71st.International Chopin Piano Festival 5-13 August 2016, Duszniki Zdroj, Poland

The Dworek Chopina where the piano recitals take place
Welcome to the 71st International Chopin Festival at the lovely Polish town of Duszniki Zdrój, a charming spa in Silesia on the mountainous Czech-Polish border not far from Wrocław.

In this 71st year of the festival, the artistic director Piotr Paleczny has assembled a quite remarkable array of famous, musically outstanding and charismatic pianists many of them prize-winners in international competitions. Most of the greatest pianists playing on the international stage today have appeared at Duszniki Zdroj, many at the very beginnings of their pianistic careers or shortly after winning major international competitions.
A modicum of 'ancient' history first. Part of the way through his studies Joseph Elsner recommended that Chopin ‘take the waters’ or 'go into rehab' not far from where Elsner was born in the small Silesian spa of Bad Reinerz (now Duszniki Zdrój). Originally on the Prussian-Bohemian frontier, the village is now in the south-west of Poland on the border with the Czech Republic. Frycek’s studies and intense partying into the small hours during his third and final year at the Liceum had begun to affect his health. He was a bit of a 'party animal' was Frycek! In his youth he was not the melancholic consumptive of popular myth at all. The virtuosic youthful exuberance of the concertos, rondos and variations reflect this freedom from care.

Headaches and swollen glands necessitated the application of leeches to his neck. The family doctors (there were a number) agreed his condition might possibly be serious. The idea gained in popularity with the Skarbeks of Żelazowa Wola (Countess Ludwika herself was suffering from tuberculosis) and three family groups set off at intervals on the arduous 450 km journey by carriage from Warsaw to Bad Reinerz over rough roads serviced by indifferent accommodation. The route they took through pine forests and agricultural country now passes through industrialized towns.

Frycek arrived at Duszniki Zdrój on 3 August 1826 spending a day en route at Antonin in the honey-coloured timber hunting lodge of Prince Antoni Radziwiłł, respected scion of one of the wealthiest Polish magnate families. He was a fine cellist, composer and singer. This delightful octagonal lodge is built in a beautiful region of forests and lakes. On a later visit he wrote ‘There were two young Eves in this paradise, the exceptionally courteous and good princesses, both musical and sensitive beings.’ Of Wanda Radziwiłł   ‘She was young, 17 years old, and truly pretty, and it was so nice to put her little fingers on the right notes.’ While a guest Chopin wrote a Polonaise for piano and cello - ‘brilliant passages, for the salon, for the ladies’.

Chopin sketched by Eliza Radziwill at Antonin en route to Duszniki Zdroj 1826.

Duszniki as a treatment centre has not greatly changed. The Spa Park and the town nestle in the peaceful mountain river valley of the tumbling Bystrzyca Dusznicka. Fresh pine woods flourish on the slopes and the moist micro-climate is wonderfully refreshing. Carefully stepping invalids negotiate the shaded walks that radiate across the park between flowering shrubs, fountains and lawns.
                                                                       The Spa Park at Duszniki Zdrój

Many famous artists visited Duszniki in the nineteenth century including the composer Felix Mendelssohn. In times past the regimented cures began at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. when people gathered at the well heads. The waters at the Lau-Brunn (now the Pienawa Chopina or Chopin’s Spa) were dispensed by girls with jugs fastened to the ends of poles who also distributed gingerbread to take away the horrible taste (not surprisingly it was considered injurious to lean towards the spring and breathe in the carbon dioxide and methane exhalations).

Chopin was reputed to have developed an affection for a poor ‘girl of the spring’ named Libusza. One tragic day Lisbusza’s father was crushed to death by an iron roller (perhaps in the nearby Mendelssohn iron mill) and she and her brothers were made orphans. In his generous way ‘Chopinek’ (an affectionate Polish diminutive of his name) wanted to assist the family and his mother suggested giving a benefit recital. Despite the lack of a decent instrument he agreed and in August 1826 gave two of his first public concerts in a small hall in the town.

Since 1946 this event has been celebrated every August in a week-long International Chopin Piano Festival, the oldest piano music festival in Poland and indeed the world. I have made a point of attending it as often as I can. An original building near where he played has been converted into the charming Dworek Chopina, an intimate concert room. Many of the finest pianists in the world, established artists and even child prodigies including past winners of the always controversial Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition have appeared in these Elysian surroundings.

The Duszniki festival attempts to maintain the intimate nature of the salon and the piano music is not restricted to Chopin. During the day there is time to walk in the peace of the surrounding pine-clad mountains, ‘take the waters’ if you dare or visit splendid castles in the nearby Czech lands. Eccentric characters regularly appear there: the ‘Texan’ Pole who wears cowboy boots, Florida belts and Stetson hats of leopard-skin or enamelled in blue, maroon or green. ‘I jus’ love it here but I jus’ hate that goddam music!’ (recitals are broadcast through loudspeakers over the Spa Park); the ethereal girl with the swan neck who seems to have stepped directly from a fête galant by Antoine Watteau; an elderly musician with long grey hair and wearing a voluminous silk cravat materializes and then disappears. 

Sviatoslav Richter (far left) on the steps of the Dworek Chopina 
at the 
1965 Duszniki Zdroj Festival

In the past I have experienced many remarkable musical moments at Duszniki. Grigory Sokolov, arguably the greatest living pianist, gave a magisterial performance of that radical composition the Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie. He profoundly recreated the tragic instability of Chopin’s disintegrating world during his final years. The Ukrainian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk returned to the piano after an horrific car accident that threatened to leave him permanently incapacitated. He has gone on to great things internationally. His theatrical temperament, musical passion and truly astounding virtuosity never fail to astonish.

The soulful young Russian Igor Levit is deeply involved with the music of Schumann. He movingly reminded the audience of the genesis of the Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations) written when the composer was on the brink of suicide in a mental institution. After completing the final variation Schumann fell forever silent. The great Liszt super-virtuoso Janina Fialkowska, a true inheritor of the nineteenth century late Romantic school of pianism, courageously returned to the platform here after her career was brought to a dramatic and terrifying halt by the discovery of a tumour in her left arm. Daniil Trifonov utterly possessed by the spirit of Mephistopheles in the greatest performance of the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No:1 I have ever heard. The moments continue...

One remarkable late evening event of the festival is called Nokturn and takes place by candlelight. The audience in evening dress are seated at candlelit tables with wine. A learned Polish professor and Chopin specialist such as the wonderful Polish musicologist Professor Irena Poniatowska might draw our attention to this or that ‘deep’ musical aspect of the Chopin Preludes or perhaps the influence of Mozart on the composer. Sometimes it is a famous actor, music critic, or journalist. The pianists ‘illustrate’ and perform on Steinways atmospherically lit by flickering candelabra.

In spite of the immense popularity of Chopin, this festival manages to recapture the essentially private and esoteric experience of his music, an experience one might consider had been lost forever.

I will be keeping my detailed blog of the pianists as I normally do for this unique festival. I always keenly anticipate coming to the small Polish spa town. One can walk in the morning in the invigorating pine-forested mountains of the former Silesian spa Bad Reinerz or attend a Master Class followed by a late afternoon and evening recital. Of course each day one approaches in trepidation the Chopin Spring to take the smelly waters with a draught from the traditional spouted ceramic drinking cup.

The festival offers one rare moments of bliss and oblivion to escape the constant news of the unhinged, economically fraught and increasingly brutal violence in this world of ours. 

Detail from the wall decoration of the remarkable 17th century paper mill that survives in Duszniki Zdroj. This building is unique in Europe. It is a fascinating place to visit. 

It is a precedent on a world-wide scale to host as many as nine artists who have won the highest awards in recent editions of the most prestigious and undoubtedly the most difficult piano competitions!

Personally, I cannot remember any event whenever, wherever, not only in Warsaw or Poland, where in the same concert hall, within just a few consecutive days of a festival, one could hear the winners of such competitions as the Chopin Competition, the Van Cliburn Competition, the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition, competitions in Leeds, Hamamatsu or the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition in Utrecht.

                                                                                           Piotr Paleczny - Artistic Director

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Schedule of distinguished pianists 
Masterclass Professors

71st International Chopin Piano Festival 
Duszniki-Zdrój, Poland

5 August
Inauguration recital Seong-Jin Cho
I prize, 17 International F.Chopin Piano Competition, Warsaw 2015
6 August
Master Class Prof. Bernd Goetzke
Piano recital Szymon Nehring
Piano recital Eugen Indjic
7 August
Master Class Prof. Bernd Goetzke
Piano recital Paweł Kowalski
Piano recital Vadym Kholodenko
I prize, Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Fort Worth, USA 2013
8 August
Master Class Prof. Bernd Goetzke
Piano recital Daniel Kharitonov
III prize, International Tchaikovsky Competition, Moscow VI 2015
Piano recital Charles Richard-Hamelin
II prize, 17th International Chopin Piano Competition, Warsaw 2015
9 August
Master Class Prof. Bernd Goetzke
Piano recital Mariam Batsashvili
I prize, 11th International Franz Liszt Piano Competition, Utrecht X 2014;
Charity recital by participants in the Master Class
10 August
Master Class Prof. Graham Scott
Piano recital
the winner of I prize Brussels V 2016
Piano recital Denis Kozhukhin

11 August
Master Class Prof. Graham Scott
Piano recital Anna Tsybuleva
I prize, Leeds International Piano Competition IX 2015
Piano recital Christian Zacharias
12 August
Master Class Prof. Graham Scott
Piano recital Alexander Gadjiev
I prize, Hamamatsu International Piano Competition XII 2015
Piano recital Janina Fiałkowska
13 August
Master Class Prof. Graham Scott
Piano recital Adam Golka
Final recital Federico Colli


I learned this morning that Kate Liu is ill and has cancelled. This is desperately disappointing for me as her recital was to be one of the highlights of this festival and greatly anticipated.
She is without doubt one of the great Chopin players of today....
Her replacement, Federico Colli is also a brilliant artist who has appeared at Duszniki in the past but with an utterly different temperament to Kate Liu - a polar opposite!

Details in English of artists' programmes and biographies can be obtained on this link:


Festival General Website Link 

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Click on photographs to enlarge them - far superior rendition

This year I had an excellent drive from Warsaw on the newly constructed motorways courtesy of the EU structural funding for Poland! Only 4.5 hours as opposed to 7-8 hours five or six years ago. I very much look forward to this particular Duszniki with such a remarkable array of prizewinners (see Professor Paleczny's comments above). The town is as lush, green and cool as ever it has been and mountain walks beckon.

The audience were welcomed, sponsors thanked by the Mayor of Duszniki Zdroj and anticipation of a wonderful festival rose.

À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs with the young Mayor of Duszniki Zdroj 
Opening ceremony at the Chopin memorial
President of the Festival Board, Mr. Andrzej Merkur, sadly absent due to illness
Portrait of two usherettes anticipating the festival and their starring role

Friday 5 August    20.00            Seong-Jin Cho  

[1st Prize 17th International Chopin Piano Competition Warsaw 2015]

A superlative artist I first heard at Duszniki then at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. One of the fascinating aspects of this festival is how one can follow the development of artists if they return to play. It is a tradition that the winner of the Chopin Competition of any given year opens the Duszniki Festival and so it was this evening with Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the 17th International Chopin Competition in 2015. 

