Monday, 13 March 2017

Chopin's Birthday - 1st March 2017 - a Charming Day spent both at Zelazowa Wola and in Warsaw

Chopin's birthplace at Zelazowa Wola abut 50 kms from Warsaw

I decided to make the effort to attend the birthday recital at Zelazowa Wola by the brilliant and outstanding Chopin pianist Kevin Kenner. The intimacy I remember of my first visit to the dworek and hamlet in the early 1990s has disappeared with a quite understandable development of the site to cope with the freedom of global touristic movement that Poland now enjoys - restaurant, ticket hall, shop, recital and lecture theatre - the full unfolding of facilities for visitors but with the inevitable loss to the poetry of the domain. I would like to quote my first impressions of what was once a deeply poetic place. In an access of nostalgia the extract comes from my book abut Poland entitled A Country in the Moon.

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In late spring, in a despondent frame of mind, I decided to raise my spirits  with  a visit to Chopins birthplace  at  Żelazowa  Wola,  a hamlet about fifty kilometres from Warsaw. The flat Mazovian landscape was relieved by stands of trembling birch and pine; forlorn willows with gnarled boles lined the deserted roads. I had long anticipated this visit to what musically, for me, was an almost sacred place. I wandered  through the still and muffled park. A subtle atmosphere of reverence is created here among the groves of trees, the  serpentine  paths  winding  between hedges  and  over  the  little bridge above the Utrata  river. Long-leaved  aquatic  plants  flowed like Ophelias hair in the current.  It was almost dusk as I made my way to the softly lit entrance of the dwórek. I leaned against one of the columns of the porch  and looked  into the depths  of the park over the still pond with the dim carp.

I stooped to pick up a weathered chestnut and idly polished it on my coat. An old piano tuner I knew in Warsaw gave chestnuts from this park to piano students  at the conservatorium, telling them to hold  them  close  to  their  hearts  as they  contained ‘the  spirit  of Chopin’. He claimed he had also seen the disembodied hand of the composer  appear  on  a banister  in the dwórek  late one  night  after tuning the piano for a concert.

I pushed aside the heavy brocade and leather curtain at the front door. Only  about twenty-five people could be accommodated in  the  tiny  room.  A  brass  candelabra with  the crowned Polish  eagle resting  between  the branches  stood  on the small grand piano. Warm yellow light flickered on the portrait of the composer  and fitfully illuminated  the painted  beams of the dwórek. The young  pianist, a French  girl, had ambitiously chosen  to play both sets of Chopin études. Her little dog lay under the instrument fast asleep. Snow fell gently and silently against the windows and built up on the ledges.

A cloud hovers over the birth date of Fryderyk in a rather characteristic Polish way. The year 1810 is not seriously in dispute but the Chopin family insisted on March 1 while the baptismal certificate records a birth date of February 22. Celebrations in Warsaw occur throughout the week, which covers all possibilities.

At this time (1810) Warsaw was an extraordinary melange of cultures. Magnificent magnate palaces shared muddy unpaved streets with dilapidated  townhouses, szlachta farms, filthy hovels and teeming markets.  By 1812 the Napoleonic campaigns had financially crippled the Duchy  of Warsaw. 

The French Ambassador commented: 

'Nothing could exceed the misery of all classes . . . I even saw princesses quit Warsaw from the most extreme distress’.

Chopin spent his formative years in Warsaw during this turbulent political period and the family often escaped the capital to the refuge of the Mazovian countryside at Żelazowa Wola. Here the fields are alive with birdsong, butterflies and wildflowers. On summer nights the piano was placed in the garden and Chopin would improvise eloquent melodies that floated through the orchards and across the river to the listening villagers gathered beyond. To this day, the atmosphere is recaptured in summer when the windows of the dwórek are thrown open for recitals and the audience wanders in the elegant gardens or leans on the railing of the small wooden bridge and gazes into the dreamy waters of the Utrata.

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On this occasion I was astonished that only some nine people had come to hear this recital in this enchanted spot, so dear to the hearts of all Chopinists. There had been a last minute change of pianists and Kevin Kenner had courageously stepped into the breach at the last moment - all the more remarkable as he would also be required to give the birthday concert in the evening in the Warsaw Filharmonia.

