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Success, or Just a Sensation? Stuart Isacoff on Van Cliburn’s Moscow Win — 60 Years On

When Stuart Isacoff received an assignment to write a cover story on Van Cliburn’s comeback to the concert scene, this led to a friendship between the two that lasted until the pianist’s death.

Piano Street’s David Wärn has met the author of When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath, a personal and moving book presenting a sympathetic but honest account of the life of the legendary American pianist.

When Van Cliburn died on February 27 in 2013, the whole world was reminded of his sensational 1958 win at the inaugural Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. Since then, two important biographies of Cliburn have been written. For the British historian Nigel Cliff, whose Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story was published just before Stuart Isacoff’s book, Cliburn’s death and the ensuing obituaries provided the first opportunity to hear the full story of the pianist’s life, a tale that he thinks resonates particularly strongly today: “while we contemplate talk of a new Cold War, it can be illuminating to recall that Russia and America have had a love-hate relationship for a long while.” Isacoff, on the other hand, had wanted to write Cliburn’s biography since the late 1980s — his basement was already full of material for the book, including taped interviews with Cliburn’s boyhood friends and relatives. Isacoff, with his stronger personal connection to the subject matter and his background as a pianist, unsurprisingly provides a more knowing and intimate portrait. He also a tells a more coherent tale, taking in the larger picture without losing focus on the main character and on the cultural, political and artistic significance of Cliburn’s life story. However, for those interested in as many details as possible about the political processes of the Cold War, Cliff’s book might be a good complement.

‘The Rise and Fall and Rise of Van Cliburn’

In 1989, Van Cliburn returned to the concert scene after an eleven-year break. Isacoff received an assignment from a magazine called Ovation to do a cover story on Cliburn and his comeback. The magazine no longer exists; in fact it went under with that cover story, and Isacoff was never paid. “Van said it probably went under because his picture was on the cover. I said no, it was because of my writing.”

The editor wanted a negative story. He showed Isacoff a photo of Cliburn and said ‘look at that smug smile on his face’. Isacoff didn’t think it looked smug at all, but soon realized that Cliburn was looked down on by some people. “Van was considered sort of phony. You take a New York intellectual snob looking at him, and… he was just perceived as being a country bumpkin. He was very flamboyant, and sentimental — not an urban personality.”

Isacoff started to do research, listening to Cliburn’s recordings. “I thought, this is so beautiful… I can’t write a negative story about this man. I didn’t have it in my heart to do that. So I ignored that part of it. I flew to Fort Worth, Texas, and met with him there; it was one of the years when they were having the competition. He didn’t like to give interviews, and wouldn’t let me take him somewhere to talk privately. Instead, he stood in the middle of this room with people running over and hugging him, exclaiming: Van, Van…! He was taking time to individually hug each person and look in their eyes. He said: go ahead, interview me while I’m doing this. So I spoke with him and took notes while he stood there hugging people.” Isacoff called his article The Rise and Fall and Rise of Van Cliburn. “Van was really happy with it. His mother said there was never any fall, so she didn’t like that part.”

An utterly Van-like evening

In september that year, Cliburn performed the Tchaikovsky concerto at the opening of the Meyerson Concert Hall in Dallas. On the basis of his article, Isacoff was invited to Cliburn’s private dinner party afterwards, and was entranced. He decided that he was going to write a book about the pianist. Not only did Cliburn play like an angel: the history of what he had done, his relations with Kruschev and the Soviet people — Isacoff found all this extremely fascinating.

He went to Cliburn’s boyhood town of Kilgore, Texas, to interview the pianist’s old neighbors and boyhood friends. Cliburn also came to do a recital, in order to raise money for the Harvey Lavan and Rildia Bee Cliburn Scholarship. In his book, Isacoff writes about that “beautiful, strange, and utterly Van-like evening”: Cliburn always had terrible stage fright, and it was much worse in front of neighbors, friends, and family. His hands were shaking so badly that after barely making it through the first piece he left the stage. After about twenty or thirty minutes, he reappeared and continued, suddenly cool and calm. Later in the evening, a weight seemed to have lifted from his shoulders. There was a little buffet in the gymnasium at Kilgore College, and Van was going around inviting people to go to the town church — this was around midnight — where he had convinced the organist to open up the church and give an organ recital in the middle of the night.

