73rd. International Chopin Piano Festival 3-11 August 2018, Duszniki Zdroj, Poland

The Chopin Bench in Havana, Cuba

The Dworek Chopina where the piano recitals take place

Full English details of the programmes, biographies of Artists and Professors as well as Masterclasses are available using this link:

From the Reviewer's Notebook 

Piano Recital

This distinguished musician and pianist requires little introduction. He has appeared at the most famous international music festivals with all the great orchestras of the world under the most renowned conductors, at the finest music venues as well as having been awarded most of the glittering prizes. For me his most outstanding claim to fame is his close relationship with the composer and pianist Daniil Trifonov as teacher, guide, philosopher and friend.

I was unfortunately unable to attend this recital and recordings of it are unavailable.

Piano recital

For such a young man Eric Lu has achieved great things which speaks volumes for his natural gifts, uncompromising attitude to work and the inherent poetry embedded within his musical appreciation. Lu was first brought to the world’s attention when he was a prizewinner at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw at the age of 17, becoming one of the youngest laureates in the history of the prestigious competition. Subsequently he performed with famous orchestras in prestigious venues around the globe. Eric currently studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with Profs. J. Biss and R. McDonald. He is also a pupil of the pianist Dang Thai Son.

This Duszniki recital confirmed all my beliefs outlined in previous reviews concerning the rare musical qualities possessed by this young pianist. He opened his recital with the 4 Impromptus D. 899 (1827) by Schubert.

Franz Schubert by Gabor Melegh 1827

When listening to these works it is interesting to reflect that during his lifetime Schubert was above all lauded for his glorious Lieder (an astonishing 640 of them), dance music (a passion during the Biedermeier period) and smaller piano works, the D. 899 set of Impromptus among them. These genres were considered rather insignificant in the 'grand classical canon' of the time. The works considered of fundamental significance today were not so appraised in early nineteenth century Vienna. Much has changed in public taste since Schubert's death in 1828. Interestingly, we can probably hear more of the music of Schubert now than he could himself.

So many of the larger works - piano sonatas, symphonies, chamber music and operas were rather unknown except to some of his literary friends, lyric poets, the cognoscenti and 'obedient rebels'.  Of course Schubert composed under the disconcerting shadow of Beethoven. Legends proliferated. In 1863 during the exhumation of both bodies from Vienna's Währing Cemetery, it was observed (rather absurdly to my mind) by  a friend of Beethoven's, the Austrian physician and medical researcher Gerhard von Breuning, that "...it was extremely interesting physiologically to compare the compact thickness of Beethoven's skull and the fine almost feminine thinness of Schubert's, and to relate them, almost directly, to the character of their music."

Life itself and expressive 'individuality' was difficult for these liberal cultured folk under the autocratic regime of the absolutist Klemens von Metternich who saw them as threats to his treasured status quo. Hence Nature and music (beyond incriminating language) were avenues of free expression, emblems of innocence and escape for Schubert. Domestic music-making dedicated to the composer known as Schubertiades, 'social' music, was intensely popular. He sang his own songs himself with a fine voice. Polluted Vienna, his local environment, was thankfully closely surrounded by aesthetically idealized, bucolic countryside. Here he could commune deeply with himself as we can glean from the psychological tension that erupts between his inner personal lyricism and harsh outer reality expressed within a great many of his compositions for piano. Perhaps he expresses the most intense despair in the existential song cycle Winterreise. In a letter to his brother Ferdinand in July 1824, he wrote of his "fateful recognition of a miserable reality, which I endeavour to beautify as far as is possible by my imagination [Phantasie] (thank God)"

The title Impromptu originated with the Bohemian composer Václav Tomášek and was brought to Vienna by his pupil Jan Voříšek around 1818. The term described rather easy and light characterful pieces for cultivated amateurs to perform. Schubert adopted this title for his Op.90 collection, perhaps attracted by the idea of spontaneity in composition. He may also have wished to communicate a sense of carefully structured poetic improvisation. The 'art that conceals art' if you will. Schumann even went so far as to consider the possibility that these four impromptus made up four movements comprising the form of a sonata. These pieces are virtuoso works in difficult keys and the publishers considered them far too challenging for amateurs - hence Schubert's difficulty in getting them published. Listening to the poetic richness of these works, one is  inescapably reminded of his Lieder.

The extraordinary fortissimo chord that begins the first impromptu in C minor gives rise to a yearning theme pianissimo. The entire impromptu seems to emerge organically from this opening. The characteristic narrative of an emotional labile wanderer is eloquent of the consoling landscapes through which he travels. I felt Lu instinctively understood this quite apart from the radiant colour, tone and touch he brought to the piece. With this same keyboard refinement he captured the lyrical fluidity of the E-flat major impromptu, reminding me of an elegant fountain cascade at the Schönbrunn Palace at midday. The difficult third impromptu in G-flat major he rendered with superb cantabile, perfect as a true dialogue. Flashes of resentment with the nature of life being what it is, the work is broadly meditative and reflective in affectation, a magnificent Lied fading away in the gathering mist. Finally the fourth in A-flat major, again a passionately lyrical cascade like a mountain stream tumbling over boulders, a celebration surely of Nature with brief dramatic outbursts of anger in the minor key as grim reality intrudes but is then overcome.

The civil servant, poet and composer Albert Stadler (1794-1884), a close friend and admirer of Schubert, described the lyricism of the composer in performance which as a partial description of Lu's playing, cannot be bettered. Schubert, Stadler observes, had "a beautiful touch, a quiet hand - [his was] nice, clear playing, full of soul and expression. He belonged to the old school of good pianists, where the fingers did not attack the poor keys like birds of prey."

The next work was that great masterpiece of Western keyboard literature, the Chopin Ballade in F minor Op. 52 (1842/1843). This was an elevated and immaculate performance of this challenging work. My only observation is that it will grow naturally in maturity and depth as Lu himself grows in life experience permitting him to explore more penetratingly its sublime narrative musical fabric.

Eric Lu

After the interval the autumnal Brahms 6 Klavierstücke Op. 118 (1893). In a letter to the conductor and composer Franz Lachner he wrote (concerning the 1st Movement of the Second Symphony): 'I am, by and by, a severely melancholic person …black wings are constantly flapping above us'. These are among the last compositions by Brahms and he seems to have conceived them as a coherent whole. It is hard to overlook the presence of the spectre of death that inhabits them. The group speaks volumes to me of the transient nature of human existence, but more of  a proud philosophical resignation to the inevitability of destiny than the expression of terror, despair and melancholy in the face of mysterious oblivion.

The passionate outbursts of the first Intermezzo in A minor and then the fading away and decay was well handled by Lu although I felt this declamatory piece rather rushed in his phrasing and breathing which lessened the expressive power of the passion. In the second profoundly moving and sensitively played Intermezzo in A major it may have benefited from savoring just a little more the eloquent harmonic transitions of the Andante teneramente, the expressive dynamic variations and poetry, more lovingly embracing the long legato lines. This ardent work has all the rhapsodic yearning and longing of a nocturne for lost love. Lu also was also convincing in the Ballade in G minor with its vigorous rhythms and densely woven harmonies. 

The contrapuntal texture of the fourth piece, the Intermezzo in F minor  permitted the calm to again be disturbed by passion but was followed by the fading nature of 'all passion spent'. The Chopinesque lullaby at the heart of the fifth piece, the Romanze in F major was most affectingly expressed by Lu. His refined touch, radiant tone and fine pedalling were used to great effect. The valedictory final piece of this integrated meditation on the acceptance of destiny and fate, the Intermezzo in E-flat minor, begins with  the theme of the Dies Irae of the Christian requiem. The spectre of death enters and recurs in the work in various guises. Here we begin to inhabit another world far beyond this one. A strenuous, heroic yet tragic averral of the force of life briefly emerges but the terminal expression of resignation in death concludes pianissimo.

To conclude Lu gave us a deeply felt Chopin Piano Sonata in B-flat minor Op. 35 (1837–1839). I consider the Grave doppio movimento was rather rushed in tempo answering the call of rather two-dimensional unbridled passion which not surprisingly so tempts young players but hides much of the heroic considered nobility of this movement. The Scherzo was exciting and well executed with extremely skillful use of the pedal as was the case throughout the sonata. The central cantabile was not sufficiently expressively considered or ardent for me, dwelling as I do dangerously and inappropriately on the fragile cusp of the sentimental in Chopin. The vital and difficult tempo a pianist selects for the Marche funèbre understandably fell just short of the immense gravity a mature pianist of deep emotional experience of death and grief can bring to this movement - Grigory Sokolov par example is unsurpassed in this. The tone of the beautifully executed central cantilena of nostalgic reminiscence was affecting and deeply musical nevertheless. The Finale. Presto although brilliantly played could perhaps have been more haunting, depending of course what fills your imagination at this point.

A finely wrought, deeply musical recital by a pianist of immense natural gifts. His altruistic approach to compositions, communicating the music of immortal composers through a charisma of modesty is so rare among the aspiring young today and should be treasured.  

As an encore, the perfectly appropriate Mozart Rondo in A minor, K 511. Lu is a born Mozartian with extraordinary refinement, elegance of taste, glowing tone and poetic restraint. How I would love to hear Lu in Mozart piano concerti and sonatas.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Just to say how overjoyed I am that Eric Lu has won the 2018 Leeds Piano Competition. Wonderful that all my predictions (and the remarkable musical foresight of the Duszniki Artistic Director, pianist Professor Piotr Paleczny) have come true. The Beethoven Concerto was magnificent...one of the finest I have heard and which earned him in addition the Terence Judd Orchestral Award.

Those of you who have read the above may know that he first came to my attention in Duszniki Zdrój in August 2015. This link leads to what I wrote about his appearance in the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw and at Duszniki that same year:

Piano Duet

This concert was one of the highlights of the festival for me.

Both pianists have distinguished careers at the highest level, appearing with many internationally renowned orchestras, under great conductors at world famous concert venues and summer festivals in Switzerland, Australia and the UK. The Italian Bax, 'a familiar face on four continents', won First Prize at both the Leeds and Hamamatsu International Piano Competitions. He serves with Lucille Chung as co-artistic director of the Joaquín Achúcarro Foundation, created to support young pianists’ careers.  A Steinway artist, he lives in New York City with his wife Lucille Chung and their four-year-old daughter, Mila. Beyond the concert hall he is known for his longtime obsession with fine food. A 2013 New York Times profile noted, he is not only notorious for hosting “epic” multi-course dinner parties, but often spends his intermissions dreaming of meals to come.

Born in Montréal, Canadian pianist Lucille Chung has been acclaimed for her 'stylish and refined performances' by Gramophone magazine, 'combining vigor and suppleness with natural eloquence and elegance' (Le Soir). Being a pupil the great Russian pianist Lazar Berman may go some way to explaining the radiance of her tone and supreme virtuosity. Of relevance to tonight's programme of Petrushka, in 1989 she was awarded the First Prize at the Stravinsky International Piano Competition. She graduated from both the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School before she turned twenty. The polymath Lucille is fluent in French, English, Korean, Italian, German, and Russian. 

The first half of the concert was Alessio Bax in solo recital. He opened rather imaginatively with the Oboe Concerto in D minor S D935 by Alessandro Marcello transcribed by Bach for unaccompanied harpsichord BWV 974. 
Alessandro Marcello (1669-1747) was a Venetian nobleman and dilettante who was remarkably creative in various disciplines including poetry, philosophy, mathematics and most notably, lyrical music. 'Being a nobleman, he played and wrote music for pleasure alone.' 

Alessandro Marcello (1669-1747) 

This was a fine performance with full understanding of Baroque performance practice and minimum use of the pedal, always subservient to finger legato. The Adagio as many know is a divine melody, inexplicably agitating yearning and melancholic emotions, which Bax presented with a long and beautiful cantabile line.

The next work was by the intellectually engaging Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975). Born in Croatia to Italian parents, much of his adult life and interrupted composing work was devoted to or at least had a background of political engagement. Once sympathetic to Mussolini, this changed dramatically with the Abyssinian adventure and the dictator's sympathy with Fascism and Nazi. The anti-Semitic government policies (Dallpiccola's wife, Laura Luzzatto, was Jewish) forced him into the dangerous position of opposition during WW II. 

At first Wagner, then Bach and the serial compositions of the Second Viennese School (Alban Berg and Anton Webern) were his most significant musical influences. He was also most interestingly fascinated by characterization in the literature of James Joyce and Marcel Proust (in particular  Albertine, from À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur) and attempted parallel musical compositional techniques. In conversation with the American musicologist Hans Nathan he observed of himself and the spirit of Italian music 'I have never nourished myself from musical journals in which they explain the chord progressions one should use. No, I wanted to arrive through my own conviction – at the cost of arriving sometimes a little late…'

The Quaderno musicale di Annalibera (Annalibera's musical notebook of 1952 - inevitably one recalls the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach) was dedicated to his daughter on her 8th birthday. Whatever did she make one wonders ? The work is also highly indebted to the mighty Bach and is based on a twelve-tone series. 