He would be playing on an period Erard instrument. 

He opened his recital with an eloquent and deeply expressive account of the Nocturne in D-flat major Op. 27 No: 2. This led directly into the Barcarolle with ineffable gentleness. Kenner is the only pianist I have met who understands that the opening octave is simply a gentle gesture of push off from the wharf by the gondolier with his characteristically long oar, a way of setting the almost Debussyian impressionistic tonality of the work. To connect it to the Nocturne in this way was a decision of subtle and refined musical and poetic insight. In the autograph manuscript (Zweig MS 27 British Library) the octave is not marked sforzando in the way too many pianists (even among the greatest) begin a work that flowers in an arc from suggested, reflective emotional reticence by the lovers on the Venetian lagoon to the culmination of declared passion and its gentle subsidence into resignation and final triumphal security.

Then the Scherzo in C-sharp Minor Op.39 that was inspired by Majorca and the atmosphere of Valldemossa, interrupted by the composer's illness. Kenner has recorded all the Scherzos for the Chopin Institute Black Series on an Erard period instrument. I can do no better than quote the great musicologist Mieczysław Tomaszewski concerning this scherzo:

The music is given over to a wild frenzy, mysteriously becalmed, then erupting a moment later with a return of the aggressive octaves. And then… the tempo slows, the music softens. Like a voice from another realm comes the focused, austere music of a chorale, interspersed with airy passages of beguiling sonorities.

Kenner gave a convincing account of this extraordinarily passionate, bizarre work so repelete with seductive grotesqueness like a gargoyle on the cathedral of Notre Dame, a passionate unrestrained outburst of pain without persuasive relief.

The Waltz in E Minor Op. post. for me could have had slightly more lightness and rhythmic affectation. It is very personal matter how one approaches the interpretation of the Chopin waltzes, either as virtuoso display pieces taken rather up tempo or an expression of civilized nineteenth century grace and refinement with moderate tempi (rather as Arthur Rubinstein does). Very much a personal matter. Kevin Kenner of course played the piece superlatively well but possibly to seriously for me. The three Mazurkas op 56 Nos: 1, 2, 3 were of the highest order of interpretation with all the nostalgia for Poland and the artistic sublimation of the dance one could wish for - poetry, grace and refinement in abundance here.

The  Ballade in G Minor Op. 23 was a very fine performance that emerged like a dramatic narrative opera with shifting scenes delineated yet cohesive as a complete whole in a conception and (sonata?) form. The notion of a virtuosic catharsis at the conclusion was brilliantly brought off in this deeply ambiguous work. The tensions and relaxations of the thematic arch which contribute so much to its tragic nature, were outstandingly managed. The recital concluded with a majestic and noble account of the 'Heroic' Polonaise Op. 53  although I did feel on occasion the rhythmic nature and character of the polonaise genre itself was occasionally obscured by the spirit of patriotic resistance. 

Kevin Kenner and the Deputy Director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute,
 Stanislaw Leszczynski, in deep discussion concerning Chopin interpretation 

following the recital

After the recital I wandered in the still wintery park, bare of trees and people, reflecting on the nature of time, the seemingly inevitable juggernaut of 'progress' which eclipses the fragile poetry of intimacy, so fragile as to be rationalized out of existence at a stroke. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Warszawska Opera Kameralna (Warsaw Chamber Opera) - A Story of Unrequited Love

Contemplating the present disheartening turmoil at the Warszawska Opera Kameralna and my heartrending attendance at the next to last performance of Mozart's delightful confection La Finta Semplice, I feel that much of what I wrote five years ago concerning the turmoil of those years remains essentially relevant to the present case. I cannot remain silent and nostalgically look back to the 'golden years'.

Below are links to my extensive blog entries of that period and I suggest that those who are as appalled as I am by the apparent demise of this inspirational European artistic treasure should read with an air of nostagia what I wrote all those years ago - essentially we have returned to a most uncertain future. Stefan Sutkowski has left the building. Can his creative spirit return?


