Final Report and Highlights of the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. Warsaw 2–14 September 2018

Final Report on 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments 
Warsaw  2–14 September 2018

Chopin at a Pleyel piano
Aquarelle and pencil by Teolfil Kwiatkowski [ca. 1847]

The 2nd. International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments

The Competition will be held for the second time from 5 to 15 October 2023, again at the Warsaw Philharmonic

A Different Virtuosity

Report on the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments
2-14 September 2018

Michael Moran


The mystery of instrumental sound and performance before recording has become an irresistible lure in classical music. Even before 1800 musicians were becoming increasingly interested in the nature of 'ancient music' if not so much in the manner in which it was performed. Dr. Pepusch (1667-1752) in London helped form the original Academy of Ancient Music around 1730 to study Palestrina, Byrd, Morley and other early composers. He is best remembered for arranging the tunes and composing the overtures for John Gay's Beggar’s Opera (1728). Baron Gottfried van Swieten contributed to Mozart's love of Handel and Bach in Vienna. Another important milestone in this quest was famously that of Felix Mendelssohn when he conducted a reconstructed performance of the St. Matthew Passion of J. S. Bach in Leipzig in 1829.

Interest increased over the intervening years with the evolution of the humanist scholarly discipline of 'musicology'. A key figure in the early music revival at the beginning of the 20th century was Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940), a French-born musician and instrument maker, who spent much of his life in England and established an instrument-making workshop in Surrey. His book The Interpretation of the Music of the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries (1915) was a seminal development in the authenticity movement. In the 1930s Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) contributed significantly to the revival of interest in the harpsichord.  

Through the exciting explorations during the 1970s up to the present day, the so-called 'Early Music' movement and its credibility has expanded exponentially in scope. This involved both the study of performance practice and the nature of 'authentic' instrumentation for Renaissance, Baroque and Classical orchestral, instrumental and vocal music. This movement has become firmly established predominantly in Europe, Japan and the United States. There is now a panoply of early music ensembles, training programs for early instruments, concert series and extensive recordings. The performance of 'Early Music' has become an established part of mainstream musical activity.

The Competition

Inevitably musicological interest and concern with authentic instrumentation has now begun to focus on the extensive Romantic piano repertoire and the wide variety of pianos on which such works were performed. The ground-breaking and fascinating 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments, which has just been completed in Warsaw, is the first such competition in the world.

The National Fryderyk Chopin Institute had in 2006 already pioneered a collection of award-winning recordings made on their collection of period pianos by world-famous pianists - Martha Argerich, Maria Joao Pires, Nelson Goerner, Tatiana Shebanova, Dang Thai Son, Dina Yoffe - known as The Real Chopin. This valuable recording initiative continues to expand. The establishment of such a competition was a logical next step. The design and implementation however faced several challenges, most of which were successfully met.

On the anniversary of Poland’s regaining of independence, the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute organized an event of extraordinary character. The 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments took place in Warsaw from 2-14 September 2018. Subsequent competitions will be organized every five years. In collaboration with Polish Radio Dwojka [Polish National Radio 2], the Institute presented alongside the competition a full, all encompassing schedule of broadcasts and critical commentary from period piano and Chopin specialists. Some stages were covered by TVP Polish television. 

In an historical context, restoring the authentic sound of music by Fryderyk Chopin and the composers contemporary with him is particularly challenging. Approximating the original color and mechanics of the instruments the composer had at his disposal may, with study and practice, permit us to grasp the unique, specific character of Chopin’s music. We may ‘rehear’ (John Rink's coinage) its unique sound, articulation and harmonic language. In some measure this has been lost in interpretations on contemporary instruments and the unavoidable time and cultural dislocation from the historical source.

The Competition participants were pianists from all over the world, aged 18 to 35. The acceptance programme was presented on video performed on an historical instrument. Finding a well-maintained, accessible period instrument is not always easy. The Competition jury was comprised of outstanding representatives of the music world whose artistic and professional activity places them among the most distinguished specialists in the field of historical performance.

The Competition schedule was made up of three rounds: the first and second were solo recitals whose repertoire – apart from works by Chopin – included selected works by Johann Sebastian Bach (an inspired idea given Chopin’s passion for this composer), as well as polonaises by Polish composers active in the first half of the 19th century. In the third round, the six finalists performed Chopin works with orchestra which they could choose, accompanied by the renowned Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, already well known to the Polish audience.

The Competition participants had at their disposal period pianos from the collections of The National Fryderyk Chopin Institute (Erards from 1838, 1849 and 1858; Pleyels from 1846 and 1854; a Broadwood from 1843; a copy of an 1819 Graf by Paul McNulty and his recent copy of an 1825 Buchholtz with a slightly extended compass and extra moderator pedal) in addition to originals and copies of period instruments brought in by European restorers and collectors (an 1837 Erard and an 1842 Pleyel from the Edwin Beunk collection). Aside from monetary prizes, the winners also received offers of prestigious concerts with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century as well as recording projects. One of the main aims of the competition is to popularize performance on period instruments.

Competition Jury

Claire Chevallier
Nikolai Demidenko
Nelson Goerner
Tobias Koch
Alexei Lubimov
Janusz Olejniczak
Ewa Pobłocka
Andreas Staier
Wojciech Świtała
Dang Thai Son


1st prize (€15 000) – Tomasz Ritter (Poland)
2nd prize ex aequo (€10.000 each) – Naruhiko Kawaguchi (Japan), Aleksandra Świgut (Poland)
3rd prize (€5 000) – Krzysztof Książek (Poland)
Honorable mentions: Dmitry Ablogin (Russia), Antoine de Grolée (France)
The main prize winners are entitled to the title of 'Laureate of the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments'.

Chopin at a Pleyel piano. Pencil drawing by Jacob Götzenberger Paris October 1838

Inaugural Concert

The inaugural concert on 2 September featured Kevin Kenner and Simon Nehring as soloists in both Chopin piano concertos with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century conducted by Grzegorz Nowak. I did not attend the second inaugural concert featuring the same concerti, orchestra and conductor but with Nikolai Demidenko and Janusz Olejniczak as soloists.

