ and correct as sonata form we might say. This allowed more interesting details to be revealed for us poorly equipped listeners who need time to decode what is occurring in the musical fabric, already so familiar to the pianist. I felt his approach neither neurotic nor hysterical – grave dangers in Chopin. Masculine yet expressive. He is in possession of a lovely tone and a soft, non-aggressive touch. The harmonic developments and harmonic structure were so clear through his sensitive and intelligent phrasing.
The Scherzo was scintillating. The central section very reflective, cantabile and rather poetic. His transition to the Largo, for me always difficult in terms of mood change, was smooth and not overly pesante despite it being marked ƒƒ in the score. Beautifully accomplished restraint of passion. What was ƒƒ for Chopin on a Pleyel may I ask? Without wishing to appear a period instrument crank, certainly it would not produce the same effect as on a powerful 9′ concert Steinway. Curuti did not sentimentally indulge the dream-like aspects but remained refined and elegant. The development of the rhapsodic song was very moving. Are there fitful shadows of Dinu Lipatti or Radu Lupu here or is this just my active imagination? He adopts particularly sensitive variation of expressive dynamics. Invention and organic growth come from within and not applied externally like a theater mask. An internal meditation on the nature of emotional loss in life.
The Finale grew out of the Largo in the nature of a natural organism flowering in a most beautiful, almost biological manner. In this movement he revealed many interesting counterpoint details I had not heard before. The entire structure of his sonata held together as a coherent whole, so well integrated. Very impressive indeed but not showy or ostentatious. His is an understated art.
The Berceuse Op. 57 had a superb piano/pianissimo opening. Again I felt the hovering ghost of Lipatti in his refinement of tone and touch. He established a beautiful balance between the right hand melody and the gentle rocking accompaniment in the left hand. This is a work of the rarest originality and he managed the ornamental filigree superbly. The Berceuse after all is a work not based mainly on harmonic or dynamic considerations, but a marvel of texture and sonority.
The two Op. 69 Waltzes brought me back to Lipatti yet again. The No 1 in A major was charming but not inflated, betraying a lovely nostalgic atmosphere. The ineffable adolescent yearning for love contained within No 2 in B minor was desperately moving (written when Chopin was only 19). So similar in its blighted lyrical atmosphere of unrequited love to the Romanze – Larghetto of the E minor concerto. His phrasing was deeply affecting with perfect rhythm and just a touch of anguish, like the last delicate brushstroke on an autumnal watercolour, a shadow passing across the glowing sun of illusioned youth.
And the composer wanted the Waltz burnt at his death…
Such a contrast then the Scherzo in C minor Op. 39. Such an almost inconceivable variety and depth of multiple personalities are contained within the single psyche of Chopin! This was a deeply expressive interpretation and so musical. Did I imagine ironic demonic laughter as an answer to serious statements of integrity and truth? Dark chiaroscuro clouds hover over sunny uplands, eagles hover above scurrying mice. He presented the conclusion like a great chorale but then in an access of that mysterious Polish quality of żal, a terrible fierceness and anger at the nature of fate overwhelms us in the coda.
Anton Drozd (Ukraine)
The Variations brillantes in B major Op. 12 were an interesting choice I had not heard before. Scarcely ever performed in concert. The historian of literature Ferdinand Hoesick referred to it disparagingly as ‘thoroughly distingué and salon’. Quite. Interesting however is the background:
‘In mid May 1833, the Opéra Comique in Paris was the venue for the premiere of the opera Ludovic, the last of the numerous operas by Ferdinand Hérold. Chopin, an opera aficionado, attended the premiere. Ludovic failed to gain any great notoriety or a lasting place in music history, apart from one of the ariettas or cavatinas, in rondo form, beginning with the words ‘Je vends des scapulaires’ (‘I sell scapulars’), which was popular for a while. It also interested Chopin, thanks to whom we know a little about Hérold’s last work today. Chopin used that cavatina as the theme for variations.’ (Mieczysław Tomaszewski)
I found it rather stylish but rather trivial reminiscent of Hummel, an often not acknowledged influence on Chopin in is youth and the stile brillante. Anton gave it a glittering execution certainly!
The to the Scherzoin B-flat minor Op. 31. rather dramatic in a virtuoso sense but needs slightly more sense of narrative drama building to that magnificent mighty coda. There are touches of Byron here and many daemonic elements that the pianist could investigate in this masterpiece that was popular from the moment it was first performed. The Waltz in A minor Op.34 No2 was brought off in a charming an elegant manner.
Then to the Sonata Op. 58. The Allegro maestoso was offered a highly competent performance. The Scherzo excellently articulated with a lyrical and poetic central section. The difficult transition to the Largo was skillfully accomplished and meandered sensitively with a clear improvisatory quality. His approach was very expressive but the length of the movement presented challenges in terms of its forward direction. The Finale grew out of the Largo quite naturally. I felt the movement slightly unprepared but he had a firm sense of the sonata structure.
Katarzyna Golofit (Poland)
And so began our ‘Polish afternoon’. The Ballade in F major Op. 38 was probably conceived in Majorca. The Gothic atmosphere of the abandoned monastery, surrounded by primitive Nature probably gave Chopin the idea of contrasting the music of a soft siciliana with a demonic presto con fuoco. Schumann recalled ‘At that time he also mentioned that certain poems of Mickiewicz had suggested his ballade to him.’ The Ballades are not programmatic works for Chopin based on Mickiewicz but one must remember that poetry was of tremendous and fertile significance to composers in the nineteenth century, a factor too often overlooked in coming to terms in modern times when poetry is scarcely read seriously, to interpretations of Schumann, Liszt and Chopin.
Golofit was emotionally warmly expressive as she began a definite narration. The two worlds of the real and unreal were brought together in almost shocking conjunction with the eruption of energy she brought to the piece and her formidable technique. She has a particularly passionate response to Chopin which clearly comes from deepest love of this composer rather than egocentric projection – there is a substantial difference. A fine performance indeed of this mysterious work so full of inner contradictions.
Then to the Sonata Op. 35 in B-flat minor composed in Nohant in the summer of 1839. She set the predominant mood of the sonata in the first four bars and two chords in the Grave with great weight and strength, full of ominous menace. The doppio movimento was as if she herself was galloping on a horse. Tremendous pent up energy lay there in this restless, pressing forward momentum of breathless rhythmic drive till the end of the dramatic first act of this balladic opera. She presented the Scherzo as if it contained a suitably demonic atmosphere with an unsentimental central section. Chopin when playing the sonata for some English friends imagined ghastly apparitions crawling out of the piano and had to rest briefly before resuming the funeral march.
Her Marche funèbre. Lento had a fine measured and tragic tempo. The whole sonata revolves around this, originally announced in the Grave at the outset and augmented later. The transition to the astonishing contrast of the sublime melody of the trio was beautifully accomplished.How are we to interpret this? Is it nostalgia for past joys of youth facing the inevitable catastrophe and negation of death? Is it a type of unhinged lament of spiritual madness as we find in Lucia di Lammermoor? Is it meant to be an ironical reflection on the ugliness, significance and nature of death and burial, the reverse of the coin of humanity? Each pianist must decide this for himself depending on his experience of life.
I loved the way Golofit tackled the Presto seventy-five bar conclusion to this masterwork. So many fanciful ideas have been floated concerning its significance. In form it is rather like an Etude and she approached it in this way. It was a brilliant interpretation full of interest. Powerful in tone but never harsh, full of highlighted counterpoint and fascinating almost atonal discoveries. My own feeling, being an expressionist sort of fellow, is that it depicts the mind in a state of grief, unhinged and conflicted in the way it can be when confronted with the existential inevitability of death embracing the affirmations of love. The entire sonata can be considered on so many levels concerning the significance of death, both nationalistic and the deeply personal.
