Monday, 4 October 2010

The XVI International Fryderyk Chopin Competition Warsaw


Please Click on Photographs to Enlarge - a far superior result - Leica D-Lux 4


Chopin in the Drawing Room of Prince Antoni Radziwill, Henryk Siemieradzki 1887



And so the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Competition begins in Warsaw, arguably the most important event in the Chopin Year 2010.

It runs from 30 September - 23 October 2010

I can hardly believe that five years have passed since I attended every single performance by every pianist in 2005. I shall not be doing that again this year. I have heard rather too much Chopin already in this bicentenary year.

In 2005 I found the decision of the jury and the politicking as the pianists moved from stage to stage absolutely inexplicable to the point of questioning my own musical judgement. I now know a great deal more of what transpires ‘behind the scenes’ at this competition and I am afraid it is not as straightforward a contest as it appears. I have a suspicion that many young pianists of outstanding talent are not attracted to this demanding experience because they suspect the final decision on their playing will be subject to too many 'extra-musical' influences. There has already been a 'scandal' at the preliminary stage but I cannot go into details here. This particular competition arouses strong emotions among young students of the instrument as they are not entirely sure of the fairness of the judgement.

To anyone who is not Polish the idea of a single composer event is a unique idea in itself and cannot be regarded as a universally attractive idea. Chopin also offers uniquely difficult temperamental and interpretative challenges to all pianists. Many great pianists avoided performing his music in public. Alfred Brendel for example rarely if ever played Chopin in recitals and Glen Gould also refused to play his music and in fact was rather surprisingly dismissive of it. But then he was Glen Gould! Finally playing Chopin to a discriminating international and Polish audience and a distinguished jury of pianists of international renown in Warsaw when you are not Polish (or actually Polish for that matter)? A daunting prospect indeed for any young pianist requiring great courage and great self-confidence. An enterprise not for the faint-hearted and how I admire them for this.

All decisions by committee are a form of compromise. This being said it is an involving event as are all competitive sports. An aspect of human nature I suppose. Some of the greatest pianists the world has seen in modern times have won this competition or been awarded important places. Something must be 'right' about it but it does remain controversial.


The Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman is perhaps the favourite winner of recent times (XIXth International Chopin Competition 1975). He has been completely absent during the bicentenary Chopin celebrations. This absence remains a profound mystery to me, despite his perfectionism, the rumours of poor Polish roads and its effect on the transportation of his piano. This is a never explained loss and profound sadness to his many passionate Polish admirers living in his native land in this bicentenary year.


The jury this year is particularly distinguished in that most are pianists highly placed in the International Chopin Competitions of the past or Chopin scholars of repute:


Jan Ekier - honorable chairman - famous musicologist, pianist, pedagogue, editor-in-chief of National Edition of the Works of Fryderyk Chopin.


Andrzej Jasiński - chairman - Polish pianist, awarded with an honorary doctorate of the Music Academy in Katowice, member of the Programme Board of the NIFC


Piotr Paleczny - vice-chairman - Polish pianist, successfully took part in many piano competitions, artistic director of the Duszniki Zdroj Chopin Piano festival and a jury member for many prestigious international competitions. He came 3rd in the VIIIth International Chopin Competition in 1970 (a great vintage year) won in that year by Garrick Ohlsson and second Mitsuko Uchida. Sixth place was awarded to Janusz Olejniczak. All these pianists have made distinguished concert careers since their competition successes.

Martha Argerich - world-famous pianist, chamber musician, won first place VIIth International Chopin Piano Competition in 1965


Bella Davidovich - American pianist and pedagogue of Russian origin, won equal 1st Prize in IVth Chopin Competition in 1949 with the great Polish Chopinist Halina Czerny-Stefanska. 


Philippe Entremont - famous French pianist, well-known conductor and pedagogue


Adam Harasiewicz - Polish pianist most famous for his superb interpretations of Chopin’s works. Winner of the Vth International Chopin Competition in 1955.  Another  vintage year -Vladimir Ashkenazy came second and Fou Ts'Ong third.


Kevin Kenner - famous pianist, pedagogue and chamber musician, won 2nd Prize at XIIth International Chopin Competition in 1990 (no first prize awarded in that year). 



Michie Koyama - Japanese pianist, won IVth Prize in XIth Chopin Piano Competition in 1985 won in that year by Stanislaw Bunin. 


Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń - Polish pianist of Bulgarian origin, pedagogue and chamber musician. Teacher of Rafal Blechacz, winner of the 2005 Competition



Dang Thai Son - awarded the First Prize and Gold Medal at the Xth International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1980 



Nelson Freire - world-famous Brazilian pianist - a legend in his own time


Fou Ts’Ong  A Chopin institution in mazurka performance  - 3rd Prize winner, Vth International Chopin Piano Competition in  1955 



There were three Inaugural Concerts beginning on September 30th. The first initiated the annual Philharmonic concert season in Warsaw as well as the Chopin Piano Competition. The Warsaw National Philharmonic orchestra under their lifetime conductor Antoni Wit treated us to a rarely heard Coronation Mass by Chopin’s teacher Josef Elsner. His many liturgical compositions are unaccountably neglected and simply confirmed for me once again that the master’s teacher was a significant Polish composer in his own right. The Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz was a suitably festive beginning.

On October 1st the great Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida reminded us that it is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann with a stunning performance of the Davidsbundlertanze Op. 6. Her Chopin was the Prelude in C minor Op. 45 and the Sonata in B minor Op. 58 – one of the most demanding of his works. An excellent technical performance naturally but as Chopin often remarked of his contemporary performance of his works, lacking the elusive 'Polish element’ and that often inaccessible introverted neurosis.


The following night Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire performed works for four hands and two pianos by Mozart, Liszt and Bartok. Martha Argerich is treated like a goddess here. Her intense musicality and fiery pianism/. Béla Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. I could not see the reasoning behind the inclusion of this piece which makes rather ‘unfestive’ demands upon the audience. The concert reminded us that there is so much wonderful music written for four hands when the piano was a common domestic instrument, the creative centre of the home. Amateur music making and song were more common in the past than the rather than trivial computer games and television addiction of today. Such a loss of family pleasures but I will not go into that nostalgic area just now.


And so we are in the First Stage of the competition. The 350 original pianists who applied by delivering a DVD recording have already been reduced to 78 competitors in a preliminary round of playing and selection which took place in March 2010.

The competitors may choose to play a Steinway, a Yamaha, a Kawai or a Fazioli instrument.

In Stage 1 of the competition proper the competitors must choose from the following:



Stage I


• two études, one from each group below:

 a)

C major, Op. 10 No. 1
C sharp minor, Op. 10 No. 4
G flat major, Op. 10 No. 5
F major, Op. 10 No. 8
C minor, Op. 10 No. 12
A minor, Op. 25 No. 11

b)

A minor, Op. 10 No. 2
C major, Op. 10 No. 7
A flat major, Op. 10 No. 10
E flat major, Op. 10 No. 11
A minor, Op. 25 No.
E minor, Op. 25 No. 5
G sharp minor, Op. 25 No. 6
B minor, Op. 25 No. 10

• one of the following works:


Nocturne in B major, Op. 9 No. 3
Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 1
Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2
Nocturne in G major, Op. 37 No. 2
Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1
Nocturne in F sharp minor, Op. 48 No. 2
Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 55 No. 2
Nocturne in B major, Op. 62 No. 1
Nocturne in E major, Op. 62 No. 2


Etude in E flat minor, Op. 10 No. 6
Etude in C sharp minor, Op. 25 No. 7
Etude in E major, Op. 10 No. 3


• one work from the following:

Ballade in G minor, Op. 23
Ballade in F major, Op. 38
Ballade in A flat major, Op. 47
Ballade in F minor, Op. 52


Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60


Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49


Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20
Scherzo in B flat minor, Op. 31
Scherzo in C sharp minor, Op. 39
Scherzo in E major, Op. 54



The works may be performed in any order, with the exception of the études from groups a) and b), which must be performed one after the other.


The Filharmonia Warsaw where the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition takes place


I shall not attempt as I did in 2005 to assess each performer but give an opinion on which ones impressed me with their musicality. It is very challenging as a listener to hear all these repetitions of one’s favorite Chopin works but it does have a uniquely comparative interest. I will not be listening to all the first stage competitors this time around – too much Chopin is like too much sauterne and fois gras.

Already I have noticed that the Asian pianists possess a quite fabulous digital dexterity (I am sorry to use such a portmanteau word for culturally quite different peoples but it is useful to achieve a distinction I believe exists - many competitors from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China take part in this competition with increasing enthusiasm). Many possess quite astounding dexterity and articulation on occasion. Only a few of the European competitors (the Russians or Ukrainians) even remotely approach this extraordinary, purely technical facility. Can one separate technique and interpretation or is it all 'technique' really?


However the cultural appreciation and conception of the complex emotions contained within Chopin’s music appears quite differently to a European I think. Dare I say this today? Not better or worse just rather different. The intense internal emotions of many Asian pianists (particularly I would say those wonderful Japanese girls) border on a dangerous sentimentalizing of Chopin through what one might term an ‘excess of love’ for this composer. One Asian pianist yesterday was even weeping at the conclusion of a piece, tears welling from his eyes and coursing down his cheeks. I cannot remember Michelangeli ever weeping in public or Horowitz or Rubinstein. The emotion was contained within the interpretation. The music was the thing, the composer's intention, the written score not simply a platform for one's own emotional utilisation. As a concert artist one is supposed to be projecting one's reading of the music to an audience, not indulging oneself emotionally in public. Truly great concert artists are musically selfless - take Grigory Sokolov for example, Artur Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter or Anne-Sophie Mutter.  Truly great conductors such as Mariss Jansons or Claudio Abbado are other magnificent examples.


I am afraid among many of these competitors there is (at least to my ears) an increasing standardization of interpretative approach (a partial result of the influence of the recording industry and teaching). Their conception of a work, the tone and touch they produce lack individuality. Only a few pianists have anything individual to say at all about this music. This is particularly evident in the etudes which are poetic utterances as well as technically 'improving' exercises. They are not simply virtuoso display pieces. The Chopin etudes are not Czerny pedagogical studies but lyrical statements of great spiritual profundity while at the same time addressing advanced ‘technical problems’. Rarely have I heard poetry in the etudes from anyone so far. Op.10 No. 1 in C major comes in for a real Czernyesque hammering. The Juilliard approach has a lot to answer for in its predominantly percussive approach to interpretation of this composer. The modern instrument and modern life is partly to blame as we move further and further away from the historical source of Chopin’s music, away from a world of sensibility and charm into a world of the obsessively physical and violent.


At this point I think it best if you are really interested in what I am saying, you could read the Chopin chapter in my recently published literary travel book on Poland mentioned in other postings on this blog (http://www.michael-moran.net/poland.htm). Chapter 12 Frycek and the Prism of Reminiscence. Apart from Chopin's life in Poland as a young man, it details my personal ambivalence towards modern interpretative criteria and the present concept of piano competitions. I see them more as a personal performance and career enhancing events as opposed to musical occasions – and there is nothing wrong in that unless you feel it is detrimental to the organic flowering of brilliant young talent and poetic sensibility. You can download it free at:







If you carefully compare an instrument of Chopin’s day, say an elegant Pleyel with the modern behemoth Steinway, much concerning the inevitability of modern ‘muscular’ sportif performance is revealed. Quite apart from the passage of historical time, changes in instrumental design have dramatically affected interpretation, tone and touch – the very approach of the pianist to the instrument and its function. Examine these two images as a Gestalt and the different cultural criteria, the disjunction of our own modern period and Chopin’s historical period, the original source of this music,  becomes clear I think without wordy analysis.




An elegant modern copy by Paul McNulty of an 1831 Pleyel of Chopin’s day in the eighteenth century Ballroom of the Royal Castle, Warsaw

A modern Steinway in a modern concert hall



My own Pleyel pianino No: 11151  Vertical Oblique 1844 restored by David Winston of the Period Piano Company.

This is the type of instrument used by Chopin in his Paris drawing room when illustrating musical points to pupils.  His pupils played on a grand Pleyel in the same room. This was also the type of instrument he had sent to Valdemossa and on which he composed many of his Preludes. The dynamic range, tone colours, damping, key dimensions, key dip and light single escapement mechanism are significantly different to any modern instrument. The Erard is a rather different instrument in terms of touch. Liszt preferred them to the Pleyel. The brilliant Sebastian Erard invented the double escapement mechanism which is still used today on modern instruments. 'When I feel out of sorts,’ Chopin would say, ‘I play on an Erard piano where I can easily find a ready-made tone. When I feel in good form and strong enough to find my own individual sound, then I need a Pleyel piano.'

These qualities must have affected his thinking about the nature of the music he wrote, the sound he was producing,  decorative fioraturas and virtuosity. It is a very instructive exercise to play Chopin from the National Edition on one of these, especially noting the pedalling indications. All students of the modern instrument should at least try a Pleyel.  Kalkbrenner, Prince Sherbatoff, Mme de Rothschild, Franchomme, Pauline Viardot, Bellini, Delacroix, Mme. Hanska (Balzac's mistress, later wife) and Georges Sand at Nohant all owned these very beautiful domestic pianino instruments. They cost over 1,000 gold francs at that time depending on case and decoration - now over 38,000 euros.

A fascinating book just published in French (Fayard 2010) is entitled Chopin et Pleyel by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger. It is an illustrated study of the instruments of the piano manufacturer Pleyel and Chopin's relationship with him. Wonderfully detailed and immaculate research and illustrations. Chopin regarded Pleyel as the non plus ultra of pianos.


Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger also wrote the unsurpassed Chopin 'bible' Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his Pupils (Cambridge 1986). Do read this if you have not already - indispensible for the serious student of Chopin.
If you would like to further your understanding of the sound world inhabited by Chopin himself (vital to understanding 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.

Download free at:

http://www.box.net/shared/kxdzfyhr60


Day 1 Stage 1  October 3

I was very impressed with the Russian Miroslav Kultyshev. This superb pianist has stunned me previously at the Duszniki Zdroj Festival (see full posting of this festival for August 8) with his intense playing, magnificently honed Russian technique and deep musicality. Kotaro Nagano is a sensitive, perhaps too sensitive, pianist but has a beautiful tone and touch. The Australian Jayson Gillham I felt brought some much needed authentic Chopin expression into what was partly a day of the demonstration of technical prowess rather than the creation of ‘music’.

Day 2 Stage 1  October 4

Helene Tysman from France is a profoundly intense personality of tremendous musical integrity who reminded me of the young Martha Argerich when Tysman took part in the competition in 2005 and I felt the same today. Her compulsion to extract the very last drop of romantic emotion from Chopin occasionally leads her into the cul de sac of mannered interpretation but it is her deep musicality and seriousness that impresses. The Ukrainian Anna Fedorova has an immense command of the instrument and musical structure and again that magnificent full, golden technique of the Ukrainian concert artist. Slightly lacking in Chopinesque poetry and sensibility. I loved the sheer joyfulness of the 16 year old Airi Katada – what promise this young Japanese pianist has in store. The Chinese Fei Fei Dong, lost in her wonderful billowing white blancmange satin gown, has poetry and intense musicality as well as superb technique. Claire Huangci (’the fastest fingers on the planet’ according to one Russian professor) left me absolutely astounded. This is a very rare talent that really only requires more experience of life to mature into a wonderful musician. She has already won a number of important international competitions. When older people say this sort of thing it always makes the young so angry but it is true I am afraid to say. The terribly glamorous Japanese pianists Rina Sudo and Naomi Kudo, are both very fine musicians who 'understand' Chopin's music and deserve to progress through most stages of the competition. I was terribly disappointed with the two Israeli pianists who seemed to have little to say and the Pole Pawel Wakarecy began so well but seemed to lose the thread further into his interpretations.

Day 3 Stage 1  October 5

There were some highlights today and some possible finalists but this sort of decision is worse than betting on horses at the racetrack.

The Polish pianist Joanna Rozewska played with great integrity and emotional commitment today. I particularly liked the Ballade in G minor Op. 23 which emerged as a substantial musical and dramatic narrative. She appears entirely free of personal vanity and seems spiritually involved with this music, furthermore understands it.  Chopin's polyphony and counterpoint were well highlighted throughout her performance. This Ballade was a watershed creation for Chopin when he began to break free of the style brillant of his youth - a very 'Polish' interpretation. The Bulgarian Evgeni Bozhanov brought a welcome breath of tremendous individualism to the competition. Not only were his facial expressions quite extraordinarily communicative and entertaining (even engaging the audience in the 18th century manner recommended by Francois Couperin) but they gave an extraordinary operatic dimension especially to the Ballade in A flat major op.47. It emerged as genuinely operatic, dramatic and a true narrative in absolute music. Bozhanov does not religiously observe the score and Chopin's indications which may hamper him in this competition - it all depends on how conservative this jury committee feels itself to be with the rebellious Martha on the panel. I have been following Hongkongese Rachel Cheung's remarkable career from a child prodigy of 12 to the present at the Duszniki Zdroj Festival where she often appears. She once gave a quite monumental performance of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue at the age of 13 which I have never forgotten. Today she was lyrical and superb particularly in one of the greatest pieces in Western piano literature, the Ballade in F minor op. 52. The Russian Yuri Shadrin I found heavy handed in Chopin but the so-called 'Revolutionary' etude benefited from the true Russian virtuoso approach - not surprising in view of its genesis in the November Uprising of 1830. He is a mature pianist with a glorious Russian tone but Chopin requires a light and delicate touch on occasion. Speaking of which among the bouquet of  Japanese young ladies playing in this competition so far Yuri Watanabe for me is the most musical and most balanced. She has rare idiomatic grasp of Chopin and the Fazioli instrument gave a glorious bloom to her tone. 

For me the highlight of the day was the magnificent performance of the Fantasy in F minor op. 49 by the young Russian Nicolay Khozyainov. I felt its complex structure, fluctuating moods of melancholy and zal (melancholy rising to a pitch of violent resentment)  and the hidden revolutionary message was perfectly captured. There was great variety of dynamic, articulation and tone (something sadly lacking in almost all the pianists so far). The sublime architecture of the piece, so difficult to grasp, was presented as an organic whole. I predict without doubt a high placing for this gifted pianist. Sometimes I feel that the young play Chopin by far the best. So many winners of this competition lose their magical approach to the composer as they age.

So far in this competition I feel the creeping virus of 'democratic' standardisation that is invading every aspect of modern life has inevitably infected pianism, leaching it of the courage of individual thought resulting in 'perfect' yet strangely characterless performances.

Day 4  Stage 1 October 6

I was unable to attend the morning sessions (I have a new commissioned book to write and a deadline) but began the afternoon session at 17.00. The Japanese Madoka Fukami gave a brilliant interpretation of the Scherzo in B flat minor op.31. Something magical happened there, a sort of revelation beyond analysis because it seemed conventional but 'something happened' emotionally for all of us. However she may not progress due to other weaknesses.


