Thursday, 11 March 2010

KRAJ z KSIĘŻYCA. Podróże do serca Polski

KRAJ z KSIĘŻYCA. Podróże do serca PolskiWydawnictwo Czarne, Warszawa 2010r.
ISBN: 978-83-7536-186-5

Now Available from the author: 


The English edition is called A Country in the Moon : Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland (Granta Books, London 2009)

ISBN: 978 1 84708 104 9  (Description in English)

This painting on the cover of the Polish Edition above is by the Great War Polish cavalry officer and amateur artist Tomasz Kucharski. This detail from the full painting was used for the cover design. The officers are dancing a mazur. I found his wonderfully naive art forgotten in a gallery at the Teutonic Knights castle of Gniew on the banks of the Vistula. In the castle there was an exhibition of his amateur paintings mainly of cavalry manoeuvres by this Polish cavalry officer from the period of World War I. Tomasz Kucharski had a very distinguished military career as an cavalry officer both in the Great War and World War II and was awarded the Virtuti Militari . He was also an amateur artist. I did not know this and it is a beautiful additional detail to this particular book.Back in Warsaw for the next couple of months. Weather is quite superb at the moment - cold, sunny and clear blue - melting snow reflecting swathes of white light.

The Polish edition is a beautiful production – layout and typography are elegant, the paper of excellent quality, the cover is marvellous and suits the contents. I am very happy with it.

The last instalment of the book is being read in Poland over the radio today by the well known young actor Rafał Królikowski. It is the fifth anniversay of Pope John Paul II's death and I expect they will read the closing paragraphs which deal with my experience in Warsaw of this sad occasion and the moving vigils throughout the nights.

I am very nervous concerning the reception of this book written by an Australian with absolutely no Polish or Jewish roots.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Eccentric Club Dinner 17th. February, 2010

Table setting at the Arts Club Dover Street London W1 for the Eccentric Club Dinner on Wednesday 17th February, 2010 in the presence of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh KG KT

A sublime moment of political incorrectness. Gentlemen from the left: HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, Christian Furr, at 28 the youngest artist ever to have painted the Queen, Ian Clarke, one of the finest Chancery barristers, the author Michael Moran laughing in his usual immoderate manner, Jean Francois Dor, a tireless socialite and Chairman or Vice-Chairman of a number of distinguished London Clubs.

As you know I was recently elected as a full member to the resuscitated Eccentric Club originally established in 1781 to promote 'The feast of reason and the flow of soul' in an atmosphere of good fellowship. Any discussion of religion, politics or business is frowned upon. What an excellent idea!

A small group of us had dinner with HRH Prince Philip (the club's patron) on February 17th at the Arts Club in Dover Street, London W1. The guests were a fascinating bunch - some illustrious and wildly successful but genuinely and democratically clubbable. It was great fun as I am no advocate of political correctness - it has neatly removed all the poetry, charm and humour that made life worth living. In the photograph I am enjoying something terribly non-pc said by Prince Philip. He is very charming and softly spoken - quite at variance with his gritty media image. The Royal Family are finer featured than their appearance on television would indicate.

I had imagined Imants von Wenden, the initiator of the revival of the club, to be a glamorous blonde East-Central European female. Shows how my mind works! He turned out to be a handsome, rather burly publisher, photographer and artist with a pony tail married to Svetlana, a Russian businesswoman. He is to be congratulated on this venture. The simple yet excellent dinner, the glamorous Russian concert pianist playing Chopin (Veronika Ilinskaya) and elegant table setting at the Arts Club in Dover Street made for a superb occasion. I met after a long absence one of my favourite bestselling literary travel authors and good friend Tahir Shah (The Caliph's House) who proposed me for membership. He lives in a palace in Casablanca. And I made some new friends.

Today though we are a long way indeed from the early days of the club when witty and iconoclastic 'staring and despising' took place at the 11.00 am dances in the eighteenth century pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh 'Picking off cherries and God knows what else' to paraphrase Pepys.

