65th. Duszniki-Zdroj International Chopin Piano Festival 6-14 August 2010

The 65th. International Chopin Festival at Duszniki Zdroj (a charming tiny spa in Silesia on the mountainous Czech-Polish border not far from Wroclaw) began on Friday August 6th. My enthusiasm for it and description will be familiar to all the readers of my literary travel/residence book on Poland

A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland  (Granta, London 2009) now translated into Polish as

Kraj z Księżyca: Podróże do serca Polski (Czarne 2010)


Not all the music is by Chopin - Liszt, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Scriabin.....the entire piano repertoire is on offer. This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Chopin who visited Duszniki Zdroj in 1826 (then Bad Reinerz in Silesia) for a cure suggested by his teacher the Silesian composer Joseph Elsner. Chopin gave a charity concert there and this is celebrated in modern times by an annual piano festival. Mendelssohn also came to  Duszniki Zdroj on many occasions visiting relatives.

I had to make an invidious choice this year as the marvellous Chopin i jego Europa (Chopin and his Europe) series of concerts in Warsaw began on August 1st and will last for a month rather then the usual two weeks. I will be able to catch the second half which is some consolation I suppose. So many great pianists of our time are coming to Poland this year it can scarcely be believed.

Click on photographs to enlarge (Leica)

The Spa Park at Duszniki Zdroj, Poland

Painting of Chopin at the inaugural concert of the festival

The drive from Warsaw to Duszniki is always arduous. Route 46 is so rough and the trucks heading for the Czech border are a nightmare. It is raining and rather cold here. I always stay at the excellent Hotel Jarzebina which has excellent food and accommodation away from the centre of the spa near a tumbling mountain brook which soothes the troubled ear and induces excellent sleep.


The added bonus is that most of the artists reside there and it is possible to have informal conversations with them if the mood takes you. You can also hear them practise which is an education in itself. The way artist practises indicates so much about their approach to the music. Most heavily emphasise technique - I have rarely heard anyone experimenting with different interpretative approaches.

August 6

This is the world's oldest piano festival (inaugurated in 1946) and I always keenly anticipate coming to this small Polish spa town. The inaugural concert of both piano concertos was performed in a huge tent erected for the purpose in the Spa Park. Piotr Paleczny was the soloist with the Symphony Orchestra of the Witold Lutoslwaski Philharmonic in Wroclaw under Marek Pijarowski. Conditions were not perfect with 95% humidity and a dead acoustic. The plastic keys on modern instruments become slippery in such conditions and the action becomes heavier. Paleczny gave fine performances of both concertos. With his strong left hand he emphasises the superb Chopin counterpoint and harmonic transitions usually hidden away under the scintillating right-hand filigree of the style brillant. The Larghetto movements of both concerti were lyrical, poetic with a luminous singing tone. The orchestral sound was badly affected by the conditions but the conducting was spirited and joyful although lacking in grace and finesse - for me at least. Rather conventional.


August 7

The individual piano recitals take place in the Dworek Chopina where Chopin gave his charity concert as a young man while on a 'cure'. Disappointingly the recital to be given by the brilliant Yuja Wang in the afternoon was cancelled due to her illness. This 23 year old Chinese pianist now living in the US is one of the new meteors on the pianistic horizon. As a replacement we listened to the 6 young members of the Masterclasses which run alongside the festival. The Liszt Ballade No:2 played by Grzegorz Niemczuk showed great emotional and technical promise.

We also miss the exciting presence of the great pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk this year. He unfailingly brought a mastery of the instrument together with enormous charisma, musical projection and audience engagement of a great artist. There is no-one quite like him on the piano planet and the festival is scarcely the same without him.

The evening's complete Chopin recital by Kevin Kenner was as exceptionally fine as we can always expect from this brilliant American and past winner of the Chopin competition. His playing is overwhelmingly dramatic and reveals his deep understanding of this composer over his many years of study (the Scherzos in particular).  I am not sure about his way of melding some of his recital pieces together with little or no pause between them but this is a personal thing and popular with even the greatest of pianists, say in performances of the Preludes or the Etudes. I am also slightly uneasy with the 'pot pourri' approach to playing  groups of mazurkas and other pieces with arbitrary harmonic connections. Certainly the air of improvisation is completely justified by nineteenth century period performance practice but I feel this form of popularisation tends to remove the superb aesthetic feeling of each single mastercrafted work. Another personal view. However if it persuades more people to listen to Chopin, this is marvellous. We need more young listeners at classical concerts.

August 8

Jozef Elsner Mass in the Duszniki Zdroj parish church of Sts. Peter and Paul

Today began with a High Mass for the Intentions of Chopin in the Duszniki parish church St. Peter and Paul. The mass was a setting by Jozef Elsner, Chopin' teacher in Warsaw for soprano, mezzo, violin, viola, cello and organ together with a small choir. A beautiful reminder that Chopin was both an excellent organist and a devout Christian. Many invitations had been given to the local people of Duszniki to participate which was a lovely gesture by the festival organisers.