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. 

His natural musical gifts were immediately clear.

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.

He opened his recital with the one of my favourite keyboard works, the Mozart Rondo in A minor K. 511 (1787). It was composed not long after the huge success of Le Nozze de Figaro in Prague. Not a rondo in the galant style but far more the beginnings of an emotional exploration of the fluid thought processes of his own psyche, reflective and deeply felt - the haunting recurring theme building to a soul-searching emotional intensity but as ever with Mozart retaining perfect balance, beauty and grace. The work marks the beginning of a break from the joyful piano concertos that the Viennese aristocracy so adored. Here he begins to seriously explore personal rather than social concerns which culminates in so many ominous ways in Don Giovanni (also premiered in 1787) presaged by the the Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor K.466 (1785).

Seong-Jin Cho has a perfectly luminous tone for Mozart and never overplays or exaggerates. I felt he could have expressed slightly more of that perfectly judged charming Viennese 'affectation' and civilized controlled emotion in musical 'conversation' always present in Mozart however intense the expressed feeling, echoes of the string quartets. I hope in the future as he matures he can introduce more of is own personality as a pianist into his interpretations creating a truly creative symbiosis with the composer. 

The next work was the Schubert Sonata in C minor D 958. This sonata was completed shortly before Schubert's death (one of three). His love of the piano, dramatic sense, command of large musical structures and originality of thought are all present. Did Seong-Jun Cho do this mature work justice?  The lurking presence of Beethoven is ever present and certainly he understood that almost to the detriment of what one might call 'Schubertian dynamics' which for me at least should be far less forcibly contrasted with unsubtle sfortzandos and dynamics at such an inflated level. Schubert for me works in water colour and pastel rather than strong oil colour. This is not to diminish his powerful imagination and strength of character. I feel all young pianists should experience the sound palette of Schubert on a piano of his period before attempting the music on a Steinway concert grand. Compromises need to be made. I felt his whole approach to the work too Beethovenian in mood and tone. 

Of course he is a tremendously talented musician and massively gifted pianist with something to say. There were some wonderful moments of true poetry and playfulness (the superbly articulated tarantella and quirky Menuetto). However the philosophical inner wrestling of the soul (the Adagio) in late Schubert, the breathless hesitation as the abyss opens at one's feet, requires a degree of personal maturity that is simply unfair to expect from such a young heart. But the work is in his fingers...

After the interval the Chopin 24 Preludes Op.28. As I wrote during the Chopin Competition, the glorious tone and fabulous articulation remain but I fear the springtime of musical discovery mentioned above is passing. He has begun to monumentalize Chopin more than is comfortable for me, which to my mind does not suit this most intimate of composers, especially in this cycle. However he is slowly bringing his own personality to fruition. Mine is a very personal view not shared by everyone. We all have our own Chopin!

This work, perhaps conceived but never intended by Chopin to be performed as a group of pieces, came together as an organic whole, something missing from many performances. However his approach, at least for me, still too often lacks the inherent lyrical poetry contained in the music. Chopin survives a declamatory approach and dramatic dynamic change miraculously on the Steinway but is he a declamatory composer? In his day Wilhelm von Lenz regarded him as a political subversive force, as did the Nazis. 

I cannot analyse each prelude and his approach here, but the so-called 'Raindrop' Prelude was very fine indeed and possessed the real atmosphere of disturbed intimacy if the reports of its composition are to be believed. In the Preludes Op. 28 it is well to remember that the unease or if you will dis-ease (hyphen intentional) of Chopin is spiritual rather than physical even though was facing the death of the body. A passionate, intense set of Preludes in summa that bodes a great future career ahead.

As an encore Cho played the 'Heroic' Polonaise Op.53. Years ago at Duszniki I wrote:

His 'Heroic' Polonaise of Chopin Op. 53 was 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.

Time has passed but the monumental and majestic power of his conception of this rather overplayed work, the inherent nationalist struggle against oppression, desire for freedom, nostalgia for more lyrical times, fierce anger, the human individual facing the juggernaut of unreasoning military might, never cease to amaze me.

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

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

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

The difficulties in bringing together the fragmented nature of the next work, the Fantasy in F Minor Op. 49, are well known. Carl Czerny wrote perceptively in his introduction to the art of improvisation on the piano 'If a well-written composition can be compared with a noble architectural edifice in which symmetry must predominate, then a fantasy well done is akin to a beautiful English garden, seemingly irregular, but full of surprising variety, and executed rationally, meaningfully, and according to plan.'

At the time Chopin wrote this work improvisation in public domain was declining. Nehring brought together all these disparate elements into a unity of expressive intention that was very fine indeed with finely judged expressive rubato. With many of Chopin's apparently 'discontinuous' works (say the Polonaise-Fantaisie) there is in fact an underlying and complexly wrought tonal structure that holds these wonderful dreams of his tightly together as rational wholes.

As I listened to this great revolutionary statement, fierce anger, nostalgia for past joys and plea for freedom I could not help reflecting how the artistic expression of the powerful spirit of resistance in much of Chopin is so desperately needed today - not in the restricted nationalistic Polish spirit he envisioned but with the powerful arm of his universality of soul, confronted as we are by yet another incomprehensible onslaught of evil and barbarism. We need Chopin, his heart and spiritual force in 2016 possibly more than ever before.

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

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

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

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

He has a fine future ahead.

Saturday 6 August 2016    20.00   Eugen Indjic

In this recital we moved into a sound world of touch, tone and sensibility of a very different time and tradition to that pertaining for the young tyros of 2016. Born in 1947 in Belgrade, the influence of two of his mentors, Arthur Rubinstein and Nadia Boulanger, were immediately apparent in his sound world. If I were to attempt to encapsulate the tone and feeling of the entire recital in a few words I would say 'a triumph of the civilized' in the most uplifting sense of that word.

He opened with five Debussy Preludes from Book II (1910-1912). Such selected small groups for performance were favoured by the composer, depending on the particular affinity for them felt by the pianist. I felt Indjic finely captured the mysterious unity of the nature of melancholic beauty in the face of death in Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves). A lovely impressionist portrait in rich colour. Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses (Fairies are Exquisite Dancers) was charming in its fantasy - a more innocent world captured here. The quirky influence of Erik Satie on Debussy seemed inescapable to me in  Général Lavine – eccentric. The water nymph Ondine captured us as the Fireworks (Feux d'artifice) dazzled us. A beautiful impressionistic performance without dynamic or other exaggerations.

He then performed the remarkable  Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David), Op. 6 (1837), a set of 18 pieces and one of the great works of Western Romantic piano literature. The Davidsbündler (League of David) was a music society founded by Schumann in his literary musings. The League itself was inspired by real or imagined literary societies such as those created by E.T.A Hoffmann. The theme was based on a mazurka by Clara Wieck and was inspired by his love of her which permeates all the works of this period. Literature and music had a symbiotic relationship for Schumann and was a source of the unique qualities of his genius.

The pieces are not really dances but musical dialogues concerning contemporary music between Florestan and Eusebius, characters Schumann created representing the active and passive aspects of his personality. I cannot here analyse each work save to say Eugen Indjic captured much of the the poetic, mercurial,  impetuous and the lyrical aspects of Schumann's nature. He preserved the unity of this cycle that allows us to experience ‘music as landscape’ (Charles Rosen).

After the interval the Chopin Scherzo in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39. Chopin completed this work during a period of convalescence in Marseilles. It is 'one of Chopin's most unusual and original works' (Jim Samson). Certainly it is the closest Chopin came to the Lisztian idiom and in the bravura writing I felt Indjic was curiously ever so slightly insecure in this otherwise fine performance. The contrasting drama which suffuses the work was thus left somewhat in abeyance.

With great discrimination we were then treated to the three Impromptus opused for print by Chopin. Andre Gide wrote of them: The impromptus are among Chopin's most enchanting works. The great Polish musicologist and Chopin specialist Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski wrote of them: The impromptus offer us music without shade, a series of musical landscapes prefiguring impressionism. 

The autonomous Impromptu genre was not that well established, even for Schubert, when Chopin composed his first but as the years passed he gave the form his own particular identity. Again, a fine performance lacking in any exaggeration or hysteria (resisting the temptations of the Fantasy-Impromptu) - just the developed sensibility of a mature artist confronted with some of the most affecting of Chopin's music.

The recital concluded with a tremendously dramatic and narrative Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23. The Chopin Ballades in some ways are miniature operas and this was something that sprang to my mind in this theatrical performance. At least for me the feeling of tension that was evident by occasional insecurities only added to the intensity for me, the tension of a pianist pushing and still testing his own limits. All the greatest artists have done so - Horowitz, Schnabel, Cortot...

As encores the quite beautiful Mazurka op. 30 No.1, Schumann's Aufschwung ('Soaring') from the Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 and a final mazurka of utmost refinement.

Polyphonic tree roots in Duszniki Zdroj
Sunday    7 August  16.00    Pawel Kowalski

It is difficult as a reviewer when a pianist of markedly individualistic temperament  has an approach to music that is significantly different from one's own and yet remain fair and charitable. This is made even more difficult in the intensely discriminating musical atmosphere of the Duszniki Zdroj Festival.

The Mozart Piano Sonata in C Major K330 had all the qualities of innocence one associates with Mozart and this key. It is one of his most popular sonatas composed when he was 27. I remember when I was a child I dreamed in my imagination of being a concert pianist while listening to Sparky's Magic Piano (1947) which featured this sonata.

The Chopin Nocturne in F minor op. 55 No.1 was as poetically eloquent as we expect from the pen of this composer. 

In many ways it is sensible to select a group of the Preludes Op. 28. Although musical in many ways I felt Kowalski bordered on the mannered and the interpretation lacked a certain finesse that I have come to expect from the many recorded complete sets I have listened to performed by famous pianists past and present. I think it is all too easy to unrealistically expect from a pianist the recorded 'perfection' transferred to live performances of familiar classical works.

A set of Chopin Mazurkas followed which made an unashamed connection with the atmosphere of music in the country inns of Mazowsze that had originally inspired Chopin. This was a robust performance without the intellectual apparatus of 'sublimation of the dance' that can etiolate many a mazurka interpretation. Nostalgia was present for the 'lost Poland' of the composer's youth  but not sentimentally indulged. 

The Scherzo in B-flat Minor was unbridled and rather wildly uninhibited lacking the formal discipline and control I am drawn to in this work. However clearly many members of the audience were excited by this whirlwind approach.

I was interested to hear the rarely performed setting by Wilhelm Kempff of the charming and intimate Handel Minuet in G minor HMV 434/4. It is winsome work which I felt attracted to learn myself in the near future having never heard it before.

This was followed by the Cesar Franck/ Harold Bauer Prelude, Fugue and  Variation in B minor, Op. 18.  This is one of a set of six pieces for organ written between 1860 and 1862 and possibly the most popular. The simple opening theme has an affecting beauty. Harold Bauer was a well-known pianist in the first half of the 20th century and arranged the work for piano with some 'pianistic additions'.

