17th International Fryderyk Chopin Competition, Warsaw, 1-23 October 2015

With the tremendous advances in technology in the last five years and the sterling efforts of the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute in providing live streaming of the entire competition, I feel a detailed internet journal as I last presented it in 2010 is now redundant. Millions of voices are commenting on the competition in a veritable storm of brief assessments. 

I will keep a type of occasional personal internet journal instead of writing it in longhand as I once did years ago. 

For reflections on each stage of the competition see below...

My general opinions expressed in the last competition in 2010 of Chopin, pianists, performing and competitions have scarcely changed.

The link to my account of the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Competition, Warsaw, 2010




With the explosion in social media I really cannot see the point of engaging in this exhausting and time-consuming task at a deep level of detail. Clearly a considered review of each contestant and each piece they perform belongs to the pre-Facebook/Twitter age. 

As a serious writer I am not in the business of brief and comfortable comment. Some Facebook and Twitter comments, although an expression of the genuine enthusiasm of the moment, are rather fatuous and contribute little to our understanding of Chopin or the interpretation of his music. Especially when you consider the years of work, analysis, stress and sacrifice that has gone into each and every performance, each and every piece, bar by bar by bar. The competitors deserve more than three words.

I stand in awe of all the competitors having studied music seriously and tried myself to excel as a pianist and harpsichordist. Not at this level of accomplishment!

I have always believed together with Joseph Addison, the distinguished and influential 17th century English essayist, that

A true critic ought to dwell rather upon excellencies than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer [read 'musician'], and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation.

Reflections of a General Nature on  Stage I      3-7 October 2015

Unlike so many of you I have grave doubts about the direction Chopin interpretation is taking today and over recent years. Perhaps I have simply read too many historical sources surrounding this music, its gestation and performance when I wrote the chapter for my Polish book  A Country in the Moon. 

It seems to me that the Chopin aesthetic, the quality referred to by the great Polish pianist Raoul Koczalski as 'lyrical impressionism' has been, except in the rarest cases, almost completely abandoned or at the very least significantly distorted. Chopin is being forced into our own mass market twenty-first century aesthetic with a certain grim inevitability and this is not without significant spiritual loss. Assembly-line Chopin.

Of course these young tyros have unimaginable musical talents (more than I could ever dream of or hope to achieve). However I feel the execution bears scarcely any resemblance at all to the way Chopin conceived of his own music and how it should be performed - at least from written descriptions by the composer, his pupils and contemporary listeners. Liszt can tolerate a high degree of dynamic inflation and exaggerated tempi on the mighty Steinway (after all he invented the solo recital that we witness now and was famous for breaking the pianos of the day). But for me Chopin cannot tolerate too much of this without sacrificing at least some of his uniquely poetic musical essence. Too many performances had little dynamic variation, variety of articulation, often a harsh tone, artificially contrived tempo rubato rather than a natural organic flowering of sensibility.

Chopin should be seen through the fine filter of Bach, Mozart and Hummel not in hindsight through the declamatory sound world of Liszt, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Prokofiev. But we are living in 2015 and time has separated us permanently and possibly forever from the historical source of this music and the rather precieux society connected with a proportion of it. 

That is how matters are today. Accept it Mr. Moran! Accept! Well I do not accept it and I am sure musical ostracism will follow. 

Does historicism really matter?   'Get real Michael!' I hear you cry. 

I suppose no composer divides opinion so passionately as Chopin. Everyone has their ‘own Chopin’ which may well be irreconcilable, including members of the jury.  So many (of course not all) the modern interpretations we have just heard (however astonishing in terms of finger dexterity) with a few obvious exceptions lack creative poetry, aristocratic sensibility, elegance, intimacy, true refinement of touch and tone (except a number of the outstanding Japanese pianists), individuality and simple bon goût

All these admirable qualities must be brought to bear on Chopin. The composer balanced his masculine and feminine natures in a unique manner. At least he has been fully liberated from the stigma of effeminate 'salon composer' which persisted for so long. He was a subversive political force certainly but we seem to have moved too far in the opposite direction - at least as far as I am concerned. Chopin is no muscle-bound revolutionary manning the street barricades throwing rocks he recently collected down in the quarry. One does get that impression on occasion.

‘My Chopin’ is not as hugely physical and even violent as the concert audience and professors seem to demand today. But this is the violent world we live in that adores physical prowess in sport, obsessively cultivates image over substance, is addicted to tumultuous special effects in the cinema, fights wars in computer games or for real in the horrifying bloodbath that is now the Middle East and Ukraine. 

This Zeitgeist is reflected in the arts and even subconsciously in the approach to interpreting this most inaccessible and introverted of composers known in his time as 'the Ariel of pianists'. He was not an exhibitionist and not fond of display. I look to musical art for the consolations of a more civilized world of beauty or passionate resistance, seduced by sound not browbeaten with more of the same violence with which I am now all too familiar.

Audiences in general are now after the sensational - perhaps this has always been the case. Giving it to them with the technological competition in the entertainment industry and internet has become more and more difficult for piano playing. To shine as a performer seems to involve for many a gross distortion of the music. Chopin for some merely offers them a celebrity platform for display rather than authentic interest in Chopin's true intentions. 'Chopin's true intentions' - what a joke that sounds today. Well I never had a commercial mind.

Of course you cannot build a modern international concert career on the 19th century Pleyel that Chopin so adored. I am not advocating a return to the past. But if you are sufficiently open-minded you can certainly learn a great deal about Chopin's original musical intentions and modify your approach to the modern instrument if you experiment with the early instrument. Additionally, did you know Chopin's piano had subtly unequal temperament? As a harpsichordist naturally I was interested in this subject and I began to explore this scarcely mentioned fact. Unequal temperament gives the various keys a different colour and character. The keys become associated with different moods or affects. This was well known to the French clavecinistes. Chopin belonged to a society of 'ancient music' and knew the music of  Telemann and Handel. Did he ever hear the music of Francois Couperin?

Forgive this digression. Equal temperament was not considered possible to achieve or even desirable until around the turn of the nineteenth century. Chopin was in despair when his tuner Ennike for some reason drowned himself and he could not find another to tune his piano to the temperament he desired. Chopin had an acute ear unsuited in its intimacy and sensitivity to the Lisztian onslaught of solo public performance that burgeoned after he died. This is the tradition which has persisted and which we have inherited. Much of the Chopin aesthetic effectively died with the composer. I agree it cannot be resurrected in its entirety but there should be some evidence in performance of having at least explored the historical context in which Chopin composed.

(For more on this fascinating subject see Chopin in Performance: History, Theory, Practice NIFC Warszawa 2004 p.25-38  'Towards a Well-tempered Chopin' by Johnathan Bellman).

Chopin's directives and descriptions in letters and reported conversations are generally ignored in 2015 through pragmatic necessity. Because of the claims of a financially viable career both as student and professor today, the expectations of the current classical music market, rapacious musical agents and the expectations of a prospective paying audience hungry for sensational playing, there has arisen slowly but inexorably, a standardized ‘Chopin product’, even a 'Chopin brand'. 

Do we not have an ethical responsibility to attempt to come as close to Chopin's intentions as possible? 

Chopin's Polonaise - a Ball in Hôtel Lambert in Paris (1859)  
Teofil Kwiatkowski (1809-1891)

Chopin was a renowned teacher in Paris who actually began to write what became a stillborn piano method. 

'I only indicate.' It is up to the listener to complete the picture.' he commented to Wilhelm von Lenz. Understatement and sensitive restraint is hardly what we are hearing in many cases.

Imitation not inspiration seems to rule too many of these young pianists from whatever country. 

Where is the magic dust?

As Arthur Rubinstein used to comment to his young pupils - 'A brilliant performance but where is the music?'

Well we are now in a 'global village' as recognized in a prescient phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy when I was a young man. The dangers of the emergence of an ubiquitous 'standard' Chopin style has been exacerbated by our miraculous technology. Inadequate opinions of two or three words with no analytical depth flood the social media. A competition win or high placing on one's CV seems to have become a mandatory requirement for a successful pianistic career. 

As to individuality of appearance at the keyboard, certainly yes that is obvious but at least we have been spared the distractions of overt sexual display as an 'Add on' in this competition. But in terms of an individual voice, individual tone and touch, something unique to say, spontaneity, rethinking or communicating that inspired feeling of recreation of music in the moment – little is happening for me on that level in the competition. Even a repertoire of familiar Chopineque expressive gestures seems to have been 'learned' by many contestants. I feel this comes partly from exposure to the repetitive nature and the possibility of listening to 'flawless' recordings an infinite number of times. 

Have I become aesthetically deficient? Over-familiar with Chopin's music? Possibly. 

Yes, of course there are a few precious exceptions in the competition who moved my soul rather than astonished my ears. One does not hear the finest in art during piano competitions - well, rarely.

I received the odd impression that many pianists were inhibited, playing to please the jury. They seemed fearful of straying too far from an imagined or even taught norm of acceptability or 'correctness' in contemporary Chopin interpretation. As a result many contestants sounded terribly similar. Such a lack of spontaneity! A disturbing standardization seems to prevail rather than offering interpretations from their own inner musical convictions, intuition and knowledge of the composer which would lead to a living recreation of the music of Chopin. 

Piano competitions should not have the constraining nature of an academic examination.

One never becomes a true artist by 'playing safe'!

My great-uncle, the glamorous concert pianist Edward Cahill (I have just spent 5 years writing his biography) always impressed on me that the key to being an artist as a musician was personality and character. 

'One must have rich internal and external life Michael to express the finest in music.' he often said. 

I could not help thinking of the first volume of Arthur Rubinstein's autobiography My Early Years. What a cosmopolitan life trawling the streets of Paris in the small hours to 'questionable places' with the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapine! Then the inventive mind and orchestral sonorities, sheer individuality of the great piano virtuoso Josef Hofmann who came up with the indispensable idea of a motor car windscreen wiper!

Remember Evgeni Bozhanov, Yulianna Avdeeva and Daniil Trifonov in the 2010 competition? And for the lucky few, their performances at Duszniki Zdroj ? Three supremely creative pianists who thought for themselves and evolved unique interpretations full of nuance and individuality. I feel that the overall standard of the 2010 competition was somewhat higher musically but perhaps not 'technically' if you can actually make such a distinction. There is a notable difference of quality this year I feel....

Evgeni Bozhanov is an exception to everything I have said above and I felt him to be a poetic and truly creative musician of individual genius even if he did (and does) not always observe the letter of the score. After all the notation is only the beginning of that great traverse through the mind of a composer. There is joy, even 'fun' in his music-making. His posture at the instrument was distracting and did him no favours and I wrote about this at the time.

I may easily have missed a similarly creative competitor this year (I have not watched every individual of the 80 odd this time round, I simply lack the stamina). I truly hope to be pleasantly surprised as the competition progresses with the melancholy attrition of competitors that is built into the competition concept. 

