Before the Grand Competition - Master Recitals - 1st October - 19th October 2020 Warsaw, Poland

 Before the Grand Competition - 

Master Recitals

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At the time when the 18th International Chopin Competition was to be held, (the competition has been postponed to next year), will remain a celebration of Chopin's music and great pianism. The Fryderyk Chopin Institute invites you to a series of piano masters’ recitals and chamber concerts, which will include performances by the most outstanding pianists of the previous editions of the Competition.

The cycle of ten evenings will open on 1 October – the day of the International Music Day and the originally planned inauguration of the Competition – with the recital of Seong-Jin Cho, the winner from 2015. In the following days we will hear recitals by Eric Lu (4th prize 2015), Nelson Goerner (Critics' Award, 1995), Lukas Geniušas (Second Prize, 2010), Marc Laforêt (Second Prize, 1985), Yulianna Avdeeva (Winner, 2010), Philippe Giusiano (Winner, 1995), Gabriela Montero (Third Prize, 1995), the outstanding Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen and Kate Liu (3rd prize 2015).

On 17 October, the anniversary of the death of Fryderyk Chopin, we will traditionally invite you to the Basilica of the Holy Cross to listen this time not to Mozart's Requiem, but to a concert of music and poetry, performed by Szymon Nehring (winner of a distinction in the 2015 Competition) and Jan Englert in front of the composer's heart. The evening is dedicated to the memory of the composer on the 171st anniversary of his death and to Pope John Paul II, in the year of the 100th anniversary of his birthday. The concert programme includes works by Fryderyk Chopin and poetry by Cyprian Kamil Norwid and Czesław Miłosz.

The cycle of concerts of masters referring to the competition finals will be concluded with the two Chopin's Piano concertos in the chamber version, interpreted by Kevin Kenner (winner of the 1990 Competition) accompanied by the Apollon Musagète Quartet and Sławomir Rozlach (double bass). It will also be a gala presentation of the latest recording of the concertos by these artists.

The concerts, with the exception of Olli Mustonen's recital and the recitals by Eric Lu  and Kate Liu which will take place at the Royal Castle. The concert on 17 October, will take place in the National Philharmonic Concert Hall and all of them, except for the concert in the Basilica of the Holy Cross, will be available for viewing and listening online.

A surely ironic, quintessentially Polish, individualistic and scientific view of a pandemic mask by an audience member

A detailed programme is available here:

It is with great regret I must announce that due to travel restrictions forced by the pandemic, Eric Lu has cancelled his recital at the Royal Castle on 3rd October 2020

Profile of the Reviewer Michael Moran 

Photographs by Wojciech Grzędziński/NIFC

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Monday 19th October 19:30

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall

Chamber concert

Kevin Kenner piano

Apollon Musagète Quartett

Paweł Zalejski (violin), Bartosz Zachłod (violin), Piotr Szumieł (viola) and Piotr Skweres (Gennaro Gagliano cello from 1741). One of the world’s finest string quartets, the Apollon Musagète Quartet was founded by four Polish artists in 2006, in Vienna

Sławomir Rozlach double bass

Fryderyk Chopin

The Young Chopin

Warsaw Panorama from Praga 1770 - Bernado Bellotto

 Piano Concerto in F minor Op. 21



Allegro vivace

I have spoken of the genesis of these two wonderful concertos many times in my reviews so shall not repeat myself once again, save to make a few observations on these remarkable alternative chamber transcriptions.  

The first performance of his first piano concerto took place for a group of friends in the Chopin family drawing room at the Krasiński Palace on March 3, 1830. Karol Kurpiński, the  Polish composer and pedagogue, conducted a chamber ensemble. One must remember that contemporary full orchestral forces were rare in the performance of concertos in Warsaw in the early 19th century. Versions for chamber ensemble, such as this evening, were easier to assemble, less expensive and far more common. Our music world is comparatively overwhelmed with riches in terms full orchestra availability and such a multiplicity of recordings. This consideration made this evening absolutely appropriate and even more enlightening.

The outer movements revolve like two glittering, enchanted planets around the moonlit, sublime melody of the central Larghetto movement, a love song inspired by the soprano Konstancja Gładowska, Chopin's object of distant sensual fascination. Liszt regarded the movement as 'absolute perfection'. Zdzisław Jachimecki, a Polish historian of music, composer and professor at the Jagiellonian University regarded it as 'one of the most beautiful pages of erotic poetry of the nineteenth century.'

In this transcription by Kevin Kenner, the piano enters early as a gentle accompaniment. In the opening Maestoso, full of agitated urgency, élan and the spirit of the polonaise, the quintet presented an alluring seductive ensemble sound. From the outset, the movement was expressive in ardent phrasing and replete with youthful energy. The supportive string accompaniment to the piano was in perfect balance in terms of tasteful counterpoint, dynamics, colour and timbre.

Kevin Kenner

The Larghetto moved the heart, as it inevitably does, in dramatic lyrical contrast to the more superficial style brillant movement that preceded and followed it. The ensemble were subtle, tenderly expressive and eschewed any sign of cloying  sentimentality. Kenner blended the fiorituras seamlessly into the melodic line, like a perfectly integrated interior decorative scheme in the graceful and intimate surroundings of a maison de plaisance. Such refinement in this aria moves beyond Mozart into the deeper poetic dimension of nineteenth century romance. The brief emotional agitation of this illusioned heart as it doubts and fears the travails of love, was movingly accomplished. Kenner's eloquent phrasing and rubato together with  an ardent, longing cello counterpoint, led to a divine pianissimo conclusion.  

The Allegro vivace was full of the joyfulness of youth and glistening optimism of the style brillant. Joseph Conrad (Józef Korzeniowski), the Polish writer of genius who chose to write in English, exclaimed in a story 'Youth! The glory of it!' 

The Rondo excited us with the exuberance of a dance of the kujawiak provenance. Kenner and the ensemble accomplished this with a fine sense of sprung Polish rhythm, delightfully light touch and brilliant articulation that cascaded over us like pearls on glass, a true jeu perlé. The great Polish musicologist and pedagogue Mieczyław Tomaszewski writes:

A different kind of dance character – swashbuckling and truculent – is presented by the episodes, which are scored in a particularly interesting way. The first episode is bursting with energy. The second, played scherzando and rubato, brings a rustic aura. It is a cliché of merry-making in a country inn, or perhaps in front of a manor house, at a harvest festival, when the young Chopin danced till he dropped with the whole of the village. The striking of the strings with the stick of the bow, the pizzicato and the open fifths of the basses appear to show that Chopin preserved the atmosphere of those days in his memory.

The horn signal transcribed for viola was brought off to perfection, as was the breathtaking coda. A marvelous performance which made me feel as if the work had been written specifically for this assemblage of forces.

Piano Concerto in E minor Op. 11

Allegro maestoso

Romanze. Larghetto

Rondo. Vivace

Chopin wasted no time in composing his next concerto. In many ways it too revolves around and exalted Romanze. Larghetto central movement. He elucidated its inspiration to his friend  Tytus Woyciechowski: ‘Involuntarily, something has entered my head through my eyes and I like to caress it’. 

He was clearly still emotionally preoccupied with the idealized young singer Konstancja Gładowska. ‘Little is wanting in Gładkowska’s singing’, he wrote to his friend following her performance in the Italian Ferdinando Paer’s opera Agnese, ‘She is better on stage that in a hall. I shall say nothing of her excellent tragic acting, as nothing need be said, whilst as for her singing, were it not for the F sharp and G, sometimes too high, we should need nothing better’. In the same letter written to Tytus in May 1830, Chopin describes the nature of the pivotal movement of this work. ‘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.’ One cannot help wondering about the source of these 'fond memories' and imagining the romantic nature and occurrences that may have given rise to them.

Paweł Zalejski

The authentically Allegro maestoso opening was highlighted by the fine musicianship of Paweł Zalejski, the singing first violin of the quartet. The voicing was finely controlled as was the timbre of the ensemble and the transparent polyphony with an obbligato piano gently replacing some of the missing orchestration. Piotr Skweres  playing the Gennaro Gagliano cello from 1741,  Piotr Szumieł on the viola and Słowomir Rozlach playing the double bass were all movingly poignant and musically refined in the long poetic opening to the concerto. 

Słowomir Rozlach

The subtle dynamic gradations were most affecting emotionally. Kenner produced long, legato and seamless arcs of Chopin's rapturous melodies. In this chamber transcription the interplay of instrumental voices was alluringly prominent and persuasive. Again Kenner integrated the roulades and fioraturas organically into the melodic line without blemish or any sense of artificial decorative attachment. The style brillant was quite thrilling and once more, the violin of  Paweł Zalejski and cello of Piotr Skweres  were deeply musical and touching in their gloriously placed and sung counterpoint. Here we were gifted a perfect balance of instrumentation. Clearly this was to be a special, perhaps transcendental night for the audience.

Piotr Szumieł

The Romance. Larghetto opened in a superbly eloquent, sensitive and nocturnal mood with phrasing expressing the most profound nostalgia. We were carried into an ambiance of tender, intimate, yet on occasion, sensual reflection and emotional disturbance. Kenner took us on a love flight of both dream and reality, flowing unencumbered like an improvisation, unhindered. One is reminded of a skylark joyfully ascending into the azure, gliding in the currents of the upper air. The cello counterpoint was lyrically radiant. Two themes embrace like true lovers, simply at first and then increasingly embellished as is the way with such matters of the heart. Calm and elation danced. Yet there were broken agitato moments of fear, anxiety and disquiet, moments that yet passed like threatening clouds. Kenner achieved a true jeu perlé, the cascades of a high mountain stream.

Far right: Piotr Skweres (Gennaro Gagliano cello from 1741)

The Rondo. Vivace erupted with the joyful krakowiak dance, expressed with great animation and enthusiasm. Such energy inspired us here, the audience quite carried away by the irresistible forward momentum of Kenner's style brillant and rubato enhanced rhythm. Music was transformed into meaningful speech with glorious ensemble moments and a glittering coda.

The Warsaw premiere audience numbered around 700.  ‘Yesterday’s concert was a success’, wrote Chopin on 12 October 1830 to Tytus ‘A full house!’  Two young female singers also performed at the concert conducted by that controversial figure in Warsaw musical life, Carlo Soliva. Contemporary programming was unimaginably different to 2020. After the Allegro had been played to ‘a thunderous ovation’, Chopin sacrificed the stage to a singer [‘dressed like an angel, in blue’], Anna Wołkow. Typical of the pressing personality of Soliva, she sang an aria he had composed.

The other young singer was Konstancja Gładkowska. Chopin wrote as descriptively as always: ‘Dressed becomingly in white, with roses in her hair, she sang the cavatina from [Rossini’s] La donna del lago as she had never sung anything, except for the aria in (Paer’s) Agnese. You know that “Oh, quante lagrime per te versai”. She uttered "tutto desto” to the bottom B in such a way that Zieliński (an acquaintance) held that single B to be worth a thousand ducats’. 

This 'farewell' concert was only three weeks before Chopin left Warsaw and the subsequent November 1830 uprising burst upon the city. ‘The trunk for the journey is bought, scores corrected, handkerchiefs hemmed… Nothing left but to bid farewell, and most sadly’. Konstancja and Frycek exchanged rings. She had packed an album in which she had written the words ‘while others may better appraise and reward you, they certainly can’t love you better than we’. Only two years later, Chopin added: ‘they can’ which speaks volumes.

At the conclusion of our concert an immediate standing ovation. At the time I remembered a remark at a Masterclass given by Professor Dang Thai Song at the Duszniki Zdój Chopin Festival long ago: 'The sign of a great performance is that at the conclusion there should be nothing left to say.'

This was such an exhilarating concert....nothing left to say.

A fine new recording of these concertos by the same performers is available from the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute 


Sunday 18th October 19:30

Royal Castle Ballroom

Piano recital

Kate Liu piano

I have often been put in a trance by the playing of Kate Liu and this evening was no exception. The only barrier to achieving the full dream was the extravagant acoustic of a Steinway Concert Grand in the opulent, high-ceilinged ballroom of the Royal Castle. It was almost frighteningly resonant on occasion. I suggest, if you attended live, that you listen to the Youtube recording of the recital where this difficult acoustic problem has been eradicated by technology. Her superb articulation, phrasing, expressiveness, touch and tone can be enjoyed to the full.