A page of the autograph score of the Beethoven Sonata in C-sharp minor

The final work in his programme was the so-called 'Moonlight' Sonata in C-sharp minor (Sonata quasi una Fantasia). The sobriquet 'Moonight' was given to the piece by the German poet Ludwig Rellstab as he was reminded of the effects of moonlight on the surface of Lake Lucerne. This idea has achieved immense popularity ever since despite critics getting themselves into a tiswas over the appropriateness of the name. Vladimir Nabokov amusingly mistranslated the German Mondscheinsonate as 'Moonshine' Sonata after a poor performance he heard in Montreux. 

The reason Beethoven regarded the work as a 'Fantasia' is obscure but could be because unlike the form of the classical sonata he placed the most important and grandest movement  last. The great pianist and critic Charles Rosen in his book on the Beethoven Sonatas wrote of this movement: '...it is the most unbridled in its representation of emotion. Even today, two hundred years later, its ferocity is astonishing.' In this sonata I felt Kowalski may benefit from playing it as an experiment on an instrument of Beethoven's day where the inflation of dynamics and ability to sustain sound is not so prominent as on the concert Steinway. His 'attack' on the work was certainly in period and in keeping with the many reports of Beethoven's own mercurial and abrasive personality, his vigorous, lusty and rugged playing style as a pianist.

As encores the Chopin 'Heroic' Polonaise Op. 53 and the 'Revolutionary' study performed at the tempo of a mind well in revolutionary mode.

Sunday  7 August   20.00  Vadym Kholodenko

[1st Prize Van Cliburn Competition, Fort Worth, USA 2013]
I always anticipate the inevitable 'Duszniki Moment' of heightened musical and spiritual tension or on rare occasion bathos - but I never know when it might occur. The almost transcendental intensity of the concert this evening depended on a number of unrelated factors coming together in a crucible of barely sustainable, life-changing emotion.

The shadow of a recent personal tragedy of an extreme kind lay over the appearance of this Ukrainian pianist before us. The knowledge of it too recent to be inescapable or ignored in the consciousness. Admiration for his courage in appearing at all on a concert platform in these circumstances overcame me. Clearly music sustains and nourishes a soul in torment. 

This melancholic situation was augmented by his appearance in Poland, a country of inexpressibly profound grief, loss and suffering on a monumental scale as the theatre of the Second World War. The conflict was eventually followed, after a further period of grinding under the heel, by the miraculous regeneration of the independent sovereign state of modern times, the courageous throwing aside of the shackles of communism (or for some Polish Socialism) to embrace undreamed of freedom as a respected member the European community. 

Yes, it is a funeral society itself in many ways. Poles are almost uncomfortably concerned with memorializing  not only the deaths of private family members but also the most prominent cultural figures of the nation. Tragedies of an immense nature continue even into the present with the almost unimaginable loss of loved and respected cultural, military, political and religious figures in the aircraft disaster at Smolensk, itself an attempt to commemorate the wartime murder of officers and other undeserving figures in the forests of Katyn. All Saints Day in Poland is a triumph of humanity.

Grafted onto this collective unconscious of the Polish audience, the entire first half of the recital was dedicated to carefully selected pieces of the most moving music of Fyrderyk Chopin, a composer who spiritually sustained Poles through times of most grievous trial, his heart lying reverenced in a pillar in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. Chopin has always been far more than simply 'a national composer' for Poles - he is the beating heart of the spirit of the nation.

And so the stage was set in a place, Duszniki Zdroj or Bad Reinerz when part of Germany, where Chopin had stayed for rehabilitation as a young man. On many levels of humanity the recital was of the most fervent potency, the like of which I have never experienced in my life.

Kholodenko opened his profoundly meaningful programme with the Chopin Berceuse possibly the most beautiful lullaby in absolute music ever written. The associations were inescapable and an absolute and powerful silence reigned in this tiny Dworek concert hall. The tone he produced from the instrument was radiant, the finesse of execution indescribably beautiful, touch and tone ravishing and the associations....what it is to be human, to love and to continue with life in the face of...

This was followed by two of the most intimate, yearning and rarely performed of Nocturnes. He chose the Nocturnes Op. 15 - No. 2 in F-sharp major and No.3 in G minor. Both works deeply affecting and pregnant with intense nostalgia and loss. And then then the Nocturne Op. 48 No.1 in C minor which to my mind is the most ardent even agonizing expression of loss and impassioned outpouring in the piano literature, that particular hopeless agitation of the soul encapsulated in the untranslatable Polish word  żal. Then No.2 in F sharp minor - such an inward-facing work it was heart-breaking in its expression of immanence and mortality.

It was at this moment I realized this was no mere piano recital but owing to the unique circumstances and intimacy of the hall an experience of a transcendental kind. Arthur Rubinstein believed that in live concerts an electrical extrasensory emanation flowed from the artist and connected with the audience - an experience lost in recordings and in televised broadcasts. Was the pianist himself aware of the uniquely powerful impact this was having on his Polish audience?

The magnificent playing and sheer pianistic brilliance, nay genius, of this artist retired mysteriously into the background and we were simply left in a domain beyond, floating on the wings of the spirit of man.

And then the Scherzo No.1 in B-minor Op.20 with its turbulent outer sections enclosing the ardent central section, languishing in the reverie of song, another nocturne in its way. And yet another....the rarely performed Scherzo  in E major Op.54,  the outer sections a strange exercise in passionate grotesquerie enclosing yet another deeply felt and ardent nocturne suffused with a sense of loss. All this bordered on the insupportably moving. Yet there was such triumph and will to carry on with life in the passionate last chords that close the work. Purely on the pianistic level his performance reminded me, even technically, so much of Richter's similarly impassioned and soulful approach to these works.

Although it was only interval the audience leapt to their feet with much cheering. Only later after leaving the hall for the cool of evening did the effect of such pent up emotion betray itself. Never has the music of Chopin penetrated the soul more forcibly.

An eloquent poem by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas came to my mind during this cathartic performance entitled And Death Shall Have No Dominion in which appear these lines:

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

After an interval of almost speechless palpitation, three of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes.

The ninth in the series entitled Ricordanza is an intensely personal, self-communing piece by Liszt. Busoni called it ‘a bundle of faded love letters’. This is a diffuse, soft focus, poetic meditation as if it were the Adagio of a classical sonata. On the pianistic level Kholodenko had a fine control of cantabile tone and long, sung legato line, the piece being essentially a song of ‘emotions recollected in tranquility’ as Wordsworth expressed such feelings so accurately in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

With Liszt we are quite often in the presence of meditations on death – well it was a closer companion in the mid nineteenth century and on this enchanted night. With Visions Liszt captured the grim psychological reality of death with the heavy tread of a fantasy he constructed around the Dies Irae together with a tumult of church bells. Was the piece composed in memory of Napoleon as some have speculated? Was it inspired by an ode of Victor Hugo? Does this matter? Certainly the work possesses an heroic mien of inevitability, the tragedy of a Miltonic vision together with intimations of immortality. The title itself speaks of metaphysicality. 

In Feux Follets Kholodenko performed with feathery lightness, velocity, articulation, charm and finger dexterity of a generation of pianists I thought had passed forever. Present too in these Will-o’-the-Wisps or Jack o’Lantern is the ominous atmosphere of ghostly light and phosphorescence, possibly fire-flies, that hover over swamps, boggy ground and marshes leading wayfarers to their doom. Few pianists can achieve the light scherzo, Queen Mab character as strongly in this work, possibly inspired by Goethe’s Faust. A quick-silver phantasmagoria of impressionism as bewildering as the Will-o’-the-Wisps themselves.

And so to the Scriabin, a composer the pianist loves with a passion. 

The Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp major Op. 30. The pianist, or more accurately, this 'soul' as he certainly is in the true Russian sense of that word, now took us into the realms of magic, the mystical and the metaphysical. For this work Scriabin wrote a programme: a poem describing flight to a distant star. 

Thinly veiled in transparent cloud
A star shines softly, far and lonely.
How beautiful! The azure secret
Of its radiance beckons, lulls me …
Vehement desire, sensual, insane, sweet …
Now! Joyfully I fly upward toward you,
Freely I take wing.
Mad dance, godlike play …
I draw near in my longing …
Drink you in, sea of light, you light of my own self …

The poem works with the music in symbiosis. The notion of flight is ever present in his extraordinary mind - Prestissimo volando  is the indication. In the first movement the 'Tristan' yearning of love and desire followed without a break to a movement of which Scriabin demanded ‘I want it even faster, as fast as possible, on the verge of the possible … it must be a flight at the speed of light, straight towards the sun, into the sun!’ 

The sonata ends in triumphal joy. Scriabin once wrote:  ‘To become an optimist in the true sense of the word, one must have been prey to despair and surmounted it.’ I have hardly mentioned the pianism here which was of a sublime order of power, command, poetry with glorious tone and touch. Even in passages of the most awesome power and dynamic Kholodenko never broke through the ceiling of the instrument. Speechless. Nothing left to say.

Finally the Scriabin Sonata in F-sharp major Op. 53 in one movement. A debilitated Scriabin wrote this work after finishing the symphonic poem  Le Poème de l'Extase. He left expensive Paris and went to Lausanne with his pregnant wife Tatiana. He wrote: 

'The Poem of Ecstasy took much of my strength and taxed my patience. [...] Today I have almost finished my 5th Sonata. It is a big poem for piano and I deem it the best composition I have ever written. I do not know by what miracle I accomplished it. 

An overwhelming performance of this sonata - one of the greatest I have ever heard from any of the great pianists.

The epigraph attached to the sonata is extracted from his essay also entitled Le Poème de l'Extase reads:  

I call you to life, oh mysterious forces!
Drowned in the obscure depths
Of the creative spirit, timid
Shadows of life, to you I bring audacity!

Surely these words also form a fitting epitaph to this towering piano recital. 

To quote Shakespeare from Henry V and the St. Crispin's Day speech. Those who were not in Duszniki Zdroj this night, they

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here

In encores he was exceedingly generous. The Chopin Mazurka op. 50 No.1 idiomatic and beautiful. A shattering performance of the Scriabin Fantasie in D minor Op.28 and to end a perfectly judged close in Schumann's Nachtstücke Op.23 No.4

I felt so proud to shake this man's hand in the Green Room following the 'concert' - inadequate word.  This was an overwhelming affirmation of faith in life.

An original 17th century door-case in Duszniki Zdroj

Monday  8 August  16.00  Daniil Kharitonov

[3rd Prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition, Moscow 2015]

The moment he bounded into the stage like an energetic young antelope I recalled Joseph Conrad's expostulation 'Ah Youth! the joy of it!' If image is of the slightest importance (and I believe if certainly is for concert artists - the appreciation of the music is mysteriously affected by what you are seeing at the keyboard - Paderewski is a fine example although he did not cultivate his image) Kharitonov will be (already is in fact) enormously successful.

He opened his recital with the Grandes Etudes de Paganini S 141 No. 2 in E-flat major and one of my very favorites 'La Campanella', No. 3 in G-sharp minor. His tone glitters like a precious metal, virtuosity and keyboard command simply astounding and authority at the instrument unquestionable. As with so many brilliant young tyros (he is merely 17) they revel in the dynamic power of the Steinway and who can blame them? 'La Campanella' was well brought off although it sounded more often, particularly towards the close, like a La Campanile in Firenze. They after all are little bells...