Stuart Isacoff

Isacoff had done several interviews with people in Kilgore and New York who knew Cliburn and went to school with him, when he found out that Cliburn really didn’t want him to write the book. “I had all these little tape cassettes, which I stored in my basement. I put it all away when I heard he didn’t want me to do it. Then, more recently, it seemed like it was time to take it all out again and start writing. All these years later, these tape cassettes still work, which amazed me.”

The American Sputnik

Van Cliburn was taught by his mother, Rildia Bee, herself an accomplished pianist who had studied with Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Liszt. He began giving recitals at four and made his orchestral debut at twelve, in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. At the Juilliard School of Music in New York, he studied with Rosina Lhévinne, and after winning the prestigious Leventritt award he embarked on a series of debuts with major American orchestras. But with his win in Moscow, the tall, 23-year-old Texan, powerful in performance yet radiating a kind of childlike innocence, became not only a successful pianist, but a symbol for American greatness.

The American victory came as a stunning surprise. The Tchaikovsky Competition had been conceived by the Soviet regime as a showcase for Russian artistic supremacy, illustrating what the poet Mayakovsky had described as the opposition between “the materially poor but spiritually dynamic Soviet Union and the rich but spiritually poor United States.” Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had been steadily rising since the launch in 1957 of the first Sputnik space satellite. But while his Russian rivals at the competition were extremely well trained, their performances paled compared to Cliburn’s heartfelt spontaneity and his enormous, singing sound. There was something different about Van’s art; also, it was obvious that he had a deep, genuine love for Russian music. Observers in both the Soviet Union and the United States began to refer to Van Cliburn as ‘the American Sputnik.’

According to Isacoff, this was a role he never wished for. “He didn’t care about politics at all. He was made an icon in the West because of the Cold War, and because of the fact that the US was behind in the space race. When he won, he was presented in the media as the American who conquered the Soviets. But he never saw it that way. He loved people; he just wanted to… spread the love. That’s partly why the Soviet people fell so in love with him. In fact, his friends in New York used to laugh at him because he was overly sentimental, gushing all the time. Everything was love… they were too sophisticated for that. He was perceived as being not real, while in fact he had no pretenses at all. But the Soviets ate it up, and returned those warm feelings to him. He was treated so beautifully there that he wanted to go back over and over again.”

Van Cliburn celebrates with Emil Gilels

‘Oh no, I’m not a success, I’m just a sensation’

When Cliburn returned from the competition, several reporters flocked to New York’s Idlewild Airport to meet him. You must think you are a big success, one of them threw out. Oh no, I’m not a success, I’m just a sensation, answered the young prize winner. He was received by a ticker-tape parade in New York, and soon made a million-selling recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto, but after some time critical misgivings began to be voiced. Everyone had expected his qualities to mature and deepen, but this never seemed to happen. Cliburn found the treadmill of a concert career less and less bearable, and his words at the airport tragically rang more true as his career went on. “He was not psychologically prepared for what happened, and burned out very quickly. It was overwhelming. He was not used to having to perform all the time, and they always wanted the same pieces: Tchaikovsky 1st and Rachmaninoff 3rd. He became almost like a robot,” says Isacoff.

“People like Kirill Kondrashin, the conductor, said to him: Van, you have to take time off. You need to relax and study, to deepen your understanding and not wear yourself out. But Van said: Kirill, I can’t stop, because if I do people will forget me. A lot of that probably came from his mother, who became his road manager and kept him in line. She was very strict — not an easy person, and not particularly nice. But he was devoted to her; she lived almost to a hundred, and he took care of her. But the psychological impact of that was not good.”

