A Tribute to Fryderyk Chopin, Patron of Warsaw University of Music. PIANO RECITAL by Piotr Paleczny and Karolina Nadolska 22 February 2020

As we slowly approach the birthday of Fryderyk Chopin, the celebratory events begin to appear on the list like a regiment of Polish Hussars on parade. This recital was the first.

A cloud hovers over the birth date of Fryderyk in a rather characteristic Polish way. The year 1810 is not seriously in dispute but the Chopin family insisted on March 1 while the baptismal certificate records a birth date of February 22 over which controversy still rages in the minds of some. Celebrations in Warsaw occur throughout the week which neatly covers all possibilities. He was brother to three intelligent and talented sisters. The family moved to Warsaw soon after his birth into an apartment in a wing of the superb Saxon Palace where Mikołaj became a professor at the Warsaw Liceum (High School).  

Chopin possesses an unrivaled position as Poland’s national composer and its musical wieszcz.[1]  His music is the beating heart of the country. The great Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883) described Chopin as ‘a Varsovian by birth, a Pole by heart, and a citizen of the world by talent.’  Virtuoso brilliance, a supreme gift for melody and an air of sentimentality explain his immense appeal on a popular level. But more deeply the universality of Chopin lies in the sense of loss and nostalgia for his homeland. Contained within his intense music is patriotic resistance to domination, sacrifice and melancholy in the face of ‘the bitter finales of life’[2] – all universal human emotions. ‘Chopin’s music was a kind of cultural battleground in the nineteenth century, prey to appropriation.’[3] What then is his significance for Poland ?

Before leaving Warsaw Chopin was closely involved with the intelligentsia who espoused Polish messianic ideas. The national poet Adam Mickiewicz played the role of wieszcz in poetry. The country was considered the reincarnation of the suffering Christ, a nation crucified by predatory foreign powers, the Polish pilgrim wandering far off lands in exile. As a young man Frycek frequented the Honoratka café where the November Uprising was hatched. When living in Paris he was not politically active in the Polish émigré community but counted many committed Polish artists as his friends. Poems of the national poet Adam Mickiewicz inspired the Chopin Ballades, a unique type of dramatic purely musical narrative. During a musical soirée in Paris the forceful poet roundly criticized Chopin for not being a more active patriot while he was actually improvising a piece at the piano. The composer seemed to physically shrink into himself as if struck a physical blow. 

Poles treasure the mazurka, polonaise and krakowiak as do ‘foreigners’ but in addition there are hidden and secret signs known only to the soul of Poles. ‘Only Poles can understand Chopin’ is often declared to me with heat. The patriotic hymn, the lament and the military march lie deep within the fabric of many of his compositions. Chopin often chose as the subject for one of his famed improvisations a piece that is now the national anthem of Poland, the ‘Dąbrowski Mazurka’ or Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła (‘Poland Has Not Yet Perished’). The artfully concealed political message of this improvisation once elicited the remark from a diplomat ‘…..you should have thrown out a demagogue like Chopin!’ There are powerful concealed patriotic messages contained within his songs, ballades and particularly the Fantasy in F minor Op.49 which contains among other things a reference to the insurrectionist song Bracia, do bitwy nadszedł czas (‘Brother, To Battle The Time Has Come’). 

His early biographer Antoni Marceli Szulc wrote of his compositions ‘they are native, immaculate and purely Polish.’ The Counsellor of State to the Russian Imperial Court, Wilhelm von Lenz, wrote that ‘Chopin was the only political pianist of the time. Through his music he imparted Poland. He composed Poland!’ The great pianist and statesman Ignacy Paderewski in an eloquent address given at the Chopin Centenary Festival at L’viv (Lemberg, Lwów) in 1910 said ‘……he gave all back to us, mingled with the prayers of broken hearts, the revolt of fettered souls, the pains of slavery, lost freedom’s ache, the cursing of tyrants, the exultant songs of victory.’ Finally Chopin himself wrote to his editor Julian Fontana in April 1848 with the hand of death already at his shoulder ‘There is no way horrifying events can be averted but in the end of it all is a splendid, great Poland; in a word: Poland.’ The Nazis well understood his patriotic power and banned his music. 

[1] There is no English equivalent for this Polish word – an approximation might be ‘prophetic seer’ or ‘messianic messenger’. The Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz is considered a wieszcz through his national epic Pan Tadeusz.

[2] Russian Traditions of Chopin Perfomance Irina Nikolska in Chopin in Performance : History, Theory, Practice (Warsaw 2005) 249

[3] Chopin Studies 2 John Rink and Jim Samson eds. (Cambridge 1994) For some of the observations in the following paragraphs I am indebted to the essay Chopin reception : theory, history, analysis Jim Samson 1-17 and Remembering that tale of grief: The prophetic Voice in Chopin’s Music Halina Goldberg in The Age of Chopin : Interdisciplinary Enquiries (Indiana 2004) 54-92 

Karolina Nadolska first came to my attention many years ago at the 2012 International Chopin at Duszniki Zdroj. 