Georg Friedrich Händel

Suite in E major, HWV 430 'The Harmonius Blacksmith'

  1. Prelude
  2. Allemande
  3. Courante
  4. Air con Variazioni ("The Harmonious Blacksmith")

This most popular of the Handel suites is of the same musical status as the harpsichord suites of Bach. This work was published by the composer himself in London in 1720. The famous theme of the Variations is touchingly based on the English folk song 'Four Days Drunk' but better known by the famous title The Harmonious Blacksmith, an air and five variations. Even on the piano, Liu expressed the lyrical and virtuosic character of the work with panache, poetic expressiveness and élan. On occasion one did feel the presence of the harpsichord, but this interpretation was both convincing and uplifting.

Fryderyk Chopin

Mazurka in A minor Op. 59 No. 1

Mazurka in A flat major Op. 59 No. 2

Mazurka in F sharp minor Op. 59 No. 3

Here we were drawn into her enchanted world of Chopin's nostalgic and poetic dreams in an affecting rendition of these ‘most beautiful sounds that it is possible to produce from the piano’ (Ludwig Bronarski).  Let me allow  Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski to describe the third of these Mazurkas in F sharp minor which 'drags one into the whirl of a Mazurian dance from the very first bars, with its sweeping, unconstrained gestures, its verve, élan, exuberance, and also, more importantly, the occasional suppressing of that vigour and momentum, in order to yield up music that is tender, subtle, delicate...'  

Kate Liu accomplished all of this. In many ways I feel her to be a Chopin savant. As well as being awarded the Third Prize in the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Competition, Warsaw, 1-23 October 2015, she was also awarded the Mazurka Prize.

Robert Schumann

Arabesque in C major, Op. 18

Having heard Kate Liu perform these two works during the 74th Duszniki Zdrój International Chopin Piano Festival, 2 - 10 August 2019 I felt so similarly once again, I have little need to alter what I wrote on that enchanted evening except to add further reflections on her deepening flights within her spirit.

She began with the Schumann Arabesque Op. 18. When Schumann wrote the work in 1839, he was still cruelly separated from his future wife Clara. Her father violently opposed the relationship with Schumann and the risks he felt this posed to her career as an outstanding pianist.  Robert was only  able to communicate with her through letters and 'concealed' musical harmonies in his compositions.  Any music he wrote at this time would have been drenched in frustrated longing. This work fluctuates between lyrical dream and militant anger. 

Liu's first sound emerged diaphanously, materialising out of the ether of a dream already begun, perhaps already lived. Superb cantabile and childish simplicity began to carry us melodically aloft. She gently allowed the emergence and release of Schumann's two 'best friends', the extrovert Florestan and the more poetic Eusebius, the curious doppelgänger personalities that flowered directly from his literary obsessions. 

She adopted a particularly slow and internally reflective tempo but the music breathed. So poetically and emotionally reflective. Her cantabile languished seamlessly and polyphonically transparent and expressive. The breath of young, idealistic, still illusioned love facing the obstacles of separation. Once Liu spoke self-effacingly in an interview of 'love on a summer's day in grassy fields' referring  to the Chopin E minor concerto during the 2015 Chopin competition. Here, by the coda of the Arabesque, she had cast some sort of spell of sensibility over us with this delicate work, preparing an enchanted atmosphere for the entry of the monumental  Fantasy.

Fantasy in C major, Op. 17

The Fantasy is in loose sonata form. Its three movements are captioned:

  • Durchaus fantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen; Im Legenden-Ton - Quite fantastic and passionate to deliver; In the legend tone.
  • Mäßig. Durchaus energisch - Moderate. Quite energetic 
  • Langsam getragen. Durchweg leise zu halten. - Presented slowly, keeping quiet throughout.

This work originated in the desire to create a monument to Beethoven in Bonn. Schumann thought that by composing a work that he could sell, he could financially assist in the construction of this memorial to his beloved composer. Although he abandoned any such title such as 'sonata', the work is close to being one. However, an important air of improvisation hovers over the form which Kate Liu fully exploited.

Rather than analyze this performance in any musicological sense, I will try and paint a picture of the ebb and flow of my own waves of rhapsodic emotion as the piece progressed, a picture of the sea of my own response as it undulated in the currents. The great Augustan English poet Alexander Pope spoke of 'the moving toyshop of the heart' which I felt strongly as this great theatre and drama of imagery, such varied landscapes in sound opened out before us. Liu cultivated a deeply introspective lyricism from the outset interrupted by darkest night, emotional anguish carrying her away. However, she never inflated her dynamic or exceeded the boundaries of 'good taste' even in her significant slowing of the tempo and hesitations pregnant with poetic implications and meaning. Someone knowledgeable I spoke to later objected to this approach, feeling that Schumann belongs to the world of German metaphysicians and should not be approached as if he were a romantic Chopin.

References to Clara abound in this work  despite the Beethovenian intentions. Robert cannot help himself.  He uses a line from a Beethoven song where the original text reads  'Then accept these songs, beloved, which l sang for you alone.' Clearly a musical love token for Clara. The Fantasy score is actually headed with a literary reference, a motto from Schlegel’s poetry: 'Through all the tones in Earth's many-colored dream, there sounds one soft long-drawn note for the secret listener.' Schumann admitted as much in a letter to Clara.

In Liu one senses a passionate mind approaching the music - mercurial, labile, intellectual emotions - in short, she depicted the conflicted and preoccupied thoughts of Schumann in love. A wave of passionate, solitary fantasy by the shores of a lake. Her silences are as pregnant with meaning as sound. We were taken on an emotional journey immersed in a series of intense revelations and admissions, the work drifting away from conventional imprisoning form and becoming in the end a type of philosophical, intellectual and emotional meditation. 'Resonances of the heart' describes it well, especially when one felt compelled to sing in the final 'movement'.  I imagined sensual passions rising from a lyrical dream world, even dominating it in occasions, the slow ignition of desire. The work faded away into the ether of imagination...

Great art and great performances should disturb the surface of conventional life, be subversive, not confirm its comfortable, conventional nature. All 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 mind, ears and fingers as in this case. 

As an encore another excursion into the reflective, poetic realm Schubert painted creatively for us as a landscape in eloquent, evocative sound, the Hungarian Melody in B minor D.817.

Saturday 17th October 20:00

The Church of the Holy Cross

Concert of music and poetry

Szymon Nehring piano

Jan Englert actor

This was a particularly moving and deeply poetic commemoration of the death of Chopin to replace the Mozart Requiem usually performed on October 17th. Much needed at this time, spiritually uplifting poetry written by national poets was read and music composed by Fryderyk Chopin was performed in alternation. 

In such a soulful commemoration, I feel it is not appropriate to approach the event in a critical mien. Suffice to say we were listening to the outstanding Polish pianist Szymon Nehring and Jan Englert, the distinguished Polish film actor and Director of the National Theatre in Warsaw. 

The almost sacred atmosphere of this ceremony, containing as it does all the perfumes of Sarmatia, is beyond such worldly trifles as my artistic criticism.

This was also a concert on the 171st anniversary of the death of Fryderyk Chopin and commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Paul II.

01. Cyprian Kamil Norwid Moja ojczyzna
02. Fryderyk Chopin Etude in C sharp minor Op. 25 No. 7 (Lento)
03. Cyprian Kamil Norwid Moja piosnka II
04. Fryderyk Chopin Nocturne in F sharp minor Op. 48 No. 2
05. Cyprian Kamil Norwid Coś ty Atenom zrobił Sokratesie
06. Fryderyk Chopin Sonata 3 Op. 58 B minor (1844) 1. Allegro maestoso
07. CypraiCyprian Kamil Norwid Pióro
08. Fryderyk Chopin Sonata 3 Op. 58 B minor (1844) Scherzo. Molto vivace
09. Cyprian Kamil Norwid Fortepian Szopena

Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883)

Cyprian Norwid was a nationally esteemed Polish poet, dramatist, painter and sculptor. He was born in the Mazovian village of Laskowo-Głuchy not far from Warsaw.  A maternal ancestor was the Polish King John III Sobieski.

Chopin's Grand Piano

To Antoni C...

La musique est une chose étrange!

Lord Byron

L'arte? ... c'est l'art - et puis,Voilà tout
Pierre-Jean de Béranger 

In those near-final days I visited you -
Filled with elusive theme -
Complete as Myth,
Pale as the mist...
When dissipation whispers to the issue of life's stream:
"I shall not tangle you - I shall but sublimate you..."

I visited you in those near-final days
When you were growing - from beat to beat -
More like Orpheus' forsaken lyre,
In which still-striking force and song compete
And four still twanging strings inquire,
And faintly chime,
Two a time - two a time
Whisper telling -
"Did he begin
To strike the string...
Or can his Genius play - whilst repelling?"

In those days I visited you, Frederic,
Whose hand - for all its mastery
And alabaster pallor - unique
Hand stroking softly, quivering, ostrich-plumed -
To be - I all too hastily assumed
The keyboard ivory...
Like yon noble statue - you -
Whom - before Pygmalion hewed
Out of its marble womb -
The stamp of Genius stained!

And then, when you played - what? said the tones -
what? will they say,
Though stand the echoes might in different array
Than when your own hand's benediction made
Quiver each chord your fingers played -
And when you played, there was such simplicity -
Periclean - perfection - sublime
As if some Virtue from Antiquity
Stepped into a country cottage's confine
And on the simple threshold swore:
"This day in Heaven I was reborn:
The cottage door - a harp to me;
My ribbons - the winding lane;
The Holy Host - in the corn I venerate
And Emmanuel will reign
On Tabor incarnate!"

And therein was Poland - to the crown
Of Omniperfection's reign restored.
Dazzled - in delights that drown
Despair - Poland - the Wheelwright's House transformed!
The same dear Poland
(I could ne'er mistake her - though at life's brow...)

And now - your hymn complete - your music mute -
No more I'll see you - but what? is that there
I hear ... as if a child's dispute - -
No more, but just the keys still chatter,
About the uncompleted rhyme
Shuffling final echoes spell
- Five a time - eight a time -
Rustling, "Did he begin? To play or to repel?"

O You! In whom Love's Profile chooses to abide
And Art's Perfection is your name -
You! who assemble in the ranks of Style
And fashion stone, penetrate the song's refrain...
O You! in History's course confirmed as Age;
Though Spirit and Letter surpass History's crest,
Yet wedded inscribe into her page
Your nomen: Consummatum est...
O You! - Perfection - attained -
Whatever - wherever - your mark may be
In Phidias? In David? In Chopin's hand recumbent?
Or in Aeschylus' amphitheater abundant?
Avenged - always - by the spite of INSUFFICIENCY!
The wretched birthmark of this world is Lack
Him? ... Perfection irks -
Prefers - to undo Perfection's works -
Arrests the germination of Art's Act...
- One? ... who ripened like a golden comet-sheaf,
Let once the astral-wind contact his train,
Soon stream away his tears of grain:
Perfection makes his glory brief.

For look - look now, Frederic... This is Warsaw
Under a star ablaze -
Strange gaudy eyesore
Look, the Parish organs! Look! Where you were raised!
There - the patricians' houses - old
As the Publica Res;
Pavements of the squares grey and cold,
And Zygmunt's sword in its cloudy crest.

Look! From street to street
Charge Caucasian steeds
Like a storm-spurned starling fleet
Charging the horses speed -
A hundred a time - a hundred a time,
Flames swelling the building, - then dying down
Blazing again - and then - look now!
I see rifle butts pointing at the brow
Of bereaved widows -
And then I see, though through a wall of
Blinding smoke, at the porch, colonnade
A tumbrel-like object swayed
To and fro... to and fro... - fallen! Your piano has fallen!

He!... who proclaimed Poland from the height
Of Omniperfection's eternal form
And wrought with a hymn of delight -
A Poland of the Wheelwright's House transformed -
He - has fallen - into the mud-bespattered night!
And now, like the wise saying of the Sage,
He lies trampled by the people's wrath,
Or like all that which - from age
To age - shall summon forth!
And now, like Orpheus' body,
A thousand Passions dismember his corpse
Each one groaning, "Not me!
Not me!" through grinding jaws.
But you? - But I? Let us sound judgement tones,
Call forth: "Rejoice, late-coming posterity!
The vulgar street - screech muted stones -
The Ideal - has inherited."