It is in eleven parts or movements:

1.      Simbolo  (unashamedly states B-A-C-H - in English notation B-A-C-B flat) 
2.     Accenti (irregular rhythmic preoccupations)
3.     Contrapunctus primus (mensural canon in contrary motion)
4.     Linee (rather serene and lyrical)
5.     Contrapunctus secondus  (a canon by inversion)
6.     Fregi
7.      Andantino amoroso e Contrapunctus tertius (a crab canon)
8.     Ritmi
9.     Colore
10.  Ombre (explores pianistic colours)
11.   Quartina
Alessio Bax gave a deeply illuminating interpretation of this refined intellectual conceit.

To conclude his solo recital a magnificent performance of the Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42 (1931) by Rachmaninoff, the piece dedicated to Fritz Kreisler. The inspiring and moving La Folia theme (set to music by at least 150 composers) is transformed through 20 variations and a Coda into a monumental work. I felt Bax did full justice to this piece both technically and expressively, a pianistic challenge that Rachmaninoff himself struggled with in performance.

After the interval Alessio was joined by his wife Lucille Chung for two very different works for four hands. First we had the Chopin Variations in D major on a theme of T. Moore for four hands (1826). The rather obscure history of this work is fascinating - we are fortunate to be hearing it at all. On the history of this work I would simply quote the Polish musicologist and editor Mieczysław Tomaszewski:

In the invaluable list of works not published during Chopin’s lifetime that was compiled after the composer’s death by his sister Ludwika, the title and theme are given with the date 1826, but the manuscript was lost.

That list provided the only evidence of this work’s existence until 1964, when the autograph of the Variations in D major on a theme of Moore came to light. The history of the manuscript, and of the work itself, speaks volumes about Chopin. He considered the work too poor for publication. Then, in the winter of 1842, the jurist and statesman Kornel Krzeczunowicz came to Paris from Warsaw and appeared in the salon of Madame Marliani. The magnanimous Chopin presented him with the manuscript, which thereafter remained a treasured family souvenir. Subsequently, it came into the possession of Teofil Ostaszewski, then his son Adam, and finally his grandson Wojciech. Salvaged from war-time destruction and post-war turmoil, it ended up at the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow, in the hands of Władysław Hordyński, who was the first to publish the work in facsimile. It was saved, but not intact. The first and last sheets were missing, with the effect that the introduction and theme were lacking the secondo part and the finale the primo. We owe the possibility of performing this work to Jan Ekier, who reconstructed those lost fragments. As a result, Chopin’s youthful work has recently been restored to musical life.

The pianist and composer Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) discovered a melody he liked in a songbook by the Irish poet Thomas Moore. The poet set English words to these melodies. The melody Ries liked, and subsequently Chopin, was thought to be a Venetian air  but further research has moved the source to Naples. The song is still sung today known as La Ricciolella – a song about a lovely girl with gloriously wavy blonde hair. A feeling of an improvised short introduction opened the work. Both pianists have formidable musical talents and finger technique elevating this charming lightweight, rather conventional set of variations, to the heights of the glittering style brillante in a scherzo, march,  etude and brief waltz.

The puppets - The Moor, the Ballerina, Petrushka and the Charlatan 
Photo © Dave Morgan

Petrushka tells the story of the loves and jealousies of three puppets. The burlesque ballet was composed by Igor Stravinsky in 1910–11 and revised in 1947.  The libretto was written together with the set and costume designer Alexandre Benois. Michael Fokine choreographed the ballet. The première of Petrushka was performed by the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 13 June 1911. Vaslav Nijinsky played Petrushka with Tamara Karsavina as the Ballerina,  Alexander Orlov the Moor and Enrico Cecchetti the Charlatan. This rarely performed 4 hand piano version of the original four ballet scenes was prepared by Stravinsky before the première of the ballet.  

Scene I
1. The Shrove-Tide Fair 2. Russian Dance

The Shrove-Tide Fair set design by Alexandre Benois
Scene II
3. Petrushka

Scene III
4. The Blackamoor 5. Waltz (Blackamoor and Ballerina)

Scene IV
6. The Shrove-Tide Fair (Towards Evening) 7. Wet-Nurses’ Dance 8. Peasant with Bear 9. Gypsies and a Rake Vendor 10. Dance of the Coachmen 11. Masqueraders 12. The Scuffle (Blackamoor and Petrushka) 13. Death of Petrushka 14. Police and the Juggler 15. Apparition of Petrushka’s Double

In 1921, Stravinsky transcribed a piano arrangement for Arthur Rubinstein entitled Trois mouvements de Petrouchka. This three movement piano work has recently particularly become popular among young pianists.

The performance by Bax and Chung was overwhelming in its magical physical co-ordination (a true ballet of four hands), what one might coin 'co-sensuality', luminous sound (particularly Chung who took the upper register), rhythmic drive, humour, lyricism and pianistic virtuosity. The interpretation was also deeply expressive of the engaging Russian spirit of the work. 

An intimate and moving ballet of the hands

This was one of those 'Duszniki moments' of the highest achievements in the art of the pianism. I was left speechless with a tingle up the spine and had nothing left to say - the sign of the greatest performances.

As encores they performed in equally energetic style with great élan and panache, Milonga and Libertango by Astor Piazzolla to tumultuous applause and a standing ovation.


Since winning Second Prize at the Queen Elizabeth International Competition in 2013 at the precocious age of 20, Rèmi Geniet is known as one of the most outstanding of the younger generation of pianists. He has performed in some of the most celebrated world music venues such as the Verbier Festival and Carnegie Hall.

He began his recital with the Johann Sebastian Bach Chaconne, the fifth movement from the Partita for solo violin (1685–1750) in D minor BWV 1004 (1720) transcribed for piano by Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924).  

It is a well known fact that in his writing for the pianoforte Busoni shows an inexhaustible resource of color effect.... This preoccupation with color effects on the pianoforte began to make itself evident after Busoni had began to devote himself to the serious study of Liszt, but it remained to dominate his mind up to the end of his life. 
              [Edward J. Dent, Ferruccio Busoni. A biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), pp. 145-146]

I have always liked this work transcribed by Busoni 1891-2. Bach occupied and inspired the composer for his entire life. 'Bach is the foundation of pianoforte playing,' he wrote, 'Liszt the summit. The two make Beethoven possible.' It is not surprising then that the grandeur, invention and monumentality of the Chaconne from this Partita attracted his imaginative mind. Bach himself, he notes, was a prolific arranger of his own music and that of other composers. 

'Notation is itself the transcription of an abstract idea. The moment the pen takes possession of it the thought loses its original form.'

Bach had composed it after learning in 1720 of the death of his beloved wife Maria Barbara, the mother of his first seven children. Bach had been in Karlsbad with his patron, the highly musical Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. When Bach returned to Cöthen after three months he discovered his young wife of 35, who was in excellent health when he departed, had died during his absence and even worse, been buried. His grief-stricken response resulted in this composition for violin full of pain, suffering and melancholic nostalgia, even anger, at the indiscriminate nature of destiny.  

Geniet gave the work a noble, high seriousness opening at the right tempo, so vital to this work. As it progressed however I felt that deeper expressiveness was missing, hardly surprising in one so young. He seemed more tempted by the virtuosity and began to pianistically overplay the twenty-nine variations of the work. The polyphony at times was muddied somewhat by over-pedalling which lessened the subtle colouristic organ-stop effects in melodic lines and the weight and significance of single notes in chords, so important in Busoni. I feel Geniet was genuinely  attempting to transform the piano into a great seventeenth century Thuringian organ at times but it did not really come off well and mere thunder replaced the 16’ stops. Overall however a very satisfying performance of a piece that is so often abused.

A rare picture of Ferrucio Busoni playing a pedal harpsichord with a 16' stop, possibly an inspiration  for his Bach organ transcriptions that naturally were transformed into something  highly pianistic.

We then heard the seldom performed youthful but harmonically new and exploratory Beethoven Piano Sonata in A major (1770–1827) Op. 2 No. 2 (1794–1795).  I cannot remember ever having heard this difficult work in recital. This was a fine performance that indicated he understood the classical style of the work (dedicated to Haydn) and the harmonic originality of Beethoven's modulations. An attractive tone and refined touch were often evident but a little more delightful Viennese charm in the Rondo would have been appropriate in this Haydnesque movement. However as with the Busoni I was hoping for the deeper expressivity that comes with time. I know as a young man I hated to be told that by older musicians but it is true except in the rarest of cases where musical maturity emerges fully formed in youth. Yehudi Menuhin springs to mind.

During my researches before writing this review, I came across the most inspirational, humorous and insightful lecture on this sonata (in fact all the sonatas of Beethoven) given by Sir Andràs Schiff in 2006. His original conclusion is that Beethoven intended that the three sonatas of Op. 2 make up a type of  'Trio under Op.2' -  No. 1 being 'dramatic', No. 2 being 'lyrical and tender', and No.3 'a brilliant concert piece full of humour'. Schiff nearly always thinks of the piano in orchestral terms, especially the Beethoven sonatas. Not imitating orchestral instruments but associating with them in his mind. Do use this link which lasts about 20 minutes. Highly rewarding:

and for the other 31 sonatas

After the interval one of the greatest musical pieces of Western keyboard literature, the so-called 'Appassionata' sonata of Beethoven (the title applied by a Hamburg publisher in 1838 in an attempt to dispose of copies in the stalled sales). Certainly Geniet has this formidably challenging, tragic work excellently in his fingers and the broader aspects of the musical meaning in his interpretation. The sonata begins softly and ominously to erupt in volcanic passion and anger against fate and the force of destiny, Beethoven's turbulent feelings facing his encroaching deafness so shortly after (1805). The entire work seems driven by demonic conflagration with brief periods of lyrical repose.

It is well to remember a passage from the Heiligenstadt Testament (1802): 

My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed. Thus it has been during the last six months which I have spent in the country. By ordering me to spare my hearing as much as possible, my intelligent doctor almost fell in with my own present frame of mind, though sometimes I ran counter to it by yielding to my desire for companionship. But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life - it was only my art that held me back.

(A passage from the Heiligenstadt Testament © Translation John V. Gilbert)

Beethoven's turbulent, scarcely containable emotions in the opening autograph page of the  'Appassionata' Sonata

Beethoven deeply loved the countryside and its delights and felt these joys threatened. This sonata seems to me a passionate response to this terrible reversal of fortune for a composer of such monumental genius. I felt Geniet could have made the silences more expressive, so full of meaning are they in the rhythmic and harmonic ambiguities they impart, the composer railing against both God and Man. The abandoned, wild finale - yet marked Allegro ma non troppo - an indication rarely properly observed by even the finest pianists - allowed virtuosity to dominate excessively here. The Presto, which falls upon us like a tornado, must have made tremendous demands on the wooden-framed pianos of his day.

P.S. After having recently listened for two intense weeks to the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments I now have a far better idea of the profound impact of this work on contemporary listeners and performers.

The final piece Geniet embarked upon was the solo piano version of Ravel's La Valse (1921)It was in this work that it became clear to me the difference between a natural musician of the highest ability playing from the heart and a highly trained musician of the highest ability who has closely studied the emotional content. Geniet's musical gifts were clear from the outset in this work but despite his technical brilliance, I felt his phrasing and harmonic sense could have penetrated more organically this extraordinarily challenging virtuosic score and to greater effect.

Diaghilev had requested a four-hand reduction of the original orchestral score. Reports say that Stravinsky when he heard Ravel perform this with Marcelle Meyer in this version, he quietly left the room without a word so amazed was he. Ravel however would not admit to the work being an expression of the profound disillusionment in Europe following the immeasurable human losses and cruel maiming of the Great War. However one must recall in Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus that the composer Adrian Leverkühn, although isolated from the clamour and destruction of the cannons of war, composed the most profound expression of it in his composition Apocalypsis cum Figuris by a type of metaphysical osmosis. Ravel's note to the score gives one an insight to his intentions:

"Through rifts in swirling clouds, couples are glimpsed waltzing. As the clouds disperse little by little, one sees an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene becomes progressively brighter. The light from chandeliers bursts forth at fortissimo (letter B in the score). An Imperial Court, around 1855."

                                                                                                                                                (courtesy BBC)
As a first encore, a sensitively performed Chopin Mazurka in A minor Op.17 No.4. What a pity we did not hear more Chopin from this highly refined French pianist. This was followed by Lullaby by Tchaikovsky Op.16 transcribed by Rachmaninoff. Finally, the pianist's natural musical gifts were gracefully presented in a charming, elegant and tasteful rendition of the Fritz Kreisler Liebeslied transcribed (the transcriber transcribed!) by Rachmaninoff. A young pianist of fabulous promise.


