XVIII International Chopin Competition Warsaw, October 2-23, 2021 at the National Philharmonic in Warsaw.
XVIII International Chopin Competition, Warsaw
XVIII International Chopin Piano Competition
Polish Radio Prize for the best Mazurka Jakub Kuszlik, Poland
National Philharmonic Prize for the best Concerto Martin Garcia Garcia, Spain
Krystian Zimerman Prize for the Best Sonata Alexander Gadjiev, Italy/Slovenia
For the full list of Competition Awards and Special Extra statutory Prizes
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18th Chopin Competition - jurors' scoring
Laureates' Concert Reviews
6th Prize – JJ Jun Li Bui, Canada
Etude in E major, Op. 10 No. 3
A display of the greatest virtuosity
5th Prize – Leonora Armellini, Italy
Sostenuto (Waltz) in E-flat major, WN 53
Ballade in A-flat major, Op. 47
4th Prize (tied) – Jakub Kuszlik, Poland
Mazurkas, Op. 30
No. 1 in C minor
This was performed in a most charming and idiomatic Polish manner.
No. 2 in B minor
This brought to me strong memories of the countryside of Maszowsza around Warsaw - wonderfully pastoral
No. 3 in D-flat major
Such an attractive rustic rhythm generated here!
No. 4 in C-sharp minor
So passionate in its nostalgia for past joys!
4th Prize (tied) – Aimi Kobayashi, Japan
Preludes, Op. 28
No. 4 in E minor
A beautiful and deeply expressive rendition of this work of deep introspection
No. 16 in B-flat minor
Wild birds swooping over the dark lake at an incredible tempo of great passion - finely performed
No. 17 in A-flat major
Memories of important social occasions overshadowed by the tolling bell of death and the swinging scythe of the Great Reaper.
No. 23 in F major
Rather impressionistic. Wind sweeping through the forest in autumn and falling leaves - rather like the weather in Warsaw today
No. 24 in D minor
Profound disturbance of the spirit and soul. A powerful interpretation with much polyphony. Facing the final reality of death. And so she dies over the keyboard - three strokes of death
3rd Prize – Martín García García, Spain
Impromptu in G-flat major, Op. 51
Rather a light and stylish interpretation. Very fine L H counterpoint cantabile. Great charm and elegance in this peformance of many layers of execution and musical meaning.
Waltz in F major Op. 34 No. 3
A particularly joyful and exuberant interpretation. Wonderfully and stylishly affected with alluring and seductive charm. Humorous and delightful.
2nd Prize (tied) – Kyohei Sorita, Japan
Rondo à la Mazur in F major, Op. 5
2nd Prize (tied) – Alexander Gadjiev, Italy/Slovenia
Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44
The performance gave us a real atmosphere and sensitive feeling of valiant and courageous resistance to Russia. However I was not entirely happy with this performance in terms of phrasing - the cantilena only just passable as song from an Italian. Rather too broad strokes of expressiveness and drama for my taste but not for his consistently robust vision of Chopin.
1st Prize – Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu, Canada
Chopin - Piano Concerto in E minor, Op. 11 with the accompaniment of the Orchestra of the National Philharmonic under the baton of Andrzej Boreyko
A powerful and impressive declaration of Chopin's intentions in the opening Allegro maestoso. Tone and touch on the Fazioli very rounded and glowing - superb. The Romanze. Larghetto was a love aria, a nocturne is essence, of great simplicity with alluring arcs of romantic expressiveness. True singing on the piano. Sculptured phrases full of emotional expressiveness and sense of loss. Brilliant sprung rhythm and forward irresistible motivic drive in the Rondo.Vivace. Chopin wrote a most style brilliante cumulative concluding Coda of triumphal energy and communicative electricity. Liu made full use of this inspired writing. Wild cheers and a standing ovation.
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Some important cultural context for you concerning the E minor Piano Concerto Op.11 before reading the reviews
|The Young Chopin in 1829 |
Ambroży Mieroszewski (1802–1884)
|Warsaw Panorama from Praga 1770 - Bernado Bellotto|
Chopin wasted no time in composing his next concerto in 1830 after that in F minor.
In many ways the E minor concerto revolves around the 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’.
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 2021. 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.
An introductory book on the concertos and their context I cannot recommend more highly:
Chopin - The Piano Concertos by John Rink (Cambridge Music Handbooks 1997)
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CONCERTO REVIEWS - Brief impressions
One must remember that that the final result is a cumulative judgement of performances through all the competition stages and not solely on the concerto performance. This tends to be forgotten in the enthusiasm of the moment.
All performances were with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra
Concerto in E-minor Op.11
I am always surprised to hear the timpani at the opening of this concerto which gives it rather a faint and dramatic military air - not surprising in view of the Russian presence in Warsaw. He was rather restrained and gentle in the opening but it was still maestoso in atmospheric ambiance. This was not a particularly expressive performance - rather classically straightforward and missing the anguish and turbulent feeling of hopelessness that are expressed together with the lyricism of the movement.
This was pleasantly lyrical and somewhat romantic in tone but lacked the yearning of young illusioned love and sense of loss I search for in the movement. I found it charming rather than moving. A poised and classical approach.
This movement was based around the joyful krakowiak dance. Pacholec approached it in a buoyant mood suffused with joy. However, I felt he could have brought a lot more style and panache to the movement. This was an excellent performance but not an outstanding one to my mind which will limit its competition status. There was a good connection between the conductor and the soloist.
Overall this was a beautifully balanced, restrained, rather 'Classical' yet excellent performance just lacking for me in some flair and élan reflecting the personality of the young Chopin.
Concerto in E-minor Op.11
This young seventeen year old is an astonishingly precocious musician and pianist. The concerto opened in a grand style with great motivic energy, a dramatic style brillante. He was well co-ordinated with the enthusiastic orchestra under a lively Andrey Boreyko. The opening subject melody has a limpid cantabile and the development was full of life and energy but lacking the shadows of pain and unhappiness.
I found this movement lyrical and with a poignant singing cantabile but not particularly romantic or moving nocturne. He imbued the expressive Chopin fioraturas with sensitivity and grace. His tone and touch on the Steinway was particularly beautiful and attractive as we moved towards a most sensitive conclusion.
This movement had arresting bounce and rhythmic drive as he launched into the krakowiak dance. The movement suited his vivacious temperament brilliantly well. Such infectious energy! It was stylish, possessed panache, élan and all the verve and musical qualities of the young Chopin. The sparkling energy was full of youthful vigor and electrical connection with the audience. A terrific, ebullient conclusion to the Rondo that brought many audience members to their feet.
Concerto in E-minor Op.11
The opening established a particularly grand maestoso panorama with eloquent phrasing. He sculpts the scenes in an expansive and imposing manner. The ravishing melodies were caressed in expressive, rich gestures. Even stately in tempo, he gave the overall impression of a disciplined interpretation yet preserving the strength of forward rhythmic impetus. I found this a performance of musical maturity that preserved the sense of anguish in the turbulent harmonies. He had excellent communication with orchestra and conductor. A powerful, yet sometimes slightly rough, tone and fine coherence of phrasing. The poetry of Chopin was occasionally sacrificed on the altar of virtuosity.
He imbued this movement with a childish simplicity and imaginative, beautiful phrasing. I found his seamless fiorituras and cantabile singing tone deeply affecting in this love song, truly a Chopin nocturne. His tone was cultivated and ample. Great love of the music he was playing was evident here.
There was great internal energy in this movement but without quite the accurate rhythmic excitement of a true Polish krakowiak. He communicated the vitality and dynamism of this movement to the audience with his imaginative and emotive phrasing brilliantly. Vivacity and vitality were on full display in a mature performance and fine, close communication with the orchestra and conductor. The audience were wildly enthusiastic, many instantly leaping to their feet!
Concerto in E-minor Op.11
She has such a refined tone and touch and natural musical phrasing that was always affecting in its nuanced expression. Music seems to flow from her in a completely natural and unforced way - being Italian she understands bel canto singing well and maintaining a cantabile legato which is so important in this concerto. She sings the melodies on the superb Fazioli instrument with great refinement of sheer sound (Chopin's own predominant concern in his teaching). For me everything seemed to be in its right place - the joy of youth yet the assertive self-confidence of sensitive experience. Extraordinarily expressive phrasing and rubato that did not abandon the sense of distress at the heart of the tumultuous harmonic explorations Chopin embarks upon. Much rhapsodic emotional playing of immense expressiveness and maturity overlaid with seductive Italian warmth. Her L H is particularly sensitive and polyphonic in its tasteful counterpoint.
The feeling in this nocturne-like movement was that of young love like Juliet in Shakespeare: 'Good night, goodnight. Parting is such sweet sorrow, That I shall say good night till it be morrow.' Her glorious tone and singing Italian aria was highly romantic with superb colour, nuances and imaginative dynamic shading. The fiorituras were perfectly incorporated into the melodic line giving tremendous emotional depth. The entire movement was replete with the feeling of expressive, unrequited love, a loss that brought me close to tears.
This movement was light, elegant and graceful yet with perfect style brillante articulation. Her L H was highly rhythmical with inspired polyphonic, counterpoint 'punctuation'. Once again (I heard her play this work ravishingly in Warsaw in 2011) I really could not fault this reading in any way and am more than ever convinced this youthful style brillante work of Chopin's youth (he was such a joyful young man) is played best by pianists close to his own age of 20 when he composed it. A warm and romantic account of this Rondo which can all too often emerge as merely a brittle, sparkling rhythmic display.
Leonora Armellini is a creative artist, not simply a brilliant pianist. Poetry and display are in aesthetic balance. This is a quality difference much in need of during this competition.
J J Jun Li Bui
Concerto in E-minor Op.11
The opening statement was masterful with finely honed sound but I felt the divine melody did not quite 'sing' in the way it might. Yet this affecting creation flowed naturally with many moving nuances. Confronting this movement, in fact the entire concerto, and taking the listener beyond the glittering surface or melodic seductiveness, requires musicianship of a rare order of maturity. Bui did bring at times highly poetic, sensitive cantabile phrasing, with an alluring sound palette. We were taken out of reverie and into the style brillante. The orchestral bassoon brought a particularly delightful counterpoint during this movement. An outstanding 'pianistic' performance which strangely failed to move me a great deal emotionally.
I can listen to this eloquent nocturne that yearns for the inaccessible bliss of young love any number of times. The fiorituras could have been more delicate, and the tempo was rather too fast to move the heart deeply. Love requires leisure without feeling the savage restrictions of time. One needs to be made aware of an unhindered expansion of internal emotion and dreams in this movement. Bui did not express the poetic basis of the gossamer expression of Chopin's private reverie sufficiently for me. Perhaps selfishly, I wish to be transported by romance.
Although he did communicate the physical excitement of the krakowiak dance, from his previous stages I expected more style and panache in this exuberant movement. Certainly there were wonderful cascades of style brillante notes that set the nerves tingling with amazement but this led to limited emotional content. Far more expression can be discerned beneath this high voltage keyboard writing. The orchestra were often questionably synchronized with the soloist.
|A krakowiak danced in an Inn (1851) |
Władysław Bakałowicz (1831 - 1904)
Concerto in F-minor Op.21
This concerto, the first Chopin wrote, follows the Mozart model and was directly influenced by the style brillante of Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles or Ries. Here in this early work, Chopin magically transforms the Classical into the Romantic style. The work itself was written 1829-30. As we all know by now, this concerto was inspired by Chopin’s infatuation, or was it youthful love, for the soprano Konstancja Gładkowska. Strangely it was published a few years later with a dedication to Delfina Potocka.
Previous stages had indicated a musical personality in Gadjiev of remarkable individuality, perception and often deep analytical musical thought. This was also apparent from the immediate contact he established with orchestra and conductor, engaging them from the outset, even when not playing. I became immediately aware through tone, touch and phrasing of his personal 'voice', rare enough in this competition.
The opening Maestoso (quite a favourite stylistic indication in Chopin) was noble and considered with inner musical logic and coherence. In this movement there was a fine sense of youthful excitement and thoughtful keyboard exhibitionism, just as Hummel had laid the groundwork. Gadjiev is gifted musically in imaginative phrasing, nuance, expression and color and possessed of an individual vision of Chopin. The fiorituras were perfect embellishments seamlessly incorporated into the melodic lines and the L H counterpoint was inspiringly clear. A sense of youthful urgency pervaded the movement and the pianist seem personally and emotionally transported by this music.
This glorious melody rose over us like an aria or nocturne of love. There was much affecting cantabile and the fiorituras were graceful, elegant and grew as an organic part of the melody. As I mentioned in a previous review of this pianist in an earlier stage, it is as if he is creating the music he plays for us at that moment and not simply reproducing, however brilliantly, the published notes of the composer.
There were authentic feelings of yearning for an inaccessible love here, a sensitive sense of longing. There were moments when I could hear the chiming of bells and many emotionally warm fiorituras. Dynamic variations were moving and persuasive, particularly when the longing begins to turn to resentment but subsides again in nuances of pianissimo resignation to grim reality.
In many ways you could say that the whole work revolves around this movement. I always think of the sentiments contained in the 1820 poem by John Keats La Belle Dame Sans Merci when I hear this music with its passionate interjections
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
That final forty-note fioritura of longing played molto con delicatezza always carries me away into Chopin's dreamy Romantic poetical world. The poetry Gadjiev brought to this movement was satisfyingly expansive in melody.
How Chopin must have loved the bucolic nature of the Polish countryside and its music! The Chopin extension of the Hummel piano concerto was here fully realized. Melody and bravura figuration (F minor to the relative major of A flat for instance) wonderfully and authoritatively brought off with great balance of formal structure. This composition that lies between Mozart and the style brillante was brilliantly created as were the masculine gestures towards the concertos of Weber (following the splendid horn Cor de signal for example whose uniqueness always causes a smile). One was made aware of distant hunting, even far-off church bells in the countryside. Such fine articulation and the highly expressive conclusion of the dazzling coda.