10. Fryderyk Chopin Sonata No. 3 Op. 58 B minor (1844) Largo
11. Cyprian Kamil Norwid Pielgrzym
12. Fryderyk Chopin Sonata 3 Op. 58 B minor (1844) Finale. Presto ma non tanto
13. Czesław Miłosz Oda na 80 urodziny Jana Pawła II

Czesław Miłosz ranks among the most respected figures in 20th-century Polish literature, as well as one of the most respected contemporary poets in the world: he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Born in Lithuania where his parents had moved from Poland, he left due to the horrors of the Communist regime. He lived in the United States from 1960 until his death in 2004. Apropos such an evening as this evening he stated: 'I am searching for an answer as to what will result from an internal erosion of religious beliefs.'

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004)

Ode for the 80th birthday of John Paul II

We come to you, people of weak faith,

That you might strengthen us with the example of your life

And relieved from anxiety

For the next day and year. Yours is the twentieth century

He became famous for the names of powerful tyrants

And turning their powerful states to nothingness.

That it would be so, you knew. You taught hope:

Because only Christ is the master of history.


Foreigners did not guess where the hidden strength came from

At a cleric from Wadowice. Prayer, prophecy

Poets not recognized by progress and money,

Though kings were equal, they waited for you,

That you may declare urbi et orbi for them,

That what is happening is not confusion, but a broad order.


Shepherd given to us when the gods depart!

And in the fog over the cities shines the Golden Calf.

Helpless crowds run and make a sacrifice

Of their own children, bloodied with Moloch's screen.

And fear in the air, an unspoken lament:

Because it is not enough to want to believe, to be able to believe.


And suddenly it was like the clear sound of a matting bell,

Your sign of objection is like a miracle,

To ask: how is it possible

That young people from unbelieving countries adore you,

They gather in the backs, head to head,

Waiting for news from two thousand years ago

And they fall at the feet of the Governor,

Who covered the human tribe with love.


You are with us, and from then on you will always be with us.

When the powers of chaos call forth

And the holders of truth will shut themselves up in churches,

And only the doubters will remain faithful,

Your portrait in our homes will remind us every day,

What one man can, and how holiness works.

14. Fryderyk Chopin Nocturne in E major Op. 62 No. 2

Friday 16th October 19:30

Ballroom of the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera

Piano recital

Olli Mustonen piano

This was a programme of extraordinary interest and fascination assembled and performed by the distinguished Finnish pianist, conductor and composer, Olli Mustonen.

Jean Sibelius

3 Sonatinas Op. 67

 Symposium (1894) by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) Sibelius far Rt.

These are rarely performed works, which I never heard in live recital before, let alone by a distinguished Finnish pianist. Sibelius studied and played the violin, not the piano. One cannot find authentically idiomatic keyboard works until these impressive small productions. The three 1912 Sonatinas are particularly successful piano works. Following the Fourth Symphony, they are pared down, minimalist compositions in many ways. The miniature Sonatina No.1 opens with an economical, effective statement. The small second movement is beautifully written for the instrument and the finale contains an irrepressible, thrusting energy that suited Mustonen's volatile temperament perfectly. The remaining two Sonatinas are perhaps less splendid than the first. The three movements of the bright Sonatina No.2 hover in or around E major. There are various happy exchanges in canon in the first movement. The third Sonatina in B flat minor is greatly unified in form and melodic content. Mustonen's obvious close familiarity with the orchestral writing of Sibelius was much in evidence during the performance of these three Sonatinas. A highly enjoyable encounter with the unfamiliar.

Fryderyk Chopin

Mazurka in A minor Op. 59 No. 1

Mazurka in A flat major Op. 59 No. 2

Mazurka in F sharp minor Op. 59 No. 3

Mazurka in B major Op. 56 No. 1

Mazurka in C major Op. 56 No. 2

Mazurka in C minor Op. 56 No. 3

Mustonen is an individualistic pianist and musician with deeply held views of his own and 'how a piece should go'. I found his rather uncommon, sometimes eccentric view of these two sets of mazurkas, refreshing and uplifting, even if I could not agree with his vision on occasion. I know he likes to communicate the impression of 'recreation on the spot', a praiseworthy aim. Certainly this is a laudable intention as we are now so far along the long and winding road from the original historical source. His approach reminded me how far the multitude of interpretations have standardized the interpretation of this music in so many recordings, competition performances and recitals. Even so, in these mazurkas, I felt Mustonen never crossed that invisible red line that separates a valid interpretative gesture from a willful, and egocentric distortion of the score.

Rodion Shchedrin (b.1932)  

Notebook for the Youth (1981)

Arpeggio Moderato

Medieval chant: sostenuto

Let's play an opera by Rossini: Allegretto - Allegro

Choir: Lento

Thirds: Allegro, ma non troppo

Song of praise: Maestoso cantabile

Chord inversion: Comodo

Village plaintiff: Andante rubato

Fanfares: Maestoso

Conversations: Rubato, ma rapido

Russian bells: Moderato

Song of Peter the Great: Allegro moderato

Chase: Vivace

Twelve notes: Andante

Etude in A: Allegro ben articolato

I had never heard this remarkable work of 15 pieces before and found it most impressive. I really need time to study it and learn before giving an opinion of Mustonen's performance. I do not usually provide Wikipedia entry links in my reviews but in this case the biography and list of works of this prolific Russian composer is so detailed and exhaustive and my knowledge so limited, I feel I must:

 “Yes, we were children of our time and of our country where we were born and where we lived. You cannot run away from that. Time always leaves its mark.” says Rodion Shchedrin.

Shchedrin has dedicated two works to Mustonen

  • Piano Concerto No. 5 in three parts (1999). Commissioned by SAVCOR (Hannu and Ulla Savisalo). First performance was on 21 October 1999 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen with Olli Mustonen as piano soloist.
  • Questions, eleven pieces for piano (2003). First performance on 9 October 2004 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall of London by Olli Mustonen.

I also notice with interest that Radion Shchedrin in 2019 composed an opera based around Lolita, the novel by Vladimir Nabokov.

Russian soprano Pelageya Kurennaya as Lolita - Estate Theatre Prague, October 2020

Olli Mustonen

Piano Sonata 'Jehkin Iivana'

Jehkin Iivana, originally composed for guitar by Olli Mustonen, takes the listener into the legendary world of Finnish myths and epics, when brave heroes led the fate of the north and a people of magicians roamed the endless forests of the country.

The piece is named after Jehkin Iivana. Livana (1843-1911) was one of the last great exponents of traditional rune singing and a master at playing the kantele. As fascinating as Mustonen allows the guitar to imitate the sound of the Finnish national instrument, the piano version is so impressive and larger. It creates an atmosphere that makes the magic of mythical worlds seem tangible. (Schott sheet music description)

Sergei Prokofiev

Sonata No. 7 in B flat major Op. 83


Mustonen's technique and rather percussive approach to the instrument suited this great Prokofiev 'War Sonata' (1939-42) well. The anger of the Allegro inquieto was passionately expressed as was the more poetic contrast of the emotional Andante caloroso. That plaintive repeated note that for me expresses all the intense loneliness and isolation of the human soul in the firmament, confronted by the cruelty and waste of war, could have been still more plaintively expressed. I expected the Precipitato final movement would be spectacular and aggressive and so it was with an anger against the mindlessness of bloody conflict scarcely repressed. Yet his tone never became harsh, just rather more penetrating as the great highway of dynamic and tempo augmentation opened before us. 

Franz Liszt broke pianos - Olli Mustonen breaks piano stools - a diverting recital moment

Monday October 12th  19:30

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall

Piano recital

Gabriela Montero piano

Robert Schumann

Kinderscenen (Scenes from Childhood) Op. 15

These pieces reveal the poetic soul of Schumann with the greatest and most affecting clarity. In the spring of 1838 Schumann was separated from Clara Wieck his fiancée. Her father was horrified she might marry a mere composer of music with no financial or social future. Schumann wrote to his great love:

'I have been waiting for your letter and have in the meantime filled several books with pieces.... You once said to me that I often seemed like a child, and I suddenly got inspired and knocked off around 30 quaint little pieces.... I selected several and titled them Kinderszenen. You will enjoy them, though you will need to forget that you are a virtuoso when you play them.' 

They express deep nostalgia for childhood through the eyes of an adult. The titles are merely afterthought suggestions to the pianist (according to Schumann).

1. Von fremden Ländern und Menschen
 Of Foreign Lands and Peoples

Pleasantly lyrical evocation  in the company of a pastoral traveller

2. Kuriose Geschichte
 A Curious Story

As energetic as desired

3. Hasche-Mann
 Blind Man’s Bluff

Nicely whimsical if a little rushed

4. Bittendes Kind
 Pleading Child

A character sketch

5. Glückes genug
 Happy Enough

Found this rather robust and unsubtle. I felt it should have been more cantabile

6. Wichtige Begebenheit
 An Important Event

Rather too declamatory

7. Träumerei

Alluringly cantabile, poetic, and sensitively phrased. Have you heard Horowitz play it too often as an encore? As someone said to me recently apropos familiar musical interpretations that unavoidably accumulate in the mind with musical experience and recordings 'You have been drinking the same champagne for far too long Michael!'

8. Am Kamin
 At the Fireside

9. Ritter vom Steckenpferd
 Knight of the Hobbyhorse

Rather overplayed for me with excessive pedal and dynamic

10. Fast zu ernst
 Almost Too Serious

Pleasantly thoughtful and attractively lyrical

11. Fürchtenmachen

Perhaps given the title this piece could have been more expressive

12. Kind im Einschlummern
 Child Falling Asleep

Reflective but could have evoked this delicate idea more sensitively

13. Der Dichter spricht
 The Poet Speaks

Finely expressive with subtle tone that raised poetry in the heart with especially moving pianissimo. Try and find the astonishing Alfred Cortot b/w film where he demonstrates the 'opium' of the piece to a pupil.

Improvisations on her childhood scenes: 5 Venezuelan Memories

1. Morning in Caracas    Here Montero presented the dramatic contrast between the chaotic urban life of this city, which lies in a deep valley, and the beauty of Nature in Mt. Avila and the El Avila National Park that surrounds it.

2. The Drunk Man    Here she depicted a small, drunken man she noticed who regularly wandered the streets of Caracas listening to a radio on his shoulder. The music raised a touch of the melancholy of Charlie Chaplin for me.  

3. Venezuela Destruction  Here Montero depicted the economic collapse and 'destruction' of her country, a lost nation. One was movingly taken through an improvised landscape of passionate but lost love of this massive country. I could not help but reflect how much the music of Chopin must mean to Montero as the Polish composer similarly lamented and improvised in exile on the loss of his beloved country, erased from the map of Europe.

4. Missing Home  Montero expressed the loss of home and the unanswerable question 'Where is my home now?'

5. My Mother's Lullaby  Here she expressed the feeling of the maternal embrace, the lament of losing that carefree and warm childhood of affection and love. There were lyrical, heartfelt and moving melodies here, the innocence of a mother's love for her infant.

Dimitry Shostakovich

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B minor Op. 61

This sonata is relatively rarely played. It is a memorial work, dedicated to the piano pedagogue and composer Leonid Nikolayev, who had died in Tashkent in October 1942 aged sixty-four. Nikolayev was one of Shostakovich’s early teachers at the Petrograd Conservatory. Shostakovich "admired him as a first-class musician and a man of great wisdom and learning" and also said of him: "He trained not simply pianists, but in the first place thinking musicians. He didn't create a school in the specific sense of some single narrow professional direction. He shaped and nurtured a broad aesthetic trend in the sphere of pianistic art." 