Other types of problems also rose in Cliburn’s life. “He was getting injections for a while from a doctor, Max Jacobson, who was nicknamed Dr. Feelgood. He administered amphetamines and other medications to famous artists, movie stars and politicians, including John F Kennedy. And Van got hooked on that. When that was over, he found other obsessions, like astrology. He was afraid to go on stage unless the stars said it was a good day to do it. He was always nervous, and had terrible stage fright. Recording was very difficult, because he pictured that students from Juilliard would sit listening to his playing, finding mistakes. He had all of these psychological impairments that accompanied him, and it wore him out.”

Happy endings

Even though Isacoff had to abandon the book project, he had a lot of contact with Cliburn in the years that followed and kept up with what was going on. “Van was a very generous person. I remember a birthday party for Joseph Bloch — a close friend of mine who taught piano literature at the Juilliard School for fifty years. All the people that went to Juilliard were in his class, including Van. But Van got an F in piano literature, because he never got to class. He couldn’t wake up in the morning. He stayed up all night, and in the morning he would call Bloch’s wife and say: Mrs Bloch, would you please apologize to your husband for me, I just can’t get out of bed. Bloch was in his 90s when he passed away, and I think it was for the occasion of his 90th birthday party, at Steinway Hall in New York, that I got in touch with Van and said: your old teacher who gave you an F is having a birthday party. Van immediately called this florist that he used near Carnegie Hall and had flowers sent over.”

While the tale of Van Cliburn has some of the elements of tragedy, Isacoff points out that there are also a number of happy endings to it. Van Cliburn created a lasting musical legacy and inspired love and admiration in generations of Russians, propelling diplomatic efforts between the rival superpowers. The competition and festival that bears his name is one of the world’s most important piano events, inspiring countless young musicians. On a personal level, the friendships formed in 1958 were lasting: for example, among the people who made a special journey to see him when learning he was ill was Liu Shikun, his Chinese rival at the Tchaikovsky Competition. Finally, what really made Cliburn’s end a happy one was Tommy Smith, the pianist’s life partner during his last two decades. Being with Smith, writes Isacoff, Van Cliburn “was no longer haunted by the past.”

The book on Amazon:


Alexander Gadjiev – To Save the World

Our meeting took place in Krefeld, at Kawai – the Japanese make of piano with which Alexander Gadjiev has become so familiar since his success at the Hamamatsu competition. Now his career is really taking off in Europe too: Gadjiev is a BBC New Generation Artist until the end of 2021 and is also one of the 25 chosen contestants at the upcoming 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition, 17-29 June in Moscow.

“At the competition in Hamamatsu I decided on a Kawai. I immediately felt at ease, and for me the best thing about Kawai is that, as a pianist, one can influence the sound itself. Playing legato, creating a mysterious atmosphere or rising to a grandiose climax: everything works, thanks to the exemplary way the mechanism functions.”

You were born in Gorizia, on the border between Italy and Slovenia, at a meeting point of peoples, cultures and languages.
Gorizia is just a small town, but the mixture of influences left its mark on me. Precisely because the town was so small and there was absolutely nothing by way of distractions, a few curious people had the opportunity to look inwards rather than outwards in their search for treasures. And that’s a central factor in developing an aesthetic that isn’t standardized, isn’t taught at high school – one that is born from inner compulsions rather than adhering to conventional rules. Moreover, my father taught an interesting class with many talented people, among them Giuseppe Guarrera, one of my best friends, who this year won a scholarship at the Klavier-Festival Ruhr.

