15th Chopin and His Europe Festival (Festiwalu Chopin i jego Europa) Warsaw, Poland 14 August - 1 September 2019 (1)

From Chopin to Moniuszko
All Photos Wojciech Grzedzinski

And so another fine edition of Chopin and His Europe (Chopin i jego Europa) concludes with a concert that was rather inspiring and certainly expressing optimistic signs for the future of orchestral music in Warsaw. Many fine concerts ahead!

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Symphonic Concert
Alena Baeva violin
Andrey Boreyko conductor
Symphonic Variations

Probably, there are many works that can be indicated is symbolic final of the interwar period in music. However, perhaps the Symphonic Variations by Witold Lutosławski deserves a special place. The composer created this orchestral firework in 1936 and we can hear references to Szymanowski’s music in it. I was sonically overwhelmed by this performance and am constantly astonished at the vivid musical imagination, the scope of his sound palette, the range of emotional expression and sheer grandeur of this great genius of Polish music. Just look at the deep humanism of this noble and majestic face - it says it all.

Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 67

There has been an recent renaissance of interest in the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg and to my mind it is supremely overdue. I felt sure that Alena Baeva would bring her visionary talents to the work and so she did. 

The opening Allegro molto burst upon us with ferocious energy. Such passionately tortured music was expressed with deep emotional commitment by Baeva. She was in a state of high agitation throughout which communicated itself to the audience and moved us to the depths. The unexpected innocence of a celeste was desperately moving and eloquent in this movement. The violin part is strenuous and without pause. The sheer physical involvement with the violin as a conduit for passionate musical exegesis was without peer. The Allegretto was deeply melancholic. Baeva produced a profound sense of loss with the violin speaking from centre stage in this lament. 

The Adagio brought us one dimension deeper into the cavern of Jewish despair. Baeva gave us a long narration of lament, a song sung in the pain and anguish of a great account  yet mysteriously redeeming in its beauty and expressive emotion. Hard to contain one's tears. Then without respite the Allegro risoluto where the emotional atmosphere of the work metamorphosed into the merciless power of an invading military force. The kettle drums and ominous, repetitive  rhythms emphasized its armed nature. I felt the unremitting torture of the Jewish nation here (no, I am not Jewish, simply human). Baeva rendered the solo voice of the violin with unbearable sorrow as the work concluded in unrelieved despair. A remarkable performance on many levels, musical, philosophical, religious and spiritual.

 Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

The Warsaw Philharmonic under their new conductor Andrey Boreyko absolutely came alive and were galvanized with energy in a way I have never experienced before in this hall. The Allegro con brio was powerful and energetic as it should be in the manner in which we are all familiar. But listen to Furtwängler in Berlin during the Second World War for incandescent anger. I found the Andante somewhat lackluster as the ensemble was not as integrated as it could have been. The Scherzo. Allegro - Trio was energetically driven at the expense of expressiveness but the Finale. Allegro was packed with grand dramatic gestures and ambitious dynamic variation. What can one possibly say as a critic that might be new and of interest about Beethoven's 5th symphony?

The essential point of tonight was the introduction of the new conductor Andrey Boreyko to the audience and the absolute transformation of the soul of the Warsaw Philharmonic. This bodes so well for the future of symphonic and orchestral music in Warsaw...

Andrey Boreyko has been named Artistic Director and Music Director of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, commencing from the 2019/20 season. He has a long distinguished relationship with the orchestra dating back to 2007.

As Artistic Director of the orchestra, he will conduct not only during their subscription series in Warsaw, but he will also participate in all the main Polish Festivals (for example Chopin and his Europe, the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music and the Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival).

His first subscription concert as Artistic Director will be in October 2019 and that season he will also tour to Japan with the orchestra. Prior to that, he will conduct the orchestra in a number of Summer Festivals as Artistic Director Designate in August and September 2019.

Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Music Hall
Piano recital
Nikolai Demidenko period piano

Nikolai Demidenko scarcely needs any introduction as he has extensive worldwide recognition and critical acclaim. His passionate, virtuosic performances and musical individuality have marked him as one of the most extraordinary pianists of of our time.
 Soirées de Vienne - Valses-Caprices d'apres Fr. Schubert No. 6 S. 427

The pianist and scholar Dr. Leslie Howard writes of these works: 

The Soirées de Vienne addressed such a real need and an obvious difficulty that their present neglect is quite shameful. Schubert produced several hundreds of short dance pieces for piano, many of them in sets which were possibly intended for continuous dancing or domestic entertainment but which are, because of their individual brevity, the sameness of their length, and their often unvaried tonality, very awkward to programme in concert. [...]  No 6 of the Soirées de Vienne was a great favourite in Liszt’s day and was much recorded earlier in the twentieth century.

On the copy of the 1825 Buchholtz piano created by Paul McNulty - Chopin's favoured Warsaw 'pantaleon' or piano - Demidenko created a period feel and atmosphere of some intensity. An imaginative pianist, he extracted a charming tone from the Buchholtz with his refined touch. However from the interpretative point I yearned for more Viennese affectation, charm and gemütlichkeit. These are intangible qualities that come from within and I felt that he was perhaps not quite superficial enough in this enchanting salon work.

 Sonata in A major D. 959

I felt Demidenko was far more at home in this profoundly philosophical work. here we have the triumph of expressiveness over technical virtuosity.  The ubiquitous theme of the romantic wanderer' perambulating through life in a state of lyricism, rudely awakened by grim, even hostile reality. Dreams and reality, imagination and perception. This sonata is one of the three most profound having within the ever-present shade of Beethoven who had died in 1827. Schubert was to die just a few months short of two years later.

Demidenko gave the opening Allegro a suitably majestic tonal world. HoWever although the  cantabile was superb, I was anticipating more tension prefiguring the Andantino. I am always struck how Schubert benefits so greatly from performance on a period instrument, arguably more than an other composer. 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. 

The emotional fulcrum of this great sonata is the Andantino movement in F-sharp minor. We are irritably reminded of songs from Winterreise and the melancholic meditation contained within the cycle. The music of the middle section is of abandoned, mindless and heartless violence that obliterates the surrounding lyricism. Alfred Brendel has made a connection with the tragic painting of Goya, especially The Third of May 1808, where the animalistic violence of the firing squad is ranged against the defenseless 'soft' human targets. Demidenko was deeply poetic and introspective here. The tempo was of an ardent nocturne or love song. The hysterically violent section sounded magnificently variegated and fragmented on the Buchholtz.
The two movements that follow this existential exploration of the soul, soften the tragedy although linked symbiotically to it. Demidenko made the Scherzo rhythmically infectious and persuasive with a lyrically reflective central section. The Rondo. Allegretto contained a graceful song. The rhapsodic phrases were deeply felt with much dynamic variation and refined touch and tone. Turbulent emotions erupted on the Buchholtz with a growling vengeance yet the last statement of theme was remarkably innocent in character. The silences Demidenko calculated here were replete with a sense of destiny waiting ominously in the wings. 

A formidably expressive account of this late sonata by Schubert which for me simply emphasized the suitability of period instruments for this composer's characteristically colored  sound palette and timbre.

Barcarolle in F sharp major

I felt this to be a remarkably successful and revelatory expressive interpretation of this great work. On the period piano, the temptation to dynamic exaggeration is prevented purely by the design of the instrument itself and its inability to insensitively overwhelm with vast sound capacity. The opening simply set the mood and sound world of the waterscape without a crash into the pier.
Tarantella in A flat major

This was a very spirited performance that had a few solecisms which only proved the quite acceptable human fallibility of this great artist.

Berceuse in D flat major

A persuasive and poetic view of the work marred just a little by the malaise hinted at above.

Bolero in A minor

A stylish and spirited performance of this rarely performed but rhythmically exciting and youthful work of Chopin. I was so happy he chose it, possibly my favourite early Chopin piece. He seemed happy with it too and really enjoyed playing it. The bolero was originally a lively Spanish dance in triple metre originating in the 18th century and popular in the 19th. It bears a resemblance to the polonaise which is perhaps why Chopin wrote one.

A Bolero Dancer is a painting by Antonio Cabral Bejarano 
Impromptu in F sharp major

A fine performance

Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major

This work in the so-called ‘late style’ of the composer was written during a period of great suffering and unhappiness. He labored incessantly over its composition and what emerged is one of his most complex works in his oeuvre both pianistically and emotionally. 

I found Demidenko's interpretation of this late, supremely difficult work individual, poetic and profound. On the Buchholtz, Demidenko reduced the dynamic range which, together with his musically penetrating phrasing, allowed the work to develop into an internal meditation and a haunting search for certainty in our tenuous hold on life. So much emotion was expressed here in a chiaroscuro range of moods and colours, it was overwhelming for me. An absolutely unique and convincing vision of the work.

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Symphonic Concert
Rosanne van Sandwijk mezzo soprano

Symphony in D major (‘Haffner’), K. 385

The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century is celebrating a thirty year anniversary of working with the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute so this is rather a special concert on many levels.

Mozart moved from Salzburg to Vienna in 1781.  He began anew his new post in a mood of optimism and independence of spirit. he was now working for himself so had to accustom himself to the social and musical life of Vienna. In the time-honored manner private lessons and concerts as a keyboard soloist kept the wolf from the almost marital door.

Bernado Belotto (aka Canaletto) 1720-1780  Schoenbrunn  Palace, Vienna 1759
In 1776, Mozart had been commissioned to write a serenade for the wedding of the daughter of a merchant named Sigmund Haffner. This was so highly appreciated, in the summer of 1782 Mozart was asked by his father Leopold to provide a celebratory symphony for the ennoblement of Haffner's son (incidentally Mozart's age) Mozart was overworked and was planning his own wedding disapproved by his father. Mozart sent the new music to Leopold and then promptly forgot it. In spring  when he needed a composition for a Viennese concert, Mozart looked over the score over again and wrote to Leopold: "my new Haffner symphony has positively amazed me, for I had forgotten every single note of it. It must surely produce a good effect." A contemporary report noted an 'exceptionally large crowd'. The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II remained for the entire concert'against his habit' and joined 'such animous [sic] applause as has never been heard of here.'

The orchestra was conducted with great physical animation from a raised stool by the orchestral leader. The opening of the Allegro burst upon us with a rush of sheer joy. Mozart wrote to his father Leopold that the movement 'must be played with great fire.' The movement seems dominated by Haydn with a theme of great succinctness and concentration. The sound texture of the orchestra was captivating in ensemble and the energy and commitment insisted upon by the leader, most infectious.

The Andante has an urbane, gemütlich atmosphere so typically Viennese in its coffee-house conversational tone. The orchestra seemed to instinctively understand the social charm contained within this movement. Attractive orchestral detail and elegant phrasing. The Minuet was remarkably lively and rather humourous but could have been more 'affected' in the Viennese sense. Mozart marks the Finale to be played 'as fast as possible'. It has an operatic quality as does almost everything Mozart wrote. Echoes of Figaro perhaps? At all events Vienna has rejuvenated Mozart after the claustrophobia of Salzburg. The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century with their period instruments and lead by the leader, a volcano of communicative energy, raised the composer to life like Lazarus. The movement was fiery, energized with irresistible forward momentum. A powerful and satisfying performance of one of Mozart's greatest symphonies.

Kristian Bezuidenhout, playing a Paul McNulty copy of a Graf instrument, then joined the orchestra for the great Mozart concert aria, Ch'io mi scordi, for soprano, piano and orchestra, KV 505. Mozart's manuscript copy is dated December 26, 1786. It is an 'insertion aria' to Idomeneo, Act II, Scene 1, with the libretto by Abate Giambattista Varesco. The piece includes an obbligato part for keyboard, which was played by Bezuidenhout. The aria is marked Rondo, a fashionable form for vocal works at that time. The soprano Rosanne van Sandwijk sang with accurate intonation and affecting expression, alternating with panache the flourishes on the piano. Certainly an opera seria composition and sung in that style.


After the interval the Mozart Piano Concerto in C Major K. 503. In December 1786 Mozart was planning a visit to Prague for performances of The Marriage of Figaro. He performed this concerto in Vienna on December 5, 1786, amazingly only the day after he completed the score (ink still moist on the page). On the 6th he completed  Symphony No. 38 in D major K. 504 which became known as the "Prague" Symphony. The concerto was inexplicably neglected after his death. In 1934 Artur Schnabel performed the work with the Vienna Philharmonic under George Szell it had not been performed in Vienna for 147 years! Only after the Second World War did this great concerto entered the repertoire. 

The parallel between this concerto and the opera Cosi fan Tute was highlighted by the Mozart and Haydn authority H.C. Robbins Landon: the stage work in which Mozart most brilliantly and perfectly solved the structural, dramatic and musical problems which had occupied so much of his best operatic efforts' and the concerto 'contains the essence of Mozart's approach to the sonata form: unity within diversity.  He deemed this concerto 'the grandest, most difficult and most symphonic of them all,' while noting 'the complete negation of any deliberate virtuoso elements.'

The Mozart authority Cuthbert Girdlestone wrote of the Allegro maestoso opening movement 'Few of Mozart's compositions show themselves to the world with so original a frontispiece and none opens in such bold tones. Its heroic nature is apparent in its first bars—not the sham heroism of an overture for which a few impersonal formulas suffice, but that which expresses greatness of spirit.'  

Kristian Bezuidenhout conducted the movement from the keyboard fluently and with penetrating, majestic energy. The variety of colour he extracted from the Graf, his immaculate articulation, pedalling to vary the timbre and the beautiful registral contrasts were outstanding.

The second movement, Andante, was performed with an affecting limpid innocence, simplicity and calm reflectiveness by Bezuidenhout. Fine legato and cantabile lines. The Allegretto finale is so obviously operatic ,surrounded as it were by the composition of some of the most popular and tuneful of the Mozart operas. Here too dance music, the gavotte from the ballet music for Idomeneo. Bezuidenhout expressed all the wit, tendresse as well as a similar aristocratic poise and majesty as engaged from the first movement. There is no posturing just the finest of classical balance with a tasteful expression of heightened sentiment towards the central section of this rondo. Bezuidenhout conducted this movement with a similar elegance and emotion to the music itself, yet not denying its restrained passionate content.

Finally the wonderfully titled song, Abendempfindung an Laura  (Evening Feelings for Laura) KV 523. It was pleasantly sung by the  mezzo-soprano Rosanne van Sandwijk, but I felt she could have made more expressive use of the poetry and perhaps slightly finer control of her intonation.
*  *  *  *  *  *

An informal talk with Kristian Bezuidenhout in the courtyard of the Bach Museum in Leipzig, 19th June 2019, during the Leipzig Bach Festival Bach, Court Compositeur

I was fortunate enough to be able to arrange an informal talk with this Artist in Residence. I neglected to write it up at the time so I will try to make amends here from my notes. He and Isabelle Faust the previous evening had given a superfine virtuoso performance of six Bach sonatas for violin and harpsichord. We sat in the attractive courtyard of the Bach Museum.

I spoke a little about my own background with the harpsichord in London in the 1970s, studying with Maria Boxall (editor of the keyboard works of John Blow and author of a harpsichord method). I witnessed the extremely exciting early days of the so-called 'Early Music' revival in London. This was when Christopher Hogwood was just becoming known, a youthful Trevor Pinnock was playing in Hampstead parish churches, Ton Koopman was giving solo recitals as was Bob van Asperen, Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt were revolutionizing the performance practice and study of Bach and performing at St. John's Smith Square and the Spitalfields Festival. We spoke of his background in South Africa and Australia - with some animation me being Australian and also knowing South Africa well after researching a recent biography I wrote!

Kristian began with a surprising remark in view of his career, that his first experience with the harpsichord and fortepiano was an 'alien encounter'. He had studied the modern instrument. However he was overwhelmed on first hearing Gustav Leonhardt playing the works of Antoine Forqueray and Jacques Duphly. 

As the 2019 Leipzig Bach Festival was entitled Bach, Court Compositeur, we talked at length about the significant influence of French music and performance tradition on Bach. He considers that one must fully understand the cantatas and sacred works (his first love) to be able to meaningfully play the keyboard works. He pointed out the familiarity of the liturgical year to music lovers as art of the congregation in Bach's day. The conclusion of the St. Matthew Passion is of course deeply tragic but the congregation knew that the following week the Resurrection was coming.

We then talked about his remarkably close artistic relationship with the magnificent Freiburger Barockorchester (Artistic Director), his role as Principal Guest Conductor of the English Concert, his conducting association with the outstanding Les Arts Florissants and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He was awarded the Grammophone  Artist of the Year in 2013. At this point he expressed his great enthusiasm for Paul McNulty's reproduction period pianos. He has recorded the complete Mozart piano concertos on a McNulty copy of an Anton Walter & Sohn instrument, Vienna 1805 with the Freiburger Barockorchester under Gottfried von der Goltz. One of my favorite recordings of his is the  breathtakingly brilliant youthful and prodigious Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Double concerto for Violin and Piano (with Isabelle Faust) and the Piano concerto in A minor.

We then began to discuss in some detail the keyboard implications of the fascinating fingering of Francois Couperin and how each finger and key had been given its own character during the French classical tradition. I also mentioned that this was an influence on the penciled in fingerings of Fyderyk Chopin as well. Unfortunately at this point it began to rain and we had to leave the delightful open courtyard and draw the informal talk to a close, promising to meet in Warsaw at the concert I have reviewed above...

Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Music Hall
Chamber concert
Alena Baeva violin


Grand Duo polonais op. 8 /Op.5

The Wienawski brothers respected the Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko and he them. In this work they celebrated two of his famous songs - Kosak  and Maciek. The work requires a significant virtuoso display on the part of the violinist especially the Aleksey Verstovsky's Polonaise that concludes the piece. The work is well near forgotten today, but for me possesses a marvelous folkloric character of affecting simplicity and tunefulness. Kholodenko and Baeva gave a spirited account of the rare piece.

Clara and Robert Schumann
 Violin sonata No. 2 in D minor Op. 121

The almost unrelenting Romantic passion of the D minor Violin Sonata Op 121 makes it a remarkable work. Schumann dedicated it to Ferdinand David, the violinist to whom Mendelssohn dedicated his violin concerto.  The piece was premiered by Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann at a concert on 29 October 1853. This was the beginning of a famous musical partnership that lasted for many years. Towards the end of the year Joachim wrote enthusiastically to his friend Arnold Wehner, Director of music at Göttingen:

You know how expressively Clara interprets his [Schumann’s] music. I have extraordinary joy in playing Robert’s works with her, and I only wish you could share this joy … I must not fail to tell you about the new Sonata in D minor which Breitkopf & Härtel will bring out very soon. We played it from the proof-sheets. I consider it one of the finest compositions of our times in respect of its marvellous unity of feeling and its thematic significance. It overflows with noble passion, almost harsh and bitter in expression, and the last movement reminds one of the sea with its glorious waves of sound.

Kholodenko and Baeva have such a symbiotic musical relationship, the slow introduction  Ziemlich langsam - Lebhaft was truly majestic before the heated passionate agitation of the development and coda. The second movement scherzo (Sehr lebhaft) had tremendous forward momentum and drive
 which reaches a climax with the chorale melody ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’, played fortissimo by both these brilliant players. They connected beautifully to the tender serenade variation of the movement that follows (Leise, einfach). The final  Bewegt  movement was emotionally as turbulent as one could possibly wish, fitting perfectly the idea of 'waves of sound' Joachim describes above. There was moving lyricism here too until the magnificent coda that concludes the work. 

Drei Romanzen Op.22

Clara and Robert Schumann moved to Düsseldorf in 1853 into a large house. Clara composed the Three Romances for violin and piano, Op. 22 in the summer. She dedicated her Three Romances to the violinist  Joseph Joachim (1831-1907). He even performed them for King George V of Hanover.

I was greatly moved by the lyricism of these pieces, particularly the G minor which has such a poignant theme that soars like a swallow, melancholically gliding above the following outgoing mood of the middle section. The intimate musical 'conversation' between these two brilliant musicians was affecting in a profoundly humanist way. The other Romances conform to a similar lyrical pattern - lyricism enclosing agitation, the Romantic temperament in miniature. The yearning violin of Baeva touched the heart supported by the complex piano underpinning of Kholodenko.

Richard Strauss and his wife the soprano Pauline de Ahna 
( Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Getty Images )
Sonata in E flat major for violin and piano, Op. 18

This Sonata for violin and piano in E flat major, Op. 18, of 1887 is the last chamber piece to come from Richard Strauss. He wrote it at much the same time as the renowned symphonic fantasy Aus Italien and the tone poem Don Juan. The melodies are sensually seductive and rather deeply engaged in the inner emotional world.  

The piano opens the Allegro ma non troppo first movement with some nobility which quickly gives way to a beautiful, flowing melody on the violin which Baeva made much of expressively. A passionate musical dialogue theme between the two musical partners in a theme marked espressivo e appassionato, serves as the proper second theme. The second movement is called Improvisation and marked Andante cantabile. I wondered at the terminology as this song is so beautifully and carefully imagined and composed. The Finale begins with a lugubrious Andante on the piano.  Allegro is the tempo of the actual movement and I think this was the only part of the sonata where I felt that Kholodenko was tempted into dynamically overwhelming the Baeva violin as the symphonic character of the writing inexorably drew in the players. The sonata closes on truly joint triumphal note. Overall an uplifting performance with a few questions of dynamic balance which did not detract hardly at all from the total emotional engagement.

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Chamber concert

Corina Belcea (violin)
Axel Schacher (violin)
Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola)
Antoine Lederlin (cello)

String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18 No. 6

 Beethoven  reordered all six works in the Op.18 set after finishing them in 1800. The six quartets were dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz and were first published in Vienna in 1801. 

The first movement theme is marked Allegro con brio and is tremendously jolly and merry. The Belcea presented it energetically, urgently and with such intensity one was overawed.  The second theme bubbled over almost into the manic. The Adagio became a deeply reflective internal innocent song of the heart. Such a simple and affecting melody. The Belcea brought a winning blithe character to this movement and produced a superbly subtle conclusion. The Scherzo with them was packed to the brim with energy, humour, playfulness and commitment. This ensemble has a  seemingly impregnable cohesive strength The phrasing and dynamic variation were brilliantly expressive. The final La melinconia Adagio - Allegretto quasi Allegro expresses deep sadness from the outset with long, legato yearning phrases. Sudden clouds of gloom descend during this movement, the moods striking like lightning with the Belcea. We then appear to take a optimistic walk  in dance rhythm in the bucolic countryside to lift the despondent mood. A brief return to gloomy thoughts or is it simply prosaic reality. The Belcea depict these fluctuating, flickering emotions so expressively until the final triumphant, joyful up tempo conclusion to this landscape of refraction.

String Quartet in F minor (‘Serioso’), Op. 95

In their next work, the String Quartet in F minor Op. 95 entitled 'Quartetto serioso' by Beethoven for rather mysterious reasons, was composed in 1810 at the same time as the Egmont Overture. The tense, terse compactness of the short opening Allegro con brio suited the passionate penetration of the Belcea Quartet to perfection. The interaction of voices was quite wonderful with extraordinarily committed playing especially by the cellist Antoine Lederlin. He also shone in the detaché playing in the extraordinary Allegretto with its inspired and musically sophisticated mixture of cantabile and fugato polyphonic elements.  There is such a sense of existential abandonment in this movement. The heartbeat rhythm is slowing in the struggle of the spirit to rise above earthly care. 

The abrupt, violent transition to the Allegro assai vivace ma serioso to anger and resentment was almost frighteningly accomplished in its urgency. The agitation settles. Musically so much makes absolute sense with this brilliant quartet who lay with such full-blooded conviction and authority. The powerful modulations were brilliantly accomplished by the quartet in the marvelous Trio. 

The fierce, irrepressible energy of Beethoven which always eschews languishing in depression, suited the virtuosic command of these players so well as we moved on from the elegiac introduction of the Larghetto espressivo through all manner of harmonic landscapes, mercurial moods and fantastic contrasts - a theme desperate for resolution as we move accelerando  into the passionate even ecstatic flourish and elated F major coda. A deeply satisfying performance of this extraordinary and galvanizing quartet.

String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131

William Blake, Elohim Creating Adam 1795–c.1805
After the interval the String Quartet in C sharp minor Op. 131.