The remarkable Baroque pulpit of 1730 in the Duszniki Zdroj Parish Church of Sts. Peter and Paul
This afternoon at 4.00 pm the darling of Duszniki  Rachel Cheung played an all Chopin programme, probably  in preparation for her participation in the International Chopin Competition later in the year. The Ballade No: 4 was very finely played but I feel she has not quite captured the elusive 'Polish element' Chopin spoke of in the rhythm of the group of mazurkas she chose. The Andante Spianato was lyrical and with beautiful tonal shading and fine tone but the Grand Polonaise lacked a certain sparkle and rhythmic tightness. In many ways the B flat minor Sonata was an excellent peformance but needs a little more work - it is a tremendously demanding work in profound musical and psychological ways.

I feel her great strengths lie in Bach (she gave a monumental performance of the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue at Duszniki some years ago perhaps the greatest I have ever heard), Schubert and Mozart. She has a great love of Chopin's music and plays it wonderfully well - it is all a question of musical and personal maturity which will inevitably come. She has a fine teacher and mentor in Eleanor Wong.  Rachel is now 18 and no longer the Wunderkind but a maturing young lady, so a type of watershed has been breached. Good luck with your magnificent talent - God never gave me this!

The Dworek Chopina where the recitals take place and the site where Chopin gave his charity concert in 1826. At that time it was known as Bad Reinerz in Silesia

With Ayako Uehara we move onto a different level of pianism. She was the first woman and first Japanese citizen to win the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 2002. She has moved onto greater things including raising a young family which has matured her greatly from the young tyro I remember. The Schubert 12 Ecossaises D.299 were a delight and superbly articulated with a light touch, refined articulation and varied dynamics - so very charming and Schubert at his least concerned with hovering death. The Beethoven sonata Op.2 No: 3 was equally in the perfect classical style of early Beethoven, full of colour, emotion, variety of touch and dynamic shading. The Adagio was moving and deeply reflective with luminous tone. Quite superb. Although perhaps Beethoven himself was a 'rougher diamond' than this! The Chopin waltzes Op. 64 were charming but who can capture this elusive waltz rhythm! Rather mannered as a young person might imagine the past of aristocratic salons. Chopin himself loved dancing and was far more robust than this - but never crude. Not quite brought off on this occasion. The Chopin studies Op. 25 were completely rethought by this artist, often with revelatory, perhaps even old-fashioned, interpretations. Much of Chopin's inner counterpoint and harmonic adventurousness, usually overlooked in the rushed inflated dynamics of many modern players, were here brought out to superb effect. A wonderful and thought-proving set of studies, deeply musical and played with a rare refined and elegant pianism that was never bombastic but with full rich tone yet delicate and emotionally fraught when required. I wonder if she has recorded them - I truly hope so - it would be a unique set.

Organ grinder outside the Pijalnia (mineral spring drinking fountain) in Duszniki Zdroj who was moved on by the local police for not playing Chopin - poor chap

I approached the recital of Stanislaw Bunin with a degree of trepidation which proved to be well-founded. I had heard him at this festival a few years ago and had wanted to walk out of the concert but was in fact hemmed in by the crowded row. For this pair of ears he truly made war on the instrument with ugly thumping masquerading as intense emotion as well as pounding the floor as a further percussive accompaniment. Any sort of detail, nuance or poetry seemed lost in the thunderstorm...of his genius? As a younger man he was a very fine pianist indeed and in fact won the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1985.

I had been told he had been ill on that occasion so I was prepared to hear him again in one of my favourite Schumann pieces  Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op. 26. The Schumann Arabesque in C major Op. 18 had moments of poetry and fine discriminating tone. However during the Op. 26 he again returned to his thunderous, insensitive habits and I felt he completely misrepresented this piece as if he was strangely angry with the instrument (a superb and beautiful Fazioli brought here for the occasion). It was a very self-absorbed, indulgent and rather egotistical approach to my mind (but is this a genius at work?) and the music itself never had a chance to speak with its own voice. Of course I once heard Michelangeli play this piece in London many years ago and the wonder of that performance remains with me still. I am afraid I returned to my room at intermission. 'Why should I subject myself to this assault on my own carefully cultivated musical conceptions?' I asked myself. Let us be compassionate however and overlook these many strange manifestations of his health problems and remember his past glories.

Few pianists actually play what Chopin actually wrote if the new Jan Ekier National Edition of his works is to be believed. I have studied many works with this new edition and even the greatest pianists ignore Chopin's fine detail subtle pedal and dynamic indications and even finer ear for graded articulation. Much depends on which edition they used when first learning a work as I imagine it is quite difficult to relearn the detail and commit it to memory when you have been playing a piece in a certain way for years. The muscular memory one builds up must be had to alter under the stress of concert performance.

We are moving far away from Chopin's original intentions and the source of this music - the poetry, refinement, intimacy and nuanced tonal colour and gradations of touch so beloved of this composer - excepting of course Grigory Sokolov, Andras Schiff, Janusz Olejniczak, Krystian Zimerman - in the past the magician Paderewski, Rubinstein, Solomon (yes, his Chopin is unknown and achingly beautiful) Lipatti and Michelangeli. Physically exciting performances in 2010 - yes - but in the realm of sensibility....a lot left to be desired.