The brilliant pianist  Mei-Ting Sun (born in Shanghai but comes from the United States) performed the Etude op.10 No.1  with formidable ease and terrific virtuosity but at points I thought I was on a roller-coaster at  Coney Island. The G minor Ballade op. 23 did not show great understanding of this unique narrative musical form created by Chopin.  Under Sun's fingers for me it became a number of disjointed virtuosic episodes rather than an organic narrative structure, a form of 'opera' if you will in absolute music. His breathtaking technique and extrovert temperament would perhaps be more suited to composers other than Chopin. I imagine he would be supreme in Liszt (and this is not at all negative as Liszt was as great a revolutionary in advancing piano technique as Chopin but in a completely different way. The B Minor Sonata is a one of the greatest masterpieces for piano. Any doubt of this is quickly put to bed if one listens to the monumental 1932 Horowitz recording of this work). I heard Sun in the 2005 competition and was overwhelmed by his playing, not so this time round but the jury may think differently I am sure.

I had heard the Pole Jacek Kortus in the 2005 competition and how his technique and musicianship has advanced immeasurably since then! For me though there is something too 'healthy' and straightforward in his Chopin, not sufficiently mercurial or even neurotic in this ambivalent composer's visionary and passionate alterations of mood. Kortus is playing so brilliantly well, so passionately and committedly these days to Chopin but personally I am never moved by him. A mystery indeed. Nadia Boulanger was once asked what made a great as opposed to an excellent performance of a piano work. She answered 'I cannot tell you that. It is something I cannot describe in words. A magical element.'

The Russians are very strong this year in the competition. Vladimir Matusevich gave a beautiful rendering of the Nocturne in C-sharp minor Op. 27 No.1 but a rather insensitive and madly rushed interpretation of the Scherzo in B minor op. 20 by adopting a tempo where all detail and whimsical grotesquerie so characteristic of these pieces (except perhaps the passionate utterance of op. 31) was lost in the virtuosic tower of babble. He seemed not to understand the Polish lullaby hidden within Chopin's music. He possesses that superb Russian tone and keyboard authority perhaps more suited to another repertoire. The  Russian who followed him, Ilya Rashkovsky, was a far more emotional and nuanced player who gave a very fine performance indeed of the Fantasy in F minor op.49. What a sublime creation this is, one of the greatest of Chopin's works for keyboard next to the Polonaise-Fantasie.

Marcin Koziak must rank as one of the best of the Polish competitors so far. He intelligently chose two contrasting etudes - the lyrical E minor op.25 No. 5 and the tumultuous 'Revolutionary' C minor etude Op.10 no.12. The first was beautifully nuanced and expressive with a singing cantabile and the second was not played like the bombing of Warsaw by the Luftwaffe in World War II, but as an expression of controlled anger and deep resentment. He chose the Scherzo in B-flat minor op.31 and gave a rare performance of this much abused work that  revealed its entire inner working and logic. He allowed the phrasing in his entire programme time to breathe and gave us time as listeners time to understand the internal logic and to enter the phrase before passing with musical inevitability on to the next. Fine articulation and a technical facility to rival our Asian masters. 

When I first saw her noble profile and upright posture at the instrument, her almost tight black satin suit with coachman's coat and white ruffled blouse, cascading chestnut hair and almost high heels I thought this alluring Russian lady will produce something special - and so she did. I had first heard Yulianna Adeeva at Duszniki Zdroj in August this year when she replaced Nelson Goerner at short notice. She played Chopin wonderfully during the romantic Nokturn evening, so much a part of that marvellous festival. Tonight's performance was by far the most musically mature, accomplished and moving Chopin I have heard in this competition. She evidenced a marvellous range of nuanced dynamics, refined touch, poetic sensibility in abundance, variety of articulation and that golden Russian honed tone of confident cantabile quality. The Scherzo in E major op. 54 was triumph of whimsical disjointed fantasy, elegiac reflection and rhapsodic expression. The Nocturne in B major op. 62 No.1 was as exquisitely haunting as I remember her nocturnes that dreamy Duszniki evening.  Majestic and lyrical etudes exhibiting tremendous technical mastery.

It is most unwise in this competition to begin predicting final outcomes as all the pianists must soon come to grips with those two forms the Poles regard as their very own property - the Chopin mazurka, polonaise and also the unaccountably elusive Chopin waltz (despite their immense popularity). The only pianist to play the waltzes with elan, esprit and understanding in the 2005 competition was the Austrian Ingolf Wunder (well, Austrians have the waltz rhythm in their bloodstream from birth). He is a participant this year and plays in the first stage tomorrow. His exclusion in 2005 remains an utter mystery to me and  many others. 

Adeeva in my very premature reckoning must be a strong contender for the first prize.





Day 5  Stage 1  October 7

It has been a wonderful 'golden October' in Warsaw this week. Most trees in the parks, gardens and streets of this tragic yet rejuvenated city are deciduous. The leaves are tumbling like golden rain upon the Chopin competition. Sunny, steel blue skies and a slightly chill breeze. As they wait in tension the dreaded verdict, young musicians wander the streets of the capital in a dream and make new friends from far flung corners of the globe.  A  rising generation raised in freedom. Do they marvel anew at the reconstructed beauty of this once tortured city and once devastated land? Can they now achieve some  degree of cultural understanding of the history which gave so particular a nostalgia and atmosphere of passionate regret to the music of the composer they labour so hard to interpret in this very different modern world?

By the end of today I will have heard most contenders and eagerly await the decision on who progresses to Stage 2. After what I have heard so far I do not envy the jury this invidious process but a painful and possibly surprising selection is likely.

The Pole Marek Bracha gave a deeply reflective interpretation of Chopin this morning. However for me the opening of the G minor Ballade Op. 23 was too deliberate bordering on the contrived with little natural poetic nuance. I felt his touch rather heavy in the etudes with insufficient dynamic variation. The Nocturne in D major p.27 No.2 on the other hand was idiomatic and full of sensibility. Not a particularly charismatic player who communicates well with an audience, surely the sine qua non of a concert artist?

I had awaited with expectation the programme of the Austrian Ingolf Wunder. The Ballade in F minor Op. 54 was a beautifully wrought structure with fine nuances in the repeated phrases, no two of which were the same - a rare occurrence in too many pianists. Chopin's fluctuating moods were captured with rare artistry, the op.10 No.2 etude presented as playful and joyful. The oriental perfumes of the night, the Sarmatian atmosphere of the Chopin nocturne was sadly absent.

The Russian/Lithuanian Lukas Geniusas (an eloquent name indeed) I found rather heavy handed at the instrument with very little dynamic variety, colour or texture to the sound. Another Russian competitor that I felt would be far more at home in Rachmaninov or Scriabin than Chopin with his magnificent technique and powerful tone. Likewise I found Francois Dumont a gifted but for me unsubtle performer despite the remarkable prizes he has won including the Jean Francois competition. Jean Francois has remained one of my favourite Chopin interpreters, particularly of the waltzes. Dumont brought a French element to the proceedings - poetry and discipline in the use of his technical resources. Depends on his programme. Probably to Stage III and possibly beyond.

So few commentators mention beauty of tone and touch when assessing performances yet Chopin concentrated almost exclusively on this at the outset with his own students. The Taiwanese Hanchien Lee possesses a superb lightness of touch and delicacy of tone that is breathtaking. No other competitor approaches her effortless fluidity, her ravishing son perle. Hers is an exquisite and refined sound that has all the hallmarks of the late nineteenth century school of players who prized a delicate velocity of  refined sound above all - Godowsky, Hofman, Lhevinne and so on. Even her hands resemble those of the plaster cast of Chopin. However all that beauty of sound will not compensate for her lack of musical individuality and a sufficiently deep musical understanding of the composer she so admires.

Like many others in this competition perhaps the Chinese Xin Tong should apply his fabulous technique to another repertoire than Chopin. For me his expression had a feeling of learned  applique gestures and did not emerge organically and naturally from the musical phrasing itself. 'Flashy' is not an adjective one could apply to Chopin's music and the tempi adopted here for the Scherzo in B-flat minor Op.31 made the piece for me a disjointed series of almost hysterical episodes. I loved Kana Okada's Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. 27 No.1 as it was played almost entirely mezzo-forte to piano. In fact just as reports of Chopin's own playing which was sometimes scarcely audible. Such a rare occurrence in this competition where pianists seem to believe that he who shouts loudest and plays fastest will garner all the attention. The rest of her programme was rather unremarkable unfortunately. 'Those who know' criticised her nocturne as 'formless' but I would not agree - it was a welcome and comely respite from treating the piano almost solely as a percussive instrument, something it certainly was not in Chopin's day. The wooden frame instruments he performed on as a young man would have quickly broken under the strain of the assaults I have heard in Warsaw this week.

As I have already mentioned the Russians are strong contenders this year and the beautiful Natalia Sokolovskaya is no exception. The Etude Op.25 no 10 began as a rising blurred storm of double octaves that became increasingly clearer and more articulate within the phrase - a fantastic effect I have never heard before. In the Scherzo in E major Op. 54 she showed beautiful legato phrasing and marvellous control of tone colours. Chopin's fiorituras were rendered with breathtaking delicacy in an unsentimental rendition of the Nocturne in B major op.9 No.3 that was full of sentiment and controlled emotion. Majestic technique.

The Ukrainian Denis Zhdanov in white tie and tails adopted a fine upright and noble posture at the instrument with no distracting grimaces (Francois Couperin suggested placing a mirror on the music desk to cure pupils of this unfortunate habit bordering on incipient madness at times). His tone and tempo in the Nocturne Op. 48 No.1 and Etude Op.10 no 1 (which has received such a thrashing in this competition) was both noble, powerful and full of subtle dynamic variation. The best interpretation I have heard in Warsaw of this Etude. Equally so the Etude op.25 No.10 but not as fascinating and terrifying as that by Natalia Sokolovskaya. The F minor Ballade op. 52 however was not as finely wrought as I expected although a fine interpretation - I somehow expected more from this artist. 

The final pianist of Stage 1 was appropriately the Pole Gracjan Szymczak.  This huge man (towering over the Steinway keyboard) gave powerful performances of the same studies as the Ukrainian Zhadanov. But it was the absolutely tempestuous and passionately committed 'orchestral' performance of the B-flat minor Scherzo Op. 31 that swept all before it. Totally convincing, melodramatic and magnificent in the manner of a Balzac novel. Will the jury like this sort of thing? I very much doubt it but I was carried away by the raw energy because although flawed it had integrity. Was it good Chopin? Perhaps not, but it was an utterly individualistic and  fully thought through view of the work that naturally could be criticised on many levels.  A number of  unfortunate 'accidents' during his performance will count against him probably.

A lovely human moment came after his performance when he was joined by his entire excited family (weeping mother, radiant blonde sister and proud moustachioed father) for the interview with a television crew. 

'Did he play well ?' his mother asked the interviewer desperately.
'My head was so buzzing with excitement I couldn't hear anything!'

Ah, such wonderful moments of the truly human kind in Poland - wonderful enthusiasts the Poles!

Now we await the decision, more ominously in Polish the decyzja, to take some of these young tyros into Stage 2.


                                                                                *


And so the list for the Second Stage has been announced.

There is one particular exclusion I simply cannot understand however hard I try - that of Natalia Sokolovskaya.  I would like to ask the jury members how they could justify exclusion of this highly accomplished Chopin performance on any artistic or musical criteria. To my mind she is a far finer pianist and musician than a number of those who have been included in the 40. My personal view of course. It is always the way with this competition but this particular exclusion at the first stage? Completely baffling.

Another exclusion I cannot understand is the Polish pianist Joanna Rozewska who understands Chopin so well and is an excellent musician on any technical level.  

LIST OF PARTICIPANTS FOR THE 2ND STAGE OF THE COMPETITION:


1.Leonora Armellini (Italy)
2.Yulianna Avdeeva (Russia)
3.Evgeni Bozhanov (Bulgaria)
4.Marek Bracha (Poland)
5.Wai-Ching Rachel Cheung (China)
6.Fei-Fei Dong (China)
7.François Dumont (France)
8.Anna Fedorova (Ukraine)
9.Lukas Geniušas (Russia/Lithuania)
10.Leonard Gilbert (Canada)
11.Jayson Gillham (Australia)
12.Peng Cheng He (China)
13.Ching-Yun Hu (Chinese Taipei)
14.Claire Huangci (USA)
15.Junna Iwasaki (Japan)
16.Airi Katada (Japan)
17.Nikolay Khozyainov (Russia)
18.Da Sol Kim (Republic of Korea)
19.Jacek Kortus (Poland)
20.Marcin Koziak (Poland)
21.Miroslav Kultyshev (Russia)
22.Guillaume Masson (France)
23.Kotaro Nagano (Japan)
24.Yuma Osaki (Japan)
25.Marianna Prjevalskaya (Spain)
26.Ilya Rashkovskiy (Russia)
27.Yury Shadrin (Russia)
28.Rina Sudo (Japan)
29.Hyung-Min Suh (Republic of Korea)
30.Jiayi Sun (China)
31.Mei-Ting Sun (USA)
32.Xin Tong (China)
33.Danil Trifonov (Russia)
34.Hélène Tysman (France)
35.Andrew Tyson (USA)
36.Irene Veneziano (Italy)
37.Paweł Wakarecy (Poland)
38.Yuri Watanabe (Japan)
39.Ingolf Wunder (Austria)
40.Denis Zhdanov (Ukraine)


Works to be performed in Stage II

one of the following works, not performed in Stage I:

Ballade in G minor, Op. 23
Ballade in F major, Op. 38
Ballade in A flat major, Op. 47
Ballade in F minor, Op. 52

Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60

Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49

Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20
Scherzo in B flat minor, Op. 3
Scherzo in C sharp minor, Op. 39
Scherzo in E major, Op. 54

one of the following waltzes:

Waltz in E flat major, Op. 18
Waltz in A flat major, Op. 34 No. 1
Waltz in F major, Op. 34 No. 3
Waltz in A flat major, Op. 42
Waltz in A flat major, Op. 64 No. 3

one full set of mazurkas from the following opuses:

17, 24, 30, 33, 41, 50, 56, 59

The mazurkas must be played in the order they are numbered in the opus.

In the case of the Mazurkas, Opp. 33 and 41, the authentic numbering applies:

Op. 33:

G sharp minor, No. 1
C major, No. 2
D major, No. 3
B minor, No. 4

Op. 41:

E minor, No. 1
B major, No. 2
A flat major, No. 3
C sharp minor, No. 4

one of the following polonaises:

Andante spianato and Polonaise E flat major, Op. 22
Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44
Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53

At least one Chopin work of the competitor’s choosing not performed in Stage I.
                                                                   
Stage II performances are to last 45–50 minutes.
Works may be performed in any order.
Should a competitor overrun the time limit, the Jury may stop the performance.

                                                  *
The weather in Warsaw remains steel cold at 5C with azure skies, a warming sun and the trees turning increasingly gold, a wash of shimmering colour blanketing the entire city. Such a wonderful 'Golden October' we are having here and it is not always so. 

With increasing excitement 40 candidates move into Stage II. They wait and wait and wait their turn - some wring their hands, some pace the rooms, a very few exhibit superb poise and self-confidence. Those who have days to fill in perhaps stop practising and visit the new state of the art Chopin Museum or taking the trip 50kms outside Warsaw to Chopin's birthplace, enchanting Zelazowa Wola, a very special place indeed and one that has been an intensely romantic destination for me for years.

Before I launch into a description of the playing of the most impressive competitors  (and your patience) it would be well to examine the context which influenced Chopin's conception of dance music as a young composer. A change of rules in the competition means that this stage has an extra part of  it devoted to a set of mazurkas and a waltz as well as much larger works. 


The Officers' Ball by the amateur artist and Cavalry Officer (26th Pulku Ulanow) Tomasz Kucharski 1920

Chopin remained extraordinarily faithful to the impressions of his adolescence and youth. The lasting principles of his artistic vision were formed on his native soil among his childhood friends, teachers, romantic infatuations and family (in particular his mother) and on holidays in the Polish countryside among the peasantry.

We tend to forget that amidst the ‘angst’ and ‘suffering’ that Chopin is usually associated with, almost half his output was dance music. Even many of those works not obviously dances contain dances within them. People forget Frycek was an ebullient young man and excellent company with a sharp sense of humour, fond of practical jokes and with an immense talent for caricature and mimicry. He could easily have become a professional actor. On rumbustious holidays in Szafarnia he produced an amusing parody of the Kurier Warszawski newspaper which he called the Kurier Szafarski. On 20 October 1824 he reports: ‘At Obrów a harvest festival was held. The entire village gathered in front of the manor and amused themselves greatly, particularly after vodka, and the girls, in squeaky, false semitone voices sang 'Przede dworem kaczki w błocie, nasza pani w samym złocie...'

He loved the rough violin and open-throated folk music of Mazovia and was an excellent dancer, often playing the piano into the small hours at parties for the whirling couples, flowers resplendent on their folk costumes, performing the Mazur. This was one reason he had to go into ‘rehab’ at Duszniki Zdroj suffering from exhaustion (not consumption at that time). The young Chopin was a bit of a party animal and immensely popular on the aristocratic party circuit in the Warsaw of the 1820s.

Young pianists should endeavour to understand more fully the nature of Chopin dances, try and see them danced if not learn to dance themselves which would be tremendously advantageous to understanding different rhythm with the entire body rather than simply somewhat immobile at the keyboard.

The polonaise breathes and paints the whole national character; the music of this dance, while admitting much art, combines something martial with a sweetness marked by the simplicity of manners of an agricultural people . . . Our fathers danced it with a marvellous ability and a gravity full of nobleness; the dancer, making gliding steps with energy, but without skips, and caressing his moustache, varied his movements by the position of his sabre, of his cap, and of his tucked-up coat sleeves, distinctive signs of a free man and a warlike citizen. (The nineteenth century Polish poet Kazimierz Brodziński)

The mazurkas in particular, with their mobile rhythms of Polish folk music – the notorious tempo rubato – are the unique outcome of an artistic sublimation of the music of his beloved Mazovian countryside. But even more importantly for Chopin interpretation, his mazurkas and waltzes are a reflection of the urban dancing tastes of the Warsaw of his youth. Warsaw was besotted with the ‘Mazurka Mania’ that took hold of society at that time. The polonaise, mazurek and waltz dominated the passion for ballroom dancing.

Some in Poland criticised Chopin for sentimentalising the mazurka, even causing it to be ‘crucified’ in the common world. But hundreds of composers were writing thousands of mazurkas in the nineteenth century. Some were fancifully considered by his biographer Marceli Antoni Szulc, (in comparison with those of Chopin) to be as ‘a dirty oil wick to the solar disc.’

Of course the Chopin's ‘heroic’ polonaises are not dance forms in the ‘popular’ practical sense written for dancing. Despite what many think however, a few of Chopin’s waltzes and mazurkas were danced in Warsaw while he was living in Paris (according to information from his sisters letters to him).

As well as taking singing lessons I think serious students of Chopin should also learn to dance! The rhythm that your whole body experiences will certainly inform your playing. This is not at all a trivial idea and is not offered as such. 

