Chopin Competition winners perform live in Warsaw
22 October 2015, Warsaw, Poland
Chopin Competition winner Seong-Jin Cho(Photo © Ramistudio.com)
Report by Stephen Wigler
Last night in Poland’s Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, the first of three Prizewinners' Concerts (the programme will be repeated tonight – 22 October - and tomorrow) marked the grand finale to the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition, the oldest and most celebrated of the world’s major instrumental classical music contests. The concert, which started at 7pm and lasted until nearly midnight, actually began with almost 90 minutes of speeches by several Polish dignitaries, including President Andrzei Duda, honouring not only the contest's six prizewinners, but also the memory of Chopin. He was not only his country’s greatest composer, we were told, but also the greatest composer who ever devoted himself to a single instrument: the piano.
The Prizewinners then gave performances before a wildly enthusiastic, sold-out audience. They were, in reverse order of appearance: the 21-year-old South Korean first prize winner, Seong-Jin Cho, who reprised his performance of Chopin’s E minor Concerto with the Warsaw Philharmonic and its music director, Jacek Kaspszyk; second prize winner, Canada’s 25-year-old Charles Richard-Hamelin, who performed a Nocturne and a Ballade; third prize winner 21-year-old Kate Liu of the United States, who performed three Mazurkas; fourth-prize winner, 17-year-old Eric Lu, also of the United States, who played a selection from the 24 Préludes; and fifth prize winner, Canada’s Yike (Tony) Yang, at 16 the youngest of the six winners, who played an Impromptu and the Barcarolle. Because he was said to be indisposed, the 23-year-old, sixth prize winner, Dmitry Shiskin, neither performed nor appeared on stage.
Of the world’s five major piano competitions (the others are Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth, Russia’s Tchaikovsky, Great Britain’s Leeds and America’s Cliburn), Poland’s Chopin is the oldest (founded in 1927 and held every five years) and generally considered the most important. Its prestige is less a matter of its prize money (the total prize money of slightly more than €100,000 is less than half of what the Cliburn offers) than its accuracy as a predictor of successful careers. Unlike other competitions, whose prizewinners often fade into relative obscurity ), the first prize winners in Warsaw, and a significant number of the finalists and semi-finalists, usually have gone on to lead important careers. On Tuesday, almost immediately after his first prize was announced, Cho was signed by DG for a debut album to be released early next month.
The International Chopin Piano Competition Prizewinners' Concert recorded live on 21 October 2015 is now available to watch online at Medici.tv
Seong-Jin Cho wins the 2015 Chopin Competition
21 October 2015
New Issue Out Now!
20 October 2015
With recordings ranging from the Bach Preludes to The Pink Panther, virtuoso pianist Cyprien Katsaris speaks to IP about his all-embracing approach to repertoire and the artistic freedom that comes from setting up his own label; Stephen Kovacevich looks back over a career of triumph over adversity; and we examine the enduring legacy of Van Cilburn, grappling with the contradictions of an idolised but often misunderstood artist. Plus, BBC Young Musician Martin James Bartlett on adjusting to the musical limelight at the age of 19; our symposium panel consider the influence of Bach and Mozart on Chopin and the ramifications for performance; the digital piano revolution and whether keyboards can ever hope to match the glories of acoustic pianos; Philip Mead prepares for the first performance of Bax’s Nympholept for piano; the importance of preparing yourself psychologically as a precursor to successful performance; reports from piano competitions at Leeds and Honens; and free sheet music of 9-11 After by Christos Papageorgiou.
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Ivo Pogorelich: London Calling
19 October 2015
This article was originally published on pp.19-21 of the January/February 2015 edition of International Piano. You can buy the full January/February 2015 issue here.
Ivo Pogorelich enters the foyer of a luxurious Paris hotel with an easy feline grace. He is unexpectedly heavily built, still striking even if the luxuriant dark locks familiar from dozens of LP covers in the 1980s and are now ‘poivre et sel’ and cut in the style favoured by Rachmaninov. His dress is ultra-casual: loose-fitting grey cord trousers and a greyish fleece top zipped up to his chin.