I wrote of her afternoon recital on August 7 - 16.00 - Chamber Concert with Laureates of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute National Piano Competition - December 2011

'I always admire her choice of pieces that make up a charming programme so suitable for an afternoon recital in the salon environment of the Dworek Chopina. She began with an idiomatic account of two Chopin Mazurkas - G major Op.50 No.1 and A flat major Op. 50 No.2. Then a delightful interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Op.37  'The Seasons' - December: Christmas (A flat major). I was unaware that Debussy had written a Mazurka (although every composer of note has done so) which is an  early delightful piece seldom performed. She then tackled a rather long and difficult piece from Goyescas by Granados - El amor y la muerte (The Walk of Love and Death) managing to convey the improvised and heartfelt nature of this work excellently with great emotion.

I have always thought Paderewski much underrated as a composer. It is no insult to say he could have been the greatest composer for the cinema ever if the medium had been in its maturity when he was at his peak. The second movement of his piano concerto could fit any French love film by Francois Truffaut. Here we heard his Chant d'amour from the  Album de Mai Op.10 No. 2 and his idiomatic Polonaise from his cycle Danses polonaises Op.9 No.9.

I am terribly fond of the compositions of this lyrical composer whose output has been undeservedly overshadowed by his legendary status as a pianist and statesman. I found them charming pieces full of those innocent, slightly naive, tuneful melodies Paderewski so loved. I am always reminded of lyrical pic-nics in fields of wildflowers during the Polish summer when I hear his music, uncluttered by melancholic neurosis or inner torment, full of sensitive feeling.

A lovely recital, beautifully executed and suiting the ambiance and circumstances perfectly.'

This was a similarly excellent recital, both charming and thoughtful. She opened her recital with the Polonaise-Fantaisie Op. 61. This work in the ‘late style’ of the composer was written during a 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. It was a well-structured, expressive performance with sensitive rubato and nuance given to a work that demands so much on every pianistic and psychological level from the performer.

She then performed a group of  10 Mazurkas skillfully and emotionally connected through related keys without breaks between them. It was as if one was wandering through a nostalgically recalled Mazovian village landscape. I found it a most imaginative, effective and moving idea. I would like to analyse the performance of each in detail but it would make my review terribly long.

A-flat major Op.59 No.2
A-flat major Op.7 No.4
C-sharp minor Op.6 No.2
C-sharp minor Op.63 No.3
B major Op.56 No.1
B minor Op.30 No.2
F-sharp minor Op.59 No.3
F-sharp minor Op.6 No.1
D major Op.33 No.2
G minor Op.24 No.1

She concluded her recital with the Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante in E flat major Op. 22 (1830–1835).

This is a deceptive work, often underestimated in difficulty. The piece is so difficult to get just right and excite the audience to adulation which it was clearly designed to do! It is a bravura concert work in the styl brillant, originally written for piano and orchestra, begun during Chopin's final years in Warsaw as a young man. The piano part is often performed on its own coupled with the Andante introduction as we heard this evening.

In many ways it is the apotheosis of Chopin's writing in this spectacularly virtuosic early style reminiscent even of Liszt. He wrote the introductory Andante spianato ('smooth') for one of Habeneck's concerts de conservatoire in Paris in 1835 where he performed both.  Chopin often performed the Andante on its own in more intimate company. 

The Andante was lyrical and poetic with an alluring and singing bel canto line never allowing us to forget that Chopin loved the operas of Bellini. I felt Nadolska performed the work very well pianistically but the Grande Polonaise did not quite possess that incandescent display of diamond-like sparkle, dangerous tempo and perfect dynamic control so vital to its nature. A youthful recording made by the brilliant Polish pianist Wojciech Switala for Katowice Radio dominates every other performance I have ever heard. 

I would like to quote the nature of the polonaise. Chopinek’ composed his first Polonaise at the age of 7. 

‘The polonaise breathes and paints the whole national character; the music of this dance, while admitting much art, combines something martial with a sweetness marked by the simplicity of manners of an agricultural people…….Our fathers danced it with a marvelous ability and a gravity full of nobleness; the dancer, making gliding steps with energy, but without skips, and caressing his moustache, varied his movements by the position of his sabre, of his cap, and of his tucked-up coat sleeves, distinctive signs of a free man and a warlike citizen.’[1]

[1] The 19th century poet and critic Casimir Brodziński

After the interval, Piotr Paleczny gave a now, unfortunately rare, piano recital. He is much preoccupied with teaching and chairing international juries in prestigious piano competitions throughout the world, especially China and Japan and his time limited. We greatly miss his playing. The first time I heard him play in public was during the inaugural concert of the 2010 International Duszniki Zdroj Chopin Festival, the oldest piano festival in the world. Piotr Paleczny is the gifted Artistic Director of this festival. On 6 August 2010 I wrote:

'This is the world's oldest piano festival (inaugurated in 1946) and I always keenly anticipate coming to this small Polish spa town. The inaugural concert of both piano concertos was performed in a huge tent erected for the purpose in the Spa Park. Piotr Paleczny was the soloist with the Symphony Orchestra of the Witold Lutoslwaski Philharmonic in Wroclaw under Marek Pijarowski. Conditions were not perfect with 95% humidity and a dead acoustic. The plastic keys on modern instruments become slippery in such conditions and the action becomes heavier. 

