Warsaw hosts the Pearls of the Chopin Period Piano Competition 5th - 15th October 2023


The last Pleyel (No. 14810) piano played by Fryderyk Chopin 
Fryderyk Chopin Museum, Warsaw 

A Different Virtuosity

Pearls of the Period Piano in Warsaw

The mystery of instrumental sound and performance before recording has become an irresistible lure in classical music. Even before 1800 musicians were becoming increasingly interested in the nature of 'ancient music' if not so much in the manner in which it was performed. Baron Gottfried van Swieten contributed to Mozart's love of Handel and Bach in Vienna. 

Interest increased over the intervening years with the evolution of the humanist scholarly discipline of 'musicology'. Through the exciting explorations during the 1970s up to the present day, the so-called 'Early Music' movement and its now mainstream credibility has expanded exponentially in scope. This movement has become firmly established in Europe on the period piano,  notably in Warsaw.

Inevitably musicological interest and concern with authentic instrumentation has begun to focus on the extensive Romantic piano repertoire and the wide variety of pianos on which such works were performed. The ground-breaking and fascinating 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments in Warsaw in September 2018, was the first such competition in the world. The 2nd International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments will take place in Warsaw from 5-15 October 2023.


The National Fryderyk Chopin Institute had in 2005 already pioneered a series collection of award-winning recordings made on their collection of period pianos by world-famous pianists including Fou Ts'ong, Martha Argerich, Maria Joao Pires, Nelson Goerner, Tatiana Shebanova, Dang Thai Son and Dina Yoffe. This valuable recording initiative, known as The Real Chopin, continues to expand.

In an historical context, restoring the authentic sound of music by Fryderyk Chopin and the composers contemporary with him is particularly challenging. Approximating the original color and mechanics of the instruments the composer had at his disposal may, with study and practice, assist us to grasp the unique, specific character of Chopin’s music and open another parameter of interpretation dislocated as we now are from the historical source.

The period piano collection of The National Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw contains among others  Erards from 1838, 1849 and 1858; Pleyels from 1830, 1848 (Chopin's last piano) and 1854; a Broadwood from 1843; Paul McNulty copies of an 1819 Graf  and an 1825 Buchholtz  with a slightly extended compass and extra moderator pedal.

When one first encounters a nineteenth-century piano, the difference in sound to a modern concert grand can be rather striking to the uninitiated ear. 'I say, that's rather like the out of tune piano of my elderly aunt!' someone commented to me who had never before heard a wooden-framed piano. However the ear soon becomes accustomed to the contrast and then slowly becomes aware of the unique riches encountered on this journey aboard such a time machine.

A wealth of unfamiliar, fascinating music contemporaneously composed for these pianos is being uncovered in ancient libraries and dusty caverns throughout Poland. These instruments give us an unprecedented opportunity to analyze the sound of say, early unfamiliar style brillante works by Chopin. I have always believed his youthful polonaises have been unjustly neglected and underrated.

A modern concert hall can never be as conducive to elegant intimacy and poetic reverie as a serious nineteenth century ‘salon’ might have been, seasoned with intellectual conversation, an aristocratic audience, family portraits, paintings, Caucasian rugs, French tapestries and Murano chandeliers.

In the early to mid-nineteenth century, piano sound and national character were intimately connected. The national cultural preferences in musical style, instrumental sound, timbre even the politics of music were significant in a way they are far less today.  With the passing years the design and sound of our modern instruments have become homogenized with scarcely any national predilections or any significant technical advances. Makers of the more recent past such as Blüthner, Baldwin, C.Bechstein, Grotrian-Steinweg, Petrof or even Pleyel are rarely heard on concert platforms.

For most audiences, their first acquaintance with the music of Chopin is through the medium of a modern instrument and almost never through an historical instrument of his timeIll-informed opinions of his music can easily be formed on an instrument he would never have contemplated in size or listened to at a volume that would have certainly disconcerted him.

He once commented in relation to his Preludes: ‘I indicate, the listeners must complete the picture.’ Chopin with his characteristic barbed irony once confided to Liszt, who was really the originator of the public performance as we know it:

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.

He could never have envisaged modern recordings in a world lacking electricity. The Chopin aesthetic is essentially that of the sensibility of the eighteenth century poised on the cusp of the Romantic period. He once declared: 

‘Concerts are never real music; you have to give up the idea of hearing in them the most beautiful things of art.’ 

However during the nineteenth century there was a ferment of national activity in Europe fast pushing forward piano design with an astonishing range of inventive devices.  From the simple action of the Cristofori instrument of 1720 with its papier-mâché cylinder hammers covered in thin leather to the sophisticated instrument of today is a long journey of invention. These exciting advances were intimately linked with what composers required to satisfy their exploratory musical imaginations. There is a courageous, even avant-garde emotion in feeling that a composer is pushing the limits of his instrument. This is affectingly clear in Beethoven on pianos of his day so full of creative tension, inadequate to fully realize the turbulent sound world of his imagination. 