Joanna Goranko (Poland)
She began her group with the G-minor Ballade, one of the most familiar and most often performed in concert. I found this passionate, idiomatic playing rather missing in nuances that could make it slightly more considered. The musical narrative nature of the Chopin Ballades has to be investigated at least by a pianist, Chopin’s fraught relationship with the poet Mickiewicz and his own personal resistance to making overt political statements in music although often called upon by Polish nationalists resident in Paris to do so. Her rubato was excellently judged and there was a sense of dramatic narrative. I found the tempos a little too hectic and what one might call ‘overheated’ as she wound herself up to a pitch of high excitement.
In the Sonata Op.35, composed in Nohant in the summer of 1839, her mobile facial expressions and deep emotional involvement expressed every passion passing through the score. Her account of the first movement Grave; doppio movimento had dramatic and convincing internal contrasts. Her cantabile was an expression of Chopin’s severe internal tensions and relaxations. The Scherzo was energetic and full of life but for me the central section lacked the expected tenderness of expression, the poetry of yearning and possibly unrequited love that has passed. The Marche funèbre began at an excellently judged tempo and in a haunting sotto voce dynamic. The cantabile central section, so mysterious and subject to so many varied interpretations, detached us from the earth in an aura of heavenly radiance. The Presto on the other hand conjured up very little of the supernatural or any other expressionist images one feels in ones’ imagination on hearing this quite astonishing and revolutionary, ambiguously referential, conclusion to a piece that revolves around the complex human response to death.
The Waltz in A major op. 42 was taken at too fast a tempo and dis not have sufficient lightweight elegance and élan. The Scherzo in B-minor was theatrically dramatic but not demonic as perhaps Chopin intended it to be in answer to his haunting ‘question’ that opens the piece. Not quite as impressive as in the first round I felt.
Michał Szymanowski (Poland)
He began with the Nocturne in D-flat major op. 27 No.2. His maturity and authority as a pianist was clear from the outset. The opening cantilena, yearningly beautiful, is the romantic core of this sublime work. André Gide, who was rather obsessed with the music of Chopin, wrote prescient observations applicable here in his Notes on Chopin (p.21):
‘[He Chopin] seemed to be constantly seeking, inventing, discovering his thought little by little. This kind of charming hesitation, of surprise and delight, ceases to be possible if the work is presented to us, no longer in a state of successive formation, but as an already perfect, precise and objective whole.’
Minimal and very skillful pedalling. Here was a beautiful tone, an example of seamless playing full of nuances, exercising a great deal of dynamic control. Lovely tone and touch exhibiting a full expressive range of colour. Sensitive but not sentimental. Note perfect.
The Ballade in F-Minor Op. 54, a great masterwork in Western keyboard literature, had a fine beginning to the narrative in absolute music. His colour palette and dynamic range were extensive and well judged. This was an unhurried and calm exposition that slowly built in tension. This challenging work developed well as an integrated structure, a cohesive and integrated structure of more or less dramatic or reflective episodes. His use of silence before the coda was so eloquent. He described the great turbulence of Chopin’s spirit at this time in his life in this performance. Szymanowski utilized inspired phrasing in the build up to the dramatic conclusion.
The Waltz in A-major Op. 34 No 1 had a definite ‘call to the floor’ at the outset which was well done. Chopin often includes this musical/social gesture common to ballrooms in the nineteenth century. Szymanowski’s marvelous sense of dance and movement makes it not surprising he won the Mazurka prize. The work possessed an excellent waltz rhythm with great variety of mood. He seems to me the most musically mature of the candidates. A brilliant waltz, I loved his sense of style and élan.
The Sonata Op. 58 Allegro maestoso had a very noble yet emotionally agitated opening. Beautiful transition to the cantabile song. His sense of structure and grasp of the movement was clear as well as the clarity of his articulation. He also persuasively expressed Chopin’s mercurial changes of mood, tone and emotive response in this movement. The Scherzo certainly possessed a Midsummer Night’s Dream lightness and elegance – by far the best scherzo I heard. The Largo evolved as a heartfelt love song with beautiful phrasing that showed qualities of delicacy, grace and refinement. I always had the feeling that we were feeling our way through an inspired improvisation. A landscape of the heart was explored, as emotional travellers we moved through mysterious chambers of the beating organ, each offering a different world of feeling. The audience were audibly silent and attentive as this panorama of emotions unfolded. It was as if we had been invited inside the psyche to witness a dream.
In the Finale reality, ‘raw in tooth and claw’, burst upon us. The music achieved terrific forward momentum (in the true meaning of that word). The momentum led us on and on as we seemed to race unhindered in a carriage along the roads of Wielkopolska. Great articulation here, a triumphal gathering of forces, a sudden decelerando followed by a powerful, unremitting masculine driving ahead into the hurricane of the coda. An absolutely magnificent, fully integrated rendition of this immensely difficult sonata.
Thursday October 12th
Misora Osaki (Japan)
The Waltz in A flat major was a very pleasant way to begin her group of pieces. Charming, lively and elegantly played. We then moved on to the Scherzo in B flat minor Op.31. Chopin always wanted the opening motif to ask a question. He often had his students repeat it many times until he was satisfied. I have continually asked myself what could this question be? Something to do with fate? Or should the sound merely appear to indicate the intonation of a question with no answer. Or is the answer contained in the scherzo itself? This was a most impressive performance overall, an account of great virtuosity but without sacrifice of poetry and sensibility. All I would say is that a dramatic edifice of was not built, which is the way I see the evolution of the work. However this performance was deeply satisfying.
Then a small group of Preludes which were charmingly rendered but for me did not have the ominous feeling of intransigent fate and the anger or possibly żal at the fading of life. The ‘raindrops’ in the familiar No 15 in D-flat major can be made to sound like a clock ticking away your appointed interval on earth, coarse grains of the sands of time falling inexorably. Chopin himself saw visions of monsters emerging from under the piano lid whilst composing it. The cadaverous face of death which almost drove him mad.
The Sonata Op.58 I found excellent pianistically and theatrically dramatic. The alternation of displays of resolution and poetic resignation were beautifully managed. That lyrical counter-theme (sostenuto, in D major) was beautiful, simplicity itself but also gathered about it a type of poetical elation. Her Scherzo was light, airy and elegant and later nostalgic. The transition to the Largo was rather heavy for my taste and I was not sure what feelings she was trying to express here. Serenity after regretful nostalgia leading to ultimate resignation? This movement can be played as an immense nocturne and thus must have a great deal of colour variation, dynamic variation and poetry to maintain interest in its immensity as a movement. Osaki’s Finale, the magnificent crown to the sonata,was both impressive and expressive. Occasionally I felt the meaning was lost but that curious quality of Polish żalcommon in Chopin became evident in the tremendous drive and impetus she brought to the climactic conclusion.
Liszt wrote of Chopin’s conception of żal :
“Zal! Strange substantive, embracing a strange diversity, a strange philosophy! Susceptible of different regimens, it includes all the tenderness, all the humility of a regret borne with resignation and without a murmur, while bowing before the fiat of necessity, the inscrutable decrees of Providence: but, changing its character, and assuming the regimen indirect as soon as it is addressed to man, it signifies excitement, agitation, rancor, revolt full of reproach, premeditated vengeance, menace never ceasing to threaten if retaliation should become possible, feeding itself, meanwhile with a bitter, if sterile, hatred.”
Yeon-Min Park (South Korea)
The jury may give extra marks to a contestant if they assemble an interesting programme. This may benefit Park as she assembled works not so often performed in concert. She began with the delightful Rondo in E -flat major Op.16. I found it delightful but missed the slight affectation which may come with correct observation of the articulation in the score. Artificial charm and elegance was so important in Society in those days, rapier wit and so much behavior considered politically incorrect in 2017. The stile brilliante reflects that enlivening human quality. A lovely piece indeed and she brought some delightful touches to it. However shorter phrase lengths would have made the brilliant aspect more obvious and possibly more stylish.