So with this as background  here is my opinion what our competitors are making of the mazurka, the waltz, the polonaise and the rest of Stage 2. (Please be patient - it takes hours to write this blog and each day begins at 10.00 and does not end until 21.30)

With Chopin waltzes and mazurkas just think of the title of that Duke Ellington jazz standard:

It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) ! 


Day 1 Stage II October 9


Peng Cheng He from China is a fine pianist but for me his Scherzo lacked any internal spiritual drama. Like many in this competition, he finds it difficult to penetrate the music of Chopin beyond the virtuosic surface. There was no charming frivolity and dance rhythm in his three waltzes Op.64 which were excellently played as display pieces. Much could also be said of the mazurkas. A dramatic and powerful F sharp minor Polonaise Op. 44 but lacking in zal - that 'Polish element' spoken of by Chopin.

The Russian Miroslav Kultyshev (who has the added advantage of looking rather like Chopin) gave a magnificent, noble and measured performance of this same Op. 44 polonaise. [The insistent repeated figure, which occurs with such aggression on a Steinway is a revelation when performed on a period Pleyel piano incidentally.] He has an upright, aristocratic posture at the instrument and does not allow himself the indulgence of grimace and writhings about - in the great Russian tradition. I felt Kutlyshev perfectly understood the two faces of this Janus of a composer. The masculine and feminine side of Chopin's human nature were equally developed - a  rare being - something misunderstood by many pianists who emphasise either one side or the other. His Nocturne Op. 27 No.1 had a haunting opening and rhapsodic mood in development and I loved the wonderful melodic bel canto line and phrasing of the Nocturne Op. 37 No.2. The joy of Chopin's youth was oddly absent in the waltz in A flat major Op.42 (Garrick Ohlsson captures this so well and the largely forgotten French pianist Jean Francois). The four mazurkas  of Op. 24 however were quite wonderful and he captured the agogic rhythm and swayed his body to it as if dancing. Lyrical, fabulous range of dynamic from pianissimo  to powerful double forte. I first heard him in Duszniki Zdroj in 2008 when he played the Tchaikovsky Dix-Huit Morceaux Op. 72 (he won the 13th International Tchaikovsky Competition) and the Chopin Op. 58 Sonata and was blown away by his stupendous performance there. A masterful performance of the Barcarolle here in Warsaw that went far beyond 'mere technique'. He must be a finalist.

Hyung-Min Suh from South Korea was very involved the physical aspect of the F minor Fantasy and the central reflective section emerged as mannered and rather sentimental. However in his four Op. 24 mazurkas I found excellent. The rubato  so important in interpreting these pieces was very satisfactory. Again with so many pianists the waltz in A flat major op. 34 No. 1 escaped him. If you understand the nature of the danced waltz (and not only the waltz) in Chopin's day, the opening of the dance is often 'a call to arms' a fanfare to call the dancers to the dance floor - even many of his sublimated, nostalgic dram waltzes have hints of this. In particular the opening of the Grand Polonaise Op. 22 is a fabulous example of 'a call to the floor' and so rarely performed like this. A few unfortunate 'accidents' in Suh's performance. The Canadian Leonard Gilbert's Chopin is rather too 'straightforward' and rather 'heavy' for me but I am sure many others will disagree.

The Russian Daniil Trifonov played an excellent E flat major Op. 18 Waltz - light, elegant and very 'French' as they should be. His beginning of the Barcarolle was not the terrible crash of the boat smashing into the wharf at the beginning of the marine excursion (so many pianists crash the boat before setting out - the octave opening is forte and with an accent but bear in mind it is a broken C sharp octave - at least in my edition - which lessens the thump. So many pianists are perfunctory with this opening). He proceeds at a moderate and proper piano to mezzo-forte. Beginning below mezzo-forte  allows him somewhere to go. If you begin forte and then attempt a crescendo you end up having to bash through the sound ceiling of the instrument in a desperate attempt to increase the dynamic to fortissimo to the great aural discomfort of everyone in the immediate vicinity. A simple principle indeed that many in this competition need to learn. The beginning of the Mazurka Op. 56 No.1 had a quite extraordinary effect of a murmur coming out of silence. He has an extreme delicacy of touch, underplays luminously (what a relief) and has an improvisatory quality to his playing. Superb control and deep musicality. Spectacular Scherzo in C sharp minor Op. 39. Eloquent 'singing cantabile' in the Andante Spianato but with rather curious micro blemishes on fast repeated notes not sounding in the Grand Polonaise (playing at the limits). His voice is authentically individual, his Chopin fioraturas have the delicate strength of Bruxelles lace. Stage III and possibly beyond.

Is it possible to be 'over poetic' in Chopin? I felt this lack of 'masculine spine' throughout the playing of the wonderfully sensitive Japanese pianist Kataro Nagano. He seemed seduced by the divine Chopin melodies almost to the point of mannerism. Is it possible to play Chopin in too beautiful and refined a manner? Possibly. Nagano has the most beautiful hands I have ever seen on a keyboard.

In great contrast, if the prize could be awarded on image alone the Australian Jayson Gillham would win hands down. Tall, athletic, swept back hair in white tie and tails (with pearl studs) and patent leather shoes he is every inch the concert pianist in the masculine Cary Grant mode - not affected romantic just blessed with great looks and communicative ability. Marvellous 'laid back' approach to playing Chopin and a deep natural musicality. 'International Chopin Competition? No worries mate!'  He clearly enjoys playing the piano and we enjoy his marvellous playing too. How refreshing. That dreadfully tiring European inner turmoil and 'angst' is mercifully absent much of the time (as it was in the young Chopin himself) but this does not mean he lacks a formidable technique and deep interpretative insight. His Op. 59 mazurkas (a difficult set) were not always rhythmically 'correct' (they are heavy on this in Poland - sort of proud of the fact they think foreigners 'find it impossible' to play mazurkas properly!) Such natural musicality gave us all so much pleasure. This must be an important aspect of being a concert artist (but perhaps not a competition winner). I loved his Op. 53 Polonaise - noble tempo, wonderfully expansive and broad allowing the music to breathe. His op. 52 Ballade was more a disjointed series of episodes than a true narrative in absolute music I am afraid and did not match my own conception of this work. Could reach Stage III and with luck the final.

Helene Tysman This French pianist  is as taught as a string on a Stradivarius violin and as highly strung. She gave us a reading of the Op. 52 F minor Ballade  in the 'grand, noble style' of true philosophical narration possessing great spiritual power. The mazurkas Op.24 became rather tone poems under her fingers than dances - poetic and moving all the same. Her polonaise was suitably militaristic and tremendously effective.  Her choice of Preludes was courageous and excellently performed. Playing Chopin seems a life or death issue for this truly intense and emotionally committed artist as opposed to simply pianist. Stage III and beyond for me.

Day 2 Stage II October 10

The Ukrainian Anna Fedorova did not impress me as much in this stage of the competition as she did in Stage I.  A powerful technique but the actual capture of the Chopin spirit, le climat de Chopin ?  Strong conception of the structure of the F minor Fantasy Op.49 but its hidden revolutionary agenda and sheer anger, the zal ? The A flat major waltz escaped her to my mind as it has many others. The Op. 24 Mazurkas were well interpreted and the F sharp minor Polonaise and the Ballade in A flat major Op. 47 were both powerful and convincing interpretations as but if hewn in granite again lacking what Chopin called the elusive 'Polish element', at least as I understand and hear it. I think she needs to mature musically and even personally as she has a magnificent technique there as an incontrovertible basis. Old truisms.

One of the great audience favourites in this competition is Leonora Armellini from Italy. She has great ability to communicate her warm 'Mediterranean' love of this music to the audience here in the frozen northern latitudes. The Barcarolle was a lovely jaunt on a Venetian lagoon with a bit of a storm to upset everyone on board but we arrived safely home at the pontoon outside the Danieli.  The waltz in E flat major op. 18 was characterful but slightly rushed to my taste as were her set of mazurkas Op. 33. The internal agogic rhythms of the mazurkas are not so clear if the tempo is too fast. I liked the Ballade in A flat major Op. 47 as a narrative and the Polonaise Op. 53 was rousing and the cavalry were well on their way with Leonora. In all a warm, affectionate and technically outstanding performance - the audience love her approach to Chopin. Stage III almost certainly.

The female pianists from Japan and China make such a preparatory effort with every aspect of their performances including their appearance. It ranges from glamorous and alluring with off the shoulder clinging 'New York' gowns of superb quality fabric, fit to grace any ballroom or high-end party (say Claire Huangci, Rina Sudo and Naomi Kudo) to the striking black and white glittering tops of Airi Katada. The voluminous white ball gown or the absolutely stunning Chinese vermilion and gold creation, yards of quite incredibly rich fabric that the Chinese weave so brilliantly, worn by Fei-Fei Dong.  As at the Wimbledon tennis championships we will soon need a fashion correspondent at the Chopin Competition! I think it quite wonderful that they take all this trouble and it lifts the general occasionally dull  'academic' tone of the competition no end - particularly if you are male listener. And of course not forgetting that beautiful Italian Irene Veneziano and her off the shoulder jewelled clasp and clinging black and silver gown slashed mid thigh on one side. Beautiful to watch and beautiful to hear. Fashion is no bar to musical talent in my book.

The Japanese Airi Katada brings an atmosphere of such infectious joy to her performances of Chopin. Her waltzes (Op. 70 No.1 and Op. 64 No.3) were charming indeed and beautifully articulated. The Op.17 set of mazurkas were rather more 'Polish' than I had expected and turned out to be a pleasant surprise. She so enjoys her playing. It is well to remember that the audience are reacting visually as well as musically - an inescapable fact of concert life. Airi smiles often and this sunny, seemingly effortless temperament communicates itself to the audience. The Nocturne in E flat major Op. 55 No.2 was rather sentimental in that Japanese manner but I have come to love this slight emotional indulgence as they educate my emotions to another way of feeling these familiar works. The Barcarolle began lyrically and was an excellent performance.

I was tremendously impressed by Fei-Fei Dong in Stage I and was expecting something 'out of the box' and remarkable. She did not disappoint. She appeared on the stage in an absolutely fabulous gown of vermilion and gold weave - acres of it. She is also very pretty and youthful in a perfectly classic Chinese way. All this together with her amazing musicality made this recital an absolute treat. The Barcarolle  was a fine performance. Our excursion on the waters that did not start with a crash at the pier although it was a slightly hasty time out there on the waves. I did not feel she really came to grips with the rhythm of the waltz or the mazurkas for all the reasons outlined above in my mini dissertation on dancing (A flat major Op.42 and Op. 17 set). Her tone, touch and cantabile are glorious. The F sharp minor Polonaise Op. 44 was pounded out rather and far too militaristic and lacking inner spiritual torment and unease. How old is she? But the next piece was absolutely breathtaking - the Rondo in E flat major Op.16. Her stupendous glittering touch and articulation, the velocity and clarity was as if showers of diamonds were being rained down upon the audience. I have never heard tone quality and incandescence like it in all my years of listening to pianists - even Horowitz and that is really saying something. This was the styl brillant of early Chopin with a vengeance. A great highlight for me in my musical experience. Certainly Stage III. 

I felt Claire Huangci was better in this stage than Stage I. She began with a truly beautiful and moving account of one of my favorite late Chopin meditative works, the Lento con gran espressione in C sharp minor (op. post.). The Ballade in G minor op.23 was passionate and wonderfully full of energy - she tends to choose tempi that would frighten another pianist but she uses it to great creative advantage. The waltz (Op. 34 No.3 in F major) was not quite my idea of a Chopin waltz but the mazurkas in the Op.24 set were very eloquent of the genre. The Andante Spianato was as moving and lyrical as the Lento that began her recital with a luminous tone and marvellous cantabile. The Grand Polonaise  was taken at a energetic tempo but superbly articulated in the way in which she shines best - that of the styl brilliant. One's reaction to Chopin polonaises is a terribly personal one rather than a 'correct' one I have found. It really does differ from listener to listener. A very subjective experience depending entirely one's overall view of Chopin as Polish patriot, revolutionary composer or virtuoso in the Lisztian mode. Stage III certainly.

Da Sol Kim from South Korea demonstrated to me once again how Koreans respond so well to Chopin's inner suffering as there are so many historical and political parallels to their own continuing tragic fate - a country torn by war in the past and now a divided nation. The Scherzo in B flat minor op.31 was a powerfully thought through performance. The waltz (E flat Major op. 18) was charming and lovingly articulated, the mazurkas from the difficult op. 59 set contained all the contrasts of mood and Polish atmosphere one requires. The Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise showed a wonderful command of poetic lyricism and sparkling mastery of the styl brillant as did the Rondo in E flat major op.18.

I thought the Chopin played this evening by the Japanese pianist Rina Sudo some of the most idiomatic and perfect of the entire competition. I will not dwell on specifics because I loved everything even the mazurkas and the waltz. Wonderfully 'balanced' Chopin - the masculine and feminine sides of his nature in perfect harmony, as I think they were in this rarest of beings. Sudo understands Chopin and this is a statement one can make only rarely of pianists in this competition. Wonderful. She must surely be a finalist this year.


Day 3 Stage II October 11

The Polish pianist Pawel Wakarecy has been taught by Katarzyna Popowa-Zydron, the teacher of the winner of the competition in 2005, Rafal Blechacz. Everyone expected great 'Polish' things from him and he did not disappoint. He began with a powerful rendition of the almost too familiar Polonaise in A major Op. 40 No. 1. I found his Chopin superbly 'Polish' in every way. What does such a  statement mean by this 'honorary patriot' from Australia? In many ways it is an intuitive feeling one develops living in Poland over time, the language, visiting places Chopin knew well, reading the tragic history, listening to, studying and playing his music. One begins to absorb le climat de Chopin. Certainly an extended educational period in Poland is a must for any serious student of this composer. Certainly Stage III and beyond?

Pawel's F-minor Polonaise Op. 44 was a magnificent patriotic statement full of nobility, the elusive quality of zal (melancholy fired up slowly to bitter and angry regret), and supremely and unyieldingly masculine in its strength of purpose. The 'crucified nation' of Poland suffering on the cross of history was profoundly felt to my mind in his interpretation. Idiomatic mazurkas (the wonderful Op.24 set) marvellously realised with natural tempo rubato but the waltz was not sufficiently elegant and 'French' for me. The Ballade in G minor op. 23 was a little too fast for the narrative thread to be followed - episodes rushed by as if from the window of a train - we see elements of the landscape but cannot take it in as a whole.

Yumi Osaki from Japan played an immaculate and beautifully balanced programme. Her Waltz in F major Op. 34 No.3 was rhythmically not quite 'there' and the tempo rather fast for my taste. The Ballade in A flat major Op. 47 was superbly executed as one might expect from this pianist but lacking in true emotional intensity involving the 'story' - an elusive commodity. The mazurkas (the Op. 59 set) were presented really as tone poems in her interpretation except No.3 which was energetic and made one want to dance. Of the Preludes she played from Op. 28 the B flat minor (No.16) was spectacularly virtuosic with an insistent and powerful left hand which gave unaccustomed excitement and a sense of imminent threat to the work.



Evgeni Buzhanov in a 'normal' portrait that expresses something of his quality as a musical visionary.  I took this at a Press Conference after his astounding Stage III performance and shook his hand. 
And now to one of my absolute favourite of the competition (not that he may win due to the conservatism of the jury or perhaps that will not apply with a jury of such individualistic pianists). A great individualist with an original talent bordering on instrumental genius, Evgeni Bozhanov from Bulgaria. To fully understand what he is actually doing one really must be familiar with historic recordings of the unsurpassed late nineteenth and early twentieth century school of pianism.

If any of you have been reading other postings on this blog you will note I have been researching for my new book the life of a glamorous but forgotten concert pianist from the 1920s, Edward Cahill. He belonged to this school of playing in the 1920s in the glamorous London, Paris and French Riviera of those years. How life has changed for concert artists since those halcyon days! Recently I have been doing an enormous amount of listening to older recordings to achieve some perspective on his style. The contrast with the modern young pianists in the competition is dramatic to say the least.

The recordings of the giants of late Romantic pianism such as Josef Lhévinne, Sergei Rachmaninov, Alfred Cortot, Moritz Rosenthal, Josef Hofmann, Vladimir Horowitz, Dinu Lipatti, Leopold Godowsky, Ignaz Friedman and Raul Koczalski give at least some indication of the incredible Fingerfertigkeit (finger dexterity) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century performers.  These pianists possessed exquisite beauty of tone with absolute delicacy and evenness of touch which scarcely any pianist today achieves with the same consistency. Above all they possessed great sensibility, individuality, poetry and charm.

Suddenly here is a man playing in this mould but without quite the transcendental technique of those masters but with many of their other intensely creative qualities. Astonishing. The Barcarolle was superb and the water-borne excursion began with scarcely a bump instead of the usual boating accident. This luminous and individualistic performance that had a wonderful improvisatory quality about it. There is a report of Chopin playing this work as written with its forte sections played with weighty tone. He then played the piece again with the expression indications reversed - a dreamlike piano and pianissimo version - and the writer was utterly convinced of the truth of both interpretations. I could easily imagine Bozhanov doing something like this. If an individual interpretation has an inner logic, observes certain natural musical 'limits' of taste and truth to the composer's intentions and notation and is not simply a confection, an applique  of superficial special effects, then it can be utterly convincing. Bozhanov's playing is like this.

The Rondo a la Mazur Op.5 was played with tremendous elan in a truly brilliant rhythm, tempo rubato, style and moreover with style - something this competition is rather short of except in the ballgown department. So many shifting colours in his palette, variety of articulation with the delicate velocity of a Godowsky. This is the styl brillant of the youthful Chopin who was such a happy fun-loving individual, not all doom and gloom at all until he left Warsaw, developed tuberculosis and began to yearn painfully for past joys. Bozhanov's choice of Polonaise was brilliantly original too - the one in B flat major Op. 71 No.2. We rarely hear this work in recitals. It was carried off with intense musicality and invention. Bozhanov makes the rest of the field look stale and staid with his risk taking and bravado. The Waltz in A flat major Op. 42 was so reminiscent of older interpretations, so full of personality, waywardness, nostalgia and joie de vivre. The Op. 59 set of mazurkas were equally successful to my mind with strong agogic rhyhmic dance motifs underlying the interpretation, perfectly judged tempo rubato. Here we are listening to music not simply marvelling at technique - he has moved beyond that limitation. He concluded his recital with a steady, noble and unfussy Op. 53 Polonaise which had a superb sotto voce cavalry regiment advancing at the canter rather than the gallop. An unsentimental central section, never mawkish.

So here we have a pianist with the infectious originality and the deep musical whimsicality and invention of say a Horowitz or a Friedman - but he is his own man completely - so exciting and unpredictable to listen to. A fabulously original and imaginative individual who is thinking 'outside the Chopin music box'. What matters the 'distinguished groves of academe' and 'correctness' when you can hear imaginative, 'dangerous' playing like this.

But what will the jury make of it? Will Chopin conservatism prevail? How did he get into the competition in the first place playing like this, let alone the second stage? In the past this would probably not have happened. Perhaps the acceptance criteria are broadening in scope (and about time too). Will Martha Argerich leap to his defence a la Pogorelich......?