There are five interlinked movements:

Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
Allegro molto vivace
Allegro moderato
Andante, ma non troppo e molto cantabile
Adagio quasi un poco andante

What can I possibly say of any true or lasting significance about this immortal work wherein Wagner described the unearthly opening fugue as 'the most melancholy sentiment ever expressed in music'.  Even this remark does not do justice to the beginning which can really only be termed 'the dark night of the soul' on the face of the deep before the creation of man. Listen to it yourself is the finest advice I can offer, feel how it affects your soul and come to your own personal conclusions. Ludwig van Beethoven, this profoundly isolated human in ways few of us can contemplate, let alone survive, transformed himself through sheer spiritual courage, juggling the shifting kaleidoscope of his obsession with variation form, the desperate memory of past joys. There are such savage pizzicatos in the Presto. Profound melancholy is laid into the Adagio and savagery into the rhythm of the final Allegro, with its fluctuation of moods like weather in a winter alpine landscape. The Belcea brought irresistible momentum here, an avalanche of passion. Emotions appear to be under control but then escape their binding chains in the Coda which erupts like whipped mercury. In this quartet clouds cross the face of the sun, there are games with rhythm and charm, the dance and the final assertive conclusion in the silence of the mind and senses. 

'....though you cried as pure as the bird
when the surging season uplifts him, almost forgetting
he's a fretful creature and not just a single heart
it's tossing to brightness, to intimate azure.'
                                        The Seventh Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. J.B. Leishman)

The Belcea Quartet were as profound and spiritually penetrating in this masterpiece as one could ever wish, triumphant in the grueling journey from the ominous oceanic cave into the sunlit sea of acceptance. 

This performance was the musical highlight of the festival for me together with the magical Christoph Prégardien  Lieder recital on August 17th. 

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Symphonic Concert
At this concert, the Artistic and Managing Director of the Festival, Stanisław Leszczyńki, was presented with the highest artistic honour awarded in Poland known as the Gloria Artis (Gold) for distinguished contributions to Polish culture over many years

Stanisław Leszczyńki 
Artistic and Managing Director of the Festival
Gold Gloria Artis
Concert Performers
Alena Baeva violin
Eric Hoeprich clarinet

 Violin concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22 (1862)

The Concerto in D minor was composed in 1862 and was premiered in Moscow on November 27 with Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880) himself as soloist and Anton Rubinstein conducting. A child prodigy, he was one of the most brilliant and beloved 'virtuoso-composers' of his day, an outstanding example of what Yehudi Menuhin described (in his foreword to a biography of Eugène Ysaÿe) as 'that romantic race of mighty men who were violin virtuosi.'

In some ways this performance was an experiment as the work had not been performed before with a period instrument orchestra. The open clamour of a modern symphony orchestra was absent replaced by a fuller timbre. The opening Allegro has a rich melody. I felt this a particularly suitable orchestral ensemble for a different, more moderate view of  this piece with its mahogany depth of sound. Some disagreed with me.

Baeva was excruciatingly ardent in the opening theme, romantic yearning transformed into joy. She maintained an intimate connection with orchestra and conductor. The conductor is actually the leader of the orchestra who sits on a raised piano stool slightly elevated above the orchestra before the desk of first violins. The tutti passages were freighted with full period sound, long legato cantabile lines were finely maintained. With Baeva one could not avoid remarking what a superb melodic gift Henryk Wieniawski had been given by the powers on high.

The second movement Romance.  (Andante ma non troppo) emerges seamlessly from the first movement as a beautiful outgrowth or bloom. The lyrical theme became airborne like the ravishing song of a lark. At the time, this theme was often performed alone as a solo piece. The Baeva violin sang this enchanting, simple melody which was at once moving yet charming. Baeva turned the final Allegro con fuoco into a marvellously passionate dance à la Zingara (in the gypsy style) full of energy, arrogance and invincibility. Here we had virtuosic abandon and complete commitment to the swirling emotions and driving sprung rhythms of the movement. 
 Clarinet concerto in A major, KV 622 (1791)

The Concerto in A Major for Clarinet and Orchestra, K. 622 by Mozart is recognized as a timeless masterpiece without peer. Perhaps because it was the last concerto he wrote two months before he died at 35, we have invested it with a deeper significance. Mozart composed the concerto for his friend and fellow Freemason, the clarinetist Anton Stadler (1753-1812). It is reported that Stadler had a special A clarinet that extended below the traditional range. Eric Hoeprich performed on one of these instruments. 

Some modern reproductions have been made from this drawing, possibly one being played by Eric Hoeprich this evening, him being one of the world's leading exponents of the historical clarinet. There was no conductor, the soloist leading the orchestra (he was also a founder member and principal clarinet of this orchestra).

This was one of those ‘perfect’ stylistic performances of the work and I am left with nothing to say other than praise. There is such a rich warmth to this remarkable instrument, a true soul to it, a mellow woodiness of rich timbre, colours and texture particularly in the lowest register (down to C) for which the instrument was especially constructed to encompass. Elegant phrasing, refinement and delicacy and in the Adagio of this concerto, that heartbreaking melody, sublime in every way. In the Rondo the original instrument enables a much softer legato line again with such a rich timbre and all the colours of the rainbow. I do not wish to sound trite but one inescapably feels for Mozart this was an addio to life itself.

 Variations in B flat major on a theme from Mozart’s 'Don Giovanni' (‘Là ci darem la mano’) (1827/28)
The Variations in B flat major on ‘Là ci darem la mano’, Op. 2 are Chopin’s characteristic reaction to Mozart's Don Giovanni. Thanks to these Variations, Chopin’s fame spread across central Europe. They first moved Robert Schumann, whose youthful review – the first that he wrote – in a Leipzig music periodical, entitled ‘Opus Zwei’ [Opus 2], has acquired a lasting place in music history. That review was written in a fictional style (a device that Schumann would frequently employ): 
‘Eusebius came in quietly the other day. You know the ironic smile on his pale face with which he seeks to create suspense. I was sitting at the piano with Florestan. Florestan is, as you know, one of those rare musical minds which anticipate, as it were, that which is new and extraordinary. Today, however, he was surprised. With the words, “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius!” Eusebius laid a piece of music on the piano rack. […] Chopin – I have never heard the name – who can he be? […] every measure betrays his genius!’

Chopin composed the ‘Là ci darem’ Variations in 1827. As a student of the Main School of Music, he had received from Elsner another compositional task: he had to write variations for piano with orchestral accompaniment. As his theme, he chose the famous duet between Zerlina and Don Giovanni from the first act of Mozart’s opera – the one in which overwhelming power and faultless seduction meet maidenly naivety and barely controlled fascination. (Tomaszewski)

Chopin’s ‘Là ci darem’ Variations are Classical in form with an introduction, theme, five variations and finale. They are a marvellous example of the style brillant. Kholodenko conducted this work from the keyboard of a period piano, an 1849 Erard from the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute collection. He opened with the correct indicated deliberate tempo Largo - rather slow compared to the way many pianists begin. He then adopted an effortless styl brillant that was light, elegant and inspiringly stylish. The approach was genuinely expressive of the opera and the lurking demonic nature of it that appears so civilized on the surface. The songlines were a refined cantabile with just the right rhythm. Every repeated phrase was differentiated from the preceding example, not mindlessly repeated as is so often done. 

Clara Wieck loved this work and performed it often making it popular in Germany. Her notorious father, who had forbidden her marriage to Robert Schumann, wrote of perceptively and rather ironically to my mind of this work: ‘In his Variations, Chopin brought out all the wildness and impertinence of the Don’s life and deeds, filled with danger and amorous adventures. And he did so in the most bold and brilliant way’. Kholodenko understood this to perfection and his virtuosity was in the ascendant in the transparently impressive articulated left hand passages. The dynamic never became a burdensome thump.

He seemed to be greatly enjoying himself with delicious moments of rhetorical delicacy. Each variation was carefully delineated in character and had the feeling of improvisation or 'on-the-spot' invention. His affectation of gesture was affectingly pure 18th century in its style and artfulness. Kholodenko never at any time approached this work as a virtuoso display piece, which most pianists do. Waterfalls of glittering notes cascaded around us as in the original descriptions of jeu perlé. This was without doubt some of the finest period piano playing I had ever heard.

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Piano recital
Cyprien Katsaris piano

Cyprien Katsaris began to play piano at the age of four, in Cameroon, where he spent his childhood. His first teacher was Marie-Gabrielle Louwerse. A graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied piano with Aline van Barentzen and Monique de la Bruchollerie, as well as chamber music with René Leroy and Jean Hubeau, he was the only Western European prize-winner in the 1972 Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Competition.
 His international career includes performances with the world’s greatest orchestras, most notably the Berlin Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, NHK Symphony Orchestra (Tokyo), Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Bucharest George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. He has collaborated with such conductors as Leonard Bernstein, Mstislav Rostropovich, Simon Rattle, Christoph von Dohnányi, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Kent Nagano, Sandor Végh, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Leif Segerstam, Dmitri Kitajenko and Karl Münchinger.
He is a most entertaining personality and performer who engages the audience on a personal and humorous level as he shares his passion for music.
 The fascinating programme he presented here is most unusual and unlikely ever to be repeated. Chopin had many pupils and influenced many composers. This is a collection of miniature compositions by outstanding stars in the constellation of pupils and composers  surrounding Chopin. In an invaluable manner these small pieces create the social atmosphere that Chopin must have experienced.
 Mazurka in E minor, Op. 21 No. 2
Lolita – valse brillante, Op. 11

Fontana was not a pupil of Chopin but an utterly selfless friend, amanuensis and composer. His devotion to Chopin and tolerance of his whimsical nature are legendary. The mazurka is a pleasant occasional piece. The amusingly titled 'Lolita' valse brillante (pace Vladimir Nabokov) creates the atmosphere and social ambiance Chopin must have known. 

Mazurka in B flat major, Op. 3 No. 3
Mazurka in F sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 4
Nocturne in E major, Op. 11
Nocturne in G flat major, Op. 39

Tellefsen was a renowned Norwegian  piano virtuoso born in Trondheim. After much effort he was accepted as a pupil of Chopin with lessons three times a week, two of them free. This was significant given the high fees Chopin charged his aristocratic pupils. He assisted in the publication of Chopin's works after his death and adopted many of his pupils. His piano works are rather simple and naive and evoke a Chopinesque atmosphere. Katsaris brought out the touch of the oriental, odd harmonies and uncommon sensibility in his the mazurkas. the Nocturne in E major was rather like being offered a box of chocolate eclairs but the G-flat major was quite developed. One could not hep reflecting on the gulf that separates talent and genius.   
Le Tourbillon. Galop Brillant, Op. 37
Nocturne in A flat major, Op. 8 No. 1
Polonaise brillante, Op. 21

This pupil lived in Paris from the mid 1880s and took lessons from Chopin for five years. Although a robust physical player he was allegedly Chopin's favourite pupil. I found the Galop enormous fun played by Katsaris. The Nocturne in A-flat major was pleasant enough with some rather lovely modulations. The Polonaise was considered to be an excellent attempt by a German student at writing a Chopinesque polonaise in the style brillante. Katsaris understood the wit involved here.

Mazurka in G major, Op. 10
Airs nationaux roumains (excerpt)

Mikuli has had a formidable influence on the evolution of a Chopin tradition. He also studied in Paris with Chopin in company with Tellefsen. He was a successful concert artist in Europe from 1847-1858 and was a major force behind the musical life of Lwów. In 1880 a seventeen volume edition of Chopin was published under his editorship with commentaries and variants. He was a great traveller through Armenia, Bukovina and Moldova and collected the folk music of these regions which he transformed into the Airs nationaux roumains (excerpt). As might be expected Katsaris brought an idiomatic rhythmic understanding to these fascinating folkloric pieces. The Mazurka in G major Op.10 is an attractive work with many charming details.

Mazurka in E flat minor
Barcarolle in G flat major
Das Lebewohl von Venedig (Adieu!) in C minor

'Mon Dieu, quel enfant!' Never has anyone understood me like this child, the most extraordinary I have ever encountered. It's not imitation, it's an identical feeling, instinct, which makes him play without thinking, with all simplicity as if it could not be any other way. Fryderyk Chopin quoted in the Viennese journal Der Humorist, 22 February 1843.
He did penetrate the mysteries of this style almost perfectly in imitation. How might he have developed had his life been longer.  The E-flat minor mazurka has definite echoes of Chopin, in fact almost a modern jazz feel about it. The Barcarolle was not one as I imagine it but it was flowing and had a rather advanced figuration. This glorious flower was cut down in Venice at the age of 14, where he had actually travelled for a cure. It was here he wrote the desperately moving Das Lebewohl von Venedig (Adieu!) in C minor which appeared after his deathThe harmonic progressions were advanced to say the least. A deeply tragic yet interesting piece.
Waltz in E flat major
‘Spring’ Polka in F major
Trifle in B flat major
Polonaise in E flat major
Nocturne in A flat major
Villanella in D flat major
Znasz-li ten kraj [Connais-tu le pays?] (tr. Henryk Melcer-Szczawiński)
Gwiazdka [L’étoile] (tr. Bernhard Wolff)
Mazurka in E flat major from the opera Halka

The Waltz was pleasant enough and charming as was the 'Spring' Polka which depicts the society of the day. The 'Trifle' certainly was one but fetching I suppose as are many trifles. As this recital progressed I could think of no better pianist than Cyprien Katsaris for these pieces which need 'lifting' to their true status in salon charm. The Polonaise and Nocturne appeared rather inconsequential but the Villanella in D flat major painted a picture of how civilized and full of graces the society must have been at a certain level. The  Connais-tu le pays? is also a charming piece which evoked a period more civilized than ours. Gwiazdka  unfortunately has rather a chocolate box character. The Mazurka in E-flat major from the opera Halka has an immense 'call to the floor' introduction which is such fun with its lively rhythms!  

Dumka St. Moniuszki. Parafraza [Dumka by Stanisław Moniuszko: paraphrase]

A pleasant enough paraphrase with its interweaving of voices and lyrical atmosphere

Die Spinnerin, Op. 5 No. 10 (based on Moniuszko’s song ‘Prząśniczka’ [The spinstress])

This piece is fundamentally a recasting of the music of the song. It is a particularly, tuneful piece.

Le Cosaque, Op. 123 (based on Moniuszko’s song ‘Kozak’ [The Cossack])

This is an effective, rhapsodic, dramatic piece which ties up many of the loose ends. I found the work highly enjoyable played by Katsaris
Fantasy on a theme from the opera Halka, Op. 51

A friend of Chopin's from studies with Elsner. A respected pianist and piano teacher. This is a tremendous virtuoso display piece which builds a picture of the contemporary society. Even if impressive rather dull in overall impact. Such pieces were immensely popular at the time.

Katsaris, as an apology for an encore, then made announcement to the effect that in the absence of 'memorable tunes' in modern day classical music, he would improvise on a medley of film music, mainly that of the French composer Michel Legrand. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg  brought back so many memories of my misspent youth. This was both entertaing and charming. As a last effort he played a 'World premiere' transcription of a Chopin song which I found interesting. There were some amusing moments when he called for 'Veronica the Page Turner' but Igor in Bermuda shorts, plimsolls and a printed T-shirt wandered over to turn the pages.

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Chamber concert
Belcea Quartet

Corina Belcea (violin)
Axel Schacher (violin)
Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola)

Antoine Lederlin (cello)

String Quartet in D major, Op. 18 No. 3
‘Razumovsky’ String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2
String Quartet in F major, Op. 135

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, 2017 and 2018. As a result I was keenly anticipating this concert. 

Many composers such as Schubert worked in the intimidating shadow of Beethoven. In facing the composition of quartets he faced the shadows of Haydn. In the set of Opus 18 quartets Beethoven mastered the style of his predecessors and explored new domains of musical expression. The independence of the four parts is so much greater than in the works of previous quartet composers. This refined, subtle and gentle quartet (1798-1800) was the first he composed and was dedicated to Prinz Joseph von Lobkowitz (1772-1816). The six quartets of Op. 18 constitute Beethoven's most ambitious project of his early Vienna years.  What promise of genius lies within...

The opening Allegro mainly on solo violin is a gentle cantabile song of a most lyrical and yearning theme, rather in the style of Mozart. The movement flows with the ease of a country brook through a field in summer. It then becomes bright, delightful and 'conversational' in tone with many different themes. The fact that the Belcea members sit noticeably close together assists in maintaining an intimacy of musical inspiration. The Andante con moto second movement proceeded in the manner of elegant drawing room conversations of restrained emotion and gemütlichkeit, expressive and genial. It is pervaded by a warm and rather ardent atmosphere, much in the genre of the Lied. They made the delightful detaché section rather witty. Their playing is supremely artful with a most tender affecting conclusion. The third movement is marked Allegro but is in fact a Scherzo and has quite a lively folk dance character as well as replete with elegant gestures which suited the Belcea admirably. The Presto  is quite a rumbustious romp from beginning to end. It is rather good-humoured in the manner of Haydn. In this movement the quartet played with tremendous commitment and enthusiasm and concluded in such a humorous manner!

The String Quartet in F major, Op. 135 (1826) is Beethoven's last complete composition. Was it intended to be or was it the beginning of another set ? And the key to the true character of this enigmatic work might lie in the interpretation of its last movement, over which Beethoven famously wrote two short musical motifs and a title:

(The resolution reached with difficulty: Must it be? It must be! It must be!)
Are we to take this question and attempt an answer existentially or believe Anton Schindler, Beethoven's secretary, who tells us it was written  in response to the prosaic housekeeper's demand for more money or perhaps a request for increased funds from his publisher. This enigma can never be fully solved so listening to the music itself is the finest thing we can do. 

In the Allegretto opening movement the music proceeds delicately and blithely with strong part-writing in fine detail and subtlety of harmony. The Belcea extracted wonderful tonal colours in this movement. However, there are shadows and the grey clouds are massing on the horizon. The Vivace has a light scherzo-like character with many colours that emerge in a chiaroscuro landscape of suppressed energy. The Trio is a unbridled affair of uncontrolled  abandon. The emotional commitment the Belcea brought to this movement and the quartet as a whole was immense. 

The mood of the Lento assai - cantante e tranquillo gives one the impression of a man looking back over the events of his past life in resigned emotion. He feels a rapidly retreating and fading future life ahead. Beethoven was to die the following year. The feeling of listening to the expression of his intuition is unbearable in this deeply introspective movement. The harmonic developments are 'abstract' but manage to move the soul to the deepest recesses. The Belcea maintained their perfectly accurate and intense intonation, uncannily as if they were one organism performing the music. This music is to me a profound reflection on the emotional self-consciousness of age. 

The Grave, ma non troppo tratto has always seemed to me an angry rebuttal of mortal destiny. This contains the so-called Difficult Resolution illustrated above. The moods shift like autumn storms and the intensity of the Belcea affected me in an inexplicable way. Shafts of despair of screaming string timbre strike the heart in its innermost chambers. Then expressions of desperate almost hysterical joy as existence continues. False conclusions and then pizzicato passages which for me held an element of grim if delicate humour. Optimism graces the conclusion to this remarkable quartet - 'Must be!'

After the interval the ‘Razumovsky’ String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59 No. 2. This set shows a formidable development in style over the Op.18 set even after the relatively short period of 8 years. The Russian Ambassador to Vienna, Count Andreas Kirillovich Razumovsky (1752-1836) commissioned them. Razumovsky was a principal patron of Beethoven until his wealth was almost wiped out by a disastrous fire in 1814. He maintained a permanent string quartet from 1808 to 1816 led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) who played in many premières of Beethoven's works including quartets. Razumovsky himself, an accomplished musician, occasionally played second violin.

These quartets made unique musical demands on the listener never before experienced. The opening Allegro is characterized by shifting mercurial moods and a feeling that made me recall a pantheistic line of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas : The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, drives my green age. Again the uncanny impression of the Belcea playing as a single organism, playing passionately as one. There is a dark focus to this quartet that struggles into the light accompanied by a definite feeling of a heartbeat on the cello. The beautiful opening to the Andante con moto plays on the strings of the heart. The violin soars like a lark above the rest of the ensemble. Again we feel the rhythm of the regular heartbeat over the panting of nervous despair. Marvellous reflective and meditative polyphony is embedded in this movement. Passionate outbursts are quickly controlled while this heartbeat ensures life and drives the while movement along to its conclusion. I felt it was like crossing a great ocean or walking a long distance.

With the third movement Allegro (Scherzo) there is a complete transformation of mood to sunny optimism contained within the theme, bound into an infectious dance rhythm. The quartet luxuriated in this harmonic dance. This is followed by a fugal treatment of the theme. Sadness descends over the dance, a broken heart but still dancing. Great bucolic energy invests the final Presto. This is such a dynamically expressive movement, particularly as ignited by this extraordinary Belcea organism. The theme is particularly suitable for passionate development. There is such persistence here after many harmonic detours until the final wild dash for the finish.

The audience erupted in pandemonium at the conclusion of the concert and standing ovations. 

The encore was a sublime interpretation of the Cavatina from the Beethoven String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130.  

A concert that restores faith in humanity - what more can one ask of artists?

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Piano recital

There could not have been a greater and more instructive contrast between pianists, instruments and interpretation only one hour after the end of the recital detailed below.  One fruitful historical aspect of the modern world's view of the past has recently developed with pianists like Dimitri Ablogin who perform on historical instruments with completely different keyboard technique. Alongside these developments there is the familiar modern world interpreting the music of the past purely on its own terms with modern 'improved' instruments played by great pianists like Yuliana Avdeeva. No choice or competition is involved here. Both the historical and modern approaches complement each other and add yet another dimension to our exploration of the past. 

We are far from the source of Chopin now. Just for a moment consider how different the world would be without electricity. Just think. This was the world Chopin lived in. The point now surely is consistency and integrity of the vision on the part of the artist. Both approaches, under the fingers of fine artists, are extremely valuable contributions to a rounded view of this ironically popular, yet most inaccessible of composers, Fryderyk Chopin. 

In Poland a mention of Yuliana Avdeeva is bound to generate intense and passionate discussion. As those of you who are familiar with my account of her winning the 16th Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2010, you will know of my strong conviction from the outset that she would win. My opinion of her brilliance is not shared by all in Poland - I simply cannot understand this but then again I am not a Polish melomane.

In the storm of protest that followed this decision I could not agree more with Kevin Kenner, Second Prize winner at the Warsaw Competition in 1990 and a jury member in 2010 - a pianist moreover in whose musical judgement concerning Chopin I have the utmost respect for. In an interview for news.pl he justified the decision in the following words:

“Avdeeva has a very deep understanding of the score, the kind of relationship to the score which no other pianist in this competition had. She looked into the score for her creative ideas. It was the source of virtually everything she did and she was also one of the most consistent competitors throughout the event,” he said. 

She has developed tremendously since her competition victory. Her fine tone and refined touch seduced the ear from the moment she touched the Steinway. Avdeeva brings an intellectual seriousness to her Chopin with her unremitting search for artistic and musical truth within the notated score. She brings a self-consistent, fully integrated vision of the composer to us, which, irrespective of one's personal view of her Chopin interpretations, Chopin himself or the instruments at his disposal, creates an 'authentic' and deeply rewarding coherent conception of his music. My word there are certainly many Chopins! We each have our own and those of us who love his music will defend our personal opinion to the death with a passion perhaps not given to any other composer.

To be honest I could not wait to hear the development of one of the most mature, stylish and musically perceptive pianist of the competition, she who presents Chopin as a grand maitre of the keyboard. After all Chopin himself, that Ariel of the keyboard, liked above most of his pupils, the 'masculine' playing of his music by the heavyweight German pianist and composer Adolf Gutmann (1819-1882), much to everyone's confusion at the time. 

Mazurkas, Op. 59

Avdeeva approached the Op.59 Mazurkas with a noble melodic line rather than in any sense indicating they arose from a more rustic Mazovian conception. In No.1 I found this nostalgic mazurka possessed an eloquent cantabile line but was slightly sentimental and over-pedalled. She presented No. 2  and No.3 as grand works with a noble, rather grand tone. All well and good but for me this was somewhat misplaced and rather inflated their proportions beyond the simplicity and intimacy of utterance that lies at the heart of the Chopin mazurka. However this was a consistent view of them and pianistically if not poetically very satisfying.