Yet how I yearn for the electricity that flowed through the audience in the Filharmonia whenever Bozhanov appeared...his individual account of the Polonaise-Fantasie was desperately poignant with haunting pianissimos, glowing tone colours, great variation in dynamic and articulation, a late work completed when Chopin was seriously ill. Bozhanov remained almost arrogantly 'his own man' throughout the competition and I deeply respect his individuality even if I disagreed with certain of his readings and his rather theatrical postures at the instrument.

The entire approach to training modern pianists in the interpretation of Chopin on the modern concert instrument of our day needs a revolutionary rethink.

Of course it will not happen...dream on.

I do wonder sometimes what my favourite Chopin exponents and teachers - the great artists Arthur Rubinstein, Dinu Lipatti, Ignaz Friedman, Vladimir de Pachmann, Josef Hofmann, Małcużyński, Michelangeli, Cortot, Solomon, Zimerman, Sokolov or Nadia Boulanger or even Leschetizky would make of the present climat de Chopin. Some greats pianists avoided playing Chopin altogether like Giseking, Gould and Brendel. Simply because you are a great pianist does not mean you can come to terms fully with or even like the music of this most ambiguous of composers.

 Sic transit gloria mundi

 Chopin's autograph of Prelude No: VI  in B Minor Op. 28.  

Biblioteka Narodowa, Warszawa

Consulting Chopin facsimiles and autographs is of the greatest historical significance for pianists if they wish to approach as close as they can in 2015 to the living spirit of the composer. So superior to a sterile Urtext which is clearly indispensable for serious music studies.

Facsimiles are not more or less interesting museum artifacts displayed in glass cases along with the ribbons, inkwells, lorgnettes and gold coffee cups but contain a wealth of information and clues to the composer's personality and his process of composition. 

So much of interest is edited out in modern printed editions including his tormented indecisiveness even in small works such as this

Note the tremendously long slurs in the Prelude above indicating such a long cantabile or legato which never appears in printed editions. 

Why did Chopin write them and with the permanence of ink rather than pencil? 

They makes perfect sense played on a Pleyel instrument with its inadequate damping and varied colour palette. These discoveries can then be transferred to the more 'evolved' instrument which Chopin may well have loved, the concert Steinway 

A journey of rewarding even exciting discovery lies in store for the interpretatively adventurous and perceptive pianist searching for his own true voice and what he considers to be that of the composer. Intuition and knowledge!

Reflections on Stage II       9-12 October 2015

Eric Lu (United States)

Here at last we have a pianist who fulfills all the criteria I have outlined above - at last, at last - a true poet of the piano who managed to create an atmosphere of intense intimacy on a Steinway in this vast hall. 

As George Sand once said  of Chopin 'He lives in a different world to the rest of us.' Here we moved to a different level of musicianship altogether and far, far closer to the authentic intentions of Chopin at least as I conceive them from my own studies over almost a lifetime.

The Mazurka in A minor Op. 17 No: 4 contained the most intense nostalgia for a lost Poland in the heart and spirit of Chopin. The intimacy brought me close to tears. This Mazurka is an unusual work and it is telling that Lu chose it to play in the competition - hardly a display piece. The heart-rending interpretation of the Nocturne in B Major Op. 62 No.1. moved me similarly with its extraordinary sensibility and sense of the Chopin aesthetic of restraint and lyrical poetry. Lu was a true 'Ariel' at the instrument. And such poetry, refinement and deep sensibility also in the Andante Spianato and yet when needed a fabulously sparkling Grande Polonaise Brillante Op.22 full of articulated clarity, bravura and styl brilliant in the glistering manner of Hummel. Wonderful. The Barcarolle contained the most miraculously controlled rubato, the impressionistic feeling of a gondola rocking on the water of the lagoon, a sense of highly labile romance. This would have been the sort of interpretation Debussy would have loved, this being one of most dearly loved Chopin pieces. The Waltz an elegant glittering confection in the priceless Faberge sense. the masculine and feminine sides of Chopin nature beautifully poised and balanced.
I heard this pianist first at the Duszniki Zdroj Festival in August this year. He performed the Op.28 Preludes after being given only half  a recital duration shared with another pianist

This is what I wrote then:

This remarkably young pianist of only 17 had just come from the US after winning the 1st Prize in the US National Chopin Piano Competition in Miami. He was born in the US to Chinese and Taiwanese parents. It is held every five years and the rules reflect closely the regulations and requirements of the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw which will take place in October 2015. The winner is automatically accepted into the Warsaw Competition. We were full of anticipation which was more than realized.

He chose to perform the great and demanding cycle of Chopin Preludes Op.28. I could not possibly give an account of each prelude nor would it be desirable in review of this nature. 

During the Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Festival there is always a 'Duszniki Moment' that is unique. One can never anticipate when it might occur or what nature it might take, be it pianistic, scandalous or highly amusing. But it will occur...this was the moment for me but will there be another?

First of all the tone Eric Lu produced was luminous, the articulation spellbinding and exciting, the legato andbel canto desperately moving. Notes were articulated as flowing water or as 'strings of pearls'. Even if this phrase smacks of cliche, this is what he did - every note of the score fully articulated. The reminiscence of a Horowitz sound if not a Horowitz temperament seemed inescapable. One could hear a pin drop in thedworek. The playing was breathtaking and really of the highest order of finger dexterity. In the background I could hear the refined sound world produced by one of his teachers, Dan Thai Son (and you know my opinion of this great artist). 

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

The sound world of each as Lu produced it was simply stunning and breathtaking. A 'leaping to the feet' moment. Some performers of the cycle (Sokolov, Argerich, the greatest historically to my mind by Alfred Cortot) give one the impression of an integrated 'philosophy' or spiritual narrative which I felt was lacking here. Such comparisons are desperately unfair and invidious to level at an 17 year old with his magnificently precocious talent and pianistic future ahead. Depth with growing maturity is inevitable in life as we all know...

As always I felt the magnificent bass resonance in the left hand of many of the Preludes on the Steinway in the small dworek, occasionally unbalanced the musical writing. This does not detract from the Lu's amazing execution. It is just that some of their 'Prelude egos' were inflated rather than retaining the intimacy which waxes and wanes so fleetingly and poetically until that final passionate utterance in D minor of No. 24, traditionally the 'key of death'. The last three notes (the lowest D on the piano) Lu played with his fist which for me visually gave expression expression to the lines by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in his poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night which could apply to the spirit of the cycle as a whole:

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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

As Lu will definitely proceed to Stage III and will play the Preludes and three more Mazurkas, this is just a taster of what we can expect. 

At this Stage II and following his similarly moving and brilliant Stage I,  I predict he could do well in this competition. 

However, do poets win piano competitions in 2015? 

He will only be defeated by a lack of maturity (which he can scarcely avoid at his age) and experience playing more extended works. Some members of the jury may prefer a modern, declamatory Chopin aesthetic based not on poetry and sensibility but the power of an exaggerated dynamic with fierce tempi and crystal articulation. One reservation I have which has nothing to do with his playing is that he has avoided programming a Sonata - for pianists a large and musically demanding Chopin form which may count against him with some members of the jury.

Other outstanding pianists which have impressed me so far in Stage II and who I feel could pass to Stage III follow. I shall not burden you with my usual detailed assessment review of their playing despite this being rather unfair to these extraordinary young people.

Galina Chistiakova (Russia) 

A mature and sensitive Russian pianist - a complete command of the instrument and sensitive, refined, considered insight into the music of Chopin. There is curious lack of Russians in this competition compared to other years. I loved her Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante with its opening 'Call to the Floor' and super glittering styl brillante. Hardly anyone playing waltzes in the competition has any idea of ballroom dancing in the nineteenth century. Certainly Chopin waltzes are not meant to be danced but the sublimated idiom remains. They nearly always open, except say the Valse triste, with an energetic and declamatory fanfare or 'call to the floor' for the dancers. Slight pause and the scandalous Waltz begins..

Seong-Jin Cho (South Korea)  

Perfectly encapsulates the modern 'power' concept of pianism and Chopin interpretation in 2015 rather than 1815. Could win the competition if the audience have anything to do with it and the jury feel likewise concerning a declamatory Chopin. He brings a monumental virtuosity to bear on this most intimate of composers. I have heard him twice at Duszniki Zdroj (2010 and 2012) and was highly enthusiastic about his performances - but there he played Liszt, Schumann and Ravel and only one work of Chopin. I have reservations about his Chopin despite his genius in other respects as a virtuoso of the top flight. I will write more on this after hearing Stage III. 

Chi Ho Han (South Korea)

I loved the sparkling energy, tone and infectious élan of his styl brillant Grand Polonaise. the Ballade in F-minor Op. 52 had a particularly beautiful and simple beginning, full of the innocence I think Chopin wanted in the beginning of this 'opera of life'.

Su Yeon Kim (South Korea)   

A very fine pianist indeed with a deep understanding and the ravishing technique implicit in the composer's styl brillant. Her Andante spianato and Grand polonaise were a magnificent example of the glittering display Chopin brought to the instrument in the spirit of Hummel.

Dinara Klinton (Ukraine)  

The Op. 25 Etudes were quite superb replete with unaccustomed poetry. Not just a performance gabble gauged to impress with virtuosity as we constantly hear. She achieved great simplicity achieved after long acquaintance with these works. I heard her play them at the recent Paderewski Competition in Bydgoszcz in November 2013. She achieved the 2nd Prize as well as the Best Chopin Prize, Best Paderewski Prize and Best Semi-Final Prize. 

On that occasion I wrote:

She then played all the Op.25 set of Chopin Etudes which for me at least was a revelation. She revealed all manner of inner complexities invisible to me previously as well as the familiar approaches one tends to absorb as the benchmark. And then comes along a supremely musical individual like this...It was one of those outstanding performances of a much loved work where one has absolutely nothing to say after it is complete - a completely integrated, brilliant and consistent vision of these taxing Etudes. 

The Barcarolle was not overplayed dynamically as is often the case. Wonderfully controlled tempo rubato. The Waltz had great élan, panache and elegant French lightness of touch. The F sharp minor Polonaise powerful but not harsh, the beginning marvelously forbidding and the military nature and feeling of doom for Poland emotionally moving for me. A deep understanding and intuition for poetry in the music of Chopin.

In the Lobby of the Filharmonia Parter there was a fascinating and at the same time horrifying exhibit of 'torture instruments' used to exercise the fingers and possibly make them independent or cripple them for life! Robert Schumann ruined his hand with one of these devices. 

Such a frightful nineteenth century industrial idea of equality! The French clavecinistes of the eighteenth century believed each finger had it own character, strengths and weaknesses which was to be exploited rather like a small 'community' of friends. Enlightenment philosophy was to live in harmony with nature. The complex French  baroque harpsichord fingering, articulation and phrasing emerged from this belief. 

