Chopin's Birthday - 208th Anniversary on 1st March 2018 - a Charming Day spent both at Żelazowa Wola and in Warsaw

Chopin's birthplace at Żelazowa Wola about 50 kms from Warsaw

I decided to make the effort to attend the birthday recital at Żelazowa Wola on an uncompromisingly and rather abnormal freezing day on 1st March (-10C). Brrrr....

The romantic intimacy I remember of my first visit to the dwórek and hamlet in the early 1990s has rather disappeared with a quite understandable development of the site to cope with the freedom of the global touristic movement that Poland now enjoys - restaurant, ticket hall, shop, recital and lecture theatre - the full unfolding of facilities for visitors but with the inevitable loss of some of the romantic poetry and mystery of the domain. 

I would like to quote my first impressions of what was for me a deeply poetic place. In an access of nostalgia the extract comes from my book about Poland entitled A Country in the Moon (Granta -London 2008).

                                                                          *  *  *  *  *

In late spring, in a despondent frame of mind, I decided to raise my spirits with a visit to Chopin’s birthplace at Żelazowa Wola, a hamlet about fifty kilometres from Warsaw. The flat Mazovian landscape was relieved by stands of trembling birch and pine; forlorn willows with gnarled boles lined the deserted roads. I had long anticipated this visit to what musically, for me, was an almost sacred place. I wandered through the still and muffled park. A subtle atmosphere of reverence is created here among the groves of trees, the serpentine paths winding between hedges and over the little bridge above the Utrata river. Long-leaved aquatic plants flowed like Ophelia’s hair in the current. It was almost dusk as I made my way to the softly lit entrance of the dwórek. I leaned against one of the columns of the porch and looked into the depths of the park over the still pond with the dim swimming carp.

I stooped to pick up a weathered chestnut and idly polished it on my coat. An old piano tuner I knew in Warsaw gave chestnuts from this park to piano students at the conservatorium, telling them to hold them close to their hearts as they contained ‘the spirit of Chopin’. He claimed he had also seen the disembodied hand of the composer appear on a banister in the dwórek late one night after tuning the piano for a concert.

I pushed aside the heavy brocade and leather curtain at the front door. Only about twenty-five people could be accommodated in the tiny room. A brass candelabra with the crowned Polish eagle resting between the branches stood on the small grand piano. Warm yellow light flickered on the portrait of the composer and fitfully illuminated the painted beams of the dwórek. The young pianist, a French girl, had ambitiously chosen to play both sets of Chopin études. Her little dog lay under the instrument fast asleep. Snow fell gently and silently against the windows and built up on the ledges.

A cloud hovers over the birth date of Fryderyk in a rather characteristic Polish way. The year 1810 is not seriously in dispute but the Chopin family insisted on March 1 while the baptismal certificate records a birth date of February 22. Celebrations in Warsaw occur throughout the week, which covers all possibilities.

At this time (1810) Warsaw was an extraordinary melange of cultures. Magnificent magnate palaces shared muddy unpaved streets with dilapidated townhouses, szlachta farms, filthy hovels and teeming markets. By 1812 the Napoleonic campaigns had financially crippled the Duchy of Warsaw. 

The French Ambassador commented: 

'Nothing could exceed the misery of all classes . . . I even saw princesses quit Warsaw from the most extreme distress’.

Chopin spent his formative years in Warsaw during this turbulent political period and the family often escaped the capital to the refuge of the Mazovian countryside at Żelazowa Wola. Here the fields are alive with birdsong, butterflies and wildflowers. On summer nights the piano was placed in the garden and Chopin would improvise eloquent melodies that floated through the orchards and across the river to the listening villagers gathered beyond. To this day, the atmosphere is recaptured in summer when the windows of the dwórek are thrown open for recitals and the audience wanders in the elegant gardens or leans on the railing of the small wooden bridge and gazes into the dreamy waters of the Utrata.

  *  *  *  *  *  *

On this occasion the birthday concert was devoted entirely to works for cello and piano composed by Chopin. The cellist Magdalena Bojanowicz was performing on a period French cello of 1864,  possibly by the luthier Augustin Claude Miremont (1825-1887). The pianist Radisław Kurek played the Żelazowa Wola Broadwood piano of 1843.

A wintry landscape (-10C) from the window of the hall overlooking the garden

The moment the cello sounded with its rich period mahogany  timbre and lower pitch in the charmingly  intimate atmosphere that pervades the dwórek, I was carried into another world of poetic sentiment, my natural area of repose in life. 