A fountain tinkles as we head into the hotel’s garden and towards a table at the far end of the paved courtyard. Cushions are brought. Pogorelich’s agent hovers while his publicist takes me aside and reminds me that the maestro likes to be asked questions but doesn’t like the fluff in between. I have, as requested, already provided a list of questions in advance. Sadly, I have forgotten to bring them with me. I have a present for him – a copy of Alkan’s Nocturne, Op 22 (we’re in Paris, after all). He examines it at arm’s length. ‘Hmm. When was this written? ‘Some time in the 1840s,’ I say. He puts it aside and that’s that. If he has any views on Alkan or his music, they are not up for discussion, so I fall back on my half-remembered prepared questions. We are here to talk about the pianist’s eagerly awaited London recital, the first he has given in the capital for some 15 years. It is, I suggest like a comeback. He frowns. ‘In what sense?’
‘You haven’t played in London for a great many years,’ ‘I have played in London, but not a recital. I played in London as recently as three or four years ago as a soloist with the Philharmonic Orchestra. So that’s not entirely accurate information. I would avoid such terms as “comeback”. I cannot come back because I never left.’ ‘Well, let’s call it a return, then, after 15 years.’ ‘Or just an appearance,’ he counters firmly. ‘An artist appears.’
The Croatian pianist has chosen a big programme for his upcoming recital: the first half will feature Liszt’s ‘Dante’ Sonata and the Schumann Fantasy; and in the second half, he will perform Stravinsky’s Petrushka and both books of the Paganini Variations by Brahms. For 30 minutes, Pogorelich discourses on his programme, with few prompts from me. He speaks slowly and thoughtfully in a musical Russian accent, with the kind of precise and accurate English that is spoken only be someone for whom it is a second or third language.
‘In describing this programme, which I started working on as recently as April of last year, it is perhaps noteworthy to say that, seemingly, there is not any unifying element to it,’ he says. ‘But there is. On the one hand you can say that these are staple pieces of the repertoire; any pianist capable of performing any of these pieces should be seen as an accomplished artist. However, the underlying and unifying factor is the modernity of each piece – modernity at the time when each was written. If we look at the Liszt, for example, what he did was absolutely revolutionary, even the title: Fantasia quasi Sonata. What he did was to create the most extraordinary architecture, turning it into one of the most unusual concert pieces for the piano.
It is unbelievably taxing. It will open the recital, which will be seen by many as a very unusual choice. Then, after that, another fantasy: Pogorelich then expounds on the origins of the work and the fact that its sales contributed to the funds for a statue of Beethoven in Bonn. ‘The civil connection between the ‘Dante’ Sonata and the Fantasy is that the Schumann Fantasy is dedicated to Liszt, but what in reality links both works is the same invisible face – and that is Beethoven.’
So what, I interject, is the link between the Stravinsky and Brahms works? But Pogorelich has not finished. ‘Fantasy but at the same time Sonata,’ he continues. ‘Then Fantasy but in reality a Sonata, with displaced movements. To whom would it have occurred to have put the slow movement at the end of the work? Would you say that it was totally and completely revolutionary?’
‘Not entirely,’ I submit. ‘Beethoven? Op 109 and 111?’
‘Yes,’ agrees Pogorelich, ‘but not in such a demonstrative way, with the second movement being a triumphant march. So in following that, the unusual thing in this programme is that before the intermission, you get slow music. Normally, an artist will try to present something that, shall we say, provokes applause.’ Pogorelich smiles wryly. ‘Well, the third and fourth pieces of the programme are again about this modernity. We go to smaller forms. Petrushka is a suite and each work in itself is episodic. I strongly believe at the time of composition it was almost unplayable by any contemporary, much less the pianist to whom the work was dedicated [Arthur Rubinstein}. So what was behind Stravinsky’s audacity? It’s almost as if this work was presented as a form of challenge. It challs for modern solutions. There is a similarity between certain sections of Petrushka and certain variations from the two books of variations of Brahms. Now, Brahms has given his work two titles. The first is Etudes for Piano. The second is Variations on a Theme of Paganini. So these works were meant to enhance the arsenal of a pianist including himself. In fact, when I was learning both works last year, I realised how much one helped the other. It’s extraordinarily athletic and difficult.’
