Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Pocket Paderewski : The Beguiling Life of the Australian Concert Pianist Edward Cahill

Cover Design Amelia Walker : www.ameliadesign.net
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 will be published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in November this year.

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

* * * *

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

                                                           * * * * *

In my internet 'notepad' I will shortly be officially covering in detail each day of the

X International Paderewski Piano Competition
Bydgoszcz – Poland 
6th-20th November 2016
 on this internet link


Saturday, 10 September 2016

NIEDENTHAL CHOPIN - From Martial Law to Fryderyk Chopin - Book Launch at the 101 Project Gallery of Modern Art, Warsaw, Poland

Click on photographs to enlarge

NIEDENTHAL CHOPIN - From Martial Law to Fryderyk Chopin 
Book Launch at the 101 Project Gallery of Modern Art
On the closing evening of the Chopin i Jego Europa Festival  I noticed a melee in the foyer of the Filharmonia. Who did I see but the famous Polish photographer Chris Niedenthal signing copies of his 'fresh off the press' book NIEDENTHAL CHOPIN - The 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Competition. He had been contracted by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute to cover the 2015 competition in photographs. 

This exciting moment was followed a couple of weeks later (September 8th) by the official book launch (cocktails, vodka, snacks) at the strikingly attractive, industrially deconstructed 101 Project Gallery of Modern Art in Central Warsaw - at 4 Nowogrodzka Street. There was also a recital of Chopin by the talented young pianists Krzysztof Markiewicz and Katarzyna Mróz. 

Appropriately for a Niedenthal event the police were present initially with agitated and tense expressions - they soon relaxed and disappeared after realizing it was merely an innocent 'happening' and no tanks likely to appear.

A portrait of Chris Niedenthal at the book launch
Chris Niedenthal is a British-born Polish photographer. He has lived in Poland since 1973, when he came to visit for a few months and stayed, eventually covering all the events that happened in the country after the 1978 election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II. For Newsweek he photographed the strike in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in 1980, the rise of the Solidarity movement, the imposition of martial law in December 1981 and later, as a contract photographer for TIME magazine covering Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, he documented the world-changing events of 1989 both in Poland and the neighbouring socialist bloc countries.

He has published several photographic books on the socialist years of Poland’s history. He lives and works in Warsaw.

This picture taken at great personal risk by Chris Niedenthal in front of the now demolished Moskwa Cinema in Warsaw (showing at that time Francis Ford Coppola's  Apocalypse Now)  during the imposition of Martial Law in Poland in 1981.

This became an 'iconic image' of that truly great character trait of all Poles


This is a quality that suffuses so much of Fryderyk Chopin's music

The Polish composer has always been regarded by coercive political regimes as a subversive force and his music censored

There are many wonderfully unposed, spontaneous photographs in here capturing the fleeting and strong emotions of a fiercely contested piano competition.

The book is superbly designed in large format, finely matt printed in excellent colour on heavy art paper in a slip case with two marker ribbons

Cartier Bresson eat your heart out!

Surely a ground-breaking book

Chris wrote this account of the genesis - the how and why - of the project for me which I pass on to my readers.

The invitation to photograph the competition for a book came out of the blue during the summer of 2015. Having been a political photographer for most of my professional life, the idea of spending 3 weeks cooped up in the Warsaw Philharmonic sounded a bit dismaying. It was however, an invitation I could not, of course, refuse. And 3 weeks in the concert hall it was. 

It turned out to be - rather obviously I can say with hindsight -  a marvellous, scintillating experience. Watching almost 80 young people from all over the world doing their best to try to win this exceptional competition was something many a photographer could only dream of. Catching all the emotions was my main objective: those of the young players; those of the experienced, “battle-worn” jury members; those of the audience and yes, even my own emotions. I am no expert on classical music, and certainly not on Chopin. For me, the contestants all appeared to be playing well. But I had absolutely no problem with listening to Chopin’s beautiful music for 3 weeks virtually non-stop.

Actually photographing the whole spectacle was not all that simple. To start with, you have to contend with the fact that all the contestants tend to be highly-strung: hardly surprising, of course. So the presence of a photographer is not something they relish. Shooting the recitals and auditions was not too easy for the simple reason that you cannot move around. During practice sessions yes, that was possible, within reason. Otherwise, you chose your position (from the balconies, from the stalls, or from the stage behind a TV camera} and you could not budge before the playing was over. To get away from just shooting in and around the concert hall I managed to persuade a few of the contestants to go to a nearby cafe or just for a walk around the city. In the end, the results are in the book that has just been published. Hopefully, I managed to capture the unique atmosphere of the competition. Luckily for me, this will be a memory I will cherish for a long, long time. 

                                                                                                                                     Chris Niedenthal

One of the rooms of this extraordinarily imaginative art gallery
The rare and historic Swedish Malmsjö baby grand piano on which the recital was given.
The pianist  
Krzysztof Markiewicz  on the far left about to begin
The opening address by the 'main men' - held in the street outside the gallery with passing cars brushing coat tails - very modern and chic indeed

Lt. to Rt. Stanisław Leszczyński (Deputy Director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute), Leszek Szurkowski (Book Designer) and Chris Niedenthal  (as ever behind his Leica)

Chris Niedenthal in the midst of the melee of admirers outside the 101 Project Gallery

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

12th Chopin and His Europe Festival (Chopin i jego Europa) Warsaw, Poland. August 2016

                                           From Mozart to Bellini

And so it is straight into this excellent festival after Duszniki Zdroj! 

August in Poland is always dominated by outstanding performances of music in Warsaw with the additional time stress in writing an internet journal of my personal impressions. It is a great pity that you as a reader (if there are any out there) cannot refer to the substantial book that accompanies this festival which is one of the finest examples of serious programme notes and musicological introductions to both festival, concerts artists and music I have seen. 

The Artistic Director of the Festival Mr. Stanislaw Leszczynski is to be heartily congratulated as ever for putting together such a fine collection of artists in what has now become a major European musical event.

I would like to go to everything but as is the case with many summer music festivals in Europe (Saltzburg, Verbier, Bayreuth, Cheltenham, the Proms) sometimes as a 'retired' person one simply cannot afford to attend all the marvellous concerts on offer (however relatively inexpensive they may be) and one is forced into making invidious choices. Ho hum...

The reviews below then are just a selection of the excellent concerts on offer that I felt able or was practically able to attend.

For the full gamut of concerts here is the festival website link:


Photo Gallery of the entire competition here: http://festiwal.nifc.pl/pl/multimedia

Inaugural Concert Monday 15 August  20.00

This concert was dedicated to the memory of Bohdan Pociej (1933-2011), remarkable Polish author, musicologist, writer on music, music critic and populariser of music. The posthumous publication of his book The Polishness of Chopin was celebrated at this festival in 2013 in the presence of his graceful widow. At the 2013 concert the audience were each given complimentary copies of the book. Beautifully written essays on music that put mine to shame.

      Bogdan Pociej in 2005

A party atmosphere certainly prevailed among the infectiously enthusiastic members of the European Union Youth Orchestra under their youthful and handsome conductor Vasily Petrenko - one concert in their 40th Anniversary Summer Tour. They were joined by the I, Culture Orchestra, an orchestra consisting of outstanding young musicians from Poland and the Eastern Partnership countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Formed in 2011, the Orchestra exists to use the act of performing music to bring together people from these countries, some of which have long histories of tension and war. By rehearsing, tuning, touring and performing together these young musicians communicate and learn to trust each other in ways that resonate beyond any concert hall.

The tone of the evening, an attempt to contribute to desperately needed cross-cultural relations and understanding in our fraught world, was set with the introductory speeches by the Director of the Chopin Institute Mr. Artur Szklener and a Director of the EYO.  

We began with the Andrzej Panufnik Procession for Peace (1983) which I had never heard. Interestingly the composer intended it as a statement of peace rather than a depiction of a more customary 'battle' for peace. An interesting work that builds up musical layers to a climacteric. This was followed by a work by the forgotten German composer Albert Lortzing - the Overture to his oddly titled opera Der Pole und Sein Kind (The Pole and His Child) which contains a winning and appropriate  orchestration of the Polish National Anthem.

An interval before the well-known Lebeque sisters, Katia and Marielle, joined the orchestra for a performance of the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat major K365. It was an ebullient performance from all concerned but did not begin well, clearly lacked proper rehearsal time and the orchestral co-ordination with the soloists was not brilliant (themselves occasionally and surprisingly out of synchronicity). Petrenko does not have a firm grasp of classical style and Mozartian orchestral writing.

Did it matter in this festive concert? Not really, as the enthusiasm with which these young musicians play was a joy to behold. Older more established orchestras of stolid expressionless players should take note of the joy with which they play. The Lebeque sisters then gave quite a wild two piano arrangement of The Jets from West Side Story in keeping with the party spirit. Wildly applauded, screams and cheers from the young audience.

The final work was the Mahler Symphony No 1 in D-major 'The Titan'.  The conductor gave it the maximum in enthusiasm, revelling in the power of the sheer sound. Any criticism I might make on finer points and ragged edges would be simply mean-spirited in the circumstances. Any relationship to Chopin rather coincidental.... The orchestra used the work well as an excellent pretext for young musicians from the 28 countries of the EU to play together as a gesture of national solidarity in an emotional gesture of peace. Does music have the power to civilize?  A knotty question for 'that cabbalistic craft' (Thomas Mann - Dr. Faustus)

The encore was some wild jazzy thing when the players of the orchestra leapt up and danced around whilst playing (I have never seen anything like it!) without the conductor all concluded in the Lebeque sisters’ 'party animal' mode. Orchestral members embraced each other after the ‘show’. Cheers, whistles  and a rather circus atmosphere from young people that I never normally see at a classical concert. 

Quite a high-spirited and less brow-furrowing start to the festival - hope it can continue!

Tuesday   16 August  20.00  Andreas Staier 

Francois Couperin (1668-1733)

I have respected and admired the playing of Andreas Staier for many years and consider him one of the foremost harpsichordists and fortepianists performing today. He was playing in a large hall on a J.C. Neupert double manual Blanchet copy of a harpsichord - not ideal in any way.