This type of pianist must divide and unsettle the jury although many of them are at an age where they will know - even remember - that lost world of supreme pianism and musicality that Bozhanov seems to occupy travelling by time machine in warp drive. Gosh, how exciting! For me Stage III and beyond.

I have followed the career of  the Chinese pianist Wai-Ching Rachel Cheung for many years at Duszniki Zdroj from when she first appeared as what I would consider a child prodigy. It is just so wonderful to watch this flowering talent going from strength to strength. Now she is a young lady, no longer a child. It has been an amazing experience really for the devoted and loyal following she has at this marvellous festival in that little Polish spa town. Piotr Paleczny - a jury member here and artistic director of the Duszniki festival - has a keen ear for pianists and has selected brilliant talent for us over the years. 

Rachel's choice of Chopin's rarely performed Variations in B flat major Op. 12 gave her an opportunity to display her understanding of the styl brillant of the youthful Chopin. The performance had a lustrous tone and a touch of classical Mozartian elegance, the composer Chopin admired most next to Bach. Stylish and naturally musical.  The Op. 24 mazurkas were excellent an idiomatic performance, fine tempo rubato but perhaps a little too 'sweet' for a dance rhythm but it was very affecting lyrical playing with poetic yearning in abundance. The Barcarolle had a properly prepared low-key beginning and a subtle musical understanding of the need not to get too carried away in the relatively forte sections of this work. Beautiful cantabile and never too rough with the piece, just emotionally agitated which is as it should be. Too many pianists steer their boat through a raging typhoon rather than across the Venetian lagoon of ruffled wavelets. I loved her spirited Waltz in A flat major op. 34 No.1 - stylish, elegant with great elan. The Andante spianato ('a flowing and smooth Andante') had beautiful bel canto qualities full of poetic nostalgia. Chopin often used to play this as a stand alone piece late at night in the Parisian salons. The opening  Grand polonaise however did not begin with a sufficiently spectacular fanfare for me, that enthusiastic 'call to the floor' for dancing. Yet it was a noble performance of the work overall with moments of marvellous glittering articulation and rhythm.  Stage III almost certain to my mind.

In Stage I  the Russian Yuri Shadrin played a forceful, full-blooded Chopin and this was true once again. I used to love this type of mature Russian magnificence in Chopin when I was studying the piano as a youth but these days I still appreciate it but have become a bit of a musical Sherlock Holmes looking for more subtlety. All very personal this. 

His Scherzo in E major op. 54 was powerful as was the Ballade in A flat major Op.47. A great narrative unfolded here with tremendous inner strength but one must get used to his grand scale of dynamic, tone and touch. He is a mature Russian pianist with that muscular golden tone so suitable for Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Scriabin - but this is Chopin who emerged from the classical tradition of Bach and Mozart.  The Op. 33 mazurkas had excellent rhythm and brought up strong images of rural peasant festivals with rumbustious dancing - to my mind he is the only pianist here to have really called up the peasantry with vengeance. Great physical and masculine energy. The Waltz in F major Op. 34 No.3 was less successful but then I like my Chopin waltzes light, elegant, stylish and very French. The Andante spianato was beautifully cantabile and the Grand polonaise had powerful rhythms and terrific virtuosity.  Possibly Stage III owing to his maturity.

In her interview the charming, beautiful and eloquently named Italian pianist Irene Veneziano said breathlessly to the interviewer "I am feeling strong emotions!" and seemed transported to another world. Waving to the camera, crossing her fingers beforehand, messages to Mama. Wonderful innocent excitement at being in this competition.  I am sure it is the same for so many of these competitors. Just to be accepted is a great achievement in itself and even those who fall by the wayside have had a deep lifetime experience. Ah the Italians! So alive, vibrant and musically gifted in song. 

For a basically rather superficial chap like myself, it is a wonderful thing to watch a tremendously talented, glamorously dressed and radiant young lady like Irena Veneziano play the piano wonderfully well. Her 'strong emotions' were evident throughout and also the beautiful tone she extracted from the limpid colour spectrum of the Fazioli instrument - a choice not often taken here by competitors to my surprise, but then I have never played one so am unaware of the touch. Nikolai Demidenko loves them and he knows a thing or two about glorious tone colour. 

Veneziano is a very sensitive, sensual player who approached the G minor Ballade Op. 23 more as a rhapsodic outpouring of emotion that a strict musical narrative but this did not bother me in the least. It was the same with the Scherzo in E major Op. 54 - not really the character of a Chopin scherzo in a strict sense but again this infectious rhapsodic emotional approach to the piece is musically quite satisfying unless you are looking for dry as  dust academic excellence in definition of form in interpretation. It is wonderful music after all is said and done and her approach was joyful and uplifting. The Polonaise in F sharp minor Op.44 is chosen by many young competitors here and I really feel it is such a mature work of Chopin, with much anguished inner spiritual torment and conflict of his 'late style', that it moves beyond such young players emotional grasp. It is magnificent of course on the level of virtuoso piano music but there is much beyond. Veneziano played it with tremendous command of the keyboard but penetrating to the spiritual, anguished heart of this polonaise is a real challenge for anyone. Her Waltz in A flat major had elan and glitter but the rhythm was not quite right and dancing lessons are in order here - no shortage of partners to be sure.   The mazurkas from the op. 59 set were satisfying in rhythm, not a great deal of tempo rubato  but another delight. She has a wonderful warm Italian personality that communicates itself so well to the audience. Beautiful to look at and beautiful to hear - what more can one ask of a concert pianist? La Bella Figura  indeed.  She will have a marvellous career as a classical musician. Stage III for certain.


Piano technicians working on an instrument that is complaining slightly under the strain of the competition!


Day 4  Stage II   October 12

I anticipated something special from the Russian Nicolay Khozyainov as his Stage I performance of the F minor Fantasy was so superb. I was not disappointed. He began with the Polonaise in F sharp minor Op. 44 and like many young people who have performed it here, although he erected a noble architectural structure of tremendous emotional weight and power, he did not fully grasp the ironical anguish of the central mazurka. Liszt wrote of that soulful embedded mazurka 'far from effacing the memory of the deep grief that has gone before, it serves by the bitter irony of contrast to augment our painful emotions.' (my italics). Few young pianists, however brilliant, could be expected to  grapple convincingly with this spiritual depth and why should they be able to? Brilliant polonaise vision.

The Prelude in C sharp minor op. 45, another 'late style' work, exhibited marvellous tonal and dynamic control, colour, haunting nostalgia and existential yearning. I was so happy he chose the Bolero in A minor Op. 19, possibly my favourite early Chopin piece. He seemed happy with it too and really enjoyed playing it. The bolero was originally a lively Spanish dance in triple metre originating in the 18th century and popular in the 19th. It bears a resemblance to the polonaise which is perhaps why Chopin wrote one. Khozyainov played it in a perfect styl brillant manner with lustrous tone  and fascinating articulation and sparkling velocity. An excellent Polish competitor in 2005, Piotr Banasik, I think gave an even more convincing more robust performance (for my taste) bringing out the 'jazz' element of this piece and toning down the virtuoso display. Not that there is anything wrong with virtuosity per se - it is just how it is utilised that is vital. His was a great performance.

Khozyainov continued with the Waltz in A flat major Op. 42 which was not quite elegant, stylish and 'French' enough for me but wonderfully virtuosic and glittering with that inimitable Russian tone. The Op. 50 set of mazurkas was in turn melancholic, nostalgic and philosophical with perfect rhythm of the dance, emotionally moving tempo rubato  and luminous tone and touch. The childlike simplicity and limpidity of the opening of the Ballade in F major Op. 38 brought tears to my eyes - so beautiful. Then the terrifying section that erupts after it. It was a magnificent performance with concentrated emotions at full stretch. The work emerged as a parable of childish innocence supplanted by anguished experience and the deep resentment and zal that the reversals of life can bring. His almost perfect Chopin aesthetic brought back memories of Chopin recitals in London by Michelangeli. Finalist if not the winner without doubt at present.

 Yuri Wantanabe from Japan gave us a beautifully considered traditional performance of Chopin and was none the worse for that. She is a deeply musical player. I had heard the virtuoso Mei-Ting Sun in 2005 and was staggered by his performance. In the intervening five years he has developed his virtuosity to a point where I believe his incredible facility is actually interfering with his soulful conception of Chopin. The Ballade in F minor Op. 52 was tremendously exciting - he has a transcendental command of the keyboard - but the huge contrasts and almost exaggerated tempi turned it solely into a virtuoso vehicle without time for an emotional response to the complex shifting narrative moods of this piece. The Waltz Op. 34 No.3 was a delight, brilliant and convincing. The Allegro de Concert in A major op. 46 which is rarely performed anywhere, was delivered with great elan and supreme virtuoso display. There has been speculation in some academic circles (without documentary foundation) that this may have been a movement for an unfinished 3rd Piano Concerto Chopin was planning. In his day single movements of concerti were performed on the piano without orchestra.

Listening to Sun (and the spectacular Fei-Fei Dong) I was more than ever convinced that Chinese pianists are supreme in the early styl brillant works of early Chopin and of course Liszt (and no criticm of this composer at all - a true revolutionary of the piano technique but in an utterly different way to Chopin). They really are without parallel in virtuoso pieces from the Western piano repertoire and take us into previously unheard worlds of piano sound. But getting to grips with the complex inner life of an introvert like Chopin requires a particular type of neurasthenic psyche that not every pianist possesses from whatever land or culture. The Impromptu  in A flat major Op. 29 came across as rather flippant and lightweight but the Polonaise in A flat major Op. 53 was a noble design of tremendous delivery and virtuoso power but for me it seemed to be trying too hard to be 'crucified Poland'.  Almost certainly a finalist - a magnificent command of the instrument.


A lake in Mazovia (Chopin's region of Poland) in Autumn 2010

Is it controversial to say that when a Polish pianist begins to play Chopin he brings something unique to the conception that expresses itself incontrovertibly through the micro-intervals that distinguish one fine pianist from another? Well, in that case I will be controversial. When Jacek Kortus began the Ballade in G minor Op.23 I moved into a different musical landscape altogether. I could say that the tempo was noble, there was a fine balance achieved between virtuosity and the spiritual drama, it was moving in its final tragic consequence, there was urgency and great narrative drive.  And yet this would not describe the 'rightness' of this pianist's conception of Chopin. Nadia Boulanger was correct when she observed that you know intuitively the interpretation different but you cannot analyse this difference in mere words. The Op. 59 set of mazurkas had idiomatic agogic rhythm and fine tempo rubato  that made them deeply satisfying. The Waltz in A  flat major op. 34 No.1 as ever did not really please me not being elegant enough, French enough in flavour and floating effortlessly above worldly turmoil. The Fantasy in F  minor op. 49 was brimming with passionate Polish revolutionary fervour and reminded me what a great work this is in the canon of Western keyboard music. Strong contrasts of dynamic discomforted me on occasion. His Polonaise Op. 53 was at once noble and angry with much zal expressed. An interpretation of inflexible masculine valour, courageous in the face of dire adversity.

After the majesterial performance of the F minor Fantasy in Stage I, I expected a great deal from Ilya Rashkovskiy. He began with a work that so many have actually ended their stage with, the Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise. You know I have heard this work so many times in Poland and the greatest performance ever for me was by the Polish pianist Wojciech Switala who recorded it for Katowice Radio quite a while ago. I treasure this old fashioned cassette tape which is simply out of this world in its brilliant pianism and sheer youthful verve.

The Andante was lyrical and cantabile but I loved most Rashkovskiy's 'call to arms' the 'call to the dance floor' the spectacular fanfare that begins the Grand Polonaise. His sprung rhythms and steady tempo were just as this polonaise should be played. All went along in great style. It was excellent programming to follow with the Mazurkas op. 59 but except for No. 3 I do not think they quite came off successfully. The Waltz in F major op. 34 No.3 was spirited, elegant, light, floating and even humorous - the Chopin waltzes are not cries of desperation but expressions of his joy (sometimes nostalgic) in his great passion for dancing as a young man. The Scherzo in C sharp minor op. 39 was light and possessed a great deal of the grotesquerie that Chopin seemed to imbue these works with. Seriousness alternated with lightness, a section unexpectedly played sotto voce and staccato. The final Ballade in F minor op. 52 lacked finesse and exhibited too many extreme contrasts in mood for my taste which affected the conception of the structure and overall coherence of the piece. Certainly Chopin was never reported as  playing with sudden and dramatic, even vicious changes of mood and attack the like of which I have often heard in this competition. IR is a marvellous pianist with unassailable technique, a servant to the music.

If this competition teaches you anything, it is that there is not one Chopin and that the Poles do not 'own' Chopin and perhaps never have despite their intuitive understanding of his music lodged in their DNA. Even the reception of his music in the different countries of Europe varied greatly while he was alive and after his death. One aspect remained constant though and that was in his universality in expressing in a spiritual sense melancholy and anger at the difficult travails and frustrations of this human life of ours. The last two pianists in today's group illustrate two different approaches to the composer - the 'monumental' and the 'intimate' - both valid and both having massive integrity.

The Russian Yulianna Avdeeva has a proud and aristocratic profile, a demeanor at the instrument of a prince rather than a princess (we surely have enough here) enhanced by the white ruffles and  coachman  black satin suit hugging her body. A serious and mature operative this musician. At the advanced age of 25....

She began with the A flat major Waltz op. 34 No. 1 but to my mind did not catch the elegant rhythm and so on but the Chopin waltzes are really not this lady's language or landscape. The Fantasy in F minor op. 49 had a haunting opening with tremendous variety of articulation, touch, tone, dynamic, colour and invention. Sections of deep philosophical reflection whose sonority reminded me inescapably of Beethoven. This has never happened to me with this piece before. It is an astonishing realisation that Chopin and Beethoven were contemporaries and actually Chopin used to teach and play the Beethoven sonata Op. 26 to his students. Her fingers are strong but never produce an ugly tone (unlike some in this competition). The tempo was noble and measured and the background full of simmering political discontent. The artfully concealed political message of this Fantasy once elicited the remark from a diplomat, ‘You should have thrown out a demagogue like Chopin!’ There are powerful patriotic messages contained within this work which contains among other things a reference to the insurrectionary song Bracia, do bitwy nadszedł czas (‘Brothers, The Time has Co me To Battle’). Her silences were emotionally demolishing, her breathing expansive. An heroic, profound and masculine interpretation of this great work that ranks with the finest.

The mazurkas Op. 30 captured the difficult rhythm, tempo rubato and the shifting colours moved effortlessly beyond mere technique with an improvisatory quality. The Scherzo Op. 39 in my favourite key of C sharp minor was light, energetic and at times 'possessed' as it should be. What does this puzzling scherzo mean?  I felt that it was a type of conversation between the 'serious' citizens in life (the chordal progressions of a Chorale) answered by light laughter from those more devoted to pleasure. In this contrast may lie the humorous 'joke' of this scherzo. Then as always with Chopin the clouds pass over the face of the sun and matters turn rather more serious and restrained as we face reality with deeper thoughts. Of course I am sure he did not think in this literary sense when composing this work of absolute music, he simply composed from his musical subconscious. The Op. 45 Prelude was unsentimental but deeply felt. The Op. 53 Polonaise was a measured spacious account with eloquent silences. The central section beautifully cantabile but not mawkish in response to the militaristic patriotism (Chopin to all accounts was a poor horseman but not in his music!). Marvellous left hand this pianist - fabulous fingers. This is monumental Chopin and none the less utterly convincing. A finalist without doubt. 

Now the Polish pianist Marcin Koziac presented us with a different, more intimate Chopin. His Fantasy was traditional and excellently played and structured, but not spiritually torn, politically riven enough for me - an over-considered performance.  The set of Op. 33 mazurkas were absolutely marvellous - idiomatic, brilliant rubato, full of dance energy and a sheer delight. The best mazurkas in this competition so far by a mile and should be in the running for the mazurka prize. Infectious and natural phrasing - a marvel of Polishness. This pianist really understands dance music (and do not forget almost half Chopin's music is dance music). the Waltz in A flat major op. 34 No.1 was full of elan, energy and with a good waltz tempo and rhythm. A fine piano technique - but not an oppressively virtuosic one - underpins his playing. The Ballade in F minor Op. 52 was a fine performance but slightly lacking in subtlety. He gave an excellent, expansive account of Op. 53 Polonaise but I do ask myself after having listened to this work a million times (despite its masterpiece and popular status as the quintessence of Chopin Polishness) why not choose another polonaise as did Buzhanov to such great effect. Competitors can freely choose one work not played in stage one - why not another polonaise?


The Polish pianists in this competition are all different in temperament and talent and it would be churlish of me to single out any particular one. And I include in these remarks the inexplicable exclusion from Stage II of the very fine, sensitive idiomatic Polish Chopin pianist Joanna Rozewska and the inclusion of far lesser talents. They do have one great quality in common faced with the demands of Chopin's music, of his music in particular. That quality is modesty of spirit. This is a great human quality especially in the performing arts and could be usefully acquired by some (though certainly not all) in this competition. Chopin himself had the demeanour of a prince but was humble concerning his own musical genius and was no Liszt in performance. The Poles are not virtuosic vain 'show-offs', they do not use the music of their beloved national composer to emotionally indulge themselves in public. Chopin is not simply a platform for their own musical personalities to shine the more brightly.  They are humble before this great composer of theirs and play his music intuitively and quite differently  to any other nationality (not necessarily 'better' if that word means anything in this context).  No, I am not Polish but an Anglo-Saxon Australian with no Polish or Jewish roots - I have no patriotic or nationalist axe to grind. Being a writer I do admit however to closely observing human nature.  Admittedly I am a rather poor pianist myself but I have loved and studied this composer with passion since the age of nine when I gave my first public concert - and I know what I don't like.

Day 5  Stage II  October 13

The Polish pianist Marek Bracha looks to be a man of good taste and so it proved to be. He began with the youthful Rondo in C minor Op.1 and performed this first Chopin opus number with moderation and great refinement. The waltz in A flat minor op. 17 No.4 was also excellent. I would have preferred a great deal more panache and brio  in both these works as I feel the young Chopin was such a lively young man and brilliant improviser he would not have held back showing what he could do with the instrument.

Suddenly Bracha burst into flame, came alight with the Scherzo in B minor op. 20 - a dramatic moment indeed that shot me back in my seat. Energetic, powerful and in turn soulful and reflective with beautifully controlled piano and cantabile. A brilliant interpretation behind which I could hear his teacher Kevin Kenner who I believe to be a master of this Chopin genre. To say this does Bracha's fine playing no disservice. He presented Chopin as a man subject to mercurial and fluctuating moods. Beautiful introspection by Bracha, great fantasy and grotesquerie - all components of this scintillating and difficult piece. Marvellous piano technique.