Pogorelich’s recital is much anticipated. People’s expectations will be riding high after such a long absence. Is that, I ask him, a rather scary feeling? ‘No, absolutely not. Look, I really wanted to present a recital programme that has a concept behind it. It is not playing to the tastes of anyone, not even my own taste. These are new works. I am satisfied that I am not forever repeating the pieces of old, et cetera. My artistic obligation is to present something that will cost me. If it doesn’t cost me as an artist then… I mean, try to imagine: I could have lived without these bloody Variations!’
I notice that his hands are very much the same as Liszt’s. ‘Yes, apparently. I’ve been told that before. They’re big hands. Not ideal for piano playing. Neither were Liszt’s. It’s an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. It has less to do with anatomy and more to do with the fashion in which you employ the fingers.’
Born in Belgrade in 1958, the son of a double bassist, Ivo Pogorelich has long been a controversial figure. Indeed he first came to international prominence at the 1980 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, when Martha Argerich, who was on the jury, declared him ‘a genius’ and walked out in protest after he was eliminated in the third round, an event that somewhat diverted attention from the eventual winner Dang Thai Son. Pogorelich’s early recordings for Deutsche Grammophon won ecstatic reviews. Those of Gaspard de la nuit, Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata and Schumann’s Toccata are among the greatest piano recordings of all time. His discs of Scarlatti Sonatas sparkle with wit; his personal take on Bach’s English Suites Nos 2 and 3 is the work of an original artist; and, for all its idiosyncrasies, his Chopin Scherzo No 3 is a persuasive reinvention.
With his acclaim as a pianist and adulation as the brooding poster boy of classical music came a reputation for arrogance and self-importance. Jaw-droppingly, he refused to be part of the iconic multi-label 200-CD series Great Pianists of the 20thCentury realised by Philips in 1999. Not for nothing is he known in some quarters as ‘Ivo the divo’. While punters fell on his recordings like locusts and his concerts sold out wherever in the world he was playing, some critics began wondering about an increasing number of eccentric readings with extreme tempo fluctuations.
The personal tragedy struck. After lessons in Belgrade until the age of 12, in 197 Pogorelich was invited to study in Moscow. When he was 17, he began lessons with the Georgian pianist Aliza Kezeradze, 21 years his senior. For years later they married. ‘She shaped me the way you sharpen a knife every day,’ he admitted. In 1996 she died from liver cancer. In 2006 interview, Pogorelich described how ‘her liver exploded and in her last kiss she showered me with black blood. I looked like the Phantom of the Opera. My hair was completely clotted. I didn’t want to wash it off.’ For a long time he couldn’t touch the piano.
Pogorelich’s agent appears. ‘Two more minutes, maestro.’ ‘No, no,’ Pogorelich consults his watch. ‘We haven’t finished yet.’ The agent vanishes. ‘I’ve never lost her,’ he emphasises to me. ‘She’s somewhere behind now [he indicates the back of his chair]…In terms of piano playing, a short time before her illness I said to her, isn’t it time for me to change pianism? I no longer feel capable of doing things. And she said to me yes, I will teach you but you need to withdraw for a period of time as it will get worse before it becomes better. She never had time because life and career interfered. However, I had the enormous courage to follow that conversation. She was no longer there, but look what I did. I met a contemporary, a colleague who was trained by the same teacher as my wife, in the same tradition and in the same school, going back to Liszt and Beethoven. This was at the conservatory of St Petersburg. And I said, I want the fundamentals again.’
‘What is their name?’ I ask.