The famous 17th century paper mill at Duszniki Zdroj dates from 1605. Chopin wrote letters to his family on paper from this mill. It was famous in his time too and he mentions in his letter that the paper he is writing on  is from there

August 9

At last the weather has turned sunny and warm!

I attended a wonderful masterclass early this morning conducted by Professor Choong-Mo Kang from Seoul in South Korea. He is a very fine pianist who gave a superb account of the Bach Goldberg Variations in Duszniki a couple of years ago.He was dealing in this masterclass with the Polonaise-Fantasy by Chopin. He said it was one of the greatest pieces of Western piano music, so eloquent that he could hardly begin to use mere words to describe his feelings - they would cheapen it. "When I die, there are three pieces I want to have  buried with me. One is the second movement of Beethoven's piano sonata Op. 111, another is the second movement of the Brahms D-minor Piano Concerto and finally this work by Chopin - his most profound utterance." Clearly this would be a serious class and turned out to be one of the most moving I have ever attended. The student was a young Japanese girl.

Choong-Mo Kang Masterclass at the Jan Weber Chamber Hall Duszniki Zdroj

I had high hopes also of the recital given by the young Chinese pianist Sa Chen in the afternoon. She was to play the complete set of Preludes Op. 28 and then the Sonata No: 3 in B minor Op. 58 - an ambitious programme indeed. The dynamics of the preludes was frightfully inflated as seems customary with young pianists today and any form of subtle intimacy was completely lost. Her artistic profile does not really suit this choice of programme. When I think that some of these preludes were composed on the small Pleyel pianino (1844) I have at home - Chopin used a similar instrument in Valdemossa - I feel that utilising the full huge dynamic range of a concert Steinway or Yamaha is simply absurd, even grotesque. The Dworek Chopina is not Carnegie Hall and so few of the pianists who appear here scale down their sonority to suit the size of this rather intimate room. I did not attend the second half of this recital.

My Pleyel  pianino of 1844 No: 11151. Bellini, Mme. Sand, Delacroix, and Balzac's mistress Mme. Hanska all owned these superb instruments. This is the type of instrument he had sent to Valdemossa. Of course one cannot build a concert career on such an instrument but one can learn something of the intimacy that Chopin unlike Liszt strove to achieve in performance

This is a detail from the famous picture Chopin's Polonaise - a Ball at the Hotel Lambert in Paris  by Teofil Kwiatkowski now in the National Museum Poznan. This palace (the Hotel Lambert) was the Parisian home of the Polish magnate Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski and a centre for the volatile discussions of the 'Polish question' in the mid nineteenth century. There was an annual Polish Ball and Chopin is seen playing a small Pleyel instrument when the artist could easily have depicted him seated at a far grander instrument. These instruments were not played against a wall as uprights are today but wheeled into the open area of a drawing room thus freeing their marvellous sound. They were customarily equipped with ormolu handles on either side of the case and castors for the purpose.

If you would like to further your understanding of the sound world inhabited by Chopin himself (if not vital the historical context) I suggest listening to two contrasting pieces (the Mazurka in B flat minor Op. 24 No. 4  and the so-called 'Revolutionary'  Etude Op. 10, No. 12 in C minor) via the link below. 

They are performed on an 1831 Pleyel in this now rare recording by perhaps the most poetic and soulful of the Polish pianists playing today - Janusz Olejniczak. This rare man and gifted musician certainly inhabits the climat de Chopin and understands the potential of earlier instruments to give it dramatic and poetic voice. Certainly not all pianists trained on modern concert intruments have the sensitivity to transfer their digital dexterity and expression to the difficult single escapement mechanism of the Pleyel. Olejniczak was awarded sixth prize in the 8th International Fryderyk Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1970. He was up against some brilliant competition in this particularly great year. Garrick Ohlsson was awarded first prize, Mitsuko Ushida second and Piotr Paleczny third prize.

I feel Janusz has retained the essentially Polish melancholy of this composer. The Etude erupts from the instrument with a potent anger sweeping all before it while the mazurka is a miracle of intimacy, poetry and tone colour. None of these sound qualities are any longer possible on modern instruments, however great the player. Even brilliant musicians can only resort to inspired approximations and brilliant over-pedalled fudges. It is the very limitations of the period instrument that adds so much to the subtle feminine intimacy and sudden contrast of  flaring of masculine anger so characteristic of the complex personality of this composer.

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The completely physical and percussive treatment of the instrument in Chopin interpretation today is beginning to depress me inordinately. These young pianists possess such fabulous technique that has required enormous work and personal sacrifice to achieve. Why waste it thundering away? Is Chopin's music only to be offered up on the altar of egotistical virtuosic display, competition career building and monetary gain? 'Technique is money' a noted Asian musical academician and pianist once observed to me rather perceptively at a Masterclass here. There is no relation between Chopin's fastidious personality and this deformed augmentation of his masculine side at the expense of the feminine side of his nature, a man who abhorred 'the exhalation of the crowd'. A curious reversal seems to have taken place from Chopin the composer for schoolgirls (his initial reception in England) to a  Chopin which seems to be considered as an only occasionally sensitive (particularly at night), violent revolutionary alpha male.