Martín García García
Concerto in F-minor Op.21
I did not receive a 'Maestoso' feeling of nobility and aristocratic refinement, but a fine expressive account of the movement with many interesting imaginative ideas. Although deeply involved emotionally, this was not always communicated to the listener. The orchestra seemed not over familiar with this work. The Fazioli instrument has a magnificent sound which he used creatively in coloration of his careful phrasing and rather restrained 'Neo-Classical' interpretative gestures. It was a relief not to be rushed up the rocky slope of excessive passion as has happened a number of time during the competition, although not in this concerto stage.
The winsome Chopin melodies sounded superb using the rich, cantabile tone of the Fazioli. As the movement opened I felt his rather slow tempo rather held back the expression of emotional yearning but later in the movement this gave way to more youthful aches of the heart and some anger at the perhaps unrequited nature of these feelings. This is an instructive example of Chopin speaking miraculously both intimately to the individual soul and at the same time to more general qualities within the spirit of humanity itself. The conclusion was intensely poignant with expressively controlled rubato and silence.
He communicated with verve and vivacity the inner life of the kujawiak folk dance from the region of Kujawy in central Poland. The kujawiak was originally danced 'with a calm dignity and simplicity, in a smooth flowing manner 'reminiscent of the tall grain stalks in the fields swaying gently in the wind' (Ada Dziewanowska). His L H punctuating the rhythm was highly imaginative. Increasing the liveliness and rhythm completely as the movement progressed transformed the rural, bucolic scene after the cor de signal on the horn.
And the audience went wild!
This was a measured, yet powerful opening with a rich rounded tone and beautifully articulated notes. I found it rather an excitable performance which is perfectly appropriate given Chopin's youth when he composed the work. Lee mentioned to me that 'I am going to enjoy myself!' and so he did clothe himself in this rare mood. Tremendous youthful energy saturated this movement without many hints of darkest tragedy lurking beneath joy.
J J Jun Li Bui, Canada
Yasuko Furumi, Japan
Alexander Gadjiev, Italy/Slovenia
Avery Gagliano, United States
Martin Garcia Garcia, Spain
Eva Gevorgyan, Russia/Armenia
Nikolay Khozyainov, Russia
Su Yeon Kim, South Korea
Aimi Kobayashi, Japan
Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu, Canada
Hao Rao, China
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Undecided (after the evening session)
Hyuk Lee, South Korea
Szymon Nehring, Poland
Miyu Shindo, Japan
Leonora Armellini, Italy
J J Jun Li Bui, Canada
Alexander Gadjiev, Italy/Slovenia
Martin Garcia Garcia, Spain
Eva Gevorgyan, Russia/Armenia
Aimi Kobayashi, Japan
Jakub Kuszlik, Poland
Hyuk Lee, South Korea
Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu, Canada
Kamil Pacholec, Poland
Hao Rao, China
Kyohei Sorita, Japan
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Brief Opinion of the Jury decision and results
At the outset, one cannot help but reflect that the absence of Nelson Freire and Martha Argerich on the jury may well have significantly influenced the final decision.
It seems my predictions were fairly close with some pleasant surprises and a couple of inexplicables. I was so pleased Hyuk Lee, Kyohei Sorita and Jakub Kuszlik all made it into the final. I was surprised, even deeply shocked, that Nikolay Khozyainov was not chosen for the finals above a few alternatives. Other superb Chopinists inexplicably (for me) not included in the final stage were Avery Gagliano, Su Yeon Kim and Szymon Nehring. I realize consistency is of paramount importance throughout all the Stages but .... Well, in time you will read my careful reviews and analysis written for the historical record of this competition. However, for most of the competition I was seldom moved but often astonished.
The jury seemed to select finalists partly on their distinctive personalities and variant styles of approaching the interpretation of Chopin. This is rather new. A great example was the astounding style brillante of Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu - the greatest Variations on Don Juan Op.2 I have ever heard, including the previous world benchmark, that by Shura Cherkassky.
The International Chopin Competition is always full of controversy. It seems to be part of the theater of it all, but for these young passionate pianists it is a profound psychological and physical life struggle. As I have said before, all the pianists from the Preliminaries onward have achieved remarkable, even astounding things in piano playing and Chopin performance. It is far too easy for outside observers and listeners to become blasé in their judgments. My remark is not a platitude. Immense natural musical gifts are displayed by all the participants in this competition.
If you remember the 2010 winner Yuliana Avdeeva was mistakenly rejected at the initial video stage! What a lottery this competition can be and subject to goodness knows what forces beside the performance of music by our immortal composer, Fryderyk Chopin. What would he have made of all this? Would he have recognized his own music? Better not to ask!
2-23 October, 2021
One can only be full of admiration at the courage and perseverance shown by the Polish National Fryderyk Chopin Institute in mounting this International Chopin competition in Warsaw during the Covid pandemic. The whole was an organizational nightmare after many unanticipated postponements due to health considerations for staff and audience. Uncertainty continued to prevail and raise the blood pressure. The courage displayed by the participants is also overlooked, the psychological effect of this chain of disappointments and postponements when you are preparing a virtuoso programme for a world famous competition does not bear thinking about. Travelling abroad during this pandemic required enormous courage.
The demanding Preliminary Round of 186 participants had already been held in Warsaw from 12-23 July 2021. So many outstanding, brilliant young pianists participated with selected works by Chopin in half-hour recitals and were judged by a specially selected, eminent jury. This was reduced in the final analysis to 87 for Stage I of the competition, a tremendous task.
The inaugural chamber music concert on October 3rd was of such a high artistic and entertainment standard it took my breath away, creating a pre-competition atmosphere of great optimism. The musically superb Belcea Quartet and the magnificent pianist Yulianna Avdeeva (who had won First Prize in 2010) performed the affectingly romantic Schumann Piano Quintet. This was followed by four of the most eminent pianists of our time playing the Bach concerto for four harpsichords on four pianos and finally Seong-Jin Cho as soloist in the Beethoven Piano Concerto No: 3.
My review of the inaugural concert appears below. As Stage I opened, I realized the exceptionally high musical and 'technical' standard of all the participants. The majority had already won prestigious prizes in other competitions. The jury would certainly have a challenge ahead of them as the competition progressed.
One cannot help but reflect on the future of all these brilliant young pianists. They cannot all have starlit concert careers although I suppose most hope to shine. Of course it is a great accomplishment to have mastered concert musical performance on an instrument at an early age. However, heartless as this may sound, you require 'Factor X' which distinguishes you from the others, an individual 'voice' that marks you. Any aspirant to fame, even just survival as a pianist today, requires a strong personality, a winning character, ability to communicate effortlessly with an audience, heart, intelligence and technique. My advice if you do not get great satisfaction from teaching - a laudable aim in itself pace the rather cynical George Bernard Shaw - one should take up the profession of say medicine, architecture or the law. An impossible sacrifice to cruel realism of course when one is in one's twenties, optimistic and massively talented. Goethe once pragmatically observed that if you want to be a poet for life, become a lawyer first! Pragmatism and art ? Surely a contradiction in terms ?
During the competition I noticed the evolution of what is surely becoming a new tradition in performing Chopin. Muscularity and physical dominance of the instrument revealed itself as a major interpretative aspiration, with some notable exceptions, at every level. This as opposed to the cultivation of sensibility, tone, touch, poetry, taste, charm, philosophy and spiritual values. Matters that were of paramount concern in the past. In the end it one's character that sets one apart from the rest. That and a communicative personality that guarantees a career even if other aspects of pianism and musicianship are slightly lacking.
One must never forget the profound influence of romantic literature on nineteenth century composers and even before that time during the Classical period and Baroque. In fact cultural context is a vital not cosmetic or peripheral consideration, a parameter of meaning too often neglected in musical tuition - politics, history, painting, architecture, even decoration all play their parts in building up the cultural landscape in which a composer lived. Chopin lived in Paris through political revolution and two cholera pandemics. Was he utterly indifferent to or beyond their effects? Many of his friends and students died or fled the violence. The poetic and biblical quotations set by Bach in his cantatas never cease to shock and often profoundly move one. For Schubert songs the observation of the importance of poetry and literature is a truism. And Schumann who was obsessed with literature and Liszt who often put a poetic quotation at the head of a composition. Some felt poetry was above music as an art, combining as it does the music of language, rhythm and meaning.
During the competition I was far more often astonished at what was being achieved technically than moved emotionally. The oneiric quality indispensable to Chopin was too often missing. A feeling of spontaneity, improvisation and creativity was notably absent from too many 'perfect' performances. There was great emphasis on the performer at the expense of the music and its poetry. For many of the cultures taking part, 'perfection' and a flawless surface of presentation is a laudable social and personal quality to be aspired to above all others, but this is not necessarily the case in music of national European cultures.
This belief of course leads to an uncomfortable feeling of standardization in interpretative approach, even learned gestures of appliqué emotional expression. 'Apply melancholy in bar 25 and joy leading to anger in bars 300-350.'
The vital characteristic Polish emotional feeling in Chopin known as żal (this complex word according to Liszt carries the connotations of ‘inconsiderable regret after irrevocable loss . . . premeditation of vengeance’, melancholic nostalgia and bitter regret which at times can lead to a type of internal fury of protest). Żal can erupt spontaneously or be an ingrained attitude arising from experience, similar to the appearance of duende in flamenco or the poetry of Garcia Lorca. A singing legato line, a cultivated tone and touch, organically breathed phrasing and spontaneously created rubato should be indispensable qualities in a pianist performing Chopin.
The recording industry, meeting the demands of the market, naturally insist on perfection, accuracy and avoidance of gestures of spontaneous organic emotional, passionate, even uncontrolled liberation (rather like Richter allowed himself in live recital). This petrification only cements this predisposition to mummification. The great Russian pianist of genius Grigory Sokolov understands this well and insists that only his live recordings are released.
Poetic expression is all too often sacrificed on the altar of virtuosity. These are all reflections of the identically reproducible, technological world we live and love in. They are not part of the ineffable, flawed nature of living, that breathing passionate human life and dreams which suffuses all great classical music. There is great conceptual and interpretative integrity maintained in single-take live recordings.
One learns a great deal from historic recordings and the unbridled personality of a 'legendary' pianist. The Urtext did not rule so absolutely as in the past. September 2018 saw the Ist. Chopin Piano Competition on period instruments in Warsaw which was most instructive of interpretation. Instruments such as the Graf, Erard, Pleyel and Walter are 'imperfect' in that the registers are not balanced or homogenized in colour, the damping not efficient, the touch must be worked upon, the pedals alter the sound quality and timbre rather than the dynamic. 'Perfection' was not necessarily aspired to then. National characteristics of instruments and significant brand differences in sound were often commented upon as positive qualities. This is scarcely discernible in our increasingly homogeneous world picture and lack of instrumental brand diversity.
Most clearly the wooden frame limits the dynamic sound ceiling which is unlimited on a Steinway, Fazioli, Kawai or Yamaha. With such instruments, pianists are tempted into dynamic distortions and exaggerations, unbalanced declarative fortes especially in the overwhelmingly powerful bass register, which would simply not have been possible or even intended by the composer on earlier instruments. One cannot assume, although it is tempting say with say Beethoven, that an earlier composer would have been overjoyed with the infinite resources of our modern instrument.
Naturally, except in rare cases, one cannot realistically build a concert career on a period instrument in a vast modern concert hall. However, one can learn from familiarity with these instruments and then transfer this knowledge in some degree to the modern instrument. The recent NIFC recording of complete works of Chopin on an 1849 Erard by the great Russian pianist Tatiana Shebanova, is a particularly useful corrective and opens up previously unexplored realms of feeling and sensibility in Chopin.
Also this remarkable recording on a superb 1843 Pleyel pianino by Alexei Lubimov. It is another useful dream-like, intimate alternative corrective to the 'modern' 2021 approach to Chopin to which we have been listening during the competition. This small instrument was the favourite of Chopin, the ne plus ultra or 'last word' in pianos as he put it.
Also, here are some published reflections I wrote years ago to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Fryderyk Chopin. I entitled the piece: The Chopin Brand or the Chopin Soul. I feel many of the conclusions I came to have only become increasingly relevant.
All this being said, the competition was a wonderful, inspiring experience. As the great Polish musicologist Mirosław Tomaszewski once observed, the music of Chopin is always so deeply moving and miraculous, it scarcely matters if it played rather poorly, even on a dilapidated instrument!
Stage I - Performance Highlights
Viet Trung Hguyen emerged as a particularly sensitive player of great sensibility, a nineteenth century Chopinesque quality in rather short supply in muscular 2021. George Osokins presented himself as one of the 'eccentrics' rather reminiscent of Bozhanov or Pogorelich.
Hao Rao was absolutely magnificent and impressive in the B-flat minor Scherzo Op.31 and the audience had no doubts and were tremendously enthusiastic! The moment Aleksandra Swigut touched the keyboard of the Fazioli, I felt she had materialized from a different sound world to almost every other competitor. The seductive painting of the Nocturne in C-sharp minor Op.27/1 was deeply expressive in her creation of the tone of descriptions of Chopin's own playing. Sadly, this authenticity would not take her sufficiently far in the competition. I found the Mazurkas of Andrzej Wierciński fine indeed. The pianism of Piotr Alexewicz in the Scherzo in B-flat minor Op.31 and the Sonata in B minor op.58 was of a rare order of energy, drive and sheer accomplishment that deserved to take him to the heights of success.
Leonora Armellini brought such intelligence and Latin warmth to the rarely performed Sostenuto and a deeply moving and poignant Polonaise-Fantasie. Federico Gad Crema is a philosophically fascinating artist for me of intense musical perception and grace. I remembered 'furious' Yasuko Furumi from years ago in Bydgoszcz and was again deeply moved by her sheer musical and personal intensity, musical penetration and amazing fingers. Alexander Gadjiev is a visionary artist who brought operatic landscapes and arias into his interpretations. The Marche funèbre from Op.35 was a transcendental meditation on the nature of death and grief as was his commanding account of the Polonaise-Fantasie.
Avery Gagliano is a sublime artist to my mind, immaculate, balanced with superb tone and a sensitive, alluring touch. Her Etudes and especially G-minor Ballade were are among the finest I have ever heard in competition or anywhere else. A close rival was Marcin Garcia Garcia for this accolade as a passionate and committed utterance from Iberia rather than a perfectly prepared Ballade in G-minor. His 'masculine' approach to Chopin was utterly convincing in color, consistency and dynamic.