He began with a the G-major Suite by Jean-Henri d'Anglebert. Dare I criticize the master harpsichordist Staier? Although clearly excellently played I felt he had failed to gain an insight into the nobility of this music which requires longer breaths and more expansive phrasing. One must fervently imagine the court of Louis XIV and the affectations and innumerable contrived ceremonies within the palace. If one reads the Memoirs of Saint-Simon it gives one an insight into the climate of sensibility within the court. A visit to Versailles is very instructive I have found when visualizing the ambiance in which this music would be performed.

Staier is a magnificent Bach player evident in the Fantasy in A-minor  BMV 904. Then a magnificent organ fugue by d'Anglebert, rather emasculated on this instrument in the large space. My previous comments concerning nobility and adopting deliberate, considered seriousness of tempo still apply. 

Then a work by the French organist of genius and magnificence Nicholas de Grigny. I simply adore the nobility and grandeur of his work performed on an organ of this golden period of French organ music, particularly the magnificent Dialogue sur les Grands Jeux (Kyrie) from his Livre d'orgue I. De Grigny died tragically young at thirty one. The work was naturally rather diminished in impact on the plucked instrument but fine nevertheless. I just wish harpsichordists would give the ear of the listener time to take in the harmonics and rich sound of the harpsichord as well as the polyphony within the music. Performers are familiar with the score of course but as listeners we may be not.

Next some extracts from Bach's Kunst er Fuge BMV 1080 were presented with their magnificent harmonic and contrapuntal texture on full display.

The first half of the recital closed with music by Francois Couperin,a composer who understood the sound of the harpsichord as intimately as Chopin did the piano. Both possess an aristocratic detachment and yet remain accessible in intimate terms. We were given the VII Preludium in B-major from the L'art de toucher le clavecin and five pieces from Ordre VI of the Second Livre de pieces de clavecin. Again I felt the tempo adopted lacked in the curious sensibility that prevailed at that time. It is vital to immerse yourself in what in might be termed le climat de Couperin resplendent as it is with the early French rococo attempting to supplant the severe nobility of earlier composers for the clavecin of the court. 

Staier made little of the notes inegales which in many ways is the equivalent of rubato in the 19th century. The pieces were played too 'straight' for my conception of this period as depicted in the paintings of Jean-Antoine Watteau - those wonderful scenes influenced by the Commedia dell'Arte, or of fêtes champêtres or fêtes galantes, depicted in paintings of intense sensibility and colour as L’Embarquement pour l’île de Cythère.

The second half of the recital was entirely taken up by a commanding performance of the Bach Partita No.4 in D major BMV  828.

The recital was warmly received by the audience which resulted in a Bach Sarabande as an encore.

Tuesday 16 August  22.00  Dinara Klinton

I arrived rather late for this recital from the Filharmonia and Andreas Staier but the music I heard was memorable in unexpected ways. I was at first alarmed at the the reverberation of the Church of the Holy Cross and then as the Polonaise in C minor Op.40 No.2 began, the strange overlaying effect of the resonant acoustic on the period piano began to remind me of avant-garde compositions of the 1960s when composers of musique concrete took famous passages from composers and subjected them to transformation using electronic means (Stockhausen say in Opus 1970 based on Beethoven or Hymnen based on national anthems). This is not to say the sound was at all unpleasant just utterly different and fascinating sonically as the past was mysteriously projected into the present.

The church contains the heart of Chopin immured in a pillar and soon I began to have the uncanny feeling that the composer himself was speaking to us from the grave, far away now, a distant wraith, his voice distorted but truly delivered by this very fine pianist acting as a medium in which this heart of his traveled, still beating, through the ether. 

I moved from the back of the church where I had crept in late (despite a door whose hinges badly need oiling) and moved closer to the instrument - a period Erard. The sound was still reverberant but far less so. 

The Chopin Sonata in B flat minor Op. 35 began as magnificently and noble as ever under Klinton's hand. She understands this work profoundly to my mind. But it was when we reached the Marche funèbre: Lento that a quite otherworldly atmosphere descend on the church and its silent congregation. I have never heard a more deeply moving rendition as this being as we were surrounded by baroque paintings and statues of Christ, Mary and the Saints, the massive gilt altar in low light glistening, the glowing tabernacle beckoning us to approach the divine in the apse. The intense nostalgia of the lyrical central section of repose and reflection on the joys of a past life sang with a floating tone mystically hovering, suspended magically above us by the acoustic. Indescribably moving. Then the Presto whose contrapuntal nature was muffled in this space and incontrovertibly conjured up the flitting of spectres or wraiths of the dead about the darkling space beyond and above. 

Those assembled all felt this mystical communion...unnerving yet spiritually wonderful at once...a rare moment of transcendence in the presence of the recreated soul of Chopin. 

Wednesday  17 August  20.00

Concert version of  I Capuleti e i Montecchi by Vincenzo Bellini

Vivica Genaux (Romeo - mezzo soprano)
Valentina Farcas (Giulietta - soprano)
Davide Giusti (Tebaldo - tenor)
Fabrizio Beggi (Lorenzo - bass)
Ugo Guagliardo (Capellio - bass)

Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Choir 
Violetta Bielecka - choir director


Le Théâtre-Italien  Paris around 1840
Vincenzo Bellini was thirty when Chopin met him in Paris and they became friends. He was to die only three years later. Opera was a passion for Chopin. Bellini's La Sonnambula had deeply affected the Polish composer and he venerated the bel canto song of the Italian all his life, the qualities of the voice profoundly affecting his compositions. One must sing when interpreting Chopin on the piano. Chopin was in fact known in some circles as 'the Bellini of the piano'. Although he never composed an opera he adored the great singers of the time - Luigi Lablache, Giovanni Rubini, Guiditta Pasta, Cinti-Damoreau and especially the Spaniard Maria Malibran ('the first in Europe - a marvel!') who sang at Le Théâtre-Italien. He also revered Rossini.

Maria Malibran
For those of you who are interested, the musicologist David Kasunic wrote an interesting essay where he makes the case that Chopin in his enormous enthusiasm for opera in Paris would have based many of his operatic styl brilliant variations on arias (published and many probably unpublished and improvised) on the many piano-vocal scores that were available at the time these operas were staged. He enthused in letters home to Warsaw of operas he saw in Paris such as Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, Boieldieu's La Dame Blanche, Rossini's Cenerentola and Meyerbeer's Il Crociato. (Playing Operas at the Piano: Chopin and the Piano-Vocal Score David Kasunic in the Sources of Chopin's Style, Inspirations and Contexts NIFC 2005)

Chopin's Nocturnes are deeply influenced by Italian bel canto in their divine song-like melodies and graceful fiorituras. The great Chopin musicologists Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger and Charles Rosen also both hear Bellini's influence in the ardent melancholy of the Op. 25 Etude in C-sharp minor (a cello song in the left hand accompanied by a mezzo-soprano song in the right). In this work Chopin quotes from the beginning of the second act of Bellini's Norma. It is the moment when Norma contemplates killing her two children in their sleep. Chopin was deeply moved by the scene and wrote the work as a memorial to Bellini who had died two years before.

Bellini wrote I Capuleti e i Montecchi in 1830 in barely six weeks although much of the music came from his earlier unsuccessful operas - Zaira. The premiere was at the glorious La Fenice theatre in Venice. The libretto for the two-act opera was written by Felice Romano who wrote the libretti for all Bellini's most famous operas. Oddly perhaps, the story is not based on Shakespeare but Renaissance Italian versions of the legend.

Concert versions of operas are not something I love (the singers' gestures and limited movement always appear rather contrived) but one can concentrate on the glorious music and song. Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante were intense, vehement and lyrical as required throughout with magnificent discipline, sound and ensemble (except the actual opening oddly enough). 

The soaring bel canto arias were eloquently elegiac and wistful, finely and movingly delivered by the soprano Valentina Farcas (Giulietta). The best-known opening Guilietta aria Oh quante volte was superb. The mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Romeo was dramatic and impassioned throughout although I am unsure that bel canto naturally suits her splendid voice (a common choice of voice for the young lover, although slightly old-fashioned by that time). The male bass and tenor roles were magnificently 'Italian' and bursting with temperament. The bloodthirsty music for the chorus, taken over by the fever of family war and vengeance, was 'terrific' under Biondi. 

The opera, undeservedly neglected and criticized in its day by musical revolutionaries such as Liszt, is having a musical resurgence with this present inspired band and cast.

Thursday   18 August   20.00

Nelson Goerner - period piano

Europa Galante
Fabio Biondi - conductor

This concert did not quite reach the level at which I hoped and expected from the previous evening. The entire concert was devoted to the youthful productions of genius - Chopin and Mendelssohn as young prodigies.

We began with the Symphony No 1 in C minor Op.11 by Mendelssohn composed when he was merely fifteen in 1824. Many feel that he was the equal of Mozart in precocious and prodigious output. Schumann called him the 'Mozart of the nineteenth century; the most brilliant among musicians.' It was premiered at a celebration of his sister Fanny’s birthday later that year with Mendelssohn himself conducting.

He took lessons with Carl Friedrich Zelter who was the musical advisor to Goethe. The young man stayed as a guest with the great German poet in Weimar in his famous house on the Frauenplan.  Zelter wrote of Felix in a letter to Goethe of the boy’s phenomenal talent: 

My Felix has entered upon his fifteenth year. He grows under my very eyes. His wonderful pianoforte playing I may consider as quite exceptional. He might also become a great violin player. . . . Imagine my joy, if we survive, to see the boy living in the fulfillment of all that his childhood gives promise of. 

But oddly Goethe did not really appreciate the piano playing of his young charge.

The rather fierce opening theme Allegro molto surely owes something to Mozart's Symphony No 40 and possibly Weber in Der Freischütz. On period instruments with the the spirited conducting of Biondi and the skillful playing of the ensemble it was most convincingly classically influenced. The Andante after all shows the influence of Haydn but with the composition of a gifted child who am I to point such a thing out 'with interest'? The Menuetto benefited from the period tympani. The final movement is full of passion but more restrained than the first even containing a double fugue, a form at which Mendelssohn was already a master. He had a deep love of Bach all his life. A beautiful melody for clarinet doubled by the flute and a rumbustious finish. Biondo and Europa Galante clearly enjoyed themselves and so did we (or at least I did but then I love Mendelssohn who for me always retains a Mozartian classical balance in musical utterance and design in the nineteenth century idiom. Most English audiences feel the same and he was always and unlike many other countries, is immensely popular in England.).

