14th Chopin and his Europe (Chopin i jego Europa) International Music Festival Warsaw 9-31 August 2018

From Chopin to Paderewski

31.08 FRIDAY 8.00 p.m.
Moniuszko Auditorium at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera
Symphonic concert

JACEK KASPSZYK conductor     
                                                                      [Photographs by W. Grzędziński and D. Golik/NIFC]
A chance to 'discover' another work by the once famous Polish composer, Aleksander Tansman (1897-1986), once considered as important as Szymanowski. The magnificent violin concerto we heard earlier in the festival cemented him in my mind as an outstanding composer inexplicably rather overlooked in the West at least by popular opinion. The cultural iron curtain perhaps operating as a psychological and prejudicial barrier once again. Tansman was a distinguished Polish composer born in Łódz and a virtuoso pianist. After further studies in Warsaw he moved to Paris where his less than conservative composing style was appreciated by Stravinsky and Ravel. He also had a highly successful concert career as a pianist in France. He was even 'encouraged' to become the seventh member of Les Six.

Darius Milhaud wrote of Les Six:

'Collet [French critic Henri Collet] chose six names absolutely arbitrarily, those of Auric, Durey, Honegger, Poulenc, Tailleferre and me, simply because we knew each other and we were pals and appeared on the same musical programmes, no matter if our temperaments and personalities weren't at all the same! Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger followed German Romanticism, and myself, Mediterranean lyricism!'

Tansman the Pole of Jewish extraction would have been at home in this company.

In 1940 he composed tonight's piece, the popular Polish Rhapsody, dedicated to the heroic defenders of Warsaw in the ill-fated Rising who were defeated by the Nazis. In 1941, being Jewish, he fled Europe to Los Angeles where he composed many remarkable film scores. After the war he returned to Europe to produce some outstandingly brilliant compositions performed by many of the greatest instrumentalists, conductors and orchestras.

Jacek Kaspszyk conducting the Warsaw Philharmonic in the Polish Rhapsody

The Polish Rhapsody is not a complex work begins calmly on the cor anglais  which gives way to a military march as we move into the spirit of the piece which must be encapsulated by the word 'resistance' - actually if there was one word to describe Poles and Polish history this would be it - resistance. Out of the march inevitably grows the 'Dąbrowski Mazurka' (the present Polish national anthem). The work concludes in a folk idiom. This work was very popular after the war in the US bu not so often performed these days.

This was followed by yet another composer I knew even less about, Karol Rathouse [1895–1954] and his  Piano Concerto Op. 45 (1939) in three movements - Moderato; Andantino; Allegretto con molto; and was performed by the Israeli pianist Yaara Tal. Rathouse was another Jewish composer and musician whose life was effectively shattered at the peak of its creative promise by Hitler's rise to power. This work is one of radical modernism, a genre of music verging on atonality that caused a symphonic scandal in Vienna. Yet in Berlin he was in demand for film music. However his career had been interrupted profoundly. He fled to Paris in 1932 intuiting the inevitable. From 1941 until his death, in 1954, Rathaus was a professor of music at Queens College.

The piano concerto seemed in its percussiveness and general neo-Romantic mood to remind me of Bartok and then in its more lyrical moments of Berg. There is an ominous atmosphere that pervades this composition. Despite the brilliance of the pianist I found the work possibly profound in its premonitory horror of the 1940s but inaccessible in any deep emotional sense to me in 2018.

Yaara Tal in the Karol Rathaus  Piano Concerto Op.45

After the interval, the brilliant young English pianist Benjamin Grosvenor was to play Chopin's Piano Concerto in F minor (1829-30) Op. 21. To conclude the concert and the festival, probably what everyone was waiting for, the Chopin Piano Concerto in F minor Op.21.
‘As I already have, perhaps unfortunately, my ideal, whom I faithfully serve, without having spoken to her for half a year already, of whom I dream, in remembrance of whom was created the adagio of my concerto’ (Chopin to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski ,3 October 1829). 

The work itself was written 1829-30. as we all know by now,  this concerto was inspired by Chopin’s infatuation or was it youthful love for the soprano Konstancja Gładkowska. Strangely it was published a few years later with a dedication to Delfina Potocka.

I have little to say other than praise this fine performance of the F Minor Concerto Op. 21. At least this English pianist not treat Chopin as a composer for schoolgirls, all too common in England in the past. The performance was 'finished' and close to faultless technically speaking, but the phrasing and breathlessness in the Maestoso, with sometimes a harsh left hand pointing up an important harmony or emphatic moment was overdone. The concerto followed the Mozart model and was directly influenced by the style brillant of Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles or Ries. It is hard to reproduce this intimate yet fragile glittering tone on a Steinway or Yamaha but I felt Grosvenor managed this internally iridescent style well with sparing use of the pedal and mainly finger legato. Here again Chopin magically transforms the Classical into the Romantic style. 

Benjamin Grosvenor and Jacek Kaspszyk before the performance

Grosvenor was confident, relaxed, enjoying his playing immensely. He had excellent communication with Kaspszyk, the conductor of the Warsaw Philharmonic. He retained a natural virtuosity that preserved the form and was always a servant to the conception and interpretation.

A singing full bel canto tone in the affecting Larghetto that was full of poetry but taken slightly too fast for the full poetry of yearning to emerge convincingly (again personal taste). In many ways you could say that the whole work revolves around this movement. I always think of the sentiments contained in the 1820 poem by John Keats La Belle Dame Sans Merci when I hear this music with its passionate interjections

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

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

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

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

Tremendous joy, energy and drive in the Rondo Allegro vivace final movement in the exuberant style of a krakowiak dance. How Chopin must have loved the bucolic nature of the Polish countryside and its music! The Chopin extension of the Hummel piano concerto was here fully realized. Melody and bravura figuration (F minor to the relative major A flat for instance) wonderfully and authoritatively brought off with great balance of formal structure.

This composition that lies between Mozart and the styl brillant was very promisingly executed as were the masculine gestures towards the concertos of Weber (following the cor de signal for example). A satisfying performance in almost every way expressing the dreams and exuberance of youth. 

 A sweet encore - Rachmaninoff's song Lilacs transcribed for solo piano by the composer.

And so we came to the end of a most brilliant festival lasting a quite remarkable three weeks. During this time I came to know so much about forgotten or seldom performed Polish music and was made aware of some fertile Polish tributaries I shall certainly follow up on with undoubted musical rewards promised at the end.

And so the monumental Chopin i jego Europa Festival for 2018 concludes...

31.08 FRIDAY 5.00 p.m. Polish National Opera
Chamber concert
                                                                                           [Photographs by W. Grzędziński/NIFC]

Having heard the Belcea Quartet before in this festival, I consider them to be a wonderfully inspired group of mixed nationalities (the violinist Corina Belcea after which the quartet is named, is an impassioned Romanian artist). Most recently they performed in Warsaw in August 2016 and 2017 and as a result I was keenly anticipating this concert. The more so that they would be joined by the great distinguished Russian pianist and musician Elizabeth Leonskaja.

They opened their concert with the formidable Beethoven String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130 (1826).  This work obtained the nickname 'Lieb' (Dear) from Beethoven himself, who referred to it with this name in his writings.

The Belcea Quartet

I was immediately struck by the superb ensemble tone and balance from the opening notes of the rather sombre Adagio ma non troppo that opens the work. Later the movement became playful, meditative and joyful in turn - many changes of mood and tempo. Throughout there was total emotional, even physical commitment to the music of the performance or rather more accurately, the recreation of the work. What a lesson for other musicians who are too often merely going through 'reproductive' emotions! There was galvanic creative energy present here this evening.

This was the last of three string quartets commissioned in the 1820s by the Russian Prince Galitzin. According to Barry Cooper the first two movements did not pose any problem for Beethoven but for quite a length of time  he was undecided about the actual structure and in terms of how many movements. The finale posed endless changes of direction. The Belcea brought tremendous energy to the Presto (a theme packed with colour, humour and delight) and in the Andante con moto, ma non troppo rather more vital than the tempo indication. The Belcea brought a rhythmic and melodic idiomatic understanding to the Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai (in the German style). I was amazed at the varied 'attack' these instrumentalists brought to their bowings - sometimes lyrically legato, superbly detaché, rough and almost coarse fortissimos when the context demanded it, rich smooth ensemble when that was expressively necessary. A case in point was the divine Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo. The movement is at once dark, melancholy, intense yet profound in its emotional resonance. Even the deaf composer admitted to being moved to tears by this movement, one of the finest things Beethoven ever wrote. The Belcea did this full range of emotions justice, the pianissimos and phrasing, rather like a curious halting breath, seeming to me a presage of death. The composer died only months after finishing the composition.

Originally the Finale was a monumental fugue but after months of indecisiveness this idea was abandoned for the last complete piece Beethoven wrote, a Finale. Allegro The rather happy mood belies the health problems of Beethoven who was to die only months after finishing the composition. The Belcea brought the work to a brilliant conclusion before launching passionately into the mighty Grosse Fuge (actually published separately as Op. 133). This wrought-iron work was absolutely magnificently assembled by this quartet like a piece of soaring architecture. One can only imagine the effect such a taxing complex musical design must have had upon contemporary audiences. For me the Belcea moved into the region of the transcendent in this monumental and formidable construction. One of the truly great performances of this quartet which will remain lodged with me.

The Belcea Quartet and Elizabeth Leonskaya

After the interval the quartet were joined by the legendary pianist Elizabeth Leonskaya to perform the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 (1864) One of my favourite quintets, a youthful Brahms work, had a difficult gestation and birth in various transformations as a string quintet, sonata for two pianos until coming to fruition in its present form in 1864. Almost a symphony. The straightforward lyricism and energy of assertion in life's pleasures and confident youth could not have been in greater contrast to the preceding somewhat tortuous and fraught Beethoven quartet. The Allegro non troppo began with such grave nobility and strength and in the piano part developing magnificently with Leonskaya seemingly possessed by an inner force of nature, giving absolute maximum musical intensity to the work. As did the Belcea quartet as they charted the rising temperature of the passions. Truly magnificent to hear and behold.

The Andante, un poco adagio was at once tender and lyrical. The German-Jewish orchestral conductor Hermann Levi told Brahms:

The quintet is beautiful beyond measure; no one who didn’t know it in its earlier forms—string quintet and sonata—would believe that it was conceived and written for other instruments. Not a single note gives me the impression of an arrangement: all the ideas have a much more succinct colour. Out of the monotony of the two pianos a model of tonal beauty has arisen; out of a piano duo accessible to only a few musicians, a restorative for every music-lover—a masterpiece of chamber music of a kind of which we have had no other example since ’28.