Kevin Kenner chose the Piano Concerto in F minor op. 21. He  has developed an enviable experience playing period pianos and I was very much looking forward to this performance. Even more as he chose a Pleyel instrument (1846) from the NIFC collection which as everyone knows Chopin considered the non plus ultra of pianos. The seductive colours and range of dynamics are most alluring. These Pleyel instruments provide challenges for a pianist that an Erard does not pose. They feature the single escapement mechanism which Chopin preferred (Sebastian Erard invented the modern double escapement) which limits the speed of repetitions but gives greater control over the sound one produces - however you need to work to produce this eloquence. Chopin commented on this need in a well-known remark assessing his physical condition when choosing between the two pianos. He felt on a  Pleyel his fingers were in closer contact with the keys and hammers, almost touching the strings. As he put it, a superior instrument for ‘the enunciation of my inmost thoughts’. In 1830 Monsieur Pleyel introduced veneered soundboards (mahogany laid across the grain of the pine) which altered the treble to be bright and silvery, almost ethereal, the middle register more penetrating and the lower clear and vigorous (Claude Montal – a piano technician of the day).

Together with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, this was a fine performance of the first concerto Chopin wrote. This orchestra is ideal for the realization of Chopin's much discussed orchestration, in particular the beauty of the original instrument woodwind section, especially the bassoon and traverse flute. One never felt any limitations of inspiration and the dynamic balance between piano and orchestra achieved by Kevin Kenner and the conductor Grzegorz Nowak seemed ideal. There was such charm, grace, taste and elegance in this rather understated view of the work that I found absolutely appropriate to the unpretentious yet decorative style brillante keyboard writing. The deep influence of Hummel (a pupil of Mozart for two years) on Chopin rather than Field in this concerto became clear. On a Pleyel, the delicacy and refinement of Chopin fiorituras, Kenner's luminous tone and the varied colours of the different registrations the period keyboard can produce (particularly the restrained bass) seduced us all.
Szymon Nehring performed the Concerto in E minor Op.11. He extracted fine colours from the Erard (1849) with great refinement of touch, articulation and nuance. I was most impressed with his approach to the period instrument. His control of pianissimo (such a strength of the period piano) was subtle and moving, perfectly in keeping with the descriptions of Chopin’s own playing which Berlioz described as soft as ‘the playing of elves’ even requiring one to place one’s ear against the instrument to hear him! The Romance. Larghetto in particular was exquisite tonally with rubato of great sensibility and affecting tonal control. The Rondo.Vivace was spirited and I felt Nehring to be a natural player of such period instruments.

Stage I
  • one of the Preludes and Fugues from Das Wohltemperierte Klavier by Johann Sebastian Bach
  • one of Fryderyk Chopin’s early Polonaises (in A flat major, Op. posth.; in G sharp minor, Op. posth.; in B flat minor, Op. posth.; in D minor, Op. 71 No. 1; in B flat major Op. 71 No. 2; in F minor Op. 71 No. 3)
  • one of the Polonaises from among the following:
Karol Kurpiński – Polonaise in D minor, Polonaise in G minor
Józef Elsner – Polonaise in B major, Polonaise in E flat major
Michał Kleofas Ogiński – Polonaise in A minor “Farewell to the Homeland”, Polonaise in D minor
Maria Szymanowska – Polonaise in F minor
  • one of the Etudes from Op. 10 or Op. 25 by Fryderyk Chopin, except for the following: Etude in E major, Op. 10 No. 3; Etude in E flat minor, Op. 10 No. 6; Etude in C sharp minor, Op. 25 No. 7
  • one of the four Ballades or the Barcarolle by Fryderyk Chopin
The pieces were performed in any order.
Stage II
Fryderyk Chopin:
  • a full set of Mazurkas from one of the following opuses:
    17, 24, 30, 33, 41, 50, 56, 59
    Mazurkas had to be played in the order they are numbered in the opus. In the case of Opp. 33 and 41, the following order applies:
    Op. 33: No. 1 in G sharp minor, No. 2 in C major, No. 3 in D major,  No. 4 in B minor
    Op. 41: No. 1 in E minor, No. 2 in B major, No. 3 in A flat major, No. 4 in C sharp minor
  • one of the following Polonaises:
Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante in E flat major, Op. 22
Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44
Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53
or both Polonaises from Op. 26
  • Sonata in C minor, Op. 4 or Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35 or Sonata in B minor, Op. 58
The repeat of the exposition in the first movement of the B minor Sonata should be omitted; the repeat of the first movement of the B flat minor Sonata was optional.

The pieces were to be performed in any order (except for the Mazurkas).
One of the following Concertos by Fryderyk Chopin:
     Piano Concerto in E minor, Op. 11
     Piano Concerto in F minor, Op. 21
or two of the following pieces by Fryderyk Chopin:
Variations in B flat major on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, Op. 2
Fantasy on Polish Airs in A major, Op. 13
Rondo à la krakowiak in F major, Op. 14.