Then the youthful Chopin Variations in B-flat major on 'La ci darem la mano' from Don Giovanni. Chopin was seventeen when he composed this styl brillant virtuoso work for piano and orchestra. The influence of Hummel is clear (Chopin greatly admired his playing as did the rest of Europe! His joyful, untroubled music is still undeservedly neglected. Audiences were said to stand on their chairs to see how Hummel accomplished his trills. Now that does not happen today!) The piano was an evolving instrument and each new development created great excitement among composers of the day. Chopin as a youth haunted the Polish piano factory of Fryderyk Buchholtzof in the role of what we might term an 'early adopter'. 

Nelson Goerner is tremendously impressive in this work and after listening to him perform it on an Erard we would certainly agree with Schumann that 'genius peers from every page'. The piano part dominates the work but I felt Biondi and Europa Galante not quite 'at home' with Chopin's understated supportive orchestral writing which requires a great deal of discretion, refinement and understanding to perform successfully.

After the interval another youthful styl brillant work which has reached immortality, the Piano Concerto in F minor, Op.21. I did not feel this clearly under-rehearsed performance reached the same level of accomplishment as the rest of the programme. The Romance. Larghetto was full of poetry, yearning and the expression of youthful illusioned love. Goerner is a master of this lyrical movement, its sentiments and sensibility. I am always greatly moved whenever I hear him perform it. As for the outer movements I think I would prefer to remain silent rather than mean-spirited.

Goerner played the languishing Nocturne in F minor Op. 55 No 1 as a refined, elegant and moving encore.

Friday  19 August  18.00

Jan Lisiecki - piano
Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Choir
Sinfonia Varsovia
Grzegorz Nowak - Conductor

Although I went to the performance last night I thought I would write about tonight's wonderful concert now as I enjoyed it so much. To begin we had the Chopin Fantasy on Polish Airs in A major Op. 13. All I can say was that it was a 'perfect' performance of this work, the golden boy Lisiecki's understanding of the glitter of the Hummel influenced styl brillant of early Chopin absolute with a superb tone and touch at the instrument. The episodes suffused with sentiment brought off in perfect Mozartian taste and classical restraint. Quite marvellous.

Then to the Beethoven Fantasy for piano, choir and orchestra in C minor Op. 80. The work (troubled in gestation at the time) clearly foreshadows the Ninth Symphony. The only criticism I would make was possibly a too abrupt and insufficiently solemn and noble entry of of the main theme on the piano with the choir. I am not entirely sure that Lisiecki has quite mastered an ideal Beethovinian tone and idiom in the classical style. For me his approach to Beethoven has always been slightly too hectic and 'Romantic' but then again Beethoven was at the cusp of Romanticism, indeed a pioneer of it and personal expression. As such my observations are probably quibbles in the end. One thing I am sure of - Beethoven would have loved the modern piano in this work battling as it does against a full orchestra and choir. In reality his limited instrument (not the one that inhabited his fervid imagination) would have almost certainly have lost that battle!

After the interval the work that almost moved me to tears of admiration and a tragic sense of loss of the true Polish national identity under the duress of the past. The Ignacy Feliks Dobrzyński (1807-1867) Symphony No 2 in C minor, Op. 15. ' Characteristic Symphony in the Spirit of Polish Music' This composer's reputation has been eclipsed by Chopin of course despite them both having and being highly praised by the same teacher Josef Elsner (himself grossly underestimated as a composer). This symphony is much underrated and deserves far more exposure, indeed celebration. 

The opening movement  Andante Sostenuto - Allegro vivace is impressively orchestrated and as a mere foreigner conjures up the wider Polish landscape for me in its most attractive sense. It is at once blithe and bucolic, rustic with a winning innocent simplicity that seems to have passed forever in modern times. It expressed for me a particularly Polish agitation of the soul in the face of occupation  by foreign imperialism, yet not overtly violent in expressions of resistance. Psychological resistance if you will - 'internal immigration' it was called in the past - the very word 'resistance' encapsulating for me the true nature of Poles, everything that is best (but on occasion unthinking) in the Polish temperament.

The Elegia. Andante doloroso ma non troppo lento. The very directions (ma non troppo) indicate a reluctance to indulge in morose self-pity at the loss of identity nay existence as a nation on the map of Europe at that time during the November Uprising. There is sadness here but not great anger and ferment,  żal in a word. Chopin was the Polish master of this high degree of sophisticated even aristocratically restrained nostalgia followed by episodes of vexatious wrath, memories of faded splendour aroused in his heartbreaking melodies of loss and denial.

Dance provides the respite from suffering as it did for Chopin too in his Mazurkas and Poles in general.

Dance[...] proper to both primitive man and to the man of 'high culture', draws its music and its choreography traits of the tribal temperament, in the most direct way possible. Its rhythms and melodic types, together with its poses, gestures and movements, come to manifest the most essential national characteristics. 
                                                                                                     Zadislaw Jachimecki [1914:121]

Mazovian Polish dances in the next movement titled Minuetto alla Mazovienna. Allegro ma non troppo - Trio. Of course this symphony expresses to perfection the Poland I fell in love with when I wrote my book A Country in the Moon. In it I observed 'Perhaps I am in love with an illusion, but I am the richer for this love'.

Then to a high spirited danced Finale all Cracovienna. Vivace assai - Presto -Prestissimo. Here we have a rediscovery surely of the essential but possibly now clouded Polish spirit which is energetic, outgoing, open, Christian and forgiving in the joy of simply being alive and the capacity to celebrate together in freedom. Listening to this uninhibited exuberance and expression of the most praiseworthy form of nationalism, not the narrow myopic kind, I felt that contemporary Poland is still in profound transition. Material changes have been clearly exponential and fast moving. Spiritual and community evolution in consensus and unity is a far more involved and slower process. Yes, Presto is seldom sufficient in Poland - Prestissimo rules! The Husaria winged cavalryNapoleon's personal guard the Chevaux Légers, Spitfire Pilots, everyday drivers...

A terrific triumphal ending to the symphony which presaged amazingly succinctly the present miraculous emergence of Poland as an independent sovereign nation.

A truly wonderful evening of mainly Polish music reminding me (after this period of contemporary sadness) why I wrote about and chose to live in Poland. I hope to God the innocent loving, energetic and unified national spirit expressed in this symphony can be preserved.

Saturday  20  August  17.00

Belcea Quartet

Corina Belcea - violin
Axel Schacher - violin
Krzysztof Chorzelski - viola
Antoine Lederlin - cello

Franz Schubert 
String Quartet in D Minor D.810   Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden  Egon Schiele (1915)
The Maiden

Away! Ah, Away! thou cruel man of bone!
I am still young. Go, instead.
And do not touch me!


Give me thy hand, you fair and tender creature,
I'm a friend, and do not come to punish.
Be of good courage; I am not cruel
You shall sleep gently in my arms

                                                                              Matthias Claudius                                                         

Schubert realized he was dying when he wrote this magnificent work in 1824. The title of the work is taken from the theme of the Second Movement after the title of the song he wrote in 1817. Death hovers like an ominous shadow over the entire eloquent work.
In a letter to Leopold Kupelwieser dated 31 March 1824 he wrote:

Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.

I have never heard a finer performance than this. The phrasing and song-like character were sublime and often rose to a point of scarcely bearable emotional intensity. The ensemble perfectly synchronized. Turbulent anguish to poetic lyricism perfectly delineated through their fine control of the difficult layers of dynamic.

Belcea Quartet joined by Till Fellner - piano

Johannes Brahms
Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34

One of my favourite quintets, a youthful Brahms work, had a difficult gestation and birth in various transformations until coming to fruition on 1864. The straightforward lyricism and energy of assertion in life's pleasures and confident youth could not have been in greater contrast to the preceding Schubert quartet of the winter of life. The serene Adagio was graceful and the Scherzo that begins with low pizzicato on the cello developed with winning robustness. The Finale developed a terrifically energetic motivic forward drive to the Presto coda

As an encore the delightful life affirming Finale Allegro from the Dvorak Piano Quintet in A Op. 81

A deeply satisfying musical experience from the Belcea on so many levels.

Saturday   20 August   20.00

Ian Bostridge - tenor
Julius Drake - piano

I must confess to being rather unfamiliar with Brahms songs (some 200!) besotted as I am with his symphonic, piano and chamber works. Perhaps this is partly because they are not generally arranged in cycles or memorable groups as say Schubert or Schumann. Many are based on folk song. His unrequited love Clara Schumann loved his songs and must have been aware of the heartfelt travails many of them express. This dramatic introduction to them by Ian Bostridge was at once disconcerting, uplifting and enlightening for me. 

Of course this tenor has broken the accepted paradigm of the conventional Lieder singer of old standing relatively immobile and monolithic beside the piano as he delivers his song. Bostridge has brought an extraordinarily theatrical element to what can only be described as a Lieder Performance. This approach has revolutionized the Lieder experience for audiences (especially the young) in the concert hall as testified by his enormous popularity and undoubted star quality. This rejuvenation has been desperately needed as the frequency of Lieder recitals, once such a common feature of a richer concert life than ours, were beginning to diminish exponentially in recent years. He as recently published the most marvellous book on Schubert entitled Schubert's Winter Journey : Anatomy of an Obsession (Faber & Faber 2015). 


His profound commitment to the emotional poetry set and his superb tenor voice  (possibly rather light for Brahms) together with uninhibited physical gestures involving his entire body weer very moving. His symbiotic musical relationship with the pianist were a joy not only to behold but became an inclusive emotional experience of a rare order. We heard thirteen songs which I simply do not have the musical authority to pontificate on, the largest group from the Op. 72 set.

After the interval, four of Robert Schumann's songs (two each from Op. 127 and Op. 142) and that great masterpiece Dichterliebe ('The Poet's Love') Op.48 which comprises 16 settings of the intensely lyrical and sensitive love poetry of Heinrich Heine selected from the 65 poems of the Lyrisches Intermezzo. 

This radiant, almost delicate on occasion, male voice suited the songs to perfection to my mind (although commonly associated with the male voice, the work was originally dedicated to the great soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient). His enormous range of dynamic and dramatic expression added to the overwhelming musical communicative effect of the recital. The inspired piano postludes that Schumann wrote to some songs  in this cycle were exquisitely brought off by the highly expressive and discreet accompanist Julius Drake. 