They opened their recital with a spirited account of the Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major Op.3. A fine performance.  In this work '....there is also bravura, verve and a Slavic, typically polonaise vigour, as well as an undeniable feel for the spirit of the dance. That is just how it was danced at grand balls in Poland.' (Mieczysław Tomaszewski)  

Much of this is present in any good performance of this 'light' work. Chopin composed it on a visit to the aristocratic hunting lodge of Antonin, a work as he rather self-effacingly put it, 'for the ladies'. His intention was also to compose a piece for his close friend, the amateur cellist of distinction, Prince Antoni Radziwiłł. A work of undemanding taste and elegance - the polonaise rhythm perhaps could have been a little more pronounced and realized in this performance.

Magdalena Bojanowicz and Radisław Kurek
The 'pie-crust' title attached to this Broadwood model is clear from the edge of the lid

Piano by John Broadwood & Sons [c.1843]
A grand piano (serial no. 16000) made by a renowned English firm whose owners introduced many improvements to the construction of both upright and grand pianos.

Originally ordered from Broadwood by Georges Wildes of Manchester. Rosewood veneered, pie-crust model. Straight-strung, composite frame with six metal stress bars. English single repetition action with over dampers. Keyboard compass C2-f4, 6½ octaves; two pedals, una corda and dampers. According to company archives, twice repaired in 1855.

Fryderyk Chopin played on a similar instrument in a Gentlemen’s Concert held on 28 August 1848.

Fully restored, it has regained its original technical efficiency as a concert instrument. Purchased in 2014 by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, it now stands in the Birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin in Żelazowa Wola.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The next work on their programme was the seldom performed paraphrase Grand Duo Concertante in E  major on themes from Meyerbeer's opera Robert le Diable (1832-3). One must bear in mind when discussing this rather musically undistinguished and conventional work (except as a charmingly graceful and elegant salon piece - and none the worse for that) that Chopin had become acquainted with the cellist Auguste Franchomme in the spring of 1832. Their friendship was close and would last until Chopin died. Their collaboration began with this work. Much of the cello part of what might be termed a pièce d’occasion is written in the hand of Franchomme. The work was dedicated to Miss Adèle Forest, a pupil of Chopin. In the intimate, correct environment in which it was performed, I found it a delightful work that did not engage the intellect unduly - often a relief in our contemporary,  too often academic, classical music-making lives.

Finally in their programme, the Sonata in G minor for cello and piano (1846-1847), dedicated to his friend the cellist Auguste Franchomme. This work is an unquestionable masterpiece of the Chopin oeuvre. The cello is the only other instrument Chopin wrote extensively for other than the piano. This was an arduous, much delayed and worked upon piece (200 pages of sketches and 20 of manuscript).  'I write a little and cross out a lot.' as he wrote to his sister. 

The work was finally completed at Nohant (the country retreat of Georges Sand) under the passionate shadows of their separation and the fraught relations concerning the marriage of her daughter Solange to the sculptor and painter of erotic subjects, Auguste  Clésinger. This post-romantic work, was almost unanimously condemned by critics at the time. It surely foretold developments in the music of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. For Chopin it marked the development of a completely novel style of composition. I can do no better than quote that great Chopin musicologist  Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski concerning this sonata:  

When performed by masters, the Sonata in G minor is absorbing, riveting, from the very first bar to the last. Composed at a difficult time in Chopin’s life, it thrills, astonishes and delights us with its rare beauty and with the harsh, bitter wisdom that shows through the notes.

Chopin seems influenced here by German sonata compositional models in creating this particularly 'un-Chopinesque' masterpiece. He relates the four movements of the sonata together through similar melodic references. The primary cello theme of the Allegro moderato first movement is also the opening of the rather folk inspired Scherzo second movement and also the Finale. 

The cellist Magdalena Bojanowicz gave us an ardent performance full of expressive emotion and superbly unctuous tone, in particular the always deeply moving Largo. Throughout her playing I was reminded of a masterclass I once witnessed by Paul Tortelier, the rarely mentioned cellist and master of that warm, expressive, poetic French manner of playing the instrument. The pianist Radisław Kurek gave a supportive and authoritative account of the particularly difficult piano part which Chopin wrestled with over months to achieve an artistic and expressive creative balance with the cello.

Magdalena Bojanowicz 
After the recital I wandered in a slightly melancholy frame of mind through the still wintry park faintly dusted with snow, trees gaunt and bare, scarcely any people. I could not escape reflecting on the nature of time, the seemingly inevitable juggernaut of 'progress' which can all too easily eclipse the fragile poetry of intimacy, so fragile as to be, without proper care and aesthetic sensitivity, rationalized out of existence at a stroke. As the park and interior of the dwórek are being increasingly and sensitively restored and improved, I trust the reverential and almost sacred atmosphere of this hallowed spot will return in full bloom. 

Warsaw Filharmonia - 19.00

The Filharmonia was understandably crowded for this concert on the 208th anniversary of the birth of Fryderyk Chopin. There was quite a festive buzz in the air as the audience arrived in their varied sense of a common dress code. 