Leonid Nikolayev

The agony and tragedy of war is not expressed here as in say the 1941 'Leningrad' Symphony or the 1943 Symphony No.8. The Sonata No. 2 consists of three movements. The first Allegretto  movement is fairly lightweight but Montero presented a dynamically rather strident interpretation. The powerful contrast of the Largo was soulfully inturned, reflective with ominous LH repeats and an improvisatory feel. Montero expressed an abstract anxiety of quite powerful magnitude. Could one say she expressed the despair of a refined order ? The Moderato revealed spiritual triumph with anxiety lying at the core of it. She gave marvelous life to this movement, with the expression of deep anger and resentment (the 'destruction' of Venezuela?). Montero depicted deep fluctuations of mood with moving resignation at the conclusion.

Fryderyk Chopin

Ballade in G minor Op. 23

This continually highly dramatic and declamatory interpretation of this Chopin Ballade simply did not appeal to me. We all have our 'own Chopin' that can be quite different yet consistent in character and a valid vision. This undoubtedly dynamic 2020 view of the composer I felt only did him superficial justice.

Gabriela Montero


Tremendously impressive inventions based on two Polish songs sung by members of the audience.

1. Lullaby

In the ash pan to Wojtuś

The sparkle blinks

Come and I tell you a fairy tale

the fairy tale will be long.


There once was a princess

she fell in love with the musician

The king made a wedding for them

And the fairy tale is over.


There was once Baba Yaga (a witch)

She had a hut made of butter

And in this cabin only wonders

Hush, psst,the spark has gone out.


In the ash pan to Wojtuś

The sparkle blinks

Come and I tell you a fairy tale,

the fairy tale will be long.


Wojtek will not believe you anymore

A little sparkle.

You flash for a moment, then you go out,

This is the whole story.

2. I was unsure of this Polish song - being a foreigner!

It was actually another lullaby based on a simple tune in a children's cartoon entertainment!

Here it is:

As an encore she performed the only piano work Krzysztof Penderecki composed for solo piano a year before his death in March 2020. The Aria from Aria, Ciaccona & Vivace (2019), a composition compiled and adapted for piano by Venezuelan-German composer Sef Albertz. An impressive and moving performance.           

Thursday 8th October 19:30

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall

Piano recital

Philippe Giusiano piano

Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from reviewing this recital 
Unfortunately there was no video record available for me to consult later

Fryderyk Chopin

Impromptu in F sharp major Op. 36

Impromptu in G flat major Op. 51

Sonata in B flat minor Op. 35

Polonaise in A flat major Op. 53

Sergej Rachmaninov

6 Moments musicaux, Op. 16 No 1 in B flat minor (Andantino)

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 36

Wednesday 7th October 19:30

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall

Piano recital

Yulianna Avdeeva piano

Winner of the International Chopin Competition in 2010

Fryderyk Chopin

Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 45 (1841)

So often neglected by pianists, many consider the Prelude in C-sharp Minor Op. 45, composed at Nohant during the summer of 1841, as  one of the most private and intimate compositions Chopin ever wrote. It gives one the impression of a written down improvisation. He proudly spoke to his amanuensis Julian Fontana of the piece being 'well modulated'. It dreams and movingly explores the many harmonic colour and timbral differences among the different keys it meanders through. This would have been far clearer in the sensitively unequal temperament in which the Pleyels of Chopin’s time were tuned. Equal Temperament was considered unachievable and perhaps undesirable as it was during the Baroque and Classic periods.

Chopin wrote from Paris in 1848, fourteen months before his death : 'All those with whom I was in the most intimate harmony have died and left me.  Even Ennike, our best tuner, has gone and drowned himself; and so I have not in the whole world a piano tuned to suit me.' Many different temperaments were used in the Paris of the 1830s and 1840s. Equal temperament remained a matter of speculation. This preoccupation continued well into the 1890s to preserve the emotional associative differences between keys.

Liszt wrote to Sébastian Erard 'When I play, I play to the galleries!' This is the diametrical opposite to the Chopin aesthetic. Pianists such as Antoine de Kontski, Eduard Risler, Raoul Koczalski and later even Vladimir de Pachmann were known for their intimate, subtle, elegant  Chopin of relatively absolute dynamic range, delicately inflected rhythms, subdued tone and highly artistic use of the pedals.

As the composer and his contemporaries 'passed the veil invisible', the memory of the magic of Chopin, that 'Ariel of pianists', and all the resources of the period piano and performance practices at his disposal, were gradually swallowed up and almost erased by the seductions of ostentatious, dynamic display on evolved iron-framed instruments. [With grateful acknowledgement to Jonathan Bellman who raises this point in his essay Towards a Well-tempered Chopin] This is an interesting and contentious subject, scarcely explored seriously in 2020, examination resisted.

Avdeeva brought  an effulgent tone and sensitive touch that expressed longing and loss in its suggestive plaintive, affective phrasing. Her fine rubato was emotionally expressive of dream-like emotional reflections. There was significant aristocratic poise in this interpretation and a feeling of nocturnal improvisation. A fine opening to her recital of uplifting quality.

Scherzo in C sharp minor Op. 39 (1839) 

Chopin completed this work during a period of convalescence in Marseilles. It is 'one of Chopin's most unusual and original works' (Jim Samson). Certainly it is the closest Chopin came to the Lisztian idiom and in the bravura writing. The piece was dedicated to his muscular favourite pupil Adolf Gutman. Wilhelm von Lenz wrote rather waspishly in 1872 '... it was probably with his prize-fighter's fist in mind that the bass chord was thought out, a chord that no left hand can take (sixth measure, d sharp, f sharp, g, d sharp, f sharp), least of all Chopin’s hand, which arpeggio’d over the easy-running, narrow-keyed Pleyel. Only Gutmann could 'knock a hole in a table' with that chord!’

This was last work the composer sketched during the Majorca sojourn and in the fraught personal atmosphere of Valldemossa. Chopin was ill at the time which interrupted and perhaps influenced the writing. ‘…questions or cries are hurled into an empty, hollow space – presto con fuoco.’ (Tomaszewski). 

Avdeeva opened the scherzo with just the right balance of agitated tempo and a noble mixed mood of aggression, resistance and resentment. The work requires a powerful tone, but the chorale could perhaps have been slightly more poetically, rather than strenuously expressed with its glittering cascades of ornamental notes of such delicacy and refinement. The melancholic piano transition to E minor was particularly poignant. The close was a triumph of the spirit over adversity. Lisztian grandeur was summoned in her powerful and dramatic transition from C-sharp minor to the victorious C-sharp major conclusion. Yulianna Avdeeva plays with tremendous pianistic authority and security - something I noticed from her Stage I performance during the Chopin Competition in 2010 and deduced right then she would emerge the victor.

The Debs Ball (Warszawski Bal Debiutantow) September 2010 
'An Invitation from Fryderyk Chopin'
dancing a splendid Mazur - one of a number of spirited Polish dances during the evening which included an oberek and a krakowiak as well as innumerable Viennese waltzes

Mazurka in E minor Op. 41 No. 1 (1838)

This mazurka was composed at Son Vent on Majorca shortly after the arrival of the immortal party. I will offer the great Polish musicologist Mieczysław Tomaszewski's comment as far more illuminating to Poles than I could present.  '...we hear a distinct Polish echo: the melody of a song about an uhlan and his girl, ‘Tam na błoniu błyszczy kwiecie’ [Flowers sparkling on the common] (written by Count Wenzel Gallenberg, with words by Franciszek Kowalski) – a song that during the insurrection in Poland had been among the most popular. Chopin quoted it almost literally, at the same time heightening the drama, giving it a nostalgic, and ultimately all but tragic, tone' Avdeeva accomplished the song in a beautiful legato, melancholic arabesque and the touching fading away at the conclusion was particularly ethereal

Mazurka in B major Op. 41 No. 2 (1838)

Possibly composed at Nohant but with Majorcan influences. Chopin's other favorite instrument was the guitar and here we are given a depiction of guitar chords. ‘The first four bars and their repetitions’, said Chopin, ‘are to be played in the style of a guitar prelude, progressively quickening the tempo’. Avdeeva gave a perfectly conceived ''rural' countryside performance of the work as if by a strolling guitar player.

Mazurka in A flat major Op. 41 No. 3 (1838)

Avdeeva brought a beguiling simplicity and sense of improvisation  to this mazurka with its rhythms from the Cuiavia region of Poland.

Mazurka in C sharp minor Op. 41 No. 4 (1838)

Composed during the first summer at Nohant in 1839. The Hungarian pianist Stephen Heller noted: ‘What with others was a refined embellishment, with him was a colourful bloom; what with others was technical fluency, with him resembled the flight of a swallow’. With fine tone and controlled Polish idiomatic mazur rhythms, Avdeeva took us through many different Polish landscapes in this beautiful mazurka, just as Liszt referred to them as tableaux de chevalet (paintings on the easel). A bucolic and rumbustious conclusion that fades away to a carriage carrying memories, passing by over the brow of the hill and then out of reach.

Ballade in A flat major Op. 47 (1841)

I think one key to understanding and unlocking the mysteries of the Ballades as a group of works is a remark Chopin once made in 1842 to his pupil Wilhelm von Lenz concerning a lesson on the Variations contained within his favorite Beethoven Sonata in A-flat major Op.28 : 'I indicate. It's up to the listener to complete the picture'.  

Chopin wrote this Ballade in the summer of 1841. The mood of this work is rather bright and glitters with optimism that shines through chiaroscuro shadows. There are strong elements of dance and even flirtatious gestures. The Polish writer and theatre director Zygmunt Noskowski wrote in 1902 ‘Those close and contemporary to Chopin maintained that the Ballade in A flat major was supposed to represent Heine's tale of the Lorelei – a supposition that may well be credited when one listens attentively to that wonderful rolling melody, full of charm, alluring and coquettish. Such was surely the song of the enchantress on the banks of the River Rhine, lying in wait for an unwary sailor – a sailor who, bewitched by the seductress’s song, perishes in the river’s treacherous waters’. One however must always remember Chopin's dislike of any 'programme' being applied to his music.

Avdeeva has matured as an artist enormously since the competition. She gave a fine performance of this work from a convincing opening statement of 'narrative expectation' through the 'storey-telling' body of the work, with a rich rounded tone of expressive passion and refined sentiment. Her rhapsodic, emotional abandonment can occasionally cross the border of Chopinesque poetry and lyrical containment, but this is surely a personal consideration of interpretation and taste. Each historical era perceives in Chopin reflections of its own preoccupations. I have always felt it helpful to consider the Chopin Ballades as miniature operas being played out in absolute music, forever exercising one's musical imagination in shifting soundscapes. Again her authoritative stance as a pianist, her deep conviction and understanding of balance in this complex musical structure was paramount.     

Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante in E flat major Op. 22 


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 marvellous 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. 

                                                      (The nineteenth-century Polish poet and critic Kazimierz Brodziński)

The difficulties concealed in this work are easy to underestimate. Chopin often performed the Andante spianato (smoothly without anxious tension) as a separate piece in his rare recitals. It has both the character of a nocturne and a lullaby and as such the tender expressiveness. there is a deeply affecting simplicity here which can surely be explored with more yearning phrasing.

The Grande polonaise brillante with its opening 'Call to the Floor' as if on horns and its super glittering style brillante is such a dramatic gesture. Hardly anyone playing Chopin waltzes has any idea of ballroom dancing in the nineteenth century. Chopin in his youth was mad about dancing, a fine dancer and also an excellent dance pianist playing into the small hours, hence his need for 'rehab' at Bad Reinherz – now Dusznki Zdrój. Certainly Chopin waltzes and polonaises are not meant to be danced but the idiom of the genres remains. Chopin waltzes nearly always open, except say the Valse triste, with an energetic and declamatory fanfare or 'call to the floor' for the dancers. A slight pause and then the scandalous Waltz begins.

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 a mystery to modern pianists who are not Polish. Jan Kleczyński writes of this work: ‘There is no composition stamped with greater elegance, freedom and freshness’. 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. 

Avdeeva played the Andante spianato certainly 'smoothly' and with expressiveness. Was I looking for more poetry and grace? It is well known that Chopin often performed this as a separate piece, so suitable in an intimate setting on a Pleyel instrument. The Grande Polonaise began with lightness and elements of the styl brillant as described above but although dynamically varied, became increasingly declamatory and powerful in tone and approach. Although she possesses fine articulation, the form lost some of its overall charm, elegance and freshness which comes from the brilliant, glittering lightness of this style. This is all rather personal as it remained an accomplished performance of great verve and panache which the audience adored.