Bostridge in a expressive and theatrical posture in a long contemplative silence meditating on what had passed before us, wrapped in self-communion, leaning on the piano facing away from us to one aside, head in hands, concluded the cycle.

One encore Mondnacht from Liederkreis Op. 39 - a setting of the charming lyric poetry of Joseph von Eichendorff.

It was as if the sky
Had quietly kissed the earth,
So that in a shower of blossoms
She must only dream of him.

The breeze wafted through the fields,
The ears of corn waved gently,
The forests rustled faintly,
So sparkling clear was the night.

And my soul stretched
its wings out far,
Flew through the still lands,
as if it were flying home.

Pandemonium, screams and shouts at the conclusion. Standing ovations. 

'You are the most wonderful audience in the world!' he emotionally cried.

Sunday 21 August  20.00  

Tobias Koch - period piano (Erard)
Antonio Piricone - period piano (Erard)

Collegium 1704

Václav Luks - conductor

The impressive Baroque orchestra Collegium 1704 was founded in 2005 by the harpsichordist and conductor Václav Luks. This gifted musician pursued specialist research into early music at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis  and period keyboard instruments and historical performance practice at the studios of J.A. Bötticher and J.B. Christensen. I made a never to be forgotten visit to their magnificent Museum of Music in Basel in 2011. His championing of the spirited Bohemian composers Jan Dismas Zelenka (whose wind music I absolutely adore) and Josef Mysliveček is fascinating and long overdue.

A superb clavichord from the Museum of Music - Basel
An extraordinarily rare automaton from the Museum of Music - Basel
Museum of Music Basel
Now to a most interestingly designed concert modeled on a representative nineteenth century virtuosic public performance. At that time a composer often presented himself as both virtuoso instrumentalist, composer and entertainer with sets of variations on well-known themes or arias from operas or popular tunes of the day.

The overture that opened such concerts was often from a past composer of note. We heard the Overture to Mozart's rarely performed 1786  singspiel "Der Schauspieldirektor" (The Impresario) . This was a supremely lively performance with all of Mozart's nervous energy and classical grace perfectly captured on period instruments. I once saw this work at the magnificent annual Mozart Festival at the Warsaw Chamber Opera where all his twenty-one operas are performed during the summer.

A scene from Der Schauspieldirektor at the Warszawska Opera Kameralna

Then to the Piano Concerto No 3 in B-flat major by the completely forgotten Bohemian composer Vojtěch Jírovec (1763-1850). He was well known in his day and was compared to Haydn. He met Mozart, Beethoven and Goethe as well as composing symphonies, quartets, operas and singspiels. In fact the eight year old Chopin played one of his concertos when he made his debut at the Radziwiłł Palace. Chopin actually met Jírovec some ten years later. 

The work is written in the styl brillant of the day. I found the opening Allegro curiously naive and innocent with a touch of the military about it. The Adagio was also winsome rather than truly ardent or lyrical. It closed with a lively Allegro moderato.  I could not help reflecting on the melodic gulf that yawns between talent and genius, if you consider the Mozart and Haydn piano concertos or Chopin's own piano concerti and variations in the styl brillant. I felt it had no more than delightful period charm but was none the worse for that! The soloist on the Erard was Antonio Piricone.

Then to another fascinating work by Otto Nicolai (1810-1849), the 'miniature concerto' Fantasy on a Theme from Bellini's Opera Norma for piano and orchestra Op. 25. The child prodigy Otto Nicolai born in Königsberg (now Kalinigrad) in Prussia, was a German conductor, composer and founder of the Vienna Philharmonic The brilliant Tobias Koch was the soloist on the Erard. 

With our rather blasé attitude to the nature of recording, ease of travel and repeat performances  it is easy to underestimate how important piano-vocal scores, piano transcriptions, paraphrases and reductions of operas as well as variations on them were to nineteenth century audiences. Thousands of such works flowed in a stream from the pens of composers both major and minor. Fantasies and sets of Variations on well-known songs were tremendously popular.

The Introduction (Adagio - Andante) and statement of the Theme possessed an almost vocal fragility on the period Erard with its pastel colours - perfectly and so appropriate in a close ambience with the period orchestra. The beautiful period instrumental colours added such romantic atmosphere to this performance. Far more effective in imaginative time-travelling terms than with a modern Steinway and a modern orchestra.

The styl brilliant Variations (L'istesso tempo, Alla Polacca and Allegretto) were written for sheer rumbustious audience entertainment verging on the trivial - no higher purpose - but with Tobias Koch they certainly achieved the entertainment factor and once again were none the worse for that! The Polacca was just super. The return of other melodies from Norma in the Andante expressivo was all the more effective because of this virtuoso delights and very moving. The concluding Rondo brought the piece to a rousing conclusion. The Filharmonia audience went wild...as an encore an animated Tobais Koch played the Chopin so-called 'Minute Waltz' - with a brief orchestral introduction!

After the interval a performance by Collegium 1704 of Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No 4 in A major (known as The Italian which may have been a ruse of the publisher as it was composed two years before the composer's sojourn in Italy). 

Not long after the opening Allegro vivace I realised this as to be a more classical interpretation than the usual 'heavy' modern orchestra approach with a definite nod to the influence on Mendelssohn of Bach, Handel and Mozart. Absolutely correct to my mind. The tempi were natural, elastic and excellently chosen throughout and the transparent instrumentation an absolute delight - the structure and orchestration of the symphony became radiantly clear and not obscured by modern fog. The effect of this playing had a gossamer lightness and elegance that put one constantly in mind of the fairy music in his Midsummer Night's Dream. The final Saltarello was so energetic and passionate I almost left my seat. 

So what a revelation this symphony was - Mendelssohn also benefiting hugely from a period instrumental performance - an added dimension to a familiar work. At moments though I did miss the grandeur of a large orchestra in the symphony in much the same way as I miss Karl Richter and the now unfashionable substantial forces of the Munich Bach Orchestra in the St. Matthew Passion (which as you know Mendelssohn revived). Incidentally whilst on this subject, if you ever visit Leipzig (and you should), do go the Mendelssohn House - a deeply rewarding and fascinating musical pilgrimage.

Monday  22 August  20.00   Szymon Nehring

I was simply unable to attend this recital but as it was the same group of works this fine young Polish pianist performed at Duszniki Zdroj only two weeks ago on 6 August, I quote from my review of that recital despite this being rather unfair...

Duszniki Zdroj Recital Saturday 6 August  16.00   Szymon Nehring
This fine pianist achieved a Distinction in the final of the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw and it was interesting to hear him again as I had enjoyed very much his mazurkas and concerto in the final.

Once again he played the Op.33 set. The first two [G sharp Minor and C Major] were nostalgic in mood and intimate in their restrained dynamic which prepared us in away for the lively dance rhythms of the joyful third in D major. The final rather longer mazurka in B minor has a melody I never fail to find deeply affecting.

I felt however that in his performance here and in his recital overall, there was a lack of the 'colour of saying' as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas might have put it. Dynamic contrasts were excessive all too often. Chopin performed on pianos (Pleyel, Erard, Broadwood) that possessed a richness of contrasting colours denied the largely monochrome powerful concert grands of today. Their dynamic resources were limited which only added to the excitement of composers pushing at the very frontiers of their instrument's capacity. Modern pianists must work hard to recreate this rich poetic tonal spectrum.

The difficulties in bringing together the fragmented nature of the next work, the Fantasy in F Minor Op. 49, 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. Nehring brought together all these disparate elements into a unity of expressive intention that was very fine indeed with finely judged expressive rubato. With many of Chopin's apparently 'discontinuous' works (say the Polonaise-Fantaisie) there is in fact an underlying and complexly wrought tonal structure that holds these wonderful dreams of his tightly together as rational wholes.

As I listened to this great revolutionary statement, 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 yet another incomprehensible onslaught of evil and barbarism. We need Chopin, his heart and spiritual force in 2016 possibly more than ever before.

Nehring then embarked on the Szymanowski Variations in B flat minor Op. 3 (1901-1903). This exercise in virtuoso piano composition in the late Romantic spirit of Liszt and Schumann always astonishes me in its powerful exploration of the timbral qualities of the piano but rarely have I been emotionally moved by the work in performance. I am afraid this was also the case this evening however much thunder and thoughtful rendering of the nostalgic theme took place.

After the interval, five Etudes from the Chopin Op.25 set. I much enjoyed Nehring's grasp of rubato in these works which preserved and expressed what Chopin described as 'the Polish element'. The composer often complained that 'in otherwise excellent performances' of his music this Polish element was missing. No.7 in C-sharp minor was particularly heartfelt and moving. 

Then to conclude the recital, five of the nine Rachmaninoff Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39 (1916-1917). These 'study-pictures' reveal to a haunting degree Rachmaninoff's internal psyche like few other works he wrote. However we are not given a guide to the 'pictures' which is rather in the spirit of Chopin's remark concerning his own work 'I merely indicate, the listener must complete the picture'. I felt this highly talented pianist could have made much more of the painterly qualities of these works (as much as one can visualize 'a story' in imagination from the music), their colour palette, rather than simply reveling in the virtuoso elements as young pianists, quite understandably, tend to do.

As encores he played the Liszt Feux-Follets (Will o'the Wisps) from the Transcendental Studies (I would have liked a slightly less weighty approach to the ephemeral creatures) and then the quite dreadful (to my mind) Volodos paraphrase of Mozart's Turkish March. One has to be careful in the choice of encores so as not to extinguish the temporally fragile nature of the musical memory of the recital that has just preceded them. Another Chopin Etude concluded his encores.

He has a fine future ahead.

Tuesday  23 August  20.00  Georgijs Osokins

Rather than redundantly analyse individual pieces in this markedly individualistic recital I would like to make a few more general remarks on Osokins performance style. He has a strong 'technique', a beautiful rounded singing tone in cantabile passages and a sensitive touch despite his over-fondness for the sustaining pedal. He received a Distinction in the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw and was from the outset a firm audience favourite. He is young, handsome has charisma and communicates well – all vital for a successful concert career in 2016.  