Highlights and random thoughts following the Competition on Period Instruments

When one first encounters a nineteenth-century piano, the difference in sound to a modern concert grand can be rather striking to the uninitiated ear. 'I say, rather like the out of tune piano of my elderly aunt!' someone commented to me who had never before heard a wooden-framed piano. However the ear soon becomes accustomed to the contrast and then slowly becomes aware of the unique riches encountered on this journey aboard such a time machine. This competition offered us an extraordinary opportunity to intensively listen to an array of different, well-restored period instruments from different nations and historical years all day, every day for two weeks. Normally one hears a period piano recital in an obscure location once in a blue moon - here it was total immersion on a well-known stage, sometimes three period instruments being utilized for the one recital.
Interestingly, unfamiliar music contemporaneously composed for these pianos was also presented. This was an unprecedented opportunity to analyze the sound and what might contribute to or detract from the interpretation of familiar and early unfamiliar style brillante works by Chopin. I have always believed his youthful polonaises have been unjustly neglected and underrated. They may not be masterpieces but they are masterly compositions and attractively melodic. It is inspiring to reflect on how extraordinarily productive the young genius was in his youth spent in Warsaw. I am reminded of the lyric poet John Keats who as a youth had a similar short period of inexplicable poetic fecundity. Certainly it was an imaginative and regenerative idea to feature early works in Stage I of the competition. In some ways it was disappointing that the competitors chose only concertos to perform in the Finals. A missed opportunity surely to make Chopin’s less familiar but superb style brillante compositions familiar to a wider public outside Poland.  
All stages of the competition were held in the smaller Kameralna Hall of the Warsaw Philharmonia. Although it is quite a large space it did somewhat favour the lower volume of these instruments. However a modern concert hall can never be as conducive to elegant intimacy and poetic reverie as a nineteenth century ‘salon’ might have been, seasoned with an aristocratic audience and decorated with elegant Chippendale furniture, family portraits and paintings, Caucasian rugs, French tapestries and Murano chandeliers. Well, this is 2018 and not 1818...we do what we can.
In the early to mid-nineteenth century piano sound and national character were intimately connected. With the passing years the design and sound of our modern instruments have become inflated and homogenized so no longer radically differ with national predilections or any significant technical advances. In fact piano sound has become so standardized and ‘orchestral’ on the ubiquitous Steinway, Kawai or Yamaha it borders on the dully predictable. Bösendorfer concert grands are occasionally still seen on concert platforms, but rarely today are the makers of the more recent past such as Blüthner, Baldwin, C.Bechstein, Grotrian-Steinweg, Petrof or even Pleyel. For most audiences, their first acquaintance with the music of Chopin is through the medium of a Steinway and almost never through an historical instrument of his timePartial opinions of his music are thus formed on an instrument he would never have contemplated in size, at a volume that would have disconcerted him at the least, in vast spaces he would have abhorred (‘the exhalation of the crowd’) or in recordings that he could never have envisaged in a world without electricity. The Chopin aesthetic is essentially that of the sensibility of the eighteenth century poised on the cusp of the Romantic period. He once declared  ‘Concerts are never real music; you have to give up the idea of hearing in them the most beautiful things of art.’ 

However during the nineteenth century there was a ferment of national activity in Europe pushing forward piano design rather fast with an astonishing range of inventive devices.  From the Cristofori instrument of 1720 with its papier-mâché cylinder hammers covered in thin leather and simple action to the sophisticated Steinway or Yamaha of today is a long and eventful journey. These exciting advances were intimately linked with what composers required to satisfy their pressing creative imaginations. However there is an irreplaceable, courageous, even avant-garde emotion, in feeling that a composer is pushing the limits of his instrument's capabilities. This is affectingly clear in Beethoven on pianos of his day. The national cultural preferences in musical style, instrumental sound and timbre were significant in a way they are far less today.  

The modern steel-framed Steinway and particularly C.Bechstein  concert grand pianos began to emerge under similar creative pressure from the formidable keyboard demands of the mid to late nineteenth to twentieth century 'Romantic Concerto' composers - Liszt, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Moszkowski, Scharwenka, Melcer, Rubinstein, Sauer, Marx and others. However only in rare cases does one feel the limits of a modern Model D Steinway concert grand are being stressed or exceeded. One is forced to ask are these unarguably the most suitable instruments for the sound world of earlier repertoires and the instruments available then? Chopin's early style brillante works are masterpieces but rather influenced by Hummel and the earlier late eighteenth century soundscape of Viennese instruments than the different later French and English developments of Pleyel, Erard and Broadwood.  

Take the example of the very first participant, Aleksandra Hortensja Dąbek.  The volume and timbre of the English 1848 Broadwood she used for the Chopin and Ogiński Polonaises (in A-flat major and 'Farewell to the Fatherland'), with its felt-covered hammers and double escapement mechanism, was surprising compared to the more restrained Viennese character produced by the leather-covered hammers and single escapement of the Polish 1825 Buchholtz copy by Paul McNulty (Chopin's favoured Warsaw 'pantaleon' or piano) that she used for the Bach Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Minor BWV 853. The masculine strength and full-blooded English character of the Broadwood was admired by Chopin and always commented on by critics in his tours of England and Scotland.
Again there is such a contrast between the French character of the rich, refined and elegant sound of the 1842 Pleyel used in the competition and the straightforwardness of the English Broadwood ('le rosbif'). We know what rivalry, even war, those temperamental differences led to in the past! The sound world and emotional connotations produced in the heart and mind by this superb 1842 Pleyel are also substantially different to the evocations of modern instruments. Being entirely hand built to commission meant each instrument was different. There always exists the proviso that we have no idea what period instruments sounded like when new. They are a complex mechanical device whereas a Stradivarius violin is not. Yet this particular  1842 Pleyel, despite its age and minimal restoration, has a magisterial rhapsodic bass, luminous but warm cantabile and feather light ethereal pianissimos possible in the trebleIn chromatic scales ranging over the entire compass of the keyboard, register colours are gloriously displayed in a rainbow of sound.
I will consider some of the most 'gifted' among the participants and highlight a few of my favourite moments of the competition.