The perfectly excusable exaggerations of youth followed him the Hungarian Rhapsody No 12 in C-sharp minor. You will have to excuse me if I say I am not all that keen on the rhapsodies. I mentioned Liszt's fascination with Gypsies in earlier Duszniki postings when the Italian pianist Giovanni Bellucci courageously performed the entire cycle of rhapsodies here in 2011 to a rather unfortunate reaction adrift with misunderstandings of his intentions. A 'Duszniki Moment'. 

As Liszt began the task of transcribing the music he found being played in the camps he noted: ‘I gradually acquired the conviction that in reality these detached pieces were parts of one great whole – parts disseminated, scattered, and broken up, but lending themselves to the construction of one harmonious ensemble….a Bohemian epic.’ He began writing an ‘Introduction ‘ to the rhapsodies which by publication became a vast two volume work entitled 'Des Bohémiens et leur musique en Hongrie'. The fate and usefulness of this interesting work is too complicated to go into here but eventually, after the usual literary augmentation by Princess Carolyne von Wittgenstein, his whole enterprise became an embarrassment and he was even accused of anti-Semitism (she had interpolated a chapter comparing Gypsies to the Wandering Jew much to the justified dissatisfaction of the Jews). In many ways the rhapsodies have retained this somewhat low esteem in the minds of even distinguished pianists as ‘just showpieces’.

The tone colour of the Liszt Consolation No 3 in D-flat major S 172 was very beautiful and we soon returned to the popular Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 in C-sharp minor with an interesting (but I consider tasteless and appalling cadenza by Rachmaninoff). As the recital progressed and the fascination with the awesome display of piano virtuosity faded a little, I began to realize that Kharitonov's youth (he is Chopin's age when still living in Warsaw) was preventing significant musical penetration of this music in any deeper sense.  It really should be presented as more than a platform for the pianist to present himself as a firework display. I am sure Liszt intended a serious approach to the Hungarian Rhapsodies.

After the interval a potpourri of 'favorite Chopin' pieces. Certainly it was virtuosic Chopin but with little development or understanding of his profound soul. The Ballade in G minor Op. 23 was brilliant playing but with little sense of an unfolding musical narrative in absolute music. The Nocturne in E-flat major Op. 9 No. 2 was charming and I expected him to make far more of the Fantasie-Impromptu Op. 66. The Prelude in D-flat major Op. 28 No. 15 was not haunted enough for me if the stories of its genesis in the monk's cell at Valldemossa are to be believed. In his performance of two Etudes from the Op. 25 set (No.11 in A minor and No.1 in A flat major) I heard all the notes which is not customary I have recently discovered - especially repeated notes in the A-flat major. Both brilliantly executed but lacking in any attempt to reveal the internal poetry as was much of his Chopin. However I just wish I could play the Polonaise in A-flat major Op. 53 as he did even if it was lacking in that inaccessible powerful majesty and angry resistance that Cho and Richard-Hamelin fully understand and express.

As a parting gesture he placed the roses, given him by one of the lovely usherettes, on the bust of Chopin that is placed in an alcove behind the piano. This drew gasps of admiration from the audience. He will go far as a great musical communicator with an infectious personality - vital in a concert artist. Nature has been more than kind with her gifts to Kharitonov and I feel sure this 'gilded youth' will make the most of them!

Monday 8 August  20.00  Charles Richard-Hamelin

[2nd prize at the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition, Warsaw]

I was very fond of this pianist in the 2015 International Chopin Competition where he achieved second place. I wrote of his playing then and would change nothing in my remarks:

Clearly a mature artist with a great deal of experience. Tremendously developed authoritative playing, stylish and impressive. 

He opened his recital with two Beethoven works: the Rondo in C major, Op. 51 No.1 and the Rondo in G major op. 51 No 2. He managed them with a command of fine classical style expressing their youthful sense of life and vigour,  uncomplicated textures and naive ambiance. A charming introduction to the more serious matters that were to follow. 

But not quite yet. First of all he chose to perform the George Enescu Suite No. 2 in D major Op.10 entitled 'Des cloches sonores' (1903). This engaging piece won first prize and the Pleyel prize (a grand piano) in a competition run by the French magazine Musica where two of the judges were Claude Debussy and Vincent d'Indy. I found it a truly marvellous work under the fingers of Richard-Hamelin although the titles of the movements, despite recalling the French baroque and clavecin and organ works having similar associations with bells, their development in this work gave me little indication of their original provenance! The Pavane  was particularly moving. 

  1. Toccata Majestueusement, mais pas trop lent
  2. Sarabande Noblement
  3. Pavane Lentement bercé
  4. Bourrée Vivement
After the interval the Chopin. A finely executed Ballade in A-flat major Op. 47 that certainly had a narrative musical force and the feeling of a miniature opera being played out in absolute music. He blended well the various formal functions of the structure (sonata form and variation). The work contains some of the most magical passages in Chopin, some of the greatest passionate fervour culminating in moments of shattering climatic tension. All this Richard-Hamelin achieved in an ideal performance.

The Nocturne in E-flat major Op.55 No 2 is such a beautiful example of a bel canto love song, possibly recalling an aria by Bellini, Chopin's favorite  operatic composer. Richard-Hamelin used his control of the long legato lines and cantabile, gentle tone and touch to create these endless lines of flowing lyricism that trsport you above strife. Chopin at his most poetic.

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, meditation and yearning. The bel canto song embedded in the Allegro maestoso was radiant. He created an interpretation that did full justice to the Austro-German Sonata tradition that Chopin was enthralled by in this work. He won the Best Sonata prize for this in the Chopin Competition in 2015 and I would say his depth of understanding of the work has matured even further

One of his encores was the Polonaise in A-flat major Op. 53. His interpretation of this much overplayed piece ranks with the very finest I have ever heard - noble, regal and majestic with sumptuous tone.

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.'  My huge admiration for this artist as a given, I do feel he has still a little way to go to cultivate and nurture even further the 'magical element' mysteriously present in the greatest playing.

Tuesday   9 August    16.00   Mariam Batsashvili

[1st prize at the Franz Liszt Competition, Utrecht 2016]

The sudden appearance of this exotic ultra-modern creature in the small provincial Polish spa town of Duszniki Zdroj was somewhat of a thunderbolt. Diminutive and gamine with stunning bobbed hair (almost a Louise Brookes 'helmet'), clothed in a  grey trouser suit with patent leather shoes all I could think of was George Sand s'arrive! Until I saw her radiant smile and refined features of course...

Now could this vision play the piano? 

The Alessandro Marcello Oboe Concerto in D minor transcribed by Bach for harpsichord BMV 974 was a quite superb example of how Bach moves effortlessly without diminishment into the sound world of almost every traditional keyboard. This spoken by someone who plays the harpsichord and prefers Bach on it for many reasons not appropriate to discuss here. The performance was restrained, tastefully underpedalled and slightly detached in period with luminous tone and velvet touch.  What more could one ask? The melody in the Adagio was magical and surely one of the most affecting in the entire baroque repertoire. Wonderful music was written for the oboe in those days - Tomaso Albinoni also wrote marvellous concerti for the instrument.

I must confess a deep love of Handel operas, his refinement and grace, melodic gift, baroque discipline and restraint, soaring arias, choruses. I had never heard this work and must confess to recoiling in horror at the Liszt so-called 'transcription' of the Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel's superb early opera Almira S 181. Handel wrote the opera when he was only 19 to enormous contemporary success. After a long period of neglect it is now fully appreciated and often staged at festivals. Perhaps our unprecedented and increasingly intimate familiarity with the entire Handel operatic and oratorio oeuvre in recent years causes us (well me actually) to be 'more than shocked' at this attitude so different to our own times. 

Liszt wrote the then relatively unknown opera for his English piano pupil Walter Bache to play at a Handel Festival in England. The relationship between Liszt and this English pianist is fascinating but far too involved for me to even attempt a precis here but do consult: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Bache   

I was reminded of the late-Romantic Busoni arrangements of Bach which are an acquired taste to my, one might say unkindly if so disposed, 'purist mind'. Even so Busoni seems to me more truthful to the spirit of the source. Liszt amended and added so much material the work becomes unrecognizable as Handel in content or baroque character.

Batsashvili performed this farrago magnificently with breathtaking virtuosity and full commitment. I am sure she would convince me in conversation that the work is a late masterpiece among Liszt concert arrangements. I have the deepest respect for Liszt as a composer of the greatest genius and piano revolutionary and do not inhabit the camp of conventional prejudice in the slightest but...this work...even Mariam in her magnificence did not convince me!

Before the interval the Chopin Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise. The Andante was affectingly played (Chopin often played it in isolation in the salons of Paris) and the exuberant 'Call to the Floor' for the dance was just as it should be. If we danced  in the same way today we would recognize that many of the introductions to Chopin waltzes (although not composed to be danced) often incorporate this challenge for attention. Come to the floor! The waltz begins! Although her tone glittered and her performance was certainly stylish with delightful exhilaration and clear enjoyment I felt she just missed the 'Polish element' of the polonaise, performing it more as a virtuoso piano work in the manner of Liszt, perhaps even as Liszt might have performed it. His style aroused the envy of Chopin when the Hungarian master performed his etudes.

After the interval the Rondo a Capriccio in G major, Op.129 'Die Wut über den verloren, Groschen' (usually translated into English as 'Rage over a lost penny'). Actually this 'light caprice' has nothing to do with anger or lost pennies. The title has been immortalized and was actually was appended to the Beethoven autograph but in another hand. The title is really the responsibility of the publisher Anton Diabelli who competed and published the fragmentary work in 1828. Beethoven's tempo is marked  Alla ingharese. Quasi un Capriccio which indicates a fiery and spirited Hungarian nature - I presume this is why Batsashvili included it among the Liszt. I enjoyed her theatrical and brilliantly mercurial and witty performance immensely. Her communicative, light-hearted mobile facial expressions of irony and delight as the chirpy running phrases unfolded were a rare treat in the concert hall where profound suffering or grim determination distorting the pianist's face appear the norm.

The Bartok Allegro Barbaro was elemental in its vigour and power, clefts opening in the jagged rocks, based as it is on Hungarian and Romanian folk elements. 'Barbaric' it certainly was...shocked you out the seat!

Two works of Liszt to finish her recital. The Hungarian Rhapsody No 13 in A minor S 244. This is a rarely performed work among the rhapsodies and I was interested to hear it. Liszt employed melodies from Hungarian folk music and a characteristic  theme Sarasate also used in his Zigeunerweisen Op.20 (try to listen to the ardent Jascha Heifetz in this). Batsashvili brought out the unusually lyrical side of the rhapsody (particularly the Andante sostenuto opening) with great feeling and refinement. The work became playful and joyful in its mixture of folk elements with a fiery virtuosic conclusion that was spectacular under the fingers of Batsashvili.

She concluded her recital with the Tarantella from Liszt's Venezia e Napoli  Supplement aux Années de Pèlerinage seconde volume, S162. Her repeated notes this work as the venom from the spider bite takes hold.  As Sacheverell Sitwell once again appositely comments on the appalling difficulties : '...[it] belongs to that class of Liszt's works which seems calculated to leave the executant paralyzed  or struck down with tetanus, at the close of the performance.' 