‘I have received from Chopin a Ballade’, Schumann informed his friend Heinrich Dorn in the autumn of 1836. ‘It seems to me to be the work closest to his genius (though not the most brilliant). I told him that of everything he has created thus far it appeals to my heart the most. After a lengthy silence, Chopin replied with emphasis: “I am glad, because I too like it the best, it is my dearest work”.’
The great Polish musicologist Mieczysław Tomaszewski paints the background to this work best:
'It was during those two years that what was original, individual and distinctive in Chopin spoke through his music with great urgency and violence, expressing the composer’s inner world spontaneously and without constraint – a world of real experiences and traumas, sentimental memories and dreams, romantic notions and fancies. Life did not spare him such experiences and traumas in those years, be it in the sphere of patriotic or of intimate feelings. [...] For everyone, the ballad was an epic work, in which what had been rejected in Classical high poetry now came to the fore: a world of extraordinary, inexplicable, mysterious, fantastical and irrational events inspired by the popular imagination. In Romantic poetry, the ballad became a ‘programmatic’ genre. It was here that the real met the surreal. Mickiewicz gave his own definition: ‘The ballad is a tale spun from the incidents of everyday (that is, real) life or from chivalrous stories, animated by the strangeness of the Romantic world, sung in a melancholy tone, in a serious style, simple and natural in its expressions’. And there is no doubt that in creating the first of his piano ballades, Chopin allowed himself to be inspired by just such a vision of this highly Romantic genre. What he produced was an epic work telling of something that once occurred, ‘animated by strangeness’, suffused with a ‘melancholy tone’, couched in a serious style, expressed in a natural way, and so closer to an instrumental song than to an elaborate aria.'
Eva Gevorgyan performed a truly magnificent Fantasy in F minor with great maturity and complete understanding of this complex work of mercurial fantasy and shifting scenes. Her Scherzo Op.54 was equally mercurially impulsive but engaging at the highest musical, emotional and technical level. About the F minor Fantasy Op.49 of Chopin please read:
Aimi Kobayashi, after a rather theatrical wrestling with the height of the piano stool, played a most extraordinarily affecting opening note of the Nocturne in F-sharp minor Op.48 No.2. A rare emotional and philosophically profound experience. Hyuk Lee showed precocious understanding of the Fantasy in F minor if not at the detailed degree of landscape painting as Eva Gevorgyan. Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu gave a quite magnificent performance of the Ballade in F-major Op.38 which revealed his understanding of grand narrative structure in these works and gave rise to a superb singing cantilena line of intense lyricism and nostalgia. Fabulous articulation and wondrous grotesquerie in the rhythm. A finalist if not the winner.
Stage II - Performance Highlights
In this stage, I felt Szymon Nehring gave an enlightened performance of the Polonaise-Fantasie that could scarcely be bettered in terms of structural understanding, idiomatic style brillante and emotional, expressive content. His Impromptu in G-flat major Op.51 possessed a fine sense of improvisation, attractive cantabile and essential charm and delight. The Rondo á la Mazur by Kyohei Sorita was idiomatically persuasive, articulate and in a glittering style brillante texture. The Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante were executed with touching warm affection and a legato touch to envy followed by a glistening and energetic cascade of pearls. The Ballade in F major Op.38 was technically impressive but rather lacking in expressiveness for me.
Eva Gevorgyan gave us a set of wonderful Waltzes that captured the effervescent rhythms and a towering Ballade in A-flat major. Spectacular Etudes. She must be a finalist surely if jury arithmetic does not defeat her! So few young pianists have a clue how to approach the Chopin waltzes but not so Jakub Kuszlik who has penetrated the rhythmic complexities and differences of the mazurka and waltz to a stimulating and highly entertaining degree.
Hao Rao once again a brilliant Ballad in A-flat major Op.47 which unfolds its narrative landscape. A very stylish Waltz in A-flat major Op.34/1. His Andante/Polonaise was poetic then a triumphant imperially energetic performance of the polonaise rhythm with much jeu perlé. A pianist highly popular with the audience.
Andrzej Wierciński gave a uniquely individual and expressive interpretation of the Ballade Op.53. My fondness for the poetic playing of Zi Xu knows no limits. His Nocturne in C-minor Op.48/1 grew in emotional agitation from an almost sentimental opening in such an organic fashion. The Ballade in F major Op.38 had an effective accumulation of anguish and anger from an innocent beginning. The passions of a broken life. Tremendous imagination in the warhorse Scherzo in B-flat minor which built into a magnificent drama with multifarious moods and interludes. Loved his recital and his musical imagination but fear this approach does not suite the present pianistic Zeitgeist.
J J Jun Li Bui leapt upon the Variations in B major Op.12 in scintillating style that sparkled. I was particularly moved by Michelle Condotti in the Marche funèbre - something magical occurred here as she hypnotized the audience with the tread of the marche and contrasted it with an unearthly grief in the central cantilena sung from the heart to a departed soul.
Nikolai Khozyainov assembled a fascinating Stage II programme the most imaginative of any competitor to my mind. It involved Mazurkas, Waltzes, a Ballade, the Barcarolle, a Polonaise and even the rarely performed Fugue in A minor Op.posth. The inclusion of the Fugue was a masterstroke, not because of the novelty but because of the opposite - a reminder that Bach was the bedrock on which Chopin conceived of the polyphonic and contrapuntal nature of his compositions. Alongside Mozart, Bach was the composer Chopin most respected and admired. Mikuli felt one could not discriminate which he loved more. Before he gave one of his rare concerts, Chopin would practise not his own works that he would perform but Bach Preludes and Fugues for possibly two weeks before the recital. His teachers Wojciech Żywny (a Bohemian) and Józef Elsner (a Silesian) both laid this baroque foundation in his compositional aesthetic and taste. Did the jury recognize and understand what I feel Khozyainov intended here I wonder?
Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu presented a coruscating Rondo á la Mazur, the Ballade in F major Op.38, an idiomatic Waltz in F-major Op.34/3 and a simply poignant then breathtaking Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante. Fabulous playing a word.
Stage III - Performance Highlights
Szymon Nehring was unaccountably 'off form' and disappointing in this Stage. The Nocturne in E-major Op.62/2 was fine indeed and affecting, contemplative and nostalgic. The Sonata in B minor Op.58 was noble in its opening and presented the dilemmas of life in complex counterpoint and accumulating dynamic figures leading up to the passionate exegesis. The Scherzo in E major Op.54 was full of colour and an ardent cantilena, with a luminous, seductive tone in its expression of love. The Mazurkas Op.56 were wonderfully Polish in rhythm, sense of improvisation and nuance.
Hao Rao gave us a brilliant Sonata in B-minor Op.58 with massive internal energy, even philosophy, for one so young.
Kyohe Sorita shone with formidable authority, variety and reflective nostalgia in the Mazurkas Op.56, a poignant Sonata in B-flat minor possessing terrific rhythmic impetus in the Doppio movimento. The Scherzo had a deeply reflective Trio rather like an operatic aria whilst the Marche funèbre, a symphony of grief, had an elegiac cantilena unlike any I have ever heard. The amazing Presto was as if the mind was racing out of control with despair. The rarely performed Largo in E-major "Boże, coś Polskę" (harmonization of the old version of the song for piano) Op. posth. was an inspiration. His 'Heroic' Polonaise Op.53 was strong, rich and masculine with perfect rubato. The 'cavalry' ostinato was fantastically exciting. Nikolai Khozyainov played possibly the most affecting and touching Prelude in C-minor Op.45 I can ever remember hearing.
Two of the Polish participants acquitted themselves exceptionally well. Mateusz Krzyżowski played a powerfully thought through set of Preludes Op.28. By coincidence I had heard him begin his serious studies of these with Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger and Yves Henri Masterclasses at the 53rd Nohant Festival in 2019. How far he has come in depth of understanding and interpretative penetration of these masterpieces since then! Kamil Pacholec performed a fine set of Mazurkas Op.30 and Andrzej Wierciński two works - the musically heroic and technically demanding rigours of Scherzo in E major Op.54 and encountering and scaling the formidable polyphonic musical heights of the Sonata in B minor Op.58. These performances surely place him in the highest rank of young Polish pianists. His Mazurkas Op.24 were elegant, graceful and full of that rare quality bon goût.
The Polonaise-Fantasie performed in a deeply mature and philosophical meditative atmosphere by Leonora Armellini both moved and impressed me. J J Jun Li Bui rather overwhelmed is the sheer luminous, almost incandescent sound of his Rondo á la Mazur. Likewise again that Ballade in F major Op.38, which describes the history of a tumultuous love affair with all its storms and periods of lyricism, what the English poet Alexander Pope referred to as 'the moving toyshop of the heart'.
Avery Gagliano again erected temples of musical perfection and glorious sound in a way I found infinitely enchanting and captivating, particularly in the Mazurkas Op.56. A ghost hovering in the Chopin psyche. The long C minor mazurka superbly thought through. Also moving and affecting was the Sonata in B-flat minor Op.35. An ominous, powerful and profoundly melancholic Marche funèbre with an eloquent although not terribly affecting cantabile and an unearthly and polyphonically highly complex Presto. A monumental Scherzo in B-flat minor Op.31.
Unlike many of my musical colleagues, I found Aimi Kobayashi's Preludes Op.28 quite remarkably redefined and uniquely approached in a rare fashion. A compete rethinking of theses masterpieces of evoked worlds of the imagination. Hyuk Lee gave an accomplished and impressive style brillante interpretation of the Variations on Don Giovanni.
Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu also gave me rather mixed feelings concerning the Sonata in B-flat minor Op.35. I am unsure about the depth of his approach to the serious works of Chopin. There is a faint atmosphere of the contrived and inauthentic emotionally in this fabulous playing. Emotionally we are left rather in the cold in the Grave. Doppio movimento. The Scherzo had superb articulation, colour, nuance and polyphony yet I remained unmoved. Was it my mood on the day? Being 'Chopined out' after such intense unremitting exposure to his music? I felt the Marche funèbre not atmospheric enough without the ominous shadow of death hovering above as with Gagliano, Condotti and Sorita. The cantabile has ravishing tone and simplicity and innocence of the grief of lost joys but what was the pianist saying to me ? Expressions of nostalgia ? Melancholic regret? The return of the Marche sotto voce was very moving. I feel Liu is a great pianist but not yet an artist. This was clear in the Variations on Don Juan. the work suited to perfection his spectacular and astonishing style brillante display of pyrotechnics and overwhelming keyboard skills and dazzling and radiant cosmetic sense of style. here he excelled above everyone in the competition.
FINALS - Concerto Stage
What can I say at this stage of the competition? In the final analysis, all these pianists are so brilliant musically and on a par with each other in sheer keyboard and musical command, it comes down to character and personal preference, the expression of a personality that one responds to and that speaks intimately to one's own heart and soul. Each performance was remarkable in its own fashion. Such a task for the jury to make distinctions here. My individual reviews of the concertos in some detail appear above.
This may seem a rather cosmetic observation, but so few competitors appear relaxed, happy and actually enjoying playing the piano! Why is this important ? Well, much of this stage was devoted to style brillante works written when Chopin was a young man before his exile and terminal illness.
Chopin remained extraordinarily faithful to the impressions of his adolescence and youth. The lasting principles of his artistic vision were formed on his native soil among his childhood friends, teachers, romantic infatuations and family (in particular his mother) and on holidays in the Polish countryside among the peasantry. He was an ebullient young man and excellent, entertaining company with a sharp sense of humour, fond of practical jokes and with an immense talent for caricature and mimicry. He even published a satirical newspaper full of amusing incidents of rural life and farm animal antics. He could easily have become a professional actor. He loved the rough violin and open-throated folk music of Mazovia and was an excellent dancer, often playing the piano into the small hours at parties for the whirling couples, flowers resplendent on their folk costumes, performing Waltzes (not well understood by most in Stage II) and the Mazur.
I feel it indispensable to bring this lightness of intention and period feel of elegance, grace, and that rare quality today charm into one's mind when performing these style brillante works. This in order to avoid exaggerating technique over everything else, imposing false emotional weight to works never intended for that purpose, not exaggerating the dynamics and balance possible on the powerful modern instrument and finally preserving intimacy or the illusion of it to some degree.
Chopin’s pupil Karol Mikuli described the playing of the composer as expressing ‘energy without roughness’ and ‘delicacy without affectation’, while his best pupil Princess Marcelina Czartoryska advised the performer to intuitively immerse himself ‘au climat de Chopin’. This 'climate' has been remarkably absent from the competition so far except in some exceptional cases.
Such illuminating remarks are lost on today’s young tyros who utilize a limited but enormous dynamic range. The technical facility and power of young virtuosi is of a standard breathtakingly higher than ever before. Many give performances that would have rocketed them to instant fame and fortune seventy years ago. But in acquiring in competition the necessary physical prowess, extensive repertoire and stamina demanded by the terrifyingly competitive modern professional concert career, many pander to the public taste. The variable audience reaction often confirmed this. Also much of the seductive charm and personal style of the great pianists who performed Chopin before the Second World War has been sacrificed on the altar of an increasingly esoteric musicology. As one of the French pianists on the jury in 2010 said to me in frustration (and not a great deal has changed) ‘Where is la poésie and le bon goût so prized by Chopin?’
Chopin is one of the most difficult of composers to interpret and begs for a cultivated mind of sensibility and poetry with a proper understanding of his cultural milieu and noble historical style. But the world young artists have inherited is loud, cruel and violent, a world dominated by technology that prizes physical power, speed, computers, social media and the body above intelligence, morality and the soul. Many are simply too young for the pain and mystery of Chopin. Athletic training has turned many of them into acrobats of the keyboard participating in an Olympic sport of tempestuous brutality. C.P.E. Bach put it well in his Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen 1753 (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments): ‘They overwhelm our hearing without satisfying it and stun the mind without moving it . . .’
