XI Darmstadt International Chopin Piano Competition 6 – 16 October 2017

A reproduction of a fragment of a picture depicting Chopin painted by Ludomir Sleńdziński (1951?)



Luisenplatz Darmstadt

From the Reviewer’s Notepad

Laureates Concert

Monday evening October 16 

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.16AThe 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.


  1. Piotr PAWLAK  (Poland)                          € 10,000
  2. Katarzyna GOLOFIT  (Poland)               € 7,500
  3. Yeon-Min PARK     (South Korea)           € 5,000
  4. Michał SZYMANOWSKI   (Poland)        € 3,000
  5. Nagino MARUYAMA   (Japan)                 € 2,000
  6. 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

(Hartmut Stolzmann)
Piotr Pawlak
Piotr Pawlak and the cellist Romain Garioud (and of course his Nicolo Gagliano cello of 1760 ‘I kiss him every day’ he told me
The poetic and emotional beauty of Katarzyna Golofit
Yeon-Min Park producing her crystalline sound
                                                                                                                      [Photographs by Hartmut Stolzmann]

Round III (Finals)

The eight finalists are:

  1. Katarzyna Golofit (Poland)
  2. Joanna Goranko (Poland)
  3. Xin Luo (China)
  4. Nagino Maruyama (Japan)
  5. Misora Osaki (Japan)
  6. Yeon-Min Park (South Korea)
  7. Piotr Pawlak (Poland)
  8. Michał Szymanowski (Poland)
The Orangerie in Darmstadt where the Finals took place

Day 9

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.

A Gagliano cello

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 bang from 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.

Day 8

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.

canaletto widok warszawy mnw detal06_5435165
Warsaw from the Terrace of the Royal Castle in Chopin’s day. Bernardo Bellotto called Canaletto

Yeon-Min Park – Concerto in E Minor Op. 11

I felt her Allegro maestoso opening had a suitably noble character which 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.

canaletto widok warszawy mnw_5435093
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 stile brillante 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 ?

Warsaw in Chopin’s youth from Praga by Bernardo Bellotto (called Canaletto)

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.

Round II


Day 7

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 became a 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!

opera comique
Opéra-Comique, Paris cir. 1830

The to the Scherzo in 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 menaceThe 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.

 Day 6

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 żal common 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.”
Jan Matejko – Stańczyk, the court jester, undoubtedly beset by żal
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.

Portrait of Prince Józef Poniatowski by Belotto-Canaletto

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 pieces remind 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.

Day 5

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.

Venice from the Lagoon 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
‘Venice from the Lagoon’  Joseph Mallord William Turner

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.22I 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…

‘Nocturne Sun’ Whistler

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.

November Uprising in Warsaw 1830

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.

The Venetian Lagoon by Joseph Mallord Turner

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?

Day 4

Tuesday October 10th

The special prize for the best interpretation of the Mazurkas was awarded to:

Michał Szymanowski

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:

  1. Curuti, Angelo-Thomas
  2. Drozd, Anton
  3. Golofit, Katarzyna
  4. Goranko, Joanna
  5. Hayashi, Yukino
  6. Konyicska, Renata
  7. Lee, Yurim
  8. Luo, Xin
  9. Maruyama, Nagino
  10. Naryshkin, Pjotr
  11. Ozaki, Misora
  12. Park, Yeon-Min
  13. Pawlak, Piotr
  14. Pismak, Anna
  15. Samoilova, Aliya
  16. Schwamova, Natalie
  17. Szymanowski, Michał
  18. Zhu, Xintian

Round I

Day 3

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.

Day 2 

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.

Day 1

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.


Tobias Koch:  

Chopin (1810-1849):  Kompositionsskizzen nach polnischen Volksliedern: Mazur, Allegretto & “Mazurek Dabrowskiego”

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)
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.

Andrzej Jasinski:

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.


Sabine Simon:

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


Ewa Poblocka:

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….

Martin Kasik:

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 by Liszt 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.

Kevin Kenner:  

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.


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)

  1. 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.)
  2. 1 full opus of mazurkas (free choice)
  3. 1 polonaise (free choice, but not Polonaise-Fantasie op. 61)
  4. 1 nocturne (free choice)

Optional Improvisation:

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. 1 complete cycle of études, either op. 10 or op. 25. No études played in Round I may be repeated in Round II.
  2. 1 major/longer work lasting more than 8 minutes (e.g. scherzo, ballade, rondo, Barcarolle, Fantaisie, Allegro de Concert etc.)
  3. Any 1 or more works to make up a playing time of between 45 and 50 minutes


  1. 1 sonata (C Minor, B Minor or B flat Minor) without repeats
  2. 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)
  3. 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)

  1. Concerto for piano and orchestra (E Minor op. 11 or F Minor op. 21)
  2. 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):
  1. Introduction et Polonaise Brillante in C major op. 3
  2. Grand Duo Concertant on themes of “Robert le Diable”
  3. 1st movement (Allegro moderato) of Sonata for Piano and Cello op. 65 in G Minor 
  4. 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



Saturday,  7.10. to Tuesday, 10.10.2017,  10:00-13:00 and 15:00-19:00 h

Akademie für Tonkunst, Ludwigshöhstraße 120

Etudes, Mazurkas,  Polonaises, Nocturnes, Improvisation



Wednesday, 11.10. to Friday 13.10.2017,  10:00-13:00 and 15:00-19:00 h

Akademie für Tonkunst, Ludwigshöhstraße 120

Sonatas, Cycles of Etudes and Works of free choice




Saturday, 14.10. and Sunday, 15.10.2017,  17:00-22:00 h

Orangerie, Bessunger Str. 44

Works for Piano and Cello by Chopin

Piano Concertos E minor, op. 11 or F minor, op. 21 (with the RUSSIAN CHAMBER PHILHARMONIC ST. PETERSBURG under the bâton of JURI GILBO)


Monday, 16.10.2017,  19:00 h

Orangerie, Bessunger Str. 44

Works for piano solo and piano and cello by Chopin


Jury members for the 2017 competition:

KEVIN KENNER, USA, Chairman of the jury

DANG THAI SON, Vietnam/Canada


MARTIN KASIK, Czech Republic



SABINE SIMON, Deutschland

Competition Website


N.B. I shall be travelling to Darmstadt on October 5th to cover this event in detail as the official reviewer in the English language

In case you want to follow an example of my coverage of piano competitions, here is the 10th International Paderewski Piano Competition November 6th-20th, 2016 Bydgoszcz, Poland


The Reviewer’s Notepad

If you wish, hover your cursor over photograph in the footer below of Michael Moran, the author of the ‘The Reviewer’s Notepad’, to view his complete profile.

Exotic Darmstadt – the Waldspirale residential building

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