I last heard Boris Giltburg at Duszniki in 2013 just after he won the 2013 Queen Elizabeth Competition in Bruxelles. On that occasion he played the 4 Chopin Ballades in the first half of the recital. I felt at the time it tried the stamina and more importantly, the concentration  of everyone, even of the cognoscenti. A form of overeating the richest of foods  in a short time musically speaking. Hard to digest.

On this occasion the first half was devoted to another remarkable demonstration of his dazzling technique in a group of seven of the Liszt Douze Études d’exécution Transcendante and two Chopin  Études each from Op. 10 and Op.25

Nine of the twelve Études of the 1851 version were given titles by the composer. One is forced as an interpreter to assess the significance of the titles, assuming as given a command of the extreme keyboard virtuosity demanded by them. We are forced in a way to ‘focus’ on the poetic idea inherent in the title taking us as listeners into the musical ‘programme’, something seemingly at odds with the pedagogical associations of the nature of the piano Étude. Certainly the titles given by Liszt influences the listener and possibly the approach of the pianist to these demanding works. The German musicologist and author Frederick Niecks considered the titles ‘fanciful afterthoughts’ but is there not more to the titles than this? 

In his Gesammelte Schriften Liszt writes ‘In programme music…the return, change, modification, and modulation of the motives are conditioned by their relation to a poetic idea.’ Certainly it cannot be denied that the titles are a significant part of the aesthetic nature of these works. Chopin in his two sets of Études eschewed, in fact militated against giving his works titles by poetically inclined publishers and their close attention to the agenda of sheet music sales, particularly in England.

However quite unlike the ‘absolute’ music of Chopin (pace possibly one or two of the Ballades) one must never forget the literary dimension of so much of Liszt’s thought and inspiration.  The life and poetry of Byron and Victor Hugo had a profound effect on the evolution of the musical Romantic movement in Europe. This was when poetry had the power to influence behaviour – seldom experienced today. We are far in 2018 from the definition of the poet by Shelley as ‘the acknowledged legislator of the world.’ Liszt was an excellent writer himself. Poetry was of immense importance and inspiration to artists in all the artistic disciplines, something contemporary artists have largely lost. All his life the great painter J.M.W. Turner attached poetic quotations, sometimes his own verse, to his paintings in addition to a title as an ‘extra dimension’ for the soul to inhabit. 

Giltburg did not perform them in the order established by Liszt. He began with the long  Ricordanza, an intensely personal, self-communing piece by Liszt. Busoni called it ‘a bundle of faded love letters’. I found this most poetic and affecting in its beautiful cantabile tone of reminiscence. I felt his flow of emotions could perhaps have had more expressive range of mood as we unavoidably do when we reminisce - life being what it is.  

This he convincingly linked emotionally attacca to  the tenth (as if a memory had triggered anger over a regretted, turbulent love affair), a tremendously powerful and emotional work despite not having the support of a title (sometimes even termed Appassionata). F-minor and F-sharp minor are my favourite keys. Here Liszt embraces Chopin. His respect for the Chopin Études is as well known as Chopin’s admiration of Liszt’s performance of them. At times Liszt lays his own composition over the Chopin Étude Op. 10 No.9, borrowing and augmenting the idiom of the Pole. 

To my mind he completely misunderstood Feux Follets - if you feel the titles were meaningful to Liszt. Will-o’-the-Wisps or Jack o’Lanterns evoke 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 strongly in this work, possibly inspired by Goethe’s Faust. Giltburg presented it as merely as a virtuoso piano piece, not as I see it as a quick-silver phantasmagoria of impressionism as bewildering as the Will-o’-the-Wisps themselves. 

Louis Boulanger, The Torture of Mazeppa, 1827

The cruelty of Mazeppa then suddenly erupted over us in the fourth and arguably most tempestuous of the Grandes Études. Was Liszt inspired by the Victor Hugo poem taken from Les Orientales or possibly Byron’s poem Mazeppa? The story itself is well known. The Ukrainian nobleman Ivan Mazepa has an adulterous love affair with a Countess Theresa while serving as a page at the Court of the Polish King Jan II Kazimierz Waza. When all is revealed (as is regrettably, usually the case) the Count punishes Mazeppa by tying him backwards and naked to a wild horse and setting the horse bolting across the steppes, through woods, forests and across freezing rivers until it expires through exhaustion. Mazeppa survives the ordeal, emerges triumphant and is elevated to a Cossack Hetman. 

The music follows this ‘programme’ possibly more literally than others in the set. I did not feel Giltburg captured the panicked, tortuously uneven, relentless almost hysterical galloping rhythm of the horse well (if you have ever ridden it is possible to imagine the frightful torture for the animal as well as the man tied as he was in that grotesque position). Exhaustion. Death. The survival of Mazeppa. Ultimate triumph – the sub-textual allegory of the artistic life of Ferenc Liszt is perfectly delineated here. I did not feel Giltburg had envisioned the immensely difficult programmatic rhythm whilst playing but was overtaken by the desire to presenting to us a fabulous virtuoso exercise at the keyboard. Awe inspiring as that may have been by Giltburg the pianist, I feel one must go beyond 'technique' in these works to explore the fraught human emotional landscape Liszt presents.

With Liszt we are quite often in the presence of meditations on death – it was a closer companion in the mid nineteenth century. With Visions for some reason I did not feel Giltburg penetrated deeply enough the grim psychological reality of death with the heavy tread of this fantasy Liszt 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 reeks of metaphysicality. I did not feel Giltburg created this ominous atmosphere and vision in the chordal/choral passages as we approach the gathering darkness, a destiny we must all face with defiance. 

There is little doubt that the Harmonies du Soir is one of the great masterpieces of the declaration and yearnings of Romantic love in nineteenth century piano literature. The titles of these pieces leave open many possible interpretations to the listener. This is merely my own. I find in this work the presage of the passions that inspire that sublime arc of tension and release contained in the Liebestod of Tristan und Isolde. Wagner’s debt to the harmonic adventurism of Liszt is never in doubt to my mind. The difference here is that life and not death inhabits this particular panorama of love. 

Softly the bells toll at dusk as the lover wanders in a pastoral reverie, perhaps in a park in Weimar, passing by Goethe’s summer house, wood smoke in the air and the burble of the nearby Ilm river. He begins to dwell on his feelings for the seductive other who has captured his heart in a net. We begin to inexorably move into his ‘human, all to human’ mind as he imagines his beloved, we feel his fears and apprehensions, experience his almost coarse desire, his passions rising and falling in waves of increasing ecstasy, finally reaching an apotheosis. 

I am not convinced by Giltburg's over-passionate rendering of the tumult of emotions that erupt in the heart of the composer. The dynamic and tempo contrast is too great and supremely virtuosic. One thinks of the fabulous keyboard achievements of the pianist rather than being taken by him on a journey into the core of the music itself. In the music these debilitating emotions slowly fade as he returns to the calm of evening, ‘calm again now my heart’ as if the soft wings of a night moth had settled over him. His rubato and tone colour do however manage the transition from pastoral idyll to rhapsodic oceanic waves of sound with great control with an elegiac return to the calm reflective soul as the night harmonies close over us in a dream. 

J.M.W. Turner  Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm (1836/7)
A return to the power and threat of nature in a form envisaged by J.M.W. Turner rather than its ability to lead us to the world of lyrical dreams suffuses the final Étude entitled Chasse-neige (Snow-drift, Snow-storm, literally Snow-plough). One has no difficulty in envisioning a tumultuous winter scene as a snow storm begins to rage and inexorably buries all human life and civilization beneath it. Giltburg gave an atmospheric, impressionistic interpretation of the work. Again he displayed declamatory virtuosic power rather than an impressionistic painting, tempting as that was in such a piece. Amazement at the performer could move more often to the work itself and its meaning as a painting in sound.

Giltburg followed with four Chopin Études : 

Op. 25 No. 5 in E minor (1835–1837) 
Op. 10 No. 5 in G-flat major (1829–1832) 
Op. 10 No. 3 in E major 
Op. 25 No. 11 in A minor

Fine interpretations indeed from the pianistic point of view but I kept asking myself what is Giltburg saying about these works and never came up with a proper answer other than brilliant display. The Études contain a great deal of expressive opportunities which I felt Giltburg did not make adequate use of considering his remarkable digital command. Allowing the music to breathe sufficiently seems to escape him in the truly intense desire for virtuosity rather than the search for the poetry, sound painting, colour and sensibility. 

After the interval:

Sergei Rachmaninoff  
Études-Tableaux Op. 39 (1916–1917)

No. 1 in C minor
No. 2 in A minor
No. 3 in F-sharp minor
No. 4 in B minor
No. 5 in E-flat minor
No. 6 in A minor
No. 7 in C minor
No. 8 in D minor
No. 9 in D major

Here Giltburg fared much better. 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 quite understandably he tends to do. Yes there was poetry here on occasion and sensitive expressiveness too but how much more he could have made of these magnificent emotionally resplendent works. In fortissimo passages his tone can become harsh and aggressive. He made little concession to the small space of the dworek with this massive volume. With his dazzling talent dare I say that in this recital particularly, Giltburg needed to develop his visual imagination, poetic sense as well as his extramusical inspiration.

Chamber Concert
Jakub Jakowicz (violin) and Bartosz Bednarczyk (piano)

Jakub Jakowicz is the son of the famous Polish violinist Krzysztof Jakowicz - he taught his son to play at the Music Academy in Warsaw. He has appeared with Bartosz Bednarczyk in chamber works since 2000. He has also appeared with renowned orchestras under many distinguished conductors.

They began their recital with Schubert, the Fantasie for Violin and Piano in C-major D.934 (December 1827) written for the Czech violinist virtuoso Josef Slavik, a friend of the composer. Rather like the 'Trout Quintet', the centerpiece is a set of variations on a the much altered 1822 Schubert setting of the poem by Friedrich Rückert’s  Sei mir gegrüsst! (‘I greet you!’). The rather sentimental melody and waltz rhythm had made it a popular song. Great technical demands are made on both instrumentalists. There was a great deal of energy in the performance of this rather bucolic work with not a hint of Schubert's 'shadow of death'. I longed for a little more Schubertian/Viennese grace and charm which I feel is called for in the phrasing. The turbulent virtuoso piano writing on the Steinway tended to overwhelm the violin on occasion and could profitably have been played with the lid on 'half-stick'. Rarely done in chamber works here. Period pianos with their superior balanced bass registers benefit a lyrical Schubert more than most composers.

A Biedermeier interior

It was not a particularly profitable idea and a musical shock to suddenly be transported as a time traveller from 1827 to 1963 and the  Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 by the Soviet/German/Jewish composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). In Moscow with the 'relaxation' initiated by Nikita Khrushchev he benefitted from hearing Western so-called avant-garde composers such as Luigi Nono, Henri Pousseur, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.The eclecticism of his style, Italian Baroque form to twelve-tone rows, hints of the Classical, in this most popular of postwar violin sonatas, is a fine achievement but difficult for a listener only recently immersed in the charm and lyricism of the Biedermeier.  The enthusiasm of its reception by the Duszniki audience indicated a fine performance but I am rather too unfamiliar with his oeuvre to judge accurately.

 Alfred Schnittke by Reginald Gray
(© Royal College of Music)

After the interval, the Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp minor Op. Posth arranged for piano and violin by Nathan Milstein. Although I feel such arrangements (Sarasate is another fine arranger of Chopin) augment the 'classical' Chopin with a rather cloying late nineteenth century sentimentality and too many portamenti, this was an attractive performance in a decorated 'salon' manner. Sometimes the tone on the Gand Brothers violin (Paris 1859) sounded rather 'squeezed' than eloquent although there is mahogany richness in this resonant instrument.

Finally one of my favourite Beethoven chamber works, the Sonata for piano and violin Op. 47 known a the 'Kreutzer'.  Beethoven originally dedicated it to the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (who never performed it) but withdrew this in favour of the English violinist George Bridgetower who premiered it with Beethoven in Vienna in 1803. The Leo Tolstoy novella The Kreutzer Sonata inescapably creeps in at the edges of my mind whenever I hear it. In the final of many versions of the story, Tolstoy presents a narrator who relates a conversation heard on a train concerning the infidelity of a man's wife and the nature of marriage, divorce and love. An attraction developed between his wife who plays the piano and a violinist. They play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata together which music 'unites' the narrator's wife with the violinist and precipitates such tumultuous emotions of rage and jealousy that the narrator eventually killed her with a dagger. Tolstoy questions the institution of marriage and celebrates chastity and sexual abstinence. He observed tellingly: ‘Under the influence of music, it seems that I feel what I do not really feel, that I understand what I do not understand, that I do what I cannot do.’

René François Xavier Prinet Kreutzer Sonata (1901)

The presence of two male performers rather limited my literary imagination but musically this was a robust performance. The sudden dynamic shifts, rhythmic intensity and tempo hesitations were managed well and with brio. The momentum of the Presto felt irresistible. I felt a slight absence of subtle lyricism and colour in this headlong flight but a full respect for the composer's emotional fervour was preserved.