A pianist of this individual stamp (and Daniil Trifonov, Evgeni Bozhanov, Benjamin Grosvenor, Federico Colli and Ivo Pogorelich before them) presents the listener with a conundrum. He raises all sorts of issues concerning fidelity to the score and the limits of interpretation. He certainly appeals to the younger members of the audience as he brings a creative breath of fresh air into what at times can appear like the music studio of Professor Smellfungus. Analysis of the score of say the Chopin Sonata Op. 58 will indicate that Osokins introduced all sorts of modifications and solecisms into Chopin's 'sacred' text, replacing legato with staccato phrases, introducing unnotated dynamic variations and similar. The Largo  suffered from lack of forward momentum bordering at times on meditative inertia. This complex sonata, one of the greatest works of Western keyboard literature, also had shortcomings in his conception of the structure and its coherence. Is this freedom permissible within limits and what are they?

Well, if one has adopted the philosophy that the score is a 'sacred object' created by the composer, not to be tampered with in any way, then remember this unusual ethos only emerged early in the twentieth century. It arose as a type of corrective to the more extreme manifestations of eccentric individuality on the part of interpreters. However musicians want to and will enter the musical picture more or less strongly. Playing the piano is a performance art after all. 

Chopin himself was a composer-pianist (a Baroque notion where the performer and composer were often one and the same person). Chopin's musical education was 'as firmly rooted in 18th century aesthetics as in 18th century theory' (Jim Samson Chopin Studies Vol 6 p.35). Chopin wrestled with both Classical and Romantic mentalities and conceived revolutionary solutions in works of unique style. In this ferment of creativity he constantly amended his autograph scores. Numerous editions emerged throughout Europe slightly different one from another. This came from his skill as an improviser who is in a constant state of invention and creation. A never satisfied being was our Chopin. 

The performer in the nineteenth century was largely expected to play according to his mood and frame of mind. Presenting a different interpretation from other musicians was considered highly positively.

Chopin himself said to a pupil (cited by the Chopin authority Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger): 

When you're at the piano I give you full authority to do whatever you want; follow freely the ideal you've set for yourself and which you must feel within you; be bold and confident in your own powers and strength and whatever you say will always be good...'

Performers in the nineteenth century were more interested in presenting the inherent meaning of the music rather than adopting our modern slavish fidelity to the published Urtext score. Even the great musical theorist Heinrich Schenker wrote in Die Kunst des Vortrags: 

'Pieces breathe through their own lungs, they carry their own bloodstream...' 

The great Ignaz Friedman once observed 'There are the notes and there is what is between the notes.' Isn't the goal of a musician to release the inner life of the work from the limits of its notation in much the same way as Michelangelo conceived that he 'released' a statue trapped in a block of marble?

I enjoyed Osokins and found him an entertaining, communicative and musical pianist despite his shortcomings and sometimes cavalier attitude to the composer, textual fidelity and structure. Clearly I would say he might also be an excellent jazz pianist. At times in the first half of the recital I felt I could have been in a hazy nightclub in Casablanca or Tangier at 2.00 am listening to a highly talented pianist meditatively improvising in introvert moodiness around Scarlatti, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin – Lauren Bacall smoking and drinking sulkily at a corner table.

Certainly if we are to attract more young people to our concert halls we need to release much more individuality into the performance art of playing the piano. Relax the strictures and inhibited teaching of dusty academies and 'stuck in the mud' professors. Osokins does this.

'Damn braces: Bless relaxes!'  in the passionate utterance of the English poet William Blake in his poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

From the shouts in the studio and the standing ovation it seems Osokins is well on the way to becoming a classical star celebrity pianist in the minds of the young. If he can get them into the concert hall all the better for that achievement no matter how. Cecilia Bartoli is mounting a production of West Side Story at Salzburg, recently there was a David Bowie night at the Proms. Change is in the air. Standards are shifting with time and we are now far too far from the historical source and social milieu of so many composers to continue pontificating on ‘correct’ interpretation.  

Osokins is a great young musical communicator for the young at heart meeting Chopin and other composers for the first time in their lives. More strength to his arm - or fingers!

Wednesday 24 August  20.00
Charles Richard-Hamelin – piano
Andrzej Bauer – cello

Sinfonia Varsovia
Grzegorz Nowak – conductor

When I first visited Poland and Warsaw in 1992 (a joint venture project I wrote about in a book on the country) there were staged a host of extraordinary musical performances. I wrote:

Warsaw is no slave to the cult of celebrity (it cannot afford them) and hence the musical work to be performed is often the primary focus of attention rather than the performer. Many rarely performed works regularly receive an airing in Warsaw. The Ballroom of the Royal Castle is a superb musical venue and an aesthetically overwhelming room. Domenico Merlini, the distinguished eighteenth century Italian architect from Brescia who brought Palladianism to Poland, designed it with the allegorical guidance of King Stanisław Augustus. New gold leaf glisters from every crevice in a blaze of mirrored chandeliers. It was here I heard the first performance for two hundred years of a recently discovered festive piano concerto in the Russian style by Ferdinand Ries, the close friend and pupil of Beethoven.

The music of Chopin had been the overriding reason for my coming to Poland and it was with surprise and delight that in the space of six weeks I was unexpectedly presented with all twenty five works that Mozart wrote for the stage. The cycle was performed by one of the most remarkable opera companies in Europe, the Warszawska Opera Kameralna (Warsaw Chamber Opera). Warsaw is the only capital city in the world where such an historically accurate Mozart cycle together with much of his instrumental music is performed on original instruments every year.

Warsaw is no great distance from Vienna and Die Entführung aus dem Serail  (The Abduction from the Seraglio) was produced in May 1783 by a touring German company for the birthday of King Stanisław Augustus Poniatowski just nine months after the Vienna premiere. Don Giovanni arrived in the capital to play in the National Theatre before the king in October 1789 with the same Italian Domenico Guardasoni company that had premièred the opera just two years before in Prague with Mozart conducting. His operas were performed in Warsaw well in advance of Berlin, Paris or London

The city has had a distinguished operatic heritage since the early baroque period when it was the only capital other than Rome to have had an opera theatre that hosted famous Italian soloists. Many works were especially written for the Warsaw stage during the Jagiełłon and Vasa dynasties of the seventeenth century. The volatile Tarquinio Merula wrote a theatrical duet called Satiro e Corisca for King Zygmunt III Vasa performed in Warsaw in the summer of 1626 some ten years before public operatic activities began in Venice.

Joseph Elsner’s greatest work, an extraordinary Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, is scored for hundreds of musicians including 4 choirs, a piano, military bands and an enlarged percussion section. The autograph of the piece was discovered in the Berlin State Library. The Death of Christ and the Earthquake are in a particularly impressive Sturm und Drang style. The first complete modern performance was given in March 1999 in the Neoclassical centrally-planned Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Warsaw by Warszawska Opera Kameralna (Warsaw Chamber Opera). Elsner was ‘permitted’ to dedicate the work to Tsar Nicholas I who was at that time King of Poland.

I have the distinct feeling that great excitement is building again in the country at the discovery of the long lost treasures of Polish music. It is exciting to be living in a country still in the throes of discovering its true identity, eclipsed for so many years. Poland continues to work through the state of transition and music is a vital part of this process. Churchill’s so-called ‘Iron Curtain’ was not simply a political barrier but also a cultural barrier. This and the intimidating Polish surnames (to foreigners) meant that so much culture and brilliant music apart from Chopin remains unheralded in the West. Matters are slowly changing and the Chopin i jego Europa Festival is a vital part of this ongoing process.

Tonight’s programme is an excellent example of exploration of an unknown Polish repertoire. The first work by Feliks Nowowiejski (1877-1946) the Overture to the Ballet ‘King of the Winds’ . Nowowiejski was a Polish composer, organist, conductor, teacher and ‘organiser of musical life’. He was born in Barczewo in picturesque Warmia in the former East Prussia – a beautiful relatively undeveloped part of Poland with superb Teutonic castles and lakes. He enjoyed enormous success in Europe and America with an oratorio he wrote entitled Quo Vadis (after the Henryk Sienkiewicz novel).

The Bishop's Palace - Lidzbark Warminksi - Warmia
The work (premiered in 1929 in Poznań) is spectacularly orchestrated and galvanised with patriotic energy. Despite being an Overture, this grand work is relieved by some beautiful impressionistic episodes reminiscent of Debussy’s La Mer. With Grzegorz Nowak we have possibly the finest Polish conductor working today possessed of enormous rhythmical authority, attention to instrumental detail and ensemble. The brass of Sinfonia Varsovia were tremendous adding to the overall effect of grand theatre or possibly grand cinema in 2016.

Then the Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor, Op 129. This is a late reflective work by Schumann (1850) during an unhappy stay in Düsseldorf – ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ as Wordsworth might have put it. It is not widely known that the composer learned to play cello as a child. There is no extravagant virtuoso writing for the cello here which may account for its more obscure status. The superb cantabile of this consecutive three movement work was ardently captured inspirituality by Andrzej Bauer (a former pupil of the great English cellist William Pleeth). The second movement Langsam which is essentially a song, was very beautiful indeed. Grzegorz Nowak and Sinfonia Varsovia were discreet and never overwhelmed the soloist.

Feliks Nowowiejski (1877-1946)

After the interval another work by Feliks Nowowiejski, the Overture to the opera Legend of the Baltic (1924).  Another theatrical, splendidly extrovert work with a definite ‘legendary’ feel to the music if that makes any sense! The work even contains skillful orchestral parts for celeste and harp. There a fervent patriotic outbursts on timpani and brass. Nowak was quite brilliant at gathering to these disparate parts of a condensed drama of various themes. Noisy sometimes perhaps but rousing in the very best sense. Would make superb film music and certainly be none the worse for that! I have often thought the same of the lyrical orchestral writing music of Paderewski.

To conclude the concert, probably what everyone was waiting for, the Chopin Piano Concerto in F minor Op.21 with the second prize winner of the 2015 Chopin International Piano Competition, Charles Richard-Hamelin as soloist.

‘As I already have, perhaps unfortunately, my ideal, whom I faithfully serve, without having spoken to her for half a year already, of whom I dream, in remembrance of whom was created the adagio of my concerto’ (Chopin to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski ,3 October 1829). 

The work was written 1829-30 This concerto was inspired by Chopin’s infatuation or was it youthful love for the soprano Konstancja Gladkowska. Strangely it was published a few years later with a dedication to Delfina Potocka.

I have little to say other than praise this fine performance of the F Minor Concerto Op. 21 a I did during the competitionthe first piano concerto Chopin wrote. For me it was almost faultless in all respects. The concerto followed the Mozart model and was directly influenced by the style brillant of Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles or Ries. It is hard to reproduce this intimate yet fragile glittering tone on a Steinway or Yamaha. Here again Chopin magically transforms the Classical into the Romantic style. 