The work is a fascinating piece of theatre which it should be considered in many respects. It is not deeply philosophical but an utterly enjoyable brilliant confection written by a high-spirited young Pole named Fryderyk Chopin, a lover of dancing and acting. One must not forget that Chopin astonished Vienna by his pianism but perhaps even more by the elegance of his princely appearance.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)

Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat major Op. 84 (1939–1944)

Andante dolce

Andante sognando



She concluded her recital with a work by Prokofiev, the last of the so-called 'War Sonatas'. Mira Mendelson, who was Prokofiev’s partner for some twelve years and to whom he dedicated this sonata, wrote of these sonatas: 'In 1939 Prokofiev began to write three piano sonatas…working on all ten movements at once, and only later did he lay aside the Seventh and Eighth and concentrated on the Sixth.' Prokofiev spent five years (1939-1944) completing this set of sonatas expressing his personal anguish. 


Some of the material for the sonata came from incidental music he composed for Eugene Onegin Op. 71 and for a cinema production of The Queen of Spades Op. 70. In the opening movement Andante dolce Avdeeva expressed in dark tones the isolation, desolation and melancholy of the sensitive individual confronting the forces of armed conflict he cannot influence or control. The rising waves of resentment and anger felt at this emasculated position was also perfectly convincing. The subterranean agitation was appropriately disturbing to the heart. 

The indication to the second movement is the curious Andante sognando (dream-like) which is predominantly lyrical, harmonically predictable and rather like seeing a waltz in a distant ballroom from a garden though shifting mists, lovers fitfully passing the golden illuminated windows of a mansion. Avdeedva captured completely  my imagined poetic imagery. The final Vivace was triumphant but on occasion rather over heavy in its unrelenting anger at the nature of war, but brilliant in articulation and shifting tone colours. She maintained the fatalistic, inexorable forward movement of the movement that finally celebrates the unconquerable within the human spirit.

Her encore, the Nocturne in B-major Op.62 No.1 Interestingly in the Anglo-Saxon world, this has been given the name of an exotic greenhouse flower: ‘Tuberose’. The American art, book, music, and theatre critic James Huneker explains why: ‘the chief tune has charm, a fruity charm’, and its return in the reprise ‘is faint with a sick, rich odor’. Avdeeva was sensitive and poignant, which created a dreamlike ambience. There is great variety in the mood and writing of this rather untypical Chopin nocturne. which Avdeeva captured perfectly to my mind in a caressing, seductive tone and phrasing that faded into the ether like a ghost.

A fine recital that indicated the immense distance Yulianna Avdeeva has travelled musically in her development since her win in the 2010 International Fryderyk Chopin Competition. One musical commentator I respect exclaimed with enthusiasm 'She has begun to fly!'

Tuesday October 6th 2020 19:30

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall

Piano recital

Marc Laforêt piano

Awarded Second Prize in the 1985 International Frédéric Chopin Competition

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Piano Sonata in C major K. 330 (1783)

Unlike some of the other pianists, the French pianist Marc Laforêt had the commanding musical presence of a mature artist when he walked onto the stage. This set us at our ease for some reason best known to the psyche. His Chopin programme indicated this recital was not to be an unrelieved excursion into the dark night of the soul, but an extremely pleasant outing with a person of refinement and taste. And so it was, with the leavening addition of a familiar dramatic Ballade and Scherzo. The majority of pieces in the carefully designed, philosophically undemanding but delightful programme, were written by Chopin in Paris in the 1830s.

Anon, Masonic Lodge 'True Concord' c.1782 (Vienna, Wienmuseum)

Though nominally a member of the lodge ‘Zur Wohltätigkeit’ (‘Beneficence’), to which Mozart was first admitted as an apprentice on 14 December 1784, advancing to journeyman on 7 January 1785 and master shortly afterwards, Mozart also attended meetings at other lodges, among them  ‘Zur wahren Eintracht’ (‘True Concord’). The Masonic Funeral Music K477 was performed in memory of Georg August zu Mecklenburg and Count Franz Esterházy von Galántha at 'True Concord' in November 1785. [© 2020 Kings College London, Department of Music]

It is hard to reconcile that the Mozart piano sonatas were considered trivial confections by the concert-going public before the Second World War. Perhaps because their 'undemanding simplicity' appealed to amateurs and young students of the clavier. Many early sonatas were disarmingly written out improvisations. The sonata K.330 is one of the most endearing sonatas he ever wrote.

Laforêt rendered the Allegro moderato with style and elegant affectation, his phrasing being outstandingly musical. Each repeated phrase was executed differently - rather rare in 2020 performances. His articulation, lightness and balance of hands, agility and verve were quite seductive and quintessentially Mozartian. The Andante cantabile was a controlled legato song produced with finesse and feeling. The clouds that drifted across this untroubled sky hinted only at a fluctuation in mood and were not suggestive of deep tragedy. The melancholic excursion in the minor key only made the blithe return of the final Allegretto all the more refreshing. I found it slightly heavy in touch but enchantingly stylish and intensely musical. Overall a marvelous performance of Mozart, embracing just the right 18th century Viennese gemütlichkeit.

Fryderyk Chopin

Heinrich Heine wrote of Chopin in the Allegemeine Theater-Revue of 1837 '...his fame is aristocratic in nature, his fame is perfumed with the praise of his society, it is distinguished as his person. Chopin is the child of French parents [actually only his father Nicholas was French], born in Poland, and educated partly in Germany. The influences of these three nations have moulded a personality worthy of the greatest attention. Poland has given him chivalry and the dolorous stamp of her history, France has given him a delicate charm, his grace and Germany - romantic reflection. Heine mentions that when improvising ' ...he comes from the land of Mozart, Raphael and Goethe; his true homeland is the kingdom of Poetry.'  

La Cité et le Pont Neuf, vus du quai du Louvre by Giuseppe Canella, 1832

Vue de Boulevard Montmartre à Paris by Giuseppe Canella, 1830

As the pianist is French, a nationality who have a particular approach to the music of Chopin, I felt it useful and instructive to briefly examine the cultural reception of the composer in Paris in the 1830s. In the Chopin critical language of the time, in such musical journals as Le pianiste, one encounters such evocative adjectives as  'gracieux', 'naïf' or 'délicat'. The composer is referred in the Bolero Op.19 as 'neuve et gracieuse'  and his ideas 'originales et gracieuses'. One of the finest and most elevated compliments paid to any creative artist in Romantic Paris at the time of Chopin and the lyric poet Alphonse de Lamartine, was to be deemed 'poetic'. Such men possessed a 'calling', a sign of cultural freedom and aristocratic distinction in comparison with the social limitations of a mere professional métier.  

Chopin was regarded in this manner almost from the outset of his arrival in the French capital. His musical creations were often compared with the lyric poetry of the ode and ballade. They presented themselves as 'veiled' and 'mysterious' musical conceptions. One Le pianiste reviewer even referred to Chopin's 'études lamartiniennes'. Liszt referred to Lamartine in his description of the Préludes Op.28: 'ce sont des préludes poétiques. analogues à ceux d'un grande poëte contemporain...'

David Kasunic, Associate Professor of Music History at Occidental College, in an essay makes a fascinating connection between the nostalgic attractions of Chopin mazurkas and the evocation of the lost landscapes of Poland. Chopin's teacher Józef Elsner referred to certain of his compositions, especially the mazurkas, as 'illuminated engravings'. This sentiment was shared in France by similar elegiac reflections concerning the art of landscape poetry and landscape painting. The art of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot always contained an atmosphere of loss in addition to a personal pensée as did the landscape paintings of the English artist John Constable, introduced in the Parisian Salon of 1824. Liszt even referred to the mazurkas as tableaux de chevalet (paintings on the easel).

 Forêt de Fontainebleau (1834) Jean-Baptisite Camille Corot

Is the girl perhaps reading Le Lac by Lamartine or an ode or ballade ?

For the French, the composer did not simply represent Poland but was Poland to the adoring Parisian musical public, well aware of the fraught partitions, uprisings, resistance and occupation of the suffering but valiant nation. There was tremendous sympathy in artistic circles for the plight of Poland at that time. Lamartine's Méditations poétiques of 1820 utilized landscape to express a profound sense of loss. His masterpiece Le Lac of 1817 brought a formerly unknown musicality to French verse but also the new intense subjectivity and personal 'raw emotion of gut-wrenching loss' through the loss of his lover Julie Charles to tuberculosis. 

Lines from Le Lac (trans. Peter Shor)

Oh lake, the year has scarce run once more round its track,
And by these waves she had to see again,
Look! I have come alone to sit upon this rock
You saw her sit on then.

Beneath those towering cliffs, your waters murmur still,
And on their ragged flanks, your waves still beat,
The wind still flings those drops of spray, that last year fell
On her beloved feet.

*  *  *  *  *  *  * *  *  *  * 

“Just a few more moments, I ask — in vain, for time 
Eludes me and takes flight.
I tell the night to pass more slowly, and dawn comes
To chase away the night.

“Then let us love! Then let us fill each fleeting hour
With joy and ecstasy!
Man does not have a port; time does not have a shore.
It passes, and so do we.”

The French instinctively identified with and conceived of Chopin as primarily a musical poet in such terms.

The Leaping Horse (1825) John Constable
Nostalgic love for the county of Suffolk

Ballade in G minor Op. 23 (1835)

I repeat below the historical section of my review which appears elsewhere as it remains unaffected by the performance in question.

I think one key to understanding and unlocking the mysteries of the Ballades as a group of works is a remark Chopin once made in 1842 to his pupil Wilhelm von Lenz concerning a lesson on the Variations contained within his favorite Beethoven Sonata in A-flat major Op.28 : 'I indicate. It's up to the listener to complete the picture'.  

It has become a truism that the narrative nationalistic poem by the national poet Adam Mickiewicz depicting the heroic spy of tragic destiny, Konrad Wallenrod, inspired Chopin to write this Ballade. This theory has since lost currency as 'programme music' and has been replaced with modern considerations of 'structure' and our unlikely and rather escapist term 'absolute music'. Such a term would have meant little to Chopin. I feel the focus could still well have been the ballad poem form in literature and poetic sensibilities that suggested an expressive route the music might take. I feel the direction of balladic poetry of the day (story telling) suggested, but only suggested not dictated, these musical directions. Such expressive gestures in music would have been quite familiar to literate contemporary Polish listeners without any suggested narrative, literal or illustrative programme.

Just as in balladic poems of the day, the drama builds to a climax though various musical vicissitudes. This organic growth emerges from musical phrases that indicate a 'narrative expectation' from the very opening of the work. This work has become an over-familiar 'warhorse' in so many Chopin recitals - a deserved fate for such a masterpiece. However, one should remember that, when written, this Ballade was revolutionary music, received with mixed feelings. We cannot now resuscitate this feeling of novelty with the innumerable performances and recordings that have taken place since it was written. We are very far from the source of this music, so all the more reason we should imaginatively try to explore what it may have meant to Chopin's contemporary audience.

Nothing like it musically or termed Ballade had been heard or written as music before. There is no connection in this form or genre with the more readily understood and acceptably inherited sonata form of distinct movements. The direction of poetry and the Ballade as a poem in music is more informative than considering the Ballade as a new  musical structural form. Chopin never wrote an opera but surely the clear nationalist narrative spirit, sense of resistance and defiant żal, that imbue his masterpieces must have contributed to the pressure he was placed under to write one.

Laforêt created a feeling of 'narrative expectation' from the opening and continued in a well practiced exposition of the poetic history and narrative. I am sure an audience of the day would have recognized the 'balladic emotions of the poetry'. He built to the rhapsodic climacteric of the piece effectively to an apotheosis despite some unusual moments of emphasis. The coda was dramatically wrestled. It is so hard for a modern audience from 2020 to imaginatively recreate this turbulent period in French history when this Ballade first appeared. A fine performance overall but perhaps without the individuality I had expected.