Your father studied in Moscow.
Yes, under Boris Zemliansky, whose other pupils included Vladimir Ashkenazy and Alexander Toradze. At the heart of his teaching method was the development of a very personal way of thinking as an artist. At the root of it all was an extremely precise conception of the music’s character, a result of especially thorough study of the score – but also laying tremendous importance on the sound image: sound, sound quality, duration, colour and sound relationships were the main ways of achieving an ‘interpretation’ and opening up the listeners’ hearts. In addition, in his teaching, he demanded urgency and necessity, and empathy with the music while playing. After all, you don’t sit like a lump of stone at the piano, with everything carefully planned in advance; you ‘soperezhivat’’, as the Russians say – a big word that means roughly ‘live through something’. It’s very interesting to note how often people in those days used to compare musicians with actors (much more frequently than nowadays) and that some aspects of the Staniskavski method also found their way into music. Richter is perhaps one of the most important examples of such experiments.

Is that a key to the interpretation?
My intuition tells me how to play something. The analytical phase that precedes this is very interesting and informative, but in the end you have to go beyond that.

To turn the Bach/Busoni ‘Chaconne’ into a great narrative, for instance?
I’m very interested in science, and almost chose to pursue an academic career. Mathematics in particular appeals to me, because of the clarity with which you proceed from A to B. This inner logic is for example very strong in Beethoven and Brahms as well. But you can also achieve this in a mystical way. In a work with so many perspectives it isn’t easy to create a continuous line; I’ve worked hard on that. But you can give each variation its own character. Maybe you can experience this beauty most intensely in the concert hall, whereas you can grasp the rationale for the overall structure better on a recording.

Your expression is very personal but still remains close to the composer’s intentions.  
Yes, but I also treasure Pletnev’s recording, who takes quite the opposite approach. He plays the piece like a free fantasy. This contrast is deeply rooted within me.

Richter and Horowitz are important for you, and they also embody a contrast.
I admire Richter for his spirit, his inner urgency and the compelling logic with which he plays. He’s one of the finest examples of the extra-musical in music. He follows not only the rules of music, the harmonic phrasing, but also a higher idea that encroaches and guides the entire interpretation – with grandeur, but also with a universal sadness. Horowitz was almost on the same level as composers. I think that’s what Rachmaninov meant when he said that nobody could play his Third Piano Concerto like Horowitz.
Compare that with Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata as played by Richter. In both recordings you hear the primeval power, something frightening. Prokofiev also plays with death and doom in a grotesque manner. The logic and structure of his music are unequalled, he sheds new light on tradition, his melodic gift is almost as great as Mozart’s, and still you find this inexplicable inspiration. I feel that very strongly in Richter’s interpretations.

You also think very highly of Keith Jarrett – there’s a lot that’s inexplicable about him too.
He is one of my greatest inspirations. When I first got to know him, it almost seemed like a sin because up until then I had heard only classical music. I’ve heard him twice live, and it was fascinating to hear how his musical ideas had developed. At the same time it was also very exciting on a spiritual level. It’s great to see how someone makes a piece of music grow before your eyes, and in the process – just like you – hears the music for the first time. He started with nothing more than a single grain, and then you suddenly saw an incredible amount of blossom emerge. That is precisely what I feel when I listen to his recordings or concerts.

Shouldn’t it always be like that?
Most pianists today have a very rational approach. You see that everywhere in society nowadays, the urge to understand and to be productive. And that way there are probably many things that we don’t fully grasp. I also see it as the pianist’s duty to infuse a piece with new life.

Can music save the world and make people better, as Bernstein said?
Bernstein got that from Dostoyevsky, of course, but I do think it’s true. And it isn’t so complicated. Listening and making contact are a way of empathizing. And it isn’t a one-way street. For a pianist it’s an adventure that’s dependent on the audience, the hall, the instrument and the moment.

One person who seems to have wanted to eradicate that was Sokolov.
I have great admiration for his perfection, devotion and control. They say that he is immersed in the material 24 hours a day. For me he is an incredible architect… no, rather a film director. Every detail, every movement is planned in advance. I also find that scary. I think that for a surgeon for example, who must also be very concentrated and precise, Sokolov is the best. Horowitz suits me better. He’s more of an artist on stage, who transforms the energy of the moment. With him you feel the tension, the fear and the enormous vulnerability. He doesn’t play as if he was in his study. Richter had it too, the same quality, and it reflects inner richness, it has something mystical about it. It can’t be forced, and it’s difficult in our society, where we are almost compelled to be productive. But our opinions are simply a reflection of our own reality, and are 90% subjective.