Rachel Cheung has performed at Duszniki Festival several times: she first played here as a thirteen-year-old, after winning 1st prizes at the G. Bachauer International Junior Piano Competition in Salt Lake City and at the International Competition for Young Pianists in Memory of V. Horowitz in Kiev. She has won many prizes, performed with outstanding conductors and orchestras around the world. One highlight of the upcoming 2018/19 season will include her Carnegie Weill Hall début recital.

Many years ago in 2006 at the age of 14 Rachel gave a truly great performance of the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor BWV 903 at Duszniki Zdrój. One of the greatest I had ever heard despite her tender age. In those days I kept a handwritten journal of my Duszniki experiences which has grown over the years to its present state.

Here is what I wrote  in my journal concerning Rachel (Rafał Blechacz, First Prize winner at the  2005 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw also appeared that evening):

‘A quite magnificent recital by this 14 year old. Fine sound, beautiful touch and superb articulation. A monumental Bach Chromatic Fantasy (a little fast perhaps and uneven phrasing - so what if that?) with a Fugue that rose like a great cathedral. Mozart (Sonata in D major K284) almost perfect classical style and refinement. The Liszt Bénédiction from Harmonie poétiques No 3, a superb tone poem as was Au bord d’une source. Only the Schubert Drei Klavierstücke D 946 revealed her tender age. The Chopin Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 45 terribly moving and a surprisingly emotionally mature Ballade no 4 in F Minor Op. 52. The Poulenc Trois Pièces quite extraordinary. A prodigious performance altogether.’

Her other appearances at Duszniki include in 2007 an extraordinarily mature Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie Op.61. In 2008 an impressive Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales but also interestingly the brilliant  Polish composer, Grażyna Bacewicz II Sonata (1953). Her most recent performance was in 2010. This was an all Chopin programme in preparation for the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. I remember an outstanding Chopin Ballade no 4 in F minor.

She opened her recital with the unusual Leoš Janáček – In the Mists (1912) This is a collection of four piano pieces marked: Andante; Molto Adagio; Andantino; Presto. A rather introspective work that is hard to grasp physically, as if the piano itself were somehow lost in the clouds. It is not a virtuoso display piece but requires a refined touch to paint its watercolor phrases. She expressed the nebulous qualities, rhythmic and harmonic fluctuations as well as beautiful melodies eloquently and sensitively.

The beautifully wrought Nocturne in D-flat major Op. 27 No. 2 by Chopin. The great French author André Gide in his book Notes on Chopin, wrote:

'[Chopin] seemed to be constantly seeking, inventing, discovering his thought little by little. This kind of charming hesitation, of surprise and delight, ceases to be possible if the work is presented to us, no longer in a state of successive formation, but as an already perfect, precise and objective whole.'

 One might consider this the perfect romantic Nocturne. The opening theme is sublimely lyrical coupled with impassioned and turbulent emotional life episodes within that radiant supplication that fades away inevitably, as dusk closes the day, ultimately enveloping one in the velvet wings of a moth. I felt Rachel expressed much of this in the manner described by Marcelina Czartoryska  as 'au climat de Chopin'.  Then to the Chopin Piano Sonata in B-flat minor Op. 35.

This was an excellent performance in all respects and reflected her greatly matured view of the work since the International Chopin Competition. The central section 0f the Scherzo was alluring and reflective in mood. The Marche funébre was taken at a serious and tragic tempo  and the glowing cantabile tone and expression of the central section (which I consider to be the fraught emotions of a mind in extremis and not sentimental at all) revealed much sensitivity. The challenging Presto was brought off with understanding of the implied polyphony allied with the mysterious emotional significance of this movement. Again I always prefer to consider it as the grief of the mind in torment at the loss of the loved one rather than the more programmatic (unlikely in Chopin's view of his own compositions) 'wind over the graves'.

After the interval Schumann's Kreisleriana Op. 16.

The perfect cat - but I think too sweet to be a Kater Murr - a  'Growler' -  seated in a window of a dilapidated house in Lądek Zrdój near Duszniki Zdrój, Lower Silesia, Poland.
Madness or insanity was a notion that throughout the composer's time on earth simultaneously attracted and repelled Schumann. At the end of his life he was cruelly to fall victim to it. 

Kriesleriana was presented publicly as eight sketches of the fictional character Kapellmeister Kreisler, a rather crazy conductor-composer who was a literary figure created by the marvellous German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffman. The piece is actually based on the form of an inventive grotesque satirical novel Hoffmann wrote with the remarkable title: Growler the Cat’s Philosophy of Life Together with Fragments of the Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler from Random Sheets of the Printer’s Waste. 

The fictional author of this novel Kater Murr (Growler the Cat) is actually a caricature of the German petit bourgeois class. In a theme rather appropriate in our times of gross financial inequalities, Growler advises the reader how to become a ‘fat cat’. This advice is interrupted by fragments of Kreisler’s impassioned biography. The bizarre explanation for this is that Growler tore up a copy of Kreisler’s biography to use as rough note paper. When he sent the manuscript of his own book to the printers, the two got inexplicably mixed up when the book was published. An excellent wheeze Mr. Hoffmann! Such devices remind me of Laurence Sterne in that great experimental novel Tristram Shandy.

Schumann was attracted to composing a work in ‘fragmented’ form in the structural manner of this novel, the use of the device of interrelated ‘fragments’ being beloved of the Romantic Movement in poetry, prose and music. Kreisler is a type of Doppelgänger for Schumann and the episodes in the piece describing his emotional passions, his creative art and his tortured soul alternate with lyrical love passages expressing the composer’s love for Clara Wieck. He used and transformed one of her musical themes in the work. 

It is a very difficult work to present as a coherent structure and Cheung did not always succeed in making the thorny transitions from wildness to lyrical love dream with skill and moving poetry. The extreme shifting of moods in this Schumann piece were not always captured through tempo and dynamics although I found the polyphony rather blurred due to the pedal and some tempi too rushed for my view of the work. It is fiendishly difficult to bring this work off successfully - Horowitz, Richter and Kempff are my benchmarks. Schumann advised Clara not to play the work too often as the passions aroused and nostalgia would be too strong to bear.

I had similar musical maturity reservations concerning her Liszt Mephisto Waltz No.1 in A major (Der Tanz in Der Dorfschenke – The Dance in the Village Inn). This piece requires a terrifyingly intense and insidious Mephistophelian seductiveness and evil. Her piano 'technique' (for want of a better word) dominated the notes certainly, even magnificently, but the overall dramatic emotional impact was lacking for me. 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 and should be deeply considered and graphically imagined by any pianist who has the temerity to approach the work:

“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."

My benchmark for this work? With no doubt at all, Daniil Trifonov at Duszniki Zdroj, August 2011. An overwhelming and unforgettable lifetime musical experience.


This was without doubt one of the most extraordinary recitals ever to have taken place in the Dworek. The musical range of this ambitious programme was remarkable - from Bach to Scriabin. Here we have a complete musician and pianist that is almost faultless surely, except perhaps to the ears of most accomplished and experienced professors of music. BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2014, he has now performed with many prestigious orchestras at home in the greatest British concert venues and internationally. He has also taken part in masterclasses with the most eminent of musicians. He recently gave a universally praised performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with the conductor K. Karabits and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Ulster Orchestra at the BBC Last Night at the Proms was also a great success.

He began with a superb account of Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) Op. 15.  I will choose my favourite scenes although others may choose differently of course! The opening Of Foreign Lands and Peoples was lyrical and most eloquent of a child's rich imagination of distant places. Blind Man’s Buff and Pleading Child were possessed of winning characterization, especially the 'pleading' aspect. His tone and touch on the Steinway were luminous and like velvet. There was a brilliant decrescendo in An Important Event. Traumerei (Dreaming) was taken at just the right tempo to avoid gluey sentimentality yet preserving the other-worldliness and innocence of those childhood dreams not yet clouded by experience. The 'frightening' part of Frightening was so expressive and the sensitivity he engaged us with in Child Falling Asleep and The Poet Speaks was hypnotic.

The Sinfonia that opens the Johann Sebastian Bach Partita in C minor BWV 826 (1726) Bartlett took surprisingly romantically with great nobility and I thought the rest of the work would be taken with the same ambience. However this was not to be. The Allemande was possessed of a beautiful finger legato cantabile, each voice superbly delineated without the use of the pedal - the indication of supreme pianistic skill. The Courante continued the superb singing line. It was this point that a reminiscence came into my mind. His touch and tone were so elegant and refined with such extraordinary nuance and colour, I kept asking myself why and of whom I was reminded in this approach to Bach's keyboard works on the piano. Then it dawned on me: Dinu Lipatti. The Sarabande was introspective yet poised and somehow detached from earthly care. The Rondeau and Capriccio replete with subtle and elegant energy, understated yet magnificently polyphonic. Magical Bach.

This remarkable phrasing, tone, touch and  continued into the Mozart Piano Sonata in F major KV 332 (1778).  The gift of playing Mozart gracefully with fine taste was evident in all the movements of the sonata. The Allegro preserved a childhood mood with a precision and subtlety of approach given to few pianists, never sounding mawkish. The delicacy and heartfelt emotion of the ornamented Adagio, surely an operatic aria of unrequited love,  was emotionally deeply moving under Bartlett's guidance. The brilliant passage-work of the Allegro assai was superbly brought off and the contrasting cantabile sections merged in a seamless legato. Few pianists can offer such a balanced view of Mozart.

Again the singing cantabile melody above with a subdued anchoring left hand accompaniment Bartlett utilized to perfection in the two Rachmaninoff Preludes from Op. 32 (1910): No. 5 in G major and No. 12 in G-sharp minor. In the G major lyrical melody soared above the floating accompaniment textures. In the G-sharp minor the same fine balance between a singing legato melodic line and passionate accompaniment was maintained throughout.

Alexander Scriabin in later life

In the final work in his recital, the Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp major Op. 30 (1903), Bartlett took us into the realms of Scriabin's 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 a creative 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!’  Bartlett gave us a magnificent Prestissimo of uncanny atmosphere and other-worldiness. 

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 displayed here which was of the finest order of delicacy, power, command and poetry with superb tone and touch. It could almost compare, but not of course in maturity and experience of life's tragedies, to the awesome performance we heard in Duszniki in August 2016 by Vadym Kholodenko which left me speechless with nothing left to say or comment.

As encores Bartlett played quite an eloquent Schumann/Liszt Widmung (but not inhabiting the same world of love and feeling as Trifonov). Then a quite phenomenal performance of the Scherzo from the Beethoven Sonata No 18 in E - flat major Op.31 No.3 Some friends of mine and myself had never heard anything to equal the energy and internal fire of the movement so incandescently expressed.

This young pianist is a true musical and pianistic discovery at a remarkable level of sophisticated musicianship scarcely ever achieved in youth. Just watch this meteor rise. That is of course if audiences have the discrimination to listen to a truly profound, hugely gifted musician in the Dinu Lipatti mould rather than a mere thunderous entertainer.


A little under a year ago Alexander Ullman won the First prize at the 11th Liszt International Competition in Utrecht. In 2011 he had also won the First Prize at the Liszt Competition in Budapest. He has been guided by many eminent professors, made numerous award-winning recordings and appeared as a soloist with prestigious international orchestras. So it was with some excitement and anticipation I looked forward to this piano recital.

The first half of his recital was dominated by late works of Liszt, a few of which I was unfamiliar with.  He opened his recital with En rêve (Dreaming) Nocturne S 207 (1885). In his old age Liszt became quite economical and abstract in expression, quite the opposite to the profligacy of imagination of his youth. Although brief this piece not only foreshadows harmonic compositional procedures of the future but is alluring in itself. Ullman played this piece in a soft flourishes at the keyboard. The lyrical melodic line is affectingly embellished in this almost metaphysical two minute fragment. Then to Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort (Sleepless! Question and Answer) Nocturne, S 203 (1883). The question is in E minor and the answer is in E major perhaps with some biblical reference. Ullman approached this piece in much the same restrained style.

These two works are fascinating harmonically and seemed to naturally lead into Harmonies poétiques et religieuses No. 3 Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, S 173 (1845–1852). Much of the inspiration for this piece lies in the fraught relationship between Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein and Liszt. Both fervent Catholics sharing a mystical bond they were attempting to win an annulment of her marriage. Ullman created some beautiful meditative moments but resorted to surprisingly heavy dynamics, rather rough in sound quality, which was surprising in view of the ardent religious and spiritual nature of this piece.

We then moved to Csárdás macabre Allegro, S 225/1 (1884). The great Liszt scholar Alan Walker wonders if it is a parody of the Dies Irae where death lurks below a dance with the devil. Or a quotation from a popular Hungarian song? Liszt does not clarify matters himself for us although he did scribble on the work 'May one write or listen to such a thing?' I felt Ullman began to be taken over rather by the music and threw caution to the winds in terms of his dynamic range. This became far more pronounced in the Mephisto Waltz No. 2 S 515 (1880–1881). Originally written for orchestra in 1881, Liszt made a piano version of the work after completing it. It is a significantly different to the first Mephisto Waltz and I felt far harsher without the same imaginative 'programme' for the listener to follow. I was astounded by Ullman's virtuosity in this work but his neglect of tonal and dynamic gradation and actual quality of tone seemed to become rather unpleasant. The tornado of a conclusion and the tritone symbolism of the devil seemed almost too much to be accommodated  in this small hall,  let us say the manner in which Ullmann neglected the acoustic of the 'local environment'. Agreed Liszt was a man of extremes and became ant-social in old age but...