I love the Op. 17 set of mazurkas and he showed superb colour, rubato, dance rhythms and nostalgia that tore at the heart. Here is another Polish pianist who understands this dance in its essence - they all do - it is in the 'blood tradition'. Ignacy Paderewski said 'The whole Polish nation moves in tempo rubato.' Too true. Koziac or Bracha in the mazurkas - a tough choice indeed - both are unsurpassed in this genre in the competition. The Polonaise in F sharp minor possessed grandeur, deep resentment and anger as well as a wonderful full piano tone in the difficult lyrical mazurka that lies ironically at the centre of the work. Bracha was tremendously popular with the audience - called back for three and many bravos. A true, tastefully restrained when required, aristocratic performance of Chopin.



The Competition Poster

And so Ingolf Wunder has spent five years maturing before returning to Warsaw and this competition.  I was excited to hear him again as I never believed he should have fallen foul of the jury as he did in 2005.

The Impromptu in G flat major op. 51 was a light and elegant way to begin. The left hand cantabile was beautiful and the whole effect wonderfully civilised and refined. The Scherzo  in E major op. 54 called up images of dancing gremlins and water sprites - a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream full of whimsy and mercurial changes of mood. A demanding work both pianistically and emotionally. For me it could have been lighter and slightly more 'neurotic' in its rapidly shifting consciousness. I had been waiting for this Waltz for five years and it did not disappoint - the A flat major op. 34 No.1. A great 'summons to the dance floor' and tremendous elan in the salon with much boundless joy and contrasts of piano and forte.  I kept thinking of my night at the Opernball in Vienna many years ago. No doubt Chopin was calling up his own remembrances of distant balls. Wunder elevated this waltz into a major musical work of grand conception. Wonderful Wunder! Of course being Austrian it would be rather difficult as a musician to avoid a life involving much dancing. I felt it was in his blood and he truly understood the mazurkas op.24. Playing with great joy, dancing with his body, thoughtful rubato and nostalgic cantabile.  Of course he is studying under the inspiration of the great Chopin pianist Adam Harasiewicz which must help but he remains his own man. The Andante spianato was beautifully considered and 'sung' in a particularly emotional rendition with superb tone. A fine opening fanfare to the Grand Polonaise  which I felt he could see assembling on the dance floor in his mind's eye. Enlivening dynamic contrasts with a very stylish delivery alongside great verve and elan. Definitely Stage III and beyond.

Unlucky illness almost ruined the chances of Marianna Prjevalskaya but did not prevent her giving one of the most spiritually moving and technically proficient recitals of the entire competition.

The G minor Ballade Op. 23 was rhapsodic  and full of poetic narrative in an entirely noble conception of this work with an almost fierce concentration of emotion. It became a dramatic and fraught tale in absolute music. Her mazurkas in the Op.24 set were full of colour, exquisite rubato,  nostalgia, sensitivity and rhythm of the dance. She did not seem to enjoy dancing in the physical way Wunder does but they were hypnotic in effect. The Waltz in A flat major Op.34 No.1 was perfect for me - sprung waltz rhythm, elegance, 'French' and floating effortlessly above earthly turmoil - joyful indeed. The Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 45 was possibly the finest of the competition. Wonderful improvisatory beginning with all sorts of imaginative ideas following. Poetic, reflecting on the tragic universality of death in the face of life. Resignation to fate at the conclusion was radiant and deeply moving bringing me close to tears. She seemed to be very moved herself but by the essence of this profoundly beautiful music not by her own talent. A most extraordinarily poetic experience.

The F sharp minor Polonaise Op.44 was for me the finest, most profound interpretation of the competition. Magnificent phrasing and graduations of controlled tempo. So measured, not dynamically overpowering but noble and deeply tragic. The mazurka was not sentimentalised and so appeared a melancholic bitter commentary on the vanished joys and lost worlds of lyrical happiness before the anger and zal at the inevitability of loss. The lines of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas sprang to my mind:

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Historically an outcry of patriotism against a ruined land, this pianist carefully moulded a monumental conception of the universal heart in  ravishing tone. For me her understanding of the fatalistic implications of this great work made it scarcely bearable. An artist. 


The Stage III Competitors 

1 41 Mr Miroslav Kultyshev Russia


2 72 Mr Daniil Trifonov Russia

3 16 Mr Jayson Gillham Australia

4 73 Ms Hélene Tysman France

5 2 Ms Leonora Armellini Italy

6 8 Ms Fei- Fei Dong China

7 24 Ms Claire Huangci USA

8 76 Mr Paweł Wakarecy Poland

9 5 Mr Evgeni Bozhanov Bulgaria

10 7 Ms Wai-Ching Rachel Cheung China

11 61 Mr Yury Shadrin Russia

12 75 Ms Irene Veneziano Italy

13 31 Mr Nikolay Khozyainov Russia

14 69 Mr Mei-Ting Sun USA

15 3 Ms Yulianna Avdeeva Russia

16 38 Mr Marcin Koziak Poland

17 79 Mr Ingolf Wunder Austria

18 14 Mr Lukas Geniušas Russia/Lithuania

19 9 Mr François Dumont France

20 74 Mr Andrew Tyson USA



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Stage III Works


Polonaise - Fantasy in A flat major, Op. 61

Sonata in C minor, Op. 4 or Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35 or Sonata in B minor, Op. 58 (the repeat of the first movement exposition in the B minor Sonata should not be played; the repeat of the first movement of the B flat minor Sonata is optional).

at least one Chopin work of the competitor’s choosing not performed in the previous stages.

Stage III performances to last 55–60 minutes.

Works may be performed in any order.

Should a competitor overrun the time limit, the Jury may stop the performance.


 I am completely exhausted and return home so late at night my head fit to bursting with the long Chopin programmes of the eight pianists on each day of this stage. I leave home at 8.00am to travel the 18 kms from my home to the concert hall returning around 11.00pm. 

The sonatas are long (particularly the Largo of op. 58) and together with the Polonaise-Fantaisie and more, a lot is demanded of listener, jury and pianist.

I hope in Australia those who love classical music will realise what an incredible achievement it is for Jayson Gillham, an Australian and my compatriot, to have reached Stage III of this incredibly demanding international competition. He played extremely well yesterday in his usual refreshing, natural musician style - a magnificent and powerful technique and fine interpretations.


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My blog will appear relatively slowly (no doubt after the results of the finalists). In this ridiculous world of media soundbites, Twitter and  'instant' reactions, opinions and predictions I am completely against 'dumbing down' my musical reactions.  


The way I see it these young people in this competition have enormous talent, have sacrificed much of their lives, years and years, to an unremitting effort to master this great machine and deserve a proper considered assessment of their hugely demanding programmes. I am not into trivial Facebook style social networking single sentence remarks which can be so wounding, addictive and ludicrously superficial to the point of idiocy. 'Like'  and 'Don't like' - ridiculous in this complex artistic context. My own thoughts are superficial enough to be going on with....the actual results of Stage III are now published and appear below. No real surprises for me at all.

Considering Stage III as a whole and sitting  just behind the jury, the enormous pressure under which these young people are operating is clear.

 
My point of view seated behind from the left Andrzej Jasinski, Bella Davidovich, Adam Harasiewicz, Nelson Freire, Martha Argerich, Dang Thai Son 

A demanding programme of Chopin's most difficult works is performed for roughly an hour non-stop. The Chopin programme is being played in Warsaw before a Polish audience. The programme is being played before ten eminent pianists of international world standing, some of them legends in their own time - imagine that. The Master of Ceremonies who announces the competitors, more in the spirit of 'punishment' than anything else, "The competitors are permitted one minute's break during their performance." Gee whizz, that's kind. How they manage in terms of stamina is beyond me - I am feeling the pressure as a listener and the jury members must find it terribly taxing.  I think the pressure makes the pianists understandably very nervous (not however all I expect - 'good nerves' can be a very good thing). Some of them 'overplay' works, fired by a desire to give their ultimate best to their interpretation. This laudable intention can result in dynamic exaggerations and surprising  'accidents'.

The biggest shock for me was the exclusion of all the Japanese and South Korean pianists from Stage III - seventeen Japanese and two South Koreans who took part in the competition. This is not the place to analyse the inclusions and exclusions right now but I am rendered speechless.  More so than the judgements  in 2005 which led me to question my own musical judgement. There are all sorts of serious implications in this decision which are not yet apparent at this stage.

The individual exclusion fron Stage III which makes me question the discrimination of this jury however 'eminent' is that of the true artist Marianna Prjevalskaya. Was it because she played at the end of a long day of listening? For me it was a wonderful spiritual experience I shall treasure but this does not 'win' competitions in 2010 of course, mired as they are in the physical.  She had something serious to say about Chopin which is so rare in performers these days.
Day 1  Stage III  October 14

The Russian Miroslav Kultyshev built the drama and inner structure of the Polonaise-Fantaisie Op.61 into a great interpretation.  This piece seems to recreate the tragic instability of Chopin’s disintegrating world during his final years. One of the greatest performances I have ever heard of it was by Grigory Sokolov at Duszniuki Zdroj some years ago. Kultyshev built the reflective and philosophical power of the piece into a great drama. The mazurkas of the Op. 30 set did not 'dance' sufficiently for me. I felt they could be lighter and more 'poetic' with more nostalgic yearning and better mazurka rhythm. Of course there are 'Russian' mazurkas (Tchaikovsky wrote many during the period of 'mazurka mania' in Europe). The Fantaisie-Impromptu  became more of a virtuoso display piece than anything else which I am sure Chopin did not intend when he wrote it into the Album of Madame D'Est.  The other Impromptu in G major Op. 51 was similarly zoomed through - how should these works be interpreted one asks oneself?  His Sonata Op. 58 (which the majority of competitors chose to perform) had a marvellous noble and expansive exposition, urgent and passionate but somewhat rushed towards the end of the first movement. The Scherzo did not have enough emotional content for me. The Largo (which can become interminable in the wrong hands) had superb cantabile and was true bel canto. The Finale - Presto, non tanto  was powerful and dramatic with amazing articulation. (Incidentally the indication 'non tanto' was not observed by many competitors as they took part in the Grand Prix de Vitesse Pianistique). The unrelenting driving force of fate.  Must be a finalist.   

I had become very fond of the Russian Daniil Trifonov  in the first two stages as he played with a refinement and finesse denied so many Russians in Chopin. I felt him progress easily through the stages. I thought his Rondo was over-pedalled which reduced the styl brillant effect.  The Polonaise-Fantaisie seemed to lack detail although his cantabile was very beautiful (the Fazioli can be ravishing with velvet tone in singing passages). However as with so many in this competition for me there were excessive contrasts in dynamic. Sometimes it is the sheer facility at the keyboard that leads them into superficial virtuosic interpretations of the Impromptus which also seemed to blight the Tarantella. The bite of the poisonous spider which gives rise to this dance certainly led to a high degree of agitation in this case. Highly entertaining performance. In the Sonata op. 58 I simply felt that Daniil was unable to handle with discipline and maturity such a large structural form as this, but his pianistic refinement remains. I still feel he could be a finalist despite having a rather 'off' day. Ravishing tone and touch. Not really surprised at this result....a Finalist.

I loved the verve and energy of youth sparkling with styl brillant expressed in the Rondo in E flat major Op. 16 with which  Jayson Gillham  opened  his Stage III.  It is so refreshing to hear someone so naturally musical once again - it comes in such a relaxed way in comparison with the fierce intensity and concentration of some performers here. His playing is charm personified. His interpretation of the Polonaise-Fantaisie slipped just out of reach spiritually for me although superb on the technical level. The Prelude in C sharp minor op. 45 was a beautiful, moving and tastefully considered interpretation. The Op. 58 Sonata showed fine natural phrasing , lovely cantabile and reminded me at various moments so much of the moderation and taste of Artur Rubinstein - qualities in very short supply during this competition. The Scherzo  was sharp and agitated with fine cantabile at the centre. The Largo was unsentimental and ardent. He chose a great non tanto tempo for the Finale with a steady accumulation of tension and dynamics to the bravura coda. Brilliant fingers in an interpretation sometimes slightly lacking in overall finesse. I would make him a finalist as he is so different and natural a player in distinction to the fraught intense atmosphere that surrounds many other performances here. A huge talent but who am I in the great scheme of things?  Ah well.....not a finalist....it still remains a magnificent achievement. A great future ahead.

I found Leonora Armellini very impressive indeed. The Op. 58 Sonata is such a gruelling and demanding masterpiece I cannot imagine such young players penetrating to the core of it (no matter, time is on their side in this brief episode called 'life'). She plays with such ease the most technically demanding material, works can feel somewhat rushed and lacking emotional depth at times. Her sheer facility at the keyboard can interfere with the inner details. Nervousness and youth could have been playing a part here she is such an effusive and winning Mediterranean personality. She settled down and the Polonaise-Fantaisie  was finely wrought, troubled, lyrical and never rough, powerful and introspective. Chopin through the appropriate filter of Mozart - a wonderful interpretation . Her Andante sang in a beautiful Italian bel canto with luminous tone and with a superb pastel wash of sound in the left hand - a wonderful impressionistic effect. Again it was correctly Mozartian. I could not fault her E major op. 22 Polonaise. A wonderful opening and all that followed allowed the music to breathe. She must be a finalist to my mind.  (Later....Ah well.....not a finalist....but what a wonderful pianist!)

Fei-Fei Dong did not disappoint the audience in her dress certainly - another fabulous 18th century Chinese creation in rich embroidered silks - wonderful to look at. The Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise were as superb in the styl brillant department as we have come to expect from her previous appearances as a keyboard magician. However the Polonaise-Fantaisie opened in a sunny mood without any haunting shadows and dark premonitions which I feel abounds in this troubled work of Chopin's 'late style'. Beautifully played but she did not plumb the depths - how could she - even why or should a beautiful twenty year old Chinese girl in the bloom of youth, perhaps at the height of her fantastic virtuosity, be expected to deal deeply with this troubled work of a mature Polish man. Or for that matter embrace successfully the demands of the demonic  'possession' that is contained within the late Op. 58 Sonata in any profound or spiritual way? The Scherzo of the sonata became a tremendous virtuoso exercise with Dong, somewhat empty of emotional disturbance or poetry. The Largo left me lyrically pleased by the sound but spiritually unmoved. As one might have expected the 'non tanto' indication of the Presto  was overlooked and was like an express train that left one wide-eared with the wonder of its execution - a few 'accidents' along the way as we crossed the points too fast. Stunning the mind without moving it. She has a magnificent pianistic career ahead as she matures as a young woman and pianist.

The next competitor appeared in an off-the-shoulder alluring  long white sheath dress clinging closely to her svelte body. Wow. More than a little distracting from the sexual point of view in light of the seriousness of  two sonatas in 'late style' Chopin - one with a  Marche funebre. Well, why not? The eternal battle of light and darkness....the life of youth in conflict with unwelcome death in age....

I remain puzzled by Claire Huangci's fascination with fast tempi. She has the marvellous digital facility and dexterity to sweep all technical demands before her but unfortunately much of the inner detail (so important in Chopin) is lost with this approach. I remember her concert at Duszniki Zdroj and actually heard her practising in the room under mine in the hotel. She practised absolutely correctly but in an ultra slow way. As I have said before, the temptation to drive your Ferrari as fast as it is capable of being driven is great but you will get a speeding ticket eventually or crash.

She chose to play both of the great sonatas op. 35 and op. 58 - an ambitious idea and a great thing to do.  The B minor Op. 35 lies squarely in the Austro-German tradition of sonata form and its classical roots should be borne in mind and moderate tempi adopted for the Beethovenesque passages. But I must admit loving her sheer energy and forcefulness in the first two movements but the dynamics could have been a little more varied. The Marche funebre had a wonderful haunting sotto voce tone quality and tempo and the contrasting bel canto middle lament was finely achieved. The excitedly anticipated Presto was just stunning, astounding really, with the most complex drifting polyphony and the most rapid vibrating pedalling I have ever seen or heard in this movement of the sonata. Definitely an arctic wind over the graves. Her Polonaise Fantaisie contained a lovely contrast of colours and textures. I thought it beautifully played in a moderate tempo, reflective and a completely successful interpretation.

In the op. 58 sonata she showed she has a wonderful cantabile  tone when required but at the tempo she adopted much fascinating polyphonic writing by Chopin was glossed over. The urge to be expressive and poetic was certainly there but her sheer facility in playing this demanding music led her into the familiar traps of virtuosity (would that with my mediocre talent I could be led into them too!). The Scherzo was a splendid display with a reflective centre. The long  Largo had a wonderful dreamlike colour and bel canto,  marvellous legato phrasing and was very introspective in mood. If only the movements surrounding this could have been scaled down somewhat in dynamic and tempo, balancing one movement against the other in order that the structure of the sonata could become a more cohesive vision. Again we overlooked the 'non tanto' indication of the Presto which Chopin wrote for a good reason I am sure. He was a brilliant teacher and must have been aware of the temptation to virtuoso exaggeration his music sometimes leads pianists into.

This pianist is an absolute phenomenon of natural gifts and musical talent. She too is only twenty and has a long time ahead to mature musically and in life. But when you are young, attractive and talented,  a laudable even fierce ambition takes over and you forge ahead despite everyone using all your considerable assets. Seems inevitable and why not? I remember it myself (in literature, not music when I thought I was James Joyce II or at least Dylan Thomas at the age of 18). You live and learn......but enjoy the power of youth in the face of the winged chariot of passing time. 

By a remarkable coincidence today was the birthday of the Pole Pawel Wakarecy. What a two-edged sword to be playing in Stage III of the Chopin Competition on your birthday! He is a student of Katarzyna Popowa-Zydron on the jury who taught the 2005 winner Rafal Blechacz. So there was a lot of Polish excitement, exclamations, expectation and outbursts of 'patriotic' cheering in the Filharmonia when he walked out onto the stage and sat at the Steinway.

The group of Preludes Op. 28 were excellently performed in all their kaleidoscopic vision of fleeting colours and mercurial moods.  The Polonaise-Fantaisie  was  presented as a structure of complex inner structure with a great sense of improvisation. He also chose the op. 35 Sonata in B minor and it was utterly convincing emotionally and technically, in particular the Marche funebre which was truly grand in spiritual conception. I found his touch and tone lacking in finesse but that is just the old 'aesthete' in me speaking out - I cannot help it. I felt he would achieve the Finals after this stage but was not convinced before this performance. Many pianists have improved so much since Stage I. Now why might that be?

Like almost everyone else in the hall I felt so excited, privileged and lucky enough to have obtained a ticket to  to be able to hear Evgeni Buzhanov live in this competition. Everything I said in my previous Stage II remarks concerning him (see above) applies even more forcibly in Stage III which turned out to be one of the great musical experiences of my life - there are only a few and I can remember them all vividly.

His interpretation of the Polonaise-Fantaisie was like nothing I had ever heard before, either in sound or in spiritual force. Visionary. His pedalling was quite extraordinarily virtuosic (something one does not see or hear that often except with organists. Chopin himself said that the pedal was 'a study for life'). The work was an absolute fantasy. He plays with his entire body, spirit, mind and heart taken over completely by the music it seems, possessed by it. 