‘It won’t help,’ replied Pogorelich. ‘It is a person who is absolutely unknown, who married and had children and abandoned performing and didn’t even teach for a while. But I said, I want the fundamentals. And she said, fine, but you have to forget everything. I thought, am I ready for that? It was the fourth time in my life I had to change technique. I just felt that my technique was insufficient for any further progress. ‘Well,’ I say, perhaps ingenuously, ‘I don’t understand, when you have one of the great techniques of any living pianist.’
‘Why only living?’ he bridles. ‘Try to imagine you want to fly but in your own estimation you are unable to walk.’
Since the period of reappraisal, Pogorelich’s playing has attracted some positively vitriolic reviews from distinguished crititics: ‘An immense talent gone tragically astray,’ opined the New York Times after a 2006 recital, an estimation with which you might concur if you listen to a live performance (date unknown) online of Rach 2 with which even a brief encounter will have you screaming at the speakers.
How long did it take him before he felt confident enough to resume playing in public after his wife’s death? More refutation and contradiction: -‘No, no, I didn’t stop playing. No, no.’ ‘The impression is that you did.’ ‘It doesn’t correspond to actual facts in the form of dates, programmes and countries,’ he replies tetchily. ‘This is just hearsay! I don’t even feel like contradicting it. First, it was stretched from one year to two, then three, then to seven, and finally 17 years according to some internet sources. I never stopped. So.’ ‘My point is that in the 1980’s and early 1990’s you were one of the top five most high-profile pianists in the world, and now…’ ‘What does that mean? High profile?’ ‘There are young music students who have never heard of you.’ ‘I have nothing to do with that. I have not contributed to that perception. Neither am I interested in changing that. What I am doing is my work and it’s important for you to understand that this work is very, very real.’
Pogorelich rises. He has been more than generous with his limited time. We walk back through the garden into the hotel. With impeccable manners, he escorts me to the front desk, shakes my hand, graciously bids me farewell and heads back for his next interview.
Bloomsbury Festival offers a feast of piano music in venues across London WC1
19 October 2015, London, UK
Noted Chopin interpreter Anna Zassimova performs at this year's Bloomsbury Festival(Photo: Rainer Koehl)
The 2015 Bloomsbury Festival takes place this week at venues across London WC1, offering a wide-ranging cultural programme that includes five solo piano recitals and a evening of music for piano quartet.
The University of London's iconic Senate House building is the venue for recitals by two talented young artists. Anna Zassimova (23 October, 7pm) has been praised for her period instrument recordings of Chopin and will present a programme of Schumann, Chopin and Russian music, together with a world premiere commission by Bloomsbury composer-in-residence Adam Donen. Marios Panteliadis (24 October, 7.30pm) recently completed a masters at the Royal Academy of Music and can be heard in Schumann’s Kreisleriana and Scriabin's Sonata No 3.
The Music Room at 49 Great Ormond Street plays host to two young talents from Asia in a pair of free lunchtime concerts: Singaporean pianist Abigail Sin presents a programme of Schumann and Griffes with the intriguing title 'Sunlight, Shadows and a Symphony of Colour' (22 October, 1pm), while Grace Oh from South Korea will perform Beethoven's turbulent Tempest Sonata alongside works by Rachmaninov and Ravel (23 October, 1pm).
Elsewhere, the British-born pianist James Brawn can be heard in a recital of Chopin and Beethoven at the Foundling Museum (24 October, 4pm), Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 2 will be performed by the young Italian artist David Malusa as part of a symphonic programme by the Goodensemble at Goodenough College (22 October, 7.30pm), and the Primrose Piano Quartet plays Beethoven, Chausson and Brahms at the Conway Hall (25 October, 6.30pm).
The Bloomsbury Festival was established in 2006 to celebrate the area's unique blend of academic institutions, businesses, cultural organisations and diverse communities. Led by festival director Kate Anderson with patronage from the Duchess of Bedford, the annual event is billed as 'a creative explosion of performance, arts, music and heritage events held in the streets, parks, museums, galleries, laboratories and public and private buildings of one of London’s most vibrant cultural quarters'.