Owen Mortimer

1:07, 2nd January 2019

The 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments was held in Poland last year, providing an important platform for performances of early 19th-century music on historic pianos. Eva Doroszkowska reports from Warsaw

The centenary of Poland’s independence in September 2018 saw the launch of a new piano competition using period instruments that Chopin himself might have known and played. This initiative of Warsaw’s Chopin Institute, presented in collaboration with Polish TV and Radio, aims to champion authenticity of style and sound, prizing refinement and finesse over bravura and brilliance.

The Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, home to one of the world’s oldest piano competitions (the original Chopin Competition dates back to 1927), was the perfect venue for showcasing exceptional talent and the visual wonder of period instruments, lavishly decorated and hand-built with expert craftsmanship. In all, 30 pianists from nine countries took part, 15 of whom qualified for the semi-finals, whittled down to a final six for the concerto round. The participants were judged not just on the usual criteria of musicianship and technique, but also on their ability to choose the right instrument for the repertoire they played – revealing as much about themselves as their playing. The line-up of pianos featured a selection of Erards, Pleyels, a Graf, a Broadwood and – in pride of place – a replica of Chopin’s own Buchholz piano, commissioned from the Canadian maker Paul McNulty for the occasion.

The specific nature of the competition saw the inclusion of set pieces by Bach, with a selection from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which was such an influence on Chopin; alongside the Preludes and Fugues, participants were also invited to perform Polonaises by Chopin’s own largely forgotten contemporaries. Bach tested the nerves of many participants, while the Polonaises explored Chopin’s wider cultural context, bringing some valuable repertoire to light and, for the more creative participants, offering opportunities for extemporisation – a 19th-century tradition now making a resurgence.

The jury was chaired by Artur Szklener, director of the Chopin Institute, and comprised renowned historical practice experts and internationally recognised concert pianists. Former Chopin laureates such as Dong Thai Son and Nelson Goerner sat alongside leading exponents of the fortepiano, including Tobias Koch and Alexi Lubimov.

Six finalists performed Chopin concertos, split across two evenings. Five out of six chose the Concerto in F minor, and Krzysztof Książek, winner of the Mazurka Prize, gave the only performance of the E minor. Performances from all rounds were streamed live and the finals broadcast on Polish television, which proved a truly momentous occasion.

Dmitry Ablogin opened the finals on a Pleyel. The 28-year-old Russian has been hailed as one of the most authentic exponents of period style and is already a laureate at a number of international competitions. He gave a sensitive, introverted account of the concerto, but didn’t show dramatic heroism in the more virtuosic passages, struggling at times with projection. His second movement was deeply poetic, recalling Berlioz’s description of Chopin’s playing as being ‘as soft as the playing of elves’. Although not a prizewinner, the opening of his second movement was achingly beautiful and one of my own personal highlights of the evening.

Next was the French Antoine de Grolée. As the oldest participant at 34, and a prizewinner of the Long-Thibaud-Crepsin Competition, he has a commanding presence. He chose the heavier 1837 Erard, which suited his robust style. A pianist of flamboyant gestures, Grolée has rather too much drive for the elegance of Chopin: his theatrical and authoritative approach would be better suited to a modern piano.

The last contestant on the first night shone the brightest: the Japanese pianist Naruhiko Kawaguchi. A laureate of the 1st Rome Fortepiano competition and Musica Antiqua in Bruges, his experience of these instruments showed to his advantage. Making a last-minute switch from the Buchholz to the 1842 Pleyel was a wise choice, offering crystal delicacy and buoyant vibrancy. He demonstrated expert control, dancing with the rhythmic brilliance of a Kujawiak in the finale. Drawing warmth from the bass, Kawaguchi’s tone had a rich velvet quality and harmonic depth.

The second evening marked a change with the only performance of the E minor Concerto from Krzysztof Książek, given to a packed concert hall. A semifinalist in the 17th International Warsaw Chopin Competition, he chose the more extrovert Erard piano, giving a vivid and emotionally intense performance.

Tomasz Ritter wows the audience with his semifinal recital (Photo: Wojciech Grzędziński)
Tomasz Ritter wows the audience with his semifinal recital (Photo: Wojciech Grzędziński)

Tomasz Ritter from Poland followed with a return to the 1842 Pleyel. I’d been watching this young pianist with avid interest in earlier rounds. His semifinal recital elicited the most enthusiastic audience response of the entire competition. His playing was highly personal, combining rich imagination with exceptional insight. At 23, a student at the State Conservatory in Moscow and winner of the Rubenstein in Memoriam Competition for Young Pianists, his performance was full of charisma. The delicacy of his fiorituras on the Pleyel contrasted exquisite pianissimo with an explosion of temperament in the dramatic sections that was never aggressive or forced.

Polish Aleksandra Świgut gave the final performance. A second-prize winner in the Ettlingen and New Orleans piano competitions, she was an audience favourite but had by no means been certain to go through to the finals, despite her moving Bach Prelude and Fugue in the prelims along with an excellent Barcarolle. She chose the 1837 Pleyel, conjuring up myriad colours and displaying mercurial changes of mood and spontaneity of thought that concluded a veritable feast of music-making. The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century were untiring in their efforts, led by the masterful conducting of Grzegorz Nowak. It was a delight to hear these period instruments evoking rich, earthy colours and revealing the true chamber-music nature of Chopin’s concertos.

As all six finalists returned for the award ceremony, the camaraderie between them was evident in their smiles and heartfelt hugs. The first prize of €15,000 and PKN Orlen Prize for representing Poland was well deserved by Tomasz Ritter. Blazing a bright trail from start to finish, we will no doubt hear more of him in the future. Joint second prize of €10,000 was awarded to Naruhiko Kawaguchi and Aleksandra Świgut; third prize of €5,000 and the Mazurka Prize went to Krzysztof Książek.

An opportunity was also given to the orchestra’s 49 members to vote for their personal favourite. They selected Aleksandra Świgut and Krzysztof Książek, expressing their wish to work with all the finalists again in the future. Their input added a personal touch and an interesting dimension to the jury’s decision.

The success of this first period instrument edition of the Chopin Competition is a tribute to the extraordinary character of Stanisław Leszczyński, director of the Festival Chopin, who admits that the project was something of an experiment. He says hopes future instalments will focus on the music, rather than ‘dwelling on the nature of the competition itself.’ It’s a vision of which I’m sure Chopin himself would wholeheartedly approve.

The 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition will take place in Warsaw in October 2020. www.chopin.nifc.pl

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