She then turned to the Scherzo in E-major Op. 54, another interesting choice. This was the last of the Chopin scherzos composed in 1842. This scherzo is different from the others in that it is rather brighter without many shadows of the demonic. The scherzo sounded absolutely beautiful and could be regarded perhaps as the expression of love (the central section) within its scherzo-like playfulness. She managed the awkwardness and shifting mercurial moods of the work particularly well. Her rendition was very expressive and colourful with a lovely singing cantabile in the central section possibly expressing love.
In one of his letters Heinrich Heine the German poet described music as ‘…a marvel. It has a place between thought and what is seen; it is a dim mediator between spirit and matter, allied to and differing from both; it is spirit wanting the measure of time and matter which can dispense with space.’
Park has a beautiful rounded tone of great refinement and clarity. Her touch is equally strong yet cultured which leads to inventive articulation, variety of expression, phrasing and flexibility in dynamics. She breathes her phrases very imaginatively. In the Sonata Op.58 the Allegro maestoso was possessed of excellent internal logic and largely successful harmonic architecture which brought to meaningful life and narrative drama. It was clear she had studied and understood the structure of this masterwork. Her cantabile is not sentimental but beautiful. The Scherzo was so full of internal life. Felix Mendelssohn would have delighted in the way the music speaks as lightly as leaves shivering on an alder tree.
In her wonderful Largo at times we floated on the clouds of reminiscence as of a Poland recalled by a sometime lover of the land, now living in exile. On occasion it was as if we were in an inspired glider catching thermals high above a gently rolling Polish summer landscape of birch, pine and willow. Supremely meditative and as if improvised in thought. There was enormous logic in the development of the Finale. Powerful arabesques of great dignity, beauty and fearsome power culminated in a magnificent and triumphant conclusion over the threats of domination. A prodigious expression of Polish resistance.
The finest sonata we have heard so far…
Piotr Pawlak (Poland)
Piotr began with an excellently performed group of 12 Preludes. The superb Ballade in F-minor Op. 52 was his next choice. The beginning of this work is actually in silence and the opening emerges out of this silence. He presented the main theme with innocent simplicity and the work emerged as a fine and deeply expressive narrative. There was variety, color and a sense of intimate personal engagement that comes particularly to Poles when they play Chopin. Very natural and eloquent phrasing made this an excellent performance of this elusive masterpiece.
He then turned to the Sonata Op.35. Despite being only 19, he had a strong sense of the structure of the work. A dramatic account of the piece. However I did feel there should be silence between movements. The Scherzo may have been slightly lighter but there were many highly energetic and engaging moments. The Marche funèbre was taken at a good tempo allowing for flexibility. Perhaps due to his energetic youth, he is not so acquainted with the idea of death which cannot be anything but a good thing. The lyrical middle section may be presented rather like the illogical mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia or reflections on past affections that have now passed over forever.One needs to be so sensitive here. The Finale. Presto was excellent with images of mad gothic goblins from the underworld dancing in abandon. This is the first occasion I have imagined such a scene.
Anna Pismak (Russia)
She began Round II of her competition recital with the Chopin Fantasy in F Minor – an ambitious choice. As this progressed I began to think once again that no composer divides listeners and sends them to the barricades as does Fryderyk Chopin. We all have our own Chopin and conceive of him differently.
Here she adopted a deliberate tempo but I found that her dynamic level although suitably urgent and impassioned, was rather undifferentiated. It was rather the same with the Ballade in F minor Op. 52. I felt the narrative flow of the absolute musical ‘story’ rather interrupted by passionate dynamic exaggeration which could be supremely creative in the right context but requires discipline. The Sonata Op.35 had a strong sense of structure and drama which was very satisfying. The Marche funèbre came off relatively well, especially the lyrical and reflective central section, probably inspired by loss of the loved one.
With a little more attention to dynamic discipline this fine and intelligent pianist could certainly go far as she has a complete keyboard technique, full blooming tone and authoritative touch.
Aliya Samoilova (Uzbekistan)
I liked this pianist from Round I and was looking forward to her recital. She began with an interesting piece I had never heard before, the youthful Variations in E major on the song ‘Der Schweitzerbub’ (Op. posth.). These were written at the request of Katarzyna Sowińska, the wife of a general. She was believed to have liked this popular German song about a yodelling young man from Switzerland in a version by a singer visiting Warsaw. She presented these charming salon variations in the Classical idiom as light and graceful in the stile brillante.
She then chose the first eight of the Op.28 Preludes. These marvelous fragments of concentrated emotion ranged from the dark and haunting, limping No: 2 in A minor to the thoughtful and moving No: 6 in B minor to a fragment of reminiscence for the lost worlds of the mazurka of No: 7 in A major. Samoilova was excellent in defining the deeper significance of these works.
These remarkable piecesremind me of the French author Nathalie Sarraute who is often grouped with the Nouveau Roman, a loose association of French writers who in the nineteen fifties and sixties and included Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Marguerite Duras. They influenced my writing in my youth. I remember she wrote a work entitled Tropisms. The texts were a collection of very slight moments or fragments of literary text with profound implications. She spoke about them in an interview in The Paris Review. In this penetrating reflection she could easily be describing the Chopin Preludes.
I knew it seemed impossible to me to write in the traditional forms. They seemed to have no access to what we experienced. If we enclosed that in characters, personalities, a plot, we were overlooking everything that our senses were perceiving, which is what interested me. One had to take hold of the instant, by enlarging it, developing it. That’s what I tried to do in Tropisms.
We then moved on to the Sonata Op.58. She made an excellent beginning in the Allegro maestoso. This was passionate playing and very committed. The Scherzo was delightfully light with a moving cantabile central section. The Largo took us on another journey into the world of philosophically reflective dreams. Under her fingers The Finale was replete with the expression of a powerful accumulation of forces beyond our control leading to that a magnificent and triumphant conclusion over the many prevailing adversities that fate and destiny present to every human. The universality of Chopin’s musical utterance is always so clear.
Natalie Schwamova (Czech Republic)
In Round I her beautiful tone and refined touch had seduced me. She began ambitiously with the Polonaise-Fantaisie Op. 61, in a moving performance of a complex work written when Chopin was moving towards the cold embrace of death. This work in the ‘late style’ of the composer was written during a period of great suffering and unhappiness. He labored over its composition and what emerged is one of his most complex works both pianistically and emotionally.Schwamova gave us a deeply considered performance that revealed both her formidable pianistic and interpretative talents.
We then moved on to the Barcarole which was really quite a beautifully toned impressionistic interpretation that addressed most of my performance reservations except when it came slightly more agitated towards the conclusion. In the Sonata Op. 58 she brought her personality and undoubted charisma to the performance. In the Allegro maestoso she revealed a deep and penetrating structural and emotional analysis of this great work through her excellent and well-schooled communicative piano technique. The Scherzo was rhythmically attractive and the cantabile central section poetic and eloquent. The beginning of the Largo was rather too pesante for me but she achieved an alluring sense of improvisation throughout communicating a skillful feeling of Chopin meditatively searching for accommodating harmonies at the keyboard. Quite an essay in understanding and maintained our poetic attention during this particularly long and difficult movement. The contrast the Finale was dramatic in her brilliant and passionate expression of Chopin’s emotional turbulence and tumult in his exalted almost transcendent expression of overcoming the seemingly impossible obstacles of human existence.
Wednesday October 11th
Yukino Hayashi (Japan)
She opened with the Barcarolle which did not begin with the terrible thump as if the boat had crashed heavily into the wharf at the beginning of the romantic voyage across the Venetian lagoon as is usual with this work. The lake become agitated in the course of the piece but some lovely poetic reflection remained and it was never absurdly overblown by cyclones and typhoons. However I felt it could have been even more poetic given that it is to my mind a love tryst that goes slightly wrong during a romantic encounter – as they can often do in life!