The result can be extremely destructive to music as an art. The great Russian pianists have taught us that an unassailable technique must be the foundation on which a pianist builds and matures, but Chopin is now erroneously viewed by some young pianists through the filter of Rachmaninov, Scriabin or Prokoviev rather than Mozart and Bach, the musical ideals of this composer. Chopin himself loathed ‘gymnastic’ and exaggerated physical treatment of the piano. George Sand was once amused at his horror when he thought he may actually have been sweating in the summer heat at Nohant. ‘Facilement, facilement,’ he often warned. ‘Caress the key, never bash it!’ Chopin would admonish.
Chopin possesses an unrivalled position as Poland’s national composer and its musical wieszcz (poet, balladeer and prophet). This is particularly obvious in the musically narrative Ballades, many of which we have heard. His music is the beating heart of the country. The great Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821–83) described Chopin as ‘a Varsovian by birth, a Pole by heart, and a citizen of the world by talent’. Virtuoso brilliance, a supreme gift for melody and an air of sentimentality explain his immense appeal on a popular level. But more deeply the universality of Chopin lies in the sense of loss and nostalgia for his homeland. Contained within his intense music is patriotic resistance to domination, sacrifice and melancholy in the face of ‘the bitter finales of life’ – all universal human emotions. ‘Chopin’s music was a kind of cultural battle-ground in the nineteenth century, prey to appropriation.’
With such a predominance of absolutely brilliant Asian pianists and pianists of Asian descent from China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Canada, the United States and South Korea in this competition I feel they and their professors must ask themselves as they study, in terms of musical morality and integrity : What, then, is the significance of Chopin for Poland? Chopin is a soul not a brand.
Poles treasure the mazurka, polonaise and krakowiak as do foreigners, but they contain hidden and secret signs and rhythms known only to the idiomatic soul of Poles. ‘Only Poles can understand Chopin’ is often declared to me with heat. Of course this is not true but Chopin often commented that the ‘Polish element’ was missing from the rhythm of otherwise excellent performances of his works. The patriotic hymn, the lament and the military march lie deep within the fabric of many of his compositions. The perfume of the Orient hovers about the nocturnes.
Chopin often chose as the subject for one of his famed improvisations a piece that is now the national anthem of Poland, the ‘Dąbrowski Mazurka’ or Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła (‘Poland Has Not Yet Perished’). The artfully concealed political message of this improvisation once elicited the remark from a diplomat, ‘you should have thrown out a demagogue like Chopin!’ There are powerful patriotic messages contained within his songs, ballades and particularly in a work we heard many times during the competition but was seldom understood, the Fantasy in F minor Op.49. It contains among other things beside the elements of fantasy, a reference to the insurrectionist song Bracia, do bitwy nadszedł czas (‘Brothers, The Time Has Come To Battle’).
His early biographer Marceli Antoni Szulc wrote of his compositions, ‘they are native, immaculate and purely Polish’. The Counsellor of State to the Russian Imperial Court, Wilhelm von Lenz, wrote of ‘his soul’s journey through . . . his Sarmatian dream-world’, and that ‘Chopin was the only political pianist of the time. Through his music he incarnated Poland, he set Poland to music!’
The great pianist and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski, in an eloquent address given at the Chopin Centenary Festival at L’viv (Lemberg, Lwów) in 1910, said, ‘He gave all back to us, mingled with the prayers of broken hearts, the revolt of fettered souls, the pains of slavery, lost freedom’s ache, the cursing of tyrants, the exultant songs of victory.’ He felt the entire Polish nation moved in the rhythm of tempo rubato. Finally Chopin himself wrote to his editor Julian Fontana in April 1848 with the hand of death already at his shoulder, ‘There is no way horrifying events can be averted but in the end of it all is a splendid, great Poland; in a word: Poland.’ Nearly a hundred years later, the Nazis understood his patriotic power; they banned his music.
Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century recognized two broad schools of pianism. Balzac wrote in 1843 to his Polish mistress Madame Hańska, ‘The Hungarian is a demon; the Pole is an angel.’ The brilliant and refined style of Chopin, Field, Hummel, Ries and Kalkbrenner owed allegiance to the classical past. This contrasted strongly with the revolutionary Romanticism of ‘The Thunderers’, represented by Liszt and Thalberg. Judging by audience enthusiasm for loud and fast renditions we appear to be returning to the school of ‘thunderers’ with a vengeance. Take care!
His student Countess Elizavieta Cheriemietieff wrote in an extraordinary letter to her mother in 1842:
It’s something so ethereal, so transparent, that delicacy, yet his sounds [are] so full, so large . . . He’s a genius far above all the pianists who dazzle and exhaust their listeners . . . It’s a desecration, I find, to play his compositions; nobody understands them.
Chopin in his day was achieving something on the piano that was entirely new. He left behind an unfinished piano method of tantalizingly fragmentary insights.
Such effusions also point up the present dramatic shift in aesthetic perspective of Chopin performance. It is fast becoming a duty of musical integrity to confront this change. In this competition of 2021 and in the ideals of recorded Chopin, we are witnessing a significant shift in Chopin performance tradition and interpretation. Clearly radical changes in mentality, technical accomplishment ideals, possible dynamic level, articulation, instrumental damping, tempo and overall interpretative conception have taken place since his death. We are also now far away culturally from the historical source of this music. The Industrial Revolution changed much just before his day but the Technological Revolution is an undreamt of exponential change for the whole of humanity. What, landing an exploratory vehicle on a comet!
Closely allied to interpretation is the nature of the sound he extracted from the instruments available to him. He insisted that in the beginning a pupil develop a refined touch and beautiful tone before working on technique and velocity. A consideration of the instruments he chose to teach and perform on (Pleyel and Erard) is a useful and educational corrective, confronted as we are by the ubiquitous black Steinway, Yamaha, Fazioli or Shigeru Kawai behemoths required by the modern concert hall and the demands of the vast audiences they accommodate.
Chopin once confided to Liszt:
I am not suited to public appearances – the auditorium saps my courage, I suffocate in the exhalation of the crowd, I am paralyzed by curious glances . . . but you, you can, since if you should fail to win over the audience you at least have the possibility of murdering them.
Please let us not leave the sunlit groves of sense and sensibility and venture down that path.
Chopin gave voice to the universal suffering of any spirit labouring under a totalitarian heel or shackled by personal psychological chains. His music offers deep consolation to troubled minds, hearts and souls throughout the world. Fryderyk Chopin continues to express the beauty and richness of conscious life forever overshadowed by the implacable reality of death, a profound awareness of which is surely the source of all we would wish to call ‘civilization’.
My selection of outstanding pianists from Day 1 Stage II
Szymon Nehring **
His Impromptu in G-flat major had an attractive sense of improvisation with imaginative rubato and controlled cantabile that sang. I found the general atmosphere charming - a rare quality 'charm' in this competition. The Polonaise-Fantasie was full of expression and narrative sense with the shifting landscapes of experience that the ill Chopin had so much trouble in depicting in this work. We had a sense of improvised fantasies, dreamlike reveries on moonlit nights with a romantic companion, shadows of impending doom and death. Later, a narrative of emotionally turbulent dreams, a tumult of emotion. A triumphant conclusion over death. An eloquent and fine performance.
The Waltz in A-flat major Op.64/3 lacked sufficient charm and affectation but was pleasant nevertheless. I will have much to say about the complete ignorance of how to interpret Chopin waltzes by nearly every contestant. The Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.23 was immensely attractive with glowing tone and refinement of touch. A lyrical and yes, 'smooth' poetic feel, sensitive and expressive. The Polonaise had an excellent change of quality of tone. The nature of the style brillant could perhaps have been just slightly lighter and more elegant. However it was immensely stylish with panache and grace. Technical excellence prevailed with rubato, agogic accents, articulation - everything in fact. A grand and stylish conclusion. A finalist without doubt.
Viet Trung Nguyen
The Barcarolle was quite impressionistic for me. The opening was beautiful, appropriately simply setting the tone. Then the emotional agitation rose as if a wind was rising with storm clouds gathering, just as in the natural world. many emotional parallels in Nature were present in his rendition. The Nocturne in C-minor Op. 48/1 was glorious in tone with a fine sense of harmonic development. Drama emerged at the conclusion. The Polonaise in A-flat major Op.53 was energetic and impassioned in his interpretation. A risk to perform this work in competition? The 'cavalry' were tremendously atmospheric riding into resistant battle against the Russians across the flat Mazovian plain.
The Polonaise in F-sharp minor Op.44 had a great sense of fantasy and imaginative changes of mood (as Chopin originally conceived the work as a Fantasy). Excellent conception of a work full of resistance, anger and zal. The Impromptu in F-sharp major Op.36 had energy emerging beautifully from calm with a great deal of charm. The Ballade in F minor Op.52 was quite brilliant, coherent and cohesive in its narrative of the shifting landscapes in this opera of a life. The innocence of childhood that suffuses the opening was superbly captured.
The Ballade in A-flat major Op.47 was a finely balanced narrative that unfolded before us. He built the emotional drama very successfully. With this pianist passion never brutalizes the tone as it does with too many others. Triumphal close of great conviction. The Waltz in A-flat major Op.34/1 was stylish, charming and joyful as it should be. An excellent 'call to the floor' announcement. He understood the rhythm of the waltz well, unlike many in this competition. the Barcarolle was possessed of an alluring tone in the lyrical sections. The emotional agitation built gradually and never became hysterically inflated. An eloquent account if not outstandingly hypnotic as it can be. The Andante was attractively 'smooth' and poetic (the meaning of the Italian word spianato). The style of the Polonaise was brilliant with terrific rhythm, style and glittering jeu perlé. It became slightly heavy in parts when one needed more light elegance, with and finesse. Many pianists in the competition need to develop more period feel and affectation. The audience went wild. Overall a triumphant and imperially noble, energetic performance.
In the Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.22 was not as expressive as I imagined it and moments of far too heavy dynamic in the polonaise. I do wish these pianists would just try a Buchholtz piano of the Chopin period and learn that the sound ceiling is much lower than the magnificent Shigeru Kawai played here. Excessive dynamic contrast leads to a feeling of sentimentality foreign to this composer. Impressive overall nevertheless in a 'modern' idiom. Some beautiful moments in the Barcarolle.
The Andante spianato and Grand Polonaise Brillante was lyrical with alluring tone, 'smooth' legato and a beautiful cantabile. An intense player, there is a feeling of life or death with her interpretations rather than the relaxed joy which I am sure motivated the composer. Chopin was an ebullient, charming young man. So few pianists seem to enjoy what they are playing! Here was a light, brilliant manner which was infectiously and surprisingly stylish. Very expressive playing. An extremely good performance despite 'appearances'. An appealing Barcarolle that possessed strong and most welcome elements of romance.
The Barcarolle began gently and was highly expressive dynamically yet with his velvet soft touch. Graceful cantabile melodies painted elegant water colours of shall we say Venice. A fine performance. I was tremendously impressed by his Berceuse. It had such an affecting innocence, beguiling tone and charming L H counterpoint which he gently highlighted. Glistening cascades of notes like gems. Some marvelous rubato with a perfectly steady L H above which arabesques of absolute simplicity - an ideal of Chopin. One of the finest I have ever heard.
A remarkable recital altogether (except for the exaggerated Waltz in F major Op.34/3). A remarkable and brilliant account of the magnificent and highly complex, patriotic Rondo a la Mazur. Excellent rounded tone and understanding of the mazurka rhythm at the center of the inspiration. The Ballade in F major Op.38 was equally impressive. It opened with captivating childish innocence and adorable simplicity of melody. Explosive passion of the grim reality of war and suffering, the feast of the tigers of experience followed this lack of knowledge of the world. Technically his performance was fantastically impressive with occasional lapses of deeper expressiveness. A convincing, almost operatic, performance of this tragic narrative of life.
The Andante was most charming with musical meaning that sang cantabile with a bewitching pianissimo. The Polonaise was highly impressive in its musical phrasing, rubato and style brillante. Occasionally spoiled by the heavy Steinway disturbance of the light and airy, glistening character of this style. We are are also looking here for fairy dust as in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He used great dynamic variety and considerable varieties of touch and tone. A wild ovation and cheering by the audience!
My selection of outstanding pianists from Day II Stage II
His Ballade Op.53 an had an idiomatically Polish lyrical opening to the narrative. He proceeded with the opera slowly with the musical meaning slowly flowering. Deeply expressive continuation of the moods and scenes of drama in this life portrait. A very well structured and cohesive Ballade. Quite wonderful. I am not entirely sure of the attractions of his tone - not particularly refined. The Waltz Op.18 needed a little more finesse and less speed but was full of period charm. I liked his 'Heroic' Polonaise Op.53 quite a lot, especially in its phrasing and scenes of drama and fierce resistance, a byword for the Polish mentality. An excellent account with the 'Polish element' Chopin often spoke of as a necessity in polonaises. He will certainly proceed to Stage III.
Yuchong Wu **
In the the Barcarolle he created captivating 'waves' in the L H to create an impressionistic, Debussyian feel to the water beneath the gondola (if that's what it was in Chopin's imagination). He produces an enticing tone in his playing. It was most unusual to select three waltzes to play in the competition but we soon learned of his mastery of this often inaccessible genre. In all there was a great deal of charm, elegance and refinement which suited the piano tone he produced. Especially moving was the rarely performed, long autumnal Waltz in A minor Op.34/2. This is forlorn and sorrowful and was a favorite work of the composer. He played it often. For me it was as if Chopin had entered the hall for the first time in the competition. He has been absent for much it in terms of sensibility. I was reduced to tears .... The ebullient Waltz in F major was such a contrast and breath of renewed life!
The Andante was sensitive, seductive and beautiful. This playing was supremely elegant and eloquent. An affecting singing melody and 'smooth' cantabile with perceptive elements of counterpoint and polyphony. The Filharmonia seemed to shrink to the diminutive size of a cultivated Parisian salon. The Grand Polonaise Brillante had a fine sense of rhythm and dance played with glittering, articulated tone. Energy, nobility, poise, joy and glistering lightness - everything required here. One of the finest interpretations of this often performed work.