Chopin believed much the same as he was an outstanding organist in Warsaw in his youth and a virtuoso on other bizarre keyboard instruments invented at that time. Chopin was what we might term in IT an 'early adopter'. Much of his legato fingering without the pedal stems from his experience as an organist. Liszt introduced the idea of the 'Transcendental Technique' which we have inherited at a certain cost.

I shall scatter these devices for your delectation and dismayed imagination throughout my reviews. They are all from the Tony Bingham Collection, London

Lukasz Krupinski (Poland)  

A fine choice of programme - so Polish and unlike many other contestants. We heard an idiomatic interpretation of two polonaises which are not only never heard in competition but scarcely ever in concert. I dearly love the first Chopin Polonaise in C -sharp Minor with its intensely poetic and lyrical bel canto central section. I also play his youthful polonaises which are such heart-warming early statements of his genius. Also he chose the first of the Trois Nouvelles Etudes - so refreshing! A highly enjoyable recital full of 'the Polish element' that Chopin himself often lamented was lacking from 'otherwise excellent performances of my music.' We heard Chopin through the pianist...a definite Chopinist!

Krzysztof  Książek (Poland)

It is heartening to see and hear the development of this young gifted Polish pianist over many years now. I have heard him many times at the Duszniki Zdroj Festival and also in the Paderewski Competition in 2013 where I truly felt he was undervalued by some members of the jury. He won the Best Polish Pianist Prize however.

I wrote after his Stage I in the 2013 Paderewski Competition competition: 

He has a very individual voice and definite views on Chopin as became clear [in the Sonata].

Then from Stage II:

It is such a pleasure to see this young Pole doing so well in competition. In this stage he did not disappoint and seems to be at some sort of peak just now. He began with the Mozart 8 Variations in A major on Come un'agnello from Sarti's Fra i due litiganti, K.460. This was a performance that showed the definite 'operatic' origins with a particularly lovely tone, sense of classical style and detache articulation that suited Mozart's keyboard writing perfectly.

This was followed by far the best Paderewski we have heard in the competition and it was so fine I am almost sure it will not be bettered (there is a special prize for the finest Paderewski performance). From Miscellanea played the Theme varie in A major Op. 16 No 3 which is such an attractive piece and gave us a truly rumbustious Cracovienne Fantastique which really set us tapping our feet and resisting the urge to leap up and dance.

Then from the Semi-Finals. A remark I could have repeated even more strongly concerning this Chopin competition.

To have travelled thus far in a competition of this standard is a major achievement in itself and this young Polish pianist is to be congratulated. 

So on to this Stage II of the Chopin Competition and his perfromance. 

Książek  has a tremendous sense of rhythm as was clear in his superb set of Mazurkas. They had a purely idiomatic improvised quality about them and a spirit, dare I say this, of distilled Polishness through and through. The F-sharp Minor Polonaise had immense bravura. What struck me so forcibly was his incredible emotional commitment to the music of Chopin. It sprang from every pore of his body and heart to galvanize us all. A great communicator of enthusiasm and joy in playing the piano! However this variety of dynamic bravura in the A Major Waltz Op. 42 seemed to me inelegant and out of place. So few pianists I have ever heard can play Chopin waltzes with the energy, panache, and elegant, civilized refinement intended by Chopin. Cortot, Rubinstein, Lipatti, Samson Francois...a vile act on my part to bring up such names before this brilliant young man who is still developing! 

Rachel Naomi Kudo (Japan) 

Such maturity and development has taken place over the last five years! What courage to enter the competition again. I never did understand why she never passed into Stage II in 2010 along with many other superb Japanese pianists. A fine recital. 

The Japanese competitors are outstanding in refined technique and styl brillante this year.

Kate Liu (United States) 

This delicate fey creature is an absolute phenomenon in the competition and a fabulous pianist. I had the curious vision of an immensely precocious Chopin savant whilst listening and watching her. If one has any criticism at all it is that I am not convinced that she understands the inner spiritual life and Polishness of Chopin, this most inaccessible of composers. But that could be said of many great pianists playing Chopin including Horowitz (on occasion)! 

Piotr Nowak (Poland)  

This pianist has a perfect and characteristically 'Polish' approach to playing Chopin. Forthright, 'masculine', rebellious, with strong tone and not so delicate touch. Thoroughly satisfying as a fine virtuoso pianist but not a great deal of poetry there and the seductive feminine side of the composer was rather absent for me.

Georgijs Osokins (Latvia)  

I hope we do not have a walkout by Martha when the others disagree! A pianist vaguely reminiscent of Evgeni Bozhanov but nowhere near the brilliance and magic of that musically recreative and individual artist. Nor Pogorelich years ago. Osokins is definitely 'his own man' with a large engaging and extrovert personality together with romantic  film star good looks, bella figura in abundance, who is clearly playing for the audience and not the jury.  He even had his own custom stool a la Bozhanov. Immensely entertaining and an excellent choice of interesting programme. I found his extrovert  and slightly unsubtle playing somewhat mannered in Chopin and I felt his tone was not distinguished in the manner of say the luminous qualities of Eric Lu. But how refreshing to have a theatrical presence among us for once! I would love to hear and see him play Liszt, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev or Scriabin. He has a great celebrity career ahead I predict whether or not he is highly placed in the competition.

Charles Richard-Hamelin (Canada)

Clearly a mature artist with a great deal of experience. Tremendously developed authoritative playing, stylish and impressive. Possibly one of the best thought through and performed E-major Rondos I have ever heard - full of styl brillant life, exuberance and contrasted moods, superbly phrased. Playing decidedly for himself. One of the best F-sharp minor Polonaises I have heard in the competition. The Polonaise-Fantaisie was a penetrating interpretation of this difficult and fiendishly complex late work.

Dimitry Shishkin (Russia)

Next to Eric Lu and Kate Liu by far the most astonishing pianist so far in this competition . He is genuinely in the Richter, Gilels mould of fertile imagination, unique reading of the score and breathtaking virtuosity in performance. Rich tone, rather light touch for a Russian and superb control of dynamics, pedalling and articulation. This was absolutely fantastic playing on every level far beyond what is called mere 'technique' and 'musicality' either in or out of any competition. Packed with electrical excitement. A unique 'voice'.

I have never heard anything quite like it for years. Really. Unique. He was already playing short works at the age of 2. He is also a composer. The most noble, measured, controlled A-flat major Polonaise I have ever heard - and we have heard some in this competition and out of it! The LH 'military octave spirals' were spellbinding, effortless and hauntingly threatening. The opening to the B-flat minor Scherzo was the forbidding question with an answer from the grave just as Chopin desired. An improvised compositional quality throughout - a player entirely immersed in his own sound world. 'Authentic' Chopin in the John Rinkean sense.

Shishkin is not a profound Chopin poet like Eric Lu but if any pianist was to convince me of Chopin in a modern dramatic and dynamic style on a Steinway it is was this pianist. A body attached to a pair of hands. 

Here we have a truly developed artist. A unique 'soul' in the Dostoevskyian sense. I had the distinct feeling it was as if I was standing before a Cubist of Fauvist painting by Braque or Cezanne for the first time. Not sure what exactly to make of it but convinced of its individual and almost visionary qualities.

A magnificent Stage II. He will take some beating in this competition I can tell you but I have not heard everyone in Stage II yet. Of course the jury decision will be a compromise of sorts and this is never kind to individuality of a high order such as this.

Michal Szymanowski (Poland)

An experienced and good Polish pianist who performs Chopin with that particularly Polish idiom and ambiance.  The A-major Waltz op. 42 was particularly well finished, elegant and stylish. The interpretatively difficult F minor Fantasia considered and meaningful unlike too many I have heard in this stage.

Filharmonia Warszawska 2015

Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev (Russia)

Clearly a brilliant pianist of the first flight but I felt throughout that any penetrating interpretation of this difficult, ambiguous, inaccessible yet popular composer Chopin escaped him much of the time.

Alexei Tartakovsky (United States)

This mature artist was very impressive and the authority gained through experience shone through. He showed great attention to detail with a fine rich tone and a touch that never became harsh in fortissimo playing - rather rare particularly in the first stage of the competition. I felt however that much of his playing was almost 'over-interpreted' to the point where the natural flow of the music became almost static such as the opening of the Polonaise-Fantaisie which for me bordered on the mannered rather than the emotionally discursive an enlightening. The so-called 'Heroic' Polonaise was full of noble sentiment and controlled tempo, never hysterical. An excellent recital.

Andrzej Wiercinski (Poland)

For me the finest of the Polish pianists in the competition. I heard him at Duszniki Zdroj in August and was very impressed with his command of the Chopin idiom. Of course he is in the class of Wojciech Switala and it shows. Switala is without doubt one of the finest Polish pianists, in fact pianists anywhere, playing Chopin today. But he is a retiring and shy personality (perfect for Chopin incidentally) who remains rather unknown outside of his own land - more is the pity. The Scherzo in C minor Op. 39 was an absolutely magnificent account - powerful, lyrical, flaring with terrifying tempestuousness. A magnificent reading as was his noble, impassioned and perfectly paced Op. 53 Polonaise. The Ballade Op. 38 was similarly a deeply satisfying Chopin mini opera. One cannot have everything! I felt in the waltzes Andrzej could have had more of the elegance and affectation of the French 'salon', an ambience of which Chopin was addictively familiar and fond (read his family correspondence). There is a certain lack of finesse in his tone and touch which is not the case with many Asian players and the more experienced competitors (he is not yet 20).

Zi Xu (China)

I also heard this pianist in the Paderewski Competition in 2013. Bydgoszcz certainly hosts some fine musicians! How his playing and musicianship has improved since then. He was so popular with his fellow students then - they crammed the hall to cheer him on. How happy they must be today to see him achieve Stage II in this fiendish competition. 

His Polonaise-Fantaisie indicated a complete grasp of the complexities of this late work. His strong left hand brought out much of the usually concealed counterpoint (of which Chopin was one of the greatest masters since Bach) and polyphony. Rare in this competition, Xu conveyed a strong sense of żal, a Polish word in this context meaning regret leading to a mixture of resentment and anger in the face of unavoidable fate. A deeply moving performance for me of a complex work written when Chopin was moving towards the cold embrace of death. The Prelude in C sharp Minor Op. 45 was similarly sensitive and moving. Xu conveys a wonderful sense of improvisation in his playing and has a fine ear. A true exponent of the Chopin aesthetic as I conceive of it.