Hamelin was confident, relaxed, enjoying his playing immensely. He had excellent communication with the conductor. He retained a natural virtuosity that preserved the form and was always a servant to the conception and interpretation.

A singing full bel canto tone in the affecting Larghetto that was full of poetry and taken at just the right tempo. In many ways you could say that the whole work revolves around this movement. I always think of the sentiments contained in the 1820 poem by John Keats La Belle Dame Sans Merci when I hear this music with its passionate interjections

I met a lady in the meads,
       Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
       And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
       And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
       And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
       A faery’s song.

That final forty note fioritura of longing played molto con delicatezza always carries me away into Chopin's dreamy Romantic poetical world.

Tremendous joy, energy and drive in the Rondo Allegro vivace final movement in the exuberant style of a krakowiak dance. How Chopin must have loved the bucolic nature of the Polish countryside and its music! The Chopin extension of the Hummel piano concerto was here fully realized. Melody and bravura figuration (F minor to the relative major A flat for instance) wonderfully and authoritatively brought off with great balance of formal structure.

This composition that lies between Mozart and the styl brillant was wonderfully executed as were the masculine gestures towards the concertos of Weber (following the cor de signal for example – with a most unfortunate ‘fluff’ by the French horn player – I always dread the coming of this terrifyingly exposed horn solo – so many things can go wrong!). A satisfying performance in every way expressing the dreams and exuberance of youth. 

As encores, first a Chopin Mazurka.

Then a simply magnificent performance of the ‘Heroic’ Polonaise in A-flat major Op.53. I really feel Richard-Hamelin’s majestic, titanic performance of this work (I heard him perform it in Duszniki this year - this was even better)  with its emotionally disturbing rubato, sense of that strange Polish concept of untranslatable into English żal (melancholy evolving into resentment spilling over into raw anger – vital to understanding Chopin) and control of dynamics is unsurpassed by anyone, anywhere and that is really saying something. But I believe it. And the predominantly Polish audience felt it in their blood and believed that the inaccessible ‘Polish element’ Chopin spoke of had been expressed….an instant standing ovation, cries and shouts, wild scenes. 

A work surely that expresses the feelings of frustration and anger of 'the common man' in our beleaguered times where we seem to be denied control of outcomes. Fryderyk Chopin's expression of spiritual resistance is as deeply relevant today as ever it was during his own beleaguered times.

Nadia Boulanger was once asked what made a great as opposed to an excellent performance of an individual piano work. She answered 'I cannot tell you that. It is something I cannot describe in words. A magical element.'  That was present…

Friday  26 August  20.00   Apollon Musagéte Quartet

Paweł Zalejski – violin
Bartosz Zachłod – violin
Pior Szumieł – viola
Piotr Skweres – cello

This young Polish quartet was formed in 2006 and already has an enviable reputation in major concert halls throughout Europe and America.

The first half of their programme was dedicated to a single work the great Quartet in G-major D.887 by Schubert. The work was written in 1826 when Schubert was already seriously ill with tertiary syphilis probably contracted in a festive outing as a younger man with one of his tearaway friends. At this stage the disease may damage the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. He was to die only two years later, the quartet unpublished and unperformed. As such it is suffused with existential anxiety, nostalgia, yearning, melancholy, remembered pleasures of dance and song – also explosive anger too at the nature of inevitable mortality and the imminent loss of the joys of life. Winterreise was written only four years before. The work poses enormous spiritual as well as musical challenges to bring off successfully and movingly.

Winter in Mazovia
At the beginning there was curious moment pregnant with meaning. A member of the audience had brought an infant into the concert hall which began to gurgle peacefully. Knowing what was about to unfold, I felt this to be not an irritating distraction but as a curious accident that acted as an almost painful but shockingly apt commentary on the meditations on mortality that would shortly suffuse the musical work to follow. The baby was taken out of the hall shortly after the development of the beginning Allegro but the echo of the little one remained...the dawn of a life.

Having reached my age I have listened to many recordings of this work by great quartets. I may be bringing unfair, invidious comparisons to this still developing group of young musicians – I have heard the Amadeus, the Belcea, the Takács, the Quartetto Italiano and the Melos perform it. After his sublime song recital earlier in this festival, I am also at present reading the quite extraordinary book by Ian Bostridge Schubert’s Winter Journey. In the Introduction Bostridge quotes from Schubert’s My Dream manuscript, July 3, 1822 written at the time of the composition of Winterreise only four years before this quartet when the composer was already terminally ill.

With a heart filled with endless love for those who scorned me, I…wandered far away. For many and many a year I sang songs. Whenever I tried to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.

My own view of Schubert at this stage of his life requires a deep understanding of the shadow of death that hovers menacingly over such a work as this. Instability, sometimes shocking, drifts overall between major and minor, infusing much of the piece. 

However much healthy young musicians may attempt to enter the terrors of this existential dilemma it is not easy to imagine when young the abyss one feels inevitably opening at one’s feet – easier to imaginatively envisage as middle age passes and winter approaches but no easier to accept – assuming one dares as a youth to meditate at all on such serious matters.

Quite naturally I felt them more preoccupied with the musical and technical challenges of this huge work than plumbing the depths with musical nuances of the soul and unsettled torment of the heart. The work was performed far too 'straight' for me lacking in emotional insight.The audience also provided a distraction from gathering the essential and accumulative nature of this profound work by applauding between movements. I have no objection at all to applause between the movements of dexterously presented, extrovert symphonic works or concertos but not the deeper revelations of intimate quartets and certainly not during the last quartet Schubert wrote please.

Silence in the face of this profound music would have been far more freighted with deep meaning and appreciation of what was being expressed than applauding the players who are conduits for the music after all. There is vastly more to this work than technical accomplishment. Added to this the insistence on the quartet tuning between movements completely disrupted the continuity and intimate communion with Schubert for me (was this really necessary even if the intonation of the ensemble suffers slightly…?). I was simply unable to grasp the work as an organic whole. My own musical limitations perhaps…but my heart did not take flight.

After the interval a work less demanding in a devotional sense, the more extrovert Piano Quintet in G minor Op. 57 by Shostakovich (1940). Here they were joined by that fine pianist and second prize winner in the 2015 Chopin Competition on Warsaw, Charles Richard-Hamelin. I was very interested to hear how he fared in chamber music and he acquitted himself brilliantly with a clear feeling and skill for taking a more modest role in chamber ensemble playing.

The chamber music of Shostakovich, this major voice of Modernism, is rightly highly esteemed possibly even above his symphonies by the cognoscenti. This music of the young composer (he was 34 and healthy unlike Schubert who was already tragically dead at 31) the work is expressive in a far more direct sense. This seemed to me far more conducive to the various temperaments and talents of this young quartet (actually now quintet of course).

The themes stated in the opening grow and skilfully develop throughout. An emotional work certainly but not imbued with deep spiritual angst. The quiet transition from the first movement to the opening of the Fuga was beautifully accomplished. The opening Lento of the fourth movement after the Intermezzo was emotionally deep but not overdone. The energy of the quirky theme of the Finale finally brought rousing applause. Curiously the audience restrained their applause for the conclusion of this far less recondite work.

Saturday  27 August   17.00  Dimitry Shishkin

During the International Chopin Competition I wrote of Shishkin:

A fertile imagination, unique reading of the score and breathtaking virtuosity in performance. Rich tone, rather light touch for a Russian and superb control of dynamics, pedalling and articulation. This was absolutely fantastic playing on every level. A unique 'voice'.

He was already playing short works at the age of 2. He is also a composer and painter. Shishkin is not a profound Chopin poet like Eric Lu but if any pianist was to convince me of Chopin in a modern dramatic and dynamic style on a Steinway it is was this pianist. A body attached to a pair of hands. Brain and finger in intimate connection way beyond the conventional. Here we have a truly developed artist. A unique 'soul' in the Dostoyevskian sense.

I felt this recital  did not compare in individuality and sheer interpretative courage with his competition performance in an astonishing Stage I of the competition as I remember it.

He began with the four Chopin Impromptus which were elegantly brought off with immense refinement of touch and articulation. The first in A major Op. 29 begun at perhaps to fast a tempo but the G flat major Op. 51 was a most beautiful thing. The Fantasy-Impromptu  in C sharp minor Op. 66 was one of the finest performances of this much maligned and over-performed work I have ever heard. Most pianists make little of it musically but Shishkin recreated it meaningfully with much imagination and musical insight – even though Chopin himself did not want this Albumblatt published although composed for the Baroness d’Este.

I felt the three Mazurkas Op. 59 were more imitative of Polish models than was necessary although his rhythmic variation was certainly enlivening. Of course he retained the magnificent tone, a refined sound that we do not often associate with Russian pianists - more French in character. The Nocturne in E flat major Op. 9 No.2  was very fine with seductive cantabile.

The opening to an almost symphonic rendition of the B-flat minor Scherzo was the forbidding question with an answer from the grave just as Chopin desired. An improvised compositional quality throughout - a player entirely immersed in his own sound world. 'Authentic' Chopin in the John Rinkean sense of individual vision. I see the drama of this scherzo building as an arc but he saw it differently but utterly convincingly. His digital dexterity is astonishing – again, a pair of hands with an independent life attached to a body.

After the interval four Scarlatti Sonatas which I did not take to having played them myself on the harpsichord. They were over-pedalled to my mind and not in the same league as the superbly articulated cantabile of the young Pogorelich, the astounding Federico Colli or if I may without being unfair to youth, Horowitz.

I will pass over the Busoni Variations and Fugue on Chopin’s Prelude in C minor Op. 22 in silence – another monster of virtuoso vanity on the part of this composer-pianist. I really only appreciate Busoni’s arrangements of Bach Chorale Preludes.

I am afraid I also felt Shishkin simply did not penetrate below the virtuoso surface (and an incredible, mind-bending tour de force it was!) of the final work in his programme, the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No 1. I became irritated by his passing over completely in a headlong virtuosic flight the poetic and programmatic erotic and sensual evil nature of the shifting harmonies flitting about the sulphurous atmosphere of the piece – everything the brilliant Daniil Trifonov perfectly understood in his transformation into Mephistopheles at the keyboard in Duszniki Zdroj in 2011.