Lingfei (Stephan) Xie
As I love this work so much, the Lento con gran espressione, I must note that this pianist gave a sensitive and deeply moving account of it. The Andante revealed another eloquent slow and 'smooth' element from China, unruffled legato. The Polonaise began rather poorly but developed spectacularly well.
I found this pianist to be a particularly soulful player and as 'I prefer to be moved rather than astonished' I appreciated his approach to Chopin. The Nocturne in C-minor was slow and evolutionary, with a tempo just bordering on the sentimental.The emotional agitation on the work grew organically in this excellently interpreted Nocturne. The Ballade in F-major Op.38 depicted to perfection the innocence of childhood before this portrait of life's spiritual journey began. The the eruption of grim reality with an effective accumulation of anguish and anger. And so the passions of a broken life continued to erupt. An excellent Ballade.
The Polonaise in F-sharp minor as expressive if rather heavy at times. The cantilena was beautifully sung but not overwhelmingly beautiful. He adopted an attractive, 'warlike' masculine approach to this work - absolutely appropriate. It can v be approached of course as a series of fantasies, which is much how Chopin conceived it. he adopted quite a fast tempo for the waltzes - Op.34/3 and Op.64/3 (many pianists and dare I say, their professors, really need to learn about the elegance, grace and civilization of Chopin waltzes). I admired greatly the complex Rondo a la Mazur. He played with understanding and an infectious, ravishing style brilliante. A tremendously satisfying performance.
The Ballade in F minor Op. 52 had an eloquent, understated introduction full of the innocence of life before turbulent disillusionment inevitably alters the lyricism of earlier days. The Ballade flowered into a series of coherent, disparate scenes that were extraordinarily moving in their drama and intensity. This was an excellent recital if slightly lacking period style, sentiment and sensibility. We all have our own Chopin! Certainly a finalist.
Leonora Armellini **
She opened her recital with a rare statement of charming salon sensibility, the Sostenuto in E-flat major. An inspired choice to establish the temperament of the young Chopin in our ears. Then the delightful Waltz in A-flat major Op.34/1. She adopted from the outset the moderate tempo and a sublimated traditional triumphal 'announcement' or 'call to the floor' for the dancers of civilized waltzes at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Some of Chopin's waltzes were danced by his sisters against his stern advice. She plays with tremendous authority, varied moments of sensibility nuance and high style.
On the FAZIOLI she produced a superb rounded tone for the Ballade in A-flat major Op.47. The piece emerged as a natural organic growth, unforced with a musical cohesive narrative and authority. Then the great Ballade in F-minor Op. 52. The introduction to this magnificent opera of life made me want to sing the melody. Ah! Italians and song! The melody seemed more and more like a lyrical aria as it developed, the lyrical element missing from so many interpretations. Rhapsodic phrases carried me aloft. The various life scenes unfolded and the melodies flowed like streams. Her counterpoint L H was articulate and strong. The rich sound of the FAZIOLI created a magnificent colour spectrum - Armellini never thumps the instrument but seduces us with rich sound. For some odd reason I was unavoidably put in mind of Cecilia Bartoli if she had ever taken up the piano. Certainly a finalist if not the winner.
JJ Jun Li Bui
Here we had another treat as he opened with the deeply moving simplicity of the rarely performed, early Variations in B major Op.12. Bui gave us a splendid feeling of improvisation (something of course that Chopin was a master of and on the organ too). He produced a supremely attractive style brillante in the variations with great style and panache.
In the Fantasy in F minor he imagined and painted many fantastical scenes. This work was not well understood by most pianists who chose it in the competition. There are powerful patriotic messages contained within it. The work contains among other things beside the elements of fantasy, a reference to the insurrectionist song Bracia, do bitwy nadszedł czas (‘Brothers, The Time Has Come To Battle’). The Chorale as the centerpiece was religiously devotional and philosophical (Chopin and his family were devout Roman Catholics) followed by another scene of a strongly improvisational atmosphere. This Fantasy was built by Bui into a mighty performance of cathedral proportion.
In the Waltz in A-flat major Op.64/3 he showed he understood well the cantabile counterpoint in the L H cantilena. The performance was stylish with panache yet with a sense of nostalgia hovering gently above the lyrical presentation.
The Andante had an alluring singing tone and a beautiful finger legato melodic line that was certainly 'smooth' (the meaning of the Italian 'spianato'). A stirring 'call to the floor' for the dancers in the Polonaise followed by brilliant style brillante melody that was both clear and yet affecting in its phrasing and rubato. So stylish this playing! His L H was clear and prominent which added real depth to the scintillating display hovering above. Superb pedaling (another of Chopin's obsessions as a teacher - 'A study for life' he commented) and rousing articulation sent shivers up and down my spine. An incontrovertible sign of the presence of true art considered by Vladimir Nabokov. Energy and joy abounded in this interpretation. Terrific!
My selection of outstanding pianists from Day III Stage II
A fine and sensitive performance of the Barcarolle. Again for me he produced this wonderful glowing sound.
The opening movement of the Sonata in B-minor Op.35. Grave. Doppio movimento had significant nobility and poise. The Scherzo. molto vivace was highly energetic but never descended into the crude. This pianist is deeply involved emotionally and committed to every single note he plays. The Marche funèbre was not as tragic as I had hoped as the tempo was just slightly fast. The cantabile was achingly beautiful in its singing of grief and remembrance. It as as if Chen was watching a funeral in his mind and depicting it at first hand as he played. Such plaintive sighing in glorious sound. The return of the Marche seemed somehow more tragic than before, at a slightly more deliberate tempo. This pianist plays without the slightest egocentricity, devoted entirely to the music. The fiendish Presto.Finale had transparent polyphony with fine articulation of the abstract, unhinged, grief-laden lines.
The Waltz in F major Op.34/3 was idiomatic and stylish. Great variety of tone, colour, touch, elan, panache and rhythm - created a Parisian salon of high civilization in Warsaw. For some reason, perhaps harmonic, he began the 'Heroic' Polonaise attacca. I am not sure this was a good idea culturally speaking, if just possible musically. In the Alla polacca e maestoso ('like a polonaise and majestic') the resistant mood was tremendously polyphonic and moving in its intense atmosphere of zal and national pride. The return of heroism after the reflective Trio was magnificently defiant in its commitment.
His Scherzo Op.54 had the most brilliant sound and articulation - ravishing a word. The Waltz in F major Op.34/3 was exuberant and Choi grasped the rhythm perfectly. The Ballade in G minor Op.23 had a fine narrative opening to this portrait of a man's internal psyche. Music that speaks of experience and describes the essence of it, the anger of disillusionment. A truly magnificent performance. The Polonaise in A-flat major Op.53 began in an understated manner. Then the work developed more passionately (the manner of Arthur Rubinstein actually but not a copy). The 'cavalry' were galloping at a rhythmically brilliant pace. A beautiful cantabile aria emerged as a sung lament for the violence of war which led again into a mood of zal and fierce resistance. An outstanding recital in every way imaginable.
Federico Gad Crema
The ambitious Polonaise-Fantasie opened in way perhaps not quite as thoughtful and philosophical as it could have been, however the depth of conception developed. Soaring arias of melody - Italians again - flowered as the work progressed. His vision certainly moved through landscapes of fantasy in a work Chopin struggled with in the midst of chronic illness. Some of these fantastical landscapes brought paintings by Salvator Rosa into my mind. A fine performance.
I was so pleased he chose two other polonaises by Chopin - in this competition one could be forgiven for thinking he only wrote one - Op.53 - it has been performed so often.
I adore the sung central cantilena from the Polonaise Op.26 No.1 in C-sharp minor. Without doubt an operatic love song. He created superb polyphony at the conclusion of the desperately moving polonaise. The E-flat minor Polonaise Op.26/2 opened with persuasive detaché execution. There was quite a military atmosphere here which contrasted with the C minor. An ominous statement flowers into incandescent emotional resistance. He utilized great variety of articulation but above all, great imagination. This elevated this great work into a powerful statement of resistance - the Polish temperament and character in one word. Enormous dynamic variation in this formidable FAZIOLI instrument.
The Waltz in A-flat major Op.42 indicated a typically Italian gesture to end our recital meeting on a joyful note! he incorporated a marvellous sprung rhythm in detached waltz style in the L H . He expressed such contrasts and broad variety and nuance together with a variety of fantastic articulation in the L H.
Yasuko Furumi **
She began with a powerful and aggressive but rather straightforward account of the Polonaise in F minor Op.44. As Chopin conceived of the work initially as a fantasy, I felt this could have been revealed more clearly. I remained unsure of her vision of the work. In the Polonaise-Fantasie in A major Op.61 there was far more feeling of spontaneity and invention. She uses silence most creatively to underline the spirit of fantasy and Chopin's struggle with this new form. The Waltz in F major Op.34/3 possessed some elegant Parisian salon qualities to a triumphant conclusion. In the Barcarolle she incorporated many changes of mood and dynamic as the voyage progressed. I felt she could attempt to communicate more emotion to the audience as there seemed little connection with us.
Alexander Gadjief **
This was a fascinating, even revolutionary individual view of Chopin's music that a listener would either love or dislike intensely. The Prelude in C minor Op.45 had a imaginative sense of improvisation and creation, a piece conceived as nostalgic and melancholic. The Barcarolle followed attacca which was certainly an interesting idea. I began to have the feeling he was inventing the work spontaneously rather like an improvising jazz pianist which I found most attractive. His sensibility in this work was uncomplicated with a broad and fluid harmonic approach without a great deal of polyphonic detail.
The Polonaise in F minor Op.44 possessed a genuine, powerful and sensitive feeling of authentic masculine resistance. His phrasing and breathing had been thought through but were not familiar and thus exciting. He was painting an oil landscape of battle I felt with muscular broad rather than crude brushstrokes and significant use of the pedal.
The Ballade in F minor Op.38 betrayed an effective atmosphere of childish innocence at the opening with a tempestuous explosion of ruinous experience that will inevitably follow. There were moments of reflectiveness but the passion he brought to the work broke many rational barriers. The emotion often does this in real life of course, if it is authentic passion rather than simply a strong feeling. By definition, authentic passion cannot be controlled.
Avery Gagliano **
In the Ballad in A-flat major Op.47 Gagliano was very careful about emphasizing the internal polyphonic detail. Her approach was transparently dramatic and well balanced emotionally. The Nocturne in B major Op.62/1 was expressed poignantly with carefully controlled, nostalgic and yearning emotions. She produces an outstandingly beautiful tone. She showed a remarkably close understanding of the F-major Waltz Op.34/3. Her interpretation was enticing in its refinement, elegance and dynamic exuberance all in the style brillante.
The Andante was resplendent in a burnished tone and legato melody that was certainly 'smooth' ('spianato'). I like a feeling of spontaneity and creation and this was what one might say 'perfectly prepared'. The Polonaise had a uniquely luminous style brillante sound which was moderated into something effectively powerful when required. A great deal of panache and elegance was present in this performance. The melody appeared aristocratic and noble, yet a refined passion galvanized everything she touched. With her superb technique this was a remarkably accurate performance. The work is somewhat of a minefield for even advanced professionals and famous artists. It is rare to hear a fault-free account. Triumphant conclusion. A magnificent performance to envied.
Martin Garcia Garcia
Ah! He walked onto the stage dressed in a cream satin waistcoat which I felt indicated a promising personality and an ability to communicate with the audience, a quality which has been in short supply. The Waltz in A-flat major Op.34/1 was so attractively idiomatic. The Ballade in A-flat major Op.47 was performed with alluring tone with an intimate understanding of what a ballade actually is as a form. He gave an excellent rhythmic lilt to the main melody. He built this drama of suffering imaginatively.
The sound quality of the FAZIOLI under his fingers (from where I was sitting in the Parter) was wonderful. The Impromptu he chose was delivered in a light and stylish manner with fine L H counterpoint as cantabile. I felt he played this work with great charm and elegance. A fine layered performance. The B-flat minor Scherzo Op.31 was a dramatic performance of dramatic stature. A very individualistic, rather wild, impassioned voice. I felt it a terrific performance even without an existentialist triplet question mentioned before in a review.
Eva Gevorgyan **
The Ballade in A-flat major Op.47. I have nothing left to say. The work seemed perfectly realized for me. The Waltz in A-flat major Op.34/1 seemed to me another perfectly realized style brillante waltz. The Waltz in A-minor Op.34/2 was full of melancholic reflections. her approach to the instrument is highly artistic, unlike many others in this competition. This was a beautiful rendition but not as moving as one might expect. It is Chopin's longest waltz. The Waltz in F major Op.34/3 was taken rather too fast I felt.
The Polonaise in F sharp minor was full of that characteristic Polish emotion of zal and a sense of bitter, powerful and valiant resistance leading to tragic acceptance. The repetitive phrases were moments of such high dramatic art. The conception was highly effective with her percussive approach to this polonaise. The Trio was most lyrical yet with a background of resentment.The fading into tragic resignation at the conclusion was most poignant.
My selection of outstanding pianists from Day IV Stage II
Nikolay Khozyainov **
In the Polonaise Op.53 Khozyainov set discrete scenes as an introduction of First Scene of the drama. he revealed many unusual and unique details. He built the work quite correctly to a more aggressive stance in a moderate tempo with eloquent phrasing. The ostinato 'cavalry' were most impressive. he exhibited much control of complex rhythms and revealed much internal polyphony in a highly detailed manner. A fascinating interpretation. The Waltz in F major Op.34/3 expressed exuberant memories of past joys and delights. The Ballade in F major opened in moving childish innocence, the like of which I feel only Khozyainov has mastered. Like a butterfly metamorphosing n a chrysalis. The into the open air and the grim threats of reality strike beauty so forcibly. And so the panorama of suffering and reflection unfolds. War and its horrors must have filled the pianist's mind. A fantastic performance and emotionally overwhelming conclusion.
He then unexpectedly programmed the Fugue in A-minor Op.posth. This was a brilliant stoke of high intelligence as Bach was one of the few composers Chopin admired unreservedly except perhaps Mozart. Before concerts he would play Bach Preludes and Fugues for two weeks, not practicing his own works. His love of Bach laid the foundations of his own deeply polyphonic writing. To include the Fugue was a superb idea to my mind, reminding us of influences on Chopin's compositions.