Yike (Tony) Yang (Canada)

It is wonderful to hear the luminous and quite ravishing tone, that students of  Dang Thai Son produce from the piano. The sound possesses a burnish and clarity of articulation denied others. Erik Lu similarly spent time studying with him. For once the Barcarolle did not begin with a szforzando crash of the gondola into the wharf at San Marco. An elegiac performance of melancholy beauty. A terrifically stylish Waltz in E Major Op. 18. The Scherzo in C sharp Minor somewhat over-interpreted for me but the Op. 53 Polonaise was majestic and emotional - in fact in my kind's eye and watching him on the piano stool he was riding his steed into battle! A highly enjoyable recital.

Miyako Arishma (Japan)

Beauty transfigured by music. This 'Mona Lisa' of the competition is one of the most refined players of the instrument one could imagine with the graceful and elegant hands of a Japanese fan dancer. This highly sensitive creature produces a radiant tone with the lightest of touches. All her playing is imbued with the fragile poetry of Chopin, a feeling of improvised immateriality mesmerizes the listener. Yet she possesses power when required, a noble full tone in the G minor Ballade in the moments of its most passionate narrative utterance. The C sharp Minor Polonaise had the most glorious bel canto central section I have heard and the doom laden expression and melancholic pain and anger of żal within the Polonaise in E-flat Minor that followed was all the further augmented. 

The Nocturne in F-sharp Minor Op. 15 No:2 was another intensely subtle emotional journey through the world of dreams. Her fioraturas had a perfect diaphanous decorative quality integrated seamlessly into the melodic line - absolutely as I understand Chopin's compositional refinement and the improvisational quality of his aesthetic a pianist composer.

In contrast to the majority of the competitors excepting perhaps Eric Lu, one feels with Arishma no longer anchored to this earth but floating in an ether of sound above it - in just the same way as the listeners to Chopin and also his pupils described his playing. This together with a face reminiscent of the Renaissance portrait of the Madonna del Prato (Madonna of the Meadow) by Bellini made for a recital that uplifted the spirit to a truly Chopinesque poetic state of mind and heart, an achievement of European civilization. Flickers of real joy in making music passed over her features. In the final Mazurek in A minor (Gaillard) Db op. 42A in the long trill pianissimo that concludes the piece, it was as if the soul was trembling near death, about to part from its mortal coil, the trembling of aspen leaves in a fading breath. Inconsolable. Forlorn. 

The crude industrial word 'competition' is utterly out of place here. What a rare poetic experience that recital was...

To my mind only four competitors of the 81 who began Stage I approach the Chopin aesthetic as I conceive of it from all my reading and research over so many years now. I initially said they were a precious few. They are Eric Lu, Kate Liu, Dinara Klinton, Zi Xu, and Miyako Arishma. 

Will any of them win the competition? Well, I feel sure they will all pass from Stage II to Stage III. 

Prize winners especially in 2015 are seldom 'poets of the piano'.

23.35  on October 12, 2015 

So four out of five of my 'poets' reached Stage III. 

Quite a few of the above pianists who most impressed me in Stage II reached Stage III...15 out of 20.  No achievement for me in that!

There is some poetic justice then in this world except for the exquisite poetry of 'The Bellini' and the other superb Japanese pianists of immense refinement who took part in this competition. Aimi Kobayashi is certainly a fine pianist and musician but far more declamatory and less poetic than the others. A similar Japanese exclusion situation occurred at this stage in 2010. I simply cannot understand it. For me the Japanese have a profound understanding of the Chopin aesthetic and ambience. Perhaps this subtlety and gem-like refinement is lost in large halls. This was a problem for Chopin himself.

                                                                                                  *  *  *  *  *

On 12 October, the second-round auditions of the 17th Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition were completed. Over the course of 4 days, 43 pianists from 16 countries performed.

According to the Competition rules and regulations, the jury – led by Prof. Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń – admitted 20 participants to the 3rd round from 12 countries, including: 3 from Poland, 3 from South Korea, 3 from United States, 2 from Russia, 2 from Canada, 1 from: Italy, Croatia, Ukraine, Japan, Czech Republic, Latvia and China.

She gave a very sympathetic address of consolation to those who failed at Stage II when announcing those who would proceed to Stage III.

List of the participants of the third round:

Mr Luigi Carroccia (Italy)
Ms Galina Chistiakova (Russia)
Mr Seong-Jin Cho (South Korea)
Mr Chi Ho Han (South Korea)
Mr Aljoša Jurinić (Croatia)
Ms Su Yeon Kim (South Korea)
Ms Dinara Klinton (Ukraine)
Ms Aimi Kobayashi (Japan)
Mr Marek Kozák (Czech Republic)
Mr Łukasz Krupiński (Poland)
Mr Krzysztof Książek (Poland)
Ms Kate Liu (United States)
Mr Eric Lu (United States)
Mr Szymon Nehring (Poland)
Mr Georgijs Osokins (Latvia)
Mr Charles Richard-Hamelin (Canada)
Mr Dmitry Shishkin (Russia)
Mr Alexei Tartakovsky (United States)
Mr Zi Xu (China)
Mr Yike (Tony) Yang (Canada)

The auditions for the third round will begin on 14 October at 10:00 AM and last until 16 October. 

The Chopin Institute have released a particularly interesting Limited Edition set of CDs and DVDs. The CDs (16 of them) are recordings of ALL the individual jury members. The DVDs are portraits of all the members of the jury. John Rink is represented by one of his excellent scholarly articles which I have read - Authentic Chopin: History, Analysis and Intuition in Performance - unfortunately only translated into Polish in this box as a booklet. It is available in English in Chopin Studies 2 in the Jim Samson edited book published by CUP (Cambridge University Press 2006). This is fascinating volume incidentally which I have read cover to cover and worth buying if you are a serious Chopinist.  

The CD and DVD collection below is available from the Chopin Institute Shop and at the well-stocked shop at the competition venue at the Filharmonia Warszawska.

There are a few things I like about piano competitions and one is the challenge to received ideas concerning interpretation they stimulate. To paraphrase a remark made by Artur Schnabel concerning great music he was interested in performing:

Chopin's music is greater than it can ever be performed.

As the competition progresses I have become more and more convinced of this rather idealistic observation. Chopin belonged to a Romantic generation of pianist-composers where the main intention was to communicate the musical content to the audience. I do not feel this is the case with many of the competitors, but then piano competitions are about many other aspects of the music profession rather than the art of music.

Leschetizky told his pupils   You are not a pianist, you are a musician

I am beginning to wonder whether, judging by the reaction of audiences to some of the playing, whether the ear of contemporary listeners to classical music has also become unable to hear true art rather than the unadulterated modern aesthetic of 'flawless' recorded reproduction of 'correct', or at the other extreme, 'sensationalist' celebrity interpretations. This rather than becoming involved with the terrible risks, fears and spiritual challenges involved in the recreation of music that you have not written as a conduit for the composer. Can audiences discern the difference any longer? From my en passant conversations of impressions in the foyer of the Filharmonia it appears not.

In judging performances as a listener one unavoidably brings one's personal life experience and musical knowledge to the task. Hence the passionate variety of opinion.

On the part of the performer I feel that, except in the rarest cases, this is also the reason there is such variation in approach. The inherently tragic vision of Chopin after leaving Poland contrasts enormously with his brilliantly sunny, fun-loving nature as a young man. This is the reason I feel many of these young artists play the early styl brillant works and etudes so well and yet struggle for sufficient spiritual depth of interpretation with the profoundly tragic nature of his late style. Such suffering as Poland experienced after the First Partition is beyond the experience of most young people in 2015, surely a blessing in life but not perhaps in the struggle to recreate the complex psyche of Chopin in musical art. Many young pianists are not suited to the pain and inaccessible mystery of Chopin - and by the way the conundrum of playing a mazurka in the true Polish style repeated to me ad nauseam! Only Poles can play mazurkas.....and so on. Nonsense of course

In keeping with my revised philosophy I will only deal with pianists I feel may pass into the final.

Reflections on Stage III       14-16 October 2015

Galina Chistiakova (Russia) 

I had such high hopes of her performance but I felt she was playing below her best. It then tuned out that he had caught the virus that is besieging the Filharmonia (just listen to the coughing). She was playing with a fever of 40C. 

I felt she rushed sections of the Doppio movimento of the Op. 35 Sonata but the Marche funebre was very moving at the tempo she selected and the Presto haunting. Her touch, tone and interpretation of the two Ballades (Op. 47 and Op.23) was outstanding. The mazurkas were rather over-pedalled for my taste and too 'romantic' and verging on the dreaded waltz rhythm to be Polish!

Seong-Jin Cho (South Korea)

At the risk of 'overkill' with this pianist I would like to quote an edited version of what I wrote about his performances at Duszniki Zdroj in 2010 and 2012:

"Ah, Youth - the glory of it!" so wrote Joseph Conrad.

Piotr Paleczny, the Artistic Director of this festival and a member of the 2015 jury, is to be congratulated on his unfailing ability to give us outstanding pianistic experiences, particularly with prodigious young talents.

Every once in a while a Wunderkind actually lives up to the hype in performance. This is certainly the case with the South Korean Seong-Jin Cho who this afternoon gave one of the most outstanding recitals I have ever heard from a young pianist - 'prodigious' scarcely describes the effect. Of all the musically talented Asian nations, South Korea has always seemed to me to produce the most musically gifted pianists by far. Perhaps the fraught and tragic history of this country enables its musicians to more readily identify with the psyche of composers such as Chopin. 

He appeared here two years ago at the age of 16 and this is what I wrote on that occasion:

The Chopin Ballade No: 1 in G minor Op. 23 was superb from the technical point of view but really showed no sign of understanding the work as a musical narrative - not a technical tour de force. The Chopin Ballades tell a story in absolute music - a type of mini-opera. The Op.10 Etudes were magnificent and thrilling with absolute technical perfection - of course a few lacked emotional maturity but then many pianists are simply too young to convincingly unravel the mystery of Chopin's psyche. That will come.

His 'Heroic' Polonaise of Chopin Op. 53 one of the grandest and most magnificent performances I have ever heard - the predominantly Polish audience leapt to their feet with a shout at the concluding chord. No bashing or hysteria just glorious tone and musical accomplishment. What a future this young man has ahead of him! He was so perfectly prepared in all aspects of concert pianism, technique and musical understanding - watch out you Europeans!

The glorious tone Seong-Jin Cho produced, his immaculate articulation and exact phrasing, his poise at the instrument are the first thing one notices about his playing.

How all this was accomplished in such an incandescent fashion by an 18 year old is beyond me but more was to come.

His natural musical gifts were immediately clear.

After the interval the Chopin Ballade in F minor Op. 52 (1842-1843). He has now understood the musical narrative nature of Chopin's Ballades to a degree not obvious in the Ballade of two years ago. This was a far more mature performance, a wonderful performance in fact, of one of the undisputed greatest works of Western piano literature.