His encore of the Chopin Grand Waltz in E flat major was pleasant enough and the Etude quite stunning.

The inherent creativity of Shishkin explains a great deal about his reconception of some of the compositions he chooses. As a creative artist he could hardly do otherwise. Creativity is the fibre of his being. Such individual invention will not be to everyone's taste and certainly not in matters of Chopinesque 'correctness'. However his general musical stance is perfectly in keeping with the original eighteenth and nineteenth century role of the composer-pianist. Shiskin always has a great deal to say of unique interest about Chopin's music.

Saturday  27 August   20.00   Eric Lu

The first time I heard this pianist in Duszniki Zdroj in August 2015  I wrote quite lyrically about his playing, especially in the intimacy of the Dworek Chopina. Again I was full of praise during the International Chopin Competition in October 2015 when he was awarded 4th prize, at seventeen the youngest laureate in the history of the competition. I was anxious to see if the many intervening concerts he had been offered as a result had matured or affected his playing in the last ten months.

Neuer Markt in Vienna with Capuchin Church and Haus zur Mehlgrube on the right
Bernardo Bellotto 1760
He opened his recital with Mozart, one of the greatest classical influences on the music of Chopin who revered his music above all save that of Bach. The Piano Sonata in C major K 330 was written when Mozart was twenty-seven. Lu certainly has the tone, sensitive touch and sense of classical style to be a fine Mozart player. All he needs is a stronger sense of the affectations  and nuances of that period in Vienna where the sonata was probably composed for his aristocratic pupils. 

In his solo piano music and chamber music much in Mozart reminds me of  conversation between highly civilized, ironic, charming, occasionally melancholic and sometimes moody, passionate folk but always restrained within the limits of ‘good taste’. The Andante in particular is dominated by cantablile vocal writing as is so much of Mozart, dominated as he is by an operatic subconscious. The Allegretto is charm and civilization itself of a high degree. Kristian Zimerman plays this sonata with great period style, charm and taste.

In the Schubert Four Impromptus  Op. 90 D.889 there were some beautiful moments indeed particularly No 3 in G-flat major. However again I felt Lu had as yet not yet absorbed this music into his organic life and insufficiently explored the nature of Schubert the man. How old is this pianist? Eighteen.....and here I catch a man some 50 years older pontificating as they tend to do! 

In many ways Schubert codified the genre of the Impromptu as when he was composing these pieces the nature of this genre was not all clear.  There is a close connection between music and poetry that Schubert certainly recognized in his immortal songs. Literature, especially poetry, was of prime importance to the Romantic imagination in a way young performers scarcely seem to understand today. Reading the literature of the day opens a window to the soul - however not easy in 2016 in a world dominated by the nature of physical power rather than sensibility. The profound influence at the time of the writings of Rousseau in say La Nouvelle Héloïse is almost incomprehensible to us.

I have a specific sound world in mind for Schubert, one that has an analogy with pastel drawings and the search for certainty. Perhaps this has something to do with my listening and playing his music on period pianos of his day - a Hammerflügel by Joseph Brodmann of Vienna for example. The wonderful András Schiff has become so convinced of the importance of this he has recently released a superb double Schubert CD on a Joseph Brodmann instrument of 1820 (ECM New Series 2425/26   481 1572). The essays written by Schiff and Mischa Donat that accompany the CD are also most interesting and thought provoking. I feel Schubert benefits more than most composers in this shift of perspective. On the other hand I think Beethoven would have been overjoyed at what the modern instrument can produce as he always felt severely limited by the instrument in his magnificent musical imagination. One only has to listen to Grigory Sokolov play the titanic 'Hammerklavier' Sonata to realize this...

On such earlier instruments much of Schubert's solo piano music is that of a deeply introspective figure with desperate rushes of courage and faith in the face of a blighted human existence dominated by the melancholic shadows of death. The blithe Trout Quintet and the strength and determination inherent in say the operatic Wanderer Fantasy  are exceptions.  The ambiguous hints, half-light, struggles with insecurities and flashes of natural joy and struggle with the shades were absent for me in an otherwise very fine performance. Surely the Impromptus were conceived as Hausmusik played by Schubert to a group of friends in a Viennese apartment on a Graf or Brodmann instrument. Naturally one cannot replace the Steinway in a modern concert hall and build a modern concert career, but one can modify one's approach to the instrument in the light of informed exploration of earlier sound worlds.

Imagine for a moment....a world without electricity! The overriding influence of the cycles of Nature on life and thought...

With this composer the external context of his life too is of major importance in interpretation as is clear from the outstanding book recently written by that great Lieder tenor Ian Bostridge entitled Schubert's Winter Journey - essential reading in 2016. Many young performers have difficulty penetrating the complex psychology of Schubert. The ‘technical’ aspects of the music clearly hold no challenges for Lu,  but more thought particularly in terms of excessive dynamic variation on the modern instrument (particularly this composer) would not go astray. For me at least Schubert is not painting in oils in the Impromptus and is a less declamatory composer than Lu would have us believe. All this is so personal is it not, how one conceives of Schubert the man and his sound palette?

The performance is a meeting between the composer and the performer and the listener, and it is only together that they can create the piece.

                                                                  Schubert's Winter Journey Ian Bostridge (p. 162)

After the interval the Chopin 24 Preludes. From the very first note it was as if a new pianist had been born who had suddenly plumbed the depths of the music he was performing. Really it was a quite striking moment of change and sudden access of authority.

It would have course been impossible for Chopin to have ever considered performing this complete radical cycle in his musical and cultural ambiance (not least because of the brevity of many of the pieces). Although it is now well established as a complete work, a masterpiece of integrated ‘fragments’ (in the nineteenth century sense of that aesthetic term). Each can of course stand on its own as a perfect miniature landscape of feeling and tonal climate but ‘Why Preludes? Preludes to what?’ as André Gide asked. I think it unnecessary and superfluous to actually answer this question but one answer might be ‘Death’. We must to turn to Chopin’s love of Bach to at least partially understand them (he took an edition of the ‘48’ to Mallorca where he completed the Preludes). I think it was Anton Rubinstein who first performed them as a cycle but I stand to be corrected on this. 

I felt Lu had come to a far deeper understanding of how to give them the difficult appearance of an integrated 'philosophy' or spiritual narrative than a year ago. Far fewer solecisms crept in during this performance of the Preludes.  My main difference of opinion would have been in the tempo he adopted for one or two. Most were superb and captured the Polish Chopinesque unease with life and destiny perfectly. This review is not the place to go into great detail. 

I have always felt the relevance of a poem by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas when contemplating this cycle which for me seems to run the entire gamut of human emotion. The poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night could apply to the spirit of the cycle as a whole. I quote two stanzas I feel apply to Chopin in the Preludes:

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, 
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Certainly the Preludes were written in a period of great emotional upheaval for Chopin.

As encores the Schubert Moment Musicaux in F-minor, a fine but rather too up tempo (for me) Chopin Waltz in A flat and to conclude the popular Bach/Siloti.

A well deserved standing ovation, cheers and a huge queue of many metres way into the depths of the foyer to sign his CD of performances in the International Chopin Piano Competition. Good taste! A tremendous future ahead for this massively talented young man.

Sunday 28 August  20.00 

Seong-Jin Cho - piano
Sinfonia Varsovia 
Grzegorz Nowak - conductor

Sadly I was simply not able to attend this concert for personal family reasons. I am quite sure that the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor Op.23 would have been quite brilliant and monumental with Seong-Jin Cho as soloist and this ensemble. The work would have suited his developing genius admirably.

Life and its frustrations...

Monday  29 August  20.00

Eric Lu – historic piano (Erard 1849)
Szymon Nehring – historic piano (Erard 1849)

Eric Hoeprich – basset clarinet
Orchestra of the XVIII Century
Grzegorz Nowak – conductor

The conductor of this orchestra in previous festivals, the great Frans Brüggen, has not been with us for two years owing to a higher calling. A great loss to all of us.

The concert opened with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major, K.622. This was one of Mozart’s last compositions – he was to die less than two months after the premiere. Written by the composer for the famous clarinet and basset horn player Anton Stadler (1753-1812) it was actually written for a rare instrument known as a basset clarinet. In a library in Riga in 1992 programmes were found of concerts which Anton Stadler played there in 1784. Two of those programmes show an engraving of Stadler's instrument.

Some modern reproductions have been made from this drawing, possibly one being played by Eric Hoeprich this evening him being one of the world's leading exponents of the historical clarinet. There was no conductor, the soloist leading the orchestra (he was also a founder member and principal clarinet of this orchestra).

This was one of those ‘perfect’ stylistic performances of the work and I am left with nothing to say other than praise. There is such a rich warmth to this remarkable instrument, a true soul to it, a mellow woodiness of rich timbre and texture particularly in the lowest register (down to C) for which the instrument was especially constructed to encompass. Elegant phrasing and that heartbreaking melody, sublime in every way, of the Adagio of this concerto. I do not wish to sound trite but one inescapably feels for Mozart this was an addio to life itself.

The young Polish pianist Szymon Nehring then joined the orchestra for a performance of the Chopin Piano Concerto in F minor, Op.21 on a 1849 Erard historic instrument. I thought he extracted much colour from the Erard with great refinement of touch and nuance too – I was most impressed with his adaption to the period instrument. His control of pianissimo was subtle and moving, perfectly in keeping with the descriptions of Chopin’s own playing which Berlioz described as soft as ‘the playing of elves’ even requiring one to place one’s ear against the instrument to hear him!

The Larghetto was exquisite with rubato of great sensibility. The Allegro vivace was spirited and fortunately the exposed nostalgic natural horn call towards the conclusion was right on pitch! A moment I always dread in this concerto. I really felt Nehring is a natural player of such period instruments. His encore was also so suitable for his refined touch on this instrument, a highly sensitive performance of the Chopin Étude in C- minor op. 25 No 7. The inaccessible ‘Polish element’ Chopin spoke of was present in abundance. A far superior performance of this concerto to the one he gave of the E minor in the Chopin competition – curious thing music ‘this cabbalistic craft’.