The Ballade in F minor Op. 52 was always going to be an ambitious choice in a piano competition, it being one of the greatest masterpieces in Western keyboard literature. The was clearly thought through as a piece of music but as a narrative, even opera, in absolute music I felt it straightforward rather than emotionally moving. As Chopin once commented himself in a rather tantalizing way ‘In an otherwise excellent performance the Polish element was missing.’ Would I really know not being born Polish (Australian actually) but I did imagine I felt this quality was missing.
Her final piece was the Chopin Sonata in B minor Op. 58. In many ways this sonata (still classical in its formal structure) is the very essence of Romanticism in music. The first and last movements possess the character of a Ballade, the second is a Scherzo, and the third is a nocturne. The Allegro maestoso first movement could have had inner tension and drama to some degree, the build up and release of pent-up emotion. The Scherzo was light and airy but the central section could have been slightly more lyrical and poetic. I felt the Largo to be both poetic and moving at times – but it is so difficult to maintain interest and momentum in this movement over the long period it takes to perform. A nocturne by any other name. An ‘aria of the night’ indeed.
The magnificent crowning Finale of this sonata is marked with the indication Presto non tanto. The conclusion needs to be supremely virtuosic and simply carry one away. The movement has the tone and nature of a Ballade. So impassioned is this movement that it has stimulated the imagination of many interpreters. For Marcel Antoni, it brought to mind an image of the Cossack Hetman Mazeppa on a wild steed chased by the wind. Iwaszkiewicz saw this music as a foretaste of the galloping of Wagner’s Valkyries. Both Jachimecki and Chominski heard in it an expression of a demonic nature. I felt that the expression of the true, close to demonic, nature of this movement was as yet rather beyond this young pianist.
Renata Konyicska (Hungary)
For the Impromptu in G-flat major Op. 51 she chose a surprisingly slow and deliberate tempo to what one is accustomed. For me this rather unusual approach made me uncomfortable.
She opened the B-flat Minor Sonata Op. 35 solidly and dramatically, but I could not help feeling at times it was just beyond her technical grasp. The Scherzo although correct could have been lighter in texture. Her tone verged occasionally on the harsh side but that may have been the lively acoustic of this hall and the piano itself. I felt she could make the piano sing more in the lyrical, cantabile central section. I liked her deliberate tempo in the Marche funèbre which maintained a ponderous yet attractive tragic simplicity in its doleful tread. Perhaps the grief stricken nostalgic reminiscence of the departed soul at its center could have been a little more cantabile as a sung reflection on the sadness of a departed love. The Finale was well brought off but could have been far more ominous and haunted in tone if we are to believe what it evokes of dreaded interment (Chopin was terrified of being buried alive) and of a funereal atmosphere, the grave bathed in moonlight.
I found her Nocturne in B-flat Minor Op.9 No.1 despite some reflective moments, rather missed that curious ambivalent poetry that Chopin can touch our hearts. The dynamics of the more inturned soulful moments could be better controlled. Of course the Waltz in C sharp minor Op. 64 No.2 is so well known we all have an idea of how it should ‘go’. I felt this interpretation could have been a little more elegant and the waltz rhythm more prominent in the left hand. Although not intended to be danced the music should dance (perhaps metaphorically even for the pianist and possiby abroad) all the same.
Finally the first Scherzo in B Minor Op. 20. This is a particularly demanding work. The dissonance and syncopation are rhythmically complex to master and very surprisingly modern. The B major central reworking of the Polish carol ‘Sleep, little Jesus’ is a lullaby that in this work gives little consolation, its gently rocking of the crib interrupted once again by stormy weather with a turbulent coda full of musical shocks of different types. I felt she gave a competent enough account of the piece but did not completely plumb the depths of its tumultuous expressive nature perhaps due to her youth.
Yurim Lee (Korea)
She opened with the Chopin Barcarolle or Barcarole. So few pianists seem to know what a Barcarole actually was originally, despite Chopin’s extraordinary development of the genre. It was a charming gondolier’s folk song sung to the swish of oars on the historic Venetian Lagoon or perhaps a romantic canal, often concerning the travails of love. To be fair, her Barcarole was attractive and not as storm tossed as some.
Editions of the opening octave of Op.60 vary. For me at least it is imperative to get this dynamic and duration correct as it sets the mood and tonal centre for the entire piece. Some editions give a sforzando marking, others simply forte with a staccato duration. At all events the gondola pushes off relatively gently from the pier, there is no violent incident, the boat rocks in the accustomed romantic barcarole rhythm and the love song begins. If one studies the score carefully the dynamic never rises above fortissimo (and then only briefly during the agitated coda). Most of the piece oscillates gently between forte, piano and pianissimo with only subtle degrees of heightened emotion throughout. Perhaps she could have been better prepared for this technically challenging piece.
An ambitious choice was the Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante Op.22. I found her Andante surprisingly affecting and tender with a lovely warm bloom to the tone colour. Chopin often performed it for friends as a separate work. The Grande Polonaise was begun in Warsaw in 1830 and completed a few months later in Vienna. Originally conceived for piano and orchestra it was his last great contribution to the stile brillante. To bring this off successfully the pianist must be in full command of the work technically – to achieve the lightness and glitter required of this style. The Introduction has to be a flamboyant, grand almost theatrical musical gesture which was rather missed. Her dynamic range was rather unrelieved by variation and the piece did not really ‘sparkle’ as it should. I have heard the finest pianists come to grief over this piece of deceptively possible music.
Her Sonata Op. 58 (which many of the competitors chose to perform to my surprise) could have had a slightly more noble and expansive exposition, perhaps be more urgent and passionate. Although somewhat convincing I found her expressive gestures ‘learned’ rather than spontaneous and recreated. The Scherzo did not have enough emotional content for me. The Largo (which can become interminable in the wrong hands) meandered along beautifully like a slow river across the Mazovian plain. However despite these superficial attractions it missed some philosophical or spiritual depth. Perhaps this is not fair on a young pianist and it is more likely to come with maturity. Certainly Lee is superior and rather sensitive in slow reflective cantabile music. The Finale – Presto, non tanto was performed well enough but could have had more of a feeling for the unrelenting and irresistible driving force of fate which I feel is at the heart of this tumultuous movement.
Luo XIN (China)
Naturally one is inescapably moved to see Luo Xin approach the piano with his guide. He orientates himself most carefully for some minutes before touching the keyboard. At the outset I always notice he has a beautiful tone and touch at the instrument which always affects me greatly.
He began with the Nocturne in D-flat major Op. 27 No. 2. The performance had a finely balanced lack of sentimentality or emotional indulgence (a danger many pianists fail to escape in Chopin nocturnes). The inner counterpoint and polyphony were present but beautifully understated. Delicate, tender and highly musical, his phrasing has a natural grace one associates with this composer. Refined and elegant. There is an ineffable sadness in his playing which remains floating delicately in the air like the perfume of a beautiful woman who has just happened to pass by. Perhaps it comes from his affliction…
The Scherzo in E major Op.54 illustrated his excellent use of the pedal (something not common in this competition). The cantabile and rubato he utilized in the rhapsodic song that lies at the centre of the piece was deeply moving. Such expressive and sensitive Chopin. His articulation was finely balanced and the mood whimsical and mercurial as it should be.