Levi was referring to the death of Schubert in November 1828 - his shade and that of Beethoven hover over the work. The  Scherzo. Allegro in C minor has an atmosphere of polyphonic drama contained, held back somewhat mysteriously. Belecea and Leonskaya seemed to me perfectly matched in emotional connections and understanding during this work. I found the closing movement Finale. Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo  emotionally overwhelming. Textures were transparent and inner details abounded. This was not a turgid Brahms of thick coffee and cigars, but a man of internal fires, vitality and intensity. It was as if we were being submerged within the crucible of Brahms's creative power. I am not subject to hyperbole but in this case words truly fail me. The Finale was worked into a monumental edifice. Instant standing ovation from me and not normal behaviour - cannot even remember the last one I gave so spontaneously.

As an encore the vivacious cross-rhythmed Scherzo (Furiant): Molto vivace from Antonín Dvořák's Piano Quintet in A major Op. 81

This concert was a profoundly satisfying musical experience from the Belcea Quartet and Elizabeth Leonskaya on so many spiritual levels. Unforgettable.

Elizabeth Leonskaya in conversation with the Artistic Director of the Festival
Stanisław Leszczyński

26.08 SUNDAY 6.00 p.m.
Moniuszko Auditorium at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera Symphonic concert
                                                                                                [Photographs by W. Grzędziński/NIFC]

At Westminster College on 5 March 1946 Winston Churchill made a speech that created in the mind a barrier across Europe. The words are well known but some implications are not fully realized.

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia;

One must always remember that the 'Iron Curtain' was a cultural as well as political barrier. This meant there was little cultural osmosis across it in either direction apart from what had already taken place before the war. This accounts for the ignorance in Western countries of much music from these Central and Eastern European states which is only now beginning to surface. Discovering one's politically suffocated historical and cultural heritage is a deep draught of the heady elixir of freedom.  This is one of the positive excitements of the present in Poland yet one must guard against distortions of judgment, both positive and negative, that come from cultural elation.

Although familiar to musically educated Poles, the precocious late Romantic composer Mieczysław Karłowicz [1876–1909] who died in an avalanche at the tragically young at the age of 33, is relatively unknown outside the country. Certainly his work is not sufficiently familiar to me to write in informed detail about it. His six symphonic poems cause him to be considered Poland's greatest symphonic composer. At the time opposition to his compositions was violent. The music historian Aleksander Poliński wrote of young composers that they '...have now been affected by some evil spirit that depraves their work, strives to strip it of individual and national originality and turn into parrots lamely imitating the voices of Wagner and Strauss'. Karłowicz's compositions were regarded as 'modernistic chaos' which made them unpopular with the Polish public.

The first work on this program was the Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 2 (1897) It was composed when Karłowicz was 21 (studying in Berlin under Heinrich Urban) and consists of four movements and one of his most frequently performed works: March - Romance - Waltz - Finale. I found it very charming music that put me in mind of civilized life in Europe before the Great War. The Russian National Orchestra seemed to me a very large orchestra (7 double basses par example)  for such evidently light instrumental scoring but it seemed to paint a relatively effective panorama of the sensibility of the day. Poles at the time I believe were known as the French of the Slavic world, possibly reflected here.   

The orchestra was then joined by the Polish violinist Anna Maria Staśkiewicz for that glorious work, the  Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 8 (1902). The  Allegro moderato has a powerful thematic basis to which she brought intense expressiveness. She had established an excellent musical rapport with Pletnev and the RNO.  The Romanza. Andante is an exquisite extended lyrical melody of love, loss and nostalgia. She played the themes most affectingly and emotionally. The Finale. Vivace assai is full of virtuoso flourishes of a tremendously challenging type which she seemed to find less than comfortable on occasion.

After the interval, two works, both symphonic poems, for which Karłowicz is justifiably famous. Both are rather lugubrious stories, seeming favourites with the Polish temperament. First, the Symphonic poem Stanisław and Anna Oświecim, Op. 12. Considered his greatest symphonic poem it involves a legendary incestuous love affair that flowered in the 17th century (a brother and sister are ignorant of their close relation and discover it after falling in love). The two protagonists were even believed by the composer to have been buried in a chapel in Krosno. The tragic legend may well have elements of truth but has been embellished. However the veracity of this fraught story need not concern us. The RNO orchestra dealt well and skillfully with the two themes - the Stanisław theme is marked in strength and energy and the Anna theme far more lyrical. There is another melody the 'motif of tragic fate' that appears on various occasions. There is an impressive funeral march before the finale. The drama was certainly there and expressed by the orchestra but perhaps not with the fullest emotional abandonment and commitment.  The commentator Grzegorsz Michałski observes in the programme notes that this composition is regarded as Karłowicz's finest orchestral work placing the composer among the masters of 'the necromantic orchestra.'  This is a Polish term quite new to me containing all manner of connotations.

The second symphonic poem, and the shortest, Symphonic poem A Sorrowful Tale, Op. 13 (1908). The programme here is even more important as it chronicles in music, according to Karłowicz:

'... the mood and feelings of a man in whose head the thought of suicide  is beginning to germinate....it leads to a struggle beyween the will to life and the idée fixe of suicide. That struggle is played out between the two contrasting themes. The latter wins: a shot rings out....[played on a tam tam and not a pistol shot which Karłowicz originally wanted] the man falls ever more deeply into nothingness.'

The RNO under Pletnev responded far more intensely to this story than the previous one. The adventurous instrumentation was dealt with in orchestral virtuosic style. The writing is rather expressionist in mood and genre which Pletnev seemed to understand instinctively.

So rather an educational concert for me, exploring the most significant Polish instrumental and orchestral music between Chopin and Szymanowski. I felt Karłowicz to be a major composer whose creative work was brutally interrupted by Nature in an avalanche whilst pursuing his understandable passion (listening to the aspirations within his compositions) of mountain climbing.


From the film Moonlight Sonata starring Ignacy Jan Paderewski
25.08  SATURDAY 9.00 p.m.
Sala Moniuszki Teatru Wielkiego – Polish National Opera Symphonic Concert
                                                                                                 [Photographs by W. Grzędziński/NIFC]

I must thank Artur Belecki, the writer of the notes for this concert, for reminding me to turn back to the highly entertaining and humanly inspiring The Paderewski Memoirs (London 1939). The notes appear in the remarkably thorough and well organized book of the festival, a model of its kind. Paderewski writes in the early 1880s that as well as teaching at the Conservatory in Warsaw he was fiendishly broadening his general education which he felt was inadequate (in Mathematics, Literature, History) with four teachers a day!  

A newspaper editor offered  him the opportunity to write music criticism. He wrote: 'But at that time I was not ready for making criticism for the simple reason that I had no bitterness in myself. I do not know if critics must have bitterness, but generally they have. I must confess I always feel that.' (p.91) A great pity we did not meet as I am rarely bitter but still fondly hope to retain acute musical judgment! I am with the great English essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830) when he writes in the magnificent essay On Criticism in Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners (1822).

I would rather be a man of disinterested taste and liberal feeling, to see and acknowledge truth and beauty wherever I found it, than a man of greater and more original genius, to hate, envy, and deny all excellence but my own [...] A genuine criticism should, as I take it, reflect the colours, the light and shade, the soul and body of a work. 

Or, may  I add, a performance. So to my much maligned present occupation...

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. The music of Paderewski wears its learning lightly with poetry, charm, elegance and refinement of the highest order. 

Dang Thai Son has remained a popular artist in Poland for many years for excellent Chopinesque reasons.  This Vietnamese - Canadian pianist was propelled to the forefront of the musical world in October 1980, when he was awarded the First Prize and Gold Medal at the Xth International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. It was also the first time that a top international competition was won by an Asian pianist.  But tonight he was playing significant compositions by Paderewski.

He opened his programme rather gently with a group of smaller pieces of which Paderewski is a master. The Elegy in B flat minor, Op. 4 (1880) was suffused in nostalgic reflection and repose. His luminous refined tone was immediately obvious. Then the Polish Dances, Op. 5 No. 1 Cracovienne in E major No. 2 Mazurka in E minor No. 3 Cracovienne in B flat major. I found he understated these dances, the mazurka having an almost improvisatory feel. The Krakowiaks I found rather held back in their rhythmic 'snap' and verve.

This was followed by a group from Miscellanea. Série de morceaux pour piano op. 16 (1885–1896) No. 2 Melody in G flat major No. 1 Legend in A flat major No. 4 Nocturne in B flat major. The Mélodie  is such a work of pure melodic charm and grace, even sentimentality, to which Son brought a glowing cantabile  and counterpoint. The Legend in A flat major possesses such an attractive, accessible  theme and musical narrative which appears to mirror Poland's fraught history. The beautiful Nocturne in B flat major, quite possibly my favourite piano work by Paderewski, was played with elegance, grace, sensitivity, sensibility and charm. I was as ever enraptured. There is great civilization and refinement behind Son's playing which would escape those seeking for more robust executants.

Finally in this group of small pieces, from the Humoresques de Concert op. 14 (1886–1887) the delightful and famous Minuet in G major played with such childlike innocence, expressive delicacy of tone, touch and superb articulation - featherlight. Followed by the Cracovienne fantastique in B major. This too was expressive within the carefully contrived dynamic range and contained perfect rhythm. The allure and beguiling nature of a world that existed before the Great War was manifest here.

After the interval the Paderewski Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 17.

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

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

When I finished [the] concerto, I was still lacking in experience. I had not even heard it performed—it was something I was longing for. I wanted to have the opinion then of a really great orchestral composer. I needed it. So without further thought I took my score and went directly to Saint-Saëns. But I was rather timid … I realised on second thoughts that it was, perhaps, presumption on my part to go to him. Still I went to his house nevertheless. I was so anxious for his opinion. He opened the door himself. ‘Oh, Paderewski, it’s you. Come in,’ he said. ‘Come in. What do you want?’ I realised even before he spoke that he was in a great hurry and irritable, probably writing something as usual and not wanting to be interrupted. ‘What can I do for you? What do you want?’ I hesitated what to answer. I knew he was annoyed. I had come at the wrong moment … ‘I came to ask your opinion about my piano concerto,’ I said very timidly. ‘I ——.’ ‘My dear Paderewski,’ he cried, ‘I have not the time. I cannot talk to you today. I cannot.’ He took a few steps impatiently about the room. ‘Well, you are here so I suppose I must receive you. Let me hear your concerto. Will you play it for me?’ He took the score and read it as I played. He listened very attentively. At the Andante he stopped me, saying, ‘What a delightful Andante! Will you kindly repeat that?’ I repeated it. I began to feel encouraged. He was interested. Finally he said, ‘There is nothing to be changed. You may play it whenever you like. It will please the people. It’s quite ready. You needn’t be afraid of it, I assure you.’ So the interview turned out very happily after all, and he sent me off with high hopes and renewed courage. At that moment in my career, his assurance that the concerto was ready made me feel a certain faith in my work that I might not have had then. (The Paderewski Memoirs  London 1939 p. 149-50)

I do not want to give a detailed review of this fine piano concerto and an excellent performance (with a few very minor solecisms) save to say it is a great pity that it has been so rarely performed. This is changing. The concerto is such a lyrical and grand work full of piano pyrotechnics, noble harmonies, dance energy and infectious charm.