A tremendously promising recital by a performer who not only possesses youth, charisma and communicative intensity but also a complete keyboard technique, ravishing tone and astonishing range of touch. All we need now is for the lines of experience to wend their inevitable way...

Tuesday 9 August  22.00   NOCTURNE

The presenter on this evening was Professor Irena Poniatowska, an institution in the world of Chopin in Poland and source of constant delight.

In a long presentation (as usual punctuated with performances by pianists) entitled 'Ramble', she took us through Chopin's wanderings in Europe with many astonishing details and stories that have come to light during recent research. 'The idea of rambling was a powerful inspiration for art.' We visited in turn the Czech Lands (Prague) and Germany, Warsaw, France ('Poles left Poland for the pleasures of French food and women.'), England (Chopin wrote 'The local population is ugly - but it sees to be honest. the cattle are beautiful although appear to be malicious.' ), Mallorca ('I am in Palma among the palms, cedars, cactus, olive trees, orange trees, lemon trees, aloe, fig trees, pomegranates [...] the sea is like turquoise, the sea like azure, the mountains like emerald, the air like heaven [...] in a word, a most marvellous life [...] I am living a bit more...'), Nohant, Vienna and finally Duszniki known in those days as Bad Reinerz. We headed for 'home' at 1.00 am!

Masterclasses with Professor Bernd Goetzke, Head of the Concert Soloist programme in Hannover, jurist, performer and sought after teacher.  

A long-time associate of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1969-1977) and studied Beethoven under Wilhelm Kempf and Claudio Arrau.

Professor Goetzke working with Daniel Ziomko on the
Beethoven Sonata in C-major Op.2 No.3

‘A work of art is like the body – each cell is connected in some way with every other cell and the same blood flows through the organism.’    
                                                                                                 Professor Bernd Goetzke.

I found the Master Classes with Professor Goetzke highly intelligent and musically astute. He concentrates are great deal on harmonic analysis, tempo and articulation. He spoke of keys having more or less close or distant relations like those members of a family – sisters, twin sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, great-uncles and so on. He also has a fund of amusing and instructive anecdotes and often gives some cultural context (the lack of which in teaching I often lament). He spoke of human feelings remaining the same but being expressed differently in art through the centuries.

He is a fund of fascinating anecdotes. He mentioned one concerning the great simplicity of utterance of Wilhelm Kempff when once discussing immortal composers. 'Beethoven is great' and then after a long pause 'Schubert is just as great.' Nothing more. Goetze commented amusingly 'He never liked to talk with unnecessary detail.'

In the case J.S. Bach he observed that from the death of his first wife Maria Barbara, Bach raised his spirituality upward to Jesus (in other words his expressive soul no longer drew on the personal but was raised to the immanent. Beethoven increased the personal element in musical expression until it became paramount. Scriabin as a mystic and metaphysician.

Another fascinating avenue to explore is the deep relationship between the rhythms and stress of various languages on the way the national music flows and moves. Certainly I have found this true with say French baroque music. of course language becomes part of the very fibre of one’s being so early in life, I had never thought how this might affect the way one interprets music from a different nation or race. 

He also brought out the interesting fact that different composers understood Italian in different way owing to more or less mistranslations. So for Brahms ‘Andante’ might mean ‘going’ or ‘at a walking pace’ and ‘piu andante’  meant for him not faster but actually slower. In Schubert a decrescendo also implied a ritardando. In his jury work he observed the perils of different editions. Is that unfamiliar note a mistiake or is the perfromer using another more recent and scholarly edition of the work in question? Interesting point in view of the Jan Ekier National Edition of Chopin which I use and which is a revelation navigating the thorny thicket of Chopin editions.

Concerning the the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy that he worked on with the talented young Pole Jakub Kuszlik. He told us that Schubert once wrote 'Happiness is where you are not...'  and explaining that the 'Romantic soul is never happy where he is...' Schubert had an inferiority complex concerning Beethoven.

Professor Goetzke working with Jakub Kuszlik on the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy in C-major Op. 15

Of great interest to me because he recognized the relevance of an observation on Chopin of one of my favourite authors. Professor Goetzke quoted from Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus concerning Chopin. The narrator Serenus Zeitblom refers to a letter from the young composer Adrian Leverkühn in which he writes of Chopin:

Playing much Chopin, and reading about him. I love the angelic in his figure, which reminds me of Shelley: the peculiarly and very mysteriously veiled, unapproachable, withdrawing, unadventurous flavour of his being, that of not wanting to know, the rejection of material experience, the sublime incest of his fantastically delicate and seductive art.

Wednesday   10 August  16.00   Lukáš Vondráček 

[1st Prize at the Queen Elizabeth Competition, Bruxelles 2016]

The Queen Elizabeth Competition in Bruxelles is considered by many as the most prestigious piano competition in Europe and here we have the 2016 winner in a tiny spa town of Duszniki Zdroj in the rather remote south-west of Poland.

The entire first half of his recital was devoted to Czech piano music much of which I was unfamiliar with however I found it most enjoyable, full-blooded with a type of infectious raw rusticity. Vítězslav Novák (1870–1949) was a highly respected Czech composer and pedagogue who lead the neo-Romantic movement in his country. We heard Vzpominky (Memories) Op. 6 composed in 1894. This extremely intense player, who adopts a physically extraordinarily close posture with the keyboard, clearly has an intimate relationship with this marvellous late-Romantic piece.

Then (for me at least) an unfamiliar piece by a familiar composer, the Love Song being the most popular of the Six Pieces for Piano, Op.7 (1891-3) by the Czech composer and violinist Josef Suk. This set of pieces are youthful passionate character works that follow the turbulent history of his courtship with Otilka, who was Dvorak’s daughter. I felt that Vondráček could have utilised more dynamic range in this declaration of love and its rapturous reception. It was a limitation I increasingly began to feel throughout this recital as a whole.

Finally the Smetena Czech dances Book II (1879). I was not sure the intensity and enormous tone Vondráček brought to these pieces was justified but they certainly made a deep impression. Furiant (Peasant dance – famous in the Czech lands) was a wild stamping thing presented with the grandeur of Liszt. Cibulicka (Little Onion) is a dance in ¾ with difficult accents. Impressive climax. The popular Hulan (Lancer) is a charming dance depicting a girl pining for her soldier at the front. Finally Skocna (Hop or Jump Dance) is a major piece of virtuoso writing which Vondráček brought it off with tremendous élan and panache. 

After the interval the immense Brahms Sonata No.3 in F minor Op.5 (1853). At the age of twenty Brahms visited Schumann in Düsseldorf at the end of September 1853. Schumann was clearly overcome with admiration and wrote in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik :

“sooner or later … someone would and must appear, fated to give us the ideal expression of times, one who would not gain his mastery by gradual stages, but rather spring fully armed like Minerva from the head of Jove. And he has come, a young blood at whose cradle graces and heroes mounted guard. His name is Johannes Brahms…”

Schumann was to commit suicide not long after in July 1856.

The young Brahms also met Berlioz at this time. Vondráček brought a truly immense tone and almost violent dynamic to the massive opening than spans the entire keyboard – it was almost as if an entire symphony orchestra had entered the Dworek. I have never heard the first movement Allegro maestoso performed with such immense ‘tonnage’ and powerful masculinity.  Tremendous contrasts lay within. He brought great melodic sensitivity to the second movement Andante. Andante expressivo full of lyrical and heartfelt song that culminates in a climax of passion. The movement is prefaced by the Sternau poem:

The evening dims
The moonlight shines
There are two hearts
That join in love
And embrace in rapture

In the third movement Scherzo. Allegro energico the Vondráček  command of rhythm was quite magnificent. The strange and meditative Intermezzo. Andante molto with the term Rückblick (looking back) contained haunting silences and moments of hiatus so beloved of Debussy containing as it does nostalgic memories of the previous three movements. I love the Finale. Allegro moderato ma rubato of this sonata with its buoyant theme, captivating melodies, marches and pianistic fireworks.

Needless to say Vondráček  brought this off with immense authority, potency and self-confidence. The sometimes rather uncomfortable crushing immensity of his tone and touch with occasional lack of finesse were more than compensated for by the sheer intensity of his playing that carried all before it. He had immense musical conviction and grasp of the stately architecture of this monumental work – surely one of the last great classical sonatas.

A portrait of one of the lovely usherettes who make attendance at the festival such a pleasure

Wednesday 10 August  20.00    Denis Kozhukhin

Denis Kozhukhin has appeared at the Duszniki Festival on a number of occasions always to immense acclaim and this recital was no exception. He has produced indelible inerretations of familiar and less familiar works. However I have often found the internal logic of his programme planning similar to the unfathomable mystery of the Delphic Oracle. I have come to the conclusion that he plays what he wants in the order wants it without much care for the less well-informed audience, we lesser mortals, of his arcana!

We began with a splendidly stylish Haydn Sonata in D major Hob. XVI: 24, Op.13. It had panache, energy and élan dressed in immaculate classical clothing -  a sheer delight. We have heard much superb Haydn under his fingers.

This was followed by three magnificently wrought and tonally explored Brahms’s 3 Intermezzi Op. 117. No. 2 in B-flat minor was almost painfully ardent and full of conspicuous yearning of the heart. Inordinately moving.

The Kozhukhin love of dramatic contrast and tectonic shift in the sensibility of centuries brought us to a brilliant performance of the Out of Doors Suite by Bartok. The work was written merely twenty-four years after the Brahms but interplanetary travel had taken place.

The work is made up of five pieces:

With Drums and Pipes - Pesante
Barcarole - Andante
Musette - Moderato 
The Night's Music - Lento - (un poco) pìu Andante
The Chase - Presto

Kozhukhin perfectly understands the use of the piano as a percussion instrument rather than a melodic one in this work. The opening was 'terrific' (in the full meaning of that word) with powerful percussive effects of drums and pipes. The sound world he created was abstract and monumentally clear with accurate durations which are so difficult to achieve. He was using an electronic music reading device on the music desk rare for him but I think it was to be perfectly accurate in the durations of this difficult score. The ominous, threatening nature of The Night's Music was well captured with the cicadas, birds, frogs and peasant pipes of an Hungarian summer – some of them rather voracious and violent beasties in his hands! The composer wrote in a letter that he would allow the pianist to play the world of night insects ad libitum but to be honest I am unsure whether Kozhukhin did this as I was not reading the score.

I was told after the concert an interesting story concerning the spectacular final movement The Chase (possibly the most brilliant rhythmically and every other which way of the hunt I have ever heard). I was told that the fine American pianist Jeffrey Swann considers this tumultuous and panic stricken chase is seen by the composer in his view from the point of view of the animal. I found this a most arresting thought…

After the interval another violent shift of the centuries back 110 years to a rarely, if ever, performed Piano Sonata in D minor by Carl Maria von Weber Op. 49. I had never expected to hear one of his sonatas in the modern concert hall as they are unaccountably neglected. I like them very much, relishing  the evident tension of the classical under pressure of the more personal Romantic subversion of the disciplined.  As one might expect the shadow of Beethoven hangs conspicuously over the work. In the opening Allegro feroce the very name is a harbinger of the Romantic movement so cogent in the first German Romantic opera, Weber’s  Der Freischütz, premiered only five years after this sonata was completed. Kozhukhin gave the final movement Rondo. Presto con moto vivacita the full measure of his virtuosic musical gifts – dramatic, dazzling and sensational.