The modern steel-framed  concert grand began to develop under similar creative pressure from the formidable keyboard demands of Liszt, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Scharwenka, Rubinstein and others. One is forced to ask if these are unarguably the most suitable instruments for the sound world of earlier repertoires and the instruments available to composers then? Chopin's early style brillante works are masterpieces but influenced by Hummel and the earlier late eighteenth century soundscape of Viennese instruments rather more than the different later French and English developments of Pleyel, Erard and Broadwood.  

The volume and timbre of the English 1848 Broadwood ('le rosbif') with its felt-covered hammers and double escapement mechanism, is surprisingly different to the more restrained Viennese character produced by the lighter, leather-covered hammers and single escapement of say the Paul McNulty copy of the 1819 Graf or the unique sound of the Polish1825 Buchholtz.  The masculine strength and full-blooded English character of the Broadwood was admired by Chopin and influenced the piano design and compositions of Camille Pleyel.

The sensual, refined and elegant French character of a period Pleyel  is another significant national contrast.  The sound world and emotional connotations produced in the heart and mind are substantially different and more subtle to those evoked by modern instruments. Being entirely hand built to commission meant each instrument was different. The Pleyel  has a magisterial rhapsodic bass, luminous but warm cantabile and feather light ethereal pianissimos uniquely achievable in the trebleIn chromatic Etudes ranging over the entire compass of the keyboard, the register colours are gloriously displayed in a rainbow arc of sound.

On the Polish Buchholtz the moderator (a rail of thin felt placed between the hammers and the strings) can be utilized emotionally to create a sound world of tender intimacy, of luminous yet veiled light. The dream or rather nostalgic ache contained within the Michał Kleofas Ogiński Polonaise  'Farewell to My Homeland (Pożegnanie Ojczyzny),' of 1794 is heightened with the double moderator. The ultra-pianissimo is yearning and deeply melancholic in its sense of loss. One feels spiritually transported in a way rarely experienced.

On a period piano the musical narrative is coherent and unfolds like the wings of a moth preparing to fly at dusk. So much polyphonic detail and transparent nuance is organically revealed in Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn or Chopin on earlier instruments, an expressiveness that grows organically from within not merely applied to the surface.

Important observations crystallize in my mind. Tone and touch, the quality of the sound produced, are little spoken of today in appraising a pianist. We are more concerned with structural, interpretative, historical and biographical concerns.

On period instruments the player must work at producing an alluring tone. Much depends on ‘singing’ with a subtle, sophisticated cantabile finger technique with little use of arm or body weight. Tempting ‘hysterics’ in performance are severely punished on period pianos. However, the preoccupation with cantabile playing gradually fell from favour as the nature and style of composition changed and piano design concentrated more on percussive volume to satisfy the thousands of listeners in the cavernous space of the modern concert hall. 

Chopin spoke obsessively in his teaching of the primary importance of cultivating a beautiful tone and touch. ‘Caress the key, never bash it!’  he would say. ‘Simplicity is everything.’ 
On a Pleyel the pedals alter the timbre, inseparable from tone production. Pedalling became in his words, ‘a study for life’. His uniquely creative use of the pedal in his rare recitals was often commented upon.

Antoine François Marmontel (1816–1898), a renowned French pianist, composer, teacher and musicographer, observed of Chopin's playing:

‘I heard Chopin during his first year in Paris, and his playing already had an exquisite beauty, a natural sensitivity, a suave, hazy sonority based essentially on the delicacy of his touch and his quite individual use of the pedals.’

In more modern times the great pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus wrote in The Art of Piano Playing in the extensive chapter  ‘On Tone’ :

‘Music is a tonal art. It produces no visual image, it does not speak with words or ideas. It speaks only with sounds. But it speaks just as clearly and intelligibly as do words, ideas or visual images.’

The production of a fine tone, an individual voice, perhaps more especially on a period instrumentdepends both on the ear and the spiritual qualities of the performer. Tone is not sensuously static but a dialectic rendering musical meaning. The variation of tonal texture is analogous to colour gradations in painting. Period instruments lend themselves perfectly to a multi-layered, ‘multi-plane’ painterly approach. This is an important consideration, polyphony being omnipresent in many works by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Chopin.

Music that sounds homogenous on a modern piano can reveal distinct voices on a period instrument, each voice with its own individual character and kaleidoscope of register colours. Certain rarefied and refined feelings in Chopin simply cannot be captured on a modern instrument. One learns a great deal about familiar works played on instruments of the period that can often be transferred with modifications to augment the ubiquitous Steinway's  own unique qualities.