Unfortunately the under-rehearsed orchestra under this conductor scarcely assisted this young tyro. Chopin’s orchestration has often been criticized and I am afraid if one was to regard this outcome as representative such an opinion would be justified. However a far closer study of the score is required by the conductor to extract the enormous subtlety Chopin extended to his ‘chamber’ orchestral scoring even if the conductor is Polish and outstanding in other repertoire. Strident tympani and sudden massive symphonic tutti are scarcely in order. The orchestra plays a supporting role to the piano in these early concerti. One must always have as Chopin models the Hummel styl brillant concerti in the back of one's mind. I am surprised that some of the residual brilliance of Frans Brüggen has not remained with the orchestra after his long association with them and Chopin (in for example the wonderful, inspired 2005/2006 recording of both concerti with Eric Lu’s sometime teacher Dang Thai Son as soloist on NIFCCD 004 - Black Series).

After the interval, at 18, the ‘authentically young’ Eric Lu joined the orchestra for a performance of the Chopin Concerto in E-minor, Op. 11. This was a fabulous exercise in styl brillant playing although I felt the performance suffered the same lack of rehearsal time and a conductor not sufficiently intimate with the score – all sorts of unbalanced instrumental counterpoint of minimal interest kept popping out unexpectedly on occasion covering the piano sound almost completely, at least from the balcony where I was seated.

The Allegro maestoso has the word maestoso qualifying the direction Allegro for a reason. It is a direction we often encounter  in the Chopin polonaises - a traditional expression of distinct Polishness fir the composer that contains within the original dance the martial qualities of nobility, grace, resistance, élan, the glitter of the sabre, the proud stroking of the Sarmartian moustache valiantly facing the enemy. Where was this in the orchestra support? 

Lu managed the instrument outstandingly well but adopted more agitated tempi than during the Chopin competition – the outer movements glittered but I felt lacked the ‘musical soul’ and introspection I am accustomed to hearing with this pianist. Again the Dang Thai Son interpretation of this concerto at moderate, deeply expressive tempi and depth of sensibility remains the non plus ultra performance for me on period instruments.

Concerning the Romance. Larghetto, in a letter to his close friend Tytus Woyciechowski Chopin wrote of this movement ‘It is a kind of meditation on the beautiful springtime, but to moonlight’.  Lu understands this Mozartian lyrical refinement. His cantabile in the statement of this melancholic love song contained within it an atmosphere of eloquent simplicity. Moments of sadness and introspection were overcome as if the sun emerged tentatively from behind clouds in gestures of poetry. In a characteristically oblique reference, Chopin had once written to Tytus of Konstancja Gładkowska ‘Involuntarily, something has entered my head through my eyes and I like to caress it’. I always feel Chopin's imagined gentle caress of Konstancja in Lu's refined playing of this movement.

The Rondo. Vivace was a spectacular tour de force of styl brillant pianism. The movement follows attacca, meaning without pause and suddenly we are launched from our romantic reverie into the youthful dance world of the fun-loving youthful Chopin, that of the energetic krakowiak.  The actual sound  that Lu extracted  from the instrument in this wonderful styl brillant  movement was quite breathtaking even if in the headlong rush lacked time for us to take breath! 

I felt more exposure to the instrument, familiarity with it’s tone and keyboard (so different to a modern Steinway) would have ironed out a few infelicities of phrasing, tone and touch and allowed the music to relax and breathe more expansively. These earlier pianos and their relatively light touch tend to ‘run away with you’ and sometimes possibly through nervous tension, synchronicity with the conductor and orchestra were occasionally slightly suspect.

Standing ovation after a brilliant performance with just a few minor reservations on my part.

The concerto was premiered in Warsaw three weeks before Chopin left Poland forever… 

Tuesday 20 August 20.00

Beatrice Rana – piano
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Jacek Kaspszyk – conductor

And so we come to the last concert in this excellent festival series.

I am always bemused and rather impressed by Polish audiences at the opening and closing concerts at serious music festivals. They always make a significant attempt to add ceremonial to the occasion and dress well, even formally, for the event. Not everyone of course but a significant number…makes a change!

After the farewell speeches I must say it was a rather ‘patriotic’ programme opening with the Polonaise for Symphony Orchestra by Krzysztof Penderecki. This was written in 2015 to a commission by the Fryderyk Chopin Competition for a polonaise to mark the inauguration of the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw that year. Quite a massive orchestra was assembled with even a brass band in the balcony. It is a succinct expression of ‘Polishness’ and quite ‘tongue in cheek’ at times interspersed however with charming expressive elements.

Perhaps someone in contact with the Delphic Oracle can explain to me why the Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op.16 by Prokofiev was selected for this final concert and the theme of the festival? Works by Chopin, forgotten Polish musical treasures, Mozart and Bellini…then Prokofiev? This is not deny it is a great work, possibly one of the most difficult in the concerto repertoire and performed tonight by the glorious Italian pianist Beatrice Rana (laureate of numerous piano competitions). It was completed in 1913 and then destroyed by fire in the Russian revolution. Prokofiev reconstructed this work in significantly different form in 1923 and dedicated it to the memory of the young pianist and composer Maximilian Schmidthof, a friend of Prokofiev's at the St. Petersburg conservatorium. He had committed suicide in 1913 by shooting himself after leaving a nihilistic note and quoting in a letter a poem by Mikhail Lermontov:


It's tiresome and sad, and there's no one to land you a hand
In your heart's hour of trials and fears.
What you want is... What use, though, forever in vain to demand?
And the years pass you by, all the very best years.

Try loving, but whom? For the time, it's not worth all the trouble,
And no one keeps loving forever.
Look into yourself, - All the past disappears like a bubble,
Both the joy and the torment, to naught your endeavour.

Your passions? Once, sooner or later, when Reason has found you,
Their sweet sickness will pass at her stroke;
And life, as you look with cold, distant attention around you,
Is just such a stupid and meaningless joke.

January, 1840. Mikhail Lermontov.


И скучно и грустно, и некому руку подать
В минуту душевной невзгоды...
Желанья!.. Что пользы напрасно и вечно желать?..
А годы проходят — все лучшие годы!

Любить... но кого же?.. На время — не стоит труда,
А вечно любить невозможно.
В себя ли заглянешь? — Там прошлого нет и следа:
И радость, и муки, и всё там ничтожно...

Что страсти? — Ведь рано иль поздно их сладкий недуг
Исчезнет при слове рассудка;
И жизнь, как посмотришь с холодным вниманьем вокруг, —
Такая пустая и глупая шутка...

Январь 1840. Михаил Лермонтов.

(Translated by Maxim Litvinov)

It is a work full of magnificent energy and life – an affirmation. This truly avant-garde work was attacked as ‘shameful’ in  early performances as one of the worst examples of ‘modernism’ causing Prokofiev to be branded an ‘anarchist’ or ‘futurist’. Progressive artists of the day loved it. It is exceptionally demanding on the pianist, orchestra and conductor. Rana managed the forbidding and gargantuan cadenza at the end of the first movement with awesome stamina and power. Equally the Scherzo. Vivace she disposed of the second movement with its rapid sequences of perpetuum mobile semiquavers with formidable virtuosity. If you would like to hear it again (it requires repeated hearings – impossible to take in on first exposure) or for the first time, she very recently recorded this work on Warner Classics with the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Antonio Pappano. 

Two fine and demanding encores: The Etude-tableaux in C minor Op. 39 No. 1 by Rachmaninoff and the Prelude in F sharp major by Chopin.

Despite the brilliance of execution and clear compatibility with conductor and orchestra I saw no place for this serious and rather dark masterpiece on an evening of festive cheer. Someone might enlighten me…

Jan Matejko (1838-1893) The Battle of Grunwald (1878)
After the interval a mighty patriotic work by the Polish composer Emil Młynarski (1870-1935), the Symphony in F major (‘Polonia’) Op.14 (1910). He was co-founder and artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic in addition to being head of the Warsaw Institute of Music, an orchestra in Glasgow and the Conservatorium and Opera in Warsaw. Administrative duties dominated his life over and above composition. 

At the time this symphony was written Poland was still mired in the Third Partition (1795-1918). The country was effectively merely a state of mind. Poland did not exist as a sovereign independent nation on any map of Europe. This must definitely be borne in mind when assessing this work and its impact without the 'distortions of freedom'. I felt at times Młynarski  to be 'the Elgar of Poland' but in reverse. Here we do not have an expressed atmosphere of imperial triumph and splendour but a courageous statement of the obverse of the coin, the nature of resistance to oppression and imperial aggression.

Fate and geographical location has not been kind to Poland – somewhat of an understatement! The at times almost hysterical, strident affirmation of Polish identity in this work plumbs the depths of derivative Romanticism but these are mere quibbles I feel in view of the historical circumstances of its composition. Religious hymns, oberek rhythms, krakowiak dances, magnificent brass fanfares, repetitive tutti of monumental and majestic proportions repeated over and again – this potent mixture (some may even say ‘tasteless’) brought smiles of real pleasure and respect from me for a composer with an overwhelming and unashamed feeling of nationhood and pride in taking up ‘musical arms’ in the continuing battle for the existence of his nation.

The orchestra seemed almost relieved it was over, the conductor visibly worn and the Polish audience not overly enthusiastic. I reflected that their historical past may be more alive in me! I wondered how long it might be before this symphony is performed again? There is an older recording together with his Violin Concerto performed by Konstanty Andrzej Kulka.

There is an aspect I have noticed present in much of Polish art, music and literature (pace the genius of Fryderyk Chopin). Many great Polish works are so consumed and concerned, obsessed even, with the sheer weight of the blighted history of the nation, the struggle for freedom and desperate existential need, that the events cease to be able to be universally applied thematically, so unique in character and tragic in outcome are the moments the artists depict. 

Examples abound in the astounding historical canvases of Jan Matejko, in literature the grand panoramas of the novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz and in such a symphony we heard tonight. The unique culture of this nation, forged in an unimaginable crucible of suffering and ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’ expressed so potently by its artists, forces many great art works into a curious cul de sac where much of significant worth can scarcely escape the frontier of the nation. Let us hope such astonishingly individualistic statements as these will finally escape the ‘Iron Curtain’ which was as much a barrier to the cross fertilization of so-called 'Eastern European' cultures as a barrier to the movement of peoples.

The Chopin i jego Europa (Chopin and His Europe) music festival is making a valiant and largely successful attempt to facilitate a broader understanding between European peoples of their common cultural heritage. More strength to their Polish arm and the long delayed resurrection of a stolen and despoiled national identity. 

Jan Matejko

(the Jester) during a Ball at the court of Queen Bona in the face of the loss of Smolensk