The sound and feather-light articulation of the earlier sections reminded me in sound of Horowitz at his peak or Godowsky - that incredible Fingerfertigkeit (finger dexterity) of the late nineteenth century. Exquisite beauty of tone with absolute delicacy and evenness of touch. Possibly the poetry and charm elude him on rare occasions but that will hopefully come with maturity.

I have never seen the Professors at Duszniki so animated. Many were shouting 'Bravo' - a standing ovation - two weeping with the emotion of it. Remarkable scenes indeed in this super-critical musical environment.

This recital was like the electric green of early spring growth as the trees are coming into leaf, a shimmering vibrancy of new colour and new life, pulsating with the force of nature that will inevitably last but a short time, miraculous to experience in its unique energy and delight.

How fortunate I am to have witnessed this explosion of talent.

The remarkable artistry of a hand-crafted shingle roof on a house in Duszniki Zdroj which reminded me of the matched perfection of the notes Seong-Jin Cho produces on the piano

He has matured into an experienced performing artist since 2012. The glorious tone and fabulous articulation remain but he has begun to monumentalize Chopin which does not suit this most intimate of composers. His approach lacks the inherent lyrical poetry contained in the music. In the Preludes Op. 28 it is well to remember that the unease or if you will dis-ease (hyphen is intentional) of Chopin is spiritual rather than physicalThe Scherzo in B flat Minor Op.31 was tumultuous but he missed the final high F! Such a shock for everyone including himself as it the final triumphant statement over adversity. The competition audience adore him.

Dinara Klinton (Ukraine)

This was again a fine recital but with unexpected weaknesses in unexpected places. The Mazurkas Op.30 were possibly slightly less 'Polish' in their rhythm than they might have been despite being sensitive and engagingly played. Her Ukrainian background helped her no doubt with a feeling for folk music rhythms but Poles would rush in and disagree I suppose! I would not presume to ever tell a Polish pianist or musician anything at all about mazurka rhythm - even Chopin almost had fisticuffs with Meyerbeer over the question. I do not really understand it fully myself - much to the not so secret satisfaction of my Polish friends!

The Sonata Op. 35 was perhaps modeled by Chopin on Beethoven's own funeral sonata Op.26 which he taught and played. Here Klinton gave us a searching interpretation of immense individuality and fatalistic penetration especially the Marche funebre. Threat and tragedy hovered above this entire reading. The opening Grave. Doppio movimento was exactly that with a passionate doubling of the urgency and ominous presage of a rider, occasionally in a reflective even nostalgic mood, yet galloping inexorably towards his doom. Tremendous energy of a briefly resuscitated life in the Scherzo, again with a reflective embedded nocturne.

A properly eloquent tempo and dynamic for the Marche funebre is so difficult to achieve. So many people seem to think it ought to accompany an imaginary military band with a heavy dull tread lacking in poetry. I felt a deep and haunting melancholy here within the cantabile nocturnal central section, a forlorn cry of the soul facing its inevitable destiny. Played piano to pianissimo with great poetry and a singing tone that carried throughout the hall. Absolute silence reigned there. I was very moved and close to tears - something that has happened rarely in this competition. The polyphony and desperation of the grieving mind and heart depicted in the Presto perhaps could have been slightly more emotional in view of the Marche funebre that preceded it, but her fabulous sound from those swift fingers swept all before it. A fine performance in a competition or out of it, a reading suffused with a variety of melancholy, dare I say in 2015, restricted to the Slavic soul.

The Etudes Op. 25 Nos: 7-12 should have presented no problems for Klinton. In Stage II the first six were magnificent and poetical, something to which we have become accustomed with her. However something seemed to go slightly awry during and after No: 8 that would have lifted them out of the mainstream into the absolutely exceptional as she did in the Paderewski Competition, something her technique and musicality is well able to achieve.

Superb as ever but she was slightly betraying the tension and emotional exhaustion of this psychologically immensely demanding competition. Can you imagine? Probably not unless you have taken part in such a gladiatorial conflict yourself. Everyone here feels it - audience and competitors alike. Remember it is one of the toughest piano competitions in the world, if not the toughest. I still believe she will be a finalist.

Aimi Kobayashi  (Japan)

She is clearly a highly accomplished pianist of the first flight as was obvious in a superb styl brillant  account of the Rondo in E Major Op.16. Although the rest of her programme was similarly outstandingly executed with skill and musicianship I am never emotionally or spiritually moved by her performances. Fortunately this is not a sine qua non of this competition so I expect she will make the final.

Lukasz Krupinski (Poland)

At the beginning of each day the jury are introduced individually and applauded. I must say I feel this entirely unnecessary as the audience at this stage is much the same people who have bought tickets fir all remaining sessions. it has its lighter moments. The jury have become so inured to it that when Akiko Ebi's name was announced Dang Thai Son stood up, realized his error, rapidly sat down and 'much mirth was had by all'. Made a change from the groves of academe!

This was a fine Chopin recital with a group of truly superb Mazurkas Op.59, perhaps the best I have ever heard. The Op. 35 Sonata was excellent except I felt the Marche funebre was at the wrong tempo to communicate the deepest melancholy. The Polonaise-Fantaisie was very fine indeed with a complete grasp and expressed coherence of this complex and challenging work. Almost certainly a finalist. A modest boy, seemed rather introverted, the perfect temperament for a Chopinist, refused an interview with the media. Well done!

Krzysztof Ksiazek (Poland)

His commitment is absolute and he communicates this to the audience. The coherence of the challenging Sonata Op. 58 was never in doubt and the Largo fine indeed. His Mazurkas were as ever superb and emerged as wonderful songs in addition to being dances as they should. The Rondo in E Major Op. 16 had a demonic beginning of great intensity but the ominous presence faded away and a glittering display in styl brillant opened out before us. An accomplished Stage III - he clearly rises above himself in competition and benefits from the stress - I experienced this in Bydgoszcz at the Paderewski Competition. Could easily make the final.

Kate Liu (United States)

Without doubt one of the most extraordinary Chopin recitals I have ever experienced. The Sonata Op.58 was glowing with colour with a wonderfully varied tonal palette. The opening Allegro maestoso was exactly that -  a majestic yet lyrical unfolding of the musical argument. The Scherzo nervous and electrically agitated. 

As I said before this pianist seems to be in touch with some metaphiysical force outside of herself, transfigured by music electromagnetically if that does not sound too fanciful - but I suppose it does to the unimaginative and literal among you! I was reminded of Trifonov you know, the way he is similarly transformed into another being after his hands touch the keyboard. The Largo was a great musical meditation with a remarkable feeling of spiritually searching improvisation. Touched the heart. The final Presto just magnificent in varied dynamic and shading yet retaining power and drive.

The Polonaise-Fantaisie was a magnificently wrought account of this work that gave Chopin so much compositional grief and torment during its gestation and birth. Possibly the finest performance I have ever heard next to that of Grigory Sokolov. I have ceased commenting in mazurkas as I clearly do not have the expertise!

In an interview later she said 'I was not playing at my best. having an off day." I can only speculate what the effect of this Chopin savant would have on an audience when 'on form' !    Finalist no doubt at all.

Eric Lu  (United States)

Almost the same comments as my remarks at the Duszniki Zdroj Festival which appear above. He was more nervous I felt in the competition  (not surprising at 17 - I would have been a terrified and trembling koala). A few solecisms crept in during the Preludes. But I did feel the set had far more coherence than at the Duszniki Zdroj concert. His Mazurkas had beautiful colour and the glowing tone he produces from the instrument is ravishing. His finger articulation is astonishing - all notes sounded to their true value - so rare this - so reminiscent of Horowitz this sound but not the temperament of the great Ukrainian - far more modest and therefore potentially a better Chopinist. Finalist.

There are the notes, there is what is behind the notes and there is what is between the notes' to quote the great Ignaz Friedman.

Geogijs Osokins (Latvia)

A pianist of this stamp (and Evgeni Bozhanov and Ivo Pogorelich before him) presents the jury with a conundrum. He raises all sorts of issues concerning fidelity to the score and the limits of interpretation. He certainly appeals to the younger members of the audience as he brings a creative breath of fresh air into what at times can appears like the music studio of Professor Smellfungus. Analysis of the score of say the Sonata Op. 58 will indicate that Osokins introduced all sorts of modifications and solecisms into Chopin's 'sacred' text, replacing legato with staccato phrases and similar. It also had shortcomings in his conception of the structure of the work and its coherence. Is this freedom permissible within limits and what are they?

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

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

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

Chopin himself said to a pupil (cited in Eigeldinger): 

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

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

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

Isn't the goal of a musician to release the inner life of the work from the limits of its notation in much the same way as Michelangelo conceived that he 'released' a statue trapped in a block of marble?

I enjoyed Osokins and found him an entertaining, communicative and musical pianist despite his shortcomings and cavalier attitude to textual fidelity and structure. The waltzes he played had an infectious energy, rhythm and elegance given to few, despite a rather technically messy Waltz in A Major Op. 42. Clearly I would say he is also an excellent jazz pianist. His improvisatory approach to the mazurkas and waltzes indicted this. 

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

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

Let's hope Osokins is a finalist. I would make him one despite his 'technical' limitations for his value as a musical communicator for the young at heart meeting Chopin of the first time.

Charles Richard-Hamelin (Canada)

More of the great authority this pianist brings to the instrument! The Prelude Op. 45 and Nocturne Op.62 No:2 were sensitively and poetically presented. I enjoyed the rhythm and infectious sheer life force of his Mazurkas Op.33 immensely and the colour and tone - no comment on the idiomatic fidelity from me as a mere Australian! I am afraid I did not like his Barcarolle at all. It was not impressionistic, began with a crash of the gondola into the wharf and I feel sure Debussy would not have loved it either. The Sonata in B Minor Op.58 was magnificently conceived in a word - a fully wrought and powerful edifice with a heartrending Largo full of sensibility and yearning. He created an interpretation that did full justice to the Austro-German Sonata tradition that Chopin was enthralled by in this work. Finalist no doubt.

Incidentally in an interview with TVP he revealed he has enormous enthusiasm for the imaginative musicianship of Evgeni Bozhanov and hopes he soon comes to Canada to play.

Dimitry Shishkin (Russia)

This Stage did not compare in individuality and sheer interpretative courage with his Stages I & II. I felt the Mazurkas Op. 59 were more imitative of Polish models than was necessary. Of course he retained the magnificent tone, a refined sound that we do not often associate with Russian pianists - more French in character. His digital dexterity is mind bending. The four Impromptus were elegantly brought off with immense refinement of touch and articulation. I found his Sonata Op.35 lacking any real sense of an unfolding tragic destiny, not sufficiently emotionally fractured despite Shishkin's formidable pianistic qualities. Finalist.