If one owns a Ferrari or Bugatti Veyron one does not drive it flat out all the time. However the tension lies in knowing that the reserve power is there even if not utilised. One can feel the reserve even at lower speeds. I feel that with the Steinway or Yamaha concert grand it is much the same - the enormous bass of these instruments does not need to be pounded out in Chopin for the audience to be aware of the underlying immensity of the sound and its harmonic significance. For Prokoviev,Scriabin, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Liszt one might use the full resources of the giant percussive instrument effectively, even terrifyingly. However in Chopin the restraint of passion is far more powerful than the full expression of everything one has in mind. Chopin understood this principle to perfection. 'I do not state' he said 'I merely indicate.' Why do not young pianists take this statement of his to heart? And naturally the teachers are riding the wave of fame of their students so they encourage this type of extreme behaviour in Chopin. He was a great teacher himself and concentrated on the production of a beautiful touch and tone with his students - these aspects of playing seem to be neglected in academies in favour of structure and technical facility.

Students should be encouraged to listen to Gould or Lipatti who place expressiveness, spirituality and musical poetry far above virtuoso display. Gould never counted himself among the pianists he amusingly and accurately categorised as 'a typical triceps terror'. A delicacy and refinement of touch coupled with a richness and fullness of tone when required avoided using the piano solely as a percussion instrument. Digital dexterity and power, however awesome, is no substitute for profound musical imagination.

All piano students should be required to at least try out pianos of the period in which the music they are performing was composed. Placing music in its proper cultural context in order to understand what the composer was trying to achieve gives it life. It is not the hand of the deathly historicist. Beethoven sonatas are magnificent and fully realised in sound on  modern Steinway concert instrument in a large hall. However when performed on an instrument of his period in smaller salons one can additionally feel the tremendous tension and excitement of a revolutionary composer trying to break through the sound restrictions of his limited instrument.

Chopin the enigma by Jan Kucz unveiled in 1976  - not the Chopin we usually imagine - Duszniki Zdroj

The evening recital by the Vietnamese pianist Dang Thai Son was as elegant and refined as one might expect from this mature artist. He has been coming to Duszniki since the mid 1980s when it was accessible only with great difficulty by road and there were no restaurants for food. What a change to today!

Miroirs by Ravel were an Impressionist delight with a superb range of tone colours, touch and articulation. The Debussy Children's Corner Suite was similarly a wonderfully naive view of childhood through the eyes of an adult. The pianism was ravishing in these works. The refinement of his Chopin interpretations is well known (the live recordings of the concerti on historic instruments with Franz Bruggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century are recommended). A fine Barcarolle  although there was rather a heavy dynamic sometimes for this song inspired by the gentle movement of a boat - the piece was loved by Debussy. Too many pianists play the opening as if the boat was crashing into the wharf. The rarely performed Bolero always astounds me with its modern 'jazz' thematic content and this pianist's rhythmic tension was a real source of pleasure. The Tarantella was equally spirited although this piece has never given me the idea of a victim reduced to a frenzy of movement by the bite of a poisonous spider (the creative source of this dance). But even this pianist seemed to have caught the virus of dynamic inflation in sections of the Polonaise-Fantasie - a fine performance but no more than that. I remember the magisterial reading of this work years ago at Duszniki by Grigori Sokolov - the greatest living pianist and 'soul' to my mind.

August 10

Nokturn in the Dworek Chopina - photographs during performances were strictly forbidden

The morning began with a recital by some of the Polish participants in the 2010 International Chopin Piano Competition. All were excellent but some shone in various genres of pieces more than others. I felt Marek Bracha was the most promising.

I have recently leant that after Duszniki he was awarded equal second prize with the American pianist Esther Park at the Chopin International Piano Competition, Marianske Lazne (the former Marienbad) in the Czech Republic which took place from 9 - 14 August 2010.  No first prize was awarded.

Lovers discovered in flagrante from a naive wall-painting at the paper mill Duszniki Zdroj. There is a special exhibition devoted to Chopin at Bad Reinerz running there at present 

In the afternoon a recital by the beautiful Croatian pianist Martina Filjak. She came to Duszniki with the laurels from winning the International Competition in Cleveland in 2009. She has won many other prizes and awards. As an especially pleasing choice for me (as a harpsichordist and pianist) the first item on her programme was a group of harpsichord sonatas by Padre Antonio Soler. These were carried off with great verve and reminded one of the harpsichord in the lightness and articulation. The Chopin F major and F minor Ballades were finely played in the more lyrical sections but inflated percussive dynamics finally took over. One does not shout when telling a story - just a raising of the voice is all that is required at moments of drama and tension. The second half of her programme suited both her style of playing and the instrument's resources. Prokoviev's fourth sonata in C minor Op. 29 - a magnificent piece in a brilliant rendering. Then the Scriabin Prelude and Nocturne for the left hand Op.9 - a most beautiful and sensual piece I had never heard before.  Taking on the likes of Josef Lhevinne and Alexander Gavrylyuk in Balakirev's Oriental Fantasy Islamey was an ambitious undertaking and although it was effective, the pianist for this piece must have overwhelming command of the instrumental keyboard and terrific stamina.