The Countess Delfina Potocka at a Pleyel pianino. Sepia wash drawing by Paul Delaroche 27 February 1851

Agnieszka Porzuczek is studying the fortepiano and thoughtfully chose the copy by Paul McNulty of the 1819 Graf for the Bach Prelude and Fugue in E major BWV 854. She was the only participant to choose this type of instrument which is in some ways the most appropriate for youthful Chopin of all these copies and originals. The clarity and tone of this instrument with its leather-covered hammers made it particularly suitable for the polyphony and counterpoint of this baroque composer. Chopin loved instruments by this maker whilst living in Warsaw. It is reported that in his youth Chopin even played square pianos and other remarkable keyboard hybrids which have not survived. In fact Pleyel & Cie continued to manufacture square pianos through the early nineteenth century known as Pianos Carrés.
For the Kurpiński Polonaise in G minor she stayed with this unique instrument using the moderator to great expressive effect for the subsidiary theme (the Graf has four pedals with various functions). Great delicacy was possible in the treble which seduced the attention of the audience, unlike being beaten into submission as some have attempted here. She also performed the Chopin Etude in G-flat major Op.10 No.5 on this instrument. It was so suitable for this composition one could again see or hear why Chopin preferred the clarity of these, one might even say, 'Classical' instruments, on occasion. They are beautifully balanced in tone colour and dynamics in the various registers although producing a true cantabile is challenging.
Katarzyna Hajduk-Konieczna performed the famous Ogiński Polonaise 'Farewell to the Fatherland'  wonderfully decorated and improvised on the Buchholtz. The moderator (a rail of thin felt placed between the hammers and the strings) was emotionally utilized to create a sound world of tender intimacy, of luminous yet veiled light. And so the dream or rather the ache of the farewell continued on the double moderator but pianissimo, truly yearning, melancholic in its loss and spiritually transporting in a way rarely experienced. I was very moved. Often an eruption of rhythms and images of a danced Polonaise sprang to mind on the unmoderated instrument, the noblemen stroking their prominent Sobieski mustaches and arranging their sabres in aristocratic theatrical gestures. Yes, certainly a scene from the great Mickiewicz saga Pan Tadeusz. A marvelous recital that fully utilized period performance practice and the sound possibilities of the instruments upon which such practice was established.
I felt Kamil Pacholec was  a pianist with enormous musical promise. He began the Chopin G minor Ballade with an excellent narrative tempo that allowed us as listeners to decode his harmonic intentions and also more importantly those of Chopin. A coherent musical story of great clarity and meaning began to evolve. Although occasionally perfunctory in phrasing, he maintained an excellent sense of structure and a mood at once reflective and philosophical. His control over the 1837 Erard in terms of tone produced and touch indicated simply insufficient experience on period pianos but his understanding of the Ballade musically and Chopin as a composer was never in question. There was a true triumphal conclusion to the musical ‘argument’ of the work. A fine account of this piece among the best I have heard for a very long time. Overall both his Stage I and II were tremendously satisfying recitals that showed enormous musical achievement, talent and great musical promise in one so young. For these reasons one of the highlights of the competition despite his unfamiliarity with period pianos.

Naruhiko Kawaguchi, unlike almost every other contestant, began with the Kurpiński Polonaise in D Minor. His creation of an appropriate and  graceful cantabile arc was immediately obvious. Such an imaginative pianist! He extracted a charming tone from the Buchholtz with his refined touch. Then to the Chopin Polonaise in B-flat major on the same instrument. The Buchholtz tone then became like delicate bells. This fine instrument is  a veritable chameleon! It adopts another identity as each pianist approaches it. He used the moderator pedal to achieve the ultimate emotionally moving pianissimo at the close of the work. Then a performance of the Bach Prelude and Fugue in B minor BWV 893 on the Erard. What a contrast in sound! This was excellent Bach with finely hewn polyphony, minimal pedal, crystal articulation and judicious dynamic.
Tomasz Ritter (the eventual competition victor) has had a distinguished career in Moscow with outstanding teachers connected to both the harpsichord and the historical piano. I expected his recital to be remarkable and so it was.
He began unexpectedly with a stylish rendition of the Kurpiński Polonaise in D Minor on the Buchholtz with most attractive phrasing which added greatly to the period feel. The early Chopin Polonaise in G-sharp minor was possessed of the same charm, elegance and nobility. From the tone and touch he was clearly experienced playing  earlier historical instruments. The phrasing again revealed great sensibility and expressiveness using the evocative colour spectrum of the instrument to great effect. He has fine control of touch, tone, dynamics and articulation – a nuanced performance.
The Chopin Etude in E minor Op.25 No.5 on the 1842 Pleyel was highly expressive and indicated the presence of an authentic individual voice. He brilliantly and seamlessly modulated from this study into the Ballade in F minor Op.52 at pianissimo. This was a distinguished performance of this masterpiece with finely drawn polyphonic cantabile lines, the bel canto radiant.  The musical narrative was musically coherent and unfolded like the wings of a moth preparing to fly at dusk. So much detail and nuance were organically revealed here, growing from within not merely applied to the surface. He wound up the drama like a tight watch spring to the passionate coda and then the relaxation and final triumphant statement, a chord of faith suffused with resignation which concludes the work.
In an inspired decision of creative design to his programme, he performed the extensive Bach Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor BMV 853 from Book I of the Das wohltemperierte Klavier on the 1842 Pleyel. The Bach cantilenas within this elegiac and ardent Prelude sang with fine cantabile followed by the profoundly introspective, philosophically monumental Fugue with its own glorious voices perfectly prominent. Such a blessed commemorative, offering to Chopin who loved Bach to distraction. Such a chaste summation of the former music passed before us. A truly great recital in or out of competition, on an historical instrument or not.
By Stage II the 1837 Erard seemed to have largely supplanted some of the other instruments. Perhaps not so surprising, given the inexperience of most players, as the action and feel resemble our modern instruments rather closely. This rather sudden and intense exposure to the sound of early pianos had by now crystallized some important observations in my mind. Tone and touch, the quality of the sheer sound produced, are so little spoken of today in appraising a pianist, so obsessed are we with structural, historical and biographical concerns. Is this a result of the massively ready-made, ‘technologically perfect’ orchestral sound of a Steinway or a Yamaha (design oscilloscope flickering benignly)?
On period instruments the player must work at producing an alluring tone, something that was becoming increasingly obvious during this competition. That one can simply transfer from the Steinway to the period instrument is a grossly insufficient assumption. ‘Hysterics’ in performance (often excusable on a Steinway) are severely punished on period pianos. Much depends on ‘singing’ with a subtle, sophisticated cantabile finger technique with little use of arm or body weight which is detrimental to producing a refined touch and tone on a Graf, Erard or Pleyel. The preoccupation with cantabile playing gradually fell from favour as the nature and style of composition changed and piano design concentrated more on volume to satisfy thousands listening in the cavernous space of the modern concert hall.  