Alexei Tartakovsky (United States)

Another magnificent recital by this commanding pianist. The Scherzo Op.20  was crammed with turbulent energy of an almost frightening kind contrasting luminously with the  poetic and deeply felt cantabile central episode. I enjoyed the Mazurkas  but as they were rather powerfully played I felt they lacked the intimacy I nearly always associate with them. They have never struck me as declamatory works. There were wonderful moments in a ruminative and splendid narrative in Ballade in F Minor Op. 52 - I never tire of this masterpiece. Such a wonderful tone and touch this pianist possesses!

However I felt the Sonata Op.35 lacked the authentic tragic element in much the same way as Shishkin.  A powerful Grave. Doppio movimento. The tempo of the Marche funebre too fast for me to be moved in a grief stricken state at a funeral. Have you ever watched the slow heavy tread of pallbearers as they walk slowly towards the graveside on a damp autumn evening. It is measured, grieving and slow as the Marche funebre should be. The word 'Marche' should not indicate a military association. Excellent Presto full of foreboding. His tone never becomes harsh and never breaks the sound ceiling of the instrument. 

Zi Xu (China)

It is clear he enjoys playing mazurkas as his face was wreathed in smiles during the group Op. 41. 'I could not possibly comment' on Polish mazurkas and their correct rhythm. I felt he was ever so slightly nervous with the Preludes that opened the programme. As with many young pianists attempting this cycle (never written to be performed as a group) the presentation of them coherently is a formidable challenge. The Sonata Op.58  had a fine improvisatory quality about it  especially the Largo which was one of the most poetic and deeply felt in the competition. An outstanding musician who obviously loves Poland, its culture, language and especially the music of Fryderyk Chopin.

Yike (Tony) Yang (Canada)

A beautiful 'innocent' beginning to the 'life opera' which is the Ballade Op.52. At times though I felt it slightly too declamatory and emphatic. The Bolero Op. 19 was a marvellous and refreshing choice for a young pianist. I felt the meaning of the music in the Sonata Op. 35 escaped him despite it being a very fine virtuoso performance with great structural insight. The Chopin Sonatas are not virtuoso display pieces and require personal maturity. Little that Chopin wrote after leaving Poland was in the styl brillant. For me Yang did not plumb the depths of yearning and pain that suffuse the work. Could easily be a finalist simply on his brilliant 'technique', musicality and structural grasp.

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Of all the many versions of the Sonata op. 35 we have heard in Stage III, the żal and manifold tragedy contained within this deeply introspective sonata, the contrasting tempi and mercurial moods were hauntingly captured in performance by Dinara Klinton. In a rare interpretation that did not present the work as a superficial virtuoso display piece, she plumbed the far deeper and unsettling depths of our brief lives. 

Quite unlike the riveting Rachmaninoff recording of 1930! But then a composer-pianist playing another composer-pianist's music will have no hesitation in recreating the music and stamping it with his own personality. Chopin did the same with his performances of Beeethoven.

Musical appreciation is a two-way street. When judging any musical performance remember that you personally are bringing a proportion of the judgement to an interpretation and are responsible for this. The onus is not entirely on the performer with you placed in the role of an unaccountable consumer. You are accountable. No judgment of a performance is absolute. 

On the part of the listener, any judgement depends on your personal mood on the night of the concert, your own accumulated musical knowledge and study, the number of recordings of the work you may have heard and perhaps even more importantly, your own accumulated life experience. All these factors, conscious and subliminal, are brought to bear when you make a judgement. 

In say the Op. 35 'Funeral march sonata' of Chopin, as a performer and listener it is well to ask yourself 'What experience of crippling grief have I had in my life?' If through youth or good luck you are fortunate enough to have had none, then you will need to greatly exercise your imagination to avoid a superficial interpretation or judgement of a performance. 

In Chopin's day death was experienced mainly in the family home and was often lingering, painful and ghastly - an intensely personal experience. This deep pathos must suffuse the sonata. A living interpretation is not only a question of a 'musically correct' rendering of the notation by the performer with 'expression added' as a variety of condiment.

Grand Final      18-20 October 2015   

List of the participants of the finals:

Mr Seong-Jin Cho (South Korea)             P
Mr Aljoša Jurinić (Croatia)
Ms Aimi Kobayashi (Japan)                      P
Ms Kate Liu (United States)                     P
Mr Eric Lu (United States)                       P
Mr Szymon Nehring (Poland)
Mr Georgijs Osokins (Latvia)                   P (based on hope and an enlightened jury)
Mr Charles Richard-Hamelin (Canada)  P
Mr Dmitry Shishkin (Russia)                   P
Mr Yike (Tony) Yang (Canada)               P

'P' indicates my predictions (see above) if that means anything at all which it does not except to me. No achievement in that!       

8 out of 10 for Stage III.  Two of 'my poets' reached the Finals.

The concerto stage will present the jury with a formidable decision. The individual styles of interpretation are significantly different yet the so-called 'technical' level of execution and structural comprehension is of the highest.

Despite these great achievements at the keyboard, I have seldom been emotionally moved in this competition, possibly even less than in 2010. 

I think, all things considered, I prefer to be moved rather than astonished. 

As Thomas Mann said in Dr. Faustus 'Music is a cabbalistic craft.' The problem is that so few musicians touch the soul with arcane magic, the spiritual source of all music.

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All the finalist concertos are performed with the 
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra 
directed by Jacek Kaspszyk

Chopin composed the E minor Concerto Op. 11 (only one finalist has chosen to play the Concerto in F Minor Op.21) 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 favourite opera composers). 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. Familiarity with the early instruments of Chopin's time is of vital importance in coming to terms with Chopin's intentions, assuming of course you consider them important in 2015 - somthing which far too many pianists merely pay lip service.

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. 

18 October 2015

Seong-Jin Cho (South Korea)

As you might imagine from my previous commentary I keenly anticipated this final statement from Seong-Jin Cho in the competition. It was an immaculate performance from first note to last, the music superbly prepared as I have noticed from his previous stages. An truly outstanding example in every sense of the styl brillant of the period as composed by the quite wonderful Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Franciszek Lessel, John Field and Ignacy Feliks Dobrzynski  - all contemporaries of Chopin but of course lacking his melodic genius. 

Stylistically the performance was absolutely as it should be - elegantly phrased, graceful with aristocratic poise, perfectly accurate dynamically matched notes (not one wrong note or even slight 'smudge'), glowing tone produced with the finest taste, finesse, colour and bel canto in the melodic lines especially in the Romance. Larghetto. He played with such ease and control it was enthralling to watch and hear. Such musical gifts this man possesses! 

He had excellent communication with the orchestra and conductor.  Even at this young age he is already a full concert artist in the professional sense with an extensive career for someone so young. Was this the reason I longed for the spontaneous appearance of the poetry latent in his youthful soul to emerge from this flawlessly prepared and controlled surface? This sounds terribly unfair to such a young artist of these supreme gifts but is it possible to be too perfect? How I longed  for just a moment of extempore, spontaneous and unconstrained expression in such a breathtaking performance.

Aljosa Jurinic (Croatia)

Although clearly a fine pianist and musician to have reached this stage in the competition, I have always felt in previous stages that he did not have a great deal of interest to say about the music of Chopin. Conventionality of a high order. However I enjoyed his idiomatic and energetic mazurkas in Stage III immensely with their infectious rhythm.

His statement of the main theme of the Allegro maestoso was particularly lyrical and affecting and the rhythm of the Rondo vivace characterful. The performance reminded me of Ingolf Wunder in 2010 in some ways. The Romance. Larghetto is a difficult tempo to achieve that is 'just right'. Slightly faster than Largo (so that the movement does not drag and become cloyingly sentimental) but faster than Adagio. Instinct and how deeply the pianist has absorbed the climat de Chopin into his inner being must guide the interpretation. 

Most styl brillant piano concertos of this period have a similarly ruminative, poetic middle movement but of course lack Chopin's genius for melody. I felt Jurinic did not take me far beyond the scored notation an experience I always seek - a journey of the spirit. I felt too in the outer movements a slight sense of 'technical' struggle with the rippling semiquaver gestures of the decorative styl brillant fioraturas showing rather less finesse with the texture of Bruxelles lace that let us say Cho gave us shortly before.

He had an excellent rapport with the conductor and orchestra and I noticed he even winked at Kaspszyk between the first and second movements. Now that is relaxation during the stress of competition one should boast of to friends!

Aimi Kobayashi (Japan)

The previous Japanese finalist in the competition was the extraordinary Takashi Yamamoto in 2005, the year Rafal Blechacz won the Gold Medal. What a personality he is...

Kobayashi was a child prodigy and has an already established international career and even significant fame in Japan. She has already performed to acclaim with great orchestras such as The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century under Frans Bruggen. One might justifiably ask why at this stage is she taking part in this competition? It scarcely seems fair to the others who are just starting out on that great journey of becoming an artist.

Anticipation was running high in the atmosphere of the Filharmonia. The predicted sensational performance of the past Wunderkind was only partially realized for me. Again it is all to do with the realization or not of the restrained Chopin aesthetic. 

The concerto opened well despite (well it seemed so to me) almost zero communication with the conductor. The articulation was far more Lisztian and extrovert in weight and general approach than I felt was appropriate for a realization of the true styl brillant. Yes, brilliant but 'not the right sort of brilliance' if you catch my meaning - rather more brilliantine than innocent, a superb contrivance lacking the refinement, finish and poised elegance of Cho. 

The Romance. Larghetto was beautiful, full of tonal colour and sensitive. I was moved by the authenticity of her feeling and lyrical approach to this beautiful bel canto song. Her cantabile tone and touch were fine indeed. However this faded away again in the Finale. Vivace which again had more Lisztian bravura and extrovert playing to the audience than was strictly necessary. Chopin never did such a thing, in fact abhorred 'the exhalation of the crowd' as he put it. Many of his students felt his music was actually too good to actually play at all! A performance would always be found wanting, even his own he declared. His own playing was often criticized for having insufficient volume. Naturally one would not wish to follow him in that but a balance must be achieved and historical sources considered.

This may sound odd, even mean spirited, but I feel her celebrity, concert experience and prodigious talent actually worked to her detriment in this competition. Why is she here?Much of her expression seemed to me 'learned', not coming organically or spontaneously from within, except perhaps in the Larghetto. This emotional commitment or at least the communication of it to us is necessary especially in this concerto which demands a certain innocence, the maintenance of young illusions in love and an adolescent joy in life. The labour and strategic building of a modern concert career unavoidably, and in too many cases, negatively, enters the musical picture. Not a popular view of the popular Kobayashi.

Kate Liu (United States)

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.' 

This remark could not be more appropriate applied to the magical performance given by Kate Liu this evening. Great 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 mind and fingers as in this case. 

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 clichéd 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 of which Liu seems to be profoundly aware. She never inflated his dynamic or exceeded the boundaries of 'good taste, something Chopin admired above all in Mozart.