After the interval the Mikhail Pletnev arrangement of Tchaikovsky – The Nutcracker Suite Op. 71a (1892)  March; Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; Tarantella; Intermezzo; Russian dance – Trepak; Chinese dance; Ullman performed this familiar music with refinement, finesse, delicacy and marvellous dance rhythms. I felt his imitation of orchestral instruments, particularly and including the celeste, very charming and idiomatic.

    (Jillian Vanstone as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. Photo by Karolina Kuras)

I fear that the three sections of Stravinsky's ballet – Petroushka (1882–1971) - Russian Dance; Petrushka’s Room; The Shrovetide Fair, despite being played with absolute theatrical keyboard wizardry, colourful imagined choreography and complete command, this work did not fare well dynamically in the Dworek. On many occasions the tone verged on the harsh and broke through the sound ceiling of the instrument. The interpretation possessed a rather relentless dynamic with scarcely any gradation in tone or colour, a hectic flush to the tempi and rhythm. Hard to say these things when the work is clearly a spectacular showpiece for the pianist which he brought off pianistically in awesome fashion with finger dexterity to marvel at. Owing to what I consider to be the inflated dynamics and overt virtuosity,  I never felt I was watching even in my imaginative mind's eye, something as modest as puppets or hand held marionettes enacting a story. A pity as it was otherwise a magnificent account of the orchestral transcription.

   Petrushka's Room by Alexandre Benois

As encores more ballet transcriptions for piano - the Russian fairytale ballet The Firebird also by Stravinsky. A convincing performance of rhythmic complexity and charm. A final ballet scored for piano Cinderella by Prokofiev was an elegant account with finesse.

Monday, August 6 CHOPIN’S MANOR 10:00 PM
Meeting with the audience Guest:

And every voice sang under her fingers, all was song...

Lidia Grychtołówna counts Zbigniew Drzewiecki and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli among her renowned mentors. She was a laureate in the 5th Fryderyk Chopin International Competition in Warsaw in 1955. With her wide repertoire she travelled the world giving concerts, taking part in festivals and making numerous recordings. She has been a juror many times on the most prestigious piano competitions in the world.

However none of this accounts for the profoundly musical and moving recital she gave this evening at the age of 90. Vladimir Horowitz once commented that what one expects of a great pianist is 'heart, intelligence and technique.' In Grychtołówna all this became apparent from the first moment she touched the Steinway in the second of the three Schubert Impromptus Op.90 she would play. The glowing tone, refined touch and superb cantabile spoke to us all of a world of sensibility, grace and suggestion that seems to have vanished forever from piano playing. The two Brahms Intermezzi played at a moderate tempo where all the harmonies could unfold like a flower were ardent with yearning and love. Everything she touched became a luminous bel canto song, everything sang.

Much of the seductive charm and personal  style of the great pianists who performed Chopin before the Second World War has been sacrificed on the altar of an increasingly esoteric musicology. As one of the French pianists on a competition jury said to me in frustration, ‘Where is la poésie and le bon goût so prized by Chopin?’ The world young artists have inherited  is loud, cruel and violent, a world dominated  by technology that prizes physical power, speed and the body above intelligence, morality and the soul. Many are simply  too  young  for the pain and mystery of Chopin and Schubert. C.P.E. Bach put it well in his Versuch  über  die wahre  Art  das Klavier  zu  spielen 1753 (Essay on  the  True  Art  of Playing Keyboard Instruments): ‘They overwhelm  our hearing without satisfying it and stun the mind without moving it . . .’  ‘Facilement, facilement,’ Chopin often warned. ‘Caress the key, never bash it!’ he would admonish his students.

More cantabile beauties were offered in her glorious Schumann Kinderszenen. For me each piece was a gem and taken at this moderate tempo, the singing polyphony that lies within all Schumann miraculously took wing, each voice answering another in a magical bel canto conversation of moving sentiment and childish innocence.

The recordings  of the giants of late Romantic  pianism such as Josef Lhévinne, Sergei Rachmaninov, Moritz  Rosenthal, Josef Hofman, Vladimir Horowitz and Leopold Godowsky give at least some indication of the pianistic values of her time. They possessed exquisite beauty of tone with absolute delicacy and evenness of touch which scarcely any pianist today achieves with the same consistency. Above all they possessed great sensibility, heart, poetry and  charm.  

These qualities became clearly evident in her Debussy miniatures. A deeply affecting and incandescent Claire de Lune. All the period charm, elegance, manners and refinement before the conflagration of the Great War carried away the cream of Europe's youth and civilization was contained in her exquisite Le plus que lente. This was heartbreaking in its period nostalgia and an expression of what has been lost to us through the ravages of time.

Her poignant valedictory gesture was a most elegant and refined performance of the Chopin A flat major Waltz Op. 34. Tears were inevitable as this ageless 90 year old artist seemed to be bidding us farewell from the enchanted groves of music.

A truly unfathomable musical evening. This recital was a most instructive evening and a useful corrective. So many young tyros of the piano today could learn much from her  attitude to music, glorious tone, refined velvet touch, seamless legato, moderate tempi, luminous cantabile in everything she touched and finally her engagement of the heart in communicating the truest feelings to an audience. The memory of her radiant bel canto will eternally transport me into the azure...


Chamber music concert by the MULTI TRIO

Even with my knowledge of Polish modern and contemporary music (absorbed by osmosis if you live in concert-going Poland) I found tonight's programme rather demanding because of  its unfamiliar nature. However I have remained curious throughout my life and there were some treasures to be found here.  

The Multi Trio opened with a rather lugubrious work by Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968) entitled Summer to Winter (2016). I found it scarcely uplifting but clearly the Trio have mastered such a rather emotionally remote piece to my mind. I would much have preferred the idea of Winter to Summer!

Then Ewa Pobłocka (piano) and Ewa Leszczyńska (soprano) presented a really charming work by Karol Szymanowski – Children’s Rhymes to words by Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna – highlights (1922–1923). Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna (1892–1983) was a Polish poet, prose writer, playwright and translator. She was one of the most acclaimed and celebrated poets during Poland's interwar period. 

                                                  Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna (1892–1983)
Ewa Leszczyńska has a beautiful voice and a charming theatrical manner that brought these innocent childhood excursion to life. The Duckling’s Lullaby - so delightful ; Mice - revealed a theatrical actress and a personality of great sensibility as well as outstanding voice with perfect intonation; Saint Christina; Bullfinch and Magpie -  I found this so affecting in its innocence and harmonies; A Visit to Mrs Cow - so witty; Villainous Starling - gave Ewa Leszczyńska an opportunity to display once again her fine voice and theatrical, expressive talents. Ewa Pobłocka (piano) was always thoughtful, sensitive and unobtrusive accompanist.

                                                                                  Witold Lutosławski

They then moved forward in time to Witold Lutosławski – Two Children’s Songs to words by the great Polish poet Julian Tuwim (1953) The Overdue Nightingale - a witty piece about Mr. Nightingale who is late home and being interrogated by his increasingly hysterical wife as to why he is late. He replies that he simply walked home rather than flew as it was such a lovely eveningMost amusing. About Mr Tralala  The meaning escaped me rather as a 'foreigner'.
Maria Leszczyńska then played the Witold Lutosławski Sacher Variation for unaccompanied cello. I found this piece a rather lugubrious demanding choice for such a young talented  player.

Ewa Pobłocka and Ewa Leszczyńska then performed a  delightful set of 5 Paderewski songs Op.7 to words by the Polish pet and dramatist Adam Asnyk (1860–1941) The Days of Roses are Vanished; To My Faithful Steed; The Birch Tree and the Maiden; My Love is Sent Away; Lily of the Valley. I was not aware that Paderewski had written songs but of course one must assume he would have. Ewa Leszczyńska showed rare theatrical expression in these sometimes winsome, charming period gems. Her sweet yet strong soprano suits the tessitura  perfectly. The most affecting for me was My Love is Sent Away and To My Faithful Steed.

After the interval  Ewa Leszczyńska and Maria Leszczyńska combined forces Mieczysław Karłowicz – Six Songs Op. 1 (1895–1896) (1876–1909)/ No. 1 To the Saddened /Maria Leszczyńska No. 3 In the Snow (arr. for voice and cello) and Song With the New Spring (1895). I found these songs to be touching but rather a confirmation of sadness as part of the national Polish psyche. The Song With the New Spring was with Ewa Leszczyńska at the piano and her sister Maria Leszczyńska on the cello. A dark work to represent the arrival of Spring as was the Witold Lutosławski  Grave for Cello and Piano.

Ewa Pobłocka then played the 4 Mazurkas Op. 24 (1833–1835) by Chopin
No. 1 in G minor
No. 2 in C major
No. 3 in A-flat major
No. 4 in B-flat minor

Without the slightest shame I would wish to quote my own review of the superb manner in which Ewa Pobłocka plays Chopin mazurkas as I wrote in the 70th Duszniki Zdrój Festival. My observations have not changed concerning the sensitivity and sensibility of this true artist.

'Pobłocka played the mazurkas, and in fact the entire programme, with charm, grace and the fullest understanding of Chopin. She has a refined tone and touch perfectly suited to the composer. The mazurkas had the ‘correct’ rhythm and the cantabile melodic lines beautifully presented with a pure lyricism. They certainly contained ‘the Polish element’ as Chopin was fond of observing was singularly lacking in otherwise excellent performances of his music in Paris.
Chopin’s pupil Karol Mikuli described the playing of the composer as expressing ‘energy without roughness’ and ‘delicacy without affectation’, while his best pupil Princess Marcelina Czartoryska advised the performer to intuitively immerse himself ‘au climat de Chopin’. This was exactly the feeling created this evening. Here there was no hysteria, no search for cunningly hidden voices in the polyphony, no desire to impress with virtuosity. The recital was a personal and private invitation to share Chopin’s music and spiritual life with a pianist who had clearly lived and breathed Chopin all her life.'

The concert concluded with the Multi Trio performing the Sonata lamentosa (2016) by Mikołaj Górecki. Rather a melancholic conclusion to a remarkable recital of Polish music that would have been somewhat obscure to most listeners.

Three Generations of Polish Pianism

I remember hearing this young Polish pianist at past Duszniki Zdroj master classes. 

He opened his short recital with a delicate Chopin Berceuse performed with finesse and affecting nuance.  

I felt  the Beethoven Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 111 rather an ambitious choice for  a young spirit. However I need not have worried. This was a remarkably satisfying performance in appropriate classical style, in perfect tempo with a finely controlled an affecting Arietta. I really could not fault this account that only now requires the personal and musical maturity of the inevitable passing years. 

I must confess to listening to the music rather than the pianist. After all the glittering virtuosic displays of the last few days I suddenly found myself immersed in one the greatest philosophical statements in Western piano music on the nature of life. It expresses our relation to death and the brief passage of time given to us here on earth. In the full-blooded Maestoso movement Allegro con brio et appassionato Bies presented Beethoven the titan. Then the destiny of that tiny Arietta theme took possession of me as it unfolds and grows in utmost variation and diversity, achieves an incandescent apotheosis and finally passes away. Bies managed to take me on this journey with great skill. I was rather beyond judging the pianism on this voyage as the music was the focus. Analysis of the actual playing, if fine enough, simply distracts from the spiritual impact of a work such as this. One of my most memorable musical experiences - there are only a few - was Richter playing Beethoven Op. 111 in Blythburgh parish church at the Alderburgh Festival by the light of a single tiny lamp so many years ago now.

Finally the Karol Szymanowski Variations in B-flat minor Op. 3. Again impressively idiomatic with a clear understanding of the composer's intentions. Fresh, inventive and expressive. The composition is in the late Romantic style, reminiscent of Schumann and Liszt.The variations are virtuosic and demonstrate the young Szymanowski’s complete understanding of the piano as an instrument. Such a contrast to his later piano music in almost every way, at least for this listener. Loved the work and this performance of it. A young pianist already building an enviable reputation and far further to go.

A wonderful photograph of the young 
Karol Szymanowski, Paweł Kochański and Grzegorz Fitelberg, 1910 
(Photograph with dedications to Zofia Bernstein-Meyer. From Igor Strojecki's collection)


In the 100th Anniversary Year of Poland Regaining Independence


This pianist is regarded as one the finest of our time. It is so refreshing to have a British pianist at the Duszniki Zdrój International Piano Chopin Festival. The last British pianist I remember was Freddy Kempf in 2006.