I felt Son played the Allegro with great authority and idiomatic grasp as well as commitment. He was not assisted by the conductor Kaspszyk who I felt allowed too inflated a dynamic to swamp the soloist. The Romanza: Andante expressed the ardent simplicity of the harmonies – one of my favourite piano concerto movements from the second half of the nineteenth century. Son gave his phrasing intense musicality and sensitive phrasing and nuance.    It 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 through rolling sunlit pastures 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.

Orchestrally the Allegro molto vivace  did not quite possess the dance rhythms with sufficient energy and driving tempo to inspire this excellent pianist to the heights he would naturally aspire to playing patriotic Polish music.

A perfectly lovely evening for a critic who is not the slightest bitter or ashamed at confessing a love for this charming seductive and undemanding music.

25.08 SATURDAY 5.00 p.m.
Polish National Opera Symphonic concert
JACEK KASPSZYK conductor                                          
                                                                                                [Photographs by W. Grzędziński/NIFC]

Silver Coffin Tomb of St. Stanisław, Wawel Cathedral, Kraków

The first piece in this interesting concert was a rather rare orchestral work by Liszt which I had never heard before. The Orchestral interlude ‘Salve Polonia’ from the Oratorio Saint Stanislaus (1884). In 1843 Liszt arrived in Kraków to give concerts and visit the city. At the cathedral on the Wawel hill he learned of the martyrdom of St. Stanisłaus which moved him to write an oratorio. Although incomplete, significant passages survive including this one. The instrumentation is outstanding in the development of two of the themes 'Boże, coś Polskę' (God Thou who Poland) and the anthem 'Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła' (Poland Is Not Yet Lost). Such festive and patriotic music in response to the 'Polish Question' (the brutal partitions) which preoccupied so many artists in Europe of the time.

Vadym Kholodenko

Then Vadym Kholodenko came forward to play the Alexander Scriabin Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op. 20 (1897). The lyrical melodies and harmonic progressions throughout his only piano concerto and first published orchestral piece owe a great debt to Chopin. In the opening Allegro Kohlodenko  with a luminous tone and cut velvet touch affectingly brought out the long lyrical opening legato melody. Harmonious and flowing like a river yet rhapsodic and impassioned. The Andante  opens with a type of Russian folk tune on the piano with elegant and refined orchestration. The piano offers a type of obbligato accompaniment to the variations that follow. Kholodenko gave this movement a seductive mood of improvisation, at one moment     energetic then meditative and reflective. One could not help but notice the beautiful  balletic movement of Kholodenko's fingers on the keyboard. The Allegro moderato begins with a type of polonaise and secondary lyrical theme evolving to the final chords which take us back to the opening of the work, the circle complete. I thought this a ravishing piece of music and only wished the orchestra under Jacek Kaspczyk had been rather quieter, the better to hear the detail in Kholodenko's profound understanding of Scriabin. I gasped when he embarked on Vers la Flamme as an encore - the most unsettling, luminous and yet transcendent account of it by any living pianist.

Vers la Flamme
Rare picture of the young Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925)

After the interval a recently discovered piano concerto by Moritz Moszkowski [1854–1925], the Piano Concerto in B minor, Op. 3 (1874). He composed many polonaises, mazurkas and a challenging and fine Piano Concerto in E major. This youthful work in B minor remained in limbo until Bojan Assenov, a pianist and composer from Berlin, wrote a dissertation on Moritz Moszkowski which included a catalogue of his works (2009). He found the concerto in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Through the dissertation, the existence of this work was then discovered by the prize-winning Bulgarian pianist Ludmil Angelov.  

Moszkowski played it for Liszt who was impressed. Moszkowski wrote: ‘He even arranged a small private concert for Madame [Baroness Olga] von Meyendorff in which I played it with him on two pianos.’ He finally dedicated the work to Liszt. The performance record is blank until 9 January 2014 when Angelov performed it once again. The concerto remained unpublished. ‘I did not find at that time, of course, a publisher for such an extensive work’, Moszkowski wrote in his diary. ‘When I was later no longer desperate for a publisher I did not like the piece any more. I worked it all over, sold it, but paid back the fee at the last moment and kept my concerto because it displeased me again.’ And further in a humorous vein, Moszkowski also wrote: ‘I should be happy to send you my piano concerto but for two reasons: first, it is worthless; second, it is most convenient (the score being four hundred pages long) for making my piano stool higher when I am engaged in studying better works.’  

Ludmil Angelov

The concerto is far beyond what one might be tempted to term 'a student work'. The Allegro is good humoured and Angelov communicated this feeling admirably. I felt the opening had an Arabic or oriental quality to the theme and orchestration. The three lyrical themes of the Adagio revealed Angelov to have a fine cantabile tone and most eloquent phrasing. In the Scherzo. Molto vivace  he brought much verve and vivacity although it seemed slightly trivial to me. More exuberant themes pepper the final overly-long (a concerto in itself?) Allegro sostenuto – Allegro con spirito with a remarkably extended, and to my knowledge unique, break for the piano before returning with the first of two virtuosic cadenzas. 

As he left the stage, the pianist Angelov appeared rather worn by his sterling yet absolutely convincing efforts with this formidable 'new' work. His encore was an affecting and sensitive performance of the Chopin Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp minor, Op. posth.Lento con gran espressione. I would certainly like to hear more Chopin from this pianist...

Ludmil Angelov with Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Jacek Kapszyk

24.08 FRIDAY 8.00 p.m. 
Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio of Polish Radio
HALKA  Stanisław Moniuszko [1819–1872] (Italian version)
Opera in concert version

TINA GORINA soprano (Halka)
MATHEUS POMPEU tenor (Jontek)
ROBERT GIERLACH baritone (Janusz Gianni)
RAFAŁ SIWEK bass (Stolnik Alberto)
KAROL KOZŁOWSKI tenor (Wieśniak Contadino)

Chorus Soloists: KRZYSZTOF SZYFMAN bass (Dziemba Gemba) MATEUSZ STACHURA baritone (Dudarz Zampognaro, Goście Contadini) PAWEŁ CICHOŃSKI tenor (Goście Contadini)


FABIO BIONDI conductor

                                                                                                 [Photographs by W. Grzędziński/NIFC]

In many ways it is a great shame I have experienced the opera HALKA only in the concert version however distinguished the orchestra and soloists. The Warsaw première of the opera Halka by Stanisław Moniuszko on 1 January 1858 with a intensely poetic and pantheistic libretto by Włodzimierz Wolski was a fulchrum in the history of Polish music. The original libretto was also translated into Italian but never performed in that language.  It was the first Polish national opera. 

From the moment of its Warsaw première in 1858, general interest in Moniuszko’s opera continued to grow. In June 1860 Warsaw daily press informed readers: 'A request for the score of Halka has been received from Prague'. Moniuszko visited Paris twice, the opera capital of Europe. Promotion of his work in the French capital proved fruitless. Some associate the composition of the opera and the lot of heroic yet betrayed peasant class (Halka) and a mendacious class of nobility (Janusz) with the turbulent peasant revolt events of the Kraków Uprising of February 1846. It has been performed well over a thousand times in Warsaw.

As a foreigner I am ill equipped to comment authoritatively on the profound impact of this first great national opera musically and socially on the psyche of contemporary Poles. Suffice to say that the patriotic music is dramatic, engaging and satisfying on various levels with a number of beautiful arias. I loved Halka's aria 'Gdyby rannym słonkiem' and Jontek's aria 'Szumią jodły na gór szczycie' The first performance of the two-act version was in a concert performance in Vilnius on 1 January 1848. This four-act version was first performed in Warsaw on 1 January 1858. 

The story is rather melodramatic with a universal social message. I have read a rather whimsical libretto in English rhyming couplets e.g.

Janusz (Johnny):     Just as I have long been dreading
                                     She shows up before the wedding 

Stolnik:                        Lowly peasants gone astray
                                      I simply don't know what to say

This was the first performance in Italian. In this original Italian version, HALKA should endear itself to Italian audiences who are so fond of such passionate tragic stories of unrequited love. Plans have been discussed for a contemporary performance in Italian in Italy. 

In this concert performance I did miss the costumes and the spectacular Polish folk dancing that lies at the heart of any properly staged version, especially the grand Mazur whose theme is justifiably famous throughout the world. Many of the voices (particularly male) were excellent in the roles. Europa Galante under Fabio Biondi on period instruments rather brilliantly produced a lower level instrumental dynamic which revealed more details of the voices and diction than a louder modern orchestra permits. Certainly any future staged production outside Poland should go a long way to establishing respect for Polish nineteenth century opera abroad.

A pandemonium of cheering, shouting and stamping of feet greeted the conclusion of the opera.

Europa Galante under Fabio Biondi and the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Choir

Monika Ledzion-Porczyńska - Zofia (Sofia), Robert Gierlach- Janusz (Gianni)

Tina Gorina - Halka, Matheus Pompeu - Jontek

Rafał Siwek - Stolnik (Alberto)

Fabio Biondi (conductor) Tina Gorina - Halka, and Matheus Pompeu - Jontek

Matheus Pompeu - Jontek

The Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Choir

Robert Gierlach- Janusz (Gianni)

23.08 THURSDAY 8.00 p.m. Moniuszko Auditorium at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera Symphonic concert


                                                                                              [Photographs by W. Grzędziński/NIFC]

This quite remarkable concert gave the fortunate audience the opportunity to hear a neglected piano concerto by Benjamin Britten, played by one of the greatest pianists of our time. More of that later, as the evening opened with the Paderewski Overture in E flat major for orchestra (1884). The young composer (24) was deeply involved in orchestral writing during his studies in Berlin when he wrote this delightful overture. Certainly immersed in rather Classical material one anticipates an opera which was clearly his intention.  

Portrait of the young Benjamin Britten

Then to the rarely performed Benjamin Britten [1913–1976] Piano Concerto, Op. 13 (1938). One must consider two aspects in its gestation and composition. First the age of the twenty-five year old, who like all young men of ambition, was intent on building a career as a pianist and composer. Always suffering from stage fright, he feared appearing as the soloist when the work was premiered at a Prom concert in the summer of 1938 under the baton of Sir Henry Wood. Following the rehearsal he wrote to his publisher:

The piano part wasn’t as impossible to play as I feared, & with a little practice this week ought to be O.K. It certainly sounds 'popular' enough & people seem to like it all right.