From the outset the Allegro maestoso possessed a slight aura of melancholy expressed with a pure Mozartian elegance, aristocratic restraint and sense of bel canto song. Her phrasing was supremely and naturally musical in the deepest sense of that word. It moved through so many moods of varied colour, a journey through a chiaroscuro tonal palette. The effect was as if the young Chopin, hopelessly in love, was thoughtfully wandering during a Polish golden October through a sun-dappled birch forest of his beloved Mazovian countryside. The phantoms of Hummel, Ries, Mozart, Field, Moscheles and even Paganini all stood modestly at Kate Liu's shoulder, she being aware of them with perfect taste and understanding - the gestures of Chopin's musical expression at that time accurately placed within their historical context. At one moment poetical with subdued refinement yet at another strong, powerful and masculine. 

The Romance. Larghetto after the soulful preparation of the first movement was an eloquent and exquisite love song with all the character of what might be considered a Chopin 'nocturne'. The simplicity and love contained within her phrasing was deeply affecting. Tears welled up. Perhaps the orchestral players may have struggled with the slow and internally reflective tempo she adopted but the music breathed. I felt the lackluster orchestral playing came across as rather crude in comparison with this young pianist's profound and sensitive musicality. Much of the solo instrumental counterpoint was particularly unsubtle and dynamically unbalanced. How I yearned for the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century under the sadly missed Frans Bruggen. 

It may have been better if she had performed alone using the solo version of the concerto which Chopin often did, or the version with small string band. She deserved better on this important evening and surely will be offered a better orchestra in the future. An unfair comparison perhaps but my 'modern' benchmark for this concerto with a magical symbiosis between orchestra and soloist is the 1967 DGG recording by Marta Argerich and the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado. The sensitive conducting and subtle individual orchestral playing in this recording preserves the delicate counterpoint and balance of orchestra and sublime soloist. This was only two years after Argerich had won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1965 and playing at her peak.

Liu reminded me so much of Trifonov in the same movement in 2010. Here again was the true nature of adolescent love, cloudless and illusioned before the tigers of sexual experience and betrayal begin their feast. The breath of young idealistic love unsullied. Did Kate also have someone she loved in mind as she played? She must have. She spoke so self-effacingly in a later interview of love on a summer's day in grassy fields. It certainly felt like it, so authentic was this rare artistic, musical and poetic moment.

The Finale. Vivace a lively, sponataneous and energetic krakowiak dance, full of exuberance and the sheer joy of life that one feels at the age of 20. One distinctly felt Chopin's sunny and blithesome temperament when as a young man he might have moodily contemplated his distant and as it turned out, unrequited first love. It is rumoured the blue-eyed Polish soprano Konstancja Gładkowska, who possibly inspired the romantic emotions contained within this concerto, preferred the attentions of two splendidly uniformed and dashing young Russian cavalry officers. Chopin loved her voice (as he loved the voice and opera throughout his life), the most beautiful of the young female music students at the Warsaw Conservatory. He met her when he was 19 and she sang at his farewell from the country. They exchanged rings but their correspondence faded away after a year.

Liu recreated the work before our very ears. She had so much to say about the work. She sculptured musical phrases in keeping with all the luminously shifting emotions, expressively eloquent, so full of yearning and alterations of mood. All this contained and constrained within a complete understanding of the styl brillant musical aesthetic of the day.

This was an immanent musical experience by the pianist lost in her own world of dreams. Oh yes far indeed from 'the exhalations of the crowd' and her career, communicating these tenuous and subtle feelings deep into the heart of every member of the audience.

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

A standing ovation - the first I have ever experience at any competition, Chopin or otherwise.

Konstancja Gładkowska (1810-1889)

19 October 2015

Eric Lu (United States)

Naturally in light on my foregoing remarks you would realize I had high expectations of this concerto stage. They were certainly realized and even more opened up new avenues of thought for me. I was seated in the back of the balcony for this concert having been given a ticket for this final in a miraculous gesture by a friend.

The E Minor Concerto Op. 11 of 1830, although the first to be published, was the second that Chopin wrote after the F Minor Concerto Op. 21. His rapidly increasing compositional skill is evident. The period of its composition was a period of chronic indecision for Chopin. He discussed endlessly with his family if he should venture out from musically relatively provincial Warsaw to the sophisticated worlds of Paris or Vienna. He wrote with uncanny prescience 

‘I’m still sitting here – I don’t have the strength to decide on the day […] I think that I’m leaving to die’

I must confess to not being happy with the lack of what I would call 'committed energy' on the part of this orchestra and the conductor. I feel the opening could be far more rhythmically noble, even Beethovenian in symphonic strength as the powerful presence of the timpani would indicate. The entrance of the lyrical soaring main themes on violins would then have far more of an impact. The Allegro maestoso has the word maestoso qualifying the direction Allegro for a reason. It is a direction we often encounter  in the Chopin polonaises - a traditional expression of distinct Polishness that contains within the original dance the martial qualities of nobility, grace, resistance, élanthe glitter of the sabre, the proud stroking of the Sarmartian moustache valiantly facing the enemy. Where was this? Once again my benchmark for this concerto with its magical symbiosis between orchestra and soloist is the 1967 DGG recording by Marta Argerich and the London Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado. This only two years after she had won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

Lu introduced the main themes on the piano with intense lyricism and bel canto. His understanding of the Chopin melodic genius is deep indeed and his execution of the decorative variations on these themes and phrasing is musical and superb. He has so much to say about this composer. There is such coherence and continuity in the first movement I was reminded of the Vistula River in flood - the surface broad and unflustered but the power beneath deep and powerful. 

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

Then a curious thought occurred to me. I was comparing in my inner ear the intensely lyrical performance the previous evening of this same movement by Kate Liu. I suddenly realised that here, within the same Larghetto of these two distinct performances, was laid out in song the contrast in sensibility and sentiment between masculine and feminine expression of youthful love. Both artists are intensely musical poetical beings it seems to me, yet there was a strength of lyricism in the playing of Eric that could almost be tranmuted into the mirror image of an even more tender feminine sensitivity in the performance of Kate. Two sides of the most beautiful human coin one can imagine.

The Rondo.Vivace follows attacca, meaning without pause and suddenly we are launched from our romantic reverie into the youthful dance world of the fun-loving youthful Chopin, that of the energetic krakowiak. As I have mentioned before the actual sound  that Lu extracted  from the instrument in this wonderful styl brillant  movement is really quite breathtaking.  

You know he reminds me in the quality of his sound of the recordings of the giants of late Romantic pianism such as Josef Lhévinne, Moritz Rosenthal, Josef Hofman, Vladimir Horowitz and Leopold Godowsky. He has the similar remarkable Fingerfertigkeit (finger dexterity) of the late nineteenth 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. 

I feel in many ways Lu possesses this and I dearly hope with musical maturity and experience he retains and develops these qualities. Such talents are a gift from God to your inner ear. You can develop this inborn gift of mind hand co-ordination and combine it with a concern to listen with concentration to the sound you are making at the instrument. This final movement was a spectacular display of virtuosity and sheer a sonority of crystalline clarity. An electrifying experience for me in the Warsaw Filharmonia.

The concerto was premiered in Warsaw three weeks before Chopin left Poland forever. I speak often in this journal of historical context. Surprisingly, even incomprehensibly for us, there was an intermezzo after the first movement of the concerto ('thunderous applause ' Chopin wrote) when a singer, one Anna Wołkow, sang an aria by Soliva (a nineteenth century Swiss-Italian composer of opera, chamber music, and sacred choral works appropriately from a family of Swiss chocolatiers). Only then was Chopin able to play the final two movements. 

A second singer after the conclusion, the very source of his romantic yearning, was Konstancja Gładkowska.

Such poetic moments and reflections transport one out of this blighted world of ours into a more civilized realm of human endeavour than the destruction of Palmyra.

Szymon Nehring (Poland)

What a contrast to the previous contestant! Well of course this is the fascination of piano competitions, the extraordinary variety of approaches to the same works.

My reservations concerning the dullness of the orchestra remain but in contrast with the other contestants so far, Nehring developed quite a close rapport with the conductor. Was this because they were both Poles interpreting their national composer ? 

I thought from his previous stages Szymon really rose to the occasion, 'raised his game'  as the phrase in tennis has it. For me this was a determinedly 'four square' Polish Chopin with complete command of the keyboard, no affectation, a true feeling for the national spirit of Chopin at this early time in is life, and a rather restrained sense of poetry. A finely wrought rather than brilliant performance. I felt the opening movement to be a strong statement with powerful echoes of the maestoso polonaise rhythm. I remember Nehring playing the mazurkas Op. 33 in Stage III with similarly idiomatic and infectious Polish rhythm. 

The Romance. Larghetto really began Largo which I think is too slow an opening even for a sweetly nostalgic and meditative young man in love for the first time. Musically it seems Chopin simply wanted to avoid the danger of a dragging the tempo which of course is always possible in his more nocturnal musings - sentiment but not sentimental. However it picked up tempo as the love affair progressed and certainly possessed the singing cantabile lyricism Chopin intended. However I felt Nehring was not 'caught up' in the romance of it all.

The transition from the second to the third movements was perceptively brought off in a way I have never heard before with an interesting dwelling on usually unheard intervals. 

The Rondo.Vivace was of course brought off in virtuoso style with possibly slightly too much bravura but not oppressively so. However I felt Nehring did not quite capture the glittering tone quality and articulation of a truly impressive styl brillant as had other finalists. If a pianist is not careful it is all too easy for these long Hummellian flourishes of decorative virtuoso display to lack musical and structural meaning. A marvellous account nevertheless only diminished in impact by the surrounding musical luminaries.

Georgijs Osokins (Latvia)

This was a rather Lisztian approach to Chopin in that it was centered on display, extroversion and entertaining the audience - which he did. I felt Osokins was playing for effect rather than out of inner musical conviction. This meant that the solecisms (and actual errors, inaccuracies and smudges in the playing particularly in the Rondo) did not come from an alternative radical view of the work a la Bozhanov or from taking the risks of velocity in the manner of a Formula I driver like Sebastian Vettel but from a rather self-conscious feeling of 'being, appearing and acting differently to other pianists.' I predict he has a great public concert career ahead 'playing the Liszt card'. 

I may be doing him a complete disservice in saying this but to be frank after hearing his truly individualist and creative approach through the other stages of the competition I was terribly disappointed with his concerto in the Final. I felt he had nothing to say of much interest about this work. I was always unsure whether the jury would finally deselect him at Stage III. There are many other deserving and utterly brilliant, sensitive and poetic pianists who have fallen by the wayside in this competition at various stages - some explicably and others inexplicably. 

Oddly enough, not meaning to make invidious comparisons, I was similarly disappointed in 2005 with Bozhanov's concerto although he is a far finer, more creative musician and pianist than Osokins. Perhaps individualists do not play well with orchestral ensemble. Grigory Sokolov refuses point blank to play concertos as he feels he can never come to a satisfactory musical understanding with the conductor. But this comes out of obsessive musical perfectionism and not an introverted personality as he is quite gregarious, happy and fun loving, in the green room at least! 