Mazurkas Op.30 (1837)

In this set of mazurkas or 'illuminated engravings', I felt Laforêt had captured the Polish idiom or element well although the pedal could have been used more judiciously. The harmonies were sometimes slightly blurred in transition. Without doing his fine playing a disservice, Laforêt carefully maintained a rare, intimate and charming 'Salon' atmosphere with these remarkable pieces.

Mazurka in C minor Op. 30 No. 1

Mazurka in B minor Op. 30 No. 2

Mazurka in D flat major Op. 30 No. 3

Mazurka in C sharp minor Op. 30 No. 4

We can consider the Chopin waltzes as a true interpretative challenge and deceptively simple to perform. Chopin is a composer of easy melodic accessibility and yet can remain tantalizingly out of reach. I expected rather more elegance in rhythm and style of phrase from Laforêt being French. The 'lilt' of the waltz rhythm seemed to escape him on occasion but nostalgic reminiscence and creative phrasing compensated for this. 

Waltz in A flat major Op. 34 No. 1 (1838)

Waltz in A minor Op. 34 No. 2 (1831)

This was a delightful interpretation that created just the correct degree of remembrance and nostalgia of recalled past joys and balls.

Waltz in C sharp minor Op. 64 No. 2 (1841)

The cantabile centre of the piece was most affectingly expressed with graceful legato and tone.

Waltz in D flat major Op. 64 No. 1 (1847)

Nocturne in D flat major Op. 27 No. 2 (1836)

A persuasive and pleasant performance of touching expressiveness and beautiful cantabile tone

Scherzo in B flat minor Op. 31 (1837)

Friedrich Niecks, the German musical scholar and author, found the trio evocative of the Mona Lisa’s thoughtfulness, a mood full of longing and wondering. The brilliant Polish musicologist Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski writes of this scherzo: 'The new style, all Chopin’s own, which might be called a specifically Chopinian dynamic romanticism, not only revealed itself, but established itself. It manifested itself à la Janus, with two faces: the deep-felt lyricism of the Nocturnes Op.27 and the concentrated drama of the Scherzo in B flat minor.' 

Arthur Hedley thought about the work’s ecstatic lyricism, before concluding in a way even more appropriate today in the age of recording: ‘Excessive performance may have dimmed the brightness of this work, but should not blind us to its merits as thrilling and convincing music.’

I found something rather remarkable in Laforêt's opening of the Scherzo.

Jean-Jaques Eigeldinger in the Chopin 'bible' Chopin - Pianist and Teacher as seen by his pupils mentions on p.84-85:

The repeated triplet group that appears so simple and innocent could scarcely ever be played to Chopin's satisfaction. 'It must be a question' taught Chopin. He felt it never played questioningly enough, never soft enough, never round enough (tombé), as he said, never sufficiently weighted (important). 'It must be a house of the dead', he once said [ his lessons] I saw Chopin dwell at length on this bar and again at each of its appearances. 'That is the key to the whole piece,' he would say yet the triplet group is generally snatched or swallowed. Chopin was just as exacting over the simple quaver accompaniment of the cantilena as well as the cantilena itself. 'You should think of [the singer] Pasta, of Italian song! - not of French Vaudeville.' he said one day with more than a touch of irony.' [Wilhelm von Lenz]

I found Laforêt captured this idea of existential questioning effectively if a little fast. A rare feeling for me. I wonder how many pianists have any idea of Chopin's serious feelings on this matter, which appears so insignificant on the face of it. Openings were a vital emotional setting for Chopin, as in the often misunderstood Barcarolle. 

Laforêt's cantilena certainly sang with poignant phrasing and emotional reflectivity. The narrative drama of this piece (which I see as a type of Ballade) he built powerfully and convincingly through tensions and relaxations and into well integrated conception of exciting narrative dynamic.

His encore was a sensitive rendition of the Mazurka No.3 in F minor Op.7

Monday October 5th 19:30

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall

Piano recital

Lukas Geniušas piano

Awarded Second Prize in the 2010 International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition

Oberek’  by Józef Chełmoński, 1878

Fryderyk Chopin

I think I am gradually beginning to grasp the mysteries of Chopin's Polish mazurkas, which variety of Mazovian dance (Mazur, Kujawiak and Oberek), which rhythm and mood, be it nostalgic, rumbustious or otherwise. I cannot comment in detail on all ten mazurkas performed this evening but I will say something about ones I found more striking.

A little info about the Mazurkas was included in the “Chopin Express”, Issue 13 (October 2010) by its editor Krzysztof Komarnicki :

A trap called Mazurka

Chopin’s Mazurkas are a mixture of simplicity and subtlety. They are drawn from a folk pattern but are full of nuances that must be executed properly, or else artistic disaster is just round the corner. What are the dangers, then?

You cannot properly play a dance you have never danced. You need to know where a leap and when a landing is, and you must remember that a dancer can’t stop in mid air. “Mazurka” actually describes the group of dances consisting of Mazur, Kujawiak and Oberek. Each species has different steps, tempos and accents. You need to know and recognize each one, as Chopin often makes use of all of them within a single movement.

Mazurkas are notated in 3/4 time, like waltzes, but you play them in a different way – the trick is to put the accents in the right places. Rhythm is another trap: Chopin notates similar rhythms with or without rests, and you play those differently: the dancers have their feet on ground where there are no rests, and they jump if the rests are present.

Polish folk music knows no polyphony. Chopin was well aware of that, but sometimes there are several melodies sounding at the same time, as if his mind was teeming with musical thoughts. It is not counterpoint in the sense of Bach.

Mazurka in F minor Op. 7 No. 3

A 'rural' dance quality was certainly preserved rather than a recollection or sublimation of it.

Mazurka in B flat major Op. 17 No. 1

Mazurka in C sharp minor Op. 30 No. 4

A lyrical account certainly but not particularly poetic

Mazurka in G sharp minor Op. 33 No. 1

Affectingly nostalgic as a remembered dance perhaps? Music emerged as coherent speech. Excellent performance.

Mazurka in C major Op. 33 No.2

Blithe and uncomplicated in mood - Chopin always adored simplicity

Mazurka in D major Op. 33 No. 3

Attractive rural contrasts replete with bucolic life. Excellent performance.

Mazurka in B major Op. 63 No. 1

Rhythmically attractive but verging on the rough

Mazurka in F minor Op. 63 No. 2

Alluringly nostalgic

Mazurka in C sharp minor Op. 63 No. 3

I felt this could have been far more expressive

Mazurka in A minor [Op. 68 No. 2] (WN 14)

A sensitive performance with the most finesse of the group

Ballade in G minor Op. 23

I think one key to understanding and unlocking the mysteries of the Ballades as a group of works is a remark Chopin once made in 1842 to his pupil Wilhelm von Lenz concerning a lesson on the Variations contained within his favorite Beethoven Sonata in A-flat major Op.28 : 'I indicate. It's up to the listener to complete the picture'.  

It has become a truism that the narrative nationalistic poem by the national poet Adam Mickiewicz depicting the heroic spy of tragic destiny, Konrad Wallenrod, inspired Chopin to write this Ballade. This theory has since lost currency as 'programme music' and has been replaced with modern considerations of 'structure' and our unlikely and rather escapist term 'absolute music'. Such a term would have meant little to Chopin. I feel the focus could still well have been the ballad poem form in literature and poetic sensibilities that suggested an expressive route the music might take. I feel the direction of balladic poetry of the day (story telling) suggested, but only suggested not dictated, these musical directions. Such expressive gestures in music would have been quite familiar to literate contemporary Polish listeners without any suggested narrative, literal or illustrative programme.

Just as in balladic poems of the day, the drama builds to a climax though various musical vicissitudes. This organic growth emerges from musical phrases that indicate a 'narrative expectation' from the very opening of the work. This work has become an over-familiar 'warhorse' in so many Chopin recitals - a deserved fate for such a masterpiece. However, one should remember that, when written, this Ballade was revolutionary music, received with mixed feelings. We cannot now resuscitate this feeling of novelty with the innumerable performances and recordings that have taken place since it was written. We are very far from the source of this music, so all the more reason we should imaginatively try to explore what it may have meant to Chopin's contemporary audience.

Nothing like it musically or termed Ballade had been heard or written as music before. There is no connection in this form or genre with the more readily understood and acceptably inherited sonata form of distinct movements. The direction of poetry and the Ballade as a poem in music is more informative than considering the Ballade as a new  musical structural form. Chopin never wrote an opera but surely the clear nationalist narrative spirit, sense of resistance and defiant żal, that imbue his masterpieces must have contributed to the pressure he was placed under to write one.

Geniusas gave us a straightforward interpretation without a great deal of committed emotional intensity. As a narrative musical poem it certainly had some coherence and was virtuosically and pianistically accomplished. However, that indefinable electricity and excitement of a penetrating vision of passionate Polish suffering, victimhood, resistance and żal was missing on this night. I kept asking myself, have I heard this work too often to be excited by it or is it simply the performance? Probably as always a mixture of both imperatives by executant and listener.

Rachmaninov in 1906 close to the time he wrote the Piano Sonata No: 1 in D Minor

S. Rachmaninov 

Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 28

Allegro moderato


Allegro molto

Rachmaninoff wrote to his friend Nikita Morozov on 8 May 1907:

‘The Sonata is without any doubt wild and endlessly long. I think about 45 minutes. I was drawn into such dimensions by a programme or rather by some leading idea. It is three contrasting characters from a work of world literature. Of course, no programme will be given to the public, although I am beginning to think that if I were to reveal the programme, the Sonata would become much more comprehensible. No one will ever play this composition because of its difficulty and length but also, and maybe more importantly, because of its dubious musical merit. At some point I thought to re-work this Sonata into a symphony, but that proved to be impossible due to the purely pianistic nature of writing’.

It is said that Rachmaninov withdrew this reference to literature and certainly the music contains other associations.

The ‘literature’ he referred to is Goethe’s Faust (possibly with elements of Lord Byron’s Manfred) and there is convincing evidence to believe that this plan to write a sonata around Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles was never entirely abandoned. Of course there are other musical elements present as it is not programme music. The pianist Konstantin Igumnov, who gave its premiere performance in Moscow, Leipzig and Berlin, visited Rachmaninov in November 1908. After the Leipzig recital, the composer told him that ‘when composing it, he had in mind Goethe’s “Faust” and that the 1st movement related to Faust, the 2nd one to Gretchen and the 3rd was the flight to the Brocken mountains and Mephistopheles.’

Faust admits in the opening monologue of the play:

In me there are two souls, alas, and their

Division tears my life in two.

One loves the world, it clutches her, it binds

Itself to her, clinging with furious lust;

The other longs to soar beyond the dust

Into the realm of high ancestral minds.

A man whose soul is rent between the hedonistic pleasures of the earth and spiritual aspirations – Sacrum et Profanum. Exploring this ‘human all too human’ dichotomy, Rachmaninov builds almost unbearable tension in this sonata.

In the Allegro moderato, as Faust wrestles with his soul and its temptations, I felt that Geniusas could have been more passionately and emotionally engaged in this crucible of sin. He seemed only to communicate general expression and did not penetrate the tormented spiritual core of this movement. Although his keyboard technique and actual volume of sound produced left nothing to be desired (although rather harsh in fortissimo passages) I wished for a more conflicted spiritual intention.

The Lento second movement could well be interpreted as a lyrical poem expressing the love of Gretchen for Faust. I felt a distinct want of poetic lyricism and improvisation here. I felt it rather wandering in approach and harmonically without direction. I was searching for the slow rhapsodic accumulation of romantic passion. I did not quite receive the impression of a fervent and impassioned love song which is what I yearned for here.

The wildness of the immense final movement, Allegro molto with its references to the terrifying Dies Irae and death, can well associate this massive declamation to Mephistopheles and his insidious and destructive evil. Here Geniusas seemed to require that deep Rachmaninov resonance with which we are all so familiar. His tone again became harsh and overdone in abandoned fortissimo passages with not a great deal of dynamic variation. Were we exploring the darker significance of Walpurgis Night?  

Walpurgis NightMariano Barbasán Lagueruela

There is so much expressively one may do with this dense and eloquent music. The lyrical reminiscences had a seductive cantabile and the piano passages in the movement were movingly poetic. I asked, what was Geniusas trying to tell us about this monumental work and its inspiration? The conclusion was impressively rhapsodic but I found myself yearning for more spiritual depth overall.