Johnathan Plowright is a Gold Medallist at the Royal Academy of Music and records widely for Hyperion. Many of his varied CDs are winners of the most prestigious international awards. His popularity in Poland is assured by his deep fascination with neglected Polish Romantic music especially that of Jan Ignacy Jan Paderewski. He has also recently recorded the complete Brahms solo piano works gathering numerous accolades. So it was a great sense of anticipation and excitement that I prepared to listen to tonight's piano recital.

He opened his programme with two fine works by the Polish pianist and composer Zygmunt Stojowski (1870-1946). I admit this composer was largely unknown to me especially his piano pieces. He had a distinguished career at the Paris Conservatoire and was a student of Paderewski. He preferred to work for 'The Polish Cause' from abroad and moved to the United States in 1905 where he died. His compositions were performed by all the great musicians of the day including Paderewski himself.

An adorable photograph of Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Zygmunt Stojowski

Plowright performed the Deux Pensees Musicales Op.1. Some may feel this music has dated but I felt exactly the opposite. Johnathan presented it with all the charm and civilized elegance of another age of sensibility, a domain where expressing the heart in music was paramount. Poles tend to wear their hearts on their sleeve I have noticed - usually patriotic. Then the brilliant highly virtuosic Caprice from Deux Orientales Op.10. I often wish such works were still played as they were part of the highly entertaining repertoire of all the great historic pianists, not only that great Oriental fantasy Islamey and the other 'warhorses' which have survived.

He then turned to the challenging and comparatively rarely performed  Chopin Ballade No:3 in  A-flat major Op. 47. Two aspects became immediately apparent. First of all Plowright's musical maturity compared to the young tyro pianists we have heard so far. Then the fine tone and refined, differentiated touch that Plowright has cultivated on the mellow registers of the Steinway. Incidentally this was the first time this instrument had been used in the Festival. Chopin's astonishing experimentation and reinterpretation of the conventional sonata form here is so fascinating. The three themes and their interaction create a remarkably 'mysterious tale' which Plowright understood well as the dramatic 'narrator' and presented it to us with authority and depth. Under some influence of the poetic ballad of the day, it is absolutely  clear  Chopin had by now established his distinct musical genre - the Ballade. The Berceuse was beautifully presented both rhythmically in its rocking lullaby and tonally.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) 
Piotr Betlej Op 10 N 1 2016 © Galerie Roi Doré

Paderewski is such an underestimated composer of affecting lyrical and poetic piano music which speaks directly to the heart and sensibility rather than burdening the intellect with high seriousness.

Naturally being a great patriot he writes many Polish mazurkas and polonaises but much of his solo piano music reminds me of a superb film score for say an intensely romantic French love affair set in Provence directed by Francois Truffaut. In our imaginations 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 towards une belle gentilhommiere 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.

The music of Paderewski wears its learning lightly with poetry, charm, elegance and refinement of the highest order. The pieces chosen are an excellent introduction of this neglected repertoire especially for the young pianists at the festival and with luck the pieces might kindle more heart, sensibility, poetry and charm in their playing.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski – Miscellanea. Séries de Morceaux Op. 16 (1860–1941) No. 1 Légende in A-flat major No. 3 Thème varié in A major. I found Plowright's approach to the piano music of Paderewski idiomatic as he has the technical command and musicality to elevate these works to the status they fully merit. In the Légende there are reminiscences of Chopin’s Ballades  in  that Paderewski wrote patriotic music with a strong narrative element. Plowright emphasized this with great virtuosity. The final Theme varié in A major is also a demanding virtuoso work. He played it in rather the nineteenth-century spirit  with great élan and panache somewhat in the shadow of Theodor Leschetizky.

Humoresques de Concert Op. 14 (1877) No. 1 Minuet in G major No. 2 Sarabande in B minor No. 3 Caprice (genre Scarlatti) in G major. The Menuet had fine ‘period feel’ and charm. I always remember the wonderful scene in the film Moonlight Sonata that starred Paderewski himself  when he volunteers  at a children's party to play the Minuet when an inferior pianist has trouble with it. 'I think I may be able to manage to do something with it.' he says. A most amusing scene. All Paderewski lovers should see this film. The Caprice was lively and energetic executed again extremely well although at a tempo I felt obscured the Scarlatti element. Domenico is being taken faster and faster these days! The Sarabande was evocative of the period as a slow baroque dance.

          The scene mentioned above from the film 'Moonlight Sonata'  

(1937 directed by Lothar Mendes) 

starring Ignacy Jan Paderewski

After the interval an excellent performance of the Chopin Scherzo in B-flat minor Op.31. Building the inner dramatic tension is difficult in Chopin - much of his music contrasts what William Blake might have termed 'braces' and 'relaxes'. So important in this work. 

To conclude the immense and formidable Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op.24. This climax of his variation form for the piano (25 variations) is dedicated to Clara Schumann and is based on a melody is the Air from the third movement of the first suite in B flat major of Handel's Suites de pièces de clavecin of 1733. It was clear throughout that Plowright loves playing Variations. It was a massively cohesive 'Romantic' interpretation with the contrapuntal nature of the formidable Fugue sculptured in stone like the facade of Rheims Cathedral. After any fine performance of a work of this magnitude, nothing left to say...

As encores the Paderewski Nocturne which I always find deeply affecting and to conclude ina festive, even bucolic, mood Plowright gave us the Jack Fina Bumble Boogie played with a final flourish of virtuoso style, panache and élan. 

Plowright is a man who obviously loves the instrument and plays it with maturity, finesse, fine tone, facility, command, and virtuosity. It clearly gives him the greatest happiness to communicate the creative ideas of a composer in a self-effacing manner as an open channel of musical inspiration.


This pianist has been a laureate in many prestigious international piano competitions and is in great demand from conductors of the stature of Valery Gergiev and in the great concert halls of Europe and the US.

He opened his recital with the monumental Bach – Busoni Prelude and Fugue in D major BWV 532. The Prelude was expressed with nobility and grace and revealed his great authority over the instrument. I felt however the organ polyphony could have been more clearly delineated. The Fugue was built in this performance into an intimidating cathedral of sound but again the polyphonic bass voices of the organ 16' stop, so vital in Bach-Busoni transcriptions, could have been give more weight. Only some organ registers, textures, colour and legato playing were extracted from the piano. Many years ago I used to play a small Willis organ in the Melanesian Mission Chapel on a remote Pacific island. I had nearly always been unconvinced by the nature of such Busoni organ transcription for the piano (preferring the Bach-Busoni Chorales) until I heard Nelson Freire play in overwhelming fashion the Bach Prelude in G minor for organ BMV 535 (arranged by Siloti) last year in Duszniki. This was a firm statement of Gugnin's outstanding musical credentials nevertheless. 

[A rare picture of Ferrucio Busoni playing a pedal harpsichord with a 16' stop, possibly an inspiration for his Bach organ transcriptions that naturally were transformed into something  highly pianistic] 

He then embarked on the Beethoven Piano Sonata in A major Op.101. This emotionally affecting work is Beethoven at his most intimate and sensitive. Beethoven (according to Schindler) described the first movement as containing 'impressions and reveries.' A calm movement certainly (Allegretto ma non troppo), and Gugnin expressed the emotional content in this way. In German this short movement is described by Beethoven as 'Etwas lebhaft, und mit der innigsten Empfindung' (rather lively with the most ardent perception). This feeling of some sadness was rather in the background. The second movement, 'Lebhaft, marschmässig' (Lively, a restrained march), is marked in Italian Vivace alla marcia and I felt Gugnin captured this contrasting mood and catchy rhythm very effectively. The Adagio ma non troppo, con affetto, bears the German description 'Langsam und sehnsuchtvoll (Slowly and yearningly). Gugnin made this a little too mannered for my taste, emphasizing and drawing out the mournful, meditative mood in overlong phrases which could have been rather more serene if shorter. The finale Allegro has such a spirited main theme - joyfulness and even understated humour on display. This movement carries the odd description 'Geschwinddoch nicht zu sehr und mit Entschlossenheit' (Quickly, but not rushed and with determination). The development contains a brilliant fugue which I felt Gugnin could have explored polyphonically in more detail. This sonata was composed just before the far more famous Piano Sonata No. 29, the 'Hammerklavier' and is unaccountably neglected as a masterpiece. 

After the interval Kinderszenen Op.15 by Schumann. These pieces reveal the poetic soul of Schumann with the greatest and most affecting clarity. In the spring of 1838 Schumann was separated from Clara Wieck his fiancée. Her father was horrified she might marry a mere composer of music with no financial or social future. Schumann wrote to his great love:

'I have been waiting for your letter and have in the meantime filled several books with pieces.... You once said to me that I often seemed like a child, and I suddenly got inspired and knocked off around 30 quaint little pieces.... I selected several and titled them Kinderszenen. You will enjoy them, though you will need to forget that you are a virtuoso when you play them.' 

They express deep nostalgia for childhood through the eyes of an adult. The titles are merely afterthought suggestions to the pianist (according to Schumann) and Gugnin seemed to understand the characterfulness well and brought variety to his interpretation. However I would have appreciated more childish energy and spirit overall. A few observations: The seventh scene, the famous 'Träumerei' (Reverie), I felt was rather mannered in arch sentimental phrasing and drawn out tempo but perhaps I have heard Horowitz play it too often as an encore! As someone said to me recently apropos those familiar interpretations that unavoidably accumulate in the mind with musical experience 'You have been drinking the same champagne for far too long Michael!' The eighth 'Am Camin' (At the Fireside) was most charming. The last two poetically sensitive pieces I have always loved and often played when down at heart: the twelfth 'Kind im Einschlummern' (Child Falling Asleep) and thirteenth and last 'Der Dichter spricht' (The Poet Speaks). Gugnin calmed us all into a somnambulistic state here with his delicate and moving pianissimos.

Finally in the Chopin Sonata in B minor Op. 58 sonata Gugnin showed great technical command and that full characteristic 'Russian' rounded tone but at the tempo he adopted in the Allegro maestoso much fascinating polyphonic writing by Chopin was glossed over. The urge to be expressive and poetic was certainly there but his sheer facility in playing this demanding music led him into the familiar traps of virtuosity (would that with my mediocre talent I could be led into them too!). The Scherzo was splendid with all the light fleetness required and much Mendelssohnian charm and reflection during the more lyrical cantabile episode. I suppose I was least content with the long demanding Largo which I felt escaped him and became disjointed in phrasing and simply lacked organic cohesion or narrative direction which is vital in a movement of this extraordinarily introspective and meditative length. So few pianists manage the movement convincingly - Martha Argerich, Maria João Pires and Evgeni Bozhanov in the 2010 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw are modern examples.

If only the movements surrounding this could have been scaled down somewhat in dynamic and tempo, balancing one movement against the other in order that the structure of the sonata could become a more cohesive vision. Again he seemed to me to overlook the 'non tanto' indication of the Presto which Chopin indicated for a good reason I am sure. He was a brilliant teacher and must have been aware of the temptation to virtuoso exaggeration that his music sometimes leads pianists into, particularly on the comparatively light action of a Pleyel or Erard instrument. 

As an encore Gugnin gave us his view of the Precipitato final movement of the Piano Sonata No. 7 in B♭ major Op. 83 by Prokofiev. I found its virtuosity painfully overwrought in the excitement of the moment, removing it from its context as an 'encore' uncomfortable and have a completely different musical conception of this movement of such a serious'War Sonata'. 

A fine pianist of enormous talent and musical gifts. The Duszniki Festival raises the level of pianistic judgement to such great heights, the personal view of performances becomes tantamount and unavoidable. 


When the Romanian pianist Daniel Ciobanu mounted the stage at Duszniki, his rather 'alternative' appearance and sensational international reputation to date presaged what would be an individualistic possibly charismatic recital. So it came to be with all the feelings that accompany a strong point of view of familiar works on the part of an artist.

He began with a work entirely unfamiliar to me that seemed to explore the nature of sound on that somtime percussive instrument, the pianoforte. It also established the type of 'sound identity' and possibly statement of what we might expect from him - Romanian composer George Enescu's Piano Suite No. 3  Op.18  Carillon Nocturne (1913-16). Here we had church bells echoing enharmonically through the Romanian summer night with extraordinary effect.

This was followed by Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. 

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) at age 26

This was an idiomatic, highly individual interpretation of the work with interesting moments of pianistic colour and detail. He created a vivid and vibrant impressionist picture with a magnificently grotesque Gnome (enhanced by his rather extreme body language) and amusing Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (Балет невылупившихся птенцов)The tempo he adopted for the Promenade sequences at the beginning was encouragingly moderate. One must bear in mind that this is a portrait of a man walking around an art exhibition (the pictures painted by Mussorgsky's friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann). The composer is reminiscing on this past friendship now suddenly and tragically cut short when the young artist died suddenly of an aneurysm. The visitor walks at a fairly regular pace but perhaps not always as his mood fluctuates between grief and elated remembrance of happy times spent together. This is always a challenge for the pianist but for me this Promenade seemed at the proper tempo although it seems I personally wander far more slowly and less heavily around art galleries. 