One must also not forget Chopin deeply loved the modest Pleyel pianino (Ignace Pleyel dispatched one to the monastery at Valldemossa for Chopin)the pure, mellow and above all intimate sound the vertical stringing produces on these domestic jewels. Franchomme, Delacroix, George Sand, Delfina Potocka, Maria Wodzińska, Mme. Hanska (Balzac’s wife) and many aristocratic lady pupils of Chopin owned such small but resourceful 'cottage' pianos.

1844 Pleyel pianino No: 11151 (the type Chopin composed on in Valldemossa) owned by Michael Moran and restored by David Winston of the Period Piano Company in Kent
Having a period piano under your fingers is only the first step – then the work begins in earnest. Chopin spoke obsessively of the absolute importance of producing a beautiful tone and touch (the Pleyel being more difficult than the ‘ready made’ tone on the Erard).  On a Pleyel the pedals alter the timbre, inseparable from tone production, therefore becoming in his words ‘a study for life’. His pedaling varied of course on the instrument he used. His uniquely creative use of the pedal in his rare concerts was often commented upon.
In more modern times the great pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus wrote in The Art of Piano Playing (trans. London 1973) in the extensive chapter  ‘On Tone’ :
‘Music is a tonal art. It produces no visual image, it does not speak with words or ideas. It speaks only with sounds. But it speaks just as clearly and intelligibly as do words, ideas or visual images.’
Chopin considered the production of a beautiful tone the first and foremost task of any pianist. ‘Caress the key, never bash it!’ he would say. ‘Simplicity is everything.’ 

Marmontel observed of his playing:
‘I heard Chopin during his first year in Paris, and his playing already had an exquisite beauty, a natural sensitivity, a suave, hazy sonority based essentially on the delicacy of his touch and his quite individual use of the pedals.’
The production of a fine tone, an individual voice, perhaps more especially on a period instrumentdepends both on the ear and the spiritual qualities of the performer. Tone is not sensuously static but dialectic, rendering musical meaning. The variation of tonal texture is analogous to colour gradations in painting. Rendering gradual dynamic change seemed beyond too many participants in this competition.
Period instruments lend themselves perfectly to this multi-layered, ‘multi-plane’ painterly approach in Bach, Schubert and Chopin. This is a vital consideration in polyphonic music, polyphony being omnipresent in works by the Polish composer. Chopin always thought polyphonically even in spare doubled themes an octave or occasionally two octaves apart. The opening of the G minor Ballade is an example. On a period instrument such as a Pleyel what sounds homogenous on a modern piano can become two separate voices on such a period instrument, each with their own individual kaleidoscope of registral colours - assuming a sensitive pianist familiar with the riches of the period compass. In a lecture after the competition the great Chopin scholar John Rink advises students to play this opening ‘as if your life depended on it.’ Certain rarefied and refined feelings in Chopin simply cannot be captured on a modern instrument. One learns so much more about familiar works played on instruments of the period that can often be then transferred with modifications to support or augment the  Steinway's  own unique qualities.

Chopin  was to  write  from  Paris  to  his friend  Tytus  Woyciechowski Fortepiany Pleyelowskie non plus ultra, the last word in perfection. The tone of a Pleyel (upright  or grand) has a seductive velvet quality to it, slightly diffuse, with light transparent trebles and a rich but clear mahogany bass. Liszt wrote of ‘their silvery and slightly veiled sonority’ and ‘lightness of touch’. The puzzling descriptions of Chopins  playing, his refined nuances, inimitable rubato, cantabile melodic line and delicate ornamentation ‘falling like tiny drops  of speckled dew over the melodic figure’, according to Liszt, make absolute sense with the light action and extreme sensitivity of a period Pleyel.‘When I feel out of sorts,’ Chopin would say, ‘I play on an Erard piano where I can easily find a ready-made tone. When I feel in good form and strong enough to find my own individual sound, then I need a Pleyel piano.'
I also noticed that the same period instrument can sound dramatically different, alluring or even repulsive, with each and every player – something not quite so apparent on a modern Steinway except among the greatest of artists. A thundering, ‘booming’ Steinway bass is not permissible in Chopin but an attenuated more balanced bass is perfectly achievable on straight strung period pianos if you have your heart engaged in the nature of expressiveness rather than display. A legato ‘singing tone’ and detached ‘hammer tone’ are both brilliantly achievable and contrasted on these older instruments. Neuhaus concludes his chapter on tone with these eloquent words:
‘…tone must be clothed in silence; it must be enshrined in silence like a jewel in a velvet case.’

Chopin at a Pleyel pianino with George Sand listening. Study in pencil by
Eugène Delacroix [1838]