Piano Sonata in B minor

I anticipated a rather 'symphonic' approach and was satisfied in this expectation when the first movement opened in an exalted Allegro maestoso statement of regal proportions. The movement has the  nature of a Ballade. The opening was certainly appropriately noble here and majestic for this great masterpiece. Her cantabile was honed to the perfection of songAvdeeva plays in a truly aristocratic manner with superbly expressive, blue-blooded tone of great self-confidence and pride. Her rubato is affecting and just the sheer number of subtle pianistic 'things' she does at the keyboard is so imaginative - a complete piano technique - all degrees of staccato up to staccatissimo, a wide dynamic rangea caressing legato, the correct durations of notes all carefully observed. Avdeeva is also tremendously intense emotionally and utterly convincing. Chopin gives us a vision of a turbulent emotions which veer wildly between courageous strength and self-confidence in the face of the sudden reversals and obstacles life offers us and the lyricism of contemplated beauty and resignation. 

The Scherzo was light, airy and breathtakingly virtuosic. A vision surely from from the realm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream than from the world of  deeper disillusionment. 

The powerful introduction to reality in the Largo begins to mine the depths of the heart and soul. It is an extended aria, in fact a true nocturne. It is a long, self-absorbed meditation. Avdeeva managed this extended time scale magnificently and with convincing examination of conscience and all the questions that process of the heart and mind raises. With all the scandals surrounding Chopin's private life, swirling with innuendo and the affair with George Sand, it is easy to forget he was a devout Catholic. 

Avdeeva adopted the 'correct' Presto non tanto tempo, the proviso Chopin appended to the Finale. Hers was an authoritative performance with exactly the correct degree of hurling impetus. However on occasion she interrupted this avalanche with reflective passages which for me interrupted the drive to the climacteric.  Must look at the score again! Thereafter, in this constant Presto she gathered the expression of emotional distress of this 'frenzied, electrifying music, inspired (perhaps) by the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony' (Tomaszewski). Nothing prevents the inexorable headlong rush of this Ballade-like narrative. A truly magisterial passionate performance of this sonata from Avdeeva.

One scarcely wonders that the Sonata’s finale has inspired countless interpreters and commentators. For the writer on Chopin Marceli Antoni Szulc, the movement brought to mind an image of the Cossack Hetman Mazzepa tied backwards on a wild steed chased by the wind. Some saw it as demonic. One typically English commentator of the period felt it went 'beyond the bounds of decency'. In the opinion of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, ‘In the B minor Sonata, Chopin’s music reaches its culmination’. For the more perceptive English musicologist and collector Arthur Hedley ‘Its four movements contain some of the finest music ever written for the piano’.
It was late autumn 1844 when Chopin put the finishing touches to this work, which he published the following year with a dedication to Countess Emilie de Perthuis, one of his titled lady pupils.

Robert Schumann
Fantasiestücke, Op. 12

In the Phantasiestucke op.12 (1837) the composer was inspired by the novellas entitled Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier by his beloved author of horror tales and the gothic, E.T.A Hofmann. Incidentally, Hofmann came to live in Warsaw from 1804 to 1807. He assimilated well into Polish society. The years spent in Prussian Poland were some of the happiest of his life. In Warsaw he found the same atmosphere he had enjoyed in Berlin. 

Avdeeva brought characterful and imaginative playing to many of these pieces. I could analyse each piece in turn but feel compelled to highlight the opening Das Abends (In the Evening) so lyrical and sensitive a portrait of Eusebius/Schumann himself, suffused with the dreamy light of dusk. Then  Aufschwung (Soaring) represented Florestan (Beethoven - Fidelio) and his wilder passions. This I felt slightly rushed.  Warum (Why?) sensitively questioning but bordering on a Chopinesque view of Schumann. Grillen (Whims) was not sufficiently mercurial, too solidly grounded for Schumann with little variation of internal tone however rhythmically breathtaking. In der Nacht (In the Night) she brought together Eusebius and Florestan, alternating rhapsodic passion with nighttime serenity. In Fabel (Fable) she captured the whimsical, mercurial aspects of Schumann  but seemed lacking in humour. The difficult and intense rhythms of Traumes Wirren (Dream's Confusions) were accomplished with the great virtuosity but the entire piece could have been more expressive I felt. The final Ende von Lied (End of the Song)  marked Mit guten Humor - the joy of wedding bells followed by painful anxiety as Schumann noted. Avdeeva approached this as a purely virtuoso piano work with some mannerisms, which omitted deeper emotional repercussions.
Fantasy in C major, Op. 15, D 760 (Der Wanderer)

She then embarked on the great Schubert Wanderer Fantasy. I felt she unfortunately had limited understanding of this work.  Much of her playing could be described in the words of C.P.E Bach in his Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen 1753 (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments) ‘They overwhelm  our hearing without satisfying it and stun the mind without moving it.’  The dynamic only occasionally fell below forte or fortissimo except in the more lyrical, reflective central sections. However the ‘interpretation’, such as it was, for me displayed extraordinarily limited understanding of Schubert’s intentions in this piece – the operatic nature of ‘The Wanderer’ passing thorough varied landscapes and the joyful and bitter experiences of life on his great journey through it. He wrote it in 1822 only six years before his premature death. The work is surely a keyboard version of what might have been another great Schubert song cycle. The main theme in a hardly festive C-sharp minor is actually taken from his song Der Wanderer. Terribly disappointing as Avdeeva is a brilliant musician with a towering technique to match. Perhaps more background research on such great works before performance if I may be rather presumptuous, as I am sure she must have examined in detail the background to the work.

I once heard the great pianist Alexander Melnikov at the Chopin i jego Europa Festival in Warsaw give a brilliant account of this work on a Conrad Graf piano which illuminated the shifting landscape and fluctuating moods in an unprecedented manner perfectly suited to Schubert. Conrad Graf (1782-1851) was an Austrian-German piano maker whose instruments were used by Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert and Clara Schumann among others. They were capable of extraordinary sonority and effects.

Schubert once wrote 'Happiness is where you are not...'  and explaining that the 'Romantic soul is never happy where he is...' Schubert had an inferiority complex concerning Beethoven. The work is marked by grace, grandeur and nobility. At times unsettled, it would calm into glorious song full of human emotion. For me there was too much use of this work as a showy virtuosic account.

Altogether a very fine piano recital at the highest level of pianistic accomplishment and revealing as time passes an increasingly deeper interpretative insight into the works of Fryderyk Chopin, as we might expect of an international first prize winner in the Warsaw competition.

Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Music Hall
Piano recital
Dmitry Ablogin period piano
This individualistic and highly talented young Russian pianist has studied extensively in Moscow and Frankfurt specializing in the fortepiano (as the period instrument is called in England). He has taken part successfully in many piano competitions and festivals throughout the world. He was awarded an Honourable Mention in the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. 2–14 September 2018.  I felt he should have been placed far higher. He performed this evening on a Pleyel of 1848.

At the time I wrote of his playing:

'I feel that Ablogin was possibly the only competitor who genuinely attempted to play in the manner described by Chopin’s pupils in the ‘bible’ of Chopin performance: Chopin Pianist and Teacher as seen by his Pupils by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger (Cambridge 1986). Hector Berlioz described Chopin’s playing as soft as ‘the playing of elves’, even requiring one to place one’s ear against the instrument to hear him! Ablogin often gives one a constant feeling of creative improvisation.' 

These observations still apply to his playing. Before approaching his programme, I would like to make a few general remarks about the keyboard playing of Chopin himself which  undoubtedly applies to those of his contemporaries who used the same instruments. 

The first thing one noticed about Ablogin is his relaxed posture at the instrument, with no pent up muscular tension. This comes from playing with almost pure finger technique and not arm weight and use of the shoulder as one would do on a modern instrument. The sound quality is remarkably altered when approached in this way.

Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century recognized two broad schools of pianism. Balzac wrote in 1843 to his Polish mistress Madame Hanska ‘The Hungarian is a demon; the Pole is an angel’. The brilliant and refined style of Chopin, Field, Hummel, Ries and Kalkbrenner owed allegiance to the classical past. This contrasted strongly with the revolutionary Romanticism of ‘The Thunderers’ represented by Liszt and Thalberg. Judging by audience enthusiasm for loud and fast renditions we appear to have returned to the school of ‘thunderers’  with a vengeance.

Those who heard Chopin, ‘the Ariel of pianists’, or were his students regarded him as a unique human being in addition to his being a charismatic teacher and pianist-composer of genius. Like all the best teachers Chopin was a psychologically perceptive man who often improved not only his students’ playing but their listening and entire mental attitude to  the instrument. In his teaching he advocated Bach and recommended a study of the art of the finest Italian bel canto song. Emilie von Gretsch studied with him for two years and wrote of overcoming the ‘perilous difficulties’ of the Etudes concluding after advice, which had facilitated some extraordinary progress, ‘I think he can read hearts’.[1] 

Listeners and students were much given to metaphysical hyperbole. In 1836 the young Charles Hallé newly resident in Paris wrote to his parents.

I went to dine with Baron Eichtal where I heard Chopin. That was beyond all words. The few senses I had have quite left me. I could have jumped into the Seine……Chopin! He is no man, he is an angel, a god (of what can I say more?)…….There is nothing to remind one that it is a human being who produces this music. It seems to descend from heaven……..’[2]

His student Countess Elizavieta Cheriemietieff wrote to her mother in 1842

‘It’s something so ethereal, so transparent, that delicacy, yet his sounds [are] so full, so large…..He’s a genius far above all the pianists who dazzle and exhaust their listeners……It’s a desecration, I find, to play his compositions; nobody understands them.’ [3]

Clearly Chopin was achieving something on the piano that was entirely new and had never been heard before. Such effusions also point up the present dramatic shift in aesthetic perspective of Chopin performance. Clearly radical changes in dynamic level, tempo and interpretative approach have taken place since his death. Closely allied to interpretation is the nature of the sound he extracted from the instruments available to him. He insisted that in the beginning a pupil develop a refined touch and beautiful tone before working on ‘technique’ and velocity. A consideration of the instrument he chose to teach and perform on is a useful and an educational corrective confronted as we are by the ubiquitous black Steinway or Yamaha behemoths of the modern concert hall.

Before Frycek left Warsaw permanently he was familiar with all the finest European instruments. Early in his career he favoured instruments by the maker Conrad Graf. Their light Viennese action and distinct ‘fluty’ tone was also preferred by Hummel. Liszt was known to demolish such instruments during the course of his recitals and required spare instruments waiting in the wings. He bragged that he could be heard effortlessly in the back row at La Scala. 

Chopin had become familiar with the refined French Pleyel pianos before leaving Poland. He 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 mahogany bass. Liszt wrote of ‘their silvery and slightly veiled sonority’ and ‘lightness of touch’. The puzzling descriptions of Chopin's 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 the 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.’ [4]

Many pianists ignore much of the highly sensitive detail in Chopin in favour of the roaring cataracts. Yet Chopin wittily confided to Liszt

‘I am not suited to public appearances – the auditorium saps my courage, I suffocate in the exhalation of the crowd, I am paralysed by curious glances……..but you, you can, since if you should fail to win over the audience you at least have the possibility of murdering them.’ 

He also observed to his student Emilie von Gretsch ‘concerts are never real music; you have to give up the idea of hearing in them the most beautiful things in art.’[5] Chopin may well have been overjoyed by the way the modern Steinway effortlessly realizes the implied dynamic and latent dramatic potential of his compositions. But true passion is generated by limitation not realization. It is the very inadequacy of older instruments that gives them their unique creative tension. Exploring Chopin’s music on an instrument he was known to love, adds a vital dimension to understanding this most inaccessible and mysterious of composers.

[1] Quoted in the ‘Chopin Bible’ Chopin: Pianist and Teacher as Seen by His Pupils Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger trans. Naomi Shohet with Krysia Osostowicz and Roy Howat ed. Roy Howat (Cambridge 1988) 13
[2] Ibid., 271
[3] Ibid., 278
[4] op. cit., Eigeldinger 26
[5] Ibid., 164-166

Six menuets

Maria Szymanowska was celebrated throughout Europe - also by composers such as Cherubini in Paris and the writer Goethe in Marienbad. The Polish poet Mickiewicz moved n her circle and married her daughter Celina. Descriptions are of fluent, light and delicate playing with fine cantabile and cantilena as well as possessing a glorious gift for melodyMuch as described above, Chopin heard her play in Warsaw in 1827 and was much influenced by her mazurkas and in his early polonaises. Ablogin performed these six minuets with the finest grace, charm and sparing use of the pedal on the Pleyel (which alters the sound colour on early instruments).

Fanny Hensel

Andante espressivo in E flat major
Andante con espressione from 4 Lieder für das Pianoforte, Op. 8 No. 2
Andante con moto from 4 Lieder für das Pianoforte, Op. 2 No. 2

She was the elder sister of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and was rather a victim of the suppression of talented women in the nineteenth century. Her famous brother included some of her songs in his own collections in order to have them heard. Of the 400 works she wrote only a few are now emerging from the shadows of neglect. All were played by Ablogin in an affecting and lyrical manner which indicated and underlined his presentation of the formidable gifts of the Mendelssohn musical family.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

Variations in E flat major, Op. 82
Variations sérieuses in D minor, Op. 54

The first small set of variations reflects Mendelssohn's Romantic style and was an appropriate introduction to the second far more significant set of variations. Both sets of variations were brought off with impressive performances. However in the more demanding set in D minor, I yearned for more poetry and sensibility in this deeply tragic work. 

On July 15, 1841 Mendelssohm wrote to his friend Karl Klingemann : "Do you know what I am composing now ? A set of variations for piano, eighteen in one stroke on a theme in D minor : and this gives me divine pleasure… it seems that I have to make up for the fact that I had not written any before." As with the Schumann Fantasy, the  Variations sérieuses were written to assist the financing of the Beethoven monument in Bonn.

The great pianist Paul Badura-Skoda illuminatingly wrote of this work:

The title is an understatement. These variations are not only "serious", they are tragic : a suffering man lays his soul bare. This is not the happy Mendelssohn we know from other works, but a man who has suffered setbacks and disillusions. Yet he rarely puts his deeper emotions in words, he rather expresses them in music, too eloquent for words as he once stated in a letter. The theme itself bears witness to his state of mind : Its sighs and chromaticisms remind us of Bach’s Weinen, Klagen... (Crying and Lamenting Cantata BWV 12), and it is perhaps not by coincidence that the agitated, tormented final presto quotes a motif (Blute nur, du liebes Herz) from the Saint Matthew Passion, which Mendelssohn had resurrected from its oblivion in 1829, hundred years after its first performance.

Preludes Op. 28

I was particularly interested to hear how Ablogin would approach the Preludes as I felt it would not be a conventional approach.

It would of course have been impossible for Chopin to have ever considered performing this complete radical cycle in his musical and cultural environment (not least because of the brevity of many of the pieces). It is unlikely ever to have even occurred to him to do this the way programmes were designed piecemeal at the time. I tend to feel the performance of them as a cycle is of course possible but not always justified. In some of Chopin's own programmes and others of the period, a few of his preludes are scattered randomly  through them like diamond dust. Each piece contains within it entire worlds and destinies of the human spirit. 

The Preludes are now well established by structuralists as a complete work, a masterpiece of integrated yet unrelated ‘fragments’ (in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century sense of that aesthetic term). Each prelude can of course stand on its own as a perfect miniature landscape of emotional feeling and tonal climate. Chopin said himself that emotion was the overriding, most important factor in musical appreciation. Specific emotions were associated with specific keys at the time. 

But ‘Why Preludes? Preludes to what?’ André Gide asked. One explanation is that the idea of 'preluding' as an improvisational activity in the same key for a short time before a large keyboard work was to be performed was well established in Chopin's day and even with some pianists up the 1950s. However this but has been abandoned in modern times except by Ablogin who has resurrected this practice in his programmes on period instruments. I found this activity places one in the harmonically correct mood for the key of the work that will follow.

Actually, I think it unnecessary and superfluous to actually answer the question of their performance as a cycle. Circumstance and cultural predispositions would dictate this. We must turn to Chopin’s love of Bach to at least partially understand them as his structural ideal (he took an edition of the ‘48’ to Mallorca where he completed the Preludes). I also feel sure Bach would not have performed his work as entire work. I think it was Anton Rubinstein who first performed the Chopin Preludes as a cycle but I stand to be corrected on this. Some performers of the cycle (Sokolov, Argerich, the greatest historically to my mind by Alfred Cortot) give one the impression of an integrated 'philosophy' or spiritual narrative which I felt was sometimes present here with Ablogin. 

I like to consider the Preludes as 'Fragments' analogous to 'follies' or 'ruins' placed in the architecture of say the English landscape garden. Such structures are pregnant with unfinished meaning, repositories of implied emotional significance.  The notion was formed in the eighteenth century concerning the poetic significance of eloquent 'ruins' (a ruined castle tower, a nymph among the trees, a pond, an amphitheater) placed strategically in picturesque a gardens as embracing the 'picturesque' philosophy. The William Kent garden at Rousham in Oxfordshire is a perfect example. The beginnings or birth of intellectual emotions. Here it is musical forms that are unfinished and catalyze emotional evocations.

The preludes surely extend the prescient Chopin remark 'I indicate, it's up to the listener to complete the picture'. Or in the words of Walter Benjamin, the fragment (the Prelude in this case) is full of potential, leaving unfinished the full statement - except in a few cases. The so-called 'Raindrop' Prelude is a self-consistent, complete work but even then this conception may be argued. For Benjamin, allegory (fragment or an individual prelude) was the “authentic way of dealing with the world, because it is not based on a premise of unity but accepts the world as fragmented, as failed.”

In Ablogin's individualistic and largely rethought performance, I will highlight a few Preludes I particularly liked. He used minimum or no pedal throughout the entire cycle. The tragic nature of No.2 in A minor was clear where he gave the bass a truly haunting quality in this strange, otherworldly, 'beyond the grave' piece. No. 4 in E minor he played with no pedal which gave an arresting detached nature to the familiar chords in the left hand. No. 6 in B minor had a fine cantabile line in the bass. No. 7 in A major had a great deal of period charm in this ghostly recollection of the waltz. No. 8 in F sharp minor was replete with passionate utterance. No. 9 in E major could have had a more haunted character for me.  No. 11 in B major certainly was possessed of period charm but the anger contained within No.12 in G sharp minor was not sufficiently savage in this performance. No. 13 in F-sharp major was particularly poetic, sensitive and possessed a luminous cantabile quality in the central section. The deeply threatening nature of the underbelly of the soul was therefore all the more strongly contrasted in No. 14 in E-flat minor. 

I must confess to not being moved at all by the so-called 'Raindrop' Prelude, No.15 in D-flat major. In this work I am convinced by the argument of Professor Eigeldinger when he referred to it in Nohant in a lecture on the Preludes this year. Interestingly, he highlighted what he referred to as the doppelgänger element in this Prelude - the shadow of death accompanying us through life, hovering constantly yet unpredictably, indiscriminately in the stage wings above and below us all. Something absolutely fascinating I had never considered. Nothing so innocent as raindrops about those insistent repetitions. This interpretation surely connects closely to the 'horrifying visions' the composer experienced while composing this work in the monastery in Valdemossa.

In No. 17 in A-flat major he emphasized the repeated striking of the doomsday clock of death, so clear and dreaded in its inevitability and more effectively in dark colours on a period instrument. The light, singing tone of No.23 in F major was attractive impressionistically, almost as a presage to Debussy. The final Prelude No.24 in D minor I felt was well phrased and oftentimes carried us away on waves of turbulent and passionate emotion which were deeply imbued with the complexities of that unique Polish emotional quality of żal.
This recital confirmed the emerging voice of a uniquely sensitive, talented and intelligent musical artist who possesses a rare understanding of the expressive tonal qualities and colour characteristics of historical pianos.

Witold Lutosławski Studio of the Polish Radio
Opera in concert
Edyta Piasecka soprano
Małgorzata Walewska mezzosoprano
Tomasz Konieczny bass-baritone

Grzegorz Nowak conductor

Violetta Bielecka choir director

Straszny dwór [The Haunted Manor]

In order for the foreign music lover to understand this opera, its plot and history, one needs to examine the lamentable situation of Poland at the time of its composition by the 'father' of Polish opera, Stanisław Moniuszko, in 1895. At the time the country had been erased from the map of Europe, partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria. The country virtually existed only in the minds of its citizens. An extraordinarily tragic, tormenting situation that made the infusion of patriotism and nationalism almost unavoidable in the creation of any work by any serious artist. This opera was forced in some to masquerade as a comic opera with a serious call for patriotic unity in both the story and the music.

This is a music review but if one is to fully understand the significance and influences on the composer Moniuszko in Poland, the foreigner needs a short Polish history lesson. An examination of the collective subconscious of this nation as it developed cannot be avoided if one desires a fuller understanding of the Polish arts.

This passage is taken form the pre-edit version of my book  A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland (London 2008)

My knowledge of the culture and history of Poland before working and now living here was limited to the conventional stereotype of grinding poverty, a grey country hacked to pieces during the Second World War, forests soaked in partisan blood and the site of unspeakable death camps, a depressing Soviet satellite and nothing more. I was at one with the eighteenth century Irish statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke in believing it could have been on the moon, a barren country pulverised by war rather than meteorites. The collective European memory of this nation has been systematically erased by wave upon wave of invaders and occupiers. But by 1582 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth stretched from Poznań in the West almost to Smolensk in the East and included Kiev and vast tracts of the Wild Plains of the Ukraine as well as most of what are now known as the Baltic States to the north. It was the largest and one of the most powerful realms of early modern in Europe, although the idea of the ‘nation state’ was rather different from that which we hold today. The history of Poland and its fluctuating borders is one of the most complex in Europe. Geography has always worked against the country’s fortunes and the psychology of its people.

Until the twentieth century the vibrant colours of the Orient lived in a uniquely symbiotic relationship with the grey melancholy of the Romantic north in the immense tracts of land between the borders of Western Europe and Asia patronisingly referred to in the West as the ‘Eastern Marches’. The Roman legions had failed to subjugate this vast geographical area. The notion of Sarmatism, an ever-present perfume that lingers over Polish history into the present, deserves closer examination. In sixteenth century Poland alongside what was a common European aesthetic pursuit of the ideals of ancient Rome and Greece, the extraordinary and contradictory racial notion of Sarmartism came to rule the minds of the Polish nobility or szlachta[1].

This exclusive, mythomaniacal, ferociously extravagant and xenophobic concept grew from the stubborn but rather illogical belief that the Poles were descended from the Sarmatians, an aristocratic warrior caste related to the Scythians with origins in Iran. Next to nothing was known of their culture and way of life apart from their passion for the horse, their legendary women warriors and their love of magnificent gold and jewelled ornament. Historically the nomadic Sarmatians from the Pontic steppe had moved into south-eastern Europe in the fourth century BC and settled between the Vistula and the Dnieper rivers. In their slow migration westwards they occupied variable expanses of what is now considered Central and Eastern Europe. The Ossetians of the Caucasus are their only living representatives.

Portrait of Stanisław Antoni Szczuka. Anonymous painter circa 1735-1740

Herodotus described the origin of the Sarmatians (Sarmatae or Sauromatae) as the fearless progeny of young Scythian men and Amazon women. This picturesque and largely invented genealogical, cultural and militaristic heritage advantageously distinguished the szlachta from what they felt were the less attractive and inferior Slavic roots of the peasantry. Geographically they could feel justified in looking to the east to expand. At all events their mercurial and volatile temperament suited an imagined descent from wild nomadic horsemen and warrior women.

Over time the Sarmatian style developed into a fully fledged ideology of noble ‘golden freedom’ which completely permeated szlachta thought. However self-serving arrogance caused a neglect of politics and gave rise to an exhibitionist philosophy of grandiose feasting and opulent Ottoman, Persian or Tatar display. Polish embassies became famous throughout Europe. The populace of Moscow or Rome thrilled to hundreds of sumptuously caparisoned horses dyed cornelian and white with ostrich plumes and silver breast-plates. They gaped at running Janissaries and camels draped in feathers burdened with the magnate’s travelling library. Horses were deliberately shod with loose golden shoes that flew across the cobbles into the astounded crowd.