The formal and elegant Nokturn by candlelight in the evening is always a high point of this festival. The wonderful Professor Irena Poniatowska, a marvel of energy, wit, fairness and intelligence was given the keys to the town of Duszniki by the Mayor. On this occasion the host of the evening was the distinguished Polish actor Krzysztof Kolberger who read some poetry by Norwid, Konopnicka and others which was punctuated by 'nocturnal pieces' by the participants on either of the two pianos (the Yamaha and Steinway) . The Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva  was quite superb in the C minor prelude Op. 45 and the Nocturne in D-minor Op.27 No.2 - the finest Chopin I have heard at Duszniki so far. Another high point was a tremendously sensual, even erotic performance of the Scriabin Prelude and Nocturne for the left hand by Martina Filjak. A memory that will remain with me for some time..... A beautiful account of the rarely heard Benjamin Britten Nocturne was given by  Denis Kozhukhin. A brilliant performance also of the Chopin B flat minor Scherzo op 32 by the prodigious young talent Seong-Jin Cho from Korea. Again I was afflicted with transient tinnitus at the volume extracted from the Yamaha in this salon-sized room. Why must they pound the keys when there is so much is in reserve? If you begin a phrase or movement at a high dynamic level and there is a crescendo where do you go except into the world of excess? Someone asked Artur Rubinstein why he played a particular passage, usually a tour de force of virtuosity, at a moderate tempo and mezzo forte. He answered 'Because I can.' A very telling remark to my mind. 

Rafal Blechacz who won the 2005 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, is not here this year. He is a modest and rather introverted pianist, ideal qualities for performing Chopin who possessed a similar temperament, quite different to Liszt. He plays the composer through the filter of Bach and Mozart rather than Scriabin and Rachmaninov and never inflates his dynamics and percussiveness of the instrument to Prokoviev levels.

Rachel Cheung with her great musical sensitivity lowered  her dynamic to suit the room as did the Polish pianist Ewa Kupiec in a beautiful performance of Nocturnes. There were also songs by Chopin, Schumann and Rachmaninov for soprano and piano which reminded me strongly of the elegant salon days we have left behind in our adulation of the physical over the spiritual life of sensibility and poetry.

August 11

Weather is still sunny and warm with a lovely breeze as one walks in the pine-clad mountains near here or takes the waters. I often spend the mornings in this way as it allows me to think about the nature of performance and how Chopin should be approached. A lifetime study incidentally.

The Black Pond at Duszniki Zdroj

I was particularly disappointed that the magnificent Argentinian Chopin pianist Nelson Goerner was forced to cancel his recital due to family reasons. His recent Chopin recording with EMI on a modern instrument caused a sensation and so it should have. His recordings and command of the Pleyel historic instrument can be heard on the Chopin Institute series of recordings called The Real Chopin.


He is a protege of Martha Agerich and the many concerts of his I have attended in Warsaw have always been superb. Ah well.....

His place was taken by the young Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva who had played so beautifully during the Nokturn evening. She has won many prizes and has a fine future ahead. The 'Russian School' trains pianists so well to equip them for the entire piano repertoire. I would not like to have played at Duszniki on such short notice and replacing Nelson Goerner so I was a really sympathetic listener. The Chopin Fantasy in F minor Op.49 was fine indeed and also the mazurkas had much of the 'Polish element' Chopin spoke so often about. However the Scherzo Op. 39 was rather rushed and lacking in the true definition of the form but the 'Heroic' Polonaise Op. 53 had a certain military and quality of noble national resistance that we rarely hear today. The Ballade No: 4 Op. 52 was well played but this interpretation did not reveal the immortal musical and spiritual qualities of this piece which to my mind make it one of the greatest Western musical works for the keyboard. The second Sonata in B minor Op.35 was similarly extremely competent musically and technically but lacking in that metaphysical unease in the face of death that runs like a dark thread through this work in particular.

We now come to by far the greatest recital of the festival so far, that by the Russian Denis Kozhukhin. This artist is only 24 but has the musical and technical maturity of a far older pianist but with the incandescent energy of a younger man. He won the Vendome Prize in 2009 and the Queen Elizabeth Competition in 2010.