Chopin wrote: ‘Fortepiany Pleyelowskie est non plus ultra’ - the instrument is the last word in perfection. The tone of a Pleyel has a seductive velvet quality to it, slightly diffuse, with light transparent trebles and a rich but clear mahogany bass. Liszt wrote of ‘their silvery and slightly veiled sonority’ and ‘lightness of touch’. The puzzling descriptions of Chopin’s  playing, his refined nuances, inimitable rubato, cantabile melodic line and delicate ornamentation ‘falling like tiny drops  of speckled dew over the melodic figure’ according to Liszt, make absolute sense with the light action and extreme sensitivity of a period Pleyel.

Chopin  was to  write  from  Paris  to  his friend  Tytus  Woyciechowski:

 ‘When I feel out of sorts,’ Chopin would say, ‘I play on an Erard piano where I can easily find a ready-made tone. When I feel in good form and strong enough to find my own individual sound, then I need a Pleyel piano.'

A more balanced bass is achievable on these straight strung period pianos assuming your heart is engaged in expressiveness rather than display. A legato ‘singing tone’ and detached ‘hammer tone’ are both brilliantly achievable. Heinrich Neuhaus concludes his chapter on tone with these eloquent words:

‘…tone must be clothed in silence; it must be enshrined in silence like a jewel in a velvet case.’

The many alternative pianos with their great variety of timbre and sound palette would have constantly stimulated Chopin's imagination.

The essential nature of the eighteenth century style brillante, of which the Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.22 is an outstanding representative of Chopin’s early Varsovian style, seems rather a mystery to many young pianists. Jan Kleczyński writes of this work: ‘There is no composition stamped with greater elegance, freedom and freshness’. 

The period style brillante involves virtuoso display, intense feeling, a bright light touch and glistening tone, varied shimmering colours, supreme clarity of articulation, what was referred to in French as the renowned jeu perlé. The expressive elements of personal charm, grace, taste and elegance should also be in abundance. The style is perfect for the early period pianos for which it was conceived.

Expressive and decorative fiorituras, controlled pianissimos of which there are many in Chopin, can be produced with breathtaking delicacy on a period instrument, like cobwebs dusted with dew. The limited dynamic scale and scope of emotion implied in the direction con forza or appassionato remain in balance in Chopin on a period instrument.

Hyperbole was popular in describing Chopin’s playing. However, there must be some elements of truth in these baroque descriptions. Yet few contemporary reviews mention his piano by name as connected with his actual playing. One remarkably perceptive and descriptive account of a Chopin concert with Pauline Viardot and Franchomme at the Pleyel salon in Rue Cadet on 21 February 1842 was written by Léon Escudier and published in La France musicale :

‘A poet, a tender poet above all, Chopin makes poetry predominate. […] M. Pleyel’s magnificent instruments lend themselves admirably to these various shadings. Listening to all these sounds, all these nuances – which follow each other, intermingle, separate and reunite to arrive at the same goal, melody – one might well believe one is hearing small fairy voices sighing under silver bells, or a rain of pearls falling on crystal tables. […]

Do not ask Chopin to simulate grand orchestral effects on the piano. This type of playing suits neither his constitution nor his ideas. He wishes rather to astonish you with his light swiftness, with mazurkes [sic] with their novel forms and not give you nervous attacks and make you swoon. His inspiration is all of tender and naïve poetry; do not ask him for big gestures or diabolic variations; he wishes to speak to the heart, not to the eyes; he wishes to love you not to devour you. See how the public is in ecstasy...’

Few participants in the extraordinary 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments in Warsaw seemed to be familiar with such contemporaneous accounts or simply ignore them in obedience  to their performance careers. In the end it is personal character that will distinguish one pianist from another at the highest level of performance and interpretation. A different virtuosity and musical character is required for convincing performance on the period piano. The cultivation of it requires a special sensibility, historical imagination, acute ear, and love.

Each historical epoch interprets the past through its own cultural filters. Consideration of contemporaneous accounts and the instruments on which the music was originally performed is a vital addition to any performance of music wishing to approach the musical source with integrity.
There is a present intense reassessment of the soundscape of Chopin, Schubert, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schumann and many 'forgotten' composers  during the remarkable renaissance of Polish music now taking place.

I feel a similar excitement to that experienced in London during the revolution in Baroque and ‘Early Music’ historical performance on the harpsichord in the late 1960s and 1970s. A similar revolution seems to me to be now in progress with the period piano. The evidence lies in Warsaw, perhaps the greatest European centre of this radical rethinking in 2023. The complex echoes of this renaissance in interpretation or 'rehearing', (a concept coined by the Chopin authority Prof. John Rink), have begun in earnest.

The greatest achievements in art should make one question accepted values and perceptions, enable one to see or hear familiar things differently, reveal new previously hidden joys through another pair of uniquely gifted eyes or ears. This was certainly accomplished during the 1st. International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments in Warsaw. Hopefully this will be mirrored during the second competition in October.

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For the restoration by Paul McNulty in detail of Chopin's last Pleyel piano:



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