            Unlike their English counterparts much szlachta wealth was not invested in business but worn on the person in the form of caps of fur and pearls, żupans of crimson damask, kontusz lined with silk and decorated with studs of gold set with precious stones[2]. Ornamental buttons of cornelian, jasper, chaldecony and agate from the Saxon mines, rubies, sapphires, garnets, and turquoises were sewn to the cloth to match the hilts of their Hungarian or Turkish sabres.  The assistance of at least one servant was required to tie the long, broad silk sash in cloth of gold or silver known as the ‘Słuck belt’, decorated with delicate floral patterns. They shaved their heads in a type of ‘pudding-basin’ style occasionally leaving a long pony-tail dangling from the crown of a shaven skull. Despite fighting Turk and Tatar, these defenders of the faith, the ‘bulwark of Christendom’, perversely adopted the enemy’s spectacular oriental costume and dazzling military accoutrements to the point where confusion of combatants sometimes reigned on the battlefield. 

As a class the szlachta preserved their power and moderated their distrust of royalty by contriving to elect their king, a unique phenomenon in Europe. The establishment of the notorious liberum veto in the Sejm (Parliament) during the seventeenth century gave an envoy the right to block any present legislation. ‘Nie pozwalam!’ (‘I do not permit!’)[3].  The liberum veto developed over time into an idée fixe and was increasingly abused by self-interested poorer szlachta. The notion of this  ‘golden freedom’ had catastrophic results on the stability of the Commonwealth. The notion ‘leads many to conclude the Poles had parted with their senses.’[4] The great diversity of cultures and religions that lay within the realm was accepted as an established fact but the szlachta were riding the country to death like a recalcitrant mare. Foreign powers manipulated their pawns to exercise this veto in the Sejm (Parliament). Politics and wealth were controlled by the most powerful families who flew at each others throats given any opportunity. A sense of compromise has never been uppermost in the Polish psyche.

Then there was the lifting of the Siege of Vienna from the Ottomans in 1683 by the exotic Husaria or Winged Cavalry under King Jan Sobieski. Quite apart from the activities of the Teutonic Knights in their vast stronghold of Malbork. By 1718 Russia offered the Commonwealth ‘friendly co-operation’. The first tentacles of domination that would finally suffocate the nation and violate Central-Eastern Europe for the next two hundred and seventy years began their insidious work. By the mid eighteenth century the power of the Commonwealth had degenerated to the point of its becoming the most chaotic and backward state in Europe. Through the continued use of the notorious liberum veto it had become the laughing stock of efficient European governments. The country was ruled and then lost by the elected Saxon King Augustus III, who squandered his resources patronising the arts in the creation of an opulent, magnificent but ultimately ruinous court at Dresden, a regent ‘obese, indolent and virtually incapable of thought’ according to the Polish historian Adam Zamoysky.

The decadence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the first half of the eighteenth century is personified by Karol Radziwiłł a wealthy and eccentric member of ‘the murky and stagnant pond that was the world of the szlachta[5]. He was known to everyone as ‘My Dear’, his favourite form of address to all those he met. ‘I live like a Radziwiłł - the king can do what he likes.’ [6] In a drunken stupor he was liable to impulsively shoot any dinner guest he considered disagreeable ‘like a dog’. His father, the Hetman of Lithuania, was similarly mercurial but laudably followed his own violence by tearful repentance before the Virgin in his private chapel. Besides attacking guests Karol’s other favourite armed activity was shooting  ‘flying Bison’. His servants catapulted these huge creatures into the air from massive launchers hidden in the primeval forest surrounding his castle. Karol would take careful aim and fire. He was considered a crack shot and unfailingly brought down his quarry.

By 1795 Poland had been swept off the map, a victim of colonisation and lack of political vigilance, partitioned by Prussia, Russia and Austria, transformed into merely a state of mind. Thomas Carlyle described the country at that time as having ‘ripened’ into a ‘beautifully phosphorescent rot-heap’.[7] While England became a great power the influence of Poland was extinguished. Before my sojourn I knew next to nothing of this fascinating, tragic and complex  history. Accurate perception of the culture has been  distorted by the most recent scale of barbarism against its people.

At least since the eighteenth century Poles have considered themselves predominantly Western and Christian in cultural outlook although this was not always the case through Polish history. Echoes of Roman Byzantium remain. The result is their psychology often appears stranded in a world located somewhere between East and West. The ‘agreed memory’ of the country among young Europeans has understandably shrivelled as history studies become increasingly neglected in schools. The focus is almost exclusively on the murderous legacy of the Second World War and of forests soaked in blood. Some young Poles think Chopin is a type of vodka or an asteroid or an airport; some confuse his music with that of Beethoven.

The Poles I came to know later in England were quite familiar with the history of Western Europe – the kings and queens of England, the wives of Henry VIII, Frederick the Great, Napoleon. Anglo Saxons on the other hand knew scarcely any history of Poland or the evolution of the Polish character and spirit apart from the presentations of a prurient media intent on creaking open the ghastly doors of the Auschwitz crematoria. The national characteristics of splendid excess, perversity and violent individualism have been almost obliterated by the reductionist philosophy of Lenin, that small man in a grey overcoat who was, as Vladimir Nabokov pithily observed to the critic Edmund Wilson, ‘a pail of the milk of human kindness with a dead rat at the bottom.’

            Edmund Burke reflecting on the first partition of the country in 1772, considered this ‘breakfast’ as ‘the first very great breach in the modern political system of Europe.’[8] On the final partition of Poland in 1795 he remarked ‘with respect to us, Poland might be, in fact, considered as a country in the moon.’ Not a great deal has changed to modify his view of the country despite accession to the European Union. Since Napoleon created the Duchy of Warsaw in the early nineteenth century the cultural heritage of the nation has been systematically packed up and stolen, destroyed or moved abroad in endless railway wagons of booty. Lacking natural borders, reconstructed modern Poland is a shadow of the sophisticated country which existed before the Second World War. 

The Soviet Union took half the territory that defined the Poland of 1939; a third of post-war territory was gained from Germany after 1945. Entire cities were lost and entire cities gained. A country that for hundreds of years had enjoyed the peaceful co-existence of Germans, Tatars, Jews, Poles, and Eastern Slavs among its inhabitants, one of the most culturally diverse and religiously tolerant nations in Europe, was paradoxically transformed into an ethnically homogeneous, massively ‘Polish’ nation. The Jews were murdered, the Ukrainians and Poles ethnically cleansed each other or were ‘repatriated’ in bouts of brutal borderland slaughter, the Germans simply expelled. The ancient territories of Galicia and Volhynia were erased forever from European memory. Nazi crimes and the ruthless Soviet policies that ensued continue to overwhelm wider historical thinking about the country. The canvas of Europe in the historical imagination of those born after the Second World War remains partial.

[1] Szlachta is a Polish term difficult of clear definition but in simplified terms may be considered as the Nobility or Noble Estate. Joseph Conrad translated it as the ‘Equestrian Order’ in a letter to John Galsworthy in 1907. This culturally, economically and religiously diversified group were characterised by definite traditions, obligations, privileges and  laws. Large by Western European standards, they made up some 10% of the population and identified themselves with the country itself. Some were fabulously wealthy, some comfortably off while others were landless and poor but all considered themselves as absolute equals. They enjoyed many privileges, were not obliged to pay taxes and were exempt from import and export duties. All were tremendously aware of their distinctive noble status. Despite being expected to defend the country as their duty, many betrayed lamentable self-serving behaviour when Poland was under external threat. The szlachta contributed in various ways to the partition and the destruction of the nation reducing it to a mere state of mind for almost a hundred and fifty years. The szlachta and all noble titles were abolished under the Polish Republic and Constitution of 17 March, 1921.
[2] The żupan was a long gown worn below the knee made of a decorative, sometimes richly patterned fabric such as silk, worn only by Polish nobleman usually under a garment called a kontusz. Padded versions were worn under armour. The kontusz was a long coat-like garment also worn below the knee in soft wool or fabric heavier than that of the żupan and lined with silk or fur with slit sleeves that could be thrown over the shoulders in summer. They were normally in a contrasting colour or pattern to the żupan underneath and were generously cut with pleats to allow freedom for riding or walking. This uniquely Polish combination was worn from the mid seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century.
[3] No legislation in the Polish Parliament (Sejm) could be passed without complete unanimity, a potent symbol of incipient insanity that was derided throughout Europe.
[4] The Polish Way Adam Zamoyski (London 1987) 206
[5] Poland’s Last King and English Culture Richard Butterwick (Oxford 1998) 73
[6] Quoted in The Polish Way : A Thousand-year History of the Poles and their Culture Adam Zamoyski (London 1987) 199
[7] History of Frederick II of Prussia, called Frederick the Great Thomas Carlyle (London 1858-65)
[8] The Annual Register 1772, i.2.

The story of this opera represents both a rather idyllic view of life in a Polish country manor house in the late 19th century in rather comic opera style with the activities of match making, the appearance of ghosts (the Polish of the title has a double meaning, one more serious and untranslatable) and rampant but entertaining silliness.  Simultaneously it more seriously deals with the idealistic and patriotic duties of the Polish soldier. Many serious military virtues are displayed such as the honor of the family, courage, almost an encouragement to arm oneself against the enemy and resist. Many of the arias have concealed messages of insurrection. There is always a tension between a happy, peaceful home life and the ever present call to war. 

The understandable nationalist, patriotic emotions were considered inflammatory as a result of the powerful reaction of the initial audiences. The Russian censor banned the opera for some fifty years. This had the reverse effect to that desired by the authorities and permanently cemented the opera into the affections and hearts of the Polish nation until today. The opera is one of the most popular in Poland, lauded for the harmonic adventurism with interesting and inspiring instrumentation, the crowd scenes, the strands of melodic invention, the individual operatic style, and something I missed terribly in the concert version, the incorporation of traditional Polish songs and dances - mazurkas, polonaises, polkas, dumkas and krakowiaks which would have given it a strong Polish atmosphere.

For me, rather unfamiliar with the libretto and Polish cultural ambiance of the period, I would just like to observe that this production was packed with infectious, rumbustious energy by the excellent orchestral playing. All the soloists were outstanding voices. A thoroughly enjoyable evening! 

It is a quality of much Polish art, that owning to the oppressive presence of history on the whole inner moral fibre of the country, metaphors, artistic subjects and in this case (but universally in Chopin) the cry for freedom - 'For your freedom and ours' - dominates all other considerations. As the Polish culture had developed such a powerful identity, imagery, costumes and general aesthetic in the nineteenth century, an authentic embodiment of Romanticism, it remains supremely nationalistic and a mystery to many foreigners. The collective Polish psyche is encapsulated in the one word 'Resistance'. Values and identities therefore are not necessarily always universal in the case of musical artists blessed with slightly less genius that a Chopin or a Szymanowski.

Stage of the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera
Opera in concert
Matheus Pompeu (Corrado) tenor
Ilona Mataradze (Medora) soprano
Aleksey Bogdanov (Seid) baritone
Karen Gardeazabal (Gulnara) soprano
Mateusz Stachura (Giovanni) bass
Paweł Cichoński (Selimo, Eunuco, Schiave) tenor

Fabio Biondi conductor
Violetta Bielecka choir director

Il corsaro

The Parting Of Conrad And Medora - Charles Wynne Nicholls - 19th century

Il corsaro (The Corsair) is an opera in three acts by Verdi, with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, based on Lord Byron's long poem The Corsair. It is hard to underestimate the effect of the character and writings of Lord Byron on creative Europe in all the arts in the early 19th century. This poem sold 10,000 copies on the first day of publication - unheard of in those days! His long poem is divided into cantos (a form of division in poetry) and narrates the story of the Corsair (a pirate or privateer) named Conrad, how he was in his youth rejected by society because of his actions and his later fight against humanity. 

He leaves his love Medora on his Aegean island  to fight a Turkish pasha Seid. He decides to attempt to rescue a harem slave named Gulnara but is imprisoned after losing the battle. She falls in love with him and murders Seid in an attempt for both of them to escape and they return to the island. Conrad discovers that his true love Medora has meantime died in his absence believing him dead. 

Conrad, the 'Byronic hero' , abandons Gulnara and sails off into the sunset and disappears. Conrad is described very similarly to the way most would describe Byron as a man of few regrets and pleasures. Lady Caroline Lamb said he was 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know.' In the adopted persona of Conrad, the corsair (Byron en effet) is seen by those closest to him as, 'that man of loneliness and mystery' His persona demonstrates a quality that 'more than marks the crowd of vulgar men'. Byron and his multiple personalities is present here in both male and female form. He even named 'Medora' the illegitimate daughter he had during the scandalous affair with his half-sister Augusta that forced his departure from England.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron - Richard Westall 1813

This Verdi opera is very rarely performed today. The opera concentrates mainly on moods rather than events and drama which may have contributed to its unpopularity at the time, most unusual for Verdi. Strangely he took little interest in the preparations for the performance of the opera and there were various acrimonious contractual negotiations with the librettist. It was first performed outside Italy only as recently as 1966. I had never heard or knew of this opera so my judgement, but not enjoyment, of this concert performance is rather limited.

 Fabio Biondi

There were many interesting arias as the moods, and restricted narrative action within the plot shifted. The voices and areas were emotionally arresting. The orchestral music created a suitable piratical atmosphere,then one of rage and murder, then of the nature of contradictory loves in travail -an ubiquitous operatic subject.

Lt. to Rt. Matheus Pompeu (Corrado), Karen Garfdeazabal (Gulnara), 
Aleksey Bogdanov (Seid)

Mateusz Pompeu is emerging as a great Polish tenor who played the psychologically demanding role of Corrado in fine voice. The ungoverned rage of  the rich voice of the baritone Aleksey Bogdanhov, as the furious Turkish pasha Seid, was more than a little daunting on occasion! Of course he is in love with Gulnara, his favourite harem slave who had fallen for Corrado, the Byronic corsair. The sopranos representing the  two different heroines, Ilona Mataradze (Medora - the fair heroine) and  Karen Gardeazabal (Gulnara - the dark, slightly dangerous heroine) were nicely contrasted and in attractive voice. 

Aleksey Bogdanov (Seid) in a jealous rage

Ilona Mataradze (Medora) and Matheus Pompeu (Corrado) 

The implied changes of mutable gender roles Byron introduces in his poem (and to a lesser extent Verdi in the opera) is fascinating in this area of preoccupation of many lives in 2019.  Byron himself was a mass of inner contradictions attempting to balance his masculine and feminine sides in a time when 'manliness' and ''heroism' was all. He inhabits his poem completely in a sort of tri-gender role - Conrad, Medora and Gulnara. 

Karen Garfdeazabal (Gulnara)

Despite the lack of drama there are definite moments of poetry and lyricism in concentrated form: Medora's solo aria, her duet with Corrado, Gulnara's cavatina and possibly the prison scene. The choir were in fine ensemble and heightened the passion considerably on many occasion. The conductor Fabio Biondi understood the more subtle musical implications of this rare opera surprisingly deeply.
Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Music Hall
Piano recital

Aleksandra Świgut period piano

This engaging, spontaneous pianist was awarded equal second prize at the 1st International Chopin Competition on period instruments in September 2018. At the time I wrote:

One reason I admire the playing of Aleksandra Świgut is its spontaneity. She often surprises me and makes unpredictable but creative interpretative gestures in her rather theatrical approach to the music.

She also performed at the International Duszniki Zdroj Chopin festival in 2011. On that occasion I wrote:

She opened her recital with Haydn’s Sonata in C minor Hob. XVI/20 which she dispatched with wit, verve and a clarity of articulation, minimal use of pedal and ‘classical’ short phrasing that was a pleasure to listen to – balanced, poised and elegant. This was followed by a similarly elegant account of the Bach French Suite in C minor BMW 813. The absolute joy and delight in playing this music that suffused her features was quite affecting – profound pain, sweat and suffering is the usual countenance that distorts the face young pianists I note! This sort of thing is hard to empathize with as a member of the audience when you are not actually playing the work yourself. So we all felt happy for once. 

Prelude in C sharp minor Op.45

Świgut opened her recital on an Erard with a very affecting performance of this work composed at Nohant in the summer of 1841. For success the piece relies much on the improvisational abilities of the player. As this skill is part of the Świgut pianistic arsenal , the Prelude came off with a degree of emotional ecstasy and was very moving.

Nocturnes, Op. 27

For my sensibility, the Nocturne Op. 27 No.1 in C sharp minor is an elegiac nighttime meditation on the nature of existence with a rather tortured, 'realistic' central section. Chopin always examined both sides of life's coin. His music is never monochromatic but highly inflected and colored by a tumult of contrasting emotions. 

No.2 in D-flat major is surely the most perfect love song imaginable. The theme is supremely beautiful, full of the deepest emotional yearning and hesitant expression of a lover contemplating his inaccessible beloved alone. 

André Gide in his Notes on Chopintouches the essential core of improvisation 

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

Świgut gave both nocturnes heightened expressive nuance with her very sensitive tone, touch and dynamic. On a period instrument she can create a fragility of sound that reflects the fragility of life itself. The moderately caressing tempo she applies on the Erard and the fine cantabile control of long song-lines of phrasing, must come close to Chopin's original intentions.
Barcarolle in F sharp major

Anyone who has read this blog in detail will know I have quite strong ideas on how this masterpiece should be performed and how important the cultural landscape is when interpreting how it should be approached. The great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler once remarked perceptively  ‘A great work of art is a king standing before us. One must permit the time to be addressed by him.’

She began the work with a relatively gentle setting of the tonal mood as the gondola or barque sets off on its lagoon excursion. The charming gondolier's folk song is sung to the swish of oars on the historic Venetian Lagoon or a romantic canal, often concerning the travails of love. Most of the piece oscillates gently between forte, piano and pianissimo with only subtle degrees of heightened emotion throughout.  

Disturbing yet civilized degrees of heightened passion occur during this outing on the lagoon. I will never believe this is an explosive virtuoso work and it is almost invariably presented as such. I found her account most expressive with significant dynamic range. She played the ravishing melodies with great refinement yet moving into a rhapsodic but not hysterical conclusion as many pianists tend to do.

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

Venice Lagoon - a watercolour by J.M.W. Turner

Fantasy in F sharp minor, Op. 28 'Sonate écossaise' (1833)

Con moto agitato - Andante - con moto agitato
Allegro con moto

The first version of this work was written in 1828 before Mendelssohn's first visit to Scotland in 1829. This was the period of his 'Scottish' Symphony inspired at Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh and also for the 'Hebrides' Overture when he visited on the remote island of Staffa off the coast of Mull in the Hebrides. He played the Fantasy for Goethe after his return and finally published it without the Scottish association. Incidentally Goethe seems not to have been terribly fond of constant piano music from reports of Mendelssohn's stay as a young man with the writer in Weimar. 

The work is one of the finest of his solo virtuoso piano pieces. In a way one might consider it a challenge to Beethoven's 'Moonlight' Sonata - Quasi una Fantasia. Certainly it partly overturns the 'accepted wisdom' that Mendelssohn makes few intellectual or philosophical demands on a virtuoso pianist and that he can launch himself into it with abandon. Post-war musical culture and taste in so many ways has been unfair to the composer, always placing him tantalizingly below the acknowledged immortal composers. Yet during the 1830s and 1840s he was canonized by Goethe, Heine and Schumann as the Mozart of the nineteenth century. At this time he was reading Sir Walter Scott and 'Ossian', that great forgery. 

Aleksandra Świgut approached the work with energy and understanding of the Scottish folk elements - cascading arpeggios, runs of scales and octaves, the sweet melancholy of the Andante. At the close of the first movement the Erard piano itself tended to create the misty, indistinct harmonic effect Mendelssohn clearly intended to depict the Scottish moors.The opening of the Allegro con moto second movement had an adorable childish innocence about it. The high voltage Presto virtuosic finale maintained its irresistible momentum. However I felt the curious inaccessible magic so characteristic of Mendelssohn's piano music escaped her a little but this too remains a mystery I cannot articulate. What is it I wonder ?  The American pianist Murray Perahia captures the passionate urgency and anger so well.

Mendelssohn’s sketch of Ben More, on the Isle of Mull


Improvisation on Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, Op. 28 No. 4

This was a pleasant and imaginative improvised piece which revealed the more spontaneous, creative side of Aleksandra Świgut's temperament.

Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118 No. 2

Dedicated to Clara Schumann, Brahms’ Klavierstücke Op.118 were written in 1893 at Bad Ischl during summer. Julius Spitta, a German musicologist, wrote to Brahms after receiving the music, “They are the most varied of all your piano pieces and perhaps the richest in content and depth of meaning …”. This perfectly captures the features of this set of miniatures (only in terms of their length). Concentrated and highly expressive, this set of pieces is a musical portrait of his complex internal emotional world.

This second Intermezzo Andante teneramente can be considered a secret love letter to Clara Schumann.  It is one of the most affecting pieces of the Romantic piano repertoire, replete with love, reminiscence, nostalgia and sense of longing. The opening has a lyrical melody of exquisite beauty. The emotions of melancholy and yearning follow with a final sense of eternal values and difficult acceptance.  

Listening to her performance, I felt she had not yet come fully to terms with the emotional depth of this work, which after all comprises the reflections of an old man on the deep furrows the passage of the planet Venus has made through his life.

 Ballade in F major

The Ballade in F major Op. 38 was probably conceived in Majorca. The Gothic atmosphere of the abandoned monastery, surrounded by primitive Nature probably gave Chopin the idea of contrasting the music of a soft siciliana with a demonic presto con fuoco. Schumann recalled ‘At that time he also mentioned that certain poems of Mickiewicz had suggested his ballade to him.’ The Ballades are not programmatic works for Chopin based on Mickiewicz but one must remember that poetry was of tremendous and fertile significance to composers in the nineteenth century. This is a factor too often overlooked in coming to terms with interpretations of Schumann, Liszt and Chopin. In modern times poetry is scarcely read seriously as philosophical and spiritual inspiration dealing with the joy and grim reversals of life.

Świgut was emotionally warmly expressive as she began a definite narration. The two worlds of the real and unreal were brought together in almost shocking conjunction with the eruption of energy she brought to the piece and her excellent technique. Her cantabile and rubato were emotionally affecting. She has a particular affinity with the works of Chopin which clearly comes from deepest love of this composer rather than egocentric projection – there is a substantial difference. A fine performance of this mysterious work so full of inner contradictions.

Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major

This work in the so-called ‘late style’ of the composer was written during a 'late' period of great suffering and unhappiness. He labored over its composition and what emerged is one of his most complex works both pianistically and emotionally. Świgut succeeded in playing many episodes with beauty of tone but in other sections a dynamic that did not sit well and unbalanced the piece. I feel she is still not really at ease with the complex structure and emotional density and coherence of this labyrinthine work. Perhaps it does not fit entirely with her sunny outlook on life and music. However I feel she has the basis for an outstanding interpretation which should continue to mature in time.

Scherzo in E major

The Scherzo in E major Op. 54 for me calls up images of dancing gremlins and water sprites - a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream full of whimsy and mercurial changes of mood. This is a demanding work both pianistically and emotionally. Świgut gave it a true scherzo character with mercurial changes in mood, an ardent cantabile central section which sang the tender yearning song gracefully and movingly with fine legato and beautiful tone colours. The outlying sections possessed a degree of lightweight energy. I saw the play of light on water, the glittering dance of jeu perlé. With Świgut on the Pleyel, different domains dominate this pianistic poem. First of all one delights in the immaculate beauty of Chopin's sound and then the expressive depiction of play and the intimate expression of love.

An aesthetic and satisfying recital by a young pianist who has a unique voice and attitude to the piano. She possesses a singular affinity with the popular but also spiritually less accessible aspects of the enigma contained in the music and personalty of Fryderyk Chopin. 