The Mazurka in E minor Op.41/1 created an embracing atmosphere of nostalgia as did the Mazurka in F minor Op.68/4. He created le climat de Chopin that Chopin's favourite pupil Marcelina Czartoryska mentioned in a letter. The extended trills in the Mazurka were expressive. This was a gentle a performance with refined tone and touch. The Barcarolle revealed much internal detail. The effect was not quite 'impressionistic' enough for me but there you are. Perhaps I have the wrong idea of this work thinking of Claude Debussy. This was a sensitive account of a work that expressed much of the emotionally expressive nature of the travails of love.
This inspired and imaginative Stage II will surely assure him of a place in the Finals.
Aimi Kobayashi **
The Polonaise-Fantasie had a particularly thoughtful and considered improvisatory opening. A great deal of deep though has obviously been put into creating these varied landscapes of experience. She occasionally borders on over-interpretation. The Ballade in F major Op.38 showed great innocence in this opening of an opera of life. Lovely yearning tone contrasted with the wild explosions of experience. I tend to feel she unbalances many emotions in a structure that has been so carefully prepared. Death at the conclusion. I felt the Waltz in A-flat major was rather overdone. Chopin's waltzes are often light confections that he played himself for dances in Warsaw - not intended by him for dancing but many did dance to them all the same!
The Andante was presented with an affecting and beautiful legato 'smoothness' ('spianato') with fine sensitive and graceful control of the melody. This was a superbly aesthetic conception. The Polonaise had splendidly energetic rhythm and control of the style brillante. Fabulous technique this lady possesses. However, I feel she appears isolated from us behind a glass wall of perfection and does not communicate musical emotions effectively or generously enough to the listener. Isolated in her own world.....
Mateusz Krzyzowski **
The Nocturne in C-minor Op.48/1 was a soulful conception with many mercurial changes of well conceived mood.
Penetrating the expressive core of the Chopin Ballades requires an understanding of the influence of a generalized view of the literary, musical and operatic balladic genres of the time. In the structure there are parallels with sonata form but Chopin basically invented an entirely new musical material. 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. ‘I have received from Chopin a Ballade’, Schumann informed his friend Heinrich Dorn in the autumn of 1836. ‘It seems to me to be the work closest to his genius (though not the most brilliant). I told him that of everything he has created thus far it appeals to my heart the most. After a lengthy silence, Chopin replied with emphasis: “I am glad, because I too like it the best, it is my dearest work”.’
Mieczysław Tomaszewski paints the background to this work best:
It was during those two years that what was original, individual and distinctive in Chopin spoke through his music with great urgency and violence, expressing the composer’s inner world spontaneously and without constraint – a world of real experiences and traumas, sentimental memories and dreams, romantic notions and fancies. Life did not spare him such experiences and traumas in those years, be it in the sphere of patriotic or of intimate feelings. [...] For everyone, the ballad was an epic work, in which what had been rejected in Classical high poetry now came to the fore: a world of extraordinary, inexplicable, mysterious, fantastical and irrational events inspired by the popular imagination. In Romantic poetry, the ballad became a ‘programmatic’ genre. It was here that the real met the surreal. Mickiewicz gave his own definition: ‘The ballad is a tale spun from the incidents of everyday (that is, real) life or from chivalrous stories, animated by the strangeness of the Romantic world, sung in a melancholy tone, in a serious style, simple and natural in its expressions’. And there is no doubt that in creating the first of his piano ballades, Chopin allowed himself to be inspired by just such a vision of this highly Romantic genre. What he produced was an epic work telling of something that once occurred, ‘animated by strangeness’, suffused with a ‘melancholy tone’, couched in a serious style, expressed in a natural way, and so closer to an instrumental song than to an elaborate aria.
The Krzyzowski Ballade in G minor was fairly conventional but a fluent conception and execution of this at the time, widely understood, emotional form and its references to the blighted history of Poland. Both a personal and a general expression of grief and ultimately tragic resistance. He creatively used silence most skillfully to heighten the emotional temperature.
The Waltz in A-flat major Op.34/1 was understood well and both charming and elegant. His Polonaise Op.53 was stirring and noble in rhythm and overall conception. The 'cavalry' ostinato was outstanding. I feel that Krzyzowski has an idiomatic feel for the polonaise form and retains the 'Polish element' Chopin was obsessed to retain in performance. I am unsure about the quality of his tone and do not find it particularly alluring.
Jakub Kuzlik **
Hyuk Lee **
Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu **
As before in Stage I, the day is so demanding in terms of hours (10.00 am until 10.00 pm apart from say 1.5 hours for lunch - 16 competitors each day) that written reviews of each preferred contestant will need to wait a little
** Recommendation without reservations
* * * * * * * * * *
The level of musical standards is immense in this competition. Far higher than the last competition in 2015. All the pianists performed brilliantly - and this is not a platitude. As always, I was surprised and unable to explain some of the jury decisions. One cannot help but reflect on the unexpected absence of Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire and what immense influence their presence and individualistic personalities may have had on the decisions. All one can say, in order to avoid becoming simply a rather redundant 'talking head', is that the decisions are highly complex and musically mysterious for ordinary music-loving folk. The long delay in announcing the results indicates the difficulty of the task the jury faced
Owing to the general nature of increasingly absurd politically correct cultural and political sensitivities as well as censorship that unfortunately impinge on anything one cares to say publicly in 2021, I will refrain from commentary on any personal performance on a national level. It really is looking directly into the jaws of the tiger.
Do I lack the courage, for I do have plenty to say? Probably, but I also have my own creative work and temperamental preoccupations.
I feel that in the world we now live in, dominated and interconnected by fatuous social media, it would be unwise to begin discrimination discussions on any aspect of the competition at all other than the purely musical. But has anyone commented that there was not one black contestant and the significance of this culturally? The dominance of the competition by pianists from Asia, the reticence of Western musicians to enter musical competitions today and what this implies for the future of Western musical art, is of vital and contemporary importance.
The differences between national cultures and the expression of this in musical imagination must be constructively addressed. The Polish emotional vision of vision of Chopin moves at an entirely different pace and character to other cultures, something that is fully understandable. Cross-cultural understanding and tolerance between nations must reflect empathy and imagination in the performance of Chopin. At the same time integrity to the composer must be preserved.
The direction of Chopin interpretation seems to me to be being irreversibly altered, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, through their influence. The enthusiastic reaction of the audience to performances I regarded as unacceptably distorted musically concerning Chopin supports my contention. My comments below expand greatly on this idea. One cannot remain unaffected by the factor in a competition of this international stature with this universal composer. In the present censorious climate, any deeper discussion of these points would stir up a hornets nest of intense, pointless and possibly prosecutable racial discussion.
After listening to everything in Stage I, I conclude that however poorly Chopin is performed, in whatever country and whatever place, its universal human genius is of such a sublime order it remains unassailable immortal music, impervious to fashion and hovers above us as a constant consolation to the tragedies and joys of life.
I have been idly reading through my detailed accounts of the previous 2015 and 2010 International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competitions in Warsaw. Interesting to reflect on how the careers of some of these young artists have developed internationally and some have not.
Also to speculate once again on the approach to the music of Chopin in 2021 as we drift in time further and further from the source of his music. Have my reflections changed? Well, not a great deal...but you may disagree completely! We all have our own Chopin and will defend it to the death!
Would make such an interesting debate how young pianists in this technological age of distraction conceive of the sensibility, period charm and cultural context of the music of Chopin. Has modern technology, however miraculous, suffocated the romantic sensibility and love of poetry, literature and reading - the inspiration of so much music of the Romantic period ? We cannot leave everything up to the academics and musicologists at conferences!
My general opinions expressed in the last competition in 2015 of Chopin, pianists, performing and competitions have scarcely changed. I repeat some of this as many will not have read these reflections.
However the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute are to be deeply thanked and congratulated in overcoming with immense courage and controlled risk, the almost insurmountable obstacles to organizing this extraordinarily complex international competition in light of the pandemic now sweeping the planet.
As a serious writer I am not in the business of brief and comfortable comment. Some Facebook and Twitter comments, although an expression of the genuine enthusiasm of the moment, are rather fatuous and contribute little to our understanding of Chopin or the interpretation of his music. Especially when you consider the years of work, analysis, stress and sacrifice that has gone into each and every performance, each and every piece, bar by bar by bar. The competitors deserve more than three words.
I stand in awe of all the competitors having studied music seriously and tried myself to excel as a pianist and harpsichordist. Not at this level of accomplishment!
I have always believed together with Joseph Addison, the distinguished and influential 17th century English essayist, that:
A true critic ought to dwell rather upon excellencies than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer [read 'musician'], and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation.
Unlike so many of you I have grave doubts about the direction Chopin interpretation is taking today and over recent years. Perhaps I have simply read too many historical sources surrounding this music, its gestation and performance when I wrote my Polish book A Country in the Moon.
It seems to me that the Chopin aesthetic, that of intimacy, the quality referred to by the great Polish pianist Raoul Koczalski as 'lyrical impressionism' has been, except in the rarest cases, almost completely abandoned or at the very least significantly distorted. Chopin is being forced into our own mass market twenty-first century aesthetic with a certain grim inevitability and this is not without significant spiritual loss. Assembly-line Chopin.
Of course these young tyros have unimaginable musical talents (more than I could ever dream of or hope to achieve). However I feel the execution bears scarcely any resemblance at all to the way Chopin conceived of his own music and how it should be performed - at least from written descriptions by the composer, his pupils and contemporary listeners. The Stage I program included a Nocturne, two Etudes and a grand work such as a Ballade, Scherzo, Barcarolle or Fantasy. The presenter on Dwojka Polish Radio 2, Róża Światczyńska, in her commentary felt more Chopinesque qualities may have been tested if Mazurkas had been included in this stage.
Liszt can tolerate a high degree of dynamic inflation and exaggerated tempi on the mighty Steinway (after all he invented the solo recital that we witness now and was famous for breaking the pianos of the day). But for me Chopin cannot tolerate too much of this without sacrificing at least some of his uniquely poetic musical essence. Too many performances had little dynamic variation, variety of articulation, often a harsh tone, artificially contrived tempo rubato rather than a natural organic flowering of sensibility.
Spectacular in pianistic terms as these recitals are, sometimes individualistic and charismatic, I would say musically speaking, all in all, I prefer to be moved rather than astonished.
Chopin should be seen through the fine filter of Bach, Mozart and Hummel not in hindsight through the declamatory sound world of Liszt, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Prokofiev. But we are living in 2015 and time has separated us permanently and possibly forever from the historical source of this music and the rather precieux society connected with a proportion of it.
In his teaching Chopin concentrated intensely on the production of sound, a beautiful tone, a variety of tone on his responsive instruments and a touch of great refinement. His ear was extraordinarily acute. These vital aspects of pianism seem somewhat neglected in young pianists today and yet great teachers such as Heinrich Neuhaus (teacher of Gilels and Richter) also concentrated immense work on the production of a beautiful, rich and alluring tone.
I suppose no composer divides opinion so passionately as Chopin. Everyone has their ‘own Chopin’ which may well be irreconcilable, including members of the jury. So many (of course not all) the modern interpretations we have just heard (however astonishing in terms of finger dexterity) with obvious exceptions (above) lack creative poetry, aristocratic sensibility, elegance, intimacy, true refinement of touch and tone individuality and simple bon goût.
All these admirable qualities must be brought to bear on Chopin. The composer balanced his masculine and feminine natures in a unique manner. At least he has been fully liberated from the stigma of effeminate 'salon composer' which persisted for so long. He was a subversive political force certainly but we seem to have moved too far in the opposite direction - at least as far as I am concerned. Chopin is no muscle-bound revolutionary manning the street barricades throwing rocks he recently collected down in the quarry. One does get that impression on occasion.
‘My Chopin’ is not as hugely physical and even violent as the concert audience and professors seem to demand today. But this is the violent world we live in that adores physical prowess in sport, obsessively cultivates image over substance, is addicted to tumultuous special effects in the cinema, fights wars in computer games or for real in the horrifying bloodbaths around the world.
This Zeitgeist is reflected in the arts and even subconsciously in the approach to interpreting this most inaccessible and introverted of composers known in his time as 'the Ariel of pianists'. He was not an exhibitionist and not fond of display. I look to musical art for the consolations of a more civilized world of beauty or passionate resistance, seduced by sound not browbeaten with more of the same violence with which I am now all too familiar.
Audiences in general are now after the sensational - perhaps this has always been the case. Giving it to them with the technological competition in the entertainment industry and internet has become more and more difficult for piano playing. To shine as a performer seems to involve for many a gross distortion of the music. Chopin for some merely offers them a celebrity platform for display rather than authentic interest in Chopin's true intentions. 'Chopin's true intentions' - what a joke that sounds today. Well I never had a commercial mind.
Of course you cannot build a modern international concert career on the 19th century Pleyel that Chopin so adored, or even a more powerful Erard. I am not advocating a return to the past. But if you are sufficiently open-minded you can certainly learn a great deal about Chopin's original musical intentions and modify your approach to the modern instrument if you experiment, or have some familiarity with the earlier instruments. The absolute volume obtainable or sound ceiling of a smaller, steel-framed instrument is so much lower in absolute dynamic volume than on an immense Steinway, Yamaha or Kawai concert grand. Also the range of dynamics Chopin had in mind has been estimated at one degree lower than we assume from the music - Chopin's 'ff' was more likely 'f' in our time on a modern instrument.
Additionally, did you know Chopin's piano had subtly unequal temperament? As a harpsichordist naturally I was interested in this subject and I began to explore this scarcely mentioned fact. Unequal temperament gives the various keys a different colour and character. The keys become associated with different moods or affects. This was well known to the French clavecinistes. Chopin belonged to a society of 'ancient music' and knew the music of Telemann and Handel. Did he ever hear the music of Francois Couperin?