The art exhibition was of Hartmann's drawings and watercolours (not strong oil paintings) and I feel this and the subject of the paintings should be considered when approaching the dynamic range of any performance in order to avoid undue heaviness. I felt with Ciobanu the portraits were rather exaggerated rhythmically and performed at extreme tempi by ultra-virtuoso execution mainly for the clear delight of the audience and for rather extra-musical reasons dictated by the personality of the pianist. Kalkbrenner and Thalberg have been largely forgotten and Chopin and Liszt were hailed in their time as pianists of quite a different stamp. The poets as opposed to the thunderers.

This naturally  raised in my mind the age old question of the pianist as an individualistic interpreter or servant and conduit of communication of the composer's music. A question that cannot be answered affirmatively either way. I feel we are on the cusp of change historically here where international success seems depend more on entertainment and shock value than let's say the modest deportment of a Michelangeli, Richter, Schnabel, Schiff or Sokolov approach to the piano repertoire where removal of the ego is of tantamount importance. Or for that matter the great Romanian pianist and immortal Chopin interpreter Dinu Lipatti. What a different man this is!

Viktor Hartmann's costumes for the ballet Trilby which Moussorgsky attended and inspired the 5th movement

The the temptation to overwhelm the audience with sound proves irresistible to many young virtuosi. Particularly in this work the final movement Богатырские ворота (В стольном городе во Киеве) The Bogatyr Gates which depicts the Great Gate of Kiev begs for a monumental sound. This we received not unflinchingly. I shall never forget the shattering performance here some years ago by the inspired Russian pianist  Denis Kozhukhin when we could distinctly hear the Orthodox bells tolling.


Viktor Hartmann - Plan for a City Gate at Kiev 

After the interval a late change in the programme. Instead of the Stravinsky Firebird  a tempestuous performance of  Bacchanale by the Romanian conductor Constantin Silvestri (1913-1969). I had not heard this impressively virtuosic work before but felt its paramount display nature would have been more suitable as an encore piece than within a serious recital programme. We then had an interesting interweaving of Preludes by Chopin and Scriabin. The Russian composer was deeply influenced by Chopin.

Chopin – Prelude in E major Op. 28 No. 9 (1838–1839)
Scriabin – Prelude in E major Op. 11 No. 9 Andantino (1888–1896)
Chopin – Prelude in C-sharp minor Op. 28 No. 10
Scriabin – Prelude in C-sharp minor Op. 11 No. 10, Andante
Chopin – Prelude in B major Op. 28 No. 11
Scriabin – Prelude in B major Op. 11 No. 11 Allegro assai

Although this is an interesting and thought provoking historical idea, I felt torn between the different psyches of the composers. Perhaps this is a personal matter in that I like to immerse myself in the musical world of a single composer for a significant period and these brief exposures in Preludes did not permit this. Having listen so often to Chopin cycles of all the Preludes my inner ear anticipated something else more familiar to follow - another Chopin Prelude. The cycle has become an entire and complete organism in my mind by now. I did not want interruptions by Scriabin. I also wondered if this programming may have been symptomatic of the way technology has accustomed listeners to short attention spans in music. At all events I remained emotionally unmoved by either composer arranged in this manner, although clearly Ciobani played the works perfectly competently.

Finally Prokofiev Sonata in D minor No. 2 Op. 14. He brought his customary ostentatious energy and virtuosity to the Prokofiev Sonata in D minor No. 2 Op. 14. I found the Scherzo particularly enjoyable. The Andante was rather sensitive and reflective. He responded well to the musical content but for me failed to communicate the mercurial, percussive even tragic nature of this Prokofiev sonata very well. Prokofiev dedicated this sonata to his friend and fellow student at the St. Petersburg Conservatorium, Maaximilian Schmidthof, who committed suicide in 1913.

He gave a type of extraordinary theatrical encore made up of glissandi of various types which drove the audience wild. Also a fantasically virtuosic jazz encore which although utterly brilliant had no natural 'swing' jazz elements or veiled blues elements of say an Art Tatum or an Oscar Peterson.

A sensational recital that clearly will bring him in the future hordes of adoring fans. He was recently invited to perform alongside Lang Lang at the Royal Festival Hall and won the Audience Prize at the latest Artur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv. perhaps audiences have become bored with correctness and prefer entertainment. We are moving in this 'theatrical virtuosity and fireworks' direction exponentially at present. 

Unforunately for me much of his present playing can be described in the words of C.P.E Bach in his Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen 1753 (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments) : 

'They overwhelm  our hearing without satisfying it and stun the mind 
without moving it . . .’  

Spectacular in pianistic terms as this recital was, individualistic and charismatic, full of a unique personality but I would say musically speaking, all in all, I prefer to be moved rather than astonished.


The programme Carroccia ambitiously chose to perform contained two works that require a high degree of musical and personal maturity, one by Chopin, the Polonaise Fantasie and one by Schubert, the late Sonata in B flat major D 960.

He opened his recital with the Chopin Barcarolle, the charming gondolier's folk song sung to the swish of oars on the historic Venetian Lagoon or a romantic canal, often concerning the travails of love. Most of the piece oscillates gently between forte, piano and pianissimo with only subtle degrees of heightened emotion throughout.  He opened it well and set the tonal mood. This handsome Italian seemed to understand the Ialianate nature of this love song, imagining himself in a gondola (his facial expressions indicated this) and a curiously authentic feeling of Italy and Venice inexplicably overlaid the performance of the work.

Disturbing yet civilized degrees of heightened passion occur during this outing on the lagoon. Towards the conclusion I felt he tended to overdo the ecstasy as do most pianists. 
I will never believe this is an explosive virtuoso work and it is almost invariably presented as such. 

It was often observed that Chopin played with a much lower relative dynamic than were are used to today i.e. forte for him was perhaps mezzo-forte for us or even softer. This together with and as a result of the limitations of the instruments of the day means the dynamic scale of the work is not gigantic. Pianissimo on a Pleyel is the barest perceptible whisper. 

Berlioz once described Chopin's own playing 

'....the utmost degree of softness, piano  to the extreme, the hammers merely brushing the strings, so much so that one is tempted to go close to the instrument and put one's ear to it as if to a concert of sylphs or elves.'  (Quoted in Rink, Sampson Chopin Studies 2 p.51). 

Are we simply to ignore these contemporary descriptions convinced that 'we moderns must know better'? Of course I would never suggest imitating this type of thing in a modern concert hall but I feel these are all important considerations in terms of dynamic scale when considering this great masterpiece. Certainly in the Dworek so few pianists modify their dynamic range for the small resonant room with its barrel-vaulted ceiling. 

   Watercolour of Venice by Turner

He then followed with a group of carefully chosen Chopin Mazurkas. How lovely to hear a pianist return in recital to these too often neglected extraordinary masterpieces of concentrated sometimes revolutionary harmonic invention.

Mazurkas: in C minor Op. 56 No. 3 (1844) in A-flat major Op. 41 No. 3 (1839) in F minor Op. 63 No. 2 (1846) in D-flat major Op. 30 No. 3 (1836/37) in C-sharp minor Op. 50 No. 3 (1841/42) in F minor Op. 68 No. 4 (1849).

I would like to examine each in turn given the clear preparation of them by this pianist but I would be here all night! I have noted two general ways that I feel pianists approach these pieces. One approaches them as if composed in the glow of romantic nostalgia for past joys of the dance Chopin certainly experienced abroad after he left Warsaw where he was known to be a passionate dancer as a young man. The other general approach concentrates, it seems to me, more on a recreation through the filter of time, the folkloric and rural elements, the lively rhythm and 'snap' of many mazurkas, the sometimes strange countrified harmonic relations he explores, basically as Chopin would have experienced the rather energetic, even rough, folk dancing in Mazovia (often Polish pianists approach them in this manner). Both conceptions have their virtues. Here we had the more legato, sentimental, perhaps romantic approach which occasionally neglected to emphasise the arresting and in some cases revolutionary harmonic shifts that occur in every Chopin mazurka. The rhythms could have had more of a rough 'bite', but I was often won over by the genuine soft sentiments and yearning expressed here.

The first half he closed with the Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat major Op. 61 (1846). It became apparent fairly early on in this half that Chopin was posing some difficulties for this musician. This unsettled me greatly. He seemed unable to grasp what various musicologists for better or worse have termed Chopin’s ‘Late Style’. The composers mental and physical state were fractured at the time of composition and this is ever present in this complex, highly demanding work – his last extended composition for the piano. James Huneker referred to the 'hectic flush' of the work, 'tainted by the tomb' and composed only three years before Chopin's death. He struggled with the formal design in a final attempt at musical renewal and forging a new aesthetic. I felt Carroccia failed to penetrate the surface of this work as let’s say did Grigory Sokolov when he performed it at Duszniki some years ago – overwhelming in its philosophical, even metaphysical, impact. But that is Sokolov… and a terribly unfair comparison.

After the interval, the Schubert late Sonata in B-flat major D 960. For any pianist to choose this sonata, particularly a young pianist, requires courage, a high degree personal and musical maturity and the simple temerity to enter the doom laden world of late Schubert. Sir Andras Schiff once said of the trill in the eighth measure of the Sonata. 'It’s the most extraordinary trill in the history of music.' Schubert completed this work only two months before his death and one feels he is speaking to us from the 'The Beyond' a domain of uncanny and otherworldly resonance. This trill is the shudder of doom, the dark cloud of death. What follows is a desperate attempt to regain at least the memory, however etiolated, of the joys of experienced in Nature and of life itself. Life through a glass darkly. The silence that follows that trill is as pregnant with existential meaning as the sound itself. Is this dreadful murmur the approach of death over the horizon ? Something demonic lurks in the human caverns of this sonata. In the movements of this sonata, particularly the heart-wrenching Andante sostenuto, we lurch between extremes in the human spirit.

Not unnaturally and quite understandably, I felt this young pianist failed to penetrate these depths of the soul, those emergent brief suns from behind the dark clouds of existence. Well, he now has the command of the notes and a general sense of 'applied expression' in all the right places. But the internal otherworldly life of a human soul in torment at it faces the profound mysteries and fears of death, so deeply reflected here, will only come later. Leave it alone for now Luigi. Hopefully your life will continue to flower in joy and you can explore the glorious garden youth offers you ('Oh, the glory of it!') before the dark inevitability of the transcendent beyond, that domain glimpsed in this sonata, comes upon you and a full realization of the transience of life.

Friday 3 August 20.00 Wojciech Świtała 

Inauguration recital dedicated to the memory of the President of the Foundation 

Andrzej Merkur 

To give a greatly anticipated memorial recital of Chopin to the Duszniki Famiglia dedicated to the memory of Andrzej Merkur, one of the fondly remembered Founders of the Festival and President of the Foundation, is a significant emotional and musical challenge and must cause unconscionable stress. 

Wojciech Świtała opened his recital with two painfully reflective and sensitive Op. 48 Nocturnes avoiding the temptations of over-sentimentalization that must have tempted him in these sad circumstances. The gravity and pathos of the chorale interrupted by funereal blasts of anger in the C minor. In the F sharp minor the uninterrupted flow of melody challenged by a certain relentless and restless reflections on the nature of life being what it is in the face of death. Strangely unmoved by this performance apart from his clear mastery of the instrument, beautiful sound and touch.

The rush of energy and melodiousness in the so familiar Waltzes of Op.34 and Op.64 was perhaps in many ways a welcome breath of optimism but was it excessive in contrast? Quite likely it would have been welcomed by Andrzej as he would not have wished that his death would depress us to such an extent that a lugubrious Chopin ruled the evening. I felt however that the waltzes lacked finesse, elegance, panache and lightness of touch with that curious nostalgia for past joys and civilized frivolity that is latent in them. At the time Chopin wrote these waltzes, although not intended for dancing, the perfume of the illicit and the morally questionable activity of touching your partner was still rather novel (especially if not your husband or wife - quelle horreur!). I feel however that Chopin was no stranger to sensual pleasures and joi de vivre (read his exuberant letters) but not a deep sensualist if you catch my discriminative meaning.

The first half of the programme ended with the B flat minor Scherzo Op. 31. In the past it was known as 'The Governess Scherzo' as many a governess played this favourite work. This was far superior to what one might imagine of this description. I felt this to be a perfectly competent performance with some fine bravura flourishes but as a dramatic narrative I am rather more uncertain. I did not feel the work flowered organically or beautifully from those dark, sepulchral, terrible questioning tombé triplets that open the work. For me it is a Byronic poem 'so tender, so bold, so full of love as of scorn' as Robert Schumann wrote. When the triplets return it strikes us in a different mood as all varieties of sweet lyricism and fierce anger soaked in Polish żal have passed like storm waters rushing under a bridge over a stream. Little of this internal life of the work was present for me.