You might be amused to read if you have a few loose moments

The Chopin Brand or the Chopin Soul

The Old Library, Warsaw University - venue for the
Third International Congress CHOPIN 1810-2010 Ideas - Interpretations - Influence

This article also appears in the 84 page Chopin 2010 UK Events Guide

The music of Fryderyk Chopin has always been a haven of spiritual refuge to the Polish nation under oppression be it Tsarist Russia, Nazi Germany, the Soviets or the period of communist hegemony. Yet the accession of Poland to the European Union was curiously low key that cold May night in 2004, at least in the capital Warsaw. Unbridled festivity was not present in an atmosphere filled with long speeches and the ‘Heroic’ polonaise performed by Rafał Blechacz[1] on a plinth in Piłsudski Square. The collective memory and final victory of the country over oppression was expressed by a chorus of ghosts without number in Chopin’s passionate and melancholic vision. What then is the emotional significance of Chopin for contemporary Poland?

All ages interpret the productions of genius through their own aesthetic and historical filters. In modern times the historical and cultural context in which Chopin composed is often ignored or imagined in crude ‘Hollywood’ terms. Following his emotional flight into exile before the rape of his native land by Russia in 1830, he encountered as well as the elegant salons, the assault of the pestilential filth of the Paris streets of that time. The raging cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1849 killed many of his friends. This together with his exile, his own illness and the political convulsions of 1830 and 1848 strengthened his tragic view of the transience of life. We are mercifully far today from the source of his suffering.

However the passing of time has created a musical disconnection. Chopin is one of the most difficult of composers to interpret and begs for a cultivated mind of sensibility, poetry and a very particular form of spiritual unease in the face of human mortality. He occupies a discomforting position among composers, his feminine sensibility finely balancing a masculine lyric strength. His is a restrained sentiment that eschews sugared sentimentality. A proper understanding of his early Polish cultural milieu and noble historical style (including the contemporary instruments he used) needs to be acquired by any young modern performer. In Paris Chopin himself commented that in otherwise excellent performances of his work the ‘Polish element’ was missing. The resistance to political tyranny that runs like a red thread through his compositions, the fraught emotions of oppression and disinheritance he expressed in exile gave rise to the complex Polish emotion of żal (melancholic nostalgia and bitter remorse which at times can lead to a type of internal fury of protest). Such feelings have to be imagined by most young Polish pianists who were born, grew up and today live in an atmosphere of democratic freedom.

In response to the infinite repetitions possible with modern recordings and the modish concern with his sexual proclivities, various redefinitions of the composer have taken place since his death in 1849. Most prominent is the emphasis on the physical aspects of his virtuosity as expressed on behemoth Yamaha or Steinway instruments. The world young artists have inherited is loud, cruel and violent, a world dominated by technology that prizes physical power, speed and the body above intelligence, morality and the soul. Playing can certainly be physically exhilarating, but poetic thought, sensibility, refinement and elegance, even patriotism and morality once prized in all art, has become almost an embarrassment in the face of the muscular, the sportif and the overtly sexual in performance. Having almost exhausted the patriotic, aesthetic, literary, ideological, philosophical and musicological appreciation of Chopin we inevitably turn to the easy seductions of the physical.

‘Technique is money’ one Asian professor recently remarked to me in a furtive aside at a Chopin master-class in Duszniki Zdrój, a spa town on the Polish Czech border where there is an important annual Chopin festival. A young pianist from New York is advertised as having ‘the fastest fingers on the planet’ by an esteemed Russian professor. I have seen assistants sponging down sweating pianists between pieces like prize-fighters between bouts, the pianist wiping down the keyboard prior to playing as if it were a piece of sports tackle. George Sand was once amused at Chopin’s horror when he suspected he may actually have been sweating in the summer heat at her French country retreat in Nohant. Too often a form of making war on the piano has become the ideal, hysteria in interpretation all too frequent. ‘Facilement, facilement,’ Chopin often warned. ‘Caress the key, never bash it!’ he would admonish. Paradoxically Chopin playing has become harsh reality itself rather than a consolation in the face of it.