The young Benjamin Britten at the piano

The audience were positive as were the reviews, although the first two movements considered stronger than the two following. ‘If music be indeed the food of love, I think you stand a very good chance’, commented Lennox Berkeley to whom he dedicated the work.  The orchestral writing was extraordinarily brilliant. From the musical point of view Britten wrote in the program note:

'...was conceived with the idea of exploiting various important characteristics of the pianoforte, such as its enormous compass, its percussive quality, and its suitability for figuration, so that it is not by any means a symphony with pianoforte, but rather a bravura concerto with orchestral accompaniment.'

This often martellato work is clearly influenced by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and possibly French composers such as Ravel.

Allied to these musical and career considerations was the bleak historical moment in which the concerto was written. This was on the eve of war with Germany that had begun to fold its dark eagle wings over Britain and the rest of Europe. Preparations for aerial bombardment in particular dotted the country with barrage balloons,  trenches dug in city parks and masks against poison gas handed out. Britten's diaries reveal personal fury that his own work, the great musical culture of Europe and the pleasures of a civilized life were about to be crushed in the mud. Those who had experienced the horrors of the Great War (unlike Britten) understandably feared another or as The Week termed the policy of appeasement and the Munich Agreement, had 'turned all four cheeks to Hitler'.

Leif Ove Andsnes

The exuberance, tension and agitation of the Toccata. Allegro molto e con brio that opens the concerto expresses a certain ambiguity of mood. Leif Ove Andsnes brought enormous power, authority and irresistible forward drive to this fantastically unsettling movement. Some commentators indicate that the poignant Waltz. Allegretto, which has such an ominous, sometimes brash, almost sinister air, may have been deeply influenced by the ambiguous response to the Anschluss by the Viennese.  Andsnes expressed with great insight the irony and shadows within this movement. The third movement Impromptu. Andante lento with which in 1945 Britten replaced the original recitative and aria, is a powerful passacaglia which the charismatic conductor Edward Gardner of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra came together with Andsnes to perturbing and disconcerting effect. It was brought off magnificently.  

Leif Ove Andsnes

The final movement March. Allegro moderato sempre a la marcia has elements of the almost hysterical party, even 'cabaret' atmosphere of exuberant, reckless carelessness, even humour which greeted the looming Moloch crouched across the Channel. After this great performance a line from Thomas Mann toward the epilogue of his Doctor Faustus came to my mind 'Never had I felt more strongly the advantage that music, which says nothing and everything, has over the unequivocal word;'

Leif Ove Andsnes and Edward Gardner

After the interval the Symphony No. 2 in D major Op. 43 (1901-2) by Jean Sibelius [1865–1957]. The composer said of it: 'My second symphony is a confession of the soul.' There is some controversy over whether  this is a nationalist work as at the time of composition Finnish language and culture were proscribed by the Russians. Sir Colin Davis quoted the English poet William Wordsworth for one of his recordings of the symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra:

Grand in itself alone, but in that breach
Through which the homeless voice of waters rose
That dark deep thoroughfare, had Nature lodged
The Soul, the Imagination of the whole.

Like so many great composers, Sibelius was inspired by Italy which became his second beloved country and where he began this symphony in Rapallo, perched on its rock. In his imagination he had played with Dante's Divine Comedy and the 'Stone Guest' from Don Giovanni. Sibelius and Mahler met in Helsinki in 1907. Sibelius later recalled:

When our conversation touched on the essence of symphony, I said that I admired its severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. This was the experience I had come to in composing. Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. “Nein, die Symphonie müss sein wie die Welt. Sie müss alles umfassen.” (No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.)

Symposium (1894) Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Lt to Rt .Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Oskar Merikanto, Robert Kajanus and Jean Sibelius.

Edward Gardner (immensely communicative, intensely physically active and charismatic) with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra brought magnificent ensemble to this profound, demanding and unconventional work. Sibelius certainly had grandiose ideas concerning its form: 'It is as if the Almighty had thrown down the pieces of a mosaic for heaven’s floor and asked me to put them together.' The first movement Allegretto opens in 'heavenly pieces' with many tempo indications that only cohere after some time. The second movement Allegretto. Tempo andante ma rubato  unusually opens with a timpani roll. Slowly the volume, tempo and pitch rise to a fortissimo in the brass (powerful and strident in this orchestra) followed by a sudden and dramatic contrast of a tender theme on the violin played pianissimo. 

The third movement 'Vivacissimo' is a precipitate scherzo with a short an eloquent and moving trio section with oboe inspired by the suicide of Sibelius's sister-in-law. Without pause the themes in the Finale. Allegro moderato build in monumental and rhapsodic stature and intensity, as majestic as forbidding granite crags. The great Finnish conductor of Sibelius Robert Kajanus wrote of this movement that it '...develops towards a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future.'  

Edward Gardner

I found the emotional tension and sheer volume of opulent sound that Edward Gardner constructed with the Bergen Philharmonic transcendentally overwhelming. A musical experience of the first water.  

Edward Gardner with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra 

 23.08 THURSDAY 5.00 p.m.
Ballroom at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera Chamber concert
                                                                                                  [Photographs by W. Grzędziński/NIFC]

Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884)

One of the most attractive aspects of this festival are the concerts devoted to musician friends and acquaintances of Fryderyk Chopin whose former fame and lustre has faded somewhat as time passes. This concert was devoted to the French composer and cellist  Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884) whom Chopin met and befriended in Paris in the early 1830s. He dedicated a number of works to the cellist, including the great cello sonata and at times performed with him. Franchomme was also a close friend of Felix Mendelssohn. He was an illustrious figure in the musical life of Paris and pioneered revolutionary bowing techniques for his instrument  and precision techniques in left-hand playing.

Koch and Bauer opened their concert with Franchomme's Fantasy for cello and piano on a theme from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, Op. 40. I found this an absolutely delightful and diverting confection, the tonal and textural balance established between the historic Erard period piano and cello only added to the pleasure. Rather heartfelt and sensitive at times. Apart from sections of the Overture, we heard Sarastro's aria O Isis und Orsiris the work concluding amusingly with Papageno's Hm, Hm, Hm.

This was followed by two Franchomme Caprices, Op. 7 No. 9 in B minor and No. 12 in C major. Bauer gave impressively virtuoso accounts of these striking works, the B minor putting me in mind of J.S.Bach and the C major rather light and pleasant. 

Koch then joined him to perform the Beethoven/ Franchomme Sonata in A minor Op. 23, originally for piano and violin. The Presto I found interesting but lacking in excitement considering the tempo indication, the  Andante scherzoso, più Allegretto rather witty with its jolly thematic motif. They co-operated well in this movement and maintained and enviable balance.  The Allegro molto was satisfyingly passionate, dramatic and energetic with cello rather than violin.

After the interval an arrangement by an Irish pianist and composer I was not familiar with, George Alexander Osborne [1806–1893]. he was from the same circle of musicians. An interesting study could be made of the surprising number of Irish classical musicians and composers  working on the continent during the 19th century. He and Franchomme co-operated on a Duo Concertant on a theme from Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena. I found the work charming and innocuous, something one might have listened to at Bath Spa in the Assembly Rooms or whilst taking tea and 'staring and despising' at the visiting company from London taking the waters.

Then to a level of rather significant musical seriousness and virtuosity on the art of Bauer with Franchomme and his Etudes Op. 35 - No. 5 in C minor, No. 7 in A minor and No. 12 in G-sharp minor. The A - minor I found particularly virtuosic and formidable with its detaché execution. The G-sharp minor had a darkly ominous mood with a remarkable legato melody line maintained for two voices. Bauer brought a gloriously rich mahogany tone to the Etude in C -sharp minor Op. 25 No.7.

In the final work of this concert I had been much anticipating hearing the fruits of the co-operation between Chopin and Franchomme in the Grand Duo Concertant in E major on themes from Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le diable, DbOp. 16A, Op. 23 (1832–1833). As soon as the work began I became immediately aware of the gulf that separates true melodic genius in composition from great talent. I found the tempo they adopted a trifle slow yet the execution on other levels fine indeed with again that superb unctuous tone from the Bauer cello. The piano accompaniment by Koch to this lyricism, although notable and impressive, could have had more Chopinesque finesse. In a way I felt the interpretative approach to this work could overall have had more drive and energy. Personal taste once again on the horizon?

As encores an emotionally moving account of the Paderewski Nocturne arranged for cello - absolutely beautiful on this instrument. Then a profoundly nostalgic and deeply touching rendition of the Largo from the Chopin Cello Sonata Op.65. The luscious, opulent tone Bauer produces from his cello seduced me once again...

22.08 WEDNESDAY 8.00 p.m.
Stage of the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera
Symphonic concert
ORPHEUS CHAMBER ORCHESTRA [This orchestra perform without a conductor]
                                                                                                [Photographs by W. Grzędziński/NIFC]

This remarkable orchestra opened the concert with a difficult work by the Polish composer Henryk Mikołaj Górecki [1933–2010] Trzy utwory w dawnym stylu na orkiestrę smyczkową (1963) Three Pieces in Old Style for string orchestra Utwór Piece I Utwór Piece II Utwór Piece III. My mind however is completely clouded by the grim associations that his characteristic instrumental voice creates in my soul by his well-known Third Symphony The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. This was used in a BBC/TVP/CBCX/ZDF Co-production released in 2005 entitled Holocaust - A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz which marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. 

There were several orchestras and bands in the camp and music was a part of daily life. Primo Levi wrote that classical music in Auschwitz was 'the perceptible expression of the camp's madness.' I closed my ears, perhaps unfairly. Far more than any of the other pieces used in the film, his powerful voice is forever engraved with horrifying associations on my human heart.

The young Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) 

For me a glorious change of mood from this sombre beginning. The orchestra was joined by Jan Lisiecki for Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 25. Of Mendelssohn as a pianist Clara Schumann once wrote to Robert 'For a few minutes I really could not restrain my tears. When all is said and done, he remains for me the dearest pianist of all.' It is all to easy to forget that Mendelssohn was celebrated as a  pianist as well as composer - something we have not forgotten concerning Chopin and Liszt. Mendelssohn was only 22 (much the same age as Lisiecki) when he completed this concerto in 1830-1 and undoubtedly full of boundless creative and youthful energy. Alfred Einstein wrote so appropriately of his music: 'He had no inner forces to curb, for real conflict was lacking in his life as in his art.....But his instrumental and vocal works are alike masterpieces of refinement, clarity and control.' 

Jan Lisiecki

Matters begin rather precipitately with a dramatic gesture in this concerto. There is no long orchestral tutti introduction as in a Classical concerto before the piano enters - the entry is combined. For this reason I felt it could have had more explosive 'fire' at the beginning. Lisiecki took the Molto allegro con fuoco at such an exciting cracking tempo with quite brilliant articulation and forward drive it precluded any injection of great expressive charm which the movement needs if it is to escape the charge of superficial facility and lightness. 'He [Mendelssohn] played the piano as a lark soars...' wrote Ferdinand Hiller. If one watches birds they dip and glide in the currents of air in artistic arabesques. On the other hand the Andante was most affecting in its expressiveness with a truly glorious tone. A true 'Song Without Words'. I could not help but reflect on the emotional maturity this pianist has gained since I last heard him some time ago now. Without a break the Presto – Molto allegro vivace. Lisiecki launched into the diverting 'tune' of this movement with boundless youthful energy that carried all my reservations before it. Also he was playing splendidly without a conductor to assist him through difficult orchestral and solo synchronizations. 