After the interval the Nocturne in E major Op. 62 No 2. In this work one can always sense beneath the calm exterior of the melody winding its gentle lento sostenuto arabesque, the need to erupt in agitation and the sudden expression of a previously contained emotional tension in the the central section. Often the case in Chopin nocturnes. And then the retorn to the gentle melody.... as James Huneker might have observed of it, the behaviour of Chopin ''a genius but a gentleman". Chopin the the dreamer armed with a sword. I felt only a modicum of this painted veil in the performance.

A group of Mazurkas Op. 67 (1830–1835) No. 1 in G major; No. 2 in G minor; No. 3 in C major; No. 4 in A minor – Mazurkas Op. 68 No. 1 in C major (1829/30); No. 2 in A minor (1826/27); No. 3 in F major (1829/30); No. 4 in F minor (1849). I felt such an absence of the rustic and folkloric nostalgia here in the rhythms that lacked associations beyond simple reminiscence. At the time of the G minor he wrote to Wojciech Grzymała 'I feel alone, alone, alone – though surrounded’. 1848 saw Chopin’s last concert in Paris at the Salle Pleyel and that notorious concert tour of England and Scotland arranged by that tainted invitation by Jane Stirling. Grzymała received these melancholy reflections: 'The world has somehow passed me by. Meanwhile, what has become of my art? And where did I squander my heart?’ In this interpretation of the set I felt the pianist did not sufficiently delineate the very different emotional life contained in this Op. 67 set. The Op. 68 group were similarly etiolated  yet on occasion the expression of a filtered nostalgic mood for the past joys of the rural dance (Chopin was a passionate dancer as a youth) did emerge.

Finally the Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante in E-flat major Op. 22 (1830–1835). I suppose it is unfair to impose high expectations on a pianist after hearing a recording made years before the recital one is attending. When I first came to Poland as a visitor in the early 1990s, I bought a cassette tape of Switała performing this very work recorded by Katowice Radio. I cannot remember the date. It was the most overwhelming performance of the work I have ever heard. The Andante spianato had all the tender qualities of an ardent lullaby, yet tonight I felt there was an absence of emotional reverie in this nocturne. A lover boating on a lake lit only by the stars reflecting on the nature of Venus as he gazes into the heavens.  Chopin often performed this work he was particularly fond of on its own, isolated from the Polonaise.

The dream, moonlight and soft waters parting are so strenuously and physically interrupted by the reality of the active life,  the triumphant announcement or 'call to the floor' for the great dance, the great Polonaise - so reminiscent of joyful rural scenes in Pan Tadeusz. This work has defeated so many pianists I have heard. They underestimate the difficulties of the style brilliant, the lightness and fleetness of the jeu perlé, the vital need for perfect accuracy and the stamina required to sustain this incandescent mood throughout. This fine pianist Switała did so to absolute perfection in that Katowice recording of his youth, giving the listener such a sense of exhilaration that any pianist could play with such glittering panache. Fabulous. A treasured recording (and to a slightly lesser extent in his finely expressed and eloquent 2007 Chopin Institute 'Black Series' recording on an 1849 Erard period instrument - NIFCCD 006. Is this the same pianist?).  But I fear not such delight on this occasion.....In sympathy I shall break off here and express empathy for these stressful trying circumstances he had the courage to accept.

This is a detail from the famous picture Chopin's Polonaise - a Ball at the Hotel Lambert in Paris  by Teofil Kwiatkowski now in the National Museum Poznań. This palace (the Hotel Lambert) was the Parisian home of the Polish magnate Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski and a centre for the volatile discussions of the 'Polish question' in the mid nineteenth century. There was an annual Polish Ball and Chopin is seen playing a small Pleyel instrument when the artist could easily have depicted him seated at a far grander instrument. These instruments were not played against a wall as uprights are today but wheeled into the open area of a drawing room thus freeing their marvellous sound. As is clear the pianist could feel in close contact with the dancers.They were customarily equipped with ormolu handles on either side of the case and castors for the purpose.

*  *  *  *  *  *                     

Welcome to the 73rd 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.

This is the terribly sad commemorative year of the recent death of the Director of the Festival, and President of the Foundation, Andrzej Merkur (1950-2018). Unfortunately family health reasons prevent me from attending  in person at Duszniki in this difficult year, however I intend to review from the live internet stream from the Chopin Manor. This may well be the first time such an endeavor has been attempted. I assure you I have fine high-end high fidelity equipment in my home (German valve amplifier, Arcam rDAC, BBC studio monitor speakers) so will not miss essential musical details. Of course I well recognize the charismatic physical presence of a pianist is essential to a fuller picture, but the miracles of our technological age will permit this extraordinary and in many ways magical intimacy to survive to some extent.

In this 73rd year of the festival, the artistic director Piotr Paleczny has assembled an interesting array of famous, musically outstanding and charismatic pianists. 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

Sviatoslav Richter in the Chopin Etude Op.10 No:12. 
An irresistible force of Nature or as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas may have put it: 
'The force that through the green fuse drives the flower'
But is it Chopin as one personally visualizes him? This is the fertile and constructive question one asks oneself so often at the Duszniki Festival. One can never remain indifferent...

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.

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. 

73. Duszniki International Chopin Piano Festival

3 August
20.00Inauguration recital dedicated to the memory of Andrzej Merkur – President of the Foundation  – Wojciech Świtała
4 August
9.30Master Class prof. Vanessa Latarche
11.00Promotional concert
16.00Piano recital Luigi Carroccia
20.00Piano recital Daniel CiobanuI prize – Rio de Janeiro 2016II prize A.Rubinstein – Tel Aviv 2017
5 AugustSunday9.30Master Class prof. Vanessa Latarche
11.00Promotional concert
16.00Piano recital Andrey GugninI prize – Sydney 2016
20.00Piano recital Jonathan Plowright On the 100th anniversary of  Independence
6 August
9.30Master Class prof. Vanessa Latarche
16.00Promotion of the Young 
Piotr Alexewicz, Tymoteusz Bies
19.00Chamber music concert MULTI TRIO – Ewa Pobłocka with daughters Ewa Leszczyńska – soprano and Maria Leszczyńska – cello
22.00Extraordinary recital – meeting with the audience – Lidia Grychtołówna
7 August
9.30Master Class prof. Vanessa Latarche
16.00Piano recital Alexander Ullman Ist prize – F.Liszt, Utrecht 2017
19.00Charity recital by participants in the Master Class
8 August
9.30Master Class prof. Eugen Indjic
16.00Piano recital Martin James Bartlett 
20.00Piano recital Rachel Cheung Audience Award- Van Cliburn 2017
9 August
9.30Master Class prof. Eugen Indjic
16.00Recital Jakub Jakowicz – violin and Bartosz Bednarczyk – piano
20.00Piano recital Boris Giltburg
10 August
9.30Master Class prof. Eugen Indjic
16.00Piano recital Rémi Geniet  II prize Queen Elisabeth – Brussels 2016
20.00Piano recital Alessio Bax  I prize – Leeds & Hamamatsu 
and Lucille Chung
 – Piano Duo
11 August
 9.30Master Class prof. Eugen Indjic
11.00Promotional concert
16.00Piano recital Eric Lu  IV prize – Chopin competition, Warsaw 2015
20.00Final recital Sergei Babayan
All concerts will be held in the Chopin Manor.
Master Class sessions and the charity concert on 7 August, at 19:00, will be held in the Jan Weber Chamber Music Hall, in the Foundation’s headquarters.
Promotional concerts will be held at Hotel Impresja.

From the Artistic Director Piotr Paleczny:

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

We are pleased to announce the opening of the 73rd edition of the Festival. The situation is, however, quite different from that of previous inaugurations, as far as I remember them. In March, after suffering a severe illness, Mr. Andrzej Merkur passed away. He was the President of Chopin Festival Foundation and an integral part of the Festival for over 40 years, in fact all his professional life. It is hard to overestimate his vast experience, his calmness under pressure, his determination and his professionalism. We scarcely imagined ever facing such a dramatic, grim and unexpected situation. Being a friend of Andrzej Merkur and his artistic collaborator for 26 years, I would allow myself to express my and, I believe, your deepest sorrow. At the same time I would dearly like to thank Mr. Merkur for his “Life’s work” during the Duszniki-Zdrój International Chopin Piano Festival. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, our mission, our trademark and a widely known feature of our Festival is to promote and cultivate talented pianists of the younger generation. This year we intend to stay faithful to our principles. Besides acclaimed Artists, we will present some remarkable young pianists whose artistic careers are developing dramatically. There is little doubt that in the next few years they will become the most honoured guests in the most significant concert halls in the world. It is with the greatest joy and satisfaction that we welcome to Chopin’s Manor the “stars” of our festival. These are the Artists whose brilliant recitals and concerts have established the high level and reputation of the festival for many years. 

The audience will undoubtedly give a warm welcome to our long-awaited guests. Such renowned musicians as Sergei Babayan, Alessio Bax, Rachel Cheung, Boris Giltburg and Jonathan Plowright, Phot. Marek Grotowski 70 whose previous performances here in Duszniki are still engraved in our memory. In the Jubilee year, the 100th anniversary of the regaining of Polish Independence, we also welcome a number of illustrious Polish Artists: Ewa Pobłocka and the family band Multi Trio, Wojciech Świtała, Jakub Jakowicz, Tymoteusz Bies and Piotr Alexewicz. I am also honoured to give an especially warm welcome to the legendary Polish pianist Lidia Grychtołówna. We also welcome the excellent teachers who will give master classes during the Festival: Professor Vanessa Latarche from the London Royal College of Music and Professor Eugen Indijc, well known to all Polish music lovers, who lectures at the Schola Cantorum in Paris. 

Meeting such great teachers and working with them will be a priceless and very inspiring experience for all those who comprise the classes, the laureates of the latest edition of Polish Chopin Piano Competition. Ladies and Gentlemen – on behalf of all the organizers of the Festival and also on behalf of yourselves, I wish to thank our unfailing sponsors. It is thanks to them we can experience such profound artistic experiences. We are also grateful to our media representatives, especially to the Polish Radio Channel 2, for not permitting Polish music lovers forget the Duszniki Festival and for carrying out their difficult task with extensive professionalism and charm. 

Finally I would now like to wish all the very best to the new President of the Festival Foundation, Mr. Mariusz Fituch. All of us here present wish you the best of luck in working on the Festival in the future, as well as the determination and passion to carry it through to a brilliant conclusion. I am convinced that this year the Festival will give rise to many deep reflections and provide us with many beautiful, unforgettable moments and wonderful 71 

Mariusz Fituch 

President of The International Duszniki Chopin Festival Foundation, graduated from University of Science and Technology (AGH) in Kraków where he received a degree in “Geology and Mining” and in “Management”. He continued studies at Economical University in Wrocław. He was born in Radom but has lived in Duszniki for 25 years. He worked as manager in banks in Kłodzko and Kudowa-Zdrój and also in ZEM Sp. z o.o. in Duszniki-Zdrój. Mariusz Fituch has worked with The International Duszniki Chopin Festival Foundation since 2006, he co-worked with Andrzej Merkur at the very beginnings of the Festival. 

President of the Foundation, Andrzej Merkur (1950-2018)

From Róża Światczyńska Polish Dwojka (Radio 2):

Ladies and Gentlemen

The present, 73rd edition of the International Chopin Piano Festival, will be the first one for 46 years without Mr. Andrzej Merkur. The long-term Executive Director, an excellent manager and a truly good spirit of the Festival to which he had dedicated almost all his professional life. He was always at the core of events however preferred to stay in the shadow. Nevertheless, it would be extremely difficult to imagine the Festival without his tireless energy, passion and management skills. 

As a graduate of the Law and Administration Faculty of Wrocław University, he well knew the nature of organization. He had faced it first as the Secretary of the Festival Office, then as its Executive Manager and finally as the President of the Foundation Board of the International Chopin Piano Festival in Duszniki-Zdrój. In 1989 he co-founded the Foundation in order to raise the funds to mount the Festival. In time, its activity expanded into various areas such as the highly respected Piano Masterclasses, lectures and relevant exhibitions, the publication of books and concert recordings. 

It was owing to Mr. Merkur that the Festival could boast its own daily bulletin and a constantly increasing number of listeners. Especially for them he co-produced the popular open-air concerts. With the audience in mind he installed an outdoor screen in the festival tent. Quite recently he also set up the live internet broadcasts that enabled thousands of music lovers to follow the Duszniki concerts. 

To us, the radio journalists working at the Festival, Mr. Merkur was unfailingly helpful. His warm smile and openness to cooperation will always stay in my grateful memory. In our special programme on Dwojka, just a year ago, as we were sitting together in a radio tent, he remembered his 45 years spent with the Festival. He seemed to have conceived so many ideas for future... This year is the first time that he has not laid flowers at the Chopin monument. He died on March 24th, aged 67, living with the idea of the upcoming Festival until his very last days. 
Past Festival Posts

The 72nd Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Piano Festival 2017

The 71st Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Piano Festival 2016

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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