Celibidache said that you can get to know yourself in music. Do you agree?
With Celibidache I admire the highest level of pure music. He was interested in the relationships between notes, cause and effect, structures. And yes, if you go to a concert with Bernstein’s words in the back of your mind, with awareness and sensitivity, then you can learn a lot about yourself. Then it’s one of the most beautiful things you can imagine.

Author: Eric Schoones

Photo credit with the KAWAI PIANO: © Hamamatsu International Piano Competition

Most recent CD: Literary Fantasies

Liszt’s Three Sonnets of Petrarch and Après une lecture du Dante, and Schumann’s Kreisleriana and No. 2 of the Op. 111 Fantasiestücke.
Acousence Classics ACO-CD 13117

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Alexander Gadjiev - The Literary Fantasies
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‘I love literature. As Italians, Petrarch and Dante are close to each other and also to my own personality – therefore I understand the undertones that you might otherwise miss. The Dante Sonata is a very modern piece. Liszt is the inventor of the soundtrack. In it you can really hear hell and love.’
— Alexander Gadjiev

This article is a contribution from the German and Dutch magazine Pianist through Piano Street’s International Media Exchange Initiative and the Cremona Media Lounge.

Pianist_FC_LPianist Magazine is published in seven countries, in two different editions: in German (for Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxemburg and Liechtenstein) and in Dutch (for Holland and Belgium).
The magazine is for the amateur and professional alike, and offers a wide range of topics connected to the piano, with interviews, articles on piano manufacturers, music, technique, competitions, sheetmusic, cd’s, books, news on festivals, competitions, etc.
For a preview please check: www.pianist-magazin.de or www.pianistmagazine.nl



Chopin and His Europe

The whole piano world is teaming up for the 18th International Chopin Competition to be held in Warsaw, 2 to 23 October 2020.
Initiator of the festival series ”Chopin and his Europe”, now on its 15th year, the recording project ”The Complete Works of Fryderyk Chopin on historical instruments” and ”The 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments” (2018), Stanislaw Leszczynski of The Chopin Institute sat down with Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell at the Philharmonie in Warsaw.

The International Chopin Competition 2020

This grand occasion – taking place every five years – attracts the finest young pianists in the world and the competition is regarded as one of the most important venues for creating important international careers. Past laureates list an amazing number of world famous performers starting back in 1927 with Lev Oborin and include winners such as; Davidovich, Czerny-Stefańska, Harasiewicz, Pollini, Argerich, Ohlsson, Zimerman, Thai Son, Bunin, Yundi, Blechacz, Avdeeva and most recently, Cho. Other laureates include Ashkenazy, Ts’ong, Ushida, Fliter, Montero, Trifonov, Wunder and also non-laureates such as Pogorelich. Its influence on piano playing in the world cannot be overestimated.

Piano Street will cover the 2020 competition and as a starter we are happy to share an interview with an important profile in the competition’s history and programming which also includes a multitude of projects managed by The Chopin Institute in Warsaw, hi-lighting the influence of Chopin’s music in the world.

Interview With Chopin Institute’s Stanislaw Leszczynski

Patrick Jovell: Dear Mr. Leszczynski, we all know you as a portal figure in Polish music life. As deputy director of the Chopin Institute you are responsible for the prestigious International Chopin Competition. You have also initiated the “Chopin and His Europe International Music Festival”, and started a vast project concerning Chopin on period instruments, involving concerts and recordings of a number of world famous pianists. In September 2018 you arranged the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. Tell me a little about your background?