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Symphonic Concert
Howard Shelley piano, conductor
Eric Lu piano


This was a carefully prepared programme indicating the transition in musical style from Mozart to Chopin through Hummel
 Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488
Eric Lu piano

Eric Lu won First Prize at The Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018 and made his BBC Proms debut with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Long Yu in summer 2019. He is currently a member of the BBC New Generation Artist scheme.

C.M. Girdlestone described the opening  Allegro as ‘having the light of a March day when a pale sun shines unconvincingly through fleeting showers.’ All the opening phrases were eloquent and full of subtle gestures of grace, light tone, sensitive touch and good taste. The movement was certainly 'Mozartian' as I conceive it in terms of tone, touch and period style. The piano confines itself here to elaborating orchestral themes. Lu is a restrained stylist, a rather classical player in Mozart, who communicates well with the audience and orchestra in quite an intimate rather than demonstrative or declamatory way.

The heartbreaking  Adagio was poetic and eloquent but tasteful and not indulgent yet rather tragic and laden with grief – a remarkable balancing act of sensibility. Lu maintained fine expressive control over the movement so it did not appear self-indulgent. This movement, a presage to Romanticism, is surely one of the most heart-rending and poignant movements Mozart ever wrote. The only movement he wrote in F sharp minor – my favourite key incidentally. The tragic mood is all pervasive – simple yet profound in depth – one of the great utterances of Western civilization on the nature of mortality and grief.

The Allegro assai blows away the moody old clouds with supremely effective invention, phrasing and energy. However I felt the explosion of joy and exuberance after this interned, meditative Adagio could have been slightly more forceful and ebullient. One must never forget that Mozart is almost always writing opera. Lu gave us a partly operatic, festive and energetic close. Lu's orchestral co-ordination was always sensitive and responsive to the conductor Howard Shelley.

Concerto in F major Op. posth
Howard Shelley, piano

I am particularly fond of the music of Hummel and cannot understand the music's absence on concert programmes, although this situation is improving. One does not always go to concerts to explore the 'dark night of the soul'. 

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 - 1837) was an Austrian composer and virtuoso pianist. His music expresses the beautiful transition from the Classical to the Romantic musical era. Hummel was born in Pressburg, Kingdom of Hungary, then a part of the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy (now Bratislava in Slovakia). His father, Johannes Hummel, was the director of the Imperial School of Military Music in Vienna and the conductor there of Emanuel Schikaneder's theatre orchestra. This would explain why the tender age of eight, he was offered music lessons by Mozart.

Hummel was taught and provided with accommodation by Mozart for free for two years. In London he received lessons for four years from Muzio Clementi. Beethoven was a fellow student and friend. Hummel was also a friend of Schubert, who dedicated his last three piano sonatas to him. In 1804, Hummel became Konzertmeister to Prince Esterházy's establishment at Eisenstadt. He remained in the service there for seven years before being dismissed in May 1811 for neglecting his duties. He married the opera singer Elisabeth Röckel in 1813. Hummel later held the positions of Kapellmeister in Stuttgart from 1816 to 1819 and in Weimar from 1819 to 1837, where he formed a close friendship with Goethe.

During Hummel's stay in Weimar he transformed this picturesque city into a European musical capital, inviting the best musicians of the day to perform. He introduced one of the first musicians' pension schemes. Hummel was also one of the first to agitate for musical copyright to combat intellectual piracy. The Piano Concerto in F Major, was his last mature work in the concerto genre, first performed on his final trip to London in 1833. I visited his grave in Weimar with the greatest dedication and emotion.

The performance of Concerto in F major Op. posth was full of infectious delight and period charm. Shelley brought out colourful orchestral and delicate piano details and it emerged as a triumph of the styl brillant. The opening Allegro moderato expressed refined nuances and infectious delight in simply making pleasant euphonic music. The melody trips along blithely and undemandingly in this period context. I did not find the Larghetto particularly moving or genuinely nostalgic in the way that the Larghetto in the Chopin F minor concerto can move one to the depths, despite the attempts of Shelley to give it a wistful character. Finely wrought movement but emotionally limited.

The Finale. Allegro con brio with its charming melody was brought off with stimulating  style, energy and panache - certainly a tour de force of the style brillant. Members of the audience would stand on their chairs to see how Hummel accomplished his three finger trills! Would a modern audience possess that degree of enthusiasm for the piano or a pianist?

Fryderyk Chopin
Piano Concerto in E minor

Silver medalist and laureate of the Krystian Zimerman Prize at the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin is standing out today as one of the most important musicians of his generation. Before I embark on an assessment of this well near perfect performance of the Chopin E minor piano concerto Op.11 - I wish to make a few observations.

Chopin composed the E minor Concerto Op. 11 when he was a youth of 20. It is so appropriate that it is being performed by a brilliant young pianist. Chopin wrote the work a year before he left Poland and it is a significant step in his maturity as a composer. This puts to bed the oft repeated truism that he only truly developed as a composer after he left his native land. 

It is a 'styl brillant' concerto with Italian vocal operatic fioriture (decorative melodic features - the bel canto  of Rossini and Bellini in particular - his favourite opera composers). It follows the early nineteenth century concerto style of Hummel, Ries, Moscheles and Field. Chopin knew these works and they were often performed in Warsaw. It is also descended in some ways from the Mozartian model of piano concerto - a composer whose balance and taste Chopin adored. The concerto should be interpreted in this post-classical style rather than as a full blown 'Romantic' concerto in say the style of Schumann. 

A short note also on the common and ill-informed criticism of his orchestration. One must understand the performance context in which these two concerti appeared. There was great interchangeability of performing forces in those days for concertos of this type - full orchestra, chamber ensemble, string ensembles of varying sizes (four to nine players) and even a version for two pianos. Chopin needed to cater for these differences in demand. We mount full orchestral performances today in relative ease compared to those days. 

The balance of sound too between say a period  Buchholtz, Graf or Pleyel piano and the orchestra was completely different to today where a virtuoso at a Steinway or Yamaha can effortlessly dominate the orchestra. The relationship between the soloist and the orchestra was also in the process of evolution. I feel some familiarity with the early instruments of Chopin's time is of importance in coming to terms with Chopin's intentions and transferring them to the modern instrument. It is helpful when considering Chopin's concerti to look forward to him from Mozart rather than backward to him from the full-blown 'symphonic' concerti of  Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and others of the later nineteenth century. 

Charles-Richard Hamelin has always entranced me with the modesty and classical restraint of his Chopin, rarely being tempted into the declamatory style that many young pianists cannot resist. He seems rarely to cross the invisible line that separates individuality of expression from the composer's intentions. The opening possessed all the inner integrity of the indication Allegro maestoso. His tone and light yet penetrating touch express all the jeu perlé qualities of the style brillant. The colours he extracted from the piano were cultivated and burnished to a radiance that illuminates the impeccable legato phrasing and deep expressiveness of his art, so important in intuitively creating the often inaccessible  climat de Chopin recommended by Chopin's best pupil Princess Marcelina Czartoryska. In this concerto the atmosphere he creates is an expression of the supremely musical, inner joyful harmony and melancholy reflections of youth. The rhapsodic gestures within this first movement were brought off like a rushing mountain stream.

The Romanze - Larghetto was tender and  expression of true nature of adolescent love, cloudless and illusioned before the tigers of experience and betrayal begin their feast. After the soulful preparation of the first movement, this internalized meditation became an eloquent and exquisite love song with all the character of what might be considered a Chopin 'nocturne'. The simplicity contained within his phrasing was deeply affecting. In a letter to his friend Tytus Chopin wrote: ‘The Adagio for the new concerto is in E major. It is not intended to be powerful, it is more romance-like, calm, melancholic, it should give the impression of a pleasant glance at a place where a thousand fond memories come to mind.’ Richard-Hamelin achieved all of this.

The Finale. Vivace is a lively, spontaneous and energetic krakowiak dance, full of exuberance and the sheer joy of life that one feels at the age of 20. All this was contained and constrained within a complete understanding of the styl brillant musical aesthetic of the day. One distinctly felt Chopin's sunny and blithesome temperament when an irrepressible young man - humorous writer, sketcher, practical joker, actor, dance musician...

Yes, he might have moodily contemplated his distant and as it turned out, unrequited first love. It is rumoured the blue-eyed Polish soprano Konstancja Gładkowska, who possibly inspired the romantic emotions contained within this concerto, preferred the attentions of two splendidly uniformed and dashing young Russian cavalry officers. Chopin loved her voice (as he loved the voice and opera throughout his life), the most beautiful of the young female music students at the Warsaw Conservatory. He met her when he was 19 and she sang at his farewell from the country. They exchanged rings but their correspondence faded away after a year.

I feel Richard-Hamelin has much to say about this work. He moulded musical phrases in keeping with all the luminously shifting emotions, expressively eloquent, so full of yearning, joy, exuberance and alterations of mood that suffuse this extraordinary creation.

Never forget the myth of Orpheus. The making of music is the cultivation of magic not simply a series of beautiful sounds strung together. Here we had this.

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Chamber concert



String Quartet No. 14, Op. 105
Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81

The Apollon Musagète Quartett was founded in 2006 by four Polish musicians: violinists Paweł Zalejski and Bartosz Zachłod, violist Piotr Szumieł and cellist Piotr Skweres. They met in Vienna. The members of the quartet, mostly graduates of the University of Music in Warsaw, continued their studies in chamber music under the tuition of the Alban Berg Quartett. In 2006 they decided to start their own ensemble. They chose Apóllōn Mousēgétēs as their patron, the god of beauty, light, life, death, pestilence, music, divination, truth, law, order, patron of art and poetry and guide of the muses. Between 2012 and 2014 they were selected as part of BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme.

The String Quartet No. 14, Op. 105 (1895) is Dvorák's last chamber work. In many ways it crowns a celebrated  production of string quartets over more than 30 years.

The rather lugubrious opening bars of the Adagio ma non troppo first movement on the cello gives way to a flowering of the main Allegro appassionato which lifts the mood to the emotionally buoyant. It develops dramatically into all variety of sensual realms. The Apollon gave us a marvelous account of these developments with firmly cohesive rich sound, close ensemble and deep commitment to the music.

The hemiolas of the Molto vivace second movement throws us into the wild, fiery centre of the Bohemian furiant dance. With the Polish instinct for the rhythms of folkloric dance, the Apollon acquitted themselves in this movement brilliantly. The F major Lento molto e cantabile begins as a affecting song but then is transformed by decorative features into something quite different. The tone colours and cantabile of the Apollon in this movement were beautiful.  They also accomplished with great art the magical way Dvorák develops the strange cello phrases and threatening tremolos that begin the Allegro non troppo finale directly into another the extrovert, intensely physical dance that is the main section of the movement - an effusive, tremendously energetic explosion of dance. A fine performance only perhaps without quite that deep driving energy and authority of the the Prague Quartet, my favourite account of this marvelous work. 

After the interval they were joined by the renowned, and for me one of the finest pianists and musicians playing in the world today, Vadim Kholodenko. 

They were to play perhaps the most famous of any piano quintet,  the Dvorák Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81. This Piano Quintet No 2 was written in the peaceful surroundings of his country house , Vysoka in 1895. The premiere was given on 8 January 1888 at the Rudolfinum in Prague with four outstanding Czech string players under the conductor and composer Karel Kovarovic who also played the piano.

The profoundly rich melodic gift given to Dvorák, simplicity of classical structure and transparent emotions seduce the heart, soul and mind. The gentle opening Adagio ma non troppo on the cello gives no indication of the Allegro appassionato that is to follow. Kholodenko seemed to inspire the quartet to rise above the challenges as the expansion of the movement into its various moods continued inexorably. This ensemble was simply magnificent in this quintet. The contrasts of mood in the changes in harmonic rhythm were accomplished with a feeling of musical unfolding inevitably like the dawn.

In the slow movement Dumka. Andante con moto, the lyricism and nostalgic yearning of the ravishing melody moves any romantic spirit deeply. This is the soulful heart of this composition. The glorious tone and heart-breaking phrasing Kholodenko produced here moved one almost to tears. The central section marked Vivace, an abandoned Dumka develops into an exciting climacteric 'taken at the flood' by these virtuoso musicians in full emotionally powerful ensemble.

The brilliant, glittering Scherzo - Furiant. Molto vivace danced with overwhelming nervous and physical internal energy, especially Kholodenko on the piano. The movement is both a fast waltz and the Furiant, a dance much favoured by the composer at this time. They gave it an irresistible forward momentum and sense of joyful abandon. The trio allowed Kholodenko to give subtle support to the violins.

In the superbly triumphant, emotionally prolonged and joyful Finale. Allegro, Dvorák has one theme leading with miraculous inevitability into another. To listen to this work in once tragic Warsaw was such a deep confirmation of the unstoppable renewal of the human spirit. The music moves ahead with the momentum of an avalanche yet Kholodenko never overstepped the mark of symbiosis with the chamber ensemble by resorting to any tempting display by a 'great soloist'. A rare and modest soul indeed for a virtuoso pianist. There is a wonderful, lyrical hiatus of calmness in this movement which is quite magical before the tempo gradually increases once again until the final almost ostentatious, theatrical flourish that concludes the piece. The tensions and relaxations were expressed with facility and charisma by this ensemble.

The audience gave an instant standing ovation. The concert ended at midnight and was without doubt one of the greatest highlights of the festival.

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Symphonic Concert
Tobias Koch period piano
Naruhiko Kawaguchi period piano

Benjamin Bayl conductor
Jakub Gołąbek (1739-1789)
Symphony in C

This was a carefully planned early nineteenth century programme that concentrate on the evolution of music during this period. A fascinating challenge

The Polish composer Golabek is well nigh forgotten and scarcely ever appears in concert. He spent most of his working life in Krakow at the chapel of the Mariacki church and at Wawel Cathedral. He wrote mainly liturgical music -  masses, cantatas, motets and vespers. However, three of his symphonies survived. This symphony follows the traditional form established by Haydn and the Mannheim school of the early Classical symphony.

I was impressed from the outset by the musical commitment of this orchestra and their conductor Benjamin Bayl to what is after all pleasant, charming, occasional music of a rather innocuous type. It aroused few substantial emotions in me apart from a cake and a cup of tea in the Bath Assembly Rooms but I found the final Prestissimo very lively and uplifting. The ensemble gave the whole great energy and drive.

Giovanni Paisiello (1740 - 1816)
Concerto in D major (c. 1788)

Paisello was trained in the great musical city of Naples where he composed operas and became a type of mentor for the young Mozart - no mean achievement. Catherine II admired and valued him immensely and remunerated him accordingly! He spent a little time at the court of Stanislaw Augustus in Warsaw. The political effect on his career was dramatic with the fall of Napoleon - shortly afterwards he died. He wrote eight concertos for harpsichord and this in D major strengthened Enlightenment values.

Giovanni Paisiello as a young man

With Tobias Koch as soloist I found the work elegant, stylish and a trifle infectiously rococo. This pianist is greatly sensitive to stylish differences and had mastered just the degree of 'affectation' suitable for such works. The work is delightful and makes no deep demands on the soul - thank goodness! It is rather tiring when everything in music resembles Rodin's 'Thinker'.  The Largo was thoughtful, reflective, and refined in its melancholy sentiments with a luminous tone and refined touch form the soloist. In the Allegro we returned to liveliness and Koch wittingly introduced (as is his wont) a quotation from the Chopin Prelude No 7 in A major and later a fioritura flourish I did not recognize. Most amusing, appropriate in performance practice and suitably light-hearted.

 Symphony no. 2 in B flat major, D. 125 (1815)

One must never forget when assessing this symphony that it is the production of a brilliant 17 year old! The lively theme that follows the Largo - Allegro vivace was energetically articulated with verve and dancing rhythm by this orchestra and their conductor. The opening serene melody was presented as a brilliant contrast to what followed. The  movement ends with the same sunny, energetic character that dominates the movement. The tuttis mercifully not aggressive. The Beethovinian adulation by Schubert is obvious with their commitment of energy but there are worse faults than emulation by a 17 year old. In 17th century Venice painting and copying in the style of the masters was mandatory. 

The serene and playful Andante was utterly charming and complemented by grace and gemütlich (apart from the slightly strenuous middle section). The various instrumental orchestral soloists were fine indeed in their 'conversational' style in this justifiably renowned theme. The Menuetto. Allegro vivace - Trio is another amalgam of German dance tunes played with spirit and temperament. The joyful, adolescent exuberance of the Presto presented more dances but I felt they would have benefited from more lightness from the orchestra. More dancing expressiveness and finesse here and a lighter touch - the symphony is not all derived from Beethoven! I thought, even though it is a bravura movement, the approach was over-emphatic and declamatory after the first movement's seductive, sunny character.

 Concert Overture in D major, Op. 1 (1824)

Unfortunately much of the charming early romantic music composed by this composer has failed to survive. Even today they are considered historical relics. However Chopin's teacher Jozef Elsner, held a high opinion of Dobrzynski that was not so far below and different to that of Chopin. They were both taught by Elsner. He is 'distinguished particularly as an orchestral composer', a talent for which Chopin never aspired.

Rare framed daguerreotype of Feliks Dobrzynski

This Concert Overture was also written at the age of 17. I found the work charming, civilized, joyful and young. This orchestra under Bayle understand the style of this period extremely well.
Rondo à la krakowiak in F major (1828)

For an elucidation of this wonderful piece, I can do no better than quote in full this illuminating description by the great musicologist  Mieczysław Tomaszewski:

The Rondo à la krakowiak was written in Warsaw in 1828, under the guidance of Józef Elsner. At the Czartoryski in Cracow, one can see the manuscript of the score, dedicated to Princess Anna Czartoryska, née Sapieha. On page 28, in the part of the horns – accompanying the piano and the strings – there are three bars written in a different script. And beneath them, in Chopin’s handwriting, the words ‘in Elsner’s hand’. As we can see, the master was keeping a watchful eye over his pupil.

This was only the second composition (after the ‘Là ci darem’ Variations) in which Chopin, in his third year of studies at the Main School of Music, wrestled with an orchestral accompaniment to the piano. And the young composer can be said to have passed the test. In the Krakowiak, the orchestra is a distinct partner to the piano, despite being used only sparingly. The Krakowiak was written in the style brillant, which assigns to the orchestra the sole function of accompanying and supplementing. It is the virtuoso who has the dominant voice. It is he who is to show his pianistic capabilities, displaying his complete mastery of the keyboard, although the orchestra can also be full of vigour, especially in the tutti passages.

Yet the most interesting colouristic effects appear when the strings accompany the piano modestly, most often with long-held chords played full bow. Elsewhere, for the sake of variety, arco playing replaces pizzicato. In places, the piano dialogues with the wind instruments, yet the piano has the dominant voice: it presents the work’s basic themes and later subjects them to lively figuration.

The Krakowiak has the form of a rondo. Its principal theme – the refrain – is the most typical krakowiak: a lively dance, wilful (thanks to its numerous syncopations), pugnacious and full of panache. Its melody, though not a quotation, will seem familiar to anyone who knows ‘Albośmy to jacy tacy’ [That’s just how we are].

Against the melody of the refrain stands that of the episode (or couplet). It has the character of a dance of Ukrainian provenance and is close to a kolomyika. Interestingly, the first time it was heard in Warsaw, Maurycy Mochnacki had the impression that he was listening to a dance by Carpathian highlanders. In Jachimecki's opinion, an echo can be heard in the highland dances from Moniuszko’s Halka.

At the time Chopin composed his Rondo à la krakowiak, the titular dance was leading what might be termed a double life. Its folk provenance and rural vitality were obvious to all, yet since the end of the previous century, when it first entered the ballroom, raised to the status of a society dance, it had remained there, together with the polonaise and the mazur, forming a triple canon of national dances. In the very same year that Chopin placed the date beneath the last bar of the score of his Rondo à la krakowiak, Kazimierz Brodziński, in an essay entitled ‘O tańcach narodowych’ [On the national dances], gave a colourful description of the dance in question. A concise, concrete description of the krakowiak was provided a quarter of a century later by Oskar Kolberg: ‘The dance proceeds in accordance with a melody that is more often tender than gay, in a 2/4 measure, with the stress on the second and fourth, and so the weak beat in the bar, or on both crotchets’.

When listening to the Ronda à la krakowiak, we sense that it was written by someone not unfamiliar with the element of dance. It was first heard on a concert platform in Vienna. Chopin did not hide his joy and pride from his parents. In a letter of August 1829, he boasted: ‘With my Rondo, I won over all the professional musicians. From kapellmeister Lachner through to the piano-tuner, they marvel at the beauty of this composition. […] Gyrowetz [it was his concerto that the eight-year-old Fryderyk performed in his first public appearance in Warsaw]… Gyrowetz – standing close to Celiński – cried out and applauded. Only in the case of the Germans do I not know if I pleased them’.

That was in the second of his Viennese concerts. And in the first? Already in that first rendition of the Rondo, it was supposed to bring his performance to a close, but fate decreed otherwise. In a letter to his parents, we find what may amount to a terse explanation: ‘at the rehearsal, the orchestra accompanied so badly that I changed the Rondo into a Freie Fantasie’. Warsaw heard the Krakowiak in March the following year, in the second concert at the National Theatre. The reporter for the Kurier Warszawski related: ‘Yesterday again 900 people came. The virtuoso was greeted with tumultuous applause, which was constantly renewed, especially after the rendition of the Cracovian Rondo’.

Engraving of Krakow in 1820

Naruhiko Kawaguchi, achieved 2nd prize in the First International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments  in September 2018. His fine performance confirmed his high placing in the competition. His mastery of the style brillant, the finger technique and touch that had inspired Chopin through the piano concertos of Hummel, is complete. Members of the audience used to stand on their chairs to see how Hummel achieved his brilliant three finger trills.

For me it was one of the best versions I have heard for many years. Naruhiko clearly loves playing Chopin and in particular this youthful, joyful work so full of the exuberant Polish national folkloric spirit. He had an excellent rapport with the orchestra that possessed outstanding period style and disciplined orchestral colour and dynamics. A satisfying performance on every level.

 Bajka [Fairy-tale]

 The first performance of what is in effect a type of symphonic poem (evolving in accordance with the emotional content) was given on 1 May 1848. After the first Moscow performance: 'It delighted everyone and won the listeners over to the composer ....' This Concert Overture is still a much loved piece that remains one of his most frequently played works. The [oh!] Orkiestra Historyczna under Benjamin Bayle  performed with great rhythm, drive, energy and verve which suited the work admirably. A highly enjoyable performance.  

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Symphonic Concert

Akiko Ebi period piano

Masaaki Suzuki conductor
Symphony in A major No. 29, K.201

I found this  a beautifully refined and elegant approach to Mozart - a work written in 1774 when he was merely 18. The Bach Collegium Japan approached the work in a not over serious, romantically intense or philosophically demanding manner. A young man testing his powers of serene flight, graceful rather than passionate in its musical gestures. The Andante second movement was pleasantly 'conversational' and gemütlich in atmospheric tone. Once again delicacy and refinement was present in the approach. The Menuetto - Allegretto. Trio possessed lovely, civilized interchanges between individual instrumentalists. The conductor Suzuki introduced affecting phrasing, sensitively preparing harmonic gestures and resolutions. The final movement Allegro con spirito was exactly that with inspiring dance rhythms and a fine balance maintained between orchestral sections at an ideal tempo.

 Piano Concerto in F minor

In this performance on a copy by Paul McNulty of a period Pleyel piano, I felt that Chopin's own love of Mozart's classical, restrained refinement and aristocratic detachment was not fully understood. Nor, oddly enough, with this remarkable and renowned orchestra and conductor, his love of Bach. There were too many solecisms although none were particularly offensive.

The style of the opening Maestoso movement was more overtly 'Romantic' than a deeper penetration, examination and understanding of this music would have revealed. Ebi played well and idiomatically as she understands and plays au climat de Chopin as recommended by Chopin's best pupil, Princess Marcelina Czartorska. However her style brillante texture tended to fade into heaviness on occasion. The solo part of this concerto, particularly on a Pleyel, relies on its Hummel-like glitter and lightly fluent finger technique, rather than on arm weight utilized on a Steinway. 