He first played four Sonatas by Padre Antonio Soler with tremendous elan and brio - if you have chosen to play these baroque works on the modern piano they should express the idiom of the instrument, but which instrument? The harpsichord or Christophori's piano for which they were originally conceived? His performance was rather different and heavier than the previous scintillating accounts yesterday by Martina Filjak. Next was the Sonata No: 3 in B minor op. 58 by Chopin. The first movement was taken at a moderate, truly majestic pace with a magnificent full, rounded tone that never broke through any ceiling of discomfort. The Scherzo was full of the brittle life Chopin imbues this form of jest with 'dark veils'. The Largo almost reduced me to tears so poetic and full of limpid heartfelt tone was it. The Finale was begun at a far broader tempo than usual in a rich powerful tone that was never ugly. He then began to wind up the tension until a monumental conclusion of resignation tinged with despair. No thumping and yet a full round tone when required with great dynamic gradations, articulation, variety of touch and colour. Chopin is described as playing like this himself. Words are inadequate to describe this interpretation. Probably the greatest live performance of this work I have ever heard.

The 'official' Chopin memorial in Duszniki Zdroj unveiled in 1897 where the Festival is opened ceremonially each year

I must confess to not particularly liking the work that formed the second half of his recital - Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. It is usually heavy-handedly bashed out by virtuosi but certainly on this occasion the entire work seemed to have been rethought and persuaded me otherwise. He did some truly new, marvellous, imaginative things with this score - humorous, witty by turns, investing the instrument with sonorities I had never thought possible. The Orthodox bells truly rang out in the towers of Kiev. He is able to produce tremendous  tone with no discomfort to the listener - almost terrifying with monumental magnificence. I was on my feet in seconds. Two of the encores were fiendishly difficult modern works by Ligeti and Shostakovich which I did not know and the third a Prelude of Rachmaninov. 

I was reminded of my own intense involvement in contemporary music as a young man. This happened long before my knowledge of the classical repertoire - Pierre Boulez (the beautiful coloured notation of his piano sonatas), my period with Karlheinz Stockhausen as an observer in Cologne in the late 1960s (the Australian composer David Ahern was a close friend in those wonderful days of musical discoveries and excitement), Henri Pousseur, Xenakis.........This pianist will have a great career - a true artist - and he has a talented brother!

August 12

I received this wonderful email a couple of days ago concerning my literary travel/residence book about Poland entitled  A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland (Granta, London 2009)  http://www.michael-moran.net/poland.htm

Dear Mr.Moran,

I fell in love with my own country after reading your book. Thank you.

Yours sincerely

What more can a writer ask?

Mr. Moran exploring the bed of the Bystrzyca Dusznicka river that tumbles through the village 

The afternoon concert today was by the first woman to win the Leeds Piano Competition in 2009, the Russian pianist Sofya Gulyak.  She chose a 'modern' programme which made great demands on the audience. She played the Rachmaninov Elegy Op.3 No:1, gave a fine performance of the famous Prelude in C sharp minor Op.3 No:2 and the Etude-Tableau op.39 No:5 as well as the demanding Variations on a Theme of Corelli op.42. Then the Schostakovich Prelude and Fugue in D major Op.87 No: 15 which I found absolutely stunning and exciting. She has a formidable technique and uses the full resources of the concert grand piano in music composed for it. The Scriabin Poemes Op. 32 were similarly fine and his percussive Sonata No: 4 in F sharp major Op.30 was a real tour de force and expressed the wonderfully intense neurosis of Scriabin. The Prokoviev Sonata No: 6 in A major Op. 82 was magnificent too evoking the horrors of war and revolution with magnicent percussive effects, even frightening, certainly terrifying at times. Unfortunately for this pianist I had heard Grigory Sokolov perform this work in Paris and......well. only an early recording of Richter's compares. But this is unfair. This young lady is at the beginning of her career and has a transcendental technique and is utterly convincing and monumental in the repertoire that is clearly her favourite. The Chopin mazurka she gave as an encore was a superbly graduated and refined performance. Why does she not play more of this composer?

The Duszniki Zdroj Festival never fails to provide drama of a high order.  Concerning the evening concert of Chopin by the pianist Ewa Kupiec I will only say this is not my style or conception of performing Chopin despite the pianist being a Pole and actually born in Duszniki Zdroj. I had greatly enjoyed her beautiful performance at the Nokturn and thought at last we have a pianist who plays with the dynamic discretion of a Rubinstein.  This discretion did not continue into the recital. She was clearly suffering serious stage-fright for some reason (she is a native of Duszniki and her family still live there). Something terribly stressful must have happened in the background before her appearance, something of which I was not aware.

One does not know all the details of what was clearly an incendiary mixture. I pass over this recital and the significant 'scandal' of the conclusion in silence. Others however will not and some damage will have been done to the reputation of what for me was a treasure of Polish cultural musical life. Compassion for pianists is the order of the day. It is a hugely demanding profession on every level. If you have ever studied the piano seriously and given recitals as I have you will know what a horror performing can become in the mind given the wrong circumstances.

August 13

I managed to get myself caught up in so many social events that conclude this festival  (the Professors' Party is always by far the best and is just fantastic - especially if you imagine Polish music professors to be rather dull - not a bit of it!). Singing, naughty stories, laughter and good cheer until 3.00am. I had a  terrible hangover and needed sleep so neglected this blog. Drank plenty of spa water from the Pienawa Chopina which seemed to help! However I will finish the posting now that I am back in Warsaw after the tiring 8 hour drive from Duszniki. Torrential rain and storms all the way home.