The Sonata in B-flat minor Op. 35 was perhaps modeled by Chopin on Beethoven’s own funeral sonata Op.26 which he taught and played. Here Dinara Klinton gave us a searching interpretation of  individuality and fatalistic penetration especially the Marche funèbre. Threat and tragedy hovered above this entire reading. A properly eloquent tempo and dynamic for the Marche funèbre is difficult to achieve. So many people seem to think it ought to accompany an imaginary military band with a heavy dull tread lacking in poetry. However pall bearers in a cemetery move and sway with the heavy bier rather in slow motion as she depicted. The grief- stricken follow behind. I felt the tragic inevitability of death for all of us, a deep and haunting melancholy, an almost childish innocence within the cantabile nocturnal central section, a forlorn cry of the soul facing its inevitable destiny. Played piano to pianissimo with great poetry, it was unsentimental and unaffected. The singing tone carried throughout the hall. Absolute silence reigned there as the force of destiny was revealed. Death floating over us – I was very moved – something that has happened rarely in this competition.
And so to that highlight of performance that remains or is forced to remain a perennial mystery to a non-Pole – the Chopin mazurkas. Aurelia Visovan was so sensitive to harmonic transitions and rhythm in the Op.24 set. The C-major possessed an incandescent sound with the superb cantilena one can produce in the left hand, singing magically below the right. Pleyels can achieve this balance of voices like no other piano. The A-flat major with its legato and subtle changes of harmonic mood were savoured by this artist. The undamped overtones provided a magical sound landscape. Not for the first time I was reminded of Dinu Lipatti. I suppose all Romanian pianists adore his Chopin. In the B-flat minor it was as if we were witnessing a hesitant soul coming to life. So tasteful and deep a vision of life  did Visovan present: Joy to Reflection to Resignation to Acceptance.  Such a panorama of emotions and emotional narrative. Some of the most beautiful Mazurkas I have ever heard if not the most rhythmically authentic.
Krzysztof Książek’s Mazurkas Op. 50 on the 1837 Erard were fine indeed with imaginative use of rhythm and silence. This created a strong and attractive sense of relaxed improvisation. The A-flat major seemed perfectly and idiomatically Polish and the C-sharp minor has always appeared a remarkable composition to me. His Chopin mazurkas were  very fine and it is hard for this foreigner to imagine anything more authentic. He was awarded the Polish Radio Prize for the best performance of mazurkas in the competition.
Aleksandra Świgut opened her Stage II recital on the 1842 Pleyel with the four mazurkas Op. 33. I found the G-sharp minor affectingly reflective; The C-major pleasant and diverting; I adored the lively, energetic sprung rhythms of the D-major mazurka; the B-minor had a marvelous variety of dynamic expression as if improvised on the spot. This was coupled with a seductive tone and touch at the instrument. Particularly fine and outstanding mazurkas.
On occasion I did however feel a sense of limitation on the period piano. This may well have been the increasing dislocation of my own ears programmed with recorded utterances of sublime power and virtuosity on the Steinway by the greatest pianists of last century and our own time. This is one aspect of the competition that I find supremely instructive and thought provoking. How programmed, conditioned we have become to a certain view of Chopin’s music and soundscape through concerts and recordings on the D model concert Steinway. However in this competition we are constantly presented with remarkable, strikingly different soundscapes for his music. Alternative instruments of great variety of timbre and sound palette would have been available to him for concerts (but not for us) and constantly stimulated his imagination. He writes of these choices often in his letters.

Pleyel pianino No. 15025 purchased by George Sand through the intermediary Pauline Viardot 25 May 1849

Before each piece Dimitry Ablogin offered us a brief 'Prelude' of his own improvisation in the key of the work to follow - a perfect period practice which uplifted the mood of this special event considerably. His performance of the Sonata in B-flat minor Op. 35 was remarkable on the 1842 Pleyel. The opening Grave. Doppio movimento was restless with remarkable forward impetus and a feeling of almost sinister mystery. The association of galloping horses on a dark night was inescapable. Ablogin often gives one this feeling of creative improvisation. The Scherzo continued the rather forceful mood already created and he made much of the song in the Trio. His tone glows without aggression and his touch is refined and elegant, so unlike the prejudices one might have concerning the Russian School of Chopinists.
One should not perhaps forget the patriotic associations of the Marche funèbre. Lento for Chopin in commemorating the November Uprising. The universality and inevitability of death now associated with it has grown inexorably over the hundred and eighty years or so since its composition. The stories of the composer beset with sepulchral visions and monstrous forms emerging from his piano during performances and the composition of the piece may not be apocryphal.
Ablogin’s return of the Funeral March up tempo after the disembodied, reflective and melancholic Trio (superb and haunting pianissimos here) was quite otherworldly and utterly inspired. The unhinged mind and the madness of Lucia di Lammermoor were inescapable associations. The left hand began a deeply moving tolling of funeral bells – something I have never encountered before in performance and profoundly effective and affecting emotionally. The tragedy and the darkness of unavoidable grief. Ablogin revealed in the Presto a quite extraordinary control and transparency of polyphony and counterpoint, as he had done throughout the other movements, but with uncanny effect here. For me it was an expression of the unhinged grief of the mind. Yes a visionary and unique view of this masterpiece of Western music.
Not all was purely music!

Frank Huddlestone Potter (1845-1887) Girl Resting at the Piano (Tate Gallery, London)
My first observation of the participant Yui Nakamura in Stage II was purely aesthetic. The appealing image of an elegant Japanese young woman in a crimson silk ball gown, seated perfectly erect at a museum quality mahogany-veneered, ormolu decorated 1842 Pleyel, about to perform a group of Chopin mazurkas is a 'painting' one encounters rarely in life…such refined beauty in a solitary tableau vivant. Yet her recital, although somewhat over-prepared, was on occasion surprisingly spontaneous, heartfelt and forthright. She has significant musical gifts and a finely honed talent as well as a natural affinity with period instruments.
The essential nature of the eighteenth century style brillante, of which the Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.22 is an outstanding representative of Chopin’s early Varsovian style, seems rather a mystery to modern pianists. Jan Kleczyński writes of this work: ‘There is no composition stamped with greater elegance, freedom and freshness’. The style involves virtuoso display, intense feeling, a bright light touch and glistening tone, varied shimmering colours, supreme clarity of articulation, in fact much like what was referred to in French as the renowned jeu perlé. Perfect for the early period pianos for which it was conceived. There are also vital expressive elements of personal charm, grace, taste and elegance.
Joanna Różewska in a fine Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante produced a beautiful cantabile tone for the ‘smooth’ Andante spianato on the 1837 Erard. Chopin often performed this work on its own at the beginning of his concerts. The contrasting vigorous polonaise was extremely charming, expressive and elegant in a style that may only have been possible before the Great War. She was one of the very few participants to fully understand and express the intangible civilized worldliness and carefree hedonistic charm of these early 'salon' works before the horrors of August 1914 broke over the continent. The profound disillusionment of total war erased high civilization from European life, a condition from which we have never recovered and are likely never to recover.
The internal polyphony she found within the work was rather a revelation to me, extremely beautiful and in the character of an ardent dream. She came close to the ideal of the style brillante. There was great clarity and colour in her playing and the glittering tone of pliant and flexible fioraturas and the light touch she produced for this genre was ideal. For the sake of clarity she was sparing with the pedal. There is also an indispensable element of superficial personal affectation she can manage tastefully which is artful and correct for this genre of music. A  recital of charm and elegance rather than exploring the dark night of the soul. One must not forget that Chopin astonished Vienna by his pianism but perhaps even more by the elegance of his princely appearance.