Many pianists and listeners are simply too young and emotionally immature for the pain and mystery of Chopin. The spiritual tension of what the Polish musicologist Mieczysław Tomaszewski called Chopin’s ‘imprisoned romanticism’ is scarcely alluded to in performance. Understandably they lack a mature understanding of his ambiguous, neurasthenic and emotional vie intérieure. In many modern performances, naturally not all (pace Barenboim, Olejniczak, Zimerman, Blechacz, Pires, Ohlsson, Pollini), the individual ‘voice’ of the performer has been mislaid. Athletic training has turned too many young pianists into acrobats of the keyboard participating in an Olympic sport of tempestuous brutality. C.P.E. Bach put it well ‘They overwhelm our hearing without satisfying it and stun the mind without moving it . . .’[2]

An alternative development of Chopin as ‘entertainment’ is the uniquely Polish and to my mind not entirely successful ‘jazzification’ of certain small works such as preludes or mazurkas. Many contrapuntal keyboard pieces of J.S. Bach wing effortlessly above the medium of their expression be it organ, harpsichord, piano, unaccompanied voice ensemble, even Jamaican steel band. The Polish composer meets with mixed results in this type of reinterpretation .
In our contemporary world dominated by the religion of economics and the golden calf, the Chopin industry develops apace as he is transformed into a brand, a ‘loss leader’ for Poland. Previously the domain of the musically cultured, his music and name are rapidly becoming utilised by the world of business as a tradable and profitable commodity. An asteroid, the main airport in Warsaw and a luxury vodka already carry his name. Undoubtedly in Poland during the bicentenary year great performances of his music will be heard from the finest pianists in the world. But dispiritingly his aristocratic face will inevitably adorn T shirts, pens and tissues - the entire paraphernalia of an opportunistic marketing campaign. It happened to Mozart recently in Vienna, why not to Chopin? But his spirit will survive.

Let us not lose sight of the true significance of this composer for music lovers amidst the superficial distractions of trade and insensitive performance. Chopin possesses an unrivalled position as Poland’s national composer and its musical wieszcz.[3] His music remains the beating heart of the country. The great Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821–83) described Chopin as ‘a Varsovian by birth, a Pole by heart, and a citizen of the world by talent’. Virtuoso brilliance, a supreme gift for melody and an air of sentiment explain his immense appeal on a popular level. But more deeply the universality of Chopin lies in his profound sense of loss and nostalgia. His revolutionary music expresses a fierce resistance to domination, a sense of sacrificial melancholy in the face of the bitter finales of life – universal and timeless human emotions.
Fryderyk Chopin, while ‘detached’ from the Polish revolutionary cabals in nineteenth century Paris, expressed more profoundly than almost anyone, the sorrow and heroic aspirations of the Polish spirit. In doing so he gave voice to the universal suffering of any spirit labouring under a totalitarian heel or shackled by personal psychological chains. His music offers deep consolation to troubled hearts throughout the world. The music of Chopin continues to express the beauty and richness of conscious life forever overshadowed by the implacable reality of death, a profound awareness of which is surely the source of all we would wish to call ‘civilisation’.

© Michael Moran 2009
Author of A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland (London 2009)

[1] Later to become winner of the 2005 Chopin International Piano Competition
[2] Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen 1753 (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, trans. ed. W.J. Mitchell (London 1949)
[3] There is no English equivalent for this Polish word – an approximation might be ‘bard’, ‘prophetic seer’ or ‘messianic messenger’. Adam Mickiewicz is considered a wieszcz through his national epic Pan Tadeusz and the poetic drama Dziady (Forefathers' Eve).

Fryderyk Chopin's 200th Birthday

The birthday of Chopin is contested between February 22nd and March 1st.