The programme opened with what I thought was an unusual piano concerto for a Chopin birthday concert, that by Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) which he composed in 1961.

My intention was to write a virtuoso piece where a pianist would have equal space for showing his poetic sensitivity, technical skills and recklessness. I wanted also to use all of the sounds you can get out of a piano – from melodious, sustained notes to those very dry, almost percussive ones. Other than that I paid a lot of attention to the orchestral part, which from the very beginning was meant to be very important.

Structure was a paramount consideration for Panufnik. In this work he attempted a balance between intellectual and emotional elements. He described the structure in these terms:

The piano concerto has three parts: Entrata, Larghetto molto tranquillo and Presto molto agitato. 

Each of them has its own character and ambiance impacting the audience. The first part is dominated by a three-note cell including wholetone and semitone. They constitute the short but dramatic introduction to the concerto. The second part is more of a quiet, contemplative dialogue between the soloist and orchestra (and there are dialogues inside different sections of orchestra as well). (…) When it comes to music material I imposed a strict discipline on myself, basing the second part mostly on the intervals of semitone and wholetone as ‘basic tone’ of mirror sound design. The third part comes ‘attacca’ (without a break between second and third) and it starts with a violent gust of orchestra. It is also based on two intervals, but this time I chose minor and major thirds. By constant repeating of these two intervals I wanted to evoke an insistent feeling of indignation, anxiety. Nevertheless the contrasting middle fragment is very lyrical and based on wholetones and semitones only, which is a sort of link between two totally distinct block: Larghetto molto tranquillo and Presto molto agitato.

Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991)

The British pianist Clare Hammond was the soloist in the Panufnik with the National Philharmonic Orchestra under their principal conductor Jacek Kaspszyk. 

Hammond has been described as  a pianist of 'amazing power and panache' (The Telegraph),recognized for the virtuosity and authority of her performances. She has developed a 'reputation for brilliantly imaginative concert programmes' (BBC Music Magazine, ‘Rising Star’). Contemporary music forms an important part of her repertoire.  

Exuberance and high spirits were much in evidence. She dealt with this virtuoso work with formidable authority and élan. Yet I especially loved the Debussyan meditative, sensitive, introspective and emotionally philosophical content she brought to the beautiful Larghetto molto tranquillo.

There was much disappointment that the Bulgarian pianist Plamena Mangova was indisposed. She had taken Second Prize at the 2007 Queen Elizabeth Competition won in that year by the brilliant Russian Anna Vinnitskaya. In a gesture of courage and generosity at incredibly short notice, the Argentinian pianist Nelson Goerner, who was to play the Paderewski concerto after the interval, stepped up to perform the Chopin F minor Piano Concerto Op. 21.  

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

The work was written 1829-30 This concerto was inspired by Chopin’s infatuation or was it youthful love for the soprano Konstancja Gladkowska. It seems she may have been more interested in splendid military uniforms. Strangely it was published a few years later but with a dedication to Delfina Potocka.

This was first piano concerto Chopin wrote. However it was not the finest performance by Goerner I have heard although his vivid sound quality and virtuosity were ever presentFor me the first movement Maestoso was somewhat rushed in tempo rather than noble in sensibility even for a styl brillant work. I say this because the concerto followed the Mozart model and was directly influenced by the styl brillant of Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles or Ries. It is hard to reproduce this intimate yet fragile glittering tone on a Steinway or Yamaha. Here again Chopin magically transforms the Classical into the Romantic style. 

A singing bel canto tone in the affecting Larghetto could have been given rather more poetry and introverted tenderness I felt, being a movement of supreme beauty and one of the deepest expressions of youthful illusioned love in the Western keyboard canon. In many ways you could say that the whole work revolves around this movement. I always think of the sentiments contained in the 1820 poem by John Keats La Belle Dame Sans Merci when I hear this music with its emotional interjections

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

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

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

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

There was energy and drive in the Rondo Allegro vivace final movement in an exuberant lively style of kujawiak dance. How Chopin must have loved the bucolic nature of the Polish countryside and its folk music! The Chopin extension of the Hummel piano concerto was here fully realized. Melody and bravura figuration (F minor to the relative major A flat for instance) was well brought off but again slightly rushed in tempo for my taste. The German poet Heinrich Heine summarized the psyche of Chopin in this way: 'Poland gave him the sentiments of a chevalier and the sufferings of history; France his facility, his elegance and his grace; Germany his dreamy depths.' The music of Chopin began with Polish fervour but after Paris it reached out to embrace the realms of the universal human spirit.