To finish, inexplicably to me in terms of programming, three pieces from the Iberia Suite  by Isaac Albéniz, an Andalusian vision of Spain in all its graphic colour and passion. Kozhukhin gave this the full vigorous and percussive Flamenco treatment. Fête-dieu à Seville describes in piano sound a Corpus Christi Day procession in Seville. It is a powerful and loud work depicting marching bands, Flamenco guitars, church bells and a tarantella. Triana depicts the Gypsy quarter of Seville and was as wild and uninhibited as any Tzigane might wish his party to be. Finally he chose Eritaña, a portrait of the festive goings-on in a vanished Sevillian Inn.

Another great recital by this brilliant pianist, composer and musician – even if somewhat tough on the ears in the constricted space of the Dworek Chopina!

I must confess to only recognizing only one of his three encores, a delicious and delightful Scarlatti sonata.

Thursday 11 August  16.00    Anna Tsybuleva

[1st prize at the Leeds Piano Competition 2015]

It is rare that the appearance of a pianist takes one into another century of the imagination. This was certainly the case for my vivid mental life when Anna Tsybuleva drifted onto the stage as if walking on air and not the earth. Her posture and graceful body language was that of a Bolshoi ballerina rather than a concert pianist. 

Even more remarkably she was born in the small town of Nizhny Arkhyz in the sparsely populated remote Circassian Karachay-Cherkess Republic in Russia situated on the slopes of the north-western Caucasus. I was irresistibly reminded of Chekhov's Three Sisters yearning to leave the remote provinces for the delights of Moscow

'Circassian beauty' was a phrase used to refer to an idealized image of the women of this region. An extensive literary history suggests that Circassian women were thought to be unusually beautiful, spirited, and elegant. This reputation dates back to the Late Middle Ages, when the Circassian coast was frequented by traders from Genoa. Cosimo de Medici had an illegitimate son from a Circassian slave. Such women lived as prized slaves in the Sultan’s Harem during the Ottoman Empire and built a reputation as extremely beautiful and genteel which became a trope in western Orientalism mentioned by luminaries such as Voltaire.

As a result of this reputation, in Europe and America Circassians were often characterised as ideals of feminine beauty in poetry and art. Such qualities widely used from the 18th century on to advertise ‘Circassian’ cosmetic products as used by these beauties.

Lord Byron even extolled their rare natures in Don Juan

For one Circassian, a sweet girl, were given,
Warranted virgin. Beauty's brightest colours
Had decked her out in all the hues of heaven.
Her sale sent home some disappointed bawlers,
Who bade on till the hundreds reached the eleven,
But when the offer went beyond, they knew
‘Twas for the Sultan and at once withdrew.

Don Juan, canto IV, verse 114

And so to a Circassian concert pianist - what a rare treat was in store!

She began with an usual composer for a piano recital, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and his Fantasy in F-sharp minor, H. 300 (1787). The beauty of her tone and refinement of touch were immediately evident and caressing. 

This is one of C.P.E Bach’s most extended single movements and as a ‘free fantasy’ is an excellent example of his empfindsamer stil  (‘sensitive style’) in its rather turbulent range of mood and expression. A good example too of his theory of ‘effects’ or Empfindungen. Being a harpsichordist I felt the transfer to the piano denuded of the striking effects possible on the earlier instrument. The composer might have performed it on a large Silbermann clavichord with the unique effect of vibrato on the key known as bebung (the finger is directly in contact though the key with the string on this wonderfully expressive instrument). C.P.E.Bach was often seen in a state of musical possession at the clavichord.

Next a very fine performance of the Wanderer Fantasy of Schubert Op. 15, D 760. The interpretation possessed grace, grandeur and nobility. At times unsettled, it would calm into glorious song full of human emotion with superb technical use of the pedal. Such poetry was present here with an engaging unexaggerated selection of tempi. A true artist and one of the finest of truly understated 'Schubertian' rather than showy virtuosic accounts that I have ever heard.

After the interval she glided onto the stage, as poised and refined as Pavlova, to give us the rarely performed Beethoven Fantasia in B major Op. 77 (1809). More marvellous and subtle discretionary use of the pedal. Excellent sense of classical style here pushing onto the cusp of freer Romanticism and the personal.

Then another set of Fantasias Op. 116 this time by Brahms.  A rather fierce Capriccio in D minor as it should be. This was followed by a wonderful feeling of improvisation and meditations on the nature of unrequited love in the Intermezzo in A minor. The passionate anguish of the Capriccio in G minor was followed by the delicate poetry and dreamlike atmosphere she created for the Intermezzo in E major. The set closed with a passionate utterance of the Capriccio in D minor.

To conclude her recital the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No 12 in C-sharp minor S 244. This was an individual interpretation with a great range of dynamics and touch (rare enough today among the young tyros). She did not present it solely as a virtuoso work but as a deeply musical experience with intense poetry, not associated with Liszt today but commented upon at the time. Hans von Bulow referred to Liszt's playing as sometimes like the finest lace. I felt the interpretation of Liszt far superior in sensibility to the Liszt prize winner.

As encores the Brahms Intermezzo No.6 and the most elegant, stylish and fastidious Saint-Saens Etude in the Form of a Waltz Op. 52 No 6.  In my mind I wafted effortlessly into the ball scene from War and Peace.

What a glorious recital this was on every level - a fantasia in itself - musical, poetical, intellectual, sensual yet refined with supreme elegance and sensibility. 

Your entranced author...a sad case

Thursday 11 August 20.00   Christian Zacharias

Zacharias has a formidable reputation as an opera conductor, pianist, jury member of prestigious competitions and chamber musician. I was very much looking forward to his recital although he would not be playing his acclaimed Mozart tonight.

He opened his recital with a group of five Scarlatti Sonatas. They were dry with judicious use of the pedal but retained a rich tone. As a harpsichordist the flavor of Spain with its guitars, castanets. garlic and wine were rather muted for me. I felt the sonatas lacked sufficient colour but were otherwise excellent. he observed all the repeats which is rare enough and gives the sonatas a substaniality missing from other performances. 

The Ravel Sonatina was played with finesse but again I had only a vague feeling of impressionist sound (water in the Anime movement) and colour so vital in Ravel. The first half was concluded with four sonatas by Padre Antonio Soler. These were in turn exuberant (No 84 in D major) and ardent (No 24 in D minor). Again I missed the astringency and rhythms of Spain on plucked instruments, the rich harmonics that are such an essential part of the harpsichord writing by Soler.

After liking the Scarlatti and Soler, the Chopin came as rather a disappointment. Of course Zacharias belongs to a different, possibly more conventional, school of traditional interpretation of Chopin. I did not feel over the years he had cultivated or retained a refined tone or touch at the instrument. The Scherzos emerged as rather symphonic in nature as did surprisingly the group of four Mazurkas which surely are more intimate in nature as 'the poet' communes with his past. The reflective central section of the B minor Op.20 was beautiful and inwardly yearning but the rest too violent for me. One gets the uncomfortable feeling that these pieces were once part of his pianistic repertoire but have been somewhat neglected in rethinking and recreation rather than in technique.

The Chopin C-sharp minor Waltz is a rather 'old school' encore these days (sorry), another Scarlatti sonata and then the finest piece in the entire recital an outstanding lyrical Arabeske Op. 18 by Schumann.

Friday 12 August  16.00  Alexander Gadjiev

[1st prize at the Hamamatsu Piano Competition 2015]

I am afraid this recital did not sit well with me at all. A great pity as I fully realize how much debilitating work goes into becoming a concert pianist of note and even a prizewinner (I tried many years ago). No, not sour grapes...the pianist is still young with space and time to mature and possesses a formidable digital facility.

He opened with the monstrous Bach/Busoni Chaconne from Partita No 2 in D Minor for solo violin which managed to beat me into submission at the outset in this small hall.

Then a further beating with an outrageously dynamically exaggerated Liszt Sonata in B-minor, S 178. This is one of my favourite pieces and one of the great works of Western keyboard literature. It should never be used as a mere platform for virtuoso display as here although it is a virtuoso work. This was a dull, conventionally clichéd view of the composer as wild pianist with wild hair and no subtlety. 

This great work depicts an entire human destiny painted in chiaroscuro sound - full of dramatic contrast, poetry and sensibility not an interminable virtuoso assault. I suggest the pianist listen to the early recording of it by Alfred Brendel who understands the poetry and devotion (as well as the virtuosity) in this massive work by Liszt. Also the 1932 recording by Horowitz which plumbs the depths of the ominous and threatening in life with a whiff if the sulfurous depths below awaiting the sinner. Rarely am I actually annoyed by an interpretation but this attempt took the biscuit.

After the interval the Chopin Ballade in F minor Op. 32 - another of the greatest of Western keyboard works. Naturally it was well played but for me in much the same way as the Liszt, failed to achieve the narrative interest in absolute musical terms demanded by this inspired score.

The final work in his programme was the Chopin Sonata in B-flat minor. There were elements of harshness in the tone and touch of the Grave. Doppio movimento and Scherzo but it was well played. Oddly perhaps the Marche funèbre was a very moving interpretation full of delicacy and reflective melancholy. The Presto that followed was also full of unsettling emotion. What a pity if he is capable of this high degree of refinement and finesse does he persist in dynamic exaggerations that move no-one? More to the point why do his teachers allow this?

As encores the Debussy Étude 11 pour les arpèges composés (eloquently performed) and one of the Rachmaninoff  Études-Tableaux.

Friday  12 August  20.00   Janina Fialkowska

I have admired the playing of Janina Fialkowska for many years and it is always with the greatest anticipation I look forward to her recitals. She has played at Duszniki on a number of occasions and has shown truly conspicuous courage to return to astonishing form after years of painful rehabilitation after cancer in her shoulder. The eminent BBC producer Mischa Donat regarded her early recording of the Liszt Transcendental Studies as one of the finest on record placing her directly in the line of great nineteenth century virtuosi. Artur Rubinstein regarded her as 'born Chopin interpreter' which was clearly evident on this enchanted night.

She began with the complex Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat major Op. 61. The first thing that seduces the listener is her rounded ringing tone and a touch of exquisite refinement. I have nothing at all left to say about this wonderful performance. A different class of pianist altogether to our young tyros. 

The Nocturne in B major Op. 51 was equally superb in its tone, rubato of great sensibility, gossamer fioraturas that blended seamlessly into the bel canto line of cantabile melody. The Impromptu in G-flat major perhaps began at slightly too fast a tempo (for me) which led it astray. One of the variant readings of the Waltz in B minor, Op. 69 No 2 is marked dolente and this was how she approached it - not with a dancing waltz rhythm but as a nostalgic and melancholic memory of past joys. The Waltz in A-major Op.42 I found strangely lacking in style and finesse. The first half concluded with a majesterial account of the great Ballade in F minor Op. 52. The contours of the 'musical story' or 'opera' were perfectly delineated leading to the climacteric of this supremely difficult work, one of the greatest in Western keyboard literature.

After the interval, the Scherzo in E major Op. 54. What can I say? 'Perfect Chopin' in all respects if one can possibly say such things of this intensely personal composer. Unlike almost any other composer I know, everyone has their 'own Chopin' whom they defend to the death! 