In Stage II Tomasz Ritter chose the 1837 Erard  for the Chopin Sonata in B minor Op. 58. Such a noble beginning of the Allegro maestoso was unpedaled. Ritter has an inborn deep musicality and his phrasing speaks volumes of highly charged emotion. He did so much creatively with the embedded polyphony. The Scherzo was wonderfully light like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the trio full of ardent emotion.
The transition to the Largo was not as forceful as others in the competition. The tempo seemed absolutely appropriate to me. Ritter has a fine tone and  cultivated touch. The movement opened out like a great narrative poem of meditation. We began an exquisite extended nocturne-like musical voyage taken through a night of introspective thought. This great musical narrative was presented as a poem of the reflective heart and spirit. The voices he revealed possessed a singular life of their own. So many musical ‘destinies’ were played out and the expressive harmonies and transitions were carefully managed.
I could not avoid thinking of the opening lines from the Duino Elegies of Rainer Maria Rilke:

‘Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?
And even if one of them suddenly pressed me against his heart,
I should fade in the strength of his stronger existence.’   
                                                                                                                                        (trans. J.B. Leishman)
In the Finale. Presto ma non tanto  he adopted a rhapsodic approach to this 'ballade'. Tomaszewski again cannot be bettered:
Thereafter, in a constant Presto (ma non troppo) tempo and with the expression of emotional perturbation (agitato), this frenzied, electrifying music, inspired (perhaps) by the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony...'
Certainly Ritter transported us into a world of delirium at the close.


Drawing of Chopin in pencil with chalk highlights by Henri Lehmann Paris 19 April 1847
The style brillante concertos in the Final Round in the large main Filharmonia Hall  were a mixture of enlightened and not so enlightened performances on period pianos.
The conductor of the eloquent Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, Grzegorz Nowak, seemed not particularly sensitive to the volume of the orchestra in relation to the soloist during the final round. I felt he could have achieved a far better dynamic balance between the period piano and the orchestra’s rich period sound which would definitely have assisted for example the restrained Dimitri Ablogin. Audiences still seem to prefer the 'thunderers' even today, but not this listener.
The Larghetto of the F minor concerto Op.21 on the other hand, being rather more exposed for the soloist, revealed his superb, refined tone and touch on this 1842 Pleyel. The movement was expressively ardent, refined and romantic in character particularly the phrasing. He produced a moving, beautiful cantabile and the eloquent bassoon and traverse flute counterpoint only added to the heartfelt yearning of this movement.
I found the Allegro vivace similarly refined with a graceful even radiant  jeu perlé with most expressive dynamic variations and nuanced presentation. His style brillante had very affecting clarity of articulation. Here we had colour, charm and elegance. His ornamentation of the final phrases was appealing and the fioraturas had the texture of Venetian lace. His introduction of what one might call ‘echo effects’ into the Rondo was also delightful and relieved what can all too easily become in the wrong hands (and does) a monochromatic virtuoso exercise.
The Tomasz Ritter performance of the same Chopin F minor piano concerto Op.21 was the high point of the entire competition for me. My review written at the time is as follows:
‘In the Maestoso first movement his expression swayed correctly between Classical detachment and Romantic enthusiasm. The main theme of the exposition in the rhythm of a mazur was well preserved and the development was a flurry of tasteful activity. The style brillante came off spectacularly well on the 1842 Pleyel with Ritter.  Hints of the Larghetto were subtly expressed in a touching cantabile.
The Larghetto itself avoided any sort of cloying sentimentality. Strength was supplanted or even augmented by poetry. So many levels of expression were present here, some bordering on the divine. His fiorituras were of breathtaking delicacy like cobwebs dew dusted. He performed pianissimos that are only really achievable on a Pleyel or just possibly another period instrument of quality. The explosions of emotion in the Chopin directions con forza and appassionato were utterly appropriate to the expressive doubts and slightly angry emotions of adolescent or young love so full of hopes and illusions. I was deeply moved by the sheer glowing sound he achieved on this glorious piano. The controlled pianissimo final note as the apotheosis of the structure and love song was possibly the most intense and moving  musical moment of the entire competition.
The Allegro vivace  revealed the orchestra in its true period splendor. Ritter made an expressive sound painting of this movement with perfectly graded crescendos and decrescendos mixed with the youthful joy of exercising virtuosity to its utmost. The exuberant dance of the kujawiak provenance was wonderful in its physical energy, exhilaration and high spirits. He gave us such a marvelous outpouring of the optimistic young Chopin - the dancer, pianist, actor, mimic, writer, practical joker and humorist - as well as composer of genius. The movement danced all the way to the final overflowing joyful chords of this, the expression of Chopin's first love.’
Hyperbole was a popular resort to describe Chopin’s playing but there must be elements of truth in these extraordinary baroque descriptions. Few contemporary reviews mention his piano by name as connected with his actual playing. In fact even in modern times the brand of piano is seldom mentioned unless to distinguish Steinway from Yamaha. However one remarkably perceptive and descriptive account of a Chopin concert with Pauline Viardot and Franchomme at Pleyel’s 0n 21 February 1842 written by Léon Escudier and published in La France musicale of 27 February 1842 deserves particular mention
A poet, a tender poet above all, Chopin makes poetry predominate. […] M. Pleyel’s magnificent instruments lend themselves admirably to these various shadings. Listening to all these sounds, all these nuances – which follow each other, intermingle, separate and reunite to arrive at the same goal, melody – one might well believe one is hearing small fairy voices sighing under silver bells, or a rain of pearls falling on crystal tables. […] Do not ask Chopin to simulate grand orchestral effects on the piano. This type of playing suits neither his constitution nor his ideas. He wishes rather to astonish you with his light swiftness, with mazurkes [sic] with their novel forms and not give you nervous attacks and make you swoon. His inspiration is all of tender and naïve poetry; do not ask him for big gestures or diabolic variations; he wishes to speak to the heart, not to the eyes; he wishes to love you not to devour you. See: the public is in ecstasy...’
Naturally one cannot recreate this ambiance in 2018 nor would one want to, so distant are we from the source of this music. Such a description however should certainly give one pause for thought. Surely only in Poland would two to three hours of air time on Polish National Radio Dwojka be devoted each evening to close analysis and discussion of the day's performances of Chopin and a long final summary of the competition at the conclusion. This is in addition to long discussions on Radio Chopin, the 24 hour online station. I hasten to add the TV broadcasts....