No encore. Geniusas wiped his brow (as well he might) as if exhausted and excused himself. I wondered at the time whether he may not have been well which could have explained  his reticence at times.

Sunday 4th October 2020  19:30

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall

Piano recital

Nelson Goerner piano

Fryderyk Chopin

Capriccio: The Lagoon, Venice  Bernardo Bellotto (c. 1743)

Barcarolle in F sharp major Op. 60

He opened his recital with the Chopin Barcarolle.  One must not forget this 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 and fluctuations of romantic emotion. Most of the piece oscillates gently between forte, piano and pianissimo with only subtle degrees of heightened emotion throughout.  Although clearly a good performance, for me Goerner opened it rather perfunctorily in a way that did not sensitively set the tonal mood. There were degrees of heightened emotion during this outing on the lagoon but I found his approach lacking in evocative atmosphere, rather too straightforward in its poetry.  Although he did not exaggerate the dynamics as many pianists do, my heart was not moved as I felt it should have been.

Scherzo in C sharp minor Op. 39 (1839)

The Scherzo No 3 in C-sharp minor Op.39  Chopin completed this work during a period of convalescence in Marseilles. It is 'one of Chopin's most unusual and original works' (Jim Samson). Certainly it is the closest Chopin came to the Lisztian idiom and in the bravura writing. Dedicated to his pupil Adolf Gutman, this was last work the composer sketched during the Majorca sojourn and in the fraught personal atmosphere of Valldemossa. Chopin was ill at the time which interrupted and perhaps influenced the writing. ‘…questions or cries are hurled into an empty, hollow space – presto con fuoco.’ (Tomaszewski). The chorale was sensitively expressed and the melancholic piano transition to E minor particularly moving. Goerner gave us a superior and noble account of the scherzo approaching Lisztian grandeur with the power, articulation and drama in the transition from C-sharp minor to the victorious C-sharp major conclusion.

Berceuse in D flat major 
Op. 57 (1844)

The manuscript of this cradle-song masterpiece belonged to Chopin's close friend Pauline Viardot, the French mezzo-soprano and composer. Perhaps this innocent, delicate and tender music was inspired by his concern with her infant daughter Louisette. Perhaps the baby caused Chopin to become nostalgic for his own family or even reflected on a child of his own that could only ever remain an occupant of his imagination. The Berceuse, composed at Nohant, appears to constitute a distant echo of a song that Chopin’s mother sang to him: the romance of Laura and Philo, ‘Już miesiąc zeszedł, psy się uśpily’ [The moon now has risen, the dogs are asleep]. (Tomaszewski).

Goerner did not manage to create a dreamlike lullaby to my mind on this occasion, although the piece was attractively approached. I was searching for more expressive refinement, tenderness, delicacy, and the vulnerability of infancy in those divine lullaby variations over the rocking basso ostinato. I recently heard an exquisite performance of this work by the gifted Romanian pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa (1978–2012) taken from the International Chopin Competition of 2000. She died suddenly and so tragically of a cerebral hemorrhage in Vienna aged only 33.

Johannes Brahms

Young Brahms

Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5 (1853)

Schumann in the role of music critic (an occupation he considered a literary art and elevated it for a period into such a rarefied region - I agree). He wrote a famous description of the performance in Düsseldorf of Brahms piano sonatas or  'veiled symphonies' composed by the young 20 year old composer in the Leipzig Neue Zeitschrift für Musik of October 1853:

'...sooner or later … someone would and must appear, fated to give us the ideal expression of times, one who would not gain his mastery by gradual stages, but rather spring fully armed like Minerva from the head of Jove. And he has come, a young blood at whose cradle graces and heroes mounted guard. His name is Johannes Brahms…seated at the piano he began to reveal wondrous regions. We were drawn into ever more magical spheres. And the playing was absolutely inspired, transforming the piano into an orchestra of lamenting and jubilant voices.'

Brahms met Hector Berlioz in Leipzig, who was impressed with the young genius and his music. 'I am grateful to you for having let me make the acquaintance of this diffident, audacious young man who has taken it into his head to make a new music. He will suffer greatly,' Berlioz wrote to the great violinist Joseph Joachim whom Brahms had recently befriended.

The Sonata in F-minor Op.5 is in five movements:

  1. Allegro maestoso 

Lake Geneva and the Dents du Midi in the distance from Glion above Montreux. The Chateau of Chillon so beloved of Lord Byron is in the bottom left-hand corner.

This early sonata was not well received, even considered a 'failure', the first movement as 'stiff and clumsy'. It is hard for me to credit such early descriptions of the imperial and noble theme of the opening. The grandeur of this soundscape is depicted for me like a panorama of the monumental timelessness of the Dents du Midi in the Chablais Alps of the Swiss canton of Valais beyond Lake Geneva. I felt Goerner captured this well with a rich, deep tonal palette, gravitas and forward driving urgent tempo and enviable mastery of the complex rhythms. The romantic intensity could perhaps have possessed more shades of growing expressiveness as we moved towards the exaltation of the conclusion.

  1. Andante. Andante espressivo — Andante molto

This deeply affecting romantic movement of the sonata is headed by a poem entitled Junge Liebe (Young Love) by Otto Inkermann who wrote under the pseudonym C.O. Sternau. The second movement was conceived with this quotation above the music and seems to follow the imagery, meaning and mood of the poem.

Der Abend dämmert, das Mondlicht scheint,
da sind zwei Herzen in Liebe vereint
und halten sich selig umfangen

Through evening's shade, the pale moon gleams
While rapt in love's ecstatic dreams
Two hearts are fondly beating.

Goerner embraced the adorable melody of two illusioned lovers in an imagined song with a feeling of innocent, warm affection. His cantabile tone and refined touch were alluringly appropriate. His beautiful phrasing created a heartfelt romantic yearning together with most affecting counterpoint. The compositionally unprecedented 'symphonic' exaltation and emotional resignation from the Nachtstück song at the conclusion was emotionally very moving.

Such surges of pure longing, romantic emotion by Brahms must indicate something about his unrequited love for Clara Schumann. 'I would gladly write to you only by means of music, but I have things to say to you to-day which music could not express.' he wrote in 1854. 

By 1855 this had blossomed into: 'I wish I could write to you as tenderly as I love you and tell you all the good things that I wish you. You are so infinitely dear to me, dearer than I can say. I should like to spend the whole day calling you endearing names and paying you compliments without ever being satisfied.'

  1. Scherzo. Allegro energico avec trio 

Goerner brought great rhythmic and joyful energy and drive to this movement. The central melody was expressive with much sensitivity in its legato phrasing.

  1.  Intermezzo (Rückblick - Retrospect) Andante molto

There is deep Brahmsian gravitas in this movement full of nostalgic reminiscence and resignation. I see this movement as not funereal but the melancholic, even resentful reflections of enforced separation that follow any dwelling on the nature of love's passionate and tender utterances, imagined or otherwise. The Beethoven fate motif Brahms evokes is inescapable. Goerner brought a thoughtful depth to his interpretation which painted a submerged cathedral of feeling in my mind, both at once eloquent and haunting.  

  1. Finale. Allegro moderato ma rubato

This movement (a rondo) searches for its resolution almost in an improvisatory manner.  Within it is embedded a musical cryptogram which was a personal musical motto of his close friend the violinist Joseph Joachim, the F–A–E theme, which translates into the thought-provoking Frei aber einsam (Free but lonely). Goerner seemed to me to lose his way somewhat as this movement winds up into its triumphal close, but that could just be pandemic confusion on my part. How this virus has diminished the ability to concentrate. The audience applause after every movement did not assist a coherent conception of the sonata. Goerner neatly eschewed further disruption this by an attacca transition to the final movementOverall a deeply satisfying interpretation of this monumental masterpiece, Brahms last sonata and his longest piano work.

As an encore a poetic and deeply felt, sensitive performance of the Brahms Intermezzo in A major Op.118 Andante teneramente.

Love Story - The Young Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann

Thursday 1st October 2020 19.30  

Seong-Jin Cho 

1st Prize, 2015 International Chopin Competition, Warsaw

Seong-Jin Cho is one of the most sought-after pianists in the world today. His performances in South Korea attract crowds and, especially among young female fans, evoke emotions associated with K-pop rather than classical music. Cho treats his popularity with detachment and a sense of humor. He constantly emphasizes that the most important thing for him is the music itself, which he loves with passion.

Seong-Jin Cho's great career began with winning the 1st prize and Gold Medal at the 2015 Chopin Competition.

"Since the victory in Warsaw," the artist said recently in one of his interviews, "I am actually constantly traveling. It is rare for me to be home for more than two weeks. Coronavirus at home changed all that. However, I quickly began to worry about both my musician friends and myself. I tried to practice but found I couldn't focus. "

His return to the stage was therefore associated with great emotion: 

"It was great. I realized how badly I needed concerts. How badly I need an audience. Because the audience gives the artist energy. Joy. The meaning of life. Especially when someone is as used to being on stage as I am. "

*  *  * *  *  *  *  *  *  *

This is what I wrote of his performance of the Chopin 'Heroic' Polonaise in A-flat major at Duszniki Zdrój  International Chopin Festival in 2010:

His Chopin 'Heroic' Polonaise in A-flat major Op. 53 was one of the grandest and most magnificent performances I have ever heard - the predominantly Polish audience leapt to their feet with a shout at the concluding chord. No bashing or hysteria just glorious tone and musical accomplishment. What a future this young man has ahead of him! He was so perfectly prepared in all aspects of concert pianism, technique and musical understanding - watch out you Europeans!

And of his performance of the E minor concerto Op.11 in the Final Round of the 2015 International Chopin Competition which he won:

As you might imagine from my previous commentary I keenly anticipated this final statement from Seong-Jin Cho in the competition. It was an immaculate performance from first note to last, the music superbly prepared as I have noticed from his previous stages. An truly outstanding example in every sense of the styl brillant of the period as composed by the quite wonderful Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Franciszek Lessel, John Field and Ignacy Feliks Dobrzyński  - all contemporaries of Chopin but of course lacking his melodic genius. 

Stylistically the performance was absolutely as it should be - elegantly phrased, graceful with aristocratic poise, perfectly accurate dynamically matched notes (not one wrong note or even slight 'smudge'), glowing tone produced with the finest taste, finesse, colour and bel canto in the melodic lines especially in the Romance. Larghetto. He played with such ease and control it was enthralling to watch and hear. Such musical gifts this man possesses! 

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The first thing that struck me when Cho opened his recital was the superior refinement of his tone, touch and artful pedal. This remained during the Schumann but became increasingly unpredictable as time passed through the recital up to the Liszt sonata.

 The Ruined Tower of Heidelberg Castle 1830 Carl Blechen (1798-1840)

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)   

Humoresque Op. 20 (1839)



Einfach und zart


Sehr lebhaft

Mit einigem Pomp

Zum Beschluss

Especially in such an imagist composition as Schumann's Humoresque, the imagination of the listener and the imagination of the executant somehow have to achieve a comfortable symbiosis for the true value of the interpretation to be assessed. Both their moods and psychological condition also significantly affect the depth of presentation and reception at the time. The writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, who constantly inspired Schumann, stated that '[Music] is the most romantic of all the arts… for its sole subject is the infinite.'  We have moved a long distance philosophically from the source of this music, a condition which offers formidable challenges for both parties.

The composer wrote concerning this piano cycle, Humoreske Op. 20 in a letter to Clara Wieck: 

'The whole week I sat at the piano in a state and composed, wrote, laughed, and cried; now you can find all this beautifully painted in my Opus 20, the great Humoreske.' In another letter to Ernst Becker 'The Humoreske, I think, will please you; it is, however, a little funny and perhaps my most melancholy work.' In another letter to Simon de Sire 'Everything comes to me on its own, and it even seems to me sometimes that I could play forever and never come to an end.' During the composition of this work he suffered intense psychological struggles.

The work consists of a series of interlinked 'humours' or 'moods' that express various human states. The German music writer Carl Kossmaly (1812-1893) describes Humoresque in these terms: 

'...the great variety of content and form, the continual and quick, although always natural and unforced succession of the most varied images, imaginary ideas and sentiments, fantastic and dreamlike phenomena swell and fade into one another, and not only maintain but continually increase one’s interest from beginning to end.'