How the Victorians with their light social pretensions loved Mendelssohn for this very lack of anguished Teutonic philosophical reflection on the state of one's soul. '...a thing rapidly thrown off...' as the composer described it. This is not to say trivial...

Jan Lisiecki and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

After the interval the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto in D minor Op. 40 (1837). I am privileged to allow Schumann to speak for me. 'It is as though a tree had been shaken, and the ripe, sweet fruit had promptly fallen.' The Second Concerto resembles the first in structure and texture but I felt Lisiecki was far more accomplished expressively in this work. The Allegro appassionato had far more 'air' to the phrasing and we were given time to follow the charming modulations and relatively undemanding keyboard writing.  Again I thought of the heartfelt and affecting cantilena in the Adagio: Molto sostenuto replete with moving introspective expressiveness and beautiful tone colour. Perhaps the composition reflected both the tragedy of Mendessohn's father's death and his joyful honeymoon that followed so soon after. Then to the Finale. Presto scherzando.  This movement is so happiness inducing I have nothing but praise for this young man in raising my spirits with his airy, light articulation and dotted rhythmic momentum.

Finally the beloved Mendelssohn Symphony in A major (‘Italian’), Op. 90 (1833). Conceived on a journey to Italy in 1830 (at the passionately impressionable age of 21), the work effortlessly evokes the Italian campagna. He was guided on his Grand Tour and enthused for it by the Italienische Reise (Italian Journey) of Goethe. He painted watercolours of the landscape and wrote of the 'exhilarating impression made on me by the first sight of the plains of Italy.' The intense Mediterranean light seduced him.  I have nothing but the highest praise for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in their account of this work. It was formed in 1972 'to combine the intimacy and warmth of a chamber ensemble with the richness of an orchestra.' The lightness and transparency of the remarkable strings have the texture of the finest Venetian lace from the lagoon island of Burano.

The Amalfi Coast by Felix Mendelssohn

Lake Como by Felix Mendelssohn

Florence - The Duomo by Felix Mendelssohn

Listening to the Allegro vivace, it was as if the ghost of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream music was hovering over it. This musical and textural presence remained through all the movements. The triplet dance rhythm is reminiscent of and evokes the pleasures of the Roman carnival. 'Pleasure' is the predominant mood this orchestra maintained throughout.The tightness and unison of this chamber ensemble was truly to marvel at while the revelation of internal detail of the score was quite wonderful. The string pianissimos were ravishing and absolutely to die for. The transparent combination of flutes and violins in the  Andante con moto was refined and elegant. A poetic, restrained and tasteful Con moto moderato then ensued.

To manage cohesion in the Saltarello. Presto without a conductor seemed miraculous to me. Mendelssohn spoke of southern Italian dances '...of being pelted with confetti … by young ladies he scarcely knew...' Also of the dance known as the saltarello (literally to 'jump') with its characteristic penetrating rhythm. This is a rapid and rather violent passionate dance performed by pairs of men and women. The dancers spin around, at once approaching and then retreating precipitately from each other, the woman inviting and then just as suddenly rejecting her future hopeful lover. Hm...

The tarantella follows where the tarantula spider bite becomes increasingly toxic. The only way of diminishing its poison inducing madness is though this dance. The synchronicity of the ensemble was a marvel to witness visually and hear throughout.

To hear such uplifting, joyful music performed with such perfection of orchestral playing revives one's faith in the higher realms of human nature, unlike the mood into which I had fallen at the beginning of the concert. Surely it makes one feel that rare emotion of being proud to be creatively human, something all the greatest in art achieves.

22.08 WEDNESDAY 5.00 p.m.
Ballroom at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera
Sonata recital

                                                                                               [Photographs by W. Grzędziński/NIFC]

Alena Baeva

I had been anticipating this recital for some time having heard this musically inspiring duo at Duszniki Zdrój and of course the consummate pianist many times in solo recital. The programme design overall and the thematic thinking behind it - Paderewski, Debussy, Beethoven and Resphigi - was difficult to fathom.

They began with the Sonata in A minor for violin and piano, Op. 13 (1885) by Ignacy Jan Paderewski [1860–1941]. This early work dedicated to Sarasate was tremendously successful for Paderewski on the many times he performed it. Baeva opened the Allegro con fantasia lyrically and ardently with much emotional passion and a glorious tone. The musical understanding between the players was absolute. The synchronicity seemed perfect to me. The piano adopts a partly solo role in the  Intermezzo. Andantino to which Kholodenko brought his penetrating musical intelligence despite the slightly resonant room which he did seem to have taken into account, unlike many pianists who ignore the space.  In the Finale. Allegro molto quasi presto I was irresistibly put in mind of the rhythms and adventurous harmonies of wild Gypsies or Tziganes around a campfire. My overactive imagination perhaps? The virtuosic conclusion was impassioned and rhapsodic although the dense piano writing did overpower the violin on occasion.

The next work I was rather unfamiliar with but perhaps this added to the musical surprise upon hearing it live - the Debussy Sonata for violin and piano (1917). Debussy was already suffering from cancer when he began this final composition of a projected cycle of six. Only three were completed, this for violin and one for cello and the exquisite Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. He wrote of it ironically during the carnage of the Great War as  ‘an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war’. An extraordinary range of incandescent moods of melancholic nostalgia are explored in a short time span. I found the work tremendously demanding on the sensibility of the violinist, pianist and listener. All to the good...

Vadym Kholodenko

The Allegro vivo possessed great sensuality with its significant mood swings. The tremendous, even passionate commitment on the part of both violinist and pianist was clear. The Intermède. Fantasque et léger was lyrical and tender, glorious in violin tone, then suddenly interrupted with capricious flights of fancy. Baeva was simply fabulous in ravishing colour, attack and the expression of its fractured emotional communication. The Finale. Très animé built to an ecstatic conclusion, even optimism, so surprising in view of Debussy's tragic circumstances approaching death, for all of us, far too fast. I felt an Hungarian flavour to the composition here. Kholodenko provided superb impressionistic support on the piano. The composer died not long after the premiere by himself on 25th March 1918 at the tragically young age of 58. Such a valedictory statement from Debussy as the lights were slowly extinguished. 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light.' as the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas may have put it.

After interval the early Beethoven Sonata in E flat major for violin and piano, Op. 12 No. 3. After the emotionally intense and harmonically concentrated and disorientating Debussy it was rather hard for me to adjust my century! 

I felt the Allegro con spirito could have had a more open 'classical' exposition rather than 'Romantic' although we are on the cusp here as after all the work was dedicated to Salieri and is rather Mozartian in flavour and design. Finely balanced musical exchanges took place within the duo. The lyrical song in the Adagio con molt’ espressione was expressed with great tenderness and ardent sensitivity, particularly on the piano, as if the two musicians were exploring their hearts. I loved the sprung rhythms in the Rondo. Allegro molto and the dramatic presentation of its optimistic theme to us.

Finally another adjustment for the Respighi [1879–1936] Sonata in B minor for violin and piano (1917). The substantial driven piano part of the Moderato tended to dominate in volume and dynamism the lyrical violin more than I would have wished. The glorious Andante espressivo however was a deep and passionate expression of love and trust. It was at this point I felt that Baeva was truly and profoundly involved in the passionate emotions of this rather modern work. Finally the passacaglia Allegro moderato ma energico with its acute broken rhythms on the piano. Soaring above, the calm melody on the violin was very affecting. Both artists magically achieved a superior balance of dynamic and musical cohesiveness  in this movement. A remarkable performance of a remarkable work.

As an encore the Tchaikovsky Melodie Op. 43 No:2 - so moving, charming and sensitive an expression of fondness and sweet affection for the beloved under the ardent bow of Baeva.

All in all a remarkable chamber concert at the highest level of musical integrity, passionate commitment and vision.

16.08 THURSDAY 8.00 p.m. Polish National Opera
Symphonic concert
TOBIAS KOCH period piano

Often when one attends  concert that involves Tobias Koch it inevitably becomes an 'event'. The reason is the personality, charisma and character he brings to the occasion. Although he is regarded as specializing in rare undiscovered and seldom performed works, often on period pianos particularly by Polish composers, he is in fact a generalist in his approach to the piano repertoire, even tackling such exotica as piano pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

This extraordinarily interesting concert was no exception, particularly with rather exotic programme suggestions by Jean Michel Forest. The works chosen thematically indicated how music can be accompanied obliquely by political content.

The concert opened with a work by the German composer Albert Lortzing [1801–1851] the Overture to the Opera Der Pole und sein Kind (1832). Here he paid tribute to Poles crestfallen over the failure of the November Uprising with quotations from the patriotic 'Dąbrowski' mazurka. This mazurka ' Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła...'('Poland has not perished yet...'), the song of the Polish Legions, was the unofficial Polish anthem at the time of Lortzing and his Polish Overture. The Concerto Köln presented it pleasantly enough with great spirit.  Some members of the audience stood during this. Rather difficult to see now how this attracted the wrath of the censor of the day.

This was followed by a work by the 'London Bach' namely Johann Christian Bach [1735–1782] the Concerto No. 6 in D major for harpsichord and orchestra („God save the King”) (pub. 1763). I have always found the keyboard concertos of J.C.Bach melodically attractive and socially charming pieces. This one under the sophisticated fingers of Tobias Koch was no exception.

J. C. Bach’s set of six harpsichord concertos, Opus 1, was published in 1763 and dedicated to the eighteen-year-old Queen Charlotte. He had recently started giving her singing lessons. Princess Charlotte Sophie of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had married King George III on 8 September 1761 (the film 'The Madness of King George' depicted his melancholic end from porphyria). She loved music with a passion and took music lessons in German from Bach. The future kings  George IV and William IV also had tuition from Bach.

Originally conceived as intimate chamber works the concertos were scored for two violins, cello and harpsichord but the augmentation to the larger forces of Concerto Köln did the concerto no harm. As stylish as ever and so representative of this elegant composer,  J.C.Bach's concerti were vastly popular in England and aboard for over a hundred years. One can only imagine the popularity at the court of the variations on God Save the Queen as a gesture of political loyalty that makes up the third Allegro moderato movement. Tobias Koch played the harpsichord part on an Erard period piano with infectious enthusiasm that entertained the entire audience.