In a singularly pragmatic manner the Poles have been celebrating his birthday with an entire week of concerts for the pianists and the Third International Chopin Congress for the scholars. This climaxed with the opening of the new Italian-designed, state-of-the-art, interactive, multi-media Chopin Museum in Warsaw.

Rafal Blechacz, winner of the 2005 Chopin Competition, began the performance series with a fine account of the F minor concerto. He has matured but the increased forcefulness and decrease in subtlety of his playing gave me pause for thought. I pass over in silence Antoni Wit's conducting of the patchy under-rehearsed Warsaw Filharmonia through this entire series. Ivor Pogorelic followed the next evening but gave a willfully perverse rendering of the same work. His sense of musical form and architecture has been shattered into meaningless unconnected fragments. His story is one of tragic misdirection from the brilliant boy we all loved and whom Marta Argerich called a genius. Murray Perahia is superior in Bach to Chopin to my mind and Piotr Anderszewski refused to play Chopin at all in a very fine recital of Bach, Schumann and Beethoven. Garrick Ohlsson performed an all Chopin programme but really needs to retire for a period and do some solid practice and reassess some of the Chopin works before returning to the concert stage . He has played them in the same way for far too long. Rubinstein and Horowitz emerged as far better artists from voluntary periods out of the limelight working at technique and interpretation.

The finest concert in the series was on historical instruments with Franz Bruggen and the Orchestra of the XVIII Century. Kevin Kenner was elegant and refined in the E Minor concerto on the 1849 Erard (he would have preferred to play the 1848 Pleyel also owned by the Chopin Institute but was overruled by the other pianists that night - this Erard is not a distinguished instrument of its type despite all the hype). Nelson Goerner was as brilliant as ever in Chopin although his virtuosity is displayed sometimes at the expense of 'musicality'. Janusz Olejniczak was wonderfully on form and gave a luminous and heartfelt rendering of the the F Minor concerto. When firing on all cylinders he is the best of the contemporary Polish interpreters of Chopin.

The following evening Nikolai Demidenko and Evgeny Kissin demonstrated once again a brilliant but curiously soulless Chopin lacking in emotional depth. What is the source of this mystery? Leif Ove Andsnes played some wonderful Schumann and Chopin but Daniel Barenboim was somewhat disappointing for me. All that opera conducting has made his Chopin cantabile and bel canto limpid and heartfelt - superb tone and touch in the Nocturne in D major Op.27 No:2 but too much influence of Wagner in the A flat major Polonaise! Crude and far too much of the 'Hollywood' Chopin cliche, the 'Heroic Pole' pounding it out - ridiculous for this magisterial work of contained aristocratic anger.

The final Gala Night of March 1st (the generally accepted birth date of Chopin) was in the cavernous Warsaw Opera House. Yundi (he has dropped the 'Li' part of his name) played a Steinway in glittering style with counterfeit Chopinesque heart in the manner of the showman Lang Lang. The refined elegance of the Vietnamese Dang Thai Son's superbly nuanced Chopin was lost on this Erard. Garrick Ohlsson made far too many slips in the E minor concerto for an artist of his stature and potential.

An extraordinary week really for which the National Chopin Institute is to be heartily congratulated. However I came away more convinced than ever that we are certainly not living in an age of great pianists. To think that Richter, Gilels, Rubinstein, Rachmaninov, Michelangeli, Horowitz, Lipatti, Solomon, Francois, Curzon, Cziffra, Hess were all living at the same time.....

The Third International Congress CHOPIN 1810-2010 : Ideas -Interpretation- Influence presented academic papers, concerts, seminars, films at the Warsaw University Old Library and I renewed my acquaintance with the Gods of Chopin academe - John Rink, Jim Samson, Irena Poniatowska, Jean-Jaques Eigeldinger, Mieczslaw Tomaszewski, Halina Goldberg, Jeffrey Kallberg - a wonderful array of luminaries and Chopin papers of superlative interest. Marvellous for those of us who believe like Vladimir Nabokov that profound meaning lies hidden in the details of a work of art.