This composition that lies between Mozart and the styl brillant was of course convincingly, even stylishly executed on occasion considering Goerner's great familiarity with the score and the short notice he had to prepare and rehearse it.  A generally satisfying although not inspiring performance that moved the audience to cheers of approbation, the faster tempos perhaps expressing the over-exuberance of youth, the Larghetto the dreams of a lover's rather too distant admiration as imagined by this pianist. 

The final work in this Chopin Birthday concert was the Paderewski A minor Piano Concerto Op. 17.  Again the National Philharmonic Orchestra under their principal conductor Jacek Kaspszyk.  Nelson Goerner as soloist.

Paderewski was only 28 when he composed this concerto and was scarcely known as a musical figure. He had made extensive studies with Theodor Leschetizky and in 1888, the year of its composition, he made his debut in Paris and Vienna. 

He wrote in his memoirs:

When I finished [the] concerto, I was still lacking in experience. I had not even heard it performed—it was something I was longing for. I wanted to have the opinion then of a really great orchestral composer. I needed it. 

So without further thought I took my score and went directly to Saint-Saëns. But I was rather timid … I realized on second thoughts that it was, perhaps, presumption on my part to go to him. Still I went to his house nevertheless. I was so anxious for his opinion. He opened the door himself. ‘Oh, Paderewski, it’s you. Come in,’ he said. ‘Come in. What do you want?’ I realized even before he spoke that he was in a great hurry and irritable, probably writing something as usual and not wanting to be interrupted. ‘What can I do for you? What do you want?’ I hesitated what to answer. I knew he was annoyed. I had come at the wrong moment … ‘I came to ask your opinion about my piano concerto,’ I said very timidly. ‘I ——.’ ‘My dear Paderewski,’ he cried, ‘I have not the time. I cannot talk to you today. I cannot.’ He took a few steps impatiently about the room. ‘Well, you are here so I suppose I must receive you. Let me hear your concerto. Will you play it for me?’ He took the score and read it as I played. He listened very attentively. 

At the Andante he stopped me, saying, ‘What a delightful Andante! Will you kindly repeat that?’ I repeated it. I began to feel encouraged. He was interested. Finally he said, ‘There is nothing to be changed. You may play it whenever you like. It will please the people. It’s quite ready. You needn’t be afraid of it, I assure you.’ So the interview turned out very happily after all, and he sent me off with high hopes and renewed courage. At that moment in my career, his assurance that the concerto was ready made me feel a certain faith in my work that I might not have had then. 

                                                                          The Paderewski Memoirs London 1939 p. 149-50

I felt Goerner approached the entire interpretation at a rather faster tempo than we are accustomed to - one might say with a robust, Polish exuberance regardless of risk and consequence - an essential part of the Polish temperament but usually displayed in time of war as in the Battle of Vienna (1683), the victory of the spectacular Winged Cavalry (Husaria) or perhaps the valiant Spitfire and Hurricane pilots during the Battle of Britain. This gave rise to a few unexpected, even surprising solecisms and infelicities in a pianist of his stature. He played the Allegro with authority and great emotional commitment, but at a rather impulsive tempo I felt.

The Romanza: Andante was taken at a moderate pace but could have been invested with more poetry (again for my rather over-romantic soul). Despite many contrary opinions the movement is one of my favourite piano concerto movements from the second half of the nineteenth century. 

It reminds me of a superb film score for say an intensely romantic French love affair set in Provence directed by Francois Truffaut. In my imagination we could be bowling along a poplar-lined route secondaire past hills of vineyards with Catherine Deneuve or Stephane Audran in the passenger seat of a Chapron Citroen cabriolet. Her hair is wonderfully awry in the wind as we head through rolling sunlit pastures towards une belle gentilhommière and nights of sophisticated sensual bliss, days of cultivated tastes, food and wine. Ah…what we have lost of true civilization and culture in 2018…Paderewski had it all.

I am afraid this performance somewhat muted this idyllic picture which rises from the best accounts, say the astounding yet moving Earl Wilde recording under Arthur Fiedler. Orchestrally and pianistically the Finale. Allegro molto vivace was rather too fast to exploit the true nature of the dance rhythms, but there was certainly a cavalry charge of driving energy and tempo which seemed to inspire this excellent pianist (even if Argentinian) to the almost exaggerated heights of a Pole playing patriotic Polish music in adversity, where his remarkable virtuosity verged on becoming the master. The audience were highly enthusiastic....

Paderewski at 24 – a close likeness to his appearance during the writing of the concerto

As is often the case in concerts, the encore was the most beautiful and poetic item on the programme, the Debussy Prélude No: 4 from Book 1 entitled Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir Modéré ('The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air'). I could have listened to his Debussy all night....

And so another Chopin Birthday commemoration drew to a close as we draw ever further away from the source of this inspiration, nevertheless always a day of the greatest romantic nostalgia and reflection for this unapologetic Chopinist.


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