The Professors' Party - Duszniki Zdroj

Polish Professors enjoy themselves late night at a secret location - Duszniki Zdroj
The Masterclasses given by Professor Jerome Rose from New York were a delight as he has an excellent and rather waspish sense of humour - unfortunately sometimes lost on the audience and participants. I heartily agreed when he said that all piano students should play an instrument of the period  work they are studying. This is to familiarise themselves with the sound world the composer may have been trying to achieve (a Graf, Pleyel or Erard for the Chopin period or a Broadwood for say Beethoven, a Bechstein for Liszt). Various conclusions concerning say pedalling in Chopin could then be constructively transferred to the concert Steinway or Yamaha. It is a great pity that in the modern world audiences generally do not hear other marques of concert grands - Bluthner, Bechstein, Pleyel, Grotrian Steinweg (the original Steinway and superior for Chopin to my mind. This marque was a favourite of my concert pianist uncle mentioned on this blog incidentally). Each brand has its own sound character. Jerome Rose made many enlightening remarks for the fortunate participants.

Professor Jerome Rose Masterclass in the Jan Weber Chamber Hall Duszniki Zdroj
The afternoon recital was by the 16 year old Korean pianist and winner of the 2009 Hamamatsu Competition in Japan,  Seong-Jin Cho. The Schumann 'ABEGG' Variations  and Humoreske in B major Op. 20 were quite wonderful and he responded so well to the romantic and lyrical side of this composer. Few pianists can capture the quirky, mercurial side of his complex nature and this pianist was only partly successful in this difficult interpretative aspect. There was occasionally far too much unacceptable dynamic contrast between the piano and forte sections in the Humoresque.

The Chopin Ballade No: 1 in G minor  Op. 23 was superb from the technical point of view but really showed no sign of understanding the work as a musical narrative - not a technical tour de force. The Chopin Ballades tell a story in absolute music - a type of mini-opera. The Op.10 studies were magnificent and thrilling with absolute technical perfection - of course a few lacked emotional maturity but then many pianists are simply too young to convincingly unravel the mystery of Chopin's psyche. That will come. His encores were similarly immaculately prepared (I heard him practising them before the concert at the hotel). Debussy's Claire de Lune was ravishing in tone colour and sentiment. His 'Heroic' Polonaise of Chopin Op. 53 one of the grandest and most magnificent perfromances I have ever heard - the predominantly Polish audience leapt to their feet with a shout at the concluding chord. No bashing or hysteria just glorious tone and musical accomplishment. What a future this young man has ahead of him! He was so perfectly prepared in all aspects of concert pianism, technique and musical understanding - watch out you Europeans!

The evening recital by Jean-Marc Luisada (a laureate in the 1985 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw and mazurka 'specialist') was almost as dramatic as the unmentionable episode with Ewa Kupiec. The truly fascinating aspect of the Duszniki Festival is that one can hear child prodigies, brilliant young winners fresh from competition triumphs, established pianists and even assess the growth or disintegration of great talents.  Sokolov reigns supreme above all pianists on the planet, Bunin is no longer at his best for health reasons, Pogorelich has embarked on his own mysterious personal quest, Fialkowska showed immeasurable courage to return to the concert platform after cancer in her arm, Gavrylyuk now a comet in the sky after a car accident that almost took his life. 

Sadly the great Luisada seemed very distrait. He appeared with a page turner and the music scores - most unusual here. He travelled to Duszniki by train for some reason and arrived too late to practise. The tremendously difficult Ballades seemed unprepared with many appalling lapses of concentration - he did not even play the programmed fourth. Extinguishing the bright TV lights made little difference to the performance. One waited in trepidation for catastrophes, sick to the stomach. The maurkas were mannered but this has been ever the case with Luisada and his interpretations arouse strong emotions - I love their individuality although there were all sorts of sometimes unpleasant dynamic surprises.

He sat at the instrument long before the interval concluded, clearly wanting to get the whole recital over with as quickly as possible. I dreaded the the Chopin Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise that concluded his concert but could not escape the hall without causing embarrassment. Yes, they turned out to be well founded fears although the Andante spianato was beautifully played but the Grande Polonaise - all my forebodings came true - pounding the instrument did not redeem his lack of preparation. I fled before any encores and walked sadly in the spa park reflecting on the passing of time and the enormous psychological pressures of being a concert pianist. I was told the Bach was good.

I feel there is a problem of volume with the smallish room in the Dworek in which the recitals take place and with the hollow platform on which the piano is placed. The vaulted roof seems to throw the sound down heavily onto the audience (much depends on where you are sitting). The hollow platform seems to amplify the sound and any extraneous movements made by the peformer. By day five of the festival the listener has incipient tinnitus caused by the full volume of a concert Yamaha or Steinway grand. I think pianists should try and scale down their dynamic to suit the space in which they are playing. The Dworek in Duszniki Zdroj is not Carnegie Hall.
As I am not a concert pianist myself perhaps this may be too difficult to achieve in practice but it is a thought.