Stanislaw Leszczynski: In 1978, I was appointed to oversee the classical recordings for the Polish record label Muza and I’ve been doing the same kind of job ever since. I became the first director of the Doslovski studio, which has very strong connections to both piano music itself and keyboard recordings. Our goal was to enrich the Polish Radio so that it could become like the Deutsche Rundfunk or the BBC. After much work, we have succeeded in creating many interesting and excellent recordings under the umbrella of the Polish Radio.

After that appointment, I also spent a few years as the director of the Polish National Opera, but I still kept in touch with the world of piano and pianists. When the Chopin Institute called a couple of years before the great 200th birthday jubilee, I took the job. I then had to examine the national composer of Poland from many different angles. It was extremely interesting to see the influences he had. He was smitten with Bach, who had died 60 years before Chopin’s birth. His background came almost exclusively from the great Leipzig master.

PJ: So, Chopin was a classical romantic?

SL: Well, not exactly. It must be stressed that Chopin was a Classical composer, not Romantic, regardless of when he lived. His compositions have very strict form and are quite precise. Because his music is intensely introspective – even when he’s being boisterous – he seems Romantic; however, his style is strictly Classical. Of course, he also looked forward. For example, Wagner wasn’t the only one to use the “Tristan Chord.” You can hear Chopin use the exact same harmonies on multiple occasions.

PJ: How is it possible to recreate a genuine Chopin sound?

SL: It would be impossible, of course, to perfectly recreate the sound Chopin made at the keyboard. We are, after all, not him. But through our research, practice and process of discovery, we can emulate the Polish master.

Chopin’s last Pleyel grand piano. Chopin Museum, Warsaw

What’s most difficult about approximating Chopin’s sound is that the new materials have different physical properties than the materials from the 19th century. The stuff reacts differently to being struck. For example, it doesn’t vibrate the same way. It’d be the same thing if a violin maker of today claimed to have copied a Stradivarius exactly. He couldn’t do it because not only is the climate for growing wood in the Mediterranean much different now than it was in 1680, the varnish isn’t the same because some of the ingredients no longer exist.

I’m really crazy about the history of both music and instruments. I would also like to travel to the future to see what kind of improvements they’ve made on our improvements. Haha, of course, I’m just joking. I do think, however, that it’s crucial to be able to compare sounds and construction practices between different eras.

PJ: Which are your thoughts on the subject “original instruments”?

SL: Well, not only were these instruments constructed using different techniques and materials, but they were also based on different tunings and centers of pitch. It doesn’t matter which composer the pianist plays, the two kinds of instruments, original and modern, sound quite different.

Let’s take, for example, Chopin’s Opus 10, No. 12, the “Revolutionary Etude.” Chopin wanted the two registers of the piano to sound different, which the 19th-century instruments did quite well. Contemporary models, however, are more homogenized, so we cannot achieve on them the same effect as we can on 19th-century pianos. These were not mistakes of construction; instead, they revealed a different philosophy.

Chopin’s autograph of the “Revolutionary” Etude Op. 10/12, Chopin Museum, Warsaw

PJ: You have a great many years as part of this competition. What happened during this whole time span in terms of performance style?

SL: Nothing very special, really, although we do see, from time to time, different waves of performance style. Take, for instance, the large number of contestants in the 2015 competition who wanted to emulate the style of the 19th century. They don’t keep their hands together. They exaggerate certain phrases. Some of them are typically quirky. But they all have their own vision.

If you remember, critics in the 1970s were fond of saying, “the traditional Chopin interpretation is done,” and “Romantic music is passé”. There was a group of very strong American players from Juilliard that came to Warsaw for the competition. Ohlsson, Ax, Fialkowska and Swann, all showed up with their idiosyncratic styles that reinvented how we both play and hear Chopin. They blended 19th-century style with a more contemporary style and were quite successful at it. I can remember very clearly all their bravado. They all thought, “I’m the one! I’m going to win.” In the end, Ohlsson won, but you could have made an equally strong argument for Ax