Monday, 20 February 2017

The Pocket Paderewski - Interview with Michael Cathcart on ABC RN 'Books & Arts' Programme Monday February 20 2017

It may appear as if I am neglecting my internet journal and I suppose I must admit to this. There have been few outstanding concerts or opera in Warsaw since the Sokolov recital although many fascinating relays of concerts in Poland and elsewhere in Europe by the superb Polish classical station Dwojka (Radio 2 of Polish Radio). A description of this blog could be accurately described as 'the labours of an intermittent Hercules'. Reviews of concerts are not encouraged in Poland. A complete mystery....

Over recent weeks I have been rather preoccupied with my further attempt to master the fiendish Polish language through attendance at a course at Warsaw University. 

Naturally the promotion of my most recent book in Australia has taken up a great deal of time.

'...this is better than most musical biographies. Moran's portrait of his sometimes enigmatic relative has immediacy and the images of Europe between the wars are vivid.'

                                                   Sydney Morning Herald and The Age  17 February, 2017

'He [Edward Cahill] witnessed the great events of European history from the Dress Circle. Not just a journey through a man's life but a journey through the twentieth century. Written evocatively and powerfully about music.'

                      Michel Cathcart, ABC RN Books & Arts, transmitted 20 February, 2017

You are able to hear and download the 20 minute interview if you wish using this link:

The book is available from Australian Scholarly Publishing 

Dwojka (Radio 2, the classical and cultural national broadcaster in Poland) and the technicians there were very helpful in patching through the interview I recently gave with the excellent ABC RN presenter Michael Cathcart on his Books & Arts programme in Melbourne.

There is also a less obvious link in the book at the end of the contents page which allows the reader to preview or download free the recordings of Liszt and Chopin by Edward Cahill that miraculously survived his peripatetic lifestyle.

                                                                     Edward Cahill

Also quite out of the blue I have been given an award by the University of Florida and the Eric Friedheim Foundation in the US for ‘outstanding contributions to travel literature’. They are generously flying me from Warsaw to NYC then Orlando for the award ceremony at the end of April. I received this extraordinary news during the closing stages of the Paderewski Competition I was covering in Bydgoszcz. You could have knocked me over with a feather!

Blog of the Paderewski Competition, Bydgoszcz :

Monday, 28 November 2016

Grigory Sokolov Warsaw Sunday 27 November 2016

This morning I try to write the account of a musical evening engraved indelibly on my heart and mind. Those of you who read my extensive notes know I can usually write quite rationally about music but this morning....I am still vibrating with what was presented to us...

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Sonata C-dur KV 545
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Fantasia c-moll KV 475
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Sonata c-moll KV 457

Robert Schumann – Arabeske op. 18
Robert Schumann – Fantazja C-dur op. 17 

How can words describe the overwhelming, profound experience of this great musical soul revealing itself....

All the Mozart was played far slower and at a more meditative tempo particularly K 457. Here was a thinking and deeply introspective, even philosophical Mozart. Ornamentation and inner details revealed as never before. The  C-minor Fantasia emerged as an improvisation of thought, searching for, touching upon harmonies and shifting emotions as an opaque sun is intermittently revealed from behind rushing winter clouds. Eloquent and touching with a curious, misty autumnal air perhaps not appreciated by everyone in Mozart.

The Schumann....ah...that the two works would be linked as the presentation of the anguish of frustrated but not unrequited love was so clear from the outset in the Arabeske. The father of Clara Wieck, with whom the composer was deeply in love, violently opposed what he saw as an obstacle to his daughter's pianistic career. He disapproved of Schumann as a possible son-in-law.

Sokolov played the Arabeske with intense, penetrating lyricism and heart-breaking poignancy as we moved toward his towering presentation of the Fantasy in C major. What can I say that is meaningful about this deep soliloquy on the nature of love and its lyrical poetic heights and flights of ecstasy, the warmest of love's emotions, the  haunting crevasses, the proud grandeur of overcoming....Perhaps it inflames the intensity of the response if you are in a similar emotional turmoil to Schumann or remember such a situation in your own life. Tears drawn from me by the deepest introspection. I am still trembling with the emotion of this musical experience and can write meaningfully no further about it, nor ever wish to do so. An unrepeatable, visionary moment. Music imbued with its ancient, magical power. Forgive me.