Portrait of Johann Christian Bach by Thomas Gainsborough

François-Joseph Gossec [1734–1829] was tremendously engaged politically and was commissioned to write music for The Revolution. We heard the most engaging Offrande à la Liberté ou ‘La Marseillaise’ in C major (1792) performed at the Opera on 30 September of the First Year of the Republic. We heard a stirring instrumental version of the work minus the original Chorus. The music was in quite the 'military march genre' and not so musically distinguished yet I found it stirring all the same. It is hard to avoid such psychologically programmed responses to national hymns!

A fine work followed by Ferdinand Ries [1784–1838] Grand Variations in E flat major on ‘Rule Britannia’ for piano and orchestra, Op. 116 (1817). Ries was a friend, pupil and secretary of Beethoven and a composer of operas, concertos and symphonies besides music in other genres. Tobias Koch enthusiastically and with great pianistic skill on the Erard, dispatched this marvelous and quite harmonically complex set of variations on the original song Rule, Britannia! with words by the poet and playwright by James Thompson (1700-1748) and music by Thomas Arne (1710-1778). Koch began with a dramatic forte followed by a slow lyrical section. I found it a great deal of fun for obvious reasons although the orchestration was clearly harmonically complex and musically sophisticated. All entertainingly dealt with by Concerto Köln under their conductor Gianluca Capuano.

A caricature of Thomas Arne who wrote the melody for Rule, Britannia!

The New Spring Pleasure Garden at Vauxhall for which Thomas Arne wrote a great deal of unjustly neglected fine music for entertainment and dancing. Visitors of all classes mixed for fashionable gallantry and sexual intrigue here as Samuel Pepys put it 'Pulling off cherries and God knows what.'

After the interval the Johann Wilhelm Wilms [1772–1847] Variations in D major on ‘Wilhelmus van Nassauwe’, Op. 37 (pub. 1814). This work is the national anthem of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. this Dutch composer wrote what was the unofficial anthem from 1815-1932 and the variations on the song. I found this an unimpressive, rather innocuous piece of music.

Then to Carl Czerny [1791–1857] and his highly entertaining Grand Variations in G major on a theme of Joseph Haydn for piano and orchestra, Op. 73 (1824). The background story here is of interest. Around 1797 Haydn composed a popular hymn entitled God save the Emperor Francis out of patriotic impulse and fear of Napoleon. Czerny wrote a set of variations but could not have anticipated that in 1922 an altered text but same melody would become the national anthem of the loathed and feared Third Reich - Deutschland, Deutschland über alles - now the national anthem of the Federal Republic. (courtesy of Kacper Miklaszewski). I found the work fascinating and in particular Tobias Koch's highly sensitive treatment of theme when it appeared for the piano. Quite surprisingly Koch wove into the these Haydn Variations the theme of the Mazurka Dabrowskiego, the Polish anthem once banned by the Nazis. This was a most generous gesture from the German 'Polonofil' (enthusiast for all things Polish) pianist. This indicated his profound awareness of the great river of funereal memory that flows through this country. One cannot ignore the collective unconscious historical resonance and associations of horror in Poland in reaction to any performance of the hymn Deutschland, Deutschland über alles .

To conclude this most unusual programme, the Beethoven [1770–1827] Hymn ‘Ode to Joy’ from Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (arr. Filippo Cammaroto). Tobias Koch on the Erard was deftly woven into the arrangement and produced a quite brilliant performance of great élan virtuosity. The sound Concert Köln produced in this orchestral arrangement without the choir was arresting and quite astonishing I felt - such an unaccustomed musical response to the aural memory of massed forces we are so accustomed to hearing.

As encores we heard once again the Lortzing patriotic 'Dąbrowski' mazurka. Tobias Koch then performed a sensitive and supportive contribution to the 100th anniversary of the regaining of independence of Poland, a fragment of an unknown Chopin Mazur and the brief Chopin harmonization of the refrain of the Mazurek Dąbrowskiego.

Refrain of ‘Dąbrowski’s Mazurka’ in a harmonisation by Fryderyk Chopin, autograph, in B flat major, probably dedicated to Konstanty Młokosiewicz, ‘Carlsbad 2 Sept. 1835. / nieukowi nieuk [from one ignoramus to another] / FF Chopin’

15.08 WEDNESDAY 9.00 p.m.
Ballroom of the Royal Castle in Warsaw

(photographs of Kenner by W.Grzędziński/NIFC)

It is always a pleasure to hear this pianist so popular with Polish audiences, particularly in Chopin and Paderewski. There was an electrical buzz of anticipation flowing through the crowd gathered  in the gold-encrusted Ballroom of the reconstructed Royal Castle, certainly one of the great rooms of European culture. The presence of television cameras and lights added to the theatrical atmosphere.

He opened his recital with the Chopin 'consummate masterpiece' the Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45 (1841). Written at Nohant in the summer of 1841 it has a marvelous air of improvisation about it. Melody and accompaniment drift together like lovers. Mieczysław Tomaszewski, the great Polish musicologist and editor, refers to the 'emotional ecstasy' of the work. Op.45 is dedicated to Princess Elisabeth Czernicheff, one of Chopin’s pupils. Kenner exhibited a truly bel canto cantabile  and heartfelt rubato in his performance of the work, he also being a natural improviser of great skill. The Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44 was possessed of an arresting 'heroic' aspect, this my favorite among his mature polonaises of sublimated political resistance. I feel this polonaise more than the others benefits from a period instrument as the long insistent left hand military motif on this Steinway (not a great instrument) can become overly oppressive.  

Kenner then presented us with a beautifully wrought set of late Mazurkas Op. 63 (1846) displaying their kaleidoscopic variety. No. 1 in B major (This moody mazurka was composed during his last autumn at Nohant. In the late autumn of 1848, in a letter from Scotland, Chopin sighed: ‘I barely still remember how they sing back home’) No. 2 in F minor (Tomaszewski writes: 'It is one great sigh, uttered through the exquisitely beautiful and noble phrase of a kujawiak'. The essayist and diarist Wilhelm von Lenz wrote of Chopin's nostalgia: ‘The mazurkas are the mirror of his soul’. No. 3 in C sharp minor (Kenner brought to this mazurka a superbly refined tone and touch of affecting melancholy). Finally the Mazurka in F minor, WN 65 [Op. 68 No. 4] (1849). This mazurka remained unfinished and Kevin Kenner has imaginatively and idiomatically reconstructed it. It was found among the composer’s notes and sketches by Jane Stirling. It was impossible to remain emotionally unmoved by this work and Kenner transported us into that longed-for ideal world Chopin so desired in his heart.

As if to complete this return to the nostalgic landscape of Chopin's last works, Kenner gave us a dramatic and heroic rendition of that formidable masterpiece of Western keyboard literature, the Ballade in F minor, Op. 52 (1842). He brought out the strong narrative declamation and polyphony in a musically logical and deeply satisfying manner. The balladic tale twists and turns, at one moment passionately lyrical, then introspective, then expressing that characteristic Polish bitterness, passion and emotionally-laden disturbance of the psyche known as żal. Kenner presented us with this imagined, ideal world that inhabited Chopin's brain as perhaps a realizable dream.

After the interval, compositions by Ignacy Jan Paderewski [1860–1941] First from Miscellanea. Série de morceaux pour piano op. 16 (1885–1896) No. 4 Nocturne in B flat major.  This work is always deeply affecting in its simplicity of expression of the deepest. dare one say sentimental, emotion. Kenner expressed this deeper emotional sense of an intellectually undemanding work. Then Humoresques de Concert op. 14 (1886–1887) No. 6 Cracovienne fantastique in B major. This was brought off by the pianist with great rhythmic verve and strong dynamic contrasts. 

The Villa Paderewski at Morges Switzerland where the Sonata in E-flat minor Op.21 was written

Then to the final, rarely performed late-Romantic  work, the challenging and formidable Sonata in E flat minor Op. 21 (1887–1903). The legendary Russian-born American pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch once said of Paderewski:

'Paderewski’s fame as a pianist is such that nothing can be added to it. His accomplishments as a statesman and a patriot have also been universally recognized. It does not seem to me, however, that the importance of Paderewski as a composer has ever been given sufficient attention. [. . .] In my recitals I have frequently played works by Paderewski, and I claim that they deserve a permanent place in the repertoire of concert pianists.'

Paderewski first sketches for the Sonata date from 1887, during his studies with Leschetizky. However his fame as a pianist after his successful Paris debut in March 1888 put paid to composition as it often did with Franz Liszt. It was not completed until 1903. I really cannot improve on the succinctness of the reviewer on the New York Times after the Carnegie Hall premiere in New York City in November 1907  'The impression the sonata leaves is of power, passionate and restless energy and confident strength.' Kenner brought out all these aspects of the sonata to the full, especially the magnificent fugue that crowns the work. Paderewski himself thought the sonata 'terribly difficult' and that it would not be played often for that reason. He played the formidable work himself in fourteen recitals up to 1917. I felt Kenner gave of his utmost in musicianship and sheer physical energy in bringing, to me at least, for  the first time, the rich imagination and profound musical invention and knowledge Paderewski brought to this, his last Romantic composition for the piano.

15.08 WEDNESDAY 5.00 p.m. 
Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio of Polish Radio
Symphonic concert
{oh!} ORKIESTRA HISTORYCZNA (period instruments orchestra)
VÁCLAV LUKS conductor

(photographs of the Gala by W.Grzędziński/NIFC)

This was the second opportunity I had to hear the Paul McNulty copy of the Fryderyk Bucholtz period piano played by KRZYSZTOF KSIĄŻEK since it was launched in a Gala Concert in Warsaw on 17 March 2018. A few words concerning this instrument....

More than one third of Chopin's compositions for the piano were complete before he left his native land in 1830. The piano he was most familiar with becomes a vital component to understanding the sound world he conceived as a young man with his acutely sensitive ear. His domestic piano, one by the preeminent Polish manufacturer Fryderyk Bucholtz, was destroyed in the January Uprising of 1863 when Russian soldiers set upon the Zamoyski Palace in retaliation for an unsuccessful bomb attack on the Tsar's Governor General, Berg. A piano formerly belonging to Chopin was brutally thrown from the window of his sister Izabella's drawing room. His domestic piano was certainly constructed by the most prestigious Warsaw maker of the day, Fryderyk Bucholtz.

The copy by Paul McNulty of the period piano by Fryderyk Bucholtz at the 
Gala Concert 17 March 2018
Paul McNulty at the Grand Gala launch of the Fryderyk Bucholtz piano

KRZYSZTOF KSIĄŻEK pianist and VÁCLAV LUKS conductor at the Bucholtz Gala
The concert opened with Józef Elsner [1769–1854] Overture to the Opera Leszek Biały [Leszek the White] (1809). Interestingly a performance of this opera fired up national fervour in Poland among the local population for 'Polish music!' which great alarmed the Russian authorities (ironically similar to today's mood that worries no-one). The performance of the Orkiestra Historyczna under their conductor  VÁCLAV LUKS was as passionately patriotic as the music and put me in mind that Chopin's teacher Elsner was not some little old grey piano teacher in a dilapidated Warsaw tenement but a pre-Verdian composer of great distinction who founded the Warsaw Conservatoire.