The jury fell into amazingly animated discussion after that I can tell you. They had been writing furiously or consulting scores and shaking their heads during it - turning pages, looking from one to another. One by one they stopped moving, stopped writing and became absorbed like spectators at a bonfire and simply sat back, watched and listened to this extraordinary outpouring of a supremely individual musical conception. I was seated just behind them and saw it all. In an odd way I believe a few may have felt threatened. Was it because he was a superior pianist to some of them? Certainly they did not react to any other competitor in this manner. However I fear it will work against him - I fear he cannot win - they will punish this brilliance - mere competitions are not for spirits like Buzhanov.


The three mazurkas from Op. 50 were so remarkable I wanted to leap up from my seat and dance.  He elevated the three waltzes to the level of masterpieces.

The unique sonority he extracted from the Yamaha was astonishing, like a plucked harp at times. In the profoundly felt Largo of Op. 58 the sound seemed to rise above the stage and hover over the heads of the audience just below the ceiling of the great hall in a type of shimmering vibration. Artur Rubinstein believed that in live concerts an electrical emanation comes from the musician. If he is great enough everyone there will be affected. [Now look, I am not usually given to hyperbole as I am a critical listener to the point of nausea my friends say but this was what I heard and will never forget that sound or its rising over us.] 

I leapt to my feet shouting 'Bravo'. I do this extremely rarely - the last time was for Grigory Sokolov or perhaps it was Alexander Gavrylyuk.  A Finalist as we now know but a winner? He has already won in a contest far greater than this one - that of the ability to make living music a creative force. A dilemma for the jury but perhaps not this  jury made up as it is of a clutch of individualists. Am I being too optimistic? Let's see what happens in the concerto. This stage is often the most fraught with danger. It will not be a dull affair you can sure of that at least.

In the greatest performances there is actually nothing left to say and I have nothing more to say in mere words. I carry this experience with me and will treasure it. When I first heard Grigory Sokolov I experienced an utterly different but equally profound experience that only the truly great interpretative artist can give the listener. Among pianists it was the same on first hearing Gilels, Richter, Rubinstein, Michelangeli and Horowitz live in concert- in another field von Karajan and Harnoncourt. The French writer and adventurer Andre Malraux spoke of the 'voice of silence' common to all great art and we heard it tonight. Chopin was recreated that is the point at issue, he became a presence in the room, not simply reinterpreted. Something certainly happened - rare enough in piano recitals even with the finest. Chopin himself said that at public concerts one rarely hears the finest things in art. This was one of those rare occasions.

Malraux appositely wrote:

'The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between this profusion of matter and the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.'  
                                                                                     from Les Noyers de l'Altenburg

I felt that emotion this night.


Day  2  Stage III  October 15

It is moving to watch a pianist who first appeared before you as a child prodigy growing into a young performer of 19 and dealing with all the new pressures and expectations that this brings. So it has been with me and Wai-Ching Rachel Cheung since I first encountered her at the Duszniki Zdroj Festival when she was 13. I had the feeling she was not on her best form this evening and was tiring towards then end of this marathon of 50-60 minutes of playing non-stop with the oh so compassionate 'one minute break'. She gave an excellent performance of the Polonaise-Fantaisie. The Preludes were not as considered as I have heard her play them on other occasions. The Sonata Op.35 was a fine performance in a traditional style but as with many of the younger competitors I feel these large works fall just out of reach on an interpretative level - certainly not on sheer technique. It is amazing she has reached Stage III and it is a fantastic achievement - believe me - anyone who gets to this stage is already a brilliant pianist. The outcome is partly the luck of who your rivals are in that year. I did not think she would be a finalist against the strength of the Russians this year but am still incredibly happy for her and hope she realises how well she did.

The Russian pianist Yuri Shadrin was forced to cancel his Stage III performance owing to illness. His was an excellent mature player with many of the most admirable Russian qualities at the keyboard. A powerful and masculine Chopin.

The weather is still wonderful in Warsaw, a real Polish 'Golden October', but many of the contestants have been ill or at the least sniffing and wiping their noses. The audience too seem to be all ill. After each piece there has been a cacophony of coughing. I know there is a virus going around Warsaw as I was in bed with it for two weeks just before the competition began. Many of the Japanese in the audience were thoughtfully wearing masks which I always find to be at once considerate but quite strange to see while listening to Chopin.

Today was the 161st anniversary of Chopin's death in Paris at two in the morning on 17 October 1849. I tried to get into the liturgical version of the Mozart Requiem at the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw where his heart lies. The Orchestre des Champs-Élysées under Philippe Herreweghe. Impossible crowds who must have been queuing since early afternoon. Listened this evening on the radio to a fine performance. This immortal work was performed at his funeral at his request. He always felt himself close to Mozart and admired his music above all excepting that of Bach.




Watercolour and pencil drawing of Chopin on his death bed by Kwiatkowski. The painter was a witmess to his last hours and death and drew a number of likenesses

The lovely Italian pianist Irene Veneziano reminded us once again how important one's appearance is at the instrument. I have noticed very few in the audience or the jury listen with their eyes closed. Much of the commentary about Bozhanov concerns his behaviour at the piano keyboard which is unusual to say the least - little about his tone quality for example. Well, it's the time we live in. The master pianists such as Horowitz, Rubinstein or Michelangeli adopted a posture which was not distracting and fairly immobile except when the music became particularly agitated and even then Rubinstein scarcely adjusted his weight. Appearance and physical behaviour is more important than people give it credit for and contributes greatly to what you think you are hearing (particularly on the merciless television coverage which can be completely misleading). Anyway Veneziano's appearance in an elegant black Italian creation simply added to the charm, poetry and refinement of her programme. Well, Italian women are naturally gifted in the image department.

Her choice of programme suited her and her instrument perfectly, not always true of competitors. I thought she was better in this stage than Stage II. The Nocturnes on the Fazioli simply sound divine in tone with  the texture of velvet.  Her warm and engaging account of the Polonaise-Fantaisie  and the Polonaise in E flat minor Op. 26 showed a wonderful control of dynamic and phrasing. She scaled down all her dynamics just as Chopin was always reported to have done in his rare performances and it gave a beautiful  'disturbed intimacy' to the proceedings. I love this approach to Chopin playing as the drama and subtlety are heightened not diminished by not shouting crudely (as so many do) about what you are feeling and how brilliant you are with your fingers.

The Berceuse was rarely performed in this competition and her account of this highly original piece was both seductive, detailed and innocent with luminous tone. Wonderful. She then played the Sonata Op. 35 which was a brilliant piece of programme ordering. The extraordinary range of Chopin's temperament was brought into sharp, even alarming focus. Her Marche funebre was more a tone poem of despair than a strict  'March' which I feel correctly interprets Chopin's intentions (particularly if heard on a Pleyel instrument of his period) and on the Fazioli the tone quality of the cantabile  middle section was spell-binding. 

She suggested so much which to my mind is exactly correct for Chopin. He himself wrote "I indicate, the listeners must finish the picture." Do modern audiences have the sensibility and culture to do this? Hm.....Few competitors seem to have read or even care about such matters. They do not wish to play as Chopin was reputed to have played but  play in a manner that will win a competition. All sorts of specious 'modern times' arguments are used to justify this. I think it a great pity this understated, immaculate, musical  and refined performance did not move the jury sufficiently to include her in the finals. I am sure the Romance. Larghetto  of the E minor concerto would have been superb in tone and touch and deeply moving. Of course competition playing has become a sort of masculine physical sport and this lady is an artist concerned with refinement of the senses and sensibility.

What a contrast with the brilliant 18 year old Russian Nicolay Khozyainov. Such contrasts are what makes this competition so facinating. The Polonaise-Fantaisie was a majestic and noble performance. The F minor Ballade Op. 52 opened in an unsentimental way and was full of strong contrasts. It emerged as a real and dramatic narrative in music. The E major Scherzo Op. 54 was more disciplined dynamically with a fine toned central section. He has the most incredible technique, refined tone and touch and precocious musicality one cannot help marvelling. The Sonata Op. 35 however was  not my sort of thing at all and was just too dynamically inflated and 'agitated' for words. I felt he did not grasp the emotional balance of the movements pitted against one another (Schumann's 'unruly children') and the edifice erected was not cohesive or convincing structurally. Chopin was not a declamatory composer, disliked rhetoric and exaggeration.

As with many of the Russians the music of Chopin is retrospectively seen through the eyes of Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Prokofiev rather than as a development through Bach, Hummel, Mozart and even Field. This leads to all manner of distortions but seems inescapable in the modern day view of Chopin. To me his music speaks of a deeply troubled being (at least after leaving Poland) who struggled but succeeded in being strong rather than a powerful predominantly masculine figure who had moments of sensitivity. The latter seems to be the view of him today. Definitely a Finalist as we now know (but I always thought so) with such an immense musical and pianistic talent at 18.

I would not wish to alter my view of  Mei-Ting Sun expressed earlier in Stage II. He has close to the finest technique in the competition but for all the best reasons is tempted by his virtuosity to stray out of the Chopin inner poetic world into the more brilliant light of display. The Polonaise-Fantaisie was excellent although the contrasts of mood were somewhat exaggerated which unbalanced the composition. The Impromptu became rather more of a styl brillant work than I think they are. The mazurkas carefully observed the Ekier National Edition in decorative alternatives and detail (I know because I play the op. 7 set myself from that edition. Incidentally Fou Ts'ong carefully followed all the pianists with miniature scores of the National Edition and often discussed points with Dang Thai Son seated next to him). But Chopin is more than textual accuracy. This mazurka rhythm is terribly difficult to get 'just right'. I loved the Sonata Op. 35. Sun's interpretation was noble with balanced dynamics and contained great sensibility and spiritual content. Slightly lacking in style perhaps but that is personal taste after all. A magnificent account I felt. He could easily have made the finals. As I have said before I believe there is not one Chopin and all cultures approach him with slightly different spectacles - and they did this even in his own time. Think of the myopic and distorted reception he and his music received in England except for 'the happy few' who understood.

Yulianna Avdeeva has a formidable and regal stage presence (in black satin), magnificent technique and mature musicality as well as a great spirit - a true 'soul' in the old Russian sense. I would not change anything I have already said about her previously. The Polonaise-Fantaisie contained tremendous passion, heart-wrenching rubato, tonal variety, colour and fine articulation. The interpretation perfectly conveyed Chopin's psychological instability at this time in his life. The two Nocturnes Op. 27 No. 1 and 2 were absolutely wonderful accounts of febrile intensity and poetic concentration - they were classics of the genre. One was reminded of the famous description of Chopin in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus  Chapter 16: 'mysteriously veiled, unapproachable, withdrawing....that rejection of material experience, the sublime incest of his fantastically delicate and seductive art. ' In the Sonata Op. 35 she observed the correct form of repeat in the First Movement which the jury noticed visibly. The rest of the work was exalted and imposing. The F minor Ballade Op. 52 captured the poetic complexity of this 'late style' Chopin work, an interpretation that went far beyond the technical accomplishment contained within those magnificently strong fingers. I cannot help but see her win or come second to Buzhanov. It all depends on the concerto this evening and what he does with it.

Great shouts of Polish patriotism filled the Warsaw Filharmonia as  Marcin Koziak came onto the stage. I felt his approach to Chopin, his touch in particular, was rather different to the other male Polish pianists in this competition. The Polonaise-Fantaisie was of course well played but not outstanding (as one needs to be in this arena). The F sharp major Nocturne op. 15 No. 2 was sensitive, beautifully controlled with much inner tension. Marcin is really so good at communicating the spirit and idiom of Chopin Scherzos with his great technique! This is not at all easy. One of the best in the competition to my mind. They really fly and zoom around in that mercurial way, moods swing wildly and puckish grotesqueries abound. I am sure Chopin intended this approach to many of his scherzos (never forget he was passionately fond of practical jokes and a great wit, mimic and actor as a young man). The Sonata Op. 58 was a fine traditional performance (and none the worse for that) but the immense Largo lacked sentiment for me at least and the final movement did not gather enough pace and drama as it did in the Wunder interpretation.

So many in the audience wanted Ingolf Wunder to shine in 2005 and were bitterly disappointed at the jury's decision to exclude him from the finals. An even greater shout and cheering filled the hall on this the last performance of the day. He began with a scintillating styl brillant account of Rondo a la Mazur  but for me it was not terribly 'Mazovian' but effective just the same. The Bolero  is one of my favourite Chopin pieces and it seems Wunder understood the Spanish origins of this dance well for as as soon as he began Nelson Freire and Martha Argerich began to bob about in unison and never stopped! In the op. 58 Sonata  the Allegro maestoso was not up to his usual standard of structural integrity in my view. Also this first movement was not sufficiently 'noble' or 'dignified'. In fact I do wonder sometimes what conception some of the competitors have of Chopin's  indications at the head of each movement. It varies wildly - should this be the case?  This is one factor which distinguishes Dumont - he attempts to interpret the indications as important. The Scherzo was in turn brilliant and introspective. I felt the Largo had a limpid singing line of beautiful cantabile and the Presto was non tanto  which allowed him to build the drama and power to really impressive levels of pianism that were utterly convincing. Not the slightest bit surprised he reached the Final and he will be very well placed but win?   Hm..... 



Nelson Freire and Martha Argerich after the Wunder Bolero. She was the only jury member with a flower display and watered them assiduously.


Day 3  Stage III  October 16

  
Because I do have a life outside the competition I must confess to only hearing Lukas Geniusas once before and feeling his playing lacked something in the way of refinement. Even on this occasion I was late unfortunately. I heard the ten etudes he chose from Op. 25 and thought they were quite brilliant and many taken at a tempo that allowed one to understand what was going on beneath the surface. He was one of the few competitors who fully realised that these etudes are far more than advanced 'exercises'. His huge repertoire allows him to see this music in historical musical perspective. A Finalist and I will attend his concerto.

I was so happy to hear a cultured French approach to Chopin in the interpretations of Francois Dumont. He brought something quite different in sensibility to the competition as of course did the intense Helene Tysman. One must never forget the French atmosphere and spirit that pervades so much of Chopin in the recent upsurge of Polish 'patriotism' and the increasing popular recognition of his Slavonic roots in this bicentenary year.

He adopted moderate tempi throughout and eschewed violent displays of technique altogether - not that he could not do this if he tried. The Polonaise-Fantaisie was played in a thoughtful and rather restrained manner which suits this piece. The Berceuse  on the Fazioli had a beautiful improvisatory quality with luminous singing tone and impressionistic colour spectrum. Debussy was here. Wonderful. The Impromptu in A major Op. 29 was moderately paced and movingly nostalgic and poetic. I have never believed the Impromptus should be just dashed off as display pieces as so many have done here.  Again, the Sonata  emerged as a  noble majestic 'classical' conception at this moderate pace -  the first movement was truly maestoso. There was time for the listener to follow the structural plan of this immense building. All his cantabile, especially in the Largo, had an improvisatory quality which was affecting and poetic.

I am not surprised to see him as a Finalist as he represents a style and conception of Chopin very different to many other competitors who tend to fall upon Chopin like  'glistering Phaeton'.  (Shakespeare Henry IV Part I). But will  that Russian sheer technique and rich tone sweep all before it?



I suppose Helene Tysman is one of the most emotionally intense and concentrated pianists I have ever seen or heard.  The outside world disappears for her as irrelevant when she plays. A deeply musical artist. Again I would not wish to change any of my former remarks concerning her except to reiterate that her view of Chopin is of a dark and tortured spirit. The op. 35 Sonata had immense power and was a deeply moving spiritual experience for the listener. She takes no prisoners emotionally. She understood the 'baroque' nature of the counterpoint in the Presto and we could hear what was occurring harmonically rather than being swept away in a torrent of impressionistic sound (the wind over the graves business which Chopin did not agree with as a description but which was applied to the movement by others more interested in 'programme music'. Mawkish titles were given to many of his pieces by English publishers which annoyed him greatly). The Op. 28 Preludes were marvellously neurasthenic and mercurial, excepting of course No. 15 in D flat major which became a marvellously impressionistic tone poem in her interpretation. A troubled Polonaise-Fantaisie captured that elusive and febrile instability of Chopin in his later years. No doubts at all about this 2006 Darmstadt winner being in the Finals.

And so the tension increases here in Warsaw....




Staircase to Balkon I in the Warsaw Filharmonia


                            Participants qualified to the Finals:

('P' signifies predicted by yours truly - musical judgement back in gear after the 2005 competition!)


1 3 Ms Yulianna Avdeeva Russia     P

2 5 Mr Evgeni Bozhanov Bulgaria    P

3 9 Mr François Dumont France       P    (but only after Stage III)

4 14 Mr Lukas Geniušas Russia/Lithuania  (lacked pianistic finesse for me - a personal thing)

5 31 Mr Nikolay Khozyainov Russia    P

6 41 Mr Miroslav Kultyshev Russia     P

7 72 Mr Daniil Trifonov Russia             P

8 73 Ms Hélene Tysman France            P

9 76 Mr Paweł Wakarecy Poland          P   (but only after Stage III)

10 79 Mr Ingolf Wunder Austria           P



Final Stage

 Monday October 18




Chopin composed the E minor Concerto Op. 11 when he was a youth of 20. It is so appropriate that it is being performed by these brilliant young pianists of near the same age. He wrote it a year before he left Poland and it is a significant step in his maturity as a composer. This puts to bed the oft repeated truism that he only truly developed as a composer after he left his native land. It is a 'styl brilliant' concerto with Italian vocal operatic fioiture (decorative melodic features - the bel canto  of Rossini and Bellini in particular - his favourites). It follows the early nineteenth century concerto style of Hummel, Ries, Moscheles and Field. Chopin knew these works and they were often performed in Warsaw. It is also descended in some ways from the Mozartian model of piano concerto - a composer whose balance and taste Chopin adored. The concerto should be interpreted in this post-classical style rather than as a full blown 'Romantic' concerto in say the style of Schumann. Bearing this in mind I will assess these performances (unless of course you do not care a fig for stylistic purity).

A short note also on the common and ill-informed criticism of his orchestration. One must understand the performance context in which these two concerti appeared. There was great interchangeability of performing forces in those days for concertos of this type - full orchestra, chamber ensemble, string ensembles of varying sizes (four to nine players) and even a version for two pianos. Chopin needed to cater for these differences in demand. We mount full orchestral performances today in relative ease compared to those days. The balance of sound too between say a period  Buchholtz, Graf or Pleyel piano and the orchestra was completely different to today where a virtuoso at a Steinway or Yamaha can effortlessly dominate the orchestra. The relationship between the soloist and the orchestra was also in the process of evolution.
It is helpful when considering Chopin's concerti to look forward to him from Mozart rather than backward to him from the full-blown 'symphonic' concerti of  Schumann, Mendelsshon, Brahms and others of the later nineteenth century. 


Miroslav Kultyshev (Russia)
Fryderyk Chopin - Concerto E minor op. 11
Piano: Steinway

Kultychev seemed rather nervous to be playing with an orchestra which is understandable considering his inexperience and comparative youth (although he has performed with many famous conductors and orchestras). He began the Allegro maestoso in a noble, forceful and unsentimental way. A true maestoso. Excellent rapport with the orchestra. Superb articulation meant he captured the 'brilliant' style of the concerto perfectly. An expansive and beautifully phrased account of the first movement. However I felt he was somehow inhibited in this performance and did not play with the virtuosic passion and abandon of previous solo stages. The wonderful Romance. Larghetto was full of yearning, yet again perhaps too unsentimental and rather too 'poised' for me. His cantabile  tone is glorious and his touch effortlessly refined and articulate. The Rondo. Vivace based on the Polish  krakowiak dance rhythm was tremendously energetic and sparkled with virtuosity of a kind rarely heard. A very fine performance in perfect 'classical' style. He must be among the prize winners if all his solo performances are taken into account. 