One should reflect on how few participants in this extraordinary event seem to be familiar with such contemporaneous accounts or simply ignored them in consideration of their careers unavoidably forged on a SteinwayOne might ask, did any participant approach the period piano with sufficient love, time, experience and concentrated attention or was the competition simply an opportunistic novelty? I feel a number of the participants did, certainly the winner Tomasz Ritter. 

In the end it is personal character that will distinguish one pianist from another at the highest level of performance and interpretation. A different virtuosity is required for the period piano. The cultivation of it requires a special devotion, love and care. Naturally choosing what 'period' instrument to play is infinitely easier than how to play it or as we now term it 'historically informed performance' to be fashionably correct.  

In the final summation it is the player's interpretation of the notation of the score (essentially a rather rough guide) and the depth of his musicianship and spiritual life, not necessarily the instrument he has chosen, that will be the defining factor between an excellent and sublime performance. After all it is the music foremost, the composer who 'receives' it, then the pianist and finally the instrument in the hierarchy of musical appreciation is it not? But the sound of a period instrument may persuade a deep musical talent to make another interpretative choice to that inevitably offered by a Steinway or Yamaha with their 'perfect' ready-made tone.
Each historical epoch interprets the past through its own cultural filters. Consideration of contemporaneous accounts and the instruments on which the music was originally performed is vital to any performer of Chopin wishing to approach the source with true integrity. This competition provided the listener with something quite new and ironically rather old in musical terms. 

During this intense reassessment of Chopin’s soundscape I felt a similar excitement to that witnessed during the astonishing revolution in Baroque and ‘Early Music’ performance practice on period instruments in the late 1960s and 1970s - Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Bob van Asperen, Kenneth Gilbert, Ton Koopman, Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood and others. Will a similar revolution follow with the period piano? One hopes so. Finding well-maintained, accessible period instruments is not always easy. Some collections are rather averse to lending instruments for concerts, others preserve older instruments merely for their attractions as fine pieces of furniture.
No composer divides the opinion of listeners more concerning 'correct' interpretation than  Fryderyk Chopin. They are quite prepared to die for their convictions.  The complex echoes of this revolutionary rediscovery or 'rehearing', a concept coined by Prof. John Rink, have only just begun and are still to be assimilated and hopefully built upon. The greatest achievements in art should make one question accepted values and perceptions, enable one to see familiar things differently, reveal new previously hidden joys through another pair of uniquely gifted eyes. This was certainly accomplished for those ears attuned to the 1st. International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments in Warsaw.
Incidentally at home in Warsaw the author Michael Moran has an 1844 Pleyel pianino No: 11151 (the type Chopin composed on in Valldemossa) restored by David Winston of the Period Piano Company in Kent and a David Rubio copy (Duns Tew) of the 1745 Johannes Daniel Dulcken Double Manual harpsichord that resides in the Smithsonian Collection. He has a passionate interest in period instruments and the performance practices associated with them. He seriously studied both piano and harpsichord in London.

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

All reproductions above (except the colour photograph of the Pleyel pianino) are taken from the remarkable volume Chopin et Pleyel by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger (Fayard 2010)

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For photographs of the instruments used and far more detailed, fully illustrated reviews of each participant and each piece at each competition stage:

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Michael Moran is an award-winning Australian author and classical musician. He studied the piano and harpsichord in London. His piano teacher was Eileen Ralf, a former Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and teacher of the distinguished Australian pianist Geoffrey Tozer. His harpsichord teacher was Maria Boxall, editor of the keyboard works of the English Baroque composer and organist John Blow as well as a renowned Harpsichord Method. 
He plays a 1844 Pleyel and a David Rubio copy of the 1745 Johannes Daniel Dulcken harpsichord  in the Smithsonian Institute

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Source material links

If you wish to hear Chopin on period instruments also played brilliantly by internationally established artists, The Real Chopin series issued by the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute is highly recommended. 

There is a fine and certainly rarely heard new recording (2017) of the seductive timbre and colour so suitable for Chopin on this precious 1842 Pleyel (No: 9648) used in the competition from the Edwin Beunk Collection, Enschede, Netherlands entitled Frédéric Chopin : Late Piano Works. It has been made by the Italian pianist Edoardo Torbianelli. He teaches historical piano and 'historically informed interpretation' at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel in Switzerland and in Paris at the Paris-Sorbonne University. He is Artist-in-Residence at the distinguished Royaumont Abbey & Foundation at Asnières-sur-Oise in France. From 2014-18 he has dedicated himself to the important study of vocality in Chopin (the composer being deeply inspired by opera) with the assistance of the Royaumont Foundation.

CD Production: Glossa/Schola Cantorum Basiliensis  GCD922517  

A particularly informative booklet accompanies the CD.

If you felt you might like to learn more about Chopin and the fascinating country of Poland where this competition took place, you could read a well-received book I wrote concerning the transition from 'Polish socialism' to the market economy in the early 1990s.  The book is part amusing diary of my work project and part serious cultural survey. The Arthur Friedheim Foundation and University of Florida jointly awarded it a Distinguished Achievement Award for Travel Literature.

A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland (London, Granta 2008)



Author website:


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