The overt, rather unbalanced dynamics of the tympani and brass intruded on the ensemble sound.  The orchestral colour and projection lost subtlety and was for me far too declamatory. Chopin does not shout so loudly mon braves! Unfortunately this approach also erased some of the exquisite poetry from the Larghetto second movement. This is Chopin's heartfelt, amorous, but not overtly sentimental attraction for his fellow music student in Warsaw, the beautiful soprano Konstancja Gładkowska. It is an eloquent expression of distant, adolescent, still-to-be-disillusioned love or perhaps gentle infatuation. The moving melodic poetry was rather absent for me. In the third agitated and technically demanding, virtuosic Allegro vivace movement, the absence of eye contact between soloist and conductor led to, shall we say, some tricky situations

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

As often the second child of any family, the Second Symphony (1802) of Beethoven occupies an slightly uncomfortable place between the impressive First Symphony and the revolutionary explosive nature of the Eroica. The opening Adagio molto - Allegro con brio reminds one of Mozart and Haydn but this is soon dispelled. It is well to remember a passage from the Heiligenstadt Testament  written in this same year of 1802): 

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

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

A page of the Heiligenstadt Testament

Beethoven deeply loved the countryside and its delights and felt these joys threatened. This sonata seems to me a passionate response to this terrible reversal of fortune for a composer of such monumental genius. He didn’t fail to see the horrible irony of 'an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others.'More surprising then that this symphony is rather pastoral and good humored in atmosphere. It maintains Haydn's orchestra in terms of instruments but the nervous energy of the Beethoven is not his style.

In the performance by the Bach Collegium Japan of the Second Symphony in D major, I felt in the opening Adagio molto - Allegro con brio  they had been lured into a more declamatory approach to the work than is required. This became slightly unconformable with the tympani, and brass so forward in the orchestral balance.  The Larghetto  in contrast had the remembered classical graciousness of the Mozart symphony described above - yes, unusual but successful here for Beethoven! The Scherzo - Allegro was rather playful but not quite light enough on the drama. The energy and drive the orchestra and conductor brought to the explosive Allegro molto finale was exciting and infectious. It is what we now understand by the word 'Beethovinian', although to audiences in 1803 it must have sounded deeply shocking and unpredictable in its power and irreverent humour.

This performance was certainly enjoyable and invested with great nervous energy and an exciting tempo. All that it requires is a refinement of orchestral instrumental detail and improved orchestral balance to make it outstanding.

Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Music Hall
Piano recital

'Fugue Recital' 

Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903

This version dates from 1720, when Bach was living and working in Köthen. Around 1730, after having moved to Leipzig, Bach revised the work once more. Although many of Bach's works have reverted back to the harpsichordists, this one has remained firmly in the fingers of pianists and its grandeur and vitality is the reason. There is exciting chromaticism throughout in both the rich, almost recitative passagework of the Fantasia and contained within fugue.

Phojonen approached the work entirely without the pedal which gave his sound a remarkable transparency and ability to realize the polyphonic nature of the piece, especially the fugue.  He approached the work quite expressively but I felt he could have emphasized the nobility and nervous excitement of the Fantasia. His phrasing and articulation were excellent but I looked for a certain monumentality that has kept it a favourite among pianists.

Prélude, choral and fugue

Prélude. Moderato
Choral. Poco più lento – Poco allegro
Fugue. Tempo I

This Franck work was well described by Adrian Corleonis as ‘an elaborately figured, chromatically inflected, and texturally rich essay in which doubt and faith, darkness and light, oscillate until a final ecstatic resolution.’  

After hearing a piece by Emmanuel Chabrier in April 1880, the Dix pièces pittoresques, Franck observed 'We have just heard something quite extraordinary -- music which links our era with that of Couperin and Rameau.' The forms Prélude, Choral and Fugue here are clearly symbolic of their Bach inspired counterparts. The motives are obviously related to the Bach Cantata 'Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen', and also the 'Crucifixus' from the B minor Mass. César Franck transforms these with his own unique solutions and cyclical form. 

The influence of the organ and his many years composing sacred texts are obvious here. The pianist Stephen Hough in a note remarked"Alfred Cortot described the Fugue in the context of the whole work as 'emanating from a psychological necessity rather than from a principle of musical composition' (La musique française de piano; PUF, 1930)." The work was finally premiered in January 1885.

Again Pohjonen's transparency and clarity was outstanding in this densely written work. However I felt he should give himself over to the burning emotion of the work more as it composed by a Frenchman. His piano sound did not resemble an organ which perhaps it should, given Cesar Frank's long personal relationship with this instrument. The final appearance of the theme could have been more ardent and as a song. He wound up the Fugue and coda brilliantly, with never a rough dynamic, a rich tone and fine touch. His pedalling was excellent in this final section of the work.

Prelude and Fugue in C major, K. 394/383a

One of the greatest influences on the development of Mozart's music settling in Vienna in 1781, was the music of J.S.Bach. This was owing to the influence of Baron Gottfried van Swieten who collected the music of both Bach and Handel. Mozart began to attend the Sunday morning artistic gatherings of the Baron as he indicated in a letter to his father: 'nothing is played but Handel and Bach.'  He also studied fugues with Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. He sent his sister Nannerl this Prelude and Fugue in C major, which  he had composed for Constanze, who fell 'absolutely fell in love' with the art of the fugues of Bach and Handel

I am afraid I did not find this interpretation fitted the template of Mozart that I have in my mind. I found it slightly heavy and rather overpedalled without a fully developed classical style, at least as I conceive it in sound. I found it a fascinating piece for all that although the fugue was presented someway monchromatically without a great deal of expression. Perhaps he felt detachment was Mozart's intention.

Fantasy in C major, Op. 15, D 760 (Der Wanderer)

He then took up the great Schubert Wanderer Fantasy. I felt he unfortunately had limited understanding of this work. The interpretation unfortunately betrayed rather limited understanding of Schubert's intentions in this piece - the operatic nature of 'The Wanderer' passing thorough varied landscapes and the joyful and bitter experiences of life on his great journey through it. He wrote it in 1822 only six years before his premature death. The work is surely a keyboard version of what might have been another great Schubert song cycle. The main theme, in a hardly festive C-sharp minor, is actually taken from his song Der Wanderer. More background literary research on such great works before performance please!

I once heard the great pianist Alexander Melnikov at the Chopin i jego Europa Festival in Warsaw give a brilliant account of this work on a Conrad Graf historical piano which illuminated the shifting landscape and fluctuating moods in an unprecedented manner perfectly suited to Schubert. Conrad Graf (1782-1851) was an Austrian-German piano maker whose instruments were used by Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert and Clara Schumann among others. They were capable of extraordinary sonority and effects.

Wanderer in the Storm (1835) Julius von Leypold 
(German, Dresden 1806–1874 Niederlößnitz)

Fugue in A minor

It was interesting to hear this rather academic exercise and example of devotion to Chopin's love of Bach. he did not want to develop it any further - none of his Preludes have a fugue attached. This Fugue is written in two voices. However, one could not say Chopin's fugue was a baroque structure even in imitation. It is rather more melodic as in Mendelssohn and other post-classical's fugues who experimented with the genre.

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Symphonic Concert

Tatsuya Shimono conductor
 Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante in E flat major

The Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante was certainly ‘flowing and smooth’ with a beautiful rounded tone in the Andante. Fine legato and cantabile.  The essential nature of the style brilliant of which the Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.22 is an essential and outstanding representative of Chopin’s early Varsovian style, seems rather oddly to be a mystery to young pianists who are often much the same age as Chopin when he wrote it. 

Jan Kleczyński (1837-1895) writes of this work: ‘There is no composition stamped with greater elegance, freedom and freshness’ and  ‘a real firework of wondrous passages and bold phrases’. The style involves 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. There are also vital expressive elements of charm, grace, taste and elegance. One must not forget that Chopin astonished Vienna by his pianism but perhaps even more by the elegance of his princely appearance.

The Andante spianato (which Chopin often used to perform as an isolated piece he loved it so much) was pleasant, understood as a nocturne and a lovely introduction. The ‘call to the floor’ for the polonaise was strident and well handled (an instrumental custom well understood by Chopin who in his youth was mad about dancing, a fine dancer and also an excellent dance pianist into the small hours hence his need for rehab at Bad Reinherz – now Dusznki Zdroj).

However this was not entirely the style brillante as I understand it. The many fiorituras were not presented as Venetian lace, the hand and touch rather heavy, muscular and robust, at least on the modern Steinway. Although excellent pianistically and precocious in every way, there was not sufficient early Chopinesque refinement or elegance here I thought. The orchestra gave support certainly but even they seemed in need of finesse and refinement in what is a work surely influenced by Mozart and Hummel, not the later Romantic symphonic concerto tradition. That is not to say it was not extremely well played, even brilliantly performed, just that it was somewhat stylistically inaccurate for me.

The Polish pianist Wojciech Switała made a memorable recording of this work for Polish Radio Katowice some years ago (1992?) which is the most magnificent example I have ever heard of the style brillante.

 Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30

The Third Piano Concerto was written for Rachmaninoff's first American tour in 1909. He had practiced the solo part on a dummy keyboard on the Atlantic crossing. He was hoping that the attractive fee may allow him to buy a motor car. Little did he realize he would spend the rest of his life in the US and die there. In this work he successfully accomplished a composition in the great 19th century tradition of the Romantic concertos of Liszt, Schumann, Rubinstein and Scharwenka with aspirations to the orchestral piano symbiosis present in the concertos of Brahms. Oddly perhaps he ceased performing this work towards the end of his life as a soloist leaving performances up to younger pianists such as Horowitz (who 'fell on the work like a tiger') or Gieseking. certainly it has been the work that has handed victory to many a young aspiring pianist in competitions and even inspired a deeply moving film on the severe personal psychological travails of attempting to master this work. 

Rachmaninoff wrote of the rehearsal with Gustav Mahler:

Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with Nikisch. He touched my composer's heart straight away by devoting himself to my Concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection, although he had already gone through a long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important - an attitude which is unfortunately rare among conductors.

This was an absolutely triumphant performance for the soloist Nelson Goerner who emerged here as a great piano virtuoso and supreme musician. From the simplicity of the Russian Orthodox opening 'hymn' to the final tempestuous coda that surely transports us to the very peak of the Romantic concerto, his pianistic command of the work was breathtaking. The predominance and balance of orchestral dynamics in tutti and fortissimo passages tended to smother, even compete with the soloist rather than co-operate in the more symbiotic Brahmsian manner. His first movement cadenza to the Allegro ma non tanto was spectacular. 

Goerner took over the emotionally moving and soulful Intermezzo Adagio from the woodwind and strings with great musicality and nuance.  I felt on occasion however with this orchestra, and particularly in the fearsome Finale: Alla breve movement, that the vital communication between conductor and virtuoso soloist holding the monumental edifice together could have been more developed. 

 Harold in Italy, Op. 16

As I am such a fond admirer of the poetry of Byron as well as the Memoirs of Berlioz, this work has remained close in my affections from a tender age. The dreamer of Byron's poem, Childe Harold, wanders through France, Switzerland, Albania, Greece, Italy and further in philosophical speculation and meditation on the nature of life and experience. Byron, his scandalous life and legendary poems, had an incalculable influence on most composers, artists, poets and writers in Europe and beyond in the Romantic nineteenth century. The long poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in many cantos, was the inspiration for of this musical composition. Byron awoke the morning after publication to find himself famous. This poem inspired the programmatic music as is described in the colourful recollections of Hector Berlioz in his Memoirs, wandering as a youth with his guitar and flute through the wild Abruzzi region of Italy among brigands and pilgrims. In this canto from Byron's poem, towards the conclusion, a deeper philosophy emerges and succinctly expresses the reason music speaks so eloquently to my heart and so many others.


There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes, 
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more, 
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before, 
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne're express, yet cannot all conceal!

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1832)  J.M.W.Turner 

In the programme of Harold in Italy (1834), a symphony with viola obbligato, Berlioz transforms Byron to suit his own composition. The story of the genesis this work, including as it does the cadaverous figure of Paganini and twenty thousand francs, is a romantic tale in itself. The virtuoso violinist wanted a piece for the new viola he had just acquired. Berlioz writes in his Memoirs 'a man with a long mane of hair, with piercing eyes, with a strange and haggard face' waited for him in the foyer of the theatre and approached him with fulsome praise. He wanted a composition by the only composer he felt he could trust. Berlioz presented him with the manuscript of  the work but the many rests for viola upset Paganini as he wanted to be playing constantly throughout. After a performance which Paganini attended with his son, he was so full of admiration he sent Berlioz twenty thousand francs, a most unusual gesture as the violinist was notoriously parsimonious. In 1840 Paganini died never in fact having performed the piece.

For me this was a rather rumbustious account by the orchestra and conductor of the work which worked rather well in the fourth scene, the Orgy of the Brigands.  I felt Ryszard Groblewski could have caressed the sublime viola theme with more sensibility. The romantic melancholy of the dreamer Harold lifts as  he walks through the mountains breathing in deeply the crystal air and gazing at the sublime views Nature provides. In the Serenade of a Mountaineer of the Abruzzi to his Sweetheart the supremely beautiful melody can survive an amorous treatment without sentimentality or mawkishness . His agitation of mind in the religious March of the Pilgrims becomes then such a contrast. I did not feel Ryszard quite embraced this soulful view of the viola part.

Of the Orgy Berlioz writes: 

'This wild orgy where several intoxications of wine, blood, joy and rage are blended; where the rhythm now seems to stumble, now to rush madly ahead; where the brass instruments seem to vomit imprecations and to answer suppliant voices with blasphemies; where there is laughter, drinking, fighting, quarreling, murder, violation; while from the solo viola (the dreamer Harold fleeing in terror) we hear in the distance some of the tremulous note of the Evening Hymn.'
The extraordinarily subtle orchestration Berlioz utilizes to express the wide range of emotions contained within Harold in Italy was slightly lost in the predominance of dynamic exuberance which lay over their view of the work. Overall an enjoyable enough performance with a few interpretative reservations.

Witold Lutosławski Studio of the Polish Radio
Piano recital

Sonata in E major, K. 495
Sonata in E major, K. 20
Sonata in A minor, K. 109
Sonata in B flat minor, K. 128
Sonata in G major, K. 55
Sonata in G major, K. 455
Sonata in A flat major, K. 127
Sonata in D minor, K. 32
Sonata in F major, K. 6
Sonata in F minor, K. 466

Children's notebook

Andante sostenuto from Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

Sonata in B minor, S. 178

Below appears a comment I made on Evgeni Bozhanov at the conclusion of the XVI International Fryderyk Chopin Competition Warsaw in October 2010 where he was placed 4th.

So here we have a pianist with the infectious originality and the deep musical whimsicality and invention of say a Horowitz or a Friedman - but he is his own man completely - so exciting and unpredictable to listen to. A fabulously original and imaginative individual who is thinking 'outside the Chopin music box'. What matters the 'distinguished groves of academe' and 'correctness' when you can hear imaginative, 'dangerous' playing like this.

But what will the jury make of it? Will Chopin conservatism prevail? How did he get into the competition in the first place playing like this, let alone the second stage? In the past this would probably not have happened. Perhaps the acceptance criteria are broadening in scope (and about time too). Will Martha Argerich leap to his defence à la Pogorelić......? 

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was a Latin, a Neapolitan or possibly Sicilian. At the time Naples was teeming in terms of population comparable only to London and Paris. 'Naples and Paris. The only two capitals according to Henri Beyle (Stendhal). The city was obsessed with music and dominated the musical world not only in Italy but of Europe. At the time of his birth in 1685, his father Alessandro was the most famous composer in Italy. Most of his son's working life was however spent in Spain at Madrid, Aranjuez and the Royal Palace of La Granja near Seville working for Ferdinand VI and the Infanta of Portugal and Queen of Spain, Maria Barbara. She seemed to have an intelligence solely for music and little else but was one of Scarlatti's best harpsichord pupils. Sacheverell Sitwell, in his fascinating slim volume on the social milieu of Scarlatti, describes her appearance as 'of the dwarf Bragança type, very swarthy and thick-lipped, through her descent from the Emperor Leopold I.' The couple suffered from acute melancholia relieved only by music - the 'warblings of the castrati Farinelli and Egizziello'.

His is a unique contribution to the universe of western keyboard music, restricted predominantly to one instrument in a not dissimilar manner to the extraordinary figure of Fyderyk Chopin. His music is inhabited by a world of characters, each of the hundreds of pieces being a unique specimen of a rather caustic, sometimes romantic, on occasion even sinister temperament. In his group of selected sonatas, Bozhanov presented ten of them to us in exactly that manner, as characterful, varied pianistic portraits.

It was the most extraordinary and brilliant Scarlatti, unique in conception and instrumental sound. Some resonances he produced from the piano I had never before heard. The variety of invention in his conception of phrasing, articulation, colour, nuance, tone and touch was interpretatively breathtaking. He alternated bustling and busy sonatas with glorious cantabile creations in which he produced the most astonishing legato. He revealed the internal life, the internal world of each sonata. The musical implications he extracted or imagined were simply astonishing. Instrumentally his approach took him beyond the soundscape of the harpsichord into that of the early Cristofori instruments. Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco (1655-1731) was the father of the modern piano and it is clear from modern research that the Infanta Maria Barbara had purchased at least five of these instruments during her lifetime. I would like to examine his approach to each sonata in detail but to do this we will need to await the inevitable CD recording of this concert.

Claude-Joseph Vernet Vue du golfe de Naples (1748)

Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96) was a Polish Jew who fled to Russia in 1939. His music attracted little attention during his lifetime but he is now being hailed as a forgotten master. I had never heard the Piano Sonata No.1 known as the Children's Notebook (he wrote twenty three of these miniatures for children). They are rather similar in intention to  Schumann’s Album for the Young and Scenes from Childhood. Such an interesting choice of work for his programme which dovetailed seamlessly into the Brahms/Reger Andante sostenuto from Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 68. In fact it was so seamless I hardly noticed until suddenly I realized with somewhat of a shock I was listening to Brahms! Bozhanov played this intensely romantic, soulful yearning music with great discretion, taste and refinement.

After the interval the Liszt Sonata in B minor S.178. Here Bozhanov approached this great virtuoso work in a unique way. His approach made one question whether the invisible line had been crossed that exists between interpretation and truth to the composer's intentions. This line between the willfully individual from the creatively revolutionary is a fragile one and often difficult to determine with great artists. Did he indicate the dark, even malign, Mephistophilian heart within this sonata? The sulphur of hell wafts over the Horowitz recording of 1932.

The manner in which a pianist opens this masterpiece tells you everything about the conception that will evolve. The haunted repeated octave seemed of just the right duration with Bozhanov (a terrible duration battle lies in wait for pianists here - Krystian Zimerman drove his recording engineers mad repeating it hundreds of times before being satisfied). His duration and dynamic boded so well for the outcome.  

Bozhanov began to present a rather episodic view of the work, as if one was proceeding through the opera of a life, passing from one scene to another, some triumphal, some tragic and despairing, some seductively romantic, some pastoral, some devilish, some erotic, some simply pianistically virtuosic. He had a great deal to say of rather a unique variety about this work which interested me. This is a profound piece, too often played as some type of virtuoso's display platform, hectic fantasy or dream fantasy when it is actually in many respects a philosophical dialogue between different fundamental aspects of the human spirit as symbolized by Faust, Mephistopheles and Gretchen. I felt Bozhanov approached the work in this way. Liszt was tremendously influenced by literature and poetry in his compositions and in particular Goethe’s Faust, the dramatic spiritual battle between Faust and Mephistopheles with Gretchen hovering about as a seductive, lyrical feminine interlude. And this conception makes it a far more complex musical and structural argument than the more common, overwhelmingly pianistic accounts would indicate.

I felt he managed to retain the cohesive form of this great work but others might disagree. I felt his deeply individualistic view presented the work to us as a series of dramatic life scenes of extraordinary variety and range, concentrating on the internal detail of these episodes to substantial and deeply moving effect. The essential nature of his unrivalled approach was not always clear to me, accustomed as I am to the work being presented as an integrated, formidably cohesive structure of integrated form. His approach was rather like disassembling a magnificent, complex mechanism in order to rejuvenate the worn parts but then one becomes hesitant in acceptance the of the now reassembled 'restored' work of art. There is an analogous case in painting of the restoration of La Primavera by Botticelli at the Uffizi in Florence. Many people, including art historians, were shocked at the vibrant, glowing colours restored to the masterpiece and questioned the methods employed and their integrity. The magnificent result and restoration of life force however speaks for itself.

After the XVI International Chopin Competition in 2010 I also wrote:

Art should disturb the surface of conventional life, not confirm its comfortable nature. It should make you question your values and perceptions, enable you to see familiar things differently, reveal new previously hidden joys through another pair of uniquely gifted eyes - or ears in this case.

Bozhanov does this..... 

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Symphonic Concert
Tomasz Ritter period piano

       Masaaki Suzuki conductor

In Leipzig during the extraordinary Ring of Bach Cantatas 8–10 June 2018, I wrote of Maasaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan:

'The orchestral ensemble under Maasaki Suzuki was simply superb, extraordinarily refined and elegant. [...] The Bach Collegium again gave us superb ensemble in both choir and orchestra with perfect intonation it seemed to me (although I only possess good relative pitch). The subtly inflected and contrasting emotional melodic lines were eloquently expressed. In emotional moods both piteous and sometimes splenetic, the opposition of Bach’s archaic and ‘modern’ styles was finely accomplished. I found the passionate restraint of this entire cantata ‘Ring’ concert most affecting.'

Overture to the Opera Don Giovanni KV 527

I was keenly anticipating this concert of a  Romantic group of works performed entirely on period instruments. The Mozart Overture to the Opera Don Giovanni KV527 literally exploded onto the stage. Such a statement of the depiction of Il dissoluto punito and the unavoidable consequence of hellfire explicit in this opera was powerful and unambiguous from the outset. I loved the unaccustomed colours of the period instruments and of the sound world created here, the urgent tempo and rhythm, the contained erotic energy of Don Giovanni and his sensual nature heading for damnation.

Piano Concerto in E minor Op.11

The rich mahogany sound of the opening of the Chopin E minor concerto on period instruments set the mood and nostalgic historical tone of this performance, rather like gazing at a sepia photograph of a familiar scene taken many years before on a bromide photographic plate by say Eugene Atget. The military role of the timpani in this E minor concerto always diverts me. One must remember that a military, uniformed presence was visible everywhere in Warsaw during the Russian hegemony. 

Tomasz Ritter, winner of the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. 2–14 September 2018, was performing on a Paul McNulty copy of a Pleyel instrument. The balance of piano and orchestra in terms of texture and timbre was perfect, however the uneven dynamic balance of forte passages sometimes overwhelmed the piano and the characteristic style brillante scalar passages of Chopin's writing, influenced by the light textures of Hummel. Ritter's phrasing in the Allegro maestoso was, as always with this pianist, convincing with a great deal of emotional expression and finely judged rubato. Perhaps I was hoping for more personal expressiveness. The tempo was slightly fast to retain the virtuoso poise, refinement and elegance of this work. The Romanza. Larghetto was poetic and cantabile but the tempo did not allow me to dwell sufficiently emotionally, even dreamily, on the intensity of Chopin's adolescent yearning and unrequited, illusioned love for the Polish soprano Konstancja Gładkowska (1810–1889). However I was seduced by the irresistible forward momentum of the virtuosic dancing Rondo. Vivace final movement, like a great river in flood. The orchestrata, conductor and pianist worked together harmoniously during this movement. The audience went wild, just a fraction below the enthusiasm for Argerich.

Symphony No. 4 in A major 'Italian', Op. 90

The Mendelssohn 'Italian' symphony was certainly interesting to hear on period instruments and in a similar way aroused nostalgia for the safe haven of history. Overall the performance was intense and forceful but needed more variety of emotional expressiveness, dynamic variation and highlighting of instrumental detail. The light, warm, southern even amorous Mediterranean temperamental dancing joyfulness of the traveller within the opening Allegro vivace could have perhaps been made clearer and more varied. Particularly in the Andante con moto second movement, which should have a more romantic, heartfelt yearning or perhaps even Italian Catholic religious significance. The Saltarello. Presto possesses some of the gossamer fairy texture of the Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream Op.61 with the introduction of music and dances Mendelssohn heard in Rome and Naples as well as the tarantella he inserts into the development of this wonderful symphonic drama. 