Forgive this digression. Equal temperament was not considered possible to achieve or even desirable until around the turn of the nineteenth century. Chopin was in despair when his tuner Ennike for some reason drowned himself and he could not find another to tune his piano to the temperament he desired. Chopin had an acute ear unsuited in its intimacy and sensitivity to the Lisztian onslaught of solo public concert performance that burgeoned after he died. This is the tradition which has persisted and which we have inherited. Much of the Chopin aesthetic effectively died with the composer except second-hand reports from his students. I agree it cannot be resurrected in its entirety but there should be some evidence in performance of having at least explored the historical and cultural context in which Chopin composed. Consider the cholera pandemics he survived and that devastated Paris.
(For more on this fascinating subject see Chopin in Performance: History, Theory, Practice NIFC Warszawa 2004 p.25-38 'Towards a Well-tempered Chopin' by Johnathan Bellman).
Chopin's directives and descriptions in letters and reported conversations are generally ignored in 2021 through pragmatic necessity. Because of the claims of a financially viable career both as student and professor today, the expectations of the current classical music recording and concert market, rapacious musical agents and the expectations of a prospective paying audience hungry for sensational playing, there has arisen slowly but inexorably, a standardized ‘Chopin product’, even a 'Chopin brand'.
Do we not have an ethical and artistic responsibility to attempt to come as close to Chopin's intentions as possible?
Chopin was a renowned teacher in Paris who actually began to write what became a stillborn piano method.
'I only indicate. It is up to the listener to complete the picture.' he commented to Wilhelm von Lenz. Understatement and sensitive restraint is hardly what we are hearing in many cases.
Imitation not inspiration seems to rule too many of these young pianists from whatever country.
Where is the magic dust?
As Arthur Rubinstein used to comment to his young pupils - 'A brilliant performance but where is the music?'
Well we are now in a 'global village' as recognized in a prescient phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy when I was a young man. The dangers of the emergence of an ubiquitous 'standard' Chopin style has been exacerbated by our miraculous technology. Inadequate opinions of two or three words with no analytical depth flood the social media. A competition win or high placing on one's CV seems to have become a mandatory requirement for a successful pianistic career.
As to individuality of appearance at the keyboard, certainly yes that is obvious but at least we have been spared the distractions of overt commercial sexual display as a musical 'Add on' in this competition. But in terms of an individual voice, individual tone and touch, something unique to say, spontaneity, rethinking or communicating that inspired feeling of recreation of music in the moment – little is happening for me on that level in the competition. Even a repertoire of familiar Chopineque expressive gestures seems to have been 'learned' by many contestants. I feel this comes partly from exposure to the repetitive nature and the possibility of listening to 'flawless' recordings an infinite number of times.
I received the odd impression that many pianists were inhibited, playing to please the jury. They seemed fearful of straying too far from an imagined or even taught norm of acceptability or 'correctness' in contemporary Chopin interpretation. As a result many contestants sounded terribly similar even at a high technical level. Such a lack of spontaneity! A disturbing standardization seems to prevail rather than offering interpretations from their own inner musical convictions, intuition and knowledge of the composer which would lead to a living recreation of the music of Chopin. Piano competitions should not have the constraining nature of an academic examination. One never becomes a true artist by 'playing safe'!
I could not help thinking of the first volume of Arthur Rubinstein's autobiography My Early Years. What a cosmopolitan life trawling the streets of Paris in the small hours to 'questionable places' with the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapine! Then the inventive mind and orchestral sonorities, sheer individuality of the great piano virtuoso Josef Hofmann who came up with the indispensable idea of the motor car windscreen wiper!
Remember Evgeni Bozhanov, Yulianna Avdeeva and Daniil Trifonov in the 2010 competition? And for the lucky few, their performances at Duszniki Zdroj ? Three supremely creative pianists who thought for themselves and evolved unique interpretations full of nuance and individuality. I feel that the overall standard of the 2010 and 2015 competitions were somewhat higher musically but perhaps not 'technically' if you can actually make such a distinction. There is a notable difference of technical quality this year I feel but at the expense of profound musical expression which Chopin deserves.
The approach to training modern pianists in the interpretation of Chopin on the modern concert instrument of our day needs a revolutionary rethink.
I do wonder sometimes what my favourite Chopin exponents and teachers - the great artists Arthur Rubinstein, Dinu Lipatti, Ignaz Friedman, Vladimir de Pachmann, Josef Hofmann, Witold Małcużyński, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Alfred Cortot, Solomon, Krystian Zimerman, Grigory Sokolov or Nadia Boulanger or even Theodor Leschetizky would make of the present climat de Chopin. Some great pianists avoided playing Chopin altogether like Giseking, Gould and Brendel. Simply because you are a great pianist does not mean you can come to terms fully with or even like the music of this most ambiguous of composers.
Sic transit gloria mundi
|Chopin's autograph of Prelude No: VI in B Minor Op. 28. |
Biblioteka Narodowa, Warszawa
Consulting Chopin facsimiles and autographs is of the greatest historical significance for pianists if they wish to approach as close as they can in 2021 to the living spirit of the composer. So superior to a comparatively sterile Urtext which of course is still clearly indispensable for serious music studies.
Facsimiles are not more or less interesting museum artifacts displayed in glass cases along with the ribbons, inkwells, lorgnettes and gold coffee cups but contain a wealth of information and clues to the composer's personality and his process of composition.
So much of interest is edited out in modern printed editions including his tormented indecisiveness even in small works such as this. Note the tremendously long slurs in the Prelude above indicating such a long cantabile or legato which never appears in printed editions.
Why did Chopin write them and with the permanence of ink rather than pencil?
They make perfect sense played on a Pleyel or Erard instrument with its inadequate damping and varied colour palette. These discoveries can then be at least partially transferred to the more 'evolved' instrument which Chopin may well have loved, the concert Steinway.
A journey of rewarding even exciting discovery lies in store for the interpretatively adventurous and perceptive pianist searching for his own true voice and what he considers to be that of the composer. Intuition strengthened with knowledge!
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There have been exceptions in the present competition to the above generalizations which I briefly mention with the greatest admiration and will cover later in more detail. I selected them or excluded them for vastly different musical reasons which I will attempt to justify later. It is far too easy for us to become blasé about the tremendous achievements and utterly passionate dedication of these gifted and hugely talented young musicians. Also they have to travel sometimes large and inconvenient distances at great expense to a foreign culture in order to participate.
These are the recitals which most impressed me. Nearly all on my list of 44 names below were selected by the jury.
Some brief notes I made at the time:
Arsenii Mun (Russia)
Beautiful instrumental tone and expressiveness - an absolute priority playing Chopin. Light and brilliant touch in the Etude Op.10/1. Ballade in G minor showed excellent technique and understanding of polyphony and counterpoint although rather too virtuosic.
Szymon Nehring (Poland)
In the Nocturne fine polyphony and counterpoint especially the L H melodies. Musical and refined. Expressive performance pf the Etudes with eloquent L H rare - rare in many pianists in the competition. The Ballade in F minor Op.52 was mature and musically accomplished with alluring tone. Transparent polyphony and highly expressive. He built the narrative drama carefully and with exciting panache. Some very remarkable moments in this performance.
Viet Trung Nguyen (Vietnam/Poland)
In the Nocturne a refined and glowing tone and velvet touch. Great sensitivity - highly musical with great sensibility. The Etudes were expressive and passionate. The Ballade in F minor truly sang like a true aria in the bel canto. Fine performance with just a few reservations.
Georgijs Osokins (Latvia)
In the Nocturne an individual voice courageously emerged. Fine feeling for improvisational creation - a Chopinesque deep quality of 'feeling his way'. Tremendous 'Revolutionary' Etude with magnificent feeling of passionate anger and resistance. The Ballade too 'pianistic' and rushed rather than evolving narrative for my taste.
Piotr Pawlak (Poland)
Etudes were finely expressive with an exciting and passionate "Revolutionary'. Ballade slightly too 'muscular' a view of the narrative. His outbursts of extreme passion should be disciplined slightly but moving emotionally nevertheless in a powerful performance.
Leonardo Pieredomenico (Italy)
Tenderness and charm came towards the conclusion of the Nocturne. A convincing Ballade and a little precipitous at times
Zuzanna Pietrzak (Poland)
A pianist with the courage to be herself and play her own view of works, even if they may conflict with the present accepted, standardized view.
Hao Rao (China)
Nocturne - beautiful singing tone and elegant, refined touch from the Steinway 479. Musical sensitivity of a high order. Fine performance. Excellent transparency and glowing tone colours in the Etudes. Transformed the 'Winter Wind' study into a monumental work. In the Scherzo in B-flat minor, no young pianist approaches the triplet opening figure as an existential question the way Chopin intended with the dramatic scherzo as the reply. Tremendously variegated, operatic moods here, a landscape of changing scenes. Huge Romantic drama. The audience adored it as I did! Such Gothic and sublimely exaggerated passion like a Salvator Rosa painting.
Talon Smith (United States)
Nocturne beautiful but bordered slightly on the sentimental - fine pedalling (a Chopin obsession). Moderately and not hysterical tempi (as many) for the Etudes. Dynamically expressive with a feeling of improvisation.
Evren Ozel (United States)
Beautiful Nocturne with charm. The Etudes were fluent and virtuosic slightly lacking in expressiveness (as with many digitally brilliant performances).
Yutong Sun (China)
Ballade was rare as a beginning to the recital. An account of the highest standard even if rather conventional. Such a young (16) yet accomplished player. A soulful and immensely sensitive Nocturne. Agitation of the heart highly emotional. Poignant singing cantilena in the melancholic Etude in E minor.
Aleksandra Swigut (Poland)
I simply cannot understand the jury decision to exclude this artist from at least Stage II. She (this second prize winner in the 2018 1st International Chopin Competition on period Instruments) sounded in her emotional landscape so different to any other competitor, from the very first note of the Nocturne. She has captured this individuality on the Steinway through study, knowledge and charismatic playing, music of the documented manner of Chopin's approach to composition and the instrument. I fear the taste for Chopin performance by executants and audience alike, is beginning to suffer from what is termed by sociologists 'proletarian drift'.
She gave us such soulful playing with a beautiful, gentle alluring tone. A different Chopin altogether and for me more authentic in the fundamental spirit of this inaccessible composer than Lisztian fireworks. The drama built superbly. She did so much creatively with the music and I was emotionally moved for the first time. She held the audience in silence. The Barcarolle was seductive and poignant, realized with great sensitivity and poetry. The cohesive structure of this demanding and complex work (both technically and emotionally) was finely integrated. The E-minor Etude had a seamless, expressive bel canto that touched the heart in a highly artistic performance. How could she possibly have been overlooked for Stage II ?
Kamil Pacholec (Poland)
Lovely, considered performance of the Nocturne. Both Etudes were performed brilliantly, the first fiery and the 'Octave' with a finely expressive cantilena at the centre of the piece. An excellent and sensitively expressive Barcarolle with a L H reminiscent of gentle waters although it did not appear a particularly romantic assignation.
Sarah Tuan (United States)
Rather Polish nationally dressed with white blouse and red trousers! I loved her 'Revolutionary' Etude which was possessed of zal and violent anger. It must be such a remarkable experience to fly far to play this piece here in Warsaw. The Fantasy had a feeling of fluctuating, fantastical emotions if slightly rushed. The nature of the Nocturne was perfectly understood in charming performance. I was reminded of evening concerts in the gardens of George Sand's mansion at Nohant.
Tomaharu Ushida (Japan)
Her tone and touch were ravishing in the Nocturne - the colours reminded me of Nohant in the garden of an evening, Chopin on a Pleyel emerging from a candlelit golden interior. Great dynamism and drama in the Etudes. A beautifully prepared Fantasy which lacked somewhat the fanciful degree of spontaneity and invention I was searching for in this piece.
Andrzej Wiercinski (Poland)
A beautifully executed Nocturne with many subtle and sensitive nuances. The 'Winter Wind' Etude possessed phenomenal clarity of execution and articulation. Then a stupendously driven and passionate performance of the Scherzo in B-flat minor Op.31 but without the existential triplet figure. The audience loved it as I did!
Yuchong Wu (China)
A particularly attractive, shall I say, dare I say 'masculine' Nocturne in 2021 ... and there is nothing wrong with that! Men have 'finer feelings' too, but perhaps of a different expressive nature. His Etudes were executed with powerful dynamic contrasts. The great F Minor Ballade Op.52 was a deeply musical and measured interpretation. I gained the impression of a wander ambling through the countryside reflecting on the entirety of his life. One of the finest F Minor Ballades so far in the competition.
Zi Xu (China)
Refined, glowing tone and velvet touch in the Nocturne. A quite wonderful interpretation of elegance and restraint. Does not become as hysterical as some in the Etudes. The 'Winter Wind' had a revelation of L H counterpoint. The Barcarolle had a perfect beginning that set the key colour gently and not with an unreflective crash against the wharf setting off. Again his cultivated tone was appropriate, sense of legato melody balanced, sensitive rubato, poetry and a shading of colours. Reflective, thoughtful and romantic as well as delicately nuanced. Calm settles over us after the surges of passion.
Piotr Alexewicz (Poland)
In the Nocturne he showed he had studied the deep influence of Bach on Chopin by emphasizing and teasing out the polyphony and counterpoint in the L H / Poetry and sensibility both. Fine performance. The Etudes were highly virtuosic and even entertaining in their extraordinary display of technique. The B-flat minor Scherzo was wild, passionate and youthful account of great drama and internal energy and fire. The audience adored it and went wild with shouted applause.
Leonora Armellini (Italy)
The tone she produced for the FAZIOLI was divine in this passionately observed Nocturne. Her Etudes were spectacular, expressive and authoritative. She appeared as a 'finished artist' unlike so many of the others despite their skills and talents. The Scherzo in E-major Op.54 showed enormous fluency in her phrasing and a perfectly integrated conception. The strange angularity of this scherzo was magnificently assembled like a wrought iron balustrade on a palace. The bel canto was limpid and moving, full of yearning and nostalgic love. How Italians can sing! Superb control of colours, variety of articulation, seamless legato, glorious sound, opulent tone and refined touch. The work emerged as the great masterpiece it surely is. Music as a conversation within the heart. Certainly a finalist if not the winner of this competition.