A curious 'agitation of the soul' followed in the brief but disturbing Prelude in E-flat minor Op. 28 No 14 before the Prelude in D-flat major Op. 28 No 15. A small selection of Preludes is both thought provoking and powerful alternative rather than always performing the entire cycle. The so-called 'Raindrop' Prelude was not a charming exercise with Fialkowska but a statement of the inevitability of life's brevity. The inherent warning of mortality of the insistent repetition of A flat then G sharp (no, not really the same note...in a different key) made one truly spiritually apprehensive and recalled the stories around its composition which may or may not be apocryphal. Cantabile, rubato, tone and touch were sublime in one of the finest renditions I have heard.

The three Mazurkas Op. 50 were affecting. To complete the recital a superb Scherzo in B minor Op.20 with all the shifting chiaroscuro light and changes in mood one could wish for in a performance.

As an encore the so-called 'Minute' Waltz Op. 64 No 1 which made me believe it really was a musical portrait of George Sand's little dog chasing its own tail - as they do! 

One can surely ask no more than this of a Chopin recital. A privilege. 

Master Classes with Professor Graham Scott, fine pianist and Head of the School of Keyboard Studies at the Royal Northern College of Music

In his approach Professor Scott is encourages the student in a gentle yet disciplined manner and allows them to come to their own conclusions on interpretation, leading them thoughtfully, knowledgeably and calmly into possible alternatives.

In his classes he also concentrates very much on the production of a beautiful sound and touch - something that was paramount in Chopin's own teaching. He referred us to Chapter 3 of The Art of Piano Playing by the great Heinrich Neuhaus (pianist and teacher of Radu Lupu, Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter) entitled On Tone. The entire book should be mandatory reading for students in 2016. This is a chapter many young artists today desperately need to read - a requirement the way matters of touch and tone are proceeding. Sometimes the production of a beautiful tone is overestimated but far more often underestimated.

'Music is a tonal art. It produces no visual image, it does not speak with words or ideas. It speaks only with sounds. [...] Since music is a tonal art, the most important task, the primary duty of any performer is to work on tone. You might think that nothing could be more obvious. Yet frequently a pupil's preoccupation with technique in the narrow sense of the word (i.e. velocity, bravura) predominates, relegating tone, that most important element, to second place.'

Professor Scott also mentioned a remark made by Horowitz in this context 'Every finger has a different colour' in relation to playing Scriabin. He also mentioned that the great Andras Schiff uses no pedal at all (possibly once) in his performance of the entire Bach 48 Preludes and Fugu

Professor Scott working with Daniel Ziomko on the Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin

Of particular note was an exciting masterclass on the Mephisto Waltz No 1 by Liszt with the talented Jakub Kuszlik. One of the best masterclasses I have attended here. Professor Scott pointed out that the work was originally conceived for orchestra and highlighted violin, cello string analogies as well as oboe and so on in the piano writing in right and left hand throughout. This was most instructive. The American music critic and writer James Huneker referred to the work as 'one of the most voluptuous episodes outside of the Tristan score'. Excellent observation.

I remember so well the astoundingly possessed performance of this by Daniil Trifonov at Duszniki in 2011. Bear with me if I lift this and reproduce it here from my posting of that time:

A Lithograph from Delacroix's Faust

Finally in the Liszt group the Waltz Mephisto No. 1 in A major (Der Tanz in Der Dorfschenke – The Dance in the Village Inn). Trifonov was terrifyingly intense and seemed full of insidious Mephistophelian seductiveness and evil. His unsurpassed technique was numbing and electrifying, like an electrical discharge on the Hungarian Plain. He really did play this like a man possessed, crouching low over the keyboard, leaning back in Mephistophelian derision, grimacing, cackling wickedly…really it was quite something to watch as well as hear and added to the overall dramatic emotional impact. Liszt was obsessed by Faust and he chose the account of the story by Nikolaus Lenau to set this piece of programme music. This passage from Lenau appears in the actual score:

“There is a wedding feast in progress in the village inn, with music, dancing, and drunken carousing. Mephistopheles and Faust wander by, and Mephistopheles persuades Faust to enter and join in the festivities. Mephistopheles grabs the violin from the hands of a sleepy violinist and draws from the instrument seductive and erotically intoxicating strains. The amorous Faust whirls about with a sensual village beauty [the landlord's daughter] in a wild dance; they waltz in mad abandon out of the room, into the open, away into the woods. The sounds of the violin grow softer and softer, and the nightingale sings his love-soaked song."

Trifonov through Liszt communicated all this passionate theatre to us in the most intense manner imaginable. ‘What incredible music this is!' I thought as we leapt up to an instant standing ovation even though it was interval and usually ‘not done’ in modern concert life.

Daniil Trifonov performing the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No. 1 at Duszniki Zdroj in August 2011
Photograph Marek Grotowski

Daniil Trifonov performing the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No. 1 at Duszniki Zdroj in August 2011
Photograph Marek Grotowski

      Professor Scott and Jakub Kuszlik both working hard at the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No 1

Jakub Kuszlik in full flight during the Mephisto Waltz No 1 Masterclass

To slightly paraphrase our beloved  Schumann in Kinderszenen  "Not too serious.."

Saying goodbye at the  conclusion of the masterclasses and presentation of certificates  Everyone rather sad but  in in excellent humour
The Artistic Director of Duszniki Zdroj Professor Piotr Paleczny and Professor Graham Scott
On the left, the Duszniki indefatigable simultaneous masterclass translator (professorial English to Polish), the pianist and graduate of the Academy of Music in Gdansk
Anna Karczewska-Golka

Saturday 13 August  16.00   Adam Golka

The moment the Polish-American pianist Adam Golka touched the piano I had to ask myself ‘Is this the same Steinway we have heard?’ He has a rich round tone without harshness and a touch of soft velvet with judicious use of the pedal. Among other luminaries ( Professor Leon Fleisher, Murray Perahia, Richard Goode, Alfred Brendel, Mitsuko Uchida) he studied with ‘Sir A. Schiff’ (an amusing Anglo-Slavic title in the programme) and the influence of Schiff shows not only in his approach to the instrument but even in his body language and occasionally his appearance. Astonishing…

In a finely, imaginatively designed programme he brought all of these qualities to bear with great effectiveness in an extraordinary performance of the Schubert Fragments from Sonata in F-sharp minor. In this hypothetical completion of the sonata, the first Allegro moderato D 571 movement, Schubert left unfinished. The opening was remarkably beautiful and the movement dramatically ceases as the sonata moves to the brink of B minor. In the pregnant silence Golka powerfully allowed our minds to dwell on the full implications of the passing of Schubert into the next world and the transience of life already expressed in this movement. This was followed by an Andante D 604 and Scherzo. Allegro vivace D 570 and finally the unfinished extensive Allegro D 570 in bleak F-sharp minor. Another expressive and moving silence followed the cessation of sound. Silence has never felt more freighted with meaning and associations of mortality.

Golka is an extraordinarily intense player of the instrument with profound involvement in the music. This was obvious in his approach to the Sonata No 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11 by Schumann. This was a passionately Romanic interpretation of this early work written when Schumann was 23. It was begun when he was engaged to marry Ernestine von Fricken and completed when courting Clara Wiek. 

The first movement – Introduzione. Un poco Adagio – Allegro vivace presented the mercurial temperament of Schumann in a fiery and incandescent manner with moments of lyrical poetry as the romantic themes unfolded. The Aria that follows was a moment of brief but ardent beauty. The Scherzo is rather eccentric with reminiscences of Chopin. In the Finale. Allegro, un poco maestoso Golka expressed the resplendent melodies with passion. He strongly projected the pendulum of the Schumann temperament oscillating between the squally and reflective, moods that apparently reflect Schumann’s alter egos - Florestan (restless and stormy) and Eusebius (meditative). He closed the sonata with a coda of great virtuosity.

After the interval some fascinating works by Witold Lutosłaswski. First two rather abstract blockbuster Études written in 1914. Then twelve really charming, simple and diverting Folk Melodies (Melodie Ludowe) completed in 1945 – what a inspired rejection of the horrendous nature of the savage war that was the ruination of the Poland of that time.

The final work, the Chopin Scherzo in E major, Op. 54, was the finest scherzo of all we have heard in this festival. It contained ‘the Polish element’ spoken of by Chopin in profusion. A magnificent performance of passionate commitment which leaves me nothing to say other than to fall silent in admiration.

As Chopin encores two fine Études , an idiomatic Mazurka and a beautifully turned Nocturne to close a very fine recital indeed.

Saturday 13 August   20.00  Final Recital   Federico Colli

[1st prize Salzburg Mozart Competition 2011. Gold Medal Leeds Piano Competition 2012]

Anyone who volunteers at short notice to replace the sublime Chopinist Kate Liu at Duszniki Zdroj has my utmost respect. Sadly she has not been well recently.

I briefly heard the Italian pianist Federico Colli on the radio during the 2012 Leeds Piano Competition which he won. Held every three years, previous winners include Andras Schiff, Radu Lupu and Artur Pizarro. Colli, a native of Brescia (where incidentally Michelangeli was also born) is instantly recognizable by his curly hair and his luxuriant cravats. He previously won the 2011 Salzburg International Mozart Competition. In an interview on BBC Radio 3 the pianist Kathryn Stott called him ‘totally amazing’ and a pianist who ‘completely reinvented ‘The Emperor’ concerto of Beethoven. It was fresh. He's a superb pianist.’ He came to Duszniki in 2013 and I wrote on that occasion:

A great evening given to us by a great artist with tremendous personality, individuality, charisma, pianistic and musical brilliance. Chatting to him he admitted that his pianistic god is Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. He assured me he was born in a house in Brescia in the same street and exactly opposite to that in which Michelangeli was born! 

It is wonderful to meet someone so alive ... it was lovely to renew our acquaintance. 

In his case substance definitely triumphs over style. When he appears on the stage one the distinct impression that an Italian Renaissance figure from a portrait in the Uffizi Gallery in Firenze had just left the wall and stepped out of the frame. A flamboyant Cellini character with curly brown hair, the trimmed beard of a Medici courtier wearing a coachman style black suit with a spectacular silk foulard and pocket square. And then he begins to play…

The first half of his recital was dominated by Bach. He began with a wonderfully ‘audience accessible’ piece, the Bach Italian Concerto in F major BMV 971. The work sparkled with an excellent choice of lively tempo (energetic but not hysterical) and proceeded with élan and panache. He is cultivating a remarkable detaché keyboard technique which minimal pedal which suits the baroque idiom of such a work admirably. Colli presented it as a true ‘concerto’ transferring the original terrace dynamics of the harpsichord with great skill to the dynamically inflected piano.

Then the Brahms Theme with Variations in D minor Op. 18b. When Clara Schumann heard the noble slow movement of his String Sextet in B flat major Op 18 she implored Brahms for a piano transcription of this movement. He agreed and produced this Theme and Variations as a birthday gift on 13 September 1860. It bears a certain debt to Johann Sebastian. It was  in turn rounded in tone, rich, sonorous, ardent and sensitive. Quite superb.