Then the Symphony No. 3 in B flat major, Op. 2 (c.1810) by Karol Lipiński [1790–1861] The Adagio was pleasantly tuneful followed by a rather jolly and entirely predictable  Allegro. There are certainly no intellectual pretentions in this music with rather simplistic instrumental exchanges and repeated phases. Perhaps in such repeats more variation by the orchestra may have been helpful. I found the Menuetto surprisingly charming, reflective and sprightly. The Vivace was lively, uncomplicated entertainment, with catchy tuneful themes that verged on the Mozartian. Oh! responded in kind...

After the interval the Chopin Piano Concerto in E minor, Op. 11 (1830) In the Allegro maestoso I was immediately 'struck' by the period timpani of all things! The military association and feeling was immediately obvious - a reference to Russian occupation? Krzysztof Książek gave a mature account of this movement. I too felt the difference in bass resonance which was remarked when Chopin played his first public concerts on this instrument in Warsaw.  The Romance. Larghetto could have been far more lyrical than mannered to satisfy my yearning, possibly over-sentimental heart. The Rondo. Vivace indicated that Książek had mastered the style brillant that is so indispensible to this technically challenging movement, particularly on a period piano. Like many young musicians I felt he has not yet developed an individual voice.

The most satisfying piano work both terms of execution, nuance, sensitivity and colour was Książek's account of one of  juvenile polonaises. So suitable for the Bucholtz instrument. Perhaps it was the Polonaise in A-flat major (1821). These lyrical pieces have such a charming, tasteful, elegant melodic and rhythmic simplicity about them, one is genuinely affected. There is nothing of heroic defiance here. One feels that if Mozart had written polonaises they would have sounded rather like to these. Well Chopin was considered the Polish Mozart and adored his compositions all his life.

14.08  TUESDAY 8.00 p.m. Stage of the Polish National Opera
Symphonic Concert
HOWARD SHELLEY period piano

The concert began with a sure festival winner, Mozart's Overture to the opera Don Giovanni (1787). I found it a lively and energetic account but not exactly replete with the prefiguring of the ominous, sometimes amusing, drama of the ensuing opera.

Then a charming and witty work by Franz Danzi [1763–1826] the Potpourri in B flat major for clarinet and orchestra No. 2 (pub. c.1818). The first quality I noticed was the superb sound of the late 18th century clarinet played by Lorenzo Coppola, an acknowledged master of the instrument. Restrained in dynamic, 'woody' and full of colour and character. I find Danzi disarmingly charming and so it was performed as one may have originally heard it in an elegant salon atmosphere. The lyrical legato lines were perfectly managed. The clarinetist brought a touch of commedia dell'arte  to the performance by 'serenading' various attractive lady orchestral players in turn. The utterly playful reference to the Don Giovanni  overture theme was delicious.

This was followed by the familiar Mozart Symphony in A major No. 29, K.201 (1774). In the opening Allegro moderato although the string sound was refined and elegant, the conductor gave this work too little of the slightly haunted 'conversational' phrasing among the instruments I felt it required. The Andante was on the other hand possessed of great tenderness and simplicity. The Menuetto. Allegretto - Trio was gracious in a civilized way, sprung rhythms and also sounded somewhat like a dialogue. In the Allegro con spirito perhaps more could have been made of the joyfulness of the dance rhythms although the operatic nature of the movement was revealed and the small orchestral forces of this band again gave the movement a rather tasteful salon atmosphere of refinement.

After the interval a concerto by Johann Baptist Cramer [1771–1858] the Piano Concerto No. 8 in D minor, Op. 70 The work is in three movements: Moderato assai - Larghetto and a Rondo a L’Espagnola. Having been martyred by Cramer piano exercises as a youth I did not harbour high expectations from the entertainment point of view for this work. I am afraid my reservations were justified. Although of interest as a 'period piece', I found it as dull as his studies. The pizzicato sections in the Rondo reminiscent of Spain were the superior episodes in the work. There are far better concertos by, shall we say, the English composer Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875). Mendelssohn was most impressed by Bennett and invited him to Leipzig. It was in that fine musical city that Schumann befriended him and also greatly admired his compositions. Bennett spent at least three winters composing and performing as a renowned concert pianist  in Leipzig.

Finally a symphony by a writer who in his role as a composer I did not know well, Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann [1776–1822], born in Koenigsberg. E.T.A. Hoffmann married a Polish woman, Maria Tekla Michalina Roher-Trzecinska and worked in Plock and Warsaw. We heard the Symphony in E flat major (‘Warsaw’) (1808) which for a composer who was a legal clerk and writer of fantasy and horror, naturally contained a great deal of heated passion, ardent themes and Polish patriotism. In many ways he was a fascinating polymath (composer, playwright, writer, caricaturist and conductor). The Adagio e maestoso was surprisingly passionately written, patriotic, declamatory and performed with surprising vitality from this small orchestra, the  Andante con moto had only a few ardent phrases yearning for the inaccessible in life, the  Menuetto described patriotically the Warsaw of a different age, that of civilized self-confident cosmopolitanism, while the Finale. Allegro molto was rhythmically quite inventive with unashamed Polish patriotic elements. This distinguished period instrument orchestra under their conductor Gianluca Capuano communicated these sentiments with what one might term 'restrained classical energy' and effectiveness. Much was understated and implied rather than baldly stated during the entire concert.

Statue of ETA Hoffmann outside the theatre in Bamberg that bears his name

13.08 MONDAY 8.00 p.m. Polish National Opera Symphonic concert

This much anticipated concert began with the World Premiere of Fireworks (2018) commissioned by the European Union Youth Orchestra and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the '2018 Year of Cultural Heritage' and POLSKA 100. Composed by the multi talented Agata Zubel, it is a spectacular percussive work for very large orchestra that managed to retain a great deal of the traditional orchestral ensemble. Certainly it was brilliantly descriptive in sound of a firework display with Catherine Wheels spinning, rockets climbing into the sky to explode in a shower of stars, a veritable, glittering kaleidoscope of sound. Rhythmically this rather abstract but concrete work  had tremendous verve and vitality. I was reminded at times of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony  in its sybaritic abandonment.

I was much anticipating hearing Seong-Jin Cho in the Chopin F minor Concerto Op. 21 as I have had enormous respect for his musicianship since the International Chopin Competition victory. The first movement, marked by Chopin Maestoso, was spirited and energetic with a noble opening. Was it in a stately, dignified, majestic fashion, the manner in which Chopin conceived of these things? A hard question to answer accurately given the distance of the source. Perhaps the restless tempo permitted by Cho's brilliant virtuosity allowed us to interpret this tempo direction in keeping with life conceived in 2018 rather than 1829. His understanding of the style brillant and the Polish rhetorical gestures concealed within the work were well delineated. Frederick Niecks who wrote a biography of Chopin described this movement after the piano enters:

It is as if we were transported into another world and breathed a purer atmosphere. First there are some questions and expostulations, then the composer unfolds a tale full of sweet melancholy in a strain of lovely, tenderly entwined melody … In the second subject he seems to protest the devotion of his hear, and concludes with a passage, half upbraiding, half beseeching, which is quite captivating – nay more, even bewitching in its eloquent persuasiveness. 

The contrast with the lyrical second theme was telling. Cho's fiorituras were tremendously virtuosic and for me rather too completely and quickly absorbed into the melodic line.

I was terribly impressed by the intense commitment of the European Union Youth Orchestra. Their bodies as well as instruments move in rhythmic unison like a magical dance, reminiscent of an oceanic swell. It is so beautiful to see young people committed to classical music like this, the average age of concert audiences seeming to increase constantly.

The Larghetto was the most successful movement to my mind with a sweet lyrical, illusioned adolescent yearning for love at a distance. Franz Liszt wrote of this movement as '..of a perfection almost ideal, its expression, now radiant with light, now full of tender pathos...' – inspired by Chopin's first love: Konstancja Gładkowska, a singer and fellow student at the Warsaw Conservatory. Cho had a beautiful glowing tone quality and refined touch here. The final Allegro vivace was very spirited indeed. Cho took it quite an arresting tempo which I felt made one more aware of the pianist and his formidable pianistic talents than the music itself. For me the tempi he chose often obscured sufficiently deep artistic expression. A review of an early performance, highlighted the impact of the embedded mazurka: 

More than once these tones seem to be the happy echo of our native harmony. Chopin knows what sounds are heard in our fields and woods, he has listened to the songs of the Polish villager, he has made it his own ...

The theatrical, even notorious, horn call that introduces the Coda was authoritative, secure and superb. Cho was given rapturous applause by the audience and many returns to the stage. As an encore the Liszt Transcendental Étude No. 10 in F minor, 'Appassionata' but played in rather too 'possessed' virtuosic a fashion for my taste.

After the interval the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888). This was a tremendously energetic performance and I felt the conductor could have introduced a little more dynamic variation into the proceedings and highlighted the composer's characteristic Slavic phrasing. The young people clearly enjoy playing Tchaikovsky tremendously ('Youth! The glory of it!'). There was a conspicuous elegance to the dance rhythm in the Valse  but perhaps it could have been a little more lilting and dance-like in the imagined ballroom sense. With the tremendous energy expended throughout the symphony, I would have appreciated more emotional variation and ecstasy but then again this is a youth orchestra with all the driven enthusiasm of conception and execution that impulsive youthfulness implies. The conductor  Gianandrea Noseda seemed to respond to that energetic call to arms. Can great energy and finesse co-exist in an interpretation? Interesting question.

As an encore the Marche hongroise from La Damnation de Faust by Berlioz which revealed similar qualities and criteria of interpretation as the Tchaikovsky but was manifestly stirring nevertheless.

Overall a concert to renew faith in young people's continuing passion for classical music despite the present doom and gloom concerning its health that is so prevalent.

10.08 FRIDAY 8.00 p.m.
Concert Studio of Polish Radio
ALEXEI LUBIMOV (period piano)

This recital took place almost directly after the Charles Richard-Hamelin performance and was a unique opportunity to compare the four Chopin Ballades on a modern instrument (Yamaha) and on a period instrument (Erard) played by two outstanding artists. The remainder of the Lubimov recital, in fact the entire first half, was performed on an exquisite Pleyel of 1843.

He opened the first half of his recital with some extremely fine Bach on the Pleyel pianino. Bellini, Mme. Sand, Delacroix, the cellist Auguste Franchomme, and Balzac's Polish mistress later wife Mme. Hanska all owned these superb Pleyel pianino instruments. This is the type of instrument he had sent to Valdemossa. Of course one cannot build a concert career on such an instrument but one can learn something of the intimacy that Chopin, unlike Liszt, strove to achieve in performance.