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Daniil Trifonov (Russia)
Fryderyk Chopin - Concerto E minor op. 11
Piano: Fazioli

The qualities I had most admired in his playing in previous stages (with a slight lapse in Stage III) were gloriously present in this performance.

The noble opening of the first movement gave way to a lustrous cantabile  of the most refined feeling one could imagine. He is a particularly sensitive pianist reminiscent of Dinu Lipatti.  Trifonov harnesses a virtuoso technique to achieve moments of extreme delicacy of touch and tone. His effects have all the finesse and the poetry reported of Chopin himself heightened by his glorious phrasing and affecting rubato. He was not intimidated by the orchestra despite playing with one for the first time. He maintained good ensemble and entered his own adolescent dream world taking us with him. Chopin was considered the 'Ariel of pianists' (the disembodied spirit character in Shakespeare's The Tempest) and sometimes I felt this pianist close to a spirit in nature.

The Romance. Larghetto  performed by Trifonov after the soulful preparation of the first movement was a ravishing love song with all the character of what might be considered a Chopin 'nocturne'.  The tone he extracted from the Fazioli was exquisite. The simplicity of his delivery was striking compared to many out to impress. Trifonov made this such a slow-moving bel canto love song it brought me to tears. I suppose the orchestral players must have struggled with this slow tempo but the music breathed. No, this feeling has never occurred quite so strongly before in this concerto, one I must have heard a hundred or more times.  I had arranged to have the performance recorded and when I listened again this morning (never really trusting my emotions) the whole heart-affecting process began again. Here was the true nature of adolescent love, cloudless and illusioned before the tigers of experience begin their feast. The breath of young idealistic love unsullied. Did Daniil have someone he loved in mind as he played? He must have. It certainly felt like it,  so authentic was this rare artistic, musical and poetic moment.

The Rondo. Vivace  was just that, a 'brilliant', lively and energetic krakowiak dance. He varied the tempo convincingly with great joy and concluded it up tempo with tremendous youthful exuberance and elan, utilising his full formidable technical resources. Notes cascaded like a waterfall.

For me this performance expressed a perfect understanding of what a musicologist might term  'the Chopin aesthetic'. I was strongly reminded of the "May 1948" recording of the E minor by "Dinu Lipatti" and "an anonymous orchestra and conductor". This recording actually turned out on further investigation to be by the superb pianist Halina Czerny-Stefanska (Winner of the Chopin Competition in 1949) with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vaclav Neumann. Trifonov has a similar refinement, aristocratic phrasing, peculiar affinity with Chopin and elegant tone to the great Polish pianist. I was privileged to hear her in the diminutive but magnificent 18th century Royal Theatre in Lazienki Park Warsaw before she died in 2001. 


In modern interpretations and pianism there seems to be a movement to eclipse or at least diminish the 'feminine' aspect of the soul from Chopin. This is absurd and impoverishing and comes from our current preoccupation with the physical and crudely  'powerful' in life, the cliche view of 'masculinity', the 'macho' male.  Chopin was one of those rare individuals who managed to balance his masculine and feminine natures - a quality ever present in his music and something Trifonov seems to be profoundly aware of.  To my mind this miraculous performance was in some regards even finer than that of the eighteen-year-old Maurizio Pollini when he won the competition in 1960 (his recording shortly following the event is still a benchmark for many).  As ever with Chopin it may not be a reading for everyone. This concerto is often so wonderfully played at the conclusion of this competition by young pianists at the frontier of adult life - just as Chopin was when he wrote it.

I do try not to 'overwrite' these descriptions with fanciful language, really I do, but it was the most beautiful, ardent and 'perfect' live performance of this concerto I have ever heard - a catharsis and a moving reminder of my own youthful dreams, once intensely felt too but far, far away now......

Undoubtedly for me among the first four but where? So personal all of this - no absolute criteria.

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Paweł Wakarecy (Poland)
Fryderyk Chopin - Concerto F minor op. 21
Piano: Steinway

As everyone knows the F minor Op.21 concerto was actually written before the E minor and in mood is somewhat more 'classical'. Great shouts of encouragement filled the hall for this Polish competitor. I felt this to be an excellent traditional performance, great ensemble with the orchestra but one that never really got airborne, although the bravura passages were excellently achieved. The Larghetto was heartfelt, lyrical and beautifully executed. In a letter to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski, Chopin wrote that the movement had been inspired by his adolescent love of the singer Konstancja Gladowska. In may ways it is Chopin's first 'nocturne'. The final movement Allegro vivace  was brought off with great panache - the mazurka rhythm understood instinctively by Polish soloist, orchestra and conductor  but the limits of his technique in terms of glittering articulation were there I am afraid when compared to the preceding Russians. 

Not at all sure where he might feature perhaps one of the special prizes.
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Evgeni Bozhanov (Bulgaria)
Fryderyk Chopin - Concerto E minor op. 11
Piano: Yamaha

Anticipation of something special seems to attend any Bozhanov appearance.

He began the E minor in a powerful and noble maestoso mood which elevated us all into his unique sound world. As the movement progressed however I felt he was attempting to make more of a romantic Weberian drama out of the concerto than was its natural resting place in the post-classical style of Hummel. A grand vision of the work in its way but hectic and overwrought. There also seemed to be a slight disjunction with the orchestra in the early stages. All his colouration was still there, the glorious tone, the luminous cantabile and ardent phrasing, the fertile imagination and the balletic display (although this does not bother me as it does some others). 

Much yearning in the Romance. Larghetto  but more pianistic in expression than an expression of emotion from within. The poetry was intense but at moments I felt it being applied rather than organically growing out of the sublime melodies. Chopin was temperamentally not a romantic declamatory composer but has been transformed into one with the passing of time - we are far removed from the source of his music now.  The orchestral rapport had improved greatly and Buzhanov's superb pianism came once more to the fore. However I was not  moved  in any significant way - it is of course unfair of any listener to demand this of any musician.  

Great energy in the krakowiak  with some moments of terrifically effective contrasting tempi but towards the end a couple of minor 'accidents' as we changed gear. No matter. In former times of piano performance 'incidents' were unimportant and regarded as positive signs that the pianist was living dangerously and giving the maximum possible to the audience. Buzhanov was well in harmony with the orchestra and conductor by the conclusion of the work. I must say Antoni Wit is careful with these young tyros and sensitively controls the tempo of the Filharmonia so as never to embarrass them or erect obstacles - however it scarcely results in great interpretations.  [Wunder was an exception].

Bozhanov seemed to become a quite a different performer when playing with orchestra than in solo recital. Many chamber musicians and orchestral conductors found playing with Sviatoslav Richter extremely demanding because of his powerful presence and supremely individual musical personality  - perhaps a similar phenomenon is operating here. 

Also I would like to repeat something. The lovely Italian pianist Irene Veneziano reminded us once again how important one's appearance is at the instrument. I have noticed very few in the audience or the jury listen with their eyes closed. Much of the commentary about Bozhanov concerns his physical behaviour at the piano keyboard which is unusual to say the least - little about his tone quality, touch, phrasing and wonderful colouration for example. Well, it's the image-conscious time we live in I suppose. 


The master pianists such as Horowitz, Rubinstein or Michelangeli adopted a posture and gestures which were seldom distracting. They remained fairly immobile except when the music became particularly agitated and even then Rubinstein scarcely adjusted his weight at all. Appearance and physical behaviour is more important than people give it credit for and contributes greatly to what you think you are hearing (particularly on the merciless television coverage which can be completely misleading). Someone wrote to me today and said that if you simply listen to this Bozhanov performance without seeing his movements the interpretation sounds quite different and far more beautiful. A very interesting observation.


Despite all my general remarks concerning the concerto, he is such a great pianist and has shown this in all the other stages of the competition to such an incontrovertible extent, I feel the jury must award him a very high place or the first prize.



The Chopin Brand -  I do wonder what he would have made of all this....

In the early days of this competition the jury were hidden behind a screen and actually could not see the competitors. In the world of wine it would be called a 'blind tasting'. Perhaps there is a case for bringing back this type of 'blind hearing' given that piano students are no longer disciplined to reduce their bodily movements - attractive or not (except possibly in Russia). 

Tuesday October 19

Nicolay Khozyainov (Russia)
Fryderyk Chopin - Concerto E minor op. 11
Piano: Yamaha

One simply cannot expect complete mastery of a work as stylistically varied and grand in scope and conception  as the Chopin E minor piano concerto in any very young pianist without extensive experience playing with an orchestra. Normally they do not have such experience and do the best they can - this is what this competition requires. Khozyainov is only 18 and made a magnificent attempt at controlling these large forces, largely successfully. His engagement with the orchestra and conductor was rather fitful.  The first movement was stylistically perfect  as a 'classical'work influenced by Hummel and Mozart. He played at a refined moderate tempo with brilliant articulation, delightful contrasts in the colour of repeated phrases and a radiant Russian tone. Here there was the same limpid simplicity, innocence and classical clarity I heard in the opening of the F minor Ballade op. 52 which he played in the Stage III. Something so affecting I have never forgotten it. The forward momentum of the concerto was maintained seemingly effortlessly.

The Romance. Larghetto had a  a wonderful internal tonal glow and was very expressive but I felt the yearning and sophisticated emotion of the movement was not sufficiently searched out and found. It was not really a bel canto  love song. How could it be without a deeper experience of life? I think this is where the very young competitors are at a distinct disadvantage to the older more mature ones in this competition, particularly in works of Chopin's so-called 'late style'.  I remember as a boy considering the enormous distance of maturity that seemed to lie between me as a teenager and any young man of say 26.  It seemed relatively enormous and unbridgeable in terms of emotional development (particularly if you have been studying general subjects at school and  music and practising the piano eight hours a day with no social life to speak of). Then there is the vital experience accumulated 'under the belt' of the older competitors playing for the public as soloists or with orchestras, even the Warsaw Philharmonic itelf. The competition is open to musicians whose age is permitted to range from 17 to 30. Draw your own conclusions.

The final movement did not have quite the verve of a wilder krakowiak but was a marvellous account of the Chopin styl brillant  of his early years. Nicolay looked rather vulnerable faced with this enormous challenge and I felt it was hard for him to maintain full concentration and control over the extended period of such a work. I think he has been prodigious and an absolutely magnificent musician in this competition and hope he achieves a high ranking though the first prize may well be denied him.

Oh, and the fact the stage was plunged into darkness by a lights failure at one point would not have unsettled him but 'they all played on'......dear sweet Poland, I love you.
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Yulianna Avdeeva (Russia)
Fryderyk Chopin - Concerto E minor op. 11
Piano: Yamaha

To be honest I could not wait to hear one of the most mature, stylish and musically perceptive pianist of the competition, she who presents Chopin as a grand maitre of the keyboard. I anticipated a rather 'symphonic' approach and was satisfied in this expectation when the first movement opened in an exalted Allegro maestoso statement of regal proportions. She plays in a truly aristocratic manner with superbly expressive, blue-blooded tone of great self-confidence and pride. Her rubato is affecting and just the sheer number of subtle pianistic 'things' she does at the keyboard is so imaginative - a complete piano technique - all degrees of staccato up to staccatissimo, a wide dynamic range, cantabile, a detached presto or a caressing legato, the correct durations of notes carefully observed - she can do anything with those marvellous fingers.  Avdeeva is also tremendously intense emotionally and utterly convincing. She maintained a close engagement with the conductor and the orchestra as she saw the work as a proper cohesive structure.

And she can cope with the stage being suddenly plunged into darkness for a second time.....now where was Lech Walesa the Great Electrician ?

The Romance. Larghetto was similarly aristocratically poised, full of noble sentiment, majestic phrasing with a fine bel canto. So much detail and variation of tone - a 'thinking at the keyboard' quality gave it an improvisatory mood of elegiac reflection on unrequited love coupled with a mood that contained all the grace and charm of fatalistic resignation.  

The Rondo.Vivace was a spirited krakowiak with superb articulation, astonishing degrees of detache  playing exhibiting tremendous authority and control of the styl brillant. The rhythm was infectious with again so much inner detail, variation of attack and imaginative thinking. Great forward drive, impetus and momentum. Exciting and dangerous tempi, not exaggerated but operating at the very limits of her control - communicating the adrenalin of 'risky business' - as it should be in any great performance.

I found this  a view of Chopin's concerto that was utterly convincing, balanced in sentiment but hewn in granite, yet never rough or crude. Her view of this composer is powerful yet never harsh or offensive. One must not forget her ravishing Nocturnes in Stage I and Stage III, the most elegant, emotionally moving and refined I have heard for many, many years.

This seductive and distinguished pianist brings a potent sexual energy and projection to her playing which I personally find irresistible. Is it Chopin? Certainly it is one Chopin, an  entirely convincing view of him at least for me, despite all my foregoing remarks concerning 'sensitivity' and 'classical style'. The force of her integrity and vision carried all before it. 

Considering the quality of  everything she has performed through all the stages of this entire gruelling competition, if she is not highly placed or more likely win, I withdraw from further musical commentary.
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Ingolf Wunder (Austria)
Fryderyk Chopin - Concerto E minor op. 11
Piano: Steinway


Some years ago at the Duszniki Zdroj Festival I attended as an auditor  an inspiring Master Class given by the eminent Chopin pianist and jury member Dang Thai Son. He made a remark I have never forgotten after one of the students had made somewhat of a mess of a polonaise.

He said that at the conclusion of a truly great performance of a work the pianist should leave the listener with nothing left to say it was so flawless, finished and complete. This is how I felt about Wunder and the E minor concerto last night.

A consummate account.

The very best work he has performed in the entire competition. He has not always been so happy and self-confident as he passed through the previous stages. He was so relaxed with the orchestra, interacting closely with them, full of the joy of playing the piano, making music and dancing at the keyboard in the final krakowiak. He achieved a well-deserved and extended standing ovation from a wildly enthusiastic audience here in Warsaw - a brilliant communicator of music and surely that's what being a concert pianist is all about?

If the competition was judged solely on the basis of the concerto - first prize.

But for me he was problematical in some of the works in other stages (well, wasn't everyone?)


Wednesday  October 20

Lukas Geniušas (Russia/Lithuania)

Fryderyk Chopin - Concerto E minor op. 11
Piano: Steinway

He chose a moderate Allegro maestoso which allowed his fine articulation to shine and allowed him time to reveal detail. I found his innate musicianship made his careful phrasing sound rather like speech or a charming conversation between friends that became heated at times. Colouration was attractive and also his tone was warm and not abrasive, his touch refined. More importantly his discreet pedalling allowed one to hear individual notes. Fairly rare. He seemed to be 'searching' on occasion rather philosophically in this movement which meant he lacked a coherent 'grand vision' of it. I think this movement does not need to be carefully revealed as it has such youthful exuberance. The Romance.Larghetto was beautiful, measured with affecting bel canto and expressed with a tone resembling the ringing of bells. The movement was cultured, musical but not quite suffused enough with adolescent yearning for me (Trifonov excelled in this). He showed a good rapport with the orchestra which was most evident in the final movement. I felt his krakowiak  could have had more of a 'snap' - a contrast to Wunder of course who may well dance his way to the first prize.

In short a marvellous performance that together with his other stages may earn him a good place. I missed quite a lot of his playing and so.....

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Hélène Tysman (France)
Fryderyk Chopin - Concerto F minor op. 21
Piano: Yamaha

I wondered where this early concerto might take this intense and serious French musician. She began the Maestoso dramatically and convincingly but it was soon clear she had little rapport with the conductor or the orchestra.  The music seemed not to flow without interruption although brilliantly executed. She seemed rather different to her intense musical demeanour in previous stages and this remained a mystery to me throughout this performance. The Larghetto was a beautiful love song in remembrance of Chopin's early love of, perhaps infatuation with, the singer Konstancja Gladowska (I have read she preferred the company of some smartly dressed and dashing young Russian officers which must account for the bitterness interwoven with the sweet nostalgia.) Fine impressionist colouration. The Allegro vivace was energetic but somewhat overwrought and lacking in styl brillant simplicity and the innocent joy Chopin obviously took in playing virtuoso running figuration. Her concentration seemed not to hold up and there were a few minor 'accidents'. 


With her highly-strung nature, perfectionism and intensely serious musicianship this probably worried her terribly.  Her performance in the other stages was so fine and deeply musical I do really wonder what might have occurred this evening - but as a listener it is so easy to become blase about the miracles being performed all day every day in the competition by these young wunderkinder. One too easily overlooks the intense psychological pressure on each individual player. 

Tonight has confused rather my initial assessment of where she might now be placed.....
 
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François Dumont (France)
Fryderyk Chopin - Concerto E minor op. 11
Piano: Fazioli

This was a warm and authoritative performance of the E minor. It was his birthday yesterday which may have helped.

I had hoped for some faint reminiscences of the historic and distinguished 'French School' of  Chopin interpretation  - Alfred Cortot, Robert Casadesus, Marguerite Long or the great Chopinist Vlado Perlemuter.  In fact I was more often reminded of Samson Francois who seems to have been largely forgotten these days but was a wonderful modern Chopin player, especially of the waltzes. Chopin is  a composer the French secretly (sometimes not so secretly) regard as really one of their own and his residence in France until his death offered as evidence of this indelible influence. In many respects this is clearly true. Why his very name was spelt in the French manner in numerous editions of his music for decades until very recently - now subtly changed from Frédéric to the Polish Fryderyk - which tells one something about the  present Polish fervent reclamation of their national composer following the miracle of the restoration of their sovereign independence - Chopin would never have dreamed it possible. 

The Allegro maestoso first movement was in elegant proportion with no exaggerations, artistic, beautifully coloured and rather 'classical' but not without hints of the revolutionary composer Chopin was to become. A mature reading of the movement. The Fazioloi tone appeared brighter under his fingers than that seductive delicacy extracted by Trifonov or Veneziano. His excellent understanding of Chopinesque rubato was clear in the Romance.Larghetto which he played with great lyricism but with a 'masculine' more muscular and straightforward  poetic feeling than we have been hearing from many interpretations.  For me the final Rondo.Vivace  lacked sufficient grace, esprit and elan - something I had expected from this Frenchman - but he did wind up the movement as the conclusion approached and we finished with a fine energetic flourish. A tremendously popular performance with the audience but I have many reservations and did not find him in the least distinguished as a musician.

I really did not hear enough of this performer apart from this concerto to place him in the Warsaw firmament.......