The many generous Schubert encores were equally moving as was the Chopin mazurka. He is very generous with encores - usually a minimum of six. An audience that had remained almost perfectly silent throughout erupted into tumultuous applause, cheers, standing ovations and general pandemonium. 

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Idly browsing my posts I discovered this review I wrote of a recital Sokolov gave almost exactly two years ago in Warsaw. It serves as an interesting comparison. Clearly nothing has changed for me. I let you read it as I was clearly in a more compos mentis condition when I wrote it, although some of the observations and even vocabulary are identical.

Grigory Sokolov - Warsaw, 16 November 2014 - A shattering musical experience

Strangely I go to few concerts in Warsaw these days. The reason became perfectly clear last night. As Thomas Mann said in Dr. Faustus 'Music is a cabbalistic craft.' The problem is that few musicians touch the soul with arcane magic, the spiritual source of all music as in the manner of this evening. I felt the entire programme was perhaps overshadowed, possibly even inspired, by reflections and elegiac thoughts on the recent death of the pianist's wife. Fanciful? Possibly. Certainly there was nothing 'interpretatively standard', no obeisance made towards the conventional in this recital. The utterance was of a creative artist.

Sokolov is what Russians call 'a soul' and this became evident from the opening note of his recital. The tempo he adopted throughout was rather moderate for those accustomed to a sparkling, energetic Bach. For me this was all to the good in the Bach Partita in B major BMV 825 (1726). I play the harpsichord and many feel such works should only be performed on this instrument. Such a consideration is utterly superficial and superfluous when you hear a musician such as Sokolov transform the work on the piano. Every note, every detail of the rich polyphony was in evidence at this moderate tempo. He extracts so much music from the implications within the score. He added some extra notes here and there which was quite in keeping with baroque performance practice. Bach tells us nothing except what notes to play not how to play them. This is the genius of Sokolov. He deeply considers the dynamic, articulation, phrasing, tone, touch, pedalling (a touch here and there), structure in fact everything he perceives musically he expresses beyond the notation in penetrating detail. And then he forcibly communicates this to us with his mind, heart and soul.

The early Beethoven Sonata in D major Op.10 No.3 was the next work before the interval. I think I have never heard this work in concert before.  Here again he adopted very moderate tempi which revealed usually unheard internal details. Sokolov made much of the small motif that begins the First Movement and allowed it to grow organically, even relentlessly with his phenomenal control over extraordinary varieties and degrees of staccato and legato. The melancholy and pathos of the Largo e mesto would move the very stones to tears. The audience was at one with the pianist in this movement. A powerful silence reigned as this conjurer drew us into the music. We were no longer simply an audience listening to a concert, we were inhabiting the heart of Beethoven's spirit. An extraordinary musical moment I shall treasure. This made the lyricism of the Menuetto even more powerfully joyful and sweet as if the sun had suddenly emerged from behind a cloud. The humour of the Rondo too benefited from the poignancy of the Largo. Then a central mood of rage erupted alternating with shifting emotions punctuated by grotesqueries and quirkiness. Sokolov has the ability to raise previously familiar and possibly underrated early works to extraordinary heights of magnificence and spiritual significance through his deep musical perception and the profound vital force that courses through him.  As the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote:

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood;
What can I say about his recondite interpretation of the Chopin Sonata in B Minor Op. 58 that could be of the slightest significance? Under the fingers and within the soul of Sokolov the work was transformed into a mighty edifice into an intensely individual conception of the work. Not everyone will like his view of this Chopin sonata...some I am sure would have been irritated. He added extra or different harmonies and progressions here too which did not bother me unduly. It upset the well-informed musical couple seated in front of me who gave a little tremble at this Chopinesque 'blasphemy'. However it may be a variant reading from another autograph edition of the sonata that Sokolov happens to have researched and likes. He does not strike me as a whimsical pianist. 