I do not wish, as a mere reviewer, to appear in the slightest presumptuous with these outstanding musicians and their eminent conductor. However to fully absorb the Romantic ethos, Mendelssohn in particular, in order to rise to the sublime level of their Bach performances, it should be recognized that the task is not without its interpretative challenges. 

The Amalfi Coast. 
Watercolour by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

Witold Lutosławski Studio of the Polish Radio
Piano recital

Blumenstück in D flat major Op. 19 (1838-39)

At first we explored the mercurial world of Schumann and his whimsical fluctuating nature. Blumenstück Op. 19 opened the Grosvenor recital. This work was written during at the conclusion of a lyrical compositional period when the composer was a young man of 26 and discovering and exploring the powers of his musical imagination. It is often associated with the popular Arabeske in C Op. 18. The piece depicts various flowers associated with the nature of love and is a much underestimated brief composition of sweet and charming interrelated episodes and variations. Schumann himself did not have a particularly high opinion of it (‘for the Viennese ladies’) but his wife, the concert pianist and composer Clara Wieck, thought it one of his finest pieces and often included it in her concert programmes. 

Grosvenor gave a fine, graceful performance with fine tone and cantabile that almost turned many into songs. His nuance and expressiveness was moving and full of sensibility. He allowed time for the beautiful harmonic progressions to move us emotionally.  

Kreisleriana Op. 16 (1838)

The perfect cat - but I think too sweet to be a Kater Murr - a  'Growler' -  in a window of a dilapidated house in Ladek Zrdoj near Duszniki Zdroj, Lower Silesia, Poland.

Grosvenor then turned to one of Schumann’s greatest piano works, Kriesleriana. Madness or insanity was a notion that throughout his time on earth simultaneously attracted and repelled Schumann. At the end of his life he was cruelly to fall victim to it. Kriesleriana was presented publicly as eight sketches of the fictional character Kapellmeister Kreisler a rather crazy conductor-composer who was a literary figure created by the marvellous German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffman. The piece is actually based on the form of a marvellously inventive grotesque satirical novel Hoffmann wrote called Growler the Cat’s Philosophy of Life Together with Fragments of the Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler from Random Sheets of the Printer’s Waste. 

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

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

It is a very difficult work to present as a coherent structure and Grosvenor gave us rather a classical and controlled view of the work, making the thorny transitions form wildness to lyrical love dream with relatively calm control. I felt that I yearned for more poetry. The extreme shifting of moods in this Schumann piece were captured through his controlled tempo and dynamic which allowed the polyphonic nature of the various pieces to emerge. At the conclusion, he allowed the drama to leave the stage and to simply dissolve into the mists of the forest like a phantom or spectre. Schumann advised Clara not to play the work too often as the passions aroused and nostalgia would be too strong to bear.

Barcarolle in F sharp major Op.60 (1846)

For me the Chopin Barcarolle is a charming gondolier's folk song sung to the swish of oars on the historic Venetian Lagoon or a romantic canal, often concerning the travails of love. Most of the piece oscillates gently between forte, piano and pianissimo with only subtle degrees of heightened emotion throughout.  He opened it too violently for me, not a pushing off from the pier and a gentle setting of the tonal landscape at the beginning of the excursion on the lagoon, but more a crash into the pylon. The Italian nature of this love song, imagining himself in a gondola in Italy and Venice was rather absent from the performance of his tremendously demanding work.

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

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

Berlioz once described Chopin's own playing: 

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

Are we simply to ignore these contemporary descriptions convinced that 'we moderns must know better'? Of course I would never suggest imitating this type of thing in a modern concert hall but I feel these are all important considerations in terms of dynamic scale when considering this great masterpiece. 

Watercolour of Venice by J.M.W Turner

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
Piano Sonata in E-flat minor
'From the Street 1 October 1905' JW.VIII/19 (1906)

 Předtucha (Con moto)  [The Foreboding]
Smrt (Adagio)  [The Death]

I had never heard this work and the background to its composition is important to understanding its gestation. Janáček offered this work as a tribute to a worker named František Pavlík (1885–1905), who on 1 October 1905 was bayoneted on the steps of the Brno Philharmonic during demonstrations in support for a Czech university in Brno. In the work, Janáček expresses his anger at the violent death of this young carpenter. He impulsively wrote this dramatic work immediately after the incident. 

The première took place on 27 January 1906 in Brno (Friends of the Arts Club), with Ludmila Tučková at the piano. Janáček also wrote a third movement, a funeral march, which he removed and burned.  He was dissatisfied with the remainder and later threw the manuscript of the two remaining movements into the Vltava river. He regretted this 'And it floated along on the water that day, like white swans'. The composition was lost until 1924 when Tučková announced that she still possessed a copy. Janáček later accompanied the work with the following inscription:
'The white marble of the steps of the Besední dům (Brno Philharmonic). The ordinary labourer František Pavlík falls, stained with blood. He came merely to champion higher learning and has been slain by cruel murderers.'

In the first movement 'Foreboding' con moto, begins gently with a wistful motive that becomes intense and fortissimo. The development grows into an anguished climax. A pianissimo conclusion. The second movement 'Death' Adagio is suffused with deep melancholy and a meditative quality that develops into a frenzy of repeated chords. The work closes softly as his life blood ebbs away. Grosvenor performed with tremendous emotional commitment - such a pity I was not familiar with the story of the conception beforehand as it would have deepened my appreciation of this rather inaccessible and violent music.
Mimoletnosti Visions fugitives, Op. 22 /selection/ (1917)

He continued with a selection from the 20 pieces that make up Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives Op.22 (1915-17). They were written individually, many for specific friends of Prokofiev's, and he originally referred to them as his "doggies" because of their "bite". They are rather impressionist in style and give a feeling of playfulness and even effervescence, qualities not normally associated with this composer. Inspired by these words from a poem by the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont: 

In every fleeting vision I see worlds,
Filled with the fickle play of rainbows

Pianistically I found the Grosvenor performance of these difficult small pieces characterful and eloquent, although of course I am unfamiliar with the friends they purport to represent in musical portraits.

Réminiscences from the opera Norma S. 394  (1841) Bellini

Rather similarly to his Reminiscences of Don Giovanni after Mozart, Liszt used themes from the Bellini opera Norma to create a piano fantasy piece of vast portions without emulating orchestral or vocal textures. He utilizes seven different themes from the opera. He wrote this work in 1841, the same year he composed Reminiscences of Don Giovanni and Reminiscences of Robert the Devil after Meyerbeer. He dedicated it to virtuoso pianist Marie Pleyel, who had asked him for a challenging work. She was a member of the famous piano-manufacturing family.

Liszt has created an enormously difficult, brilliant and colourful piece of music. For me it possesses limited emotional range except perhaps in the hands of a super-virtuoso pianist who can rise above the creation and fall upon it with the talons of an eagle.  Familiarity with the opera helped, but even so. Grosvenor gave a magnificent performance for such a young pianist but one was always aware of the formidable pianistic difficulties he was managing to overcome to present it to us. This tended to detract a little from the overall musical 'effect' and dynamic impact, a Lisztian preoccupation in such works. I was rather overwhelmed with sound.

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Symphonic Concert
Tatsuya Shimono conductor
Bajka [Fairy-tale]

The first performance of what is in effect a type of symphonic poem (evolving in accordance with the emotional content) was given on 1 May 1848. After the first Moscow performance: 'It delighted everyone and won the listeners over to the composer ....' This Concert Overture is still a much loved work that remains one of his most frequently played works. The Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra and members of the Sinfonia Varsovia under Tatsuya Shimono performed with great rhythm, drive, energy and verve which suited the work admirably although in their enthusiasm it verged on the over-exuberant on occasion yet still remained enjoyable.
'A Procession for Peace'

This work was written in 1983 to mark the Year of Peace. It begins as a slow solemn march which after the opening tympani roll gathers in dynamic strength and gradually increasing instrumentation as if a procession is approaching, drawing nearer and nearer, volume growing until a final almost deafening arrival in an impassioned call for Peace. The orchestral forces under Shimono were convincing in the control of dynamics and increasing thickness of orchestral texture until the final intense plea for a sentiment they must feel every day in their home town of Hiroshima

Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima

The notion of an 'Iron Curtain' that divided Europe after WW II was created by Winston Churchill in a speech at Fulton, Missouri, on 5 March 1946. One forgets that it was a cultural as well as political barrier. However after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Polish composers began to be influenced by developments in Western music such as twelve-tone composition, serialism and pointillism. The 'polnische Schule', or Polish School of composition evolved from these influences and Krzysztof Penderecki occupied the forefront. 

Composed in 1960 for 52 string instruments, it was originally entitled 8'37". This was revised under advice from fellow musicians to carry the present dedication. The sound world of the work involves the tortuous shriek of violins in the upper register, glissandos struggling from unisons and ramblings across the entire register of the instrument. Written during the period when 'the avant-garde' dominated contemporary music, its soundscape is profoundly aleatoric and personal.

The work evokes the terror of a previously inconceivable scale of  death, destruction and suffering that resulted from the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Penderecki, perhaps subconsciously, utilized his own emotional turmoil experienced during the period of Nazi-occupied Poland. The appalling revelations of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other extermination camps abruptly disinherited the Western mind from most previously accepted moral values of civilization. From the turbulence of inconceivable horror, Penderecki created a work both autobiographical yet universal in its expression of unfathomable suffering. Threnody is a seminal development not only in the history of Polish music but more generally in contemporary Western music. The work has been given an award by the UNESCO International Tribune of Composers in Paris, a medal in Japan and numerous performances around the world.

Umi () for orchestra 

This music composed by the young Japanese composer of great talent is drawn from his opera Solaris. 'Umi' means 'sea' in Japanese and there is a feeling in the contemporary score of the waves of the ocean together with the use of a variety of percussion instruments - a range of tam-tams, and extraordinarily beautiful and surely unique duet between xylophone and oboe as well as use of the celeste. The writing is not all abstract and aleatoric. There are rather romantic harmonic interludes reminiscent sometimes of an impressionistic Debussy. I found the imagination and invention within this soundscape quite fascinating. On a human level, the composer and his family were sitting in front of me. His young daughter of perhaps 5 was plying her composer father with questions during the performance. This little operatic scene, together with the new music, I found a most affecting moment.

Piano Concerto in F minor (1810)

In the Maestoso first opening movement of this, the first concerto Chopin composed,  the interpretation was correctly between classical balanced between detachment and romantic enthusiasm, although I felt the tempo adopted was on fast side for the nobility of the Maestoso to be fully expressed. The main theme of the exposition in the rhythm of a Mazur was preserved and the development was suitably controlled. The style brilliant texture came off well with the pianist Krzysztof Jabłoński. The hints of the Larghetto were subtly expressed in a touching cantabile. The orchestra conducted by Tatsuya Shimono tended to emphasize what to some may be considered the more robust side of Chopin's composition.

The Larghetto itself, described as 'indescribably beautiful' by many, avoided any sort of cloying sentimentality. However the poetry of innocent love tended to fade somewhat at the tempo adopted. I always want to be caressed by this glorious song. The explosions of emotion in the Chopin directions con forza and appassionato surely represent the cruel doubts and slightly angry emotions of adolescent or young love, so full of hope and illusions. I felt the orchestra could have reduced the strength of their contrast somewhat. The emotional agitation that is embedded within the movement expressed Chopin’s frustration with the unrequited nature of his silent admiration of the soprano Konstancja Gładkowska. The controlled pianissimo final note, as the apotheosis of the structure, was beautifully communicated.

The Allegro vivace  has its first theme marked semplice ma graziosamente followed by a  sudden rush of temperament and slight accelerando which give an urgency to the music. Some bucolic merry-making of the jolly tavern type but never crude is coupled with that lovely and inspirational col legno pizzicato-like sound on the strings. We danced along towards the notorious natural horn call and the scintillating coda closing the work with a smile of pleasure. The movement  revealed the orchestra under Tatsuya Shimono was in a well co-ordinated support role with the soloist.

The graded crescendos and decrescendos by the pianist Jabłoński were mixed with the youthful joy of Chopin exercising his compositional and melodic virtuosity to its utmost. The exuberant dance of kujawiak provenance is always satisfying in its physical energy, exhilaration and high spirits.

As encores that brought the audience to their feet, the 'Heroic' Polonaise in A flat major, the 'posthumous' Nocturne in C sharp minor and the so-called  'Revolutionary' Etude.

Witold Lutosławski Studio of the Polish Radio
Chamber concert
Kevin Kenner historical piano

Quatuor Mosaiques
Eric Hobarth violin
Andrea Bischof violin
Anita Mitterer viola
Christophe Coin cello

Grzegorz Frankowski double bass
Ludwig van Beethoven 
Razumovsky’ String quartet in F major, Op. 59 No. 1

One of the most important musical patrons in early nineteenth century Vienna was the Russian Ambassador Count Andrey Killovich Razumovsky. Beethoven dedicated these revolutionary, rather new style, Op. 59 quartets to him. Razumovsky played the violin and valued quartets above almost every other form of music and supported the new idea of professional chamber ensembles. In many ways one could regard them as a development of the overwhelming Eroica symphony

Count Andrey Killovich Razumovsky

The String Quartet  in F major, Op. 59 No.1 which we heard this evening, arguably the greatest of the set, lasts some forty minutes. The evolution of the piece is complex and in the Allegro first movement, the massively eloquent theme emerges organically from the cello, transformed in development into a grand musical creation. The Quatuor Mosaiques on historical instruments acquitted themselves with seriousness and fine ensemble in this demanding movement. I felt their 'attack' could perhaps have had more tonal depth (a result of earlier instruments perhaps with different stringing) and the rhythmic passionate impetus of emotional conviction in ensemble. The second movement Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando has a unique structure and comes with an atmosphere of blithe humour and bucolic dance energy. 

The Adagio molto e mesto for me is an existential plea against the unavoidable destiny of human mortality. Beethoven reserves his most interned spiritual, tragic utterances and meditations for his often extended, densely woven adagio movements. Here individual voices of the quartet come together in a lament that rises at times to resignation and lyrical acceptance bordering on the joyful. Beethoven noted in his sketchbook 'a weeping willow over my brother's grave'. However we are later treated to the relief of a blithe Russian folk song. 

The Quatuor Mosaiques went some way to plumbing the depths of these sorrowful, deeply affecting musical reflections and fluctuating moods. It is well nigh impossible for any instrumentalist to extract the full significance and depth of the Beethoven psyche and resultant musical conceptions. We can but try. The final movement is marked Theme russe. Allegro in deference to the ambassador and is lighter in emotional range than the other movements of the quartet. Overall a good performance of a demanding quartet but I felt lacking in the finesse that the quartet expressed in former times. 

The Razumowsky Palace in Vienna
Fryderyk Chopin Piano Concerto in F minor Op. 21

After the interval the chamber version of the Chopin F-minor Piano Concerto Op. 21 arranged by Kevin Kenner and Krzysztof Dombek. I always look forward to Kevin Kenner's immaculate performances of the two Chopin concertos as he understands the nature of early pianos so intimately and also the stylistic demands of the style brillante that dominated Chopin's early works. On this occasion he played the splendid Paul McNulty copy of the Polish Bucholtz instrument that Chopin used as a young man in Warsaw.

I do not wish to be drawn into detailed criticism of this familiar work played at the highest standard by Kevin Kenner. His phrasing was subtle and impeccably musical, maintaining the beautiful, seamless cantabile vocal lines that so obsessed Chopin through his love of opera. I find the fragility of the sound of the Bucholtz compared to the modern Steinway affecting as it always seems to indicate the vulnerability of the human spirit in attempting the uncompromising creation of the finest in art. 

The quartet and excellent double bass Grzegorz Frankowski gave Kenner solid support, were well matched in balanced sound to the historical reproduction instrument, if not always performing at quite the same level of musical excellence as the soloist. They chose an excellent tempo to reveal all the inner polyphonic detail of the Chopin score. The fioraturas in the upper register of the Bucholtz instrument had all the delicacy and grace of Venetian lace from the island of  Burano. The Larghetto as interpreted by Kenner is always deeply moving emotionally. His rubato and sense of bel canto transports the heart to unexpected domains in this most beautiful of love songs. The final Allegro vivace was overflowing with energy and refinement in his complete capturing of the inaccessible jeu perle, style brillante, radiant tone and light, tender touch. The audience gave him and the quartet a deserved rapturous ovation. 

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Symphonic Concert


Akie Amou soprano
Kazuyoshi Akiyama conductor
Violetta Bielecka choir director


Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, S.124

Whenever Martha Argerich appears in Warsaw a ripple of anticipation radiates over the classical music world of the capital as if a stone had been thrown into a picturesque pond. This concert was associated with the Music for Peace series she had helped pioneer with the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra in co-operation with members of the  Sinfonia Varsovia.


The premiere of this concerto in 1855 in Weimar with Liszt as soloist and Berlioz conducting must have been a spectacle and an experience in sound! I love the piano concertos of Liszt and am always disappointed they are so rarely played in the restricted concerto repertoire one is usually offered these days. Think of the fabulous riches in the nineteenth century Romantic concerto repertoire - the Polish-Prussian composer Xaver Scharwenka for example - his 4th Piano Concerto in F minor is overwhelming in impact. His music is unjustly neglected in Poland and elsewhere.

Liszt balances well the orchestral music ensemble and soloist exclamation very skillfully in this dramatic concerto. The complexity of the harmonies in the first pages of this work is astonishing. This piano concerto, like many works of Liszt, works towards a final culminating  presto of formidable excitement. For this to have its full impact one must carefully calculate what tempo to begin the Allegro maestoso. The orchestra under their conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama and Argerich launched into the work with visceral passion, conviction, rich glowing tone and refined touch. The relaxed facility and charisma she brought to the performance of this demanding work was spellbinding.

Argerich fearlessly and dramatically launched into the Allegro maestoso with death-defying tempo and authority. The excitement and joy in simply playing that she communicated was palpable to every member of the audience. Everything was brilliantly  accomplished and she made much of the remarkable details and implications lying in wait within Liszt’s writing. This was followed seamlessly by the lyrical Quasi adagio-Allegretto vivace-Allegro animato. Her approach was to enter into a beautiful and poetic  dialogue with the excellent orchestral counterpoint, phrases of glowing, romantic cantabile, a seductive, soulful nocturne in essence. This 'poem' was followed by her stylish playing just before the unaccustomed sound of the triangle that heralds the rather ‘jokey’ character of the ‘Allegro animato’.

Liszt had trouble with the reception of the percussion writing in this concerto. It involved the triangle, a modest, even humble instrument. He used to call the percussion section the canaille or 'the rabble' and was always striving after new orchestral sound effects. In one section of this concerto the triangle is given a solo role. In fact at the first performance when the triangle rang out a member of the audience shot up from his seat and shouted out in a derisive fashion 'Triangle concerto!' and sat down again, disgusted. How does one become a triangle virtuoso? Sounds fun. Liszt wrote in a letter to his pupil Dionys Pruckner 'In the E flat major Concerto I have now hit on the expedient of striking the triangle (which aroused such anger and offence) quite lightly with a tuning fork.'

In this performance the triangle was placed in a prominent position for the Japanese percussionist , just at the rear of the pianist, suspended above its own tiny green baize covered table. This was a unique idea  in my experience. The musical function soon began to become apparent. The triangle adopted a full solo percussive role in dialogue with the upper registers of the piano writing. Martha Argerich extracted silvery, tiny bell-like tones from the piano, a type of 'tessitura echo', which matched the triangle's high frequency ringing in a most charming 'conversation'. An stylish virtuoso delight as she can produce the most glittering jeu perlé effortlessly.

In the final Allegro marziale animato, Argerich and her good relationship with the orchestra gave us a tremendous display of virtuosity but at a tempo that permitted the expression of the dramatic impact of the presto  finale Liszt was seeking. Various themes are reintroduced in various guises. The temptation for many pianists is to accelerate too early. Argerich is clearly so familiar with this work, the unfurling of the drama was like the sail on a ship billowing in the wind.  I felt she maintained a close relationship the orchestra and conductor during these difficult passages with only one slight solecism of co-ordination.

The first occasion I have seen the triangle player taking a bow equally with the soloist and conductor in the Liszt E major piano concerto, S 124

One should consider the opulent riches in the nineteenth century Romantic concerto repertoire : the piano concertos of the Polish-Prussian composer Xaver Scharwenka for example. His 4th Piano Concerto in F minor is overwhelming in his music unjustly neglected in Poland and elsewhere.

Today Martha Argerich has become a 'perfect poet' of the instrument, balancing power, sensitivity and virtuosity with lyricism and spiritual expressiveness of the highest order. This concert of hers together with the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra and members of the Sinfonia Varsovia was a fine contribution to the humanist intentions of the Music for Peace project begun in Hiroshima. I definitely felt Martha Argerich was psychologically particularly committed to her performance this evening which had such a high degree of emotional intensity due to involvement in her Hiroshima peace mission.

The audience in the Warsaw Filharmonia leapt to their feet as one and scenes of the wildest cheering and stamping broke out. I have never witnessed such enthusiasm in this hall ever before and it continued unabated until she gave her encore and then for some minutes after it:  the Liszt arrangement of the Schumann Lied, Widmung. 

Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck © pages.stolaf.edu

Written by Schumann in 1840 (from a set of Lieder called Myrthen, Op.25),  Myrthen was dedicated to Clara Wieck as a wedding gift when he finally married Clara in September, despite the fierce opposition from Clara’s father, who just happened top be Schumann's piano teacher. 

Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125

After the interval in this concert in the 'Music for Peace' series, we had the Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. This  symphony has immense popularity in Japan. My interview with the HSO General Manager, Mr. Kenji Igata, was very interesting concerning the history of the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra. It grew out of a military band in Kure City naval base. Surprisingly in 1918, musicians among the detained Germans taught the Japanese how to play western instruments and introduced some of them to Western music in a sort of cultural exchange.

Nicholas Cook, former 1684 Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge and a Beethoven authority, wrote illuminatingly of the symphony: “Of all the works in the mainstream repertory of Western music, the Ninth Symphony seems the most like a construction of mirrors, reflecting and refracting the values, hopes, and fears of those who seek to understand and explain it … From its first performance [in Vienna in 1824] up to the present day, the Ninth Symphony has inspired diametrically opposed interpretations” The Ode to Joy has been adopted by both democracies and dictatorships. As Beethoven’s most recent biographer Jan Swafford says, '...how one viewed the Ninth … depended on what kind of Elysium one had in mind'.

Beethoven became the favourite composer of Japanese music lovers, especially the IXth Symphony. In no other country are there as many performances of this work as in Japan. There have been many hundreds of performances and some recordings. One performance with the conductor Yutaka Sado involved 10,000 singers in the choir! In December each year there is a particularly memorable concert that involves 4,000 choir members. Apparently anyone who wishes and is not tone deaf may sing!

It is always difficult to achieve the finest cohesion and ensemble when musicians from different orchestras and cultures come together with limited rehearsal time. However cross cultural understanding and co-operation is at the heart of the entire philosophy of the Music for Peace projectHere we had members of the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra from Japan, members of the Sinfonia Varsovia from Warsaw in addition to the Podlasie Opera and Phiharmonic Choir from the north-east of Poland. These forces were massed under their Japanese conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama.

I felt this to be a valiant effort and an approach to Beethoven which was both robust and muscular. This was an uncompromising Beethoven with few gestures towards the sentimental. The Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso  began in a whisper and rose in stone with strong fortissimos and a massively articulated coda. The mood was perhaps of anger at the disillusionment Beethoven felt with military 'great-man heroism', hearkening back to the atmosphere of Napoleon's betrayal of the Beethovenian ideal in the Eroica symphony. The second Molto vivace movement is a scherzo to which the conductor gave a bucolic energy rather than a lighter dance texture. I must confess my romantic temperament was somewhat disappointed by the Arcadian vision of the slow movement, one of Beethoven’s most lyrical in music. It is an idyllic world he creates, a pastoral dream perhaps that announces another variety of caring heroism symbolized by the brass fanfares. More expressiveness for me would have been welcome in this movement.