Official Results of the Competition


Verdict of the Jury - list of laureates of the 16th International Chopin Piano Competition:


1 3 Ms Yulianna Avdeeva Russia

2 14 Mr Lukas Geniušas Russia/Lithuania

2 79 Mr Ingolf Wunder Austria

3 72 Mr Daniil Trifonov Russia

4 5 Mr Evgeni Bozhanov Bulgaria

5 9 Mr François Dumont France

6 not awarded

 
Distinctions - in alphabetical order:

31 Mr Nikolay Khozyainov Russia

41 Mr Miroslav Kultyshev Russia

73 Ms Hélène Tysman France

76 Mr Paweł Wakarecy Poland


The best performance of a polonaise in Stage II: Lukas Geniušas

The best performance of mazurkas: Daniil Trifonov

The best performance of a concerto: Ingolf Wunder

The best performance of a sonata: Yulianna Avdeeva

The best performance of the Polonaise-Fantasy op. 61: Ingolf Wunder


                                                                        *
A Few Observations post Competition


And so it was Yulianna Avdeeva in 1st. place despite the immense unpopularity of this decision with 'ordinary' people and most critics.

I felt Avdeeva might very well win the competition from the first moment I heard her as you will see from my blog - Day 4  Stage 1 October 6.  I predicted this (no great achievement considering her enormous talent) but why could not others hear it ?  She was a serious contender from Day 1. I always thought she had a magnificent command of both the instrument and the music. But she offered a view of Chopin that would not be 'popular' as it was in the case of Wunder with his winning personality and engaging style. Think also of the contrast with Trifonov..... 

If you know anything about playing the piano you would agree with this eminent jury of famous and even legendary pianists. She does wonderful and varied 'technical' things with the instrument. Her tone was the rounded and golden sound of the Russian school. Hardly anyone these days mentions 'tone' and 'touch' in their criticism (concerned as they are with accuracy, structure and expression above all) yet for Chopin these were the first things he concentrated on with his pupils. The piano is not predominantly a percussion instrument, certainly not in Chopin. Her touch had tremendous authority,  great variety and refinement.

She understood and expressed both the terrifying latent power and the profound sensitivity of Chopin and expressed them in a chiaroscuro manner - great contrasts of light and dark which many may feel is foreign to the Chopin aesthetic.  As Schumann once described Chopin's music "Cannons among flowers." With Avdeeva these polarities are indeed the case - real cannons (her power) among real flowers (her sensibility). But this is not a Chopin that will please everyone.


Her performance of the E minor concerto in the Laureates' Concert last night was was even finer and more subtle than in the competition. An intense, imaginative and creative reading of the score. She is always searching for meaning. All my previous comments remain valid and I would not wish to change anything. A magnificent reading fully justifying being awarded 1st. prize.

She was the clear winner from the outset. Remember in this competition we are talking about consistent  overall brilliance in the entire competition and Avdeeva was never in doubt in my mind. The others were uneven through some of the stages - I listened to almost everything. Jury decisions are nearly always some form of compromise - it is in the very nature of being judged by a 'committee'.

October 23, 2010  In the storm of protest that has followed this decision I could not agree more with Kevin Kenner, a jury member and Second Prize winner at the Warsaw Competition in 1990 - a pianist moreover in whose musical judgement concerning Chopin I have the utmost respect for. In an interview for news.pl he justified the decision in the following words:
 
“Avdeeva has a very deep understanding of the score, the kind of relationship to the score which no other pianist in this competition had. She looked into the score for her creative ideas. It was the source of virtually everything she did and she was also one of the most consistent competitors throughout the event,” he said.

Absolutely correct. Unfortunately most listeners heard only snatches of the competition. Certainly if the concerto had been the only work under consideration Wunder would have won but he was not consistent and had lapses in other stages. 

 

I find it rather arrogant to question the judgement of the distinguished members of this particular jury, all  eminent musicians and renowned teachers, legendary Chopin players some of them, in this largely provincial and ill-informed fashion.  If not them who would you have on the jury who might be superior? Some dry as dust academics, hair-splitting musicologists, self-important media 'music critics' who perhaps cannot play the piano terribly well but have a  detailed knowledge of the score?  The man on the Clapham Omnibus?  Your Mum?  You?


This is not the TV show Mam Talent (I Have Talent) for goodness sake.


As I said before, there is not only one Chopin - there do exist, for want of  a better term, 'national schools' that have different but perfectly self-consistent and valid ways of conceiving and performing this composer through their own national cultural filters.  The Poles do not 'own' him any longer. In the same way the Germans no longer 'own' Beethoven, or the Austrians Mozart (or if you wish to be really pedantic, the Prince Archbishopric of Salzburg of the Bavarian Circle).  Chopin himself was reported to have played Beethoven well but  a la Chopin. What does that indicate?

Chopin is a world composer subject to substantially different cultural interpretations of his music, each one possessing its own integrity.  He is a universal spokesman for the joys and suffering spirit of humanity. He is no longer a narrow 'patriotic' possession. Poland is miraculously an independent sovereign state once more. This does not deny that Polish pianists play his music particularly brilliantly with a deep idiomatic understanding of his dance rhythms. One only has to consider the inspirational Rafal Blechacz. But it was the Russian composer Balakirev who perceived Chopin as a Slavonic modernist, breaking revolutionary harmonic ground. His music was considered the expression of Slavic cultural nationalism, and in 1894 Balakirev initiated the first memorial to the composer erected at his birthplace at Żelazowa Wola. These Russian ‘Slavonic’ attributions paradoxically led to a renaissance of his music in Poland itself where it had been unaccountably neglected.


The fact Avdeeva won the special 'best Sonata' prize for her performance of Op. 35 is neatly overlooked or ignored  by popular opinion. She had a complete understanding of this sonata form and its complex formal architecture. She brought an intellectual seriousness to her Chopin with her search for truth within the notated score of the sonata. She observed the correct form of repeat in the first movement which impressed the jury tremendously. No-one did this or does this - even among 'famous' pianists.  I was sitting behind them and saw them turning in approbation to each other. She delved deeper than the old reputation Chopin laboured under for decades as being a charming, sometimes sad and sensitive chap with no intellectual complexity. We have done with all that surely? One does not want to go back to the popular 'salon composer' idea surely? The Parisian flower arranger? Chopin now belongs to the serious canon of truly great composers and Avdeeva approached him in this serious analytical and intellectual spirit throughout the competition. That is why she won.  


How deep is your Chopin?



Less vanity please - question your own judgement, not that of this jury

(This 'moral' position of mine is looking decidedly weaker I do admit as the mist clears and the reality of the jury process on this occasion fitfully appears in its many guises)


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





The other result  I am overjoyed about is Trifonov in 3rd. place. What a sensitive pianist (his touch and tone are superb, elegant and understated). He  has a great future ahead. I shall treasure my recording of the E minor concerto - the most beautiful ever for me. He played with the true Chopin aesthetic. The view of Chopin today is rather distorted in favour of the muscular.  He could not possibly have won with his modest, understated, 'non-competitive' style.  Avdeeva's Chopin is the Chopin that wins competitions in 2010 - but it is only one Chopin. There are many proud national  'schools' of Chopin now that he is no longer with us and fast fading into the ether.... 

Trifonov chose mazurkas and a waltz to perform at the Laureates' Concert - absolutely beautiful capturing those elusive rhythms in a singular fashion. He is the perfect Chopinist for me (no, actually not Avdeeva but then I understand why she won - she is the 'competition winner' type of Chopin pianist and agree with that decision on balance). Blechacz has spoilt us all!

Wunder I always thought was marvellous (winning the concerto prize was never in doubt I thought). If the first prize had rested on the concerto performance alone he would have won first prize but it did not. But I listened to all his stages and he was not consistent. This great competition tests all the very different genres of Chopin's output and to win you have to be excellent throughout. Blechacz was like this - he won all the special awards as well as the main prize. The problem I feel is that most people did not have the time to listen to all Wunder's other stages. The concerto was suddenly a different Wunder altogether to the one we had heard in previous stages in the 'late style' Chopin works that require such great emotional and musical maturity to 'master'.  

His performance (a last minute change of programme) of the Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise  in the Laureates' Concert last night was the finest he has ever given - a heartfelt Andante with finely controlled tone, smooth flowing legato and shifting pastel colours was  followed by a spirited and energetic Polonaise with not as many  'accidents' this time and great articulation and rhythm. 

Bozhanov is a pianist of astonishing originality, imagination and creativity. His style at the piano belongs to a different generation of pianists - the Ignaz Freidman generation. He still has to mature in his relationship with his modern listeners and possibly discipline himself more concerning the written notes. With his highly nuanced approach and his unique talent that development over time is inevitable. Everything I said about him at length in this blog (particularly Stage III) I still believe. I never thought he could win the competition because I felt with interpretations exhibiting this degree of originality, he would always seriously divide any jury. The concerto performance was not the whole story by any means but his incompatibility with this orchestra and conductor was not particularly helpful. Anything uniquely creative in art, true art, disturbs and divides opinion often vociferously. There are numerous examples of this in musical history including the reception of Chopin himself and his playing and his music. Art should disturb the surface of conventional life, not confirm its comfortable nature. It should make you question your values and perceptions, enable you to see familiar things differently, reveal new previously hidden joys through another pair of uniquely gifted eyes - or ears in this case. Bozhanov does this.

Bozhanov did not appear to receive his 4th prize at the Award ceremony for 'reasons unconnected with the competition'. I felt in many ways he was simply 'too original' for a competition like this which is basically conservative in outlook. This astonishing absence reminded me of  the phenomenal pianist Alexei Sultanov from Tashkent  in the 1995 competition who was awarded joint 2nd Prize with the French pianist Phillipe Guisiano. The 1st Prize was not awarded. He refused to attend the award ceremony and lodged a protest indicating he was deeply hurt by the jury's verdict, that they were too conservative and that this was his playing style which they had accepted in earlier stages. Certainly one could not compare either of these 2nd Prize winners that year - utterly different. He pointed out that Chopin was a revolutionary and so was he. This was the first time this had ever happened in the Chopin Competition. Sultanov tragically died in 2005 from the complications of a stroke he suffered in 2001. His performance of the so-called 'Revolutionary' Etude is the greatest I have ever heard.  The mystery of Bozhanov's absence remains (I cannot speculate) but it disappointed the audience (including myself) who truly loved his courageous playing 'outside the Chopin box'.

The jury member Nelson Freire was also absent from the award ceremony for unexplained reasons - probably a concert engagement.

Not to award 6th Prize and lumping the 'Distinctions' into one block seems rather unfair as there are very significant differences of technique and musicianship here. I sense there is a weakness in the competition structure the way prizes are awarded further down the table. There is a very significant division of talent within those four.

There is only one Rafal Blechacz you know. Such a perfect set of Chopinesque musical qualities we shall not see again for a very long time.

The real controversy for me is not the choice of Avdeeva. It is the complete exclusion of the Asian pianists from the finals, especially the Japanese of which there were so many. 

The pianist Mei-Ting Sun is a fantastic virtuoso who studied the National Edition scores carefully.  In his playing I recognized some of the ossia (alternative versions) that edition offers in the mazurkas. He even consulted facsimile copies of Chopin's original notation. He took the trouble to learn and   perform marvellously the extremely difficult and rarely, if ever heard, styl brillant  Allegro de Concert  in A major Op. 46 . 


There were very fine musicians among the Japanese, especially Rina Sudo and Naomi Kudo (a finalist in 2005)  who both understand Chopin deeply, are wonderful and subtle musicians and have mastered his style.  Then the musical Watanabe and the joyful Katada (the only competitor to choose the early Sonata in C minor Op. 4  for Stage III but she did not reach this stage so we never heard it). Some play Chopin far closer to what he originally intended  at the instrument than many other nationalities (if you read the literature concerning his performing style). Yes I agree, something essential is sometimes missing interpretatively with Japanese pianists. This is a difficult and controversial area I cannot examine in detail here, but it is by no means a universal trait. I am sure it would interpretatively offer similar obstacles if I became a virtuoso master of the Koto or the Guzheng or the Korean Gayageum (all Asian instruments that are plucked). 


The Japanese love Chopin with a passion and have a very particularly and special temperamental relationship and affinity with this composer. It is tragic and very sad to have been rejected in this manner.  I really cannot understand this at all, especially on the musical level. Their immaculate and brilliant technique has never been in question.


This unfortunate decision will have unforseen repecussions which will only become clear in the fullness of time. Mark my words.




Prize Winners' Concert 21st October, 8 p.m.


Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera, Moniuszko Auditorium, Warsaw
Programme of the concert:

François DUMONT (France)

Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53
Impromptu in G flat major, Op. 51

Daniil TRIFONOV (Russia)

Mazurka in B major, Op. 56 No. 1
Mazurka in C major, Op. 56 No. 2
Valse in E flat major, Op. 18



Ingolf WUNDER (Austria)

Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise in E flat major, Op. 22

Lukas GENIUŠAS (Russia/Lithuania)

Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60
Valse in F major, Op. 34 No. 3

* * *

Yulianna AVDEEVA (Russia)

Piano Concerto in E minor, Op 11

Allegro maestoso
Romance. Larghetto
Rondo. Vivace

The National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Antoni Wit will accompany the first prize winner.

                                                                            *

Well, I hope you enjoyed reading this blog sometimes.

The unprecedented 'Golden October' of perfect sun, azure skies and golden light which lasted for the entire period of the competition is over - rain, cold and bitter wind as the Polish winter is approaching.


I found the blog terribly exhausting to write and doubt if I will ever do this sort of thing again. But my exhaustion is as nothing compared to the pressure exerted on all those brilliant young people who took part even at the earliest stages of this gruelling competition. Having tried this game and failed I know the incredible things in piano playing they have achieved and how terribly difficult, the vast natural talent you need and at what enormous personal sacrifice.

I can now go back to my own work with even greater determination, my new book chronicling the glamorous life of a forgotten concert pianist from the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s -  a completely different age before everything changed in our lives after World War II.

How would he have fared today I wonder?  I just wonder......


For those readers interested in the details of past Chopin Competitions I cannot recommend too highly the very recent magnificent survey by the musicologist Stanislaw Dybowski. He gave intelligent and detailed comments on performance during the competition on the Polish television station TVP Kultura (170 hours of televison broadcasting in total - where else but in Poland?). He also disagreed strongly with the jury's final decision.

A detailed review from the prestigious International Piano magazine appears below.


You will need to use the Zoom facility on your computer to read this review comfortably.




                          *

These two beautiful Japanese children have sat through hours of Chopin without once misbehaving! What is the secret?


Reflections en passant during the competition

Where are the authentic individual voices at the keyboard as once there were? 
*It is here solely in the person of the Bulgarian pianist Evgeni Bozhanov*

Authentic 'individuality' (which many are desperate to display in this arena) is not about fiddling with a few superficial things - tempo, polyphony (bringing out 'interesting' voices),odd phrasing but must come organically from within through acceleration of intuition.

In Chopin I want to be moved by the poetry of the heart rather than stunned by technique.

Despite their undoubted musical and pianistic abilities which can be of a very high order indeed, not all pianists can convincingly engage Chopin and his uniquely challenging piano music. They struggle to articulate the spiritual unease of his complex, mercurial temperament and except in rare cases seem to have abandoned the world of true feeling and poetics expressed in any natural, subtle and uplifting way.

For goodness sake give the music time to breathe......
Chopin loved opera and encouraged his piano pupils to imitate bel canto singing. He went even further to indicate that unless one could sing one could not play his music. All singers need to  breathe if I am not very much mistaken.

As well as singing lessons, Chopin players should take dancing lessons. Once one has physically danced a mazurka or polonaise of that period it is so much easier to capture the elusive mazurka rhythm at the keyboard. Of course Chopin's 'heroic' polonaises were never meant to be danced but there are many polonaise rhythms embedded in many of his other works. Too many competitors failed to capture the elusive mazurka rhythm concvincingly. Chopin himself observed that in otherwise excellent pefromances of his music they remained unsatisfactory because the 'Polish element' was missing. This is exactly what I mean. If you are not Polish dance!

Someone once asked Artur Rubinstein why he played a particularly difficult passage moderately when usually virtuosi played it with great velocity. He answered  'Because I can.'  A very instructive remark.

Why is it I have never ever heard of a famous black concert pianist with their intense musicality and improvisational genius?

In this 'International' competition there is a notable absence of German and British pianists and only a couple of Americans. After what I have heard I cannot believe that the low quality of applicants from these countries meant they all fell at the Preliminary Stage. Considering Hanover, New York, Berlin and London are acknowledged as world centres of the highest pianistic training what has kept them away from Warsaw I wonder?

Where is the soul, the sensibility, le bon gout and the poetry of Chopin? Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (his best pupil) advised the performer to intuitively immerse himself ‘au climat de Chopin’. Is this happening today? Highly unlikely.

Often the felt restraint of passion is more powerful than its direct expression

Do piano teachers and pedagogues historically and culturally contextualise this music for their students - introducing them to the painters, writers, architects, composers contemporary with Chopin, the instruments he was familiar with, state of medical treatment (Chopin suffered frightful 'cures') epidemics (cholera in Paris during his period there), the revolutionary political climate of his world and moreover a world without electricity - a lifestyle almost inconceivable to us ? We do tend to imagine Chopin throughout our own twent-first century fantasies and preoccupations. Do they ever persuade their students to at least try a Pleyel piano of Chopin's day to discover what he might have been trying to achieve in terms of sound, particularly pedalling which he considered 'a study for life' ? Do they consider such aspects of musical interdisciplinary studies irrelevant? Certainly such studies make student life a lot more interesting for musicians.

How rare is the sudden appearance of a great pianist before us!

The musicality, refinement, modesty and Mozartian elegance of the Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz (winner of the 2005 competition) appears more miraculous than ever. No pianist playing this year would elicit the awed remark 'It is as if Chopin himself were playing'  a statement often heard from the outset from informed commentators in 2005. 

As a teacher Chopin initially emphasised the development of a beautiful tone and touch in his students. The modern world emphasises structure and power in music. One so rarely hears  a pianist who has clearly cultivated a singing cantabile tone and a refined touch at the keyboard as a priority. Chopin treated the piano mainly as  a melodic rather than a percussive instrument. The late nineteenth century school understood this very well. The recordings of the giants of late Romantic pianism such as Josef Lhévinne, Sergei Rachmaninov, Alfred Cortot, Moritz Rosenthal, Josef Hofmann, Vladimir Horowitz, Dinu Lipatti and Leopold Godowsky give at least some indication of the incredible Fingerfertigkeit (finger dexterity) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  These pianists possessed exquisite beauty of tone with absolute delicacy and evenness of touch which scarcely any pianist today achieves with the same consistency. Above all they possessed great sensibility, poetry and charm. The summit of the 'modern' interpretation of Chopin remains Artur Rubinstein. Even if born as long ago as 1887 he was thoroughly modern in his approach to the instrument.

A developing pianist must develop a rich cultural life outside his intensive practice, the acquisition of repertoire, playing in competitions and building a career. Claudio Arrau understood this very well and look at the fabulous life led by Artur Rubinstein apart from his playing of the piano. Experience affects your playing....


Never forget the myth of Orpheus. The making of music is the cultivation of magic not simply a series of beautiful sounds strung together.

IT IS A CABBALISTIC CRAFT....