One of the attractive spa mansions in Duszniki Zdroj that still reflects the German influence in the architecture when the spa was known as Bad Reinerz in Silesia

August 14 -  Final Day

The spectre of Chopin that hovers over the Steinway in the Dworek Chopina Duszniki Zdroj

One always approaches the last day of this festival with a degree of sadness. The weather mirrored my mood and was changeable as it always is in the mountains.

The final afternoon recital was by the Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son who won the Silver medal at the Van Cliburn Competition in 2009. This beautiful, highly refined and immaculate girl of 24 gave a similarly beautiful, highly refined and immaculate performance.

The Schumann Fantasy in C major Op. 17 is one of my favourite piano works. Her performance brought me close to tears - the singing of love songs in this work - the only pianist to really move me emotionally in this festival apart from Denis Kozhukhin. Her tone, touch and sensitivity belong with the Gods. I have been so impressed with the Koreans at Duszniki - so superbly prepared with never an inelegant mannerism or roughness of tone or touch. On the other hand the immensely physical and rather rough-hewn Danse macabre by Camille Saint-Saens arranged by Liszt did not suit her style - when Alexander Gavrylyuk performed this here one was carried away on a wave of fiendish energy by this powerful masculine virtuoso. The cantabile Scarlatti Sonata in B minor K.87 certainly suited the early Christofori pianoforte it was written for (Queen Maria Barbara possessed one at the Escorial) but this pianist lacks an understanding of the idiomatic period style of performance and it was rather over-legato and over-pedalled for my taste - but remember I also play the harpsichord. I liked the Cesar Franck Prelude, Fugue and variation Op.18 transcribed by Harold Bauer but again with this luminous tone and refinement I felt it could have been more convincing emotionally. The Chopin Sonata No 3 in B minor Op. 58 was superb and exactly as I would have imagined the restrained and refined Chopin to have played it.

I thought the audience were oddly lacklustre in their appreciation of this beautiful and accomplished young pianist and she must have felt this. She did not give an encore - another Duszniki drama. In my memory this has never happened before. But then modern audiences seem to love and respond inordinately to 'bread and circuses' (in other words loud and fast piano playing) even the informed ones at Duszniki Zdroj. For me this was the most wonderful recital and the playing of a born Chopinist. One does not need to shout to express deep emotion but to hear her just for the superb almost otherworldly tone and touch she brings to the instrument was worth coming to Duszniki.

The Koreans in playing the Polish Chopin, can readily identify with the expression of suffering under the period of Japanese colonial rule and the present partition of their own beloved homeland. Families remain tragically divided with much sadness. However, Asian interpreters in general tend to over-emphasise the tenderness of Chopin or emphasise his 'rediscovered masculinity', their readings often bordering on sentimentality rather than aristocratic refinement, restraint and  detachment.

Not every pianist (of any nation) can play Chopin convincingly - you need very special qualities as a human being to inhabit le climat de Chopin.

The final recital was by the Italian pianist Fabio Bidini from Arezzo who replaced the originally advertised Yundi Li. He has won many important competitions in Italy.

He began with Carnaval Op.9 by Schumann which was played with a great deal of Italian feeling and colourful characterisation as if it were a performance by a troupe from the Commedia dell'arte. Absolutely correct. He does tend on occasion to play with a large dynamic which can be almost too rough. The quirkiness and whimsical fancies of Schumann did come through brilliantly however. Chopin was clearly harmonically rethought as if the pianist was tired of  these works being played in the same way for two hundred years (too true and this individual approach certainly fills an interpretative need). Many inner voices in the polyphony were accentuated in the famous B minor Scherzo Op. 31 and Polonaise-Fantasie Op. 61 as well as the 'Heroic' Polonaise op.53 but not always successfully to my mind. After the extraordinary luminous tone colours and exquisite feminine refinement of  Yeol Eum Son his touch and tone did sound faintly agricultural. However this recital was a welcome injection of Italian warmth and colour to performances that are becoming increasingly standardised. He played as one of his encores the first movement of the childlike Sonata by Galuppi (to quote Robert Browning) - the one Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was so fond of performing.


The Bystrzyca Dusznicka river that tumbles through Duszniki Zdroj

And so my 6th and the 65th  Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Festival drew to a close. Farewells and embraces were regretfully exchanged, promises to return next year were made in the cool damp evening air outside the Dworek Chopina. Members of what one might call the Familia Dusznicka - both audience and professors - come every year in the way Jane Austen's characters came regularly to Bath Spa. 
Certainly it was one of the most dramatic festivals I have attended with cancellations, histrionics, pounding dynamics, yet moments of extreme beauty and deep musicianship. One tends to overlook the extreme psychological and musical pressure on any foreign pianist who plays at a Chopin shrine in Poland before a Polish audience of fervent acolytes and esteemed professors. They have my greatest sympathy! A daunting task indeed which I think goes a long way to explaining the dramas and occasional excesses that ensue. This is the oldest piano festival in the world and reflects the emotional roller-coaster of Polish daily life to perfection.   

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