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

From Chopin to Paderewski

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. 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 second Liszt Transcendental Etude: Molto Vivace but played in rather 'possessed' 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 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 - personal taste! With the tremendous energy expended throughout the symphony, I would have appreciated more dynamic variation but then again this is a youth orchestra with all the driven enthusiasm of conception and execution that youth 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 Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No 2  which revealed similar qualities and criteria of interpretation as the Tchaikovsky.

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!


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