The final movement is an expression of individuals coming together in joy and love: the choir, vocal soloists, orchestral musicians and conductor fused together as the 'brothers' of Schiller’s poem, Beethoven's personal ideal of human compromise, compassion and co-operation. Human isolation in the cosmos and one's futility in the face of creation are also depicted in this immortal music. This planet embraces geographical, cultural and ethnic diversity as well as secular and religious differences. The Turkish Janissary music forces its way into the finale and with it the whole symphony concludes joyously, the Utopian choral writing replete with polyphonic invention reminiscent of a sensual cantata.

The strong orchestra under a traditionally gifted conductor, outstanding choir and talented, sympathetic soloists laid out this extraordinary late work of a profoundly deaf, idealistic genius (never forget this handicap) in as triumphal and convincing a manner as could be expected. Among the endless details and significances I could concentrate on, I keep in mind Beethoven’s compositional credo that was 'even when I am composing instrumental music my custom is always to keep the whole in view'.

Music for Peace: 
Witold Lutosławski Studio of the Polish Radio
Vocal recital



Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872)
Les larmes
Les plaintes de la jeune fille
Le chant de la tour
Le Nièmen
Le joueur de lyre, cz. 4 Oui, chantons encor

Henri Duparc (1848-1933)
Chanson triste
Le manoir de Rosemonde
L’invitation au voyage

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Zwölf Gedichte, Op. 35 to words by Justinus Kerner

Concerts are never real music, you have to give up the idea of hearing in them all the most beautiful things of art.'  Chopin said to one of his students (Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by His Pupils Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger). 

Far be it from me to contradict Chopin, but this was certainly not the case in the song recital I attended this evening. On this rarest of occasions, I had one of the deepest artistic experiences of my musical life. The renowned lyric tenor Christoph Prégardien sang with such subtlety and finesse the audience were reduced to utter stillness by the intense poetry of the performance and the meditative atmosphere this great artist created. His modesty and the deep seriousness of his approach was remarkable. 

He began with a group of Moniuszko songs that were published in France in French translation as a result of efforts by Rossini and his publisher Flaxland, the negotiations conducted by Jozef Winiawski. The collection appeared in the autumn of 1862 under the title Echos de Pologne. Mélodies de Moniuszko, traduction française d'Alfred des Essarts. The translator Essarts (1811-1893) was an esteemed writer, poet, playwright and journalist. We heard a selection of these songs. Prégardien elevated these Moniuszko songs in French into the realm of high art and intense beauty. 

This came as a surprise, I am sure, to a discriminating audience who was perhaps more accustomed to rather everyday and perfunctory performances of Moniuszko in Polish. I have begun to wonder if it is inferior performances of Moniuszko that have relegated him to an inferior position among composers. The composer has to be grateful also to Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante for a similar service to his art. 

As this recital progressed I also became aware of the intense artistry and sensitivity of the piano accompanist Christoph Schnackertz. I have never heard an accompanist who is also a great artist except perhaps Geoffrey Parsons or Gerald Moore. His dynamic level rarely rose above mezzo-forte and the balance between voice and piano was almost miraculous. One tends to forget that the introduction and conclusion of art songs on the piano are an integral and organic part of the song itself, its spiritual and sensual life beginning and concluding. They are not brief throw-away gestures as they too often become. Schnackertz seemed to have achieved a symbiotic relationship with Prégardien. The effect of this extraordinary golden amalgam of artistic expression, one a perfect musical complement to the other in terms of phrasing, mood, nuance and feeling, was emotionally quite overwhelming.

In these gloriously sensitive, personal and sensual songs by Henri Duparc, the flexibilty of voice, the velvet timbre, the subtle dynamic range, the charm and romanticism of the French language of the set poems, carried one into an enchanted realm rarely occupied by performing artists. The impressionistic radiance and setting of  L'invitation au voyage from Les fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire was superb. In Phidylé with words by Leconte de Lisle, the piano has an equal role in creating the atmosphere of yearning expectation. Schnackertz proved himself to be a truly great artist in the different but supportive and complementary piano part. Their partnership was effortless in congruent phrasing and dynamic. Magical. 

When Prégardien dwelt on the word 'Toujours' in the setting of the poem Soupir (Sigh) by Prudhommeyour emotional reviewer was brought almost to tears by the pianissimo dying away of the word to a barely perceptible whisper with just the ghost of piano accompaniment. Toujours l’aimer. Toujours !  Almost unbearable beauty of sensibility.....


Ne jamais la voir ni l’entendre,
Ne jamais tout haut la nommer,
Mais, fidèle, toujours l’attendre,
Toujours l’aimer !

Ouvrir les bras, et, las d’attendre,
Sur la néant les refermer !
Mais encor, toujours les lui tendre
Toujours l’aimer.

Ah! ne pouvoir que les lui tendre
Et dans les pleurs se consumer,
Mais ces pleurs toujours les répandre,
Toujours l’aimer…

Ne jamais la voir ni l’entendre,
Ne jamais tout haut la nommer,
Mais d’un amour toujours plus tendre
Toujours l’aimer. Toujours !

                                                                           Sully Proudhomme (1839-1907)

After the interval, during which I simply remained slumped in my seat, not wishing to speak to anyone, we were given the eloquent Schumann Zwölf Gedichte, Op. 35 of 1840 to words by the poet Justinus Kerner. Here Schumann's love of Clara was always yearningly obvious as at the time he was waiting for the resolution of the legal battle with her father, Friedrich Wieck, so they could marry. In this famous 'year of song' he wrote almost 140 songs all referring openly or implicitly to Clara. They ranged over the notion of wandering, the worship of Nature ('Longing for Woodland' was Clara's favourite song), faithfulness, hidden feelings, friendship (here a wonderful sentiment in the title of the song 'To the wineglass of a departed friend'), loneliness and suffering.

As a perfectly gauged encore, also from the 'year of song', Prégardien softly addressed us as the civilized artist and gentleman that he is and sang from Liederkreis Op.39 with words by the Prussian poet Joseph von Eichendorff.

This was a recital devoted to the nature of emotional yearning and love in what must be considered a unique experience of the finest in performance art. I left the radio studio in a mood utterly disconnected from reality....

NIFCCD 070 Paderewski, Moniuszko, Duparc/ Songs


Stage of the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera
in concert


Aleksander Teliga bass (Antoni)
Ewa Tracz soprano (Zosia)
Wojtek Gierlach bass (Szótak)
Matheus Pompeu tenor (Franek)
Mariusz Godlewski baritone (Jakub)
Paweł Cichoński tenor (Feliks)

Fabio Biondi conductor
Violetta Bielecka choir director


Flis (The raftsman)

'I hope this little opera will please the audience...'

After the father of Polish national opera, Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872), had such overwhelming success with his opera Halka, he produced the opera Flis (The Raftsman). One needs a small geography and occupation lesson first if one is not Polish. The Vistula, known as the Queen of Polish Rivers, was the scene of significant grain and timber rafting in its Golden Age (16th-17th centuries) to the port of Gdańsk on the Baltic sea. The men who piloted these rafts, not unnaturally, were known as 'Raftsmen' or Flisacy in Polish. They were a distinct cultural group, regarded as rather romantic in folklore and who even developed their own patois. This one-act comic opera telling a story based on raftsmen, was composed largely in Paris. 

Enchantment - Raftsmen - Wojciech Gerson 1856

The composer wrote in a letter to his daughter at the time:

'I am almost finished Bogusławski's opera. I rest my head from it.' 

The short one-act opera was created with a rather amusing and conventional libretto by Moniuszko's usual librettist, Stanisław Bogusławski. The action takes place in a village in the nineteenth century countryside of the Vistula river near Warsaw. The composer wrote it at a very difficult period in his life culturally and financially. He hoped the premiere on 24th September 1858 would be witnessed by Tsar Alexander II who happened to be in Warsaw to supervise military manoeuvers but he never actually attended by some mischance.  Poland being partitioned at that time, Moniuszko was always vulnerable to conflicting political influences.

The heroes of the composition are raftsmen, a country community and a newcomer from the city, a hairdresser named Jakub.  There is a romantic conflict between the young raftsman Franek and the young hairdresser from Warsaw who now lives in the village. Both men vie for the hand of  Zosia the daughter of a wealthy man Antoni. After a storm on the river, Zosia fears for Franek's life and becomes desperate. The romantic intrigue goes on to the accompaniment of the prayers of the village people for Franek amid idyllic dances and songs. Zosia and Franek, who are deeply in love, cannot get married because Antoni (actually the girl's father) has by now promised his daughter to  Jakub. Franek survives the storm and returns to the village but Antoni remains immovable in his decision despite attempts to influence him. 

Faced with the necessity of fulfilling a promise made earlier, unhappy Franek now decides to leave the village and devote all his efforts to seeking a brother from whom he was separated in childhood. Fortunately, it turns out that the brother 'appears' himself. In the way of opera, it turns out to be the raftsman’s very rival for Zosia's hand,  the hairdresser Jakub. In the face of this happy coincidence, Jakub changes his romantic intentions and seeing how great is the love that connects Zosia and Frankek, he gives way to his recently discovered brother's place to everyone's joy.

The Overture (as is often the case with Moniuszko) is extensive and rather fine, perhaps more suitable for a larger more serious opera. The storm clouds are dispersing and the thunder has died. The tone is thoughtful and reflective with a pleasantly melodic theme which becomes quite jolly and then even festive bordering on the dramatic. The fine choir and Antoni (Aleksander Teliga bass) then sing a chorus of thanksgiving. Zosia and her supporter, the soldier Szótak (Ewa Tracz, a fine soprano and Wojtek Gierlach a resonant and deep bass) sing an affecting aria of sorrow 'Who will console a poor lass?'. Among the excellent soloists, I found the tenor Matheus Pompeu,who plays Franek, quite outstanding in this part both in strength and intonation.

Rafters on the Vistula , Wilhelm August Stryowski 1881

The music for orchestra and choir is quite programmatic and lyrically descriptive, particularly that depicting the slow but powerful flowing waters of the River Vistula and the raftsmen plying their trade there. The score is also full of rural Polish national dance music of every variety - the kujawiak ('Rafts sail on the Vistula ...') and krakowiak ('Hey, come, friendly raftsmen'). What a pity we could not see this in costumed action! Moniuszko was clearly much inspired by the music of Italian and French opera: Rossini, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Halevy and Verdi. I thought I could also hear traces of Viennese salon music. You can discover fine arias of turbulent and passionate rhythm in the Slavic idiom within the opera as well as humour. The conclusion with the choir possesses both charm and grace. It is unfortunate perhaps that a conflict exists between the light libretto and the rather more serious musical score. Fabio Biondi seems to love Moniuszko as he conducted with verve and involvement. Europa Galante also acquitted themselves with great enthusiasm.

An unexpectedly pleasant and entertaining evening of a small opera by Moniuszko - an undemanding, sentimental story coupled with delightful Polish programmatic and national folkloric music rarely performed and certainly unknown in the West except to specialists .

A Raftsman on the River Dunajec  in the Pieniny National Park plying the tourist trade today

 Fabio Biondi - conductor

Matheus Pompeu (Franek)

Ewa Tracz (Zosia)



Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
in concert


Natalia Rubiś soprano
Krystian Adam tenor (Stach)
Václav Čížek tenor (Jonek)
Tomáš Šelc baritone (Bardos)
Jan Martiník bass (Bryndas)

Václav Luks conductor


Cud mniemany, czyli Krakowiacy i Górale 
[The Supposed Miracle, or
Cracovians and Highlanders]

As a 'foreigner' in Poland, the festival so far has been a voyage of Polish musical discovery for me. I must confess to being unfamiliar in detail with this work but will make a sterling attempt to present it to to you as a general impression.  

I remember seeing this comic opera very many years ago at the Warszawska Opera Kameralna (Warsaw Chamber Opera) under the Artistic Direction of Stefan Sutkowski. Staged, I found it highly entertaining, especially when, during the 'miraculous electrical section', the protagonist's hair literally stood up on end during the 'electrical shock' that reconciled the warring parties. The Highland dancing was also colorful and entertaining. In this concert version the visual element is sadly missing and one concentrates on the music, solo arias and choir. 

I will give you a few personal 'first impressions'. I found the Overture straightforward, attractively melodic and optimistically jolly. Arias followed which were pleasantly light, tuneful concerning the nature of love and its trials. The effect of this rather simple music, and arias in peasant dance rhythms, gave rather a bucolic atmosphere to the whole event which was very welcome. The Czech musicians seem to have an instinctive understanding of the Polish rural dances. What a pity we could not see the dancers! Later in the opera there were rather militaristic episodes for the outstanding choir, one with trumpets which was rather tuneful. 

There were attempts to imitate Mozart in a clever pastiche of the the Magic Flute and I did  pick out references to Don Giovanni with shadows of the Commendatore passing over me. All the soloists were fine voices, especially the tenors Krystian AdamVáclav Čížek. The baritone Tomáš Šelc has a voice of great resonance and range as does the bass Jan Martiník. The sopranos LenkaCafourková-Ďuricová and Natalia Rubiś brought convincing passion to their roles. Opera buffa and plaintive arias were stylistically mixed very skillfully.

I must admit to thinking that staging this opera would have distracted me from too close an examination of the entertaining but not demanding music with its simple effective melodies and harmonic progressions. The closing chorus of six soloists and choir was impressive with its unencumbered melody and the full orchestral forces of this fine ensemble and choir.

The comic opera (or vaudeville) Cud mniemany, czyli Krakowiacy i Górale (The Supposed Miracle, or Cracovians and Highlanders) libretto was written by the creator of the Polish national theater, Wojciech Bogusławski (1757-1829). Bogusławski is also considered the father of the National Opera not without reason. In 1778 he wrote Nędzę uszczęśliwioną (Misery made Happy), the first opera in Polish. Bogusławski, who is not known to everyone, was associated with the opera not only as a librettist, but also as a talented singer. He appeared in this role many times in his own operas, including in the Bardos party in Krakowiaki and Górale. In all his acting, directing, playwriting and didactic career, Bogusławski was an ardent advocate of the national language. The music of the four-act opera was composed by Jan Stefani (1746-1829), a Czech violinist and composer who, arriving in Warsaw in 1771 at the invitation of Prince Andrzej Poniatowski (brother of King Stanisław August), settled permanently in Poland. Stefani, along with other foreigners settled in Poland: the Slovak Maciej Kamieński and the Germans Józef Elsner and Kajetan Majer (Gaetano), was one of the pillars of the Polish musical theater.

The content of the 'rural opera', is the eternal problem of competition for the hand of a beloved girl, fought between Krakowiaks from Mogiła (today Nowa Huta) and the Highlanders. The dispute is over the miller's daughter, Basia, emotionally connected to Stach. Basia's stepmother, Dorota, also secretly loves Stach, who, jealous, promises the hand of her stepdaughter and rival, Góral Bryndas. Rejected by Basia Bryndas and the Highlanders, he takes revenge on the grave by kidnapping cattle from the village. There is a fight between the Cracovians and Highlanders. The peace-maker is the poor student Bardos, who by means of an electric machine, stages a 'supposed miracle', thus reconciling both feuding parties. Dorota, the main perpetrator of all the commotion, allows Basia and Stach to marry, and the reconciled Cracovians and Highlanders participate in dances and games together.

The conflict between two regional groups, shown for the first time in the history of Polish theater, has become a pretext to present the beauty and richness of Polish folk music from a musical point of view. Politically the libretto was also a plea for national and social unity at the time of the traitorous Targowica Confederation when a number of Polish magnates sided with Russia and Catherine the Great to protect their personal interests.

Stefani based the original score, full of songs, dances, couplets on authentic highlander and folklore folklore, with which he was acquainted visiting numerous rural taverns during his trip to Warsaw. In solo songs, however, the composer turned to an ariette (a short aria with a simple structure), so popular in the eighteenth-century opera music of contemporary Europe. Stefani's music has quite taken over audiences for many years. There were even disputes as to whether the composer drew on folklore, or whether Stefani's original melodies permanently entered Polish folk music.

The premiere of the opera probably took place on March 1, 1794 at the National Theater in Warsaw. Staged after the overthrow of the Constitution of May 3 and after the Second Partition of Poland, the opera met with an enthusiastic reception by the public, becoming a patriotic manifesto of Poles and an incentive for the Kościuszko Uprising to soon break out.
At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were also several works that were influenced by the opera.

The most important of these was written in 1815 and staged in 1816 called Cracovians and Highlanders. The author of the libretto was the director of the Lviv theater, Jan Nepomucen Kamiński (1777-1855) and the music was by Karol Kurpiński (1785-1857). Kurpiński, often called the Polish Rossini, went down in the history of Polish music as the greatest opera composer before Moniuszko. In addition to 24 operas, he was also the author of comedies, melodramas, ballets and patriotic songs, of which the most beautiful, Warszawianka (1831), was considered a national anthem for many years, and remains the most famous Polish revolutionary song to this day. Kurpiński was also the editor-in-chief and publisher of 'Tygodnik Muzyczny' (1820-1821), the first Polish music magazine. 

In addition to composing, Kurpiński also did didactic work and was the author of several music textbooks. For many years he was the second conductor of the Warsaw Opera to become the only conductor of this institution after Józef Elsner left in 1824. While in this position until 1842, Kurpiński created out of the Warsaw Opera one of the most important and thriving music scenes in Europe. By introducing the foreign repertoire to the program, the composer's achievement was to stage operas in Polish so that they were understood by a wide range of society. ("Średzki Kwartalnik Kulturalny" No. 1 (25) 2004 Andrzej Androchowicz)

A rather enjoyable evening but how I missed the fun staging!

A CD recording of this opera with full libretto in English is available from the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute and elsewhere NIFCCD 080-081

Wednesday  20.00

The Church of the Holy Cross
Oratorio concert

I must admit to being somewhat skeptical when I first contemplated a festival opening with a Requiem and a Te Deum in a Warsaw church, the Basilica of the Holy Cross. Chopin's heart lies in a crystal container here, immersed in cognac, and placed behind a marble plaque. This gave the location a great deal of significance for the performance of a Romantic Requiem. 

The idea certainly did not appear festive at first glance. I need not have worried as it turned out to be a truly uplifting evening. We have heard the conductor Vaclav Luks and the Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale before at this festival and were tremendously impressed by the energy of the ensemble, their period sound and deep musicianship.

Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842)
Requiem in C minor (1817)
The child prodigy Luigi Cherubini, a Classical and pre-Romantic composer of operas and sacred music, was born in Florence into a musical family. He was highly respected by Beethoven as the greatest of his contemporaries. The period in which this conservative man composed was politically and musically revolutionary.

In July 1793, the first anniversary of the French Republic that dissolved the Bourbon monarchy, the new government issued a decree that appalled Europe and remains lodged deep in the French collective subconscious. The intention was to sterilize the national memory and symbolically chastise the autocratic 'tyrants' with a demonstrable moral lesson. The National Convention directed the destruction of the ancient royal tombs, most of which were in the royal necropolis, the basilica of St-Denis, near Paris. The order was known as the Last Judgement of Kings. 

The intense stench of putrefaction as the coffins were opened, especially from the Bourbon remains, sickened the workers. The frightful odour only emphasized the evil Bourbon spiritual nature, so clearly, they believed, in league with the Devil.  The lead coffins were melted down and the royal remains dismembered and dumped in a trench and covered in quicklime.

After the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, in 1817 Cherubini was commissioned to write a Requiem to celebrate the ceremonial return of these royal remains from the trench to the St-Denis basilica (of one hundred and fifty eight bodies, the lower portions of only three corpses survived). What was left of the damaged funerary monuments were also replaced but in a damaged state.

La violation des caveaux des rois dans la basilique de Saint-Denis 
Hubert Robert (1733-1808)

This truly ghastly history may account for the lugubrious mindset that created particularly dark and sombre opening to the Requiem dominated by bassoons, a funereal tempo and the choice of the key of C-minor, turbulent and heroic in Beethoven but also a declaration of love and a lamentation for love. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetus luceat eis. 

The harmonies of the Introitus et Kyrie were meditative and intensely beautiful, the choir sounding like imagined seraphim in the  spiritual surroundings of this historic church. Chopin and Cherubini were friends, a remarkable occurrence given Chopin's dislike of other composer's music. Energy began to rise in the Kyrie in a remarkable wave of devotion and fervent melancholy. The orchestral ensemble, choir and conductor were superb in this slow increase of tensionThe Graduale was taken at a slow reflective tempo. In the longer Sequentia a sudden and tremendous burst of trumpets and cymbals heralded the Dies irae, dies illa. The entire ensemble gave a theatrically effective and operatic performance over this long section, the choir quite magnificent. In later performances Cherubini  was forced by the clergy to replace the female choir voices with an all male choir, women being forbidden to sing in church. 

The orchestral introduction to the Offertorium was profound as the choir joined at Domine Jesu Christe, rex gloriae, libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum with a superb fugal section that led to a type of spiritual epiphany. This section was given marvellous motivic energy and drive by Luks and the Collegium 1704 to a triumphant close. The Sanctus short but glorious and the Pie Jesus a moving deeply melancholic lament. And then the full joyous rise and affirmation of faith in the Agnus Dei. Yes, secular, theatrical even operatic writing but mysteriously this was not the effect created in one's heart, that of spiritual transformation. The work concluded with a powerful sense of resignation and faith. 

What a superb spiritually uplifting work by Cherubini, magnificently rendered by the Collegium 1704 and excellent choir. The work is so rarely performed today, yet at the time was instantly and immensely popular. 

Karol Kurpiński (1785-1857) 
Te Deum (1829)

Karol Kurpiński (1785-1857) 

Needless to say perhaps, this recently discovered work was new to me. At the time of the first performance, Kurpiński was the most eminent composer and conductor in Warsaw. He became the Director of opera at the National Theatre after Jozef Elsner, the teacher of Chopin, relinquished the post. He also contributed to the development of music criticism. In many ways a divided person concerning his loyalties. He had to please both Russian Tsars (one of the partitioning powers) with occasional compositions and fulfill his self-imposed mission of spreading music through exposure and education to the wider Polish society. Kurpiński composed this Te Deum (his most outstanding religious work) to celebrate the coronation of Tsar Nicholas I as King of Poland. It was performed at the Cathedral of St. John and then at the Royal Castle at a concert that also featured Paganini. It is scarcely to be believed Kurpiński  died in abject poverty, a forgotten significant musical figure in the Polish pantheon.

The Collegium 1704, choir under Vaclav Luks were required to learn this recently discovered work. The dynamism and energy of the spectacular opening scarcely ever fades in this theatrical and carefully designed opus. The soundscape is rather massed homophonic in style with simple but affecting harmonic progressions. I found it engaging melodically with attractive themes. There is a prominent brass section which adds to the overall operatic splendour but unlike say Bach, without a great deal of polyphonic choral writing. One is surprised in the central section by the appearance of  a solo violin in a Classical concerto which introduces a coloratura soprano aria Dignare Domine. The soprano Simona Houda-Šaturová was superb showing great virtuosity, as did the other soloists embedded in the choir. As the work concluded, a four part choral fugue made a brief appearance before the muscular close followed by an orchestral accelerando raced the work to its triumphal 'royal' conclusion. 

Great enthusiasm for the contribution of this 'new old work' by the Collegium 1704 as part of the remarkable renaissance of Polish music that is presently in progress. 
Official Website 


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Links to past Chopin i jego Europa Festivals covered in my internet journal

14th Chopin and His Europe Festival (Chopin i jego Europa) Warsaw, Poland
August 2018

13th Chopin and His Europe Festival (Chopin i jego Europa) Warsaw, Poland
August 2017

12th Chopin and His Europe Festival (Chopin i jego Europa) Warsaw, Poland. 
August 2016

9th Chopin and his Europe Festival (Chopin i jego Europa) Warsaw, Poland 
August 2013 

8th Chopin and his Europe Festival (Chopin i jego Europa) Warsaw, Poland
August 2012

7th Chopin and his Europe Festival (Chopin i jego Europa) Warsaw, Poland
August 2011

6th Chopin and His Europe Festival (Chopin i jego Europa) Warsaw, Poland
August 2010


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