The 1843 Pleyel pianino
The balanced colours, registers and refinement of sound of these remarkable domestic instruments suit the intimacy of Bach keyboard works very well, perhaps originally written for the clavichord. The polyphony was abundantly clear. Lubimov created a philosophical intimacy of great expressiveness, highlighting without sacrificing the different natures of the voices. The far lower relative dynamic of this instrument forced one to listen to the music. One was seduced by the sound, not beaten into submission.

We were then treated to the Mozart [1756–1791] Fantasy in D minor K.397 (1782) This was without doubt the most beautiful rendition of this work I have heard. It suited the fragile, delicate yet focused nature of the sound to perfection. This was quite apart from the inspired phrasing and moderate tempos. The nuanced colours available in all the flickering moods of this fantasy were so clear on this refined instrument. Lubimov then involved himself in some wonderful key modulations from one piece to the next, the type of procedure I imagine that was adopted in period. From the Chopin Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45 (a fine and refined performance) modulated into the Beethoven Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 (‘Moonlight’). This was marvelously understated performance of the work without the Salvator Rosa drama of the Presto agitato. The tensions inherent in the very limitations of the instrument were exciting here - Beethoven pushing the instrument's boundaries. Then to complete the first half the Chopin Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57 (1843). This emerged from this extraordinarily elegant instrument with the utmost delicacy, like Bruxelles lace. The pianissimos achievable on this instrument can only be dreamed about on a modern Steinway. Ah again, it is a question of the utmost in musical seduction and intimacy.

The second half was devoted to the four Chopin Ballades played on an Erard grand piano of 1838.  I will not examine each Ballade in turn as I did with the previous recital by Richard-Hamelin save to say the contrast was significant and striking. The textures, colours and in particular behavior of the Erard bass under duress, the overall more limited dynamic range of the instrument revealed these Ballades as inhabiting a different universe of sound and rather contrasted world of feeling. The upper registers possessed fragility and delicacy rather than the intense pointillist high frequency treble we have become accustomed to on modern grand pianos. The bass no longer commands the dynamic climaxes as it can do on a Steinway. The sound landscape changes the narrative identity and essentially 'what is going on' utterly. In other words the world of extreme emotions is no longer highlighted but a far more balanced view of emotional life -  unblemished by hysterical and extreme outbursts. Far more classical and tasteful.

I would stress however that this is simply another way of looking at these familiar works that provides us with enormously fertile insights. Clues as to how Chopin might be more authentically transferred to a modern instrument, designed and intended to fill the great concert halls of the world with sound and not a charming small ballroom, boudoir or salon in a Neo-classical palace.

Alexei Lubimov

Friday 10.08 at 17.00  Stage of the Polish National Opera


I had followed the career of this pianist with the greatest interest since he was awarded the Second Prize in the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Competition.

He opened his recital with a refined and heartfelt performance of the Schumann  Arabesque in C major Op. 18. When written Schumann was at the lowest point of romantic frustration in his relationship with the pianist Clara Wieck. Her father was violently opposed to any liaison between them which might jeopardize her career.   Schumann wasreduced to communicating with Clara through his music and letters of intense feeling. Much of his music at this time is heartbreaking in its longing, shifting moods, some more exuberant. Richard-Hamelin understood this fluctuating aspect of Schumann's nature.

I felt he was preparing us for his performance of the C major Fantasy which followed. Although entitled a 'Fantasy' this inspired work expresses a fascinating tension between the established sonata form (three distinct movements but not in the order one would expect of a classical sonata) and the ideas one associates with the word 'Fantasy'. Again the work is a 'deep lament' for Clara which was once entitled 'Ruines'. Its naming and publication history is complex and not perhaps for a review.

Schumann prefaced this piece with a quotation from Friedrich Schlegel:

Durch alle Töne tönet
Im bunten Erdentraum
Ein leiser Ton gezogen
Für den, der heimlich lauschet

Through all the notes
In earth’s many-coloured dream
There sounds one soft long-drawn note
For the one who listens in secret.

The implications are clear and when Clara received the score she wrote to him telling him she was 'half ill with rapture'.

Richard-Hamelin  opened the first movement with great nobility and a magnificent cantabile tone at a tempo that indicated that this would be a deeply thoughtful, even philosophical  performance, of great poetry, passion  and beauty. So it turned out. beautifully introspective. His performance was in turn rhapsodic and yet at times playful, his left hand particularly reflective in its articulation, a view containing true grandeur.

The second movement was full of mercurial whimsy and what I would call  'intellectual emotions'. he managed the internal polyphony expressively and great complexity. A tremendous sense of narration and musical logic in this work by Richard-Hamelin. The third movement lyrical theme (a glorious song) was deeply moving with heartfelt rubato - so expressive and nuanced in its moderation and introspection. Such a rhapsodic presentation of the rising passions of true love. The conclusion was dreamlike with a superb singing tone that faded to a yearning for Clara, a conclusion in gossamer pianissimos.  I felt this was without doubt one of the finest performances of this extremely  challenging work I had ever heard.

After the interval the Four Ballades of Chopin.  The first Ballade in G minor Op.31 under his fingers was clearly the opening of a great narrative with magnificently aesthetic cantabile tone and refined touch. Fine rubato and nuanced episodes.  I felt his phrasing could not be faulted as was the sensual agitation that colours the excitement of many 'scenes' as we reach for that spectacular coda to the work.  The opening of the F major Ballade Op. 38 had the feeling of a child's fairy tale. Quite magical and innocent. The inevitable comparison cane with the disturbances of the dreaded adult passions. But this struggle with the nature of human emotions was never an hysterical account of the work. 

In the Third Ballade in A major Op.47 the narrative was reflective in its various mood swings. Chopin polyphony was beautifully delineated and I felt during the performance that some episodes were as dark clouds passing over the face of the sun. Triumphal and magnificent coda.  That great masterpiece of w Western keyboard music, the Fourth Ballade in F-minor op.52 . What a monumental story of shifting realities is displayed in this work. Richard-Hamelin engaged us with strong emotions and movingly lyrical episodes with such variety it was a deeply satisfying journey of the human psyche. His ability to build tensions followed by relaxations was managed with consummate skill. He gave us a passionately engaging coda to the work.

How this pianist has developed  in many ways since that first triumph at the 17th International Chopin Competition. Certainly I consider that in that competition Second Prize is certainly a triumph of immense significance.

A deeply considered, modest and profoundly musical recital the like of which is rarely heard today.

Inaugural Concert 9 August 20.00

Szymon Nehring (piano)
Lukasz Dyczko (saxophone)
Beethoven Academy Orchestra
Jean-Luc Tingaud (Conductor)

The Opera House in Warsaw (Sala Moniuszki Teatru Wielkiego - Opery Naradsowej) was absolutely packed for the inaugural concert of the festival. I have never seen it so full! 

As well as celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Poland regaining Independence, much forgotten Polish music, the programme also commemorated the 100th anniversary of the death of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). 

The concert opened with a Polonaise especially commissioned from Krzysztof Penderecki for this 2018 Festival.  It was rather stirring spirited music with a brilliant fanfare bound to raise Polish national pride. The composer was present and bowed appreciatively to the tumultuous applause.

Then a most fascinating work by Claude Debussy, the extremely rarely performed Rhapsody for Saxophone and  Orchestra (1901-1908). The genesis of this work is most curious and should be told here. In 1903 Debsussy was commissioned to write a work for saxophone by a wealthy musical Bostonian lady named Elisa Hall. As she was losing her hearing, her doctor had advised her taking up a brass instrument and she chose the saxophone! She decided to commission works for the instrument from various distinguished composers. Debussy was dilatory concerning the work and she was forced to constantly remind him to compete it - which he did not. It was finished and orchestrated by one Jean Roger-Ducasse (in 1919). Perhaps that is why the opening certainly sounded 'Debussyian' to my ears but as the work progressed we seemed to move out of his impressionist orbit of refined orchestral colour and nuance completely. Fascinating and enjoyable nevertheless. Incidentally the saxophonist was dressed in a natty period 1920s double-breasted pinstripe suit and hairstyle to match. Lovely idea!

Szymon Nehring then joined the orchestra for the Chopin Piano Concerto in F minor Op. 21, Chopin's first concerto composed in 1830. Of course Szymon has become a national hero since winning the Artur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv. He has matured a great deal since I last heard him in the previous festival and gave a fine account of this concerto in all respects -  naturally his command of the notes is faultless but also his understanding of the style brillant and the Polish rhetorical gestures concealed within the work were well delineated. The Larghetto love song  was really quite moving and full of considered poetry and lyricism. Arguably the most beautiful love song ever written for piano and orchestra - the unrequited love of Chopin for Konstancja Gładkowska 'enjoyed' at inaccessible psychological distance produced yearning melodies of an intense order.  It is said she preferred the attentions of the handsome uniformed Russian officers to our genius! The Allegro vivace was full of energy and variation packed with the joy of youth and optimism for the future. Although he has not yet produced a distinct individual voice at the piano (still so young after all) this was an impressive performance. Greeted as one might imagine with shouts, whistles, cheering and applause. A Debussy encore...

Then followed one of my favourite pieces, the Debussy Prelude a L'après-midi d'un faune (or 'The Afternoon of a Faun'based on a wonderful poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. The poem oscillates between memory and fantasy, dream and reality, story and flute melody, disillusionment and intoxication. The music paints in ravishing melodies and harmonies the erotic experiences of a faun who has just awoken and describes his encounters with voluptuous and alluring nymphs during a morning dreamy monologue. This was an idiomatic and sensitive performance as one might expect of the French conductor. My preferred interpretation is that of Pierre Boulez many years ago now which was of the utmost refinement and finesse.

Then finally to the Symphony in C major by Georges Bizet ('Roma'). Bizet conceived the idea during a stay in Rome in Italy on a scholarship during that prestigious composition competition known as the Prix de Rome. I found the work highly entertaining and deeply referential and reverential to other 'great composers'. Even so amusing in parts! It is not at all surprising that the composer had tremendous trouble finishing it - he spent 11 years or so on it and never in fact competed it! It was a truly festive piece to begin the festival, despite the fact I expected the opera to begin in earnest at any moment given the simplistic unison orchestration, especially after the 'operatic' First Movement Allegro vivo. Perhaps someone might enlighten me as to the choice of Bizet for a festival concentrating on Polish music. There are certainly equally festive Polish works with a strong national flavour.

Another spirited performance of the Penderecki Polonaise concluded the evening.

A very uplifting beginning to the festival! And so we begin this musical marathon!


  1. These blogs are the most extraordinary philanthropic achievement and bring lasting value to Polish culture. I hope that every reader appreciates the generosity of spirit which drives this achievement, both for its invaluable contribution to Poland and the insights which it gives to performers and organisers alike. A remarkable achievement. Surely this quality of writing and musical criticism is unmatched.


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