Ferrucio Busoni excelled in his graceful arrangements of Bach Chorale Preludes and we heard the beautiful and contemplative Ich ruf’ zu dir Herr Jesu Christ BWV 639. Then another extremely popular choice, the Myra Hess arrangement of Jesus bleibet meine Freunde BMV 147 and to end this sensitive group the Bach/Busoni Nun freut euch, lieben Chritsen g’mein BMV 734. All were performed with exquisite refinement.

To complete the first half a sensitive, moving and touching Chopin Mazurka in C sharp minor Op. 63 played with great eloquent inner life. This was followed by a terrifically stylish and individual rendition of the Op. 64 Waltzes. I absolutely loved their rare élan and polish, sheer dash and elegance, flexible rhythms a la mode. A master of style in both life and music.

After the interval Schumann dominated. First of all Papillons Op. 2. Ofcourse the titles means ‘butterflies’ in French and the work illustrates a masked ball inspired by the Jean Paul novel Flegeljahre (‘The Awkward Age’) (1804-5). One does not often hear the work in recital – this perfect vehicle for our colourful figure to perform his theatrical magic. The 11th movement is appropriately a spirited polonaise. Some of the themes appear in Carnaval (No 12 for example). Colli captured brilliantly the mercurial, whimsical shifting moods and colours of Schumann as the characters parade across the theatrical stage. This great chameleon of music painted in full resplendent oil. The ardent natures of No 5 and No 7 were quite affecting. Colli has a remarkable sense of ‘sprung rhythm’ and his variety of articulation is a wonder to hear giving air, breath and freshness to everything he touches. The charm of another earlier century, more civilised than ours, was present in No 10.

With his last work on the programme Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op. 26 we were on different territory. I am terribly fond of this work and it is one of those pieces where another interpretation is lodged so firmly in the inner ear it is difficult to dispel when hearing anyone else perform the work. Mine is a recording made by Michelangeli of this work for the BBC in 1950. Colli interpreted it far more forcefully turning it into more of a virtuoso work than I had dared imagine. I found his dynamics rather unvaried which resulted in what might call an ‘over-interpretation’ of the work bordering on exaggeration. The Allegro rather too powerful for my taste, the Romanze on the other hand movingly warm, the Scherzo  at a breakneck tempo, a graceful Intermezzo and powerful Finale. The Michelangeli view of this wonderful but not universally popular work remains my gold standard. But then these Italians are such artists many views are possible...

In a striking moment of self-possession, as Colli was leaving the stage, he allowed himself a moment to sniff the bouquet of the large bunch of red roses he was presented with after the recital. Delightfully stylish as ever!

The encores were stunning despite his plea they were 'unprepared': Colli’s own arrangement of the desperately moving Handel aria Lascia ch'io pianga from Rinaldo and a Scarlatti Sonata that betrayed the most phenomenal variety of articulation and internal energy – a born Scarlatti player indeed. He told me in the Green Room later that he will soon be making a recording of Scarlatti – watch out for it! On this showing superior to young Pogorelich or even Horowitz and is really saying something.

There is a charming lady who haunts the Green Room after artists have performed at Duszniki collecting outlines of their left hands. A curious field of interest. Here she is with Federico.

And so the 'Duszniki Family' make their fond farewells at the conclusion of another marvelous piano festival

At the closing ceremony a sad moment when Mr. Andrzej Merkur (a Founder of the Festival and its Director) sent his fond farewells to us all from his sick bed. He is ill at present and could not attend the festival. Let us hope he gets well again soon!

And so the only last gesture for me is to thank Professor Paleczny for assembling yet another fabulous array of talent for us to hear. 

Next year is the 25th anniversary of his position as Artistic Director of the festival so it is bound to be remarkable. Make every effort to come!

Introduction to the History of the Festival 


Polish musicologist, academic, music critic, music journalist and essayist 

Stanisław Dybowski

When, in 1946, Ignacy Potocki, a co-founder of the Lower Silesian Health Resorts, proposed that a music festival named after Frédéric Chopin be held in Duszniki-Zdrój, nobody thought that that annual event would continue for the next seventy-one years. It has, indeed, continued without interruptions until today, rendering famous the name of the Polish genius and his music, as well as the health resort, at the same time enlarging the output of the global musical culture. 

It all started very modestly, amid still strong memories of World War II that had ended only a year before. The two-day Chopin celebration was inaugurated with a solemn ceremony (25 August), during which a plaque commemorating Frédéric Chopin’s stay at the resort was un- veiled, followed by a recital by one of the greatest Polish female piano players, a magnificent Chopin expert, Zofia Rabcewiczowa (1870– 1947). In the interval during her concert Paulina Czernicka familiarised the present with the content of unknown letters sent by Chopin to Del- fina Potocka, which twenty years later turned out to be … apocrypha. On the next day (26 August), at the concert hall of the Spa House, the audience listened to a performance by Henryk Sztompka (1901–1964), also one of the foremost Chopin experts. At the time Duszniki-Zdrój witnessed an encounter between two heirs of the great traditions of Ignacy Jan Paderewski (Sztompka) and Antoni Rubinstein (Rabcewiczowa). They performed exclusively compositions by the patron of the 1st festival. Interpretations of both pianists, including those, among other works, Sonata in H minor and selected études (Rabcewiczowa), as well as mazurkas, preludes and nocturnes (Sztompka), are now part of Chopin performance history. Those present at the concerts claim that they have never heard those works performed better… 

Initially, the festival programme included only Chopin’s music performed by Polish artists. With time, however, the repertoire began to be extended with works by other Polish composers of Chopin’s period. Gradually, in subsequent years, pieces by foreign artists were added and the performers began to include laureates, and then participants, of the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Thus, the event was becoming a forum of the world piano performance. For many artists, even those renowned, performing Chopin’s music on the Duszniki-Zdrój stage is an important point in their musical career. 

The event has witnessed concerts by the greatest piano masters. The already dead ones include legendary Raul Koczalski, Witold Małcużyński, Stefan Askenazy, Władysław Kędra, Paweł Lewiecki, Stanisław Szpinalski, Zbigniew Drzewiecki, Jan Ekier, Halina Czerny-Stefańska, Regina Smendzianka, Zbigniew Szymonowicz, Barbara Hesse-Bukowska, Jerzy Lefeld, Klara Langer-Danecka, Tadeusz Żmudziński, Miłosz Magin and others, while the foreign ones  e.g. Louis Kentner, František Rauch, Malcolm Frager and Stanislav Neuhaus. Many have made their debut in Duszniki-Zdrój, where they embarked on their international careers, including Adam Harasiewicz, Piotr Paleczny, Janusz Olejniczak, Krystian Zimerman, Ewa Pobłocka or Wojciech Świtała. It is with great sentiment that we remember, until today, the magnificent recitals by Paul Badura-Skoda, Michael Ponti, Joaquin Achucarro, Philippe Entremont, Dang Thai Son, Fou Ts’ong, Eugen Indjic, Cyprien Katsaris, Christian Zacharias and Kevin Kenner, among others. It was also here that the Festival’s artistic director, Piotr Paleczny, had his great successes. 

Today the International Chopin Piano Festival in Duszniki-Zdrój is the world’s oldest Chopin festival and oldest piano festival. The originally modest event dedicated to Chopin has, after years of beautiful development, become a unique occasion. It is very often the centre of the world piano art, a place where aesthetical canons in music are built, performance trends are created and artistic careers are launched. 

Since 1993, i.e. the 48th Festival, the artistic supervision over the event is exercised by Professor Piotr Paleczny, who himself comes from a beautiful Chopin tradition. 

As is well known, Chopin’s favourite student was Karol Mikuli (1819–1897), whose outstanding pupils included Aleksander Michałowski (1851–1938). Aleksander Michałowski was, in turn, a professor of Stefania Allina (1895–1988), who taught Piotr Paleczny… 

The Chopin tradition does not end with Paleczny though. It is now continued by his students, who win prizes at international competitions and music reviews, and is further developed by the festival that it shapes. In Duszniki-Zdrój we have the opportunity to meet the most brilliant young pianists from around the world and, at the same time, experience the art of famous performers, whose names give prominence to every festival. It is often here that music lovers are able to listen to a laureate of an international piano competition that was concluded only a few days earlier!

The characteristic feature of Duszniki-Zdrój concerts is their high level and varied programme. Although Chopin’s music remains the core of the repertoire, it is supplemented with works by other composers, creating in various styles and various periods of history. Some pieces may be heard several times, which provides an excellent opportunity to compare their interpretations, ways in which the same text has been read, demonstrations of hitherto undiscovered layers in music… Even though piano music is still the main feature in Duszniki-Zdrój, Chopin’s chamber pieces are not neglected by Piotr Paleczny. Therefore, we are able to listen to his songs, cello works, a piano trio and transcriptions by various authors of the composer’s brilliant works.

A beautiful tradition, initiated by Paleczny, are open lectures and talks on Chopin’s piano art, delivered by outstanding Chopin experts and piano performance researchers, as well as master interpretation classes for selected, talented young musicians, conducted by world-re- nowned professors and famous pianists.

At the beginning of August every year Duszniki-Zdrój becomes the Chopin centre, attracting music lovers from around the world, young musicians, music critics, art critics and all those who care about Chopin. The multilingual noise in Spa Park clearly indicates where Chopin is being celebrated and where his beloved instrument is being played…

Stanisław Dybowski

      Felix Mendelssohn at Duszniki Zdroj in 1823

I often walk to to what is now the rehabilitation centre of Stalowy Zdrój on the outskirts of Duszniki and familiarize myself with the Felix Mendelssohn connections with the spa. 

The iron ore deposits of what was known as Bad Reinerz (now Duszniki Zdroj) and its surroundings have been exploited since the beginning of the 15th century. Protestant miners emigrated here during the religious turmoil of the Thirty Years War when mining was established at the end of the 17th century. A molten iron and a hammer mill was established in 1822 by Nathan Mendelssohn (an instrument maker). With his brother Joseph Mendelssohn's financial help he revived the mining industry. I have often wondered if it was at this mill that the the tragedy occurred for which Chopin gave his charity concert.

Joseph was a successful banker as well as being another uncle of the composer Felix Mendelssohn. The Mendelssohns were a wealthy and well-established Jewish family. However the iron company had no lasting success because of severe flood damage in 1827 and 1829. Nathan Mendelssohn abandoned the operation at the end of 1829. 

Felix Mendelssohn came to stay with his uncles in Duszniki in 1823 three years prior to Chopin's stay. A concert was held in Duszniki in which the main protagonist was the fourteen-year-old Mendelssohn. The young pianist did without the accompaniment of the semi-amateur ensemble that normally performed and decided to improvise solo on themes from Mozart and Weber to great acclaim.

I will leave you with some photographs of buildings still standing that resulted from my initial explorations.

The house stayed in by Felix Mendelssohn at Duszniki Zdroj in 1823

The commemorative plaque on the house

A rather run-down pavilion on the estate

Detail of the pavilion

Other buildings on the estate contemporary with Felix Mendelssohn

Past Festival Posts

The 70th Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Piano Festival 2015

The 69th Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Piano Festival 2014  

The 68th Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Piano Festival 2013

The 67th Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Piano Festival 2012

The 66th. Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Piano Festival 2011

The 65th. Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Piano Festival 2010

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