Again the glorious sound he produces, ravishing tone and his magnificent technique in so many different parameters of keyboard playing, drew us inexorably into the heart of his vision of the music, a rare and singular view of the work - so visionary and 'disassembled' in fact that it verged at moments dangerously on the mannered. Sokolov extracted every atom of meaning from the score. 'There are the notes, there is what is behind the notes and there is what is between the notes' to quote the great Ignaz Friedman. But this is to quibble and betray my own musical mediocrity faced with coming to terms with this unique yet self-consistent interpretation.

Tumultuous applause and 6 encores that lasted another 45 minutes! The new fashion is for three part recitals! Sokolov is very generous with encores in Warsaw. 

Three sublime pieces of Schubert - two of the Impromptus Op. 90 No: 2 and No:4 and the most heartrending account of the Klavierstucke in E-flat major D.946 No.2 I have ever heard. Sokolov understands Schubert as no other living pianist including Alfred Brendel - he conceives of a far more overtly romantic Schubert, a man of a more touching sensibility than the great Austrian pianist envisages. Tears.

Two dreamy and lyrical Chopin Mazurkas in luminous tone (no peasants present here) that drew us into the intimacy of a drawing room presided over by Prince Antoni RadziwillHis tone glorious, his touch like velvet in these works. The seductive perfumes of Sarmatia.

The last encore was a charming waltz by Aleksander Gribojedow that I had never heard before.

Tumultuous applause - shouts and general pandemonium. Cries of 'Genius! Genius!' which were a little too much for me...a new need by audiences betrays itself ? Up house lights otherwise we would have been there all night!

How lucky you are if you were in company with me as part of the audience in the Warsaw Filharmonia this evening. Such exceptional musical experiences are given to few of us. Not everyone would have liked this concert however as it was deeply reflective and elegiac in character, perhaps given the recent tragic circumstances of the pianist. 

The great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler considered music-making by composer or interpreter as an act of love. He felt Beethoven had clearly ‘loved humanity’ when he was composing the Ninth Symphony. This I felt tonight. I felt at once demolished, wrung out emotionally as I slowly walked home through the clammy autumn night. Yet I was also uplifted and inspired by this powerful manifestation of the tender and creative spirit of man in face of the great reality of death, surrounded as we are by unspeakable contemporary horrors on every side.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Edward Cahill Biography - Long -awaited and Now Published

Click on photographs to enlarge

Dust Jacket Design Amelia Walker :
This post is for those of you who may have been reading my blog over the last six years. In many posts I described my travails in writing this latest book, a biography of Edward Cahill, the glamorous but now forgotten Australian concert pianist. A long journey but a rewarding one. The book was published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in November this year.

Available at:

I managed to obtain three excellent reviews by eminent musicians of the rare private recordings of Liszt and Chopin that survived his peripatetic lifestyle. They generously made time from busy international schedules to listen via the internet to his recordings. This link will be printed in the book for readers to access. It will add a remarkable extra dimension and element of discovery to the biography of a now forgotten musician. His life was one that young pianists of today could only dream of living - a captivating social portrait of charm, leisure and refinement that has vanished forever.

I am eternally grateful for this gesture of support towards preserving my chronicle of a fine Australian artist of the past (who just happened to be my great-uncle).

His rare private recordings are available to listen to on this link  if you feel so inclined.

                   Opinions of surviving Chopin and Liszt recordings by Edward Cahill

The Cape Town studio recordings of Edward Cahill made in 1955 confirm him as a marvellous musician who was able to play magisterially but limpidly, full of charm and yet with forensic intelligence and insight. One can only regret not knowing sooner about this great artist, and I for one wish to know and, if possible, hear much more of him!

Dr. Leslie Howard

Distinguished pianist, composer and musicologist 

Acclaimed performer of Liszt

* * * *

Cahill plays throughout with irrepressible spirit and energy. The character of each piece is clearly projected and his appreciation of what the music is 'about' is faultless. It is easy to visualise his virtuoso panache.

James Methuen-Campbell 
International authority on Chopin interpretation

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Cahill's playing is passionately driven, full of excitingly forthright strength, but with a formal grip and sense of cadence that give it true command, shot through with unmistakeable touches of originality and tonal nuance. 

Piers Lane
Australian pianist of worldwide distinction

Full dust jacket of The Pocket Paderewski 
(low resolution - you will need to enlarge to read)