Paleczny gave fine and outstanding performances of both concertos. With his strong left hand he emphasizes the superb Chopin counterpoint and harmonic transitions usually hidden away by most pianists under the scintillating right-hand filigree of the styl brillant. The Larghetto movements of both concerti were lyrical, poetic with a luminous singing tone. The orchestral sound was badly affected by the conditions but the conducting was spirited and joyful although lacking in grace and finesse - for me at least.'

I was astonished at the demanding programme he chose to perform.  Three of the Chopin Scherzos relieved by two Preludes. Considering his limited time to practice as a Professor and Chairman of so many juries, his retaining of a virtuoso technique with only a few minor solecisms is nothing short of miraculous. 

He opened with the Scherzo in B minor Op.20. It was a fine performance. Presto con fuoco indeed and fast and fiery, so wild and strange. Paleczny approached the beautiful lullaby ‘Lulajże Jezuniu’ [Hush little Jesus] with his particularly luminous cantabile, recalling Chopin's memories of a Warsaw childhood nostalgically with the greatest simplicity. The unforgettable aura of a Christmas carol emerged like a voice from another world, the luminous B major creating the peace and calm of Christmas Eve. Then a divine and lyrical melody emerges in tandem with the carol. Paleczny brought us back to the tormented reality of the opening with a vengeance in episodes of something wild, incredible, and demonic. 

I quote from Tomaszewski which describes better than me the effect of this work. When did this piano 'thunderbolt' take place, this record of an explosion of emotion with strength previously unheard of? When was the concept of the song born, which seems to anticipate that Tolstoy's formula, circulated for a well-constructed drama: start fortissimo and then just lead the crescendo to the end? Chopin wrote these measures at the turn of 1830 and  1831 in Vienna, in an aura of overwhelming loneliness, when he made a confession to one of his friends in Warsaw: "If I could, I would move all the tones, which would only create blind,  furious feelings and arouse me ..."

Then the evocative left hand cantilena that sings so eloquently in the Prelude in B minor Op.28 No.6. Paleczny sang this melody with warmth and nuance as he does so well

Then to the Scherzo in B-flat minor Op. 31. He gave a passionate performance of this narrative drama of uniquely Chopinesque romanticism. The work was hailed as a masterpiece from the first explosive revelation. Schumann envisioned Byron here. Niecks found the trio evocative of the Mona Lisa’s thoughtfulness, full of longing and wondering. Ferdynand Hoesick heard ‘demonic accents’ in this ‘fiery poem’. Zdzislaw Jachimecki admired the ‘long ribbon of melody sung on a single breath’. Arthur Hedley pondered the work’s ecstatic lyricism, before concluding: ‘Excessive performance may have dimmed the brightness of this work, but should not blind us to its merits as thrilling and convincing music.’ (Tomaszewski)

The Prelude in D-flat major Op.28 No.15 was excellently performed as one might expect but did not contain enough existential threat and hovering darkness for me - again a matter of the personal expectations of this well-known piece. What is the philosophical as well as musical significance of those persistent 'raindrops' ? One must answer this....

Finally the Scherzo in C sharp minor Op.39. This was a noble, forceful, brilliant and eloquent account of this dark-hued work developing surprising grandeur at the conclusion. I was astonished at such power, technical facility, sensibility and articulation. The piece was dedicated to Chopin's pupil Adolf Gutman and was the last work the composer sketched during the Majorca sojourn and in the atmosphere of Valldemossa. Chopin was ill at the time which interrupted and perhaps affected the writing. ‘…questions or cries are hurled into an empty, hollow space – presto con fuoco.’ (Tomaszewski).

An encore in the same key as the preceding Scherzo, a limpid, lyrical and emotionally deeply expressive and beautifully nuanced Lento con gran espressione (Nocturne in C-sharp minor Op.posth.).

A most satisfying twin recital of great refinement and musicality. I was only a little disappointed at the lackluster presentation by the Warsaw Music University organizers considering the concert was dedicated to Fryderyk Chopin and his birthday is imminent on March 1st. I would have welcomed  flowers on the stage, some civilized refreshments offered at interval and the bust of Chopin adorned with love by a crimson rose. 


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