20 October 2015

I will be relatively brief as the results will soon be announced and fill out the detail later. What a task the jury will have ordering these pianists, nearly all of whom are brilliant in entirely different ways. Just Like wine the competition has turned out to be a vintage year after an unpromising beginning on stony soil.

Charles Richard-Hamelin (Canada)

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

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

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

Hamelin was confident, relaxed, enjoying his playing immensely. He had excellent communication with the conductor. He retained a natural virtuosity that preserved the form and was always a servant to the conception and interpretation. He reminded me of the English pianist John Ogdon when young. 

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

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

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

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

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

Tremendous joy, energy and drive in the Rondo Allegro vivace final movement in the exuberant style of a krakowiak dance. How Chopin must have loved the bucolic nature of the Polish countryside and its music! The Chopin extension of the Hummel piano concerto was here fully realized. Melody and bravura figuration (F minor to the relative major A flat for instance) wonderfully and authoritatively brought off with great balance of formal structure. This composition that lies between Mozart and the styl brillant was wonderfully executed as were the masculine gestures towards the concertos of Weber (following the cor de signal for example). Such a refreshing change from the E minor concerto we have heard seemingly endlessly, great though it is. A satisfying performance in every way expressing the dreams and exuberance of youth. 

Dimitry Shiskin (Russia)

As I had anticipated, this was a profoundly creative performance of this concerto from the evidence of previous stages of the competition. This by a pianist of unique personality and character who had never before played with an orchestra! The rethinking of the work would not please the professors but satisfied me immensely. Chopin lives!

I felt the Allegro maestoso to be a noble and aristocratic conception, so strong in fact that I could feel the orchestra and conductor changing their approach to the music as it unfolded. This continued throughout. I felt the interpretation was poised and musical in a creative manner not giving us the standard product of the academies, breaking rules but not to the detriment of the composition but bringing forth a new conception. Such unaccustomed visions are bound to upset those preoccupied with structurally 'correct' expectations and theories set solid over time. I thought his detailed phrasing musically inspired. Strong left hand.

The Romance.Larghetto began closer to Largo. But how was Larghetto conceived in 1830? Can metronome markings be trusted a posteriori ? The movement had a beautiful, round, golden bel canto singing tone in this glorious melody. As I said in tone and touch Shiskin sounds more French in refinement than Russian. He creates a unique sound from the instrument. He conceived of the movement as a series of episodes loosely linked, like some great operatic aria of the human spirit expressing itself with the greatest simplicity. I was very, very moved. I did not feel the movement as 'fractured' but wonderfully recreated by such an interesting and inventive episodic approach. Transcendental simplicity emerged for me with magnificently perceived 'musical' phrasing tat revealed hidden treasures.

The Allegro vivace was crystalline in tone and transparent. Again the effect on the orchestra of this unaccustomed approach, yet within acceptable limits, made them play more energetically. His hands as you watch them seem to have a life of their own, like a scene from a Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel. The sound of the ecstatic styl brillant figuration was like a cascading waterfall. Fabulous.

I heard in an interview with Shishkin that he is also a painter as well as a composer. This inherent creativity explains a great deal about his reconception of this work. As a creative artist he could hardly do otherwise. Creativity is the fibre of his being. Such an individual invention will not be to everyone's taste and certainly not in matters of Chopinesque 'correctness'. 

However this stance is perfectly in keeping with the original eighteenth and nineteenth century role of the composer-pianist. The only competitor true to this calling. For me his was a self-consistent vision of great majesty and power, the musical meaning  of the design absolutely clear. Shiskin has a great deal to say of unique interest about Chopin's music and in particular this interpretation of a standard work in the repertoire.

Yike (Tony) Yang (Canada)

From a 17 year old - or actually - any year old - this was a brilliant performance. Yang is a prodigious talent with an immense future. I was reminded so strongly of the overwhelming effect Seong-Jin Cho produced at Dusznilki Zdroj when he was 16. A similar complete command of the keyboard, the work in question held together with musical insight and scintillating tone and touch. 

He possessed a Rubinsteinian grasp of the structure of the concerto, a complete absorption of the character of the styl brillant. Everything perfectly and excitingly in its place. All that was missing here was experience of life to infuse the interpretation with the poetic depth of experience or the 'university of life' which takes time and more than a little pain!

                                                                                            * * * * * *

In this competition I cannot possibly make any prediction that might be realized! I have my personal favourites which must already be fairly obvious by now but that is something else altogether!

A possible list might be in order (but not necessarily my favourites)

1. Seong-Jin Cho  2. Charles Richard-Hamelin 3. ex aequo Eric Lu and Katie Liu 4. 
Aimi Kobayashi 5. Dimitri Shishkin 6. Szymon Nehring

Distinctions: Yike (Tony) Yang; Georgjis Osokins; Aljosa Jurinic ; 

Final Results

     1st prize 30 000 € and gold medal
             Seong–Jin Cho South Korea


        2nd prize 25 000 € and a silver medal

             Charles Richard-Hamelin Canada


        3rd prize  20 000 € and a bronze medal
             Kate Liu United States

        4th prize  15 000 €

             Eric Lu United States

        5th prize  10 000 €
             Yike (Tony) Yang Canada

        6th prize 7 000 €
             Dimitry Shishkin  Russia


Aljosa Jurinic

Aimi Kobayashi

Georgjis Osokins

Szymon Nehring

Best Polonaise:    Seong-Jin Cho

Best Mazurkas:    Kate Liu

Best Sonata:          Charles Richard-Hamelin

Best Concerto:      Not Awarded

I must say from my point of view there are no real shocks in this decision as there were in 2010. I am relatively happy with the results of an extraordinarily difficult discrimination exercise from the 5th prize down. 

Two of my 'poets' won major prizes! This lifted my spirits immeasurably.

Kate Liu inhabits another musical world to the other competitors and we mere human beings. I felt personally she should have won the competition and if I had been the only judge...well, she would have.

However in keeping with my reflections above on Stage I, II and III it seems the more 'modern' monumental, Lisztian and virtuosic Chopin of rather restrained poetry won the gold medal and laurel wreath. I have never doubted the pianistic genius of Seong-Jin Cho from the moment I first heard him at Duszniki Zdroj in 2010 as you will have read. The more declamatory Chopin was chosen as a winner for 2015 of course. 

As I said 'poets' do not win piano competitions.

I am very surprised there was no award for the best concerto. Perhaps the jury were so divided they could not come to a consensus. 

There are still many other special prizes to be awarded.


I do hope that Dinara Klinton will be considered as 'The Leading Non-finalist' and be rewarded accordingly as the 'Best Pianist who did not qualify for the final stage.' 

In my opinion she so deserves this. 

I have just discovered that she was awarded this prize (10,000 USD = 9000 EUR). All my feelings about her playing mentioned in this journal have been completely justified. Another poet of the piano gains recognition!  My faith in juries restored...well in this distinguished jury at any rate.

I would love to have heard her interpretation of the F Minor Concerto Op. 21. Only she and Charles Richard-Hamelin had chosen to play it. I am sure this together with the rest of her performances would have gained her a prize or at the very least an 'Honorable Mention'. A great pity.

But she also receives a 'Concert and international exposure (venue to be determined)' organised by the Alink-Argerich Foundation. Great news.

Dinara Klinton
I was also similarly overjoyed and a testament to my enthusiasm after his performances that Krzysztof Książek won the prize for both the 'Prof. Zbigniew Drzewiecki award for the best Polish participant who did not qualify for finals' and the 'Edwin Kowalik award for the best Polish participant who did not qualify for finals' Richly deserved as a tremendously emotionally committed young man and a fine and powerful pianist with a great future.

Krzysztof Książek

Reflecting on the competition this year a great mystery remains for me. Whence now is the once historically unassailable tradition of Polish pianists playing Chopin to prize-winning standards in Warsaw and world acclaim on the concert platform ? The first half of the twentieth century was the golden age for Polish pianism.

Out of 15 Polish pianists who began in Stage I, only one survived to receive an 'Honourable Mention' and one who received the two 'Best Polish participant who did not qualify for final' prizes. Not exactly a distinguished result.

There were two 'Honourable Mentions' in 2010 and 2015 and although marvellous of course, this really does not do justice to the tradition established by that great pedagogue and pianist Alexander Michalowski. What has happened? Something seems terribly wrong to me but who am I to judge as an Australian?

Certainly Rafal Blechacz  was a Gold Medal winner in 2005, Magdalena Lisak gained 6th Prize in 1995, Krzysztof Jablonski 3rd prize in 1985, Ewa Poblocka Joint 5th prize in 1980, and the great Krystian Zimerman was a Gold medal winner in 1975. 

But we have to go back some 45 years to the vintage year of  1970 when Piotr Paleczny and Janusz Olejniczak came respectively 3rd and 6th in the competition. Another vintage year in 1965 when Marta Sosinska was awarded 3rd Prize and Elzbieta Glabowna the 6th prize. In 1955 again the Gold Medal to Adam Harasiewicz and 7th prize to Lydia Grychtolowna. 

In Gold medal terms there were 30 years between Blechacz and Zimerman and 20 years between Zimerman and Harasiewicz.

A definite 'falling off' as we approach the 2020 competition would you not agree or is it just in my imagination?

Certainly the rise of Asia in searching and brilliant performances of Chopin is not in my imagination but a proven fact. I hold no particular nationalist allegiance (my disruptive international upbringing) but am just curious why this is happening. There must be an explanation. I dare not voice my own opinion of the matter here. Of course one could always take the conspiracy path... 

I found it ironical after all the comments I receive on the complex nature of the rhythm known only to Poles that a non-Pole would win the best Mazurka prize.

Much the same serious diminution is also true of the once great French tradition of playing Chopin - that glorious tradition has already faded.

Chopin playing in the Salon of Prince Antoni Radziwill

If you are interested in Chopin performance itself, the nature of it in the past and the whole idea of individuality of expression, personality and character of pianists as well as noted historic recordings (and if you are a pianist and 'informed listener' you should be interested in all of this ) an indispensable book is:

Chopin Playing: From the Composer to the Present Day  James Methuen-Campbell (London 1981). It is long out of print but a wide choice of good, inexpensive used copies can be obtained here:


Just to finish on a positive note away from the thorny thicket of musical assessments and jury scoring, the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute are to be congratulated on a complete revolution in the presentation of the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition. The utilization of social media and the internet has been quite superb and has not only brought the competition to the attention of a vast world public but has presented Poland and the capital Warsaw internationally in a highly favorable cultural light. The entire presentation apparatus of the competition compared to previous years is tremendously innovative and progressive. Vivat NIFC!

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