Junhui Chen (China)
It is far too easy to become blasé about what these young pianists have achieved as they parade past in a glorious line. A charming and calm Nocturne if slightly deliberate in tempo which leads one dangerously close to sentimentalism in Chopin. Good if not outstanding Etudes. Fine performance of the A-flat major Ballade Op.47.
Xuehong Chen (China)
I was absolutely captivated by the sheer sound, glittering like diamonds, produced by this pianist. The Nocturne was simple in its presentation with very sensitive touch. the whole piece attractively understated in tone. The Etudes displayed this remarkable glistening sound to perfection - tremendously exciting for the ear. This was a disciplined yet passionate performance of the G-minor Ballade Op.23 again with this glorious sound. Emotionally a deeply involving performance of significant stature.
Hyounglok Choi (South Korea)
There is an immediate difference of temperamental approach to Chopin by South Koreans compared with other Asian nations. One must consider the fraught history of the country torn asunder by war, families divided, divided imperially, culturally stressed and suffering still from these desperate reversals.
This was one of the finest of all the Nocturnes. The E-minor Etude was performed at a far more moderate tempo than most so the polyphony was clear to the listener. The cantilena was slightly faster than usual. A telling reversal of tempo. The G-flat major Etude was full of joy with finely controlled changes of mood and development. The Ballade in F-Minor Op.52 unfolded before us as a narrative in a true balladic form. And so this magnificent opera of life passes through its various phases. It was as if one chapter after another of a spiritual travel journey opened before us. An uncanny feeling. The narrative built to a dramatic, imperative consequence of what had passed before, like taking up habitation in the composer's mind. By far the best Op.52 ....
Federico Gad Crema (Italy)
In the E-minor Etude he discovered such interesting L H counterpoint and once again how Italian pianists can sing! A highly musical interpretation. In the 'Octave' G-flat major Etude we had less cataclysmic effects than many previous pianists. The bel canto was expressive and alluring. The concluding chords were magnificently solid and architectural.
Alberto Ferro (Italy)
Again an Italian with a superb bel canto and singing tone - the influence of Italian opera on Chopin was obvious in this interpretation of the Nocturne. And of course the pianist comes from Sicily where such singing is famous both on the street and in the conservatorium. The Barcarolle was not hysterical but lyrical again with the lovely singing approach which Chopin believed was vital to playing the instrument together with every outstanding teacher since. The Etude Op.10/1 was also presented as a magnificent sung aria followed by an excellent, angry and resentful 'Revolutionary' Etude.
Yasuko Furumi (Japan)
This is a strong, musically gifted player whom I heard win 3rd prize in the International Paderewski Competition in Bydgoszcz. A fine, expressive performance of the Nocturne. Both Etudes excellently played with superb accuracy and polish. The Fantasy was not quite so successful as she envisioned it as a purely virtuoso work without a great deal of feeling of improvised fantasy. Nevertheless a magnificent performance.
Alexander Gadjiev (Italy/Slovenia)
In the three Etudes we have yet another example of a 'singing Italian' and virtuoso pianist. The Ballade was a most impressive narrative with changes of mood and formidable virtuosity.
Avery Gagliano (United States)
Here we have an important prize winner in 2020 from the US. In the Nocturne her tone was seductive and alluring, her touch delicately refined. Her fiorituras had a marvelous improvised feel about them. Imaginative dynamic variation. A finished work of art. Her Etudes were both accomplished and expressive. Attractive dynamic variation, articulation, rubato and phrasing. Excellent L H with finely crafted melodic arcs. These were both brilliantly constructed and the finest Etudes we have yet heard. The G-minor Ballade was magnificent in a word, a true narrative replete with transparent and poetic polyphony and counterpoint. The entire interpretation was crammed with musical meaning. The musical analysis for performance preparation had clearly been highly detailed. Emotions were exceptionally balanced. Finalist without a doubt.
Martin Garcia Garcia (Spain)
In the Etude rather like some welcome and spicy garlic added to the previously rather banal sauce. The sun of Spain shines on us. He brought great rhythmic complexity and Latin fire. The FAZIOLI has such a powerful bass moderated by his skillful pedaling. The Nocturne had a clear sense of improvisation although not particularly ardent in any feminine sense. Overall a unique interpretation of a Chopin Nocturne. Here we had a passionate Ballade from Iberia ! He made full us of the monumental yet not oppressive FAZIOLI bass register.
Eva Gevorgyan (Russia/Armenia)
This was an inspired recital the like of which is rare to hear. The Nocturne lay transformed in her glowing tone and refined, elegant touch. The L H was like a movement in Nature after dusk has descended. The silhouettes of trees and hidden and mysterious rustling. Over all this velvet darkness a beautiful melody floats. The emotions begin to be disturbed. Do calm lovers become more declarative and physically passionate? The narrative lies within. This pianist is highly musical and for me a natural Chopinist. They are a rare species indeed.
The 'Winter Wind' Etude had a darkly haunted opening followed by a spectacular performance of supreme virtuosity and soul. The second Etude impressive in its articulation and rhythm. The Scherzo Op.54 was the first in the competition. It unfolded like a narrative with moments of impulsiveness and great emotional development. A monumental performance of this fiendishly difficult work. Audience went wild with much shouting and bravos. Finalist at least if perhaps not the winner.
Jorge González Buajasan (Cuba)
A fine and sensitive performance of the Nocturne. In the Ballade he created a full dramatic narrative with wonderfully fluctuating and 'wandering' emotions. I often wonder how much Schubert exerted on Chopin with the 'Wanderer' trop as they were all so fond of travel, not so easy in those days. Noble playing with male/female emotions and expression perfectly balanced. He builds tension brilliantly. The internal emotional turbulence of Chopin graphically expressed. I thought it a fantastic performance. The Etudes were tremendously moving with magnificent, even visionary, rubato and phrasing. He says so much in these works, a feeling like breathing. The passionate breath of life, so much sheer life in his playing that elevates these works into great masterpieces.
Chelsea Guo (United States)
This lady is also a singer and how it shows! Eloquent emotional Nocturne. The Etudes were played with great energy and glittering articulation. She is so clearly a 'finished' artist and pianist. The Barcarolle was poignantly nuanced and dynamically so varied with alluring legato. Particular atmosphere of what one might term a 'love elegy' emerged with perhaps slightly misguided passions at the conclusion of the outing on the lagoon. Overall a calm and gentle rendition of the work. She extracted a glowing tone and a rich colour palette from the FAZIOLI. Her singing experience is quite evident in her Chopin. Singing legato and organically breathed phrasing and rubato should be indispensable qualities in pianists.
Eric Guo (Canada)
He tended to the sentimental in the Nocturne but his seductive tone carried all before it. We were taken to a rather cliched dreamland but so what? We all need this with the grim realities of life surrounding us.
Junichi Ito (Japan)
Adam Kaldunski (Poland)
Nikolay Khozyainov (Russia)
Su Yeon Kim (South Korea)
Aimi Kobayashi (Japan)
Mateusz Krzyzowski (Poland)
Jakub Kuszlik (Poland)
Hyuk Lee (South Korea)
Jaeyoon Lee (South Korea)
Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu (Canada)
Jiana Peng (China)
Yulianna Avdeeva, piano
Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44
This piece, a deeply personal love of mine, was written for the composer's young bride Clara Wieck not long after they overcame many family obstacles and paternal hatreds to be married in 1840. The work acknowledges her virtuoso piano playing and their mutual love of Bach. Despite being an outstanding soloist, Avdeeva made close musical connection with the mebers of the Belcea Quartet. The opening Allegro brillante emerged as a joyful, spirited, sensitive and energetic movement. Such a wonderful melody, an heartrending theme flowered on the opulent cello of Antoine Lederlin. He plays a magnificently rich toned instrument Matteo Gofriller (1722). He was a famous venetian luthier noted for cellos - they have been played by many notable cellists among them Pablo Casals, Nicolo Paganini, Jacqueline du Pré, Anner Bylsma and Gautier Capucon. The Schumann melody is so simple, lyrical and full of the expression of young ardent love and affection. Were dark clouds forming however? I remembered the wonderful Swedish film Fanny and Alexander (1982) where this work featured. Absolute, unadulterated Romanticism infuses the piece. There was fine musical interchanges and phrasing between Avdeeva and the string players in this passionate music.
The In modo d'una marcia. Un poco largemente, as always, gave me the feeling of hesitant heartbeats in the fear of unforeseen obstacles to love, hesitant breaths of apprehension in the nervous system. Such a soulful, emotional opening to the movement. Also ardent waves of erotic desire seemed to explode in emotional surges, chambers of the heart that fill and overflow. This sensual agitation and fluctuation settled into lyrical dreams of seamless legato.
The Scherzo: molto vivace movement Significant shifts of mood and colour appropriate to Schumann. A joyful merging of souls. The movement sparkled along vivaciously with playing of great fluency and rhythmic drive. The mercurial nature of Schumann's temperament was clearly depicted in the music.
The Finale Allegro ma non troppo offered rhapsodic moments of great intensity and rich timbre as harmonies were savoured and explored with shifts of his whimsical, yet passionate moods. Rhapsodic convulsions of the heart. Tenderness laid among joyful fullness and fine sense of song.
Yet sometimes I felt a muscularity and almost too robust physical energy was expressed in this movement, somewhat foreign to the poetic, even literary ecstasies of the metaphysical Schumann. The influence of Bach on Schumann was clear in the Fugue and highlighted in the polyphonic conclusion to this movement. A triumphal harmonic resolution that Schumann must have experienced after those ten long years mired in the travails of forbidden love. An artistic performance of great stature.
Yulianna Avdeeva, piano
Philippe Giusiano, piano
Kevin Kenner, piano
Dang Thai Son, piano
Krzysztof Firlus, double bass
Johann Sebastian Bach: Concerto for 4 pianos in A minor, BWV 1065
This was a particularly entertaining and charming idea to assemble four of the world's great pianists to perform the Bach concerto for four harpsichords. Of course four concert grand pianos were available for the Chopin Competition, so such a concerto could be offered without a great deal of organization. It was highly enjoyable and musical. Of course playing the harpsichord myself I far prefer the version with four of the original instruments but what of that on this celebratory occasion ?
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrzej Boreyko, conductor
Seong-Jin Cho, piano
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
The Vienna of Mozart, the composer he adored above all others, drew Beethoven like a magnet. He was sixteen when he made his first journey there in 1787 and returned in 1792 ostensibly to study with Haydn. His brilliant keyboard playing caused many musical connoisseurs to consider him the second Mozart, unaware of his latent compositional genius. His revolutionary creative spirit soon outstripped Haydn. When he gave his first public concert on 2 April 1800 he included a Mozart symphony but failed to play this recently completed concerto, the C minor Op. 37 for reasons that remain obscure.
|Mozart's Vienna viewed from the Belvedere by Bernado Belotto|
In this concerto Beethoven attempted successfully to break out of a creative crisis. The key of C Minor he always favored for the expression of his most turbulent emotions. He had become horrifyingly and increasingly aware of his accelerating deafness which resulted in those profoundly melancholic words in the Heligenstadt Testament of 1802:
My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed. Thus it has been during the last six months which I have spent in the country. By ordering me to spare my hearing as much as possible, my intelligent doctor almost fell in with my own present frame of mind, though sometimes I ran counter to it by yielding to my desire for companionship. But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life - it was only my art that held me back.
(A passage from the Heiligenstadt Testament © Translation John V. Gilbert)
Written at much the same time as the glorious 'Spring' Sonata for violin and piano Beethoven wrote that in this concerto he wanted to 'breathe new life into an old form'.
After the extensive orchestral exposition of the first movement Allegro con brio, Cho gave an authoritative performance. The monumental cadenza (integrated with the first movement as well as merging into the Largo) with its tremendous trill (reminiscent surely of Op. 111) was finely executed.
Cho was most moving in the expressive Largo. He produces a beautiful tone, an affecting cantabile and eloquent phrasing.
The highly virtuosic Rondo-Allegro finale revealed Cho's virtuoso technique The increasingly polyphonic nature of Beethoven's orchestral writing in this movement was successfully highlighted and energized. We had by now moved from the dark, almost conventionally tragic, C minor onto the sunny upland pastures of C major in a major transformation of the musical landscape. The soloist Cho was always well integrated with the energetic orchestra and lively conductor, both clearly inspired by the celebratory moment. Overall I was looking for a little more Viennese charm and refinement in this particualar Beethoven concerto.
As encores Cho gave us a Schumann miniature and a charming Chopin waltz.
Rather Sad News (23/ix/2021)
Nelson Freire and Martha Argerich
Due to illness, Nelson Freire will not take part in the works of the Jury of the Chopin Competition. He will be replaced by Arthur Moreira-Lima, winner of the 2nd prize in the Competition in 1965, the highest - next to Martha Argerich - assessed by the Jury. He also became a favorite of the audience.
Martha Argerich, bound by a long-lasting friendship with Nelson Freire, decided to be with him in this difficult time. Therefore, she will not play at the inauguration of the Competition and will not sit on the Jury, in which she was in the two previous editions of the competition.
The Polish Chopin Institute, organizer of the Chopin Competition, informs that this year’s preliminary has enjoyed record popularity among music lovers and web surfers. Despite the pandemic, the tickets to nearly all the auditions of the Preliminary sold out long ago, while the online transmissions boast more than 4 million views so far. People from all over the world have accompanied the contenders online, and have watched the videos for over 700,000 hours, which corresponds to nearly 80 years of continuous watching.
The official inauguration of the Chopin Competition is slated for 2 October and will take place at the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall. The auditions will commence on 3 and end on 20 October. The crowning of the event will be the Grand Awards Gala with a concert by the winners, which will take place on 21 October at the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera. The winner of the competition will receive the Gold Medal and the First Prize of €40,000.
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Also if you are terribly keen on the historical record and tracing the development of particular pianists over the last ten years, I wrote this detailed account of the 2010 XVI International Fyderyk Chopin Piano Competition.
and my final thoughts
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