And further: [Humoreske] gradually communicates itself to the listener and fills him with a feeling of satisfaction that is as perfect, blissful, and profound as can be elicited only by those melodies that spring from the deepest, most secret source of the heart and from that genuine enthusiasm which transcends earthly bounds – then we believe that we shall not have missed the truth but instead come rather close to it, even if in our own way. 

(quotes above from James Andrew Naumann, B.M., M.M Ohio State University THESIS).

This was a fine performance of the Schumann Humoresque. The affecting cantabile lyricism of the opening melody or song Einfach was poignant yet at times winningly joyful. Cho gave alluring expression to these fluctuating moods. The Mit einigem Pomp was splendidly inflated in its expression. Oddly perhaps, I still felt rather emotionally unmoved by this complex interwoven work of many shades, colours and moods. The polyphonic nature of Schumann's obsession with Bach in the musical writing could perhaps have been more prominent.

Pianistically the work was radiantly brought off, however I felt the unpredictable meteorological changes within the composer's mind, the quotation of fractured nostalgic memories of past feelings and works, did not touch my heart sufficiently. Florestan often overly dominated Eusebius. Schumann referred to this work in a letter to Ernst Becker in August 1839 as his most melancholy composition. Perhaps the title is meant ironically after all.

These are eloquent, interconnected fragments performed attacca, the type of varied architecture one might find in a landscape garden constructed in le style anglais, pieces scattered, yet integrated as a whole, in a park like Rousham designed by the 18th century English artist William Kent - a ruined Gothic tower, a grove of Venus, rustic seat or picturesque pond - all raising pensive thoughts of the transience of time. 

The philosophy of composition and reception indicated above may explain why a full virtuoso approach is not appropriate to this work, however glittering. A more mercurial fluctuation of psychic emotion, reflection and melancholy is required, especially in this Schumann of varied character sketches and fantasy explorations that lie within this remarkable and complex composition.

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)

Vienna viewed from the Belvedere Palace - Bernado Bellotto (1722-1780) aka 'Canaletto'

Scherzo B Minor Op.20 (1831-1834)

Although the date of composition of this work is unknown, during the first Christmas that Chopin had spent in Vienna, far from home, he was in a quandary, extremely anxious about his loved ones and about the fate of events in Warsaw.  The work is turbulent and agitated, interrupted by the soft nostalgia and remembrance of a fireside Christmas carol. Chopin wrote in a state of high emotion to his family:

I curse the moment I left… In the salon I pretend to be calm, but on returning home I fulminate at the piano… I return, play, cry, laugh, go to bed, put out the light and dream always of you… Everything I’ve seen thus far abroad seems to me […] unbearable and only makes me long for home, for those blissful moments which I couldn’t appreciate… It seems like a dream, a stupor, that I’m with you – and what I hear is just a dream’.

I sometimes worry about the declamatory direction in which Cho seems to be developing in his Chopin interpretations. Certainly his beginning was suitably wild and unconstrained but rather too furious and declamatory in tempo and dynamic. The sound of silence? Some of the musical meaning and dramatic impact is lost under a mighty cloud of virtuosity. Following a firestorm of anger or żal, we were transported back to the Poland Chopin had left in a recollected childhood memory. The affecting Christmas carol, the simple lullaby ‘Lulajże Jezuniu’ (Hush little Jesus), evokes absent family love on Christmas Eve. The emotional response to this is the outpouring of a moving lyrical melody. Cho was most successful here with a seductive, yearning tone and emotional phrasing that emphasized the sense of personal loss and separation. Then he spectacularly returned with the 'fraught, wild, incredible, demonic' mood until the conclusion (although somewhat overdone in tempo and psychic 'possession'). A critic in the Gazette musicale de Paris wrote in 1835: ‘the scherzo is of a completely new kind, and it seems to us that it offers, to a high degree, the impression of the author’s intimate sensations’.

I quote from Tomaszewski who describes the work far better than I ever could:  '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 that would only arouse in me blind, furious feelings..."? Or a few years later, in Paris, when in white gloves and a brilliant mood , 'torn apart in all directions' - as he confided to another of his friends - he entered aristocratic company, because from there, as he wrote, 'good taste comes, and you appear to have more talent  if the Duchess of Vandemont is supporting you ... ?'

Scherzo in B-flat minor Op.31 (1835-1837)

Cho gave us a dramatic, passionate, possibly over-intense rendering of tremendous technical assurance and power. The Arcadian trio was a lyrical, idyllic and attractive cantabile reading of fine tonal control and sentiment. Friedrich Niecks, the German musical scholar and author, found the trio evocative of the Mona Lisa’s thoughtfulness, a mood full of longing and wondering.This gave us some respite from the hurtling forward momentum of this explosion of romanticism.

Personally, I see this scherzo as an increasingly dramatic narrative of historical Polish suffering and nostalgic reflection, rather like a Ballade. This was not readily apparent in this spectacularly pianistic, breathtakingly accurate, high voltage account.  The presence of an audience appears to have begun to lead Cho occasionally into emotional extremes and rushed lack of clarity, especially in scale passages. Tensions and relaxations need to be balanced. Much of the scherzo was played at such a rapid tempo. This rather exaggerated choice did little for the listener attempting to follow the evolving narrative through the inner polyphonic, contrapuntal detail and emotive harmonic progressions. Listeners need time to decode the music. Pianists over-familiar through hours of practice tend to forget listeners such as myself are in many ways amateurs, not as familiar with details as they are as professionals. One needs to be given time to breathe and unravel what the composer is saying. 

Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski writes of this scherzo: 'The new style, all Chopin’s own, which might be called a specifically Chopinian dynamic romanticism, not only revealed itself, but established itself. It manifested itself à la Janus, with two faces: the deep-felt lyricism of the Nocturnes Op.27 and the concentrated drama of the Scherzo in B flat minor.' 

Arthur Hedley thought about the work’s ecstatic lyricism, before concluding in a way even more appropriate today in the age of recording: ‘Excessive performance may have dimmed the brightness of this work, but should not blind us to its merits as thrilling and convincing music.’

The young Alban Berg

Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Piano Sonata Op.1

This sonata represents a major stylistic advance for Alban Berg. His earlier piano music reflected the romantic harmonic sound palette of say Brahms, Schumann and Chopin. This sonata  breaks formerly  untrodden ground for the composer, a new idiom influenced by his revolutionary mentor Arnold Schoenberg. There are even traces of Wagner in its unresolved harmonic suspensions.

Berg writes the work in traditional sonata form. The single movement consists of an exposition that possesses two contrasting themes, a development where the themes expand and a recapitulation of restatement. The atonal language is deeply Schoenbergian. The sonata utilizes a three-note motivic cell of the perfect fourth, augmented fourth and spanning a major seventh. One can find such elements in the atonal music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

I found Cho's approach to this structurally demanding work extremely satisfying and idiomatic, possibly the best item in his recital. He clearly intended us to dwell on the huge developmental musical ground traversed by serial and atonal composition beyond the romantic. Cho sculpted this sound abstraction with fine grace, refinement and tone colour. He announced the romantic/atonal contrast of musical intention by joining the conclusion of this sonata to the beginning of the Liszt B-minor Sonata. Was this connection successful ? Well it was certainly interesting, unique but inescapably didactic. If you are acute in observation, you will notice Berg was born one year before the death of Liszt.

Liszt in his atelier in Weimar

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Sonata in B minor S 178 (1853)

La Terra Trema - Luchino Visconti

Arnold Schoenberg wrote a rarely-read excellent short essay entitled Franz Liszt - His Work and Being published in the interesting collection of his writings Style and Idea.  In it he highlights aspects of Liszt:

'Normal men possess a conviction; the great man is possessed by a faith.[...] he was in contact with his instinctive life, was in touch with the primal source of his personality, and so he possessed the capacity to believe.' (Faber and Faber, London 1975,  p. 442)

I feel these remarks express the inner core of the sonata which to me has always been autobiographical, an expression of the great opera of the life of Franz Liszt, from his conception (the haunting minimalism of the opening) to his death (the celestial harmonies of the conclusion). All the greatest pianists the world has seen have played this work. The performance of this sonata is an extraordinarily bold and courageous choice for any young pianist. It is the manner in which Liszt is played that can be so misleading as to the quality of the music.

This famous sonata was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1854 and first performed on January 27, 1857 in Berlin by Hans von Bülow. It was attacked by the German Bohemian music critic Eduard Hanslick who said rather colourfully ‘anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help’.

Among the many divergent theories of the meaning of this masterpiece we find that:

  • The Sonata is a musical portrait of the Faust legend, with “Faust,” “Gretchen,” and “Mephistopheles” themes symbolizing the main characters. (Ott, 1981; Whitelaw, 2017) Liszt may well have felt the presence these personalities imagined by Goethe lying within his own sublimated psyche and life experience (Moran, 2020).
  • The Sonata is autobiographical; its musical contrasts spring from the conflicts within Liszt’s own personality. (Raabe, 1931)
  • The Sonata is about the divine and the diabolical; it is based on the Bible and on John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Szász, 1984)
  • The Sonata is an allegory set in the Garden of Eden; it deals with the Fall of Man and contains “God,” “Lucifer,” “Serpent,” “Adam,” and “Eve” themes. (Merrick, 1987)
  • The Sonata has no programmatic allusions; it is a piece of “expressive form” with no meaning beyond itself. (Winklhofer, 1980)

The manner in which a pianist opens this masterpiece tells you everything about the conception that will evolve. The haunted repeated notes Cho produced  were eloquent but this dramatic impact of the 'overture' to the opera was lessened I felt by connecting it to the conclusion of the Berg Sonata. A terrible battle lies in wait for pianists here - Krystian Zimerman drove his recording engineers mad repeating the opening hundreds of times before finally being satisfied. It is inevitable with a young artist that virtuosity (physically getting around the fiendish notes of Liszt) emerges sometimes at the expense of expression. Just to have this vast work in your fingers is a massive achievement but what you do with this is another matter altogether, what you have to say about this work. This is a profound piece, and I felt Cho performed it as some type of hectic fantasy or impassioned dream.

The sonata is actually in many respects a philosophical dialogue between different fundamental aspects of the human spirit as symbolized by Faust, Mephistopheles and Gretchen. 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 the whole is a far more complex musical and structural argument than my rather trite account here would indicate.  

What artistic impression did the pianist give me in terms of musical landscape?  What did I give to him in terms of my own imaginative musical visualization? He achieved extraordinary 'technical' dominance of this monumental masterpiece without one wrong note. Astounding.

Cho gave at times an emotionally  impassioned, sometimes physically harsh and impulsive interpretation of extreme dynamic contrasts. However this fiercely dramatic account of this formidable sonata was periodically lyrically affecting and moving. His was a deeply romantic, theatrical and convincing individual view, sometimes frighteningly intense, virtuosic and Gothic, but an approach which remained on rather limited  levels of philosophical comprehension. His tone tended to become rather aggressive and crude in the more formidably difficult fortissimo sections, but there was moving poetry and seductive cantabile in the lento passages. The tremolo passages glittered like ice crystals. The mighty Fugue was agitated but could have been more polyphonically transparent and expressively noble in dimension. The pianissimo conclusion of the work took us into a religious dimension beyond our secular world to readily conceive, a vision Liszt must have created in his own mind. 

Where was the smell of sulphur and the diabolical? Where the malevolence as Liszt examined his troubled conscience? Reading Byronic literature of the period that reflects the evolution of this remarkable life narrative, the biography of this great man, would greatly enhance the pianistic vision through subtle stimulation of the musical imagination. 

Although overwhelmingly impressive pianistically and 'technically', for me Cho could have communicated a more integrated, expressive conception of this mighty edifice. But this is just one individual's artistic judgment and what of others?

The audience gave the exhausted young man a standing ovation of great enthusiasm.

His encore was a calming and poetic rendering of the Liszt Consolation No.3 in D-flat major.

Franz Liszt in old age


  1. would love to make contact Peter Stack from Norfolk currently living in thailand


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