In the Sonata Op.58 despite getting slightly lost or sidestepping on occasion (utterly forgivable and unimportant) again one listened to a familiar and beautifully adjusted cantabile which gives such a strong sense of the singing voice. I felt he had a strong sense of structure in this Allegro maestoso with an acute sense of the dynamic range it requires. Felix Mendelssohn himself would have been happy with the Scherzo. The whole phenomenon quite wonderful.However it was in the Largo that I was more moved than in any of the other movements. He began the movement pesante yes but with a deliberate rather than the conventional insensitive and overblown dynamic thrust. There was an innocent, child-like simplicity in his playing which one scarcely ever hears in this movement. It was as if the cruel disillusionments inevitable in life were yet to come or possibly a mood of innocence recalled nostalgically. Fully breathed in its phrasing, the account was so expressive and so musical. The counterpoint sang. I felt the spirituality of this most difficult and seriously challenging movement in Chopin had somehow been mastered. Sometimes the voice that emerged was quite divine in the real sense of that word. A journey of the soul through the internal landscape of the heart.
During the Finale. Presto non tanto, agitato I began to be aware that he had presented the sonata to us as a great narrative saga painted across a panoramic landscape. The tumultous forward driving energy and momentum built up into a dramatic coda, an irresistible force of Nature.
Nagino Maruyama (Japan)
Such contrasts we are presented with in piano competitions!
She began her recital with the Fantasy in F minor Op.49. The difficulties in bringing together the fragmented nature of the are well known. Carl Czerny wrote perceptively in his introduction to the art of improvisation on the piano ‘If a well-written composition can be compared with a noble architectural edifice in which symmetry must predominate, then a fantasy well done is akin to a beautiful English garden, seemingly irregular, but full of surprising variety, and executed rationally, meaningfully, and according to plan.’
At the time Chopin wrote this work improvisation in public domain was declining. I felt her approach to be rather rushed and ‘overheated’ in a word. With many of Chopin’s apparently ‘discontinuous’ works (say the Polonaise-Fantaisie) there is in fact an underlying and complexly wrought tonal structure that holds these wonderful dreams of his tightly together as rational wholes.
As I listened to this great revolutionary statement of political subversion, fierce anger, nostalgia for past joys and plea for freedom I could not help reflecting how the artistic expression of the powerful spirit of resistance in much of Chopin is so desperately needed today – not in the restricted nationalistic Polish spirit he envisioned but with the powerful arm of his universality of soul, confronted as we are by the incomprehensible onslaught of evil and barbarism. We need Chopin, his heart and spiritual force in 2017 possibly more than ever before.
But what phenomenal talent for piano playing lies here! One of the most exciting Japanese players I have heard for a very long time. However I felt much was sacrificed on the altar of virtuosity and this continued throughout her recital.
In that great Western musical masterpiece, the Ballade in F minor op. 52, I again felt that her passion overcame some of the essence of deeper expression within the psyche in a narrative work that calls for deep philosophical and spiritual reflection. One cannot treat this piece as a simple virtuoso exercise, however spectacular (and her playing is certainly that) without doing a disservice to the soul of this profound work.
In the Sonata op. 58 I felt similarly. Granted, this is incredibly exciting, even magnificent and awesome playing but is the spirit it unleashes really Chopin or an appliqué mask of a fervid imagination? Chopin balanced his masculine and female natures quite wonderfully in his music – something not always evident here. The Scherzo was elegant but again rather ‘over-virtuosic’ (if there can be such a concept) and was not able to be slightly whimsical and charming. The Largo began beautifully and continued for some time to enchant and arouse deeper thoughts but tended to lose direction as a result of its great length, unlike the inspiration of Luo Xin. Certainly an extremely well-schooled pianist.
The great Polish musicologist Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski tells us that ‘One English biographer thought that the passion of the finale went beyond the bounds of decency’. I was reminded of a remark made by C.P.E. Bach in his seminal Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments):‘I prefer to be moved rather than astonished.’
I feel it would benefit this pianist to search for the poetry, heart, soul and sensibility in Chopin through reading the literature and about the artistic culture of the period rather than concentrate on the virtuoso elements of the music. Hopefully these qualities and the curiosity to learn about the context the pieces were composed in will flower in her maturity.
All this being said, she would benefit in the depth of her interpretations with more background reading on the inner philosophical meaning of the sonatas and Chopin himself. I have always found the ‘Chopin Bible’ Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his Pupils by Jean-Jaques Eigeldinger (Cambridge 1986) an excellent beginning of one’s life work unraveling this composer, so mysteriously accessible yet at the same moment inaccessible to the young.
Pjotr Naryshkin (Czech Republic)
Again the contrast could not have been greater. He began this second round part of his competition entry with the Barcarole. There is no need for me to repeat my comments on this piece above, save to say his interpretation emerged as a rather romantic argument on a liner in the Atlantic rather than a sensitive lover’s disagreement in a gondola on the slightly agitated waters of a Venetian lagoon. It is often the accepted interpretation of this masterwork.
I found his approach to the Scherzo in B-flat minor rather too ‘normal’ and the tempo adopted rather too fast for the listener to fully absorb the musical content. There could have been more sense of an internal dramatic narrative unfolding before us (so unlike the jury member Martin Kasik who performed it at the inaugural concert – see my review below). I felt Naryshkin, although clearly an extremely fine pianist,presented the scherzo to us as nothing more than a virtuoso piece of piano music – it is vastly more than that and signifies more. Some commentators of the time referred to it as ‘the governess scherzo’ as so many child governesses played it. Surprising as it so difficult!
The Sonata Op.58 was presented as a truly solid, well thought through, finely played, straightforward benchmark interpretation but perhaps could have had slightly more imaginative inspiration. I never felt he took any interpretative or technical risks which make piano playing such an exciting art. One could argue I suppose that he excludes himself and allows the music to speak unfiltered through the personality of the pianist. Is this desirable when the composer’s notation indicates the most general and vague notion of what he ‘really, really wants’? Analysis and thought are required to fill the silences, to fill what is between the notes and behind the notes. The restraint of passion or passion restrained.
In the Largo we wandered across the water meadows of Mazovia dwelling and meditating on love, life and the spiritual disillusionments of life. In this rather monochromatic interpretation I tended to tire during the duration of this admittedly long movement. I found the Finale brilliantly convincing in its four-square and passionate masculine intensity and forward force and tumult of clamorous emotion. The audience loved this well set up and handsome young fellow who played in such a ‘finished’ artistic fashion and so brilliantly. Who is to argue with that?
Tuesday October 10th
The special prize for the best interpretation of the Mazurkas was awarded to:
The special prize for the best Improvisation was jointly awarded to:
Angelo-Thomas Curuti and Piotr Pawlak
I do admire the courage of these improvisers. One may recall that during the 19th century most pianist composers were all admired improvisers (Chopin, Liszt, Schumann…). They performed largely their own music in recitals with perhaps an occasional piece they respected by another composer. The creative art of improvisation began to fade as the nineteenth century progressed and pianists began to perform entire programmes of music not of their own composition.
More modern pianists such as Dinu Lipatti retained the vestiges of this practice by improvising briefly in the key of a piece just before embarking on the performance of it. One of the greatest compliments that can be paid to a pianist today is to say that it sounds as if he is improvising or recreating the work before us. The recent Pletnev recital in the Chopin i jego Europa festival is a case in point. The astounding Rachmaninoff he produced appeared so spontaneous and composed at the moment the audience were mesmerized.
Piotr Pawlak busy improvising with hands and feet
The 18 chosen by the jury for Round II are:
Monday October 9th
In some ways today was Poland’s musical opportunity among the contestants and also a day for some excellent idiomatic mazurkas at last. In one case I was emotionally deeply moved by a group of mazurkas, the first time I have been really touched in this competition. I certainly felt as if wandering nostalgically along a river bank among the willows in Chopin’s beloved Mazovia, remembering nostalgically happier days or rumbustuously taking part in a village festivity.
Some of today’s contestants with their significant musical gifts will definitely move into the second round. However with some competitors I did keep asking myself what does this interpretation actually mean? Does the pianist have something meaningful to say about this piece? Too often one receives no answer to the question. While listening to many renditions of of Op.53 I kept asking myself ‘Does this young pianist know in any detail the true historical significance of Chopin’s great polonaises as artistic gestures of heroic spiritual defiance?’
Occasionally in some Études I felt as if the accelerator had been pushed to the floor on a Lamborghini Aventador with the caption ‘Never Lift’! Velocity without taste or expression. In one case however they were brilliant and convincing. Although the intention is to be ‘expressive’, nocturnes sometimes could have been more cohesive as they had been harmonically over-analyzed or became rather overloaded with indulgent emotional sentiment hindering significant forward movement and development. Occasionally expressiveness suffered because of simple technical limitations. Pedaling in general requires much attention in this competition. One nocturne however was particularly emotionally moving, a rare enough occurrence where the extra-musical dimension and associations of these works can be rather superficially approached.
One question I like to ask myself is ‘Would I like to hear this pianist again and in a different repertoire?’ The answer is always instructive and revealing. At least for three pianists today I would answer in the affirmative. They were able to project strong individual personality traits with various degrees of charisma. And there is nothing wrong with that as I indicated yesterday, controlled within sensible limits.
In a couple of cases, tone and touch had clearly been worked on intensively which is not always the case. This despite Chopin’s own teaching method which emphasized the development of a beautiful tone and touch above much else in piano playing. Given patience, a good ear and proper guidance a beautiful tone and refined touch will slowly, even painfully, emerge as a butterfly from the chrysalis. This is a surprisingly neglected area of pianism in 2017 keeping in mind the history of piano playing and the priorities of fine pianists of the past.
Tomorrow the decision on who passes to the Second Round is made at 3.00 pm CET. Also the contestants who opted to do an improvisation segment will be given this opportunity to display their talent for this art. I think this is a fascinating addition to this competition, although it is not considered as significant in the overall score for a contestant or considered in any way when judging their performance overall. It does not contribute to the competition result. At 1.00 pm they will each be given a popular theme or tune from Chopin’s day, perhaps from an opera or something similar and have a couple of hours to prepare the improvisation. This is an historical art of much importance that should certainly be encouraged today.
Sunday October 8th
My comments below from Day 1 apply to the second set of 10 contestants today with a few further general observations. Some 4 or 5 will be selected by the jury to progress to the second round. There will be a possible maximum of 18 for the next round but that is still to be determined by the jury.
Of course in such a competition there are many positive things to say as well as negative. Clearly some of the contestants are very musical and hopefully will develop strongly under correct guidance. Today I heard three or four outstanding talents who could well be finalists. My main observation is the extraordinary command of the instrument in pianists that are so young. Astonishing sense of structure and amazing digital command over the keyboard. There are points to consider however if some are to progress to a successful concert career.
Taking as established a competent ‘technique’, some fail to show organic playing from the heart but rather have absorbed interpretative gestures (perhaps from excessive listening to recordings) rather than coming to personal conclusions about the music. However amomg the contestants there are always beautiful moments. Often a grasp of the style that is required for a piece is absent or not understood. Again today the mazurka is misunderstood in terms of its intimacy, rhythm and dynamics. The significance of silence being as important as sound is often overlooked. I was both excited and moved by the authoritative performance of one contestant and admired the beautiful tone and command of style and sheer tonal beauty of another. A couple of the contestants seemed to me unprepared for such a demanding challenge as a piano competition.
Spontaneous expression can be often absent in a few cases and in its place a ‘learned template’ of rhetorical interpretative gesture is adopted. Dynamics may be forced or operate at unjustified extremes. Musical imagination may be wanting. The individual personality and character of the pianist needs to be present, an individual ‘voice’ but perhaps one cannot expect this in the very young. However without making invidious or unfair comparisons, they could listen instructively to the unique historic and personal sound and voice of say a Josef Hofman, Ignaz Friedman, Richter or Arthur Rubinstein. Finding your own voice and style is becoming more and more necessary as we are flooded with standardization in all walks of life. I felt at times scarcely any projection and authentic contact with the audience. It was as if the recital were taking place behind a pane of clear glass. Of course this could come from sheer nervousness and apprehension of being in a competition.
Could there not be more awareness of poetry, grace, charm and refinement for this ‘Ariel of the piano’ in 2017? We need not all be victims of our time. In the past the heart and its human reasons dominated musical motivation and appreciation above structure and Urtext for many great pianists. However one must always remember that the experience of playing in competition for the first time is vital for younger pianists who wish to build a career.
Saturday October 7th
I do not intend to review each of the 10 contestants today that took part in the first stage eliminations but rather give a general impression of the talents so fearlessly on display. It would be a huge workload that would prevent me from listening to all of them and deprive me of sleep entirely. I will begin individual reviews in Round II.
As usual the first day of Round I was rather a ‘mixed bag’ with a few quite outstanding talents showing great musical promise and one recital that moved me to the core. I would however make some general observations that apply to a few of the contestants.
As you might expect, many of the younger contestants have not yet found a distinct identity and could show more spontaneity and an organic feeling for the music as a whole. There seems to be in some cases a neglect of the imperative to produce a beautiful tone and seductive touch. Pedaling requires attention in many cases. As we know Chopin referred to the use of the pedal as ‘a study for life’ or similar significant remark referring to his music. So many over-pedal his music on the modern instrument. I prefer to be seduced into submission as a listener rather than beaten into submission as some of these young tyros seem to believe. Chosen tempos can be sometimes astray. Where is the poetry and refinement I keep asking myself?
Overall there is little understanding of the Polish mazurka in the hands of Chopin as a rather intimate piece of music, quite apart from the rhythmic solecism that turns it into a waltz. There is a tendency on the part of some contestants to sentimentalize the nocturnes and mazurkas. The polonaises in a few cases failed to display heroic character and Maestoso nobility, that very Polish militaristic characteristic of resistance. Many pianists could breathe more musically, think more deeply about phrase lengths and rubato. It is a real challenge for the young to understand what the composer’s best pupil Princess Marcelina Czartoryska described as le climat de Chopin. This could come from more background reading and teacher guidance to contextualize the music they are performing historically, culturally and artistically.
The blind pianist Xin Luo is living and working in what for me is the unimaginable darkness of the continually unknown, deprived of one of the greatest senses, that of sight. By some miracle he has managed to put together an entire Chopin competition repertoire. The physiological challenge this presents is simply unimaginable to a sighted person like myself. More objectively, which of course the jury must must observe, his playing was expressive and showed an idiomatic understanding of this composer whom he appears to have dedicated his young life to.
I was quite overwhelmed by this triumph of humanity. Heroic. His courage and sheer determination restored my faith and optimism in human nature, at least for an interval, beset as we are by mediocrity of mind, adoration of the golden calf and the horrors of war. So unexpected a spiritual rejuvenation for me in a mere piano competition.
Friday October 6th
The opening concert at 19.00 took place at the Orangerie, Bessunger Strasse 44 in Darmstadt. This fascinating and unprecedented inaugural concert was surely the earliest highlight of the competition. A small group of pieces were performed by each member of the distinguished competition Jury. Being of a nervous disposition myself, I felt it was absolutely remarkable that without exception they summoned up the courage to perform before their peers. An absolutely unique experience for me. Clearly a triumph of persuasion on the part of Jill Rabeneau, Vice-President of the Chopin-Gesellschaft. She also managed another coup which was to attract the Lord Mayor of Darmstadt to the inaugural concert for the first time.
Although Tobias Koch is regarded as specializing in rare undiscovered and seldom performed works, often on period pianos particularly by Polish composers, he is in fact a generalist in his approach to the piano repertoire, even tackling such exotica as piano pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen.
This ultra rare work by Chopin was unknown to me: ‘Composition Sketches for the Polish People’. Tobias performed it in a very affecting manner with moving expression and emotion, particularly the ‘Mazurek’ with its instantly recognizable Polish theme. A fascinating discovery for me…a charming piece of unknown Chopin ephemera.
Elsner (1769-1854): Rondo à la Mazurka C-Dur
I enjoyed this work very much, especially the sense of humour that Tobias brought at times to the performance.
Kurpinski (1785-1857): Polonaise d-Moll
Performed in a highly entertaining style with complete understanding of the rhythm of the polonaise, which is certainly not as straightforward a dance as it may first appear. It is not fast but must be performed with a type of graceful military nobility which allows the male dancer to adjust his sabre in its scabbard as he moves dressed in his kontusz and stroke and curl his fearsome mustache.
Stanislaw Antoni Szczuka (1654-1710)
Krogulski (1815-1842): Mazurka e-Moll à la Chopin
Such a charming work performed in a style that emanated the atmosphere of the period salon – which does not diminish the work in any way. I have always felt that this composer, relatively unknown outside his native land (and only to connoisseurs within it), has a true immediately accessible melodic gift which takes one on a space ship of time directly into the refined musical society of the elegant past. I recently heard his naive and entertaining Piano Concerto in E major played by Howard Shelley, written when the composer was a mere 15 years old. This engaging young genius suffered from severe ill health and his composing soon ceased.
M.K.Oginski (1765-1833): Polonaise a-Moll “Pozegnanie Ojczyzny” (Farewell to Home)
For me this polonaise, despite its familiarity, always summons up the true national spirit of Poland – always deeply affecting personally on a purely emotional level. Tobias gave us a highly ornamented and improvised arrangement of his own devising which I felt was quite brilliant. The brief contrasted mood of angered nationalistic resistance which invests the brief central section was a marvelous contrast to the noble dance.
Chopin: Polonaise cis-Moll op. 26
As might be expected with a Professor of such eminence in the interpretation of the music of Fyderyk Chopin, the polonaise rhythm was perfectly captured. He did not force the opening with a thunderous outburst. The entire piece was performed without exaggerated histrionics, in a beautifully controlled unsentimental masculine spirit. The lyrical central section, which always moves me immensely, was also performed without cloying sentiment, but being rather a ‘sentimental bloke’ I felt it could have had slightly more indulgent poetry?
Chopin: Mazurka cis-Moll op. 6
Here again the elusive Mazurka rhythm perfectly captured.
I.J.Paderewski (1860-1941): Legende op. 16
In some ways the Legende No 1 in A major from Miscellanea is rather like a Chopin Ballade in that it tells a story. Here Andrzej adopted a beautifully moderate and expressive tempo with a restrained tone and touch of great refinement. It begins lyrically and moves into what can only be described as an outburst of nationalistic anger given full expression by this pianist, but never harsh or crude. Is this the story of Poland and its battle against foreign marauders? Andrzej savoured the changes of key as the piece gently subsides with shadows passing across the changing harmonies until the closing chords of fatalistic acceptance of destiny. The finest and most eloquent Paderewski Legende I have heard.
Chopin: Variations on “La ci darem la Mano” op. 2
And so the superlatives continue. I must say I admired the courage in taking the risk to perform this demanding piece before her peers – anything can go wrong! The Introduction was full of variety and interest. Clearly Sabine has listened to the opera closely and it has become an organic part of her interpretation – such a rare thing among pianists. Of course Chopin adored opera and bel canto song which is evident in all his cantabile writing for the instrument. She adopted just the right tempo for sung arias, so hard to achieve.
The work was conceived by the youthful Chopin as a stile brillante exercise for the light toned instrument of Chopin’s day. Perhaps the magnificent Bösendorfer instrument used for this concert changed the tonal character of the work somewhat but what of that? It may well have gained something in the process. The chiaroscuro shadows of the Don’s final damnation and punishment passed across the face of the deceptively sunny landscape whenever that dark mahogany Bösendorfer bass sounded. She allowed herself to breathe between Variations and the well-judged pauses became expressive and significant aspects of the narration. She told me privately afterwards that Don Giovanni was in fact her favourite opera. Bravo! The finest set of variations on la ci darem la Mano I have heard and this was validated by the wild enthusiasm of the audience applause.
Le faux pas Antoine Watteau
Chopin: 4 Mazurkas op. 24
The first in the set had a deep and affecting nostalgia with many refined contrasts of mood. Her touch and tone are never harsh but always seem to caress the instrument and how this Bösendorfer responded. The return of the original melody was very moving. The second was replete with nostalgic reminiscence, a sort of dream of love to my mind with much expressive dynamic variation. In the third, memories of joy seem to preoccupy the composer, parties remembered. Finally for some reason, the fourth mazurka on this occasion conjured up landscapes of Mazovia where I often drive on minor roads listening to old recordings of mazurkas played by Jan Ekier. No invidious comparisons just mentioning it. Poetic willows, streams, lakes and ponds – a flat landscape of horizons and scattered clouds, with birches punctuating the azure of a kind Polish spring or summer.
Chopin: Nocturne f-Moll op. 55 Nr. 1
Ewa joined the final mazurka seamlessly to the nocturne as if this summer day was passing into a reflective evening. A rhapsodic love song emerged of great subtlety and refinement with waves of passionate intensity breaking over us until the dying fall of the nocturne played with most delicate pianissimo imaginable.
How different the Bösendorfer sounds under the fingers of each pianist. Astonishing when you consider the numerous articles indicating one cannot change the sound on a piano which is generated mechanically. Such commentators know nothing of tone and touch….
Dvorak (1841-1904): Humoresque Ges-Dur op. 101 Nr. 7
The Bösendorfer sounded particularly wonderful in this oh so familiar ‘world melody’ played in such an imaginative interpretation, so superbly expressive of this glorious tune so familiar to all of us no matter what nationality, universal. Wonderfully varied length of phrase, pauses and the taking of breaths pregnant with meaning and charm. Quite marvelous the elevation of this simple almost naive melody to the artistic realm.
Chopin: Scherzo b-Moll
The work was presented to us almost as a Chopin Ballade , an interpretation of drama and passion with many, many unaccustomed shifts of tempo and approach. Martin wound the drama up to a spectacular coda that would not have been so convincing without the care he took to build this story in sound to its inevitable and irresistible climax.
Dang Thai Son:
Chopin: Prélude cis-Moll op. 45
His first gesture was not to play but to remove the music desk from the instrument. Murmurs of bemusement from the audience. In this prelude Son took us on a dream journey of glorious and varied tone colour, deeply expressive emotionally as if creating a sculpture in sound textures. Here and interpretation of elegance and fastidiousness betraying the grace and finesse, the illuminating finish of a true artist, not simply a pianist.
Ravel (1875-1937): Jeux d´Eau
Again the colours Son extracted from the Bösendorfer with such cultured delicacy of tone quality, touch and phrasing quite swept me away aesthetically. Glistening water, the impressionistic ‘play’ of the ‘water games’ in fountains of the imagination or perhaps experience if one has ever traveled to the Villa d’Este near Rome and can recall their overwhelming material poetry. Certainly the work was inspired by Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este byLiszt from the 3ème année of the Années de pèlerinage. Ravel wrote on the manuscript:
Jeux d’eau, appearing in 1901, is at the origin of the pianistic novelties which one would notice in my work. This piece, inspired by the noise of water and by the musical sounds which make one hear the sprays water, the cascades, and the brooks…
Son conjured up this warm Italianate magic on a grey day in Northern Europe.
Ravel: Alborada del gracioso (aus „Miroirs“)
We were then treated to another warm journey to sunny Spain through the medium of this terribly demanding piece by Ravel, bursting with complex and eloquent Spanish rhythms. Dedicated to (I would like to think appropriately) Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, a French/Greek music writer and critic.
Here Son brought a quite fantastic degree of varied rhythm, articulation and detache playing. The second section gave me the uncanny impression it was being played under water, the sound magically veiled with supremely eloquent dynamic shading and impressionistic painting in sound. He brought brilliant and inspired rhythmic control to this work with artistic pedaling of an extremely high order of sound sensitivity and finesse. On the Bösendorfer a remarkable sound world emerged. Magical performance.
Chopin: Nocturne Des-Dur op. 27/2
Here Kevin gave us a wonderful love song, abounding in poetry and the perfumes of Sarmatia. A marvelous narrative in sound unfolded here and enfolded us in its nostalgic reminiscence of emotions once felt intensely but now faded into tender memory.
Chopin: g-Moll Ballade op. 23
And so the story in absolute music began…a small opera of great dramatic impact was laid out before us. There were passionate rhapsodic moments here that quite swept me away – what a fabulous sound he conjured from this great Viennese instrument, never aggressive, his cantabile was so seductive and reminiscent of song. Then moments of oceanic expansion and almost symphonic opulence as the narrative unfolded and moved towards that turbulent and tumultuous coda. Much of the time I felt he was improvising or at the very least, recreating the work before us. A wondrous and expansive performance full of theatrical and dramatic gesture.
A Fragment of the G-minor Ballade
This extraordinary and unique concert will take its place in my rather short list of truly seminal musical experiences.
The Magnificent Seven – Our Jury at the Bösendorfer Back row Lt. to Rt. Andrzej Jasinski, Kevin Kenner, Marcin Kasik, Tobias Koch. In the centre Dang Thai Son. Front row Lt. to Rt. Ewa Poblocka, Sabine Simon
Thursday October 5th
My Lufthansa flight from Warsaw to Frankfurt was uneventful enough. However the early morning traffic out of Warsaw towards the airport was horrendous and there were moments of sheer panic I might miss the plane. The jury and my good self have been accommodated in a very large conference hotel outside of the center of Darmstadt called ‘Commundo’. Of course Darmstadt was a casualty of British Bomber Command and is almost an entirely rebuilt modern German city.
Jill Rabenau, Vice-President of the Chopin-Gesellschaft, organised a private dinner for most members of the jury which was pleasant and full of amusement and bonhomie. I feel they will get on famously as all are distinguished musicians in their own right. No evidence of petty rivalries here, simply respect for each other professionally which was very heartening for an ‘outsider’ like myself. Excellent series of musical anecdotes, even a couple from myself.
Most of the jurors because of their teaching, masterclass, concerts and recording commitments never have sufficient time to practise and all were preoccupied with obtaining practice time. Looking forward to the inaugural concert tomorrow evening.
Details of the Competition
Since 1983 the Chopin-Gesellschaft in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland e.V. has been organizing Chopin piano competitions in Darmstadt which take place every three or four years and which have in the meantime acquired the status of a high-ranking international event. Through the Chopin Competitions the Chopin-Gesellschaft wishes to honour Chopin and his music, to further young talent and to never cease searching for ways leading to the best interpretation of Chopin’s music.
The competition consists of 3 rounds, the final round with orchestra. The age limit is 30 years. New in 2017 is the opportunity for improvisation in round one and the inclusion of a work by Chopin for piano and cello in the final round.
Since 2009 (with 130 applicants from 30 countries) the Chopin Piano Competition in Darmstadt is regarded by experts as being the most prestigious Chopin Competition after Warsaw:
“… as an international competition specializing in the works of Chopin there are few, if any, other competitions in the world which could be considered more important, except of course the Warsaw Competition itself…” (Kevin Kenner, winner of the prestigious Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1990)
“The Chopin International Piano Competition in Darmstadt takes a special place in the Music World. It is the most significant one next to the famous competition in Warsaw.” (Gustav Alink, 2013, founder of the Alink-Argerich Foundation, offering independent information and support for pianists and competition organisers worldwide.)
The competition receives its primary financial funding from the city of Darmstadt, the Sparkassenkulturstiftung of Hesse-Thuringia and the State of Hesse, to which the Chopin Society is profoundly indebted for the continued success of this event.
COMPETITION REPERTOIRE 2017
To be performed from memory in any chosen order. Mazurkas to be performed as a set, likewise études as a group or as a cycle in Round II.
Any reliable edition of Chopin’s works is permitted, though we strongly recommend, especially for the cello works in the final, the National Edition (edited by Jan Ekier) or the Paderewski edition.
Round I (Maximum time: 30 minutes – there will be a penalty for exceeding the time limit)
3 consecutive études from op. 10 or 25 (e.g. op. 10 Nos. 1,2,3 or op. 10 Nos. 2,3,4 or op. 25 Nos. 6,7,8 etc.)
1 full opus of mazurkas (free choice)
1 polonaise (free choice, but not Polonaise-Fantasie op. 61)
1 nocturne (free choice)
Candidates in Round I may, in addition to the above, choose to improvise for a maximum of 5 minutes on a theme which was popular in Chopin’s time and which will be given to them on the day. It is hoped that many candidates will attempt this, even though it is not compulsory. Marks will not be deducted for a poor attempt. The time for the improvisation will be added to the 30 minutes.
A prize of € 500 will be awarded for the best improvisation.
Round II (Maximum time: 50 minutes – there will be a penalty for exceeding the time limit)
1 complete cycle of études, either op. 10 or op. 25. No études played in Round I may be repeated in Round II.
1 major/longer work lasting more than 8 minutes (e.g. scherzo, ballade, rondo, Barcarolle, Fantaisie, Allegro de Concert etc.)
Any 1 or more works to make up a playing time of between 45 and 50 minutes
1 sonata (C Minor, B Minor or B flat Minor) without repeats
1 major/longer work lasting more than 8 minutes (e.g. scherzo, ballade, rondo, Barcarolle, Fantaisie, Allegro de Concert etc. or in this section 8 consecutive préludes from op. 28* (e.g. Nos. 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)
Any 1 or more works to make up a total playing time of between 45 and 50 minutes
*The 8 préludes, if chosen as a major work, must be played consecutively and may only count as a major work in combination with a sonata.
No works played in Round I may be repeated in Round II.
Credit will be given for an interesting and balanced programme of works.
Round III (Finals)
Concerto for piano and orchestra (E Minor op. 11 or F Minor op. 21)
The piano part of one of the following chamber works to be performed with a cellist provided by the competition (use of score permitted for this work):
Introduction et Polonaise Brillante in C major op. 3
Grand Duo Concertant on themes of “Robert le Diable”
1st movement (Allegro moderato) of Sonata for Piano and Cello op. 65 in GMinor
2nd, 3rd and 4th movements (Scherzo, Largo and Finale-Allegro) of Sonata for Piano and Cello op. 65 in G Minor
8 finalists will be accompanied by the RUSSIAN CHAMBER PHILHARMONIC ST. PETERSBURG under the bâton of JURI GILBO
Principles determining the choice of repertoire:
By giving a large amount of free choice in Rounds I and II, we hope to motivate candidates to explore the Chopin repertoire in more detail and discover for themselves what combinations of pieces are desirable and possible. A well-balanced and attractive programme might well assist the judges in making their final decision.
The opportunity for improvisation in Round I should be seen as an incentive for many young pianists to explore and develop the art of improvisation, nowadays widely neglected, especially since Chopin was such a great master of this.
With the inclusion of a chamber work in Round III (finals) we want to underline the tremendously important role that chamber music played in Chopin’s life – a fact that is frequently underestimated – and to give a hearing to these wonderful but far too rarely performed works. The choice given should allow all participants to find a work that best suits their personal situation.
COMPETITION IN 3 ROUNDS, open to the public
Saturday 7.10. – Sunday 15.10.2017
WORKS FOR PIANO SOLO BY CHOPIN AND IMPROVISATIONS
Saturday, 7.10. to Tuesday, 10.10.2017, 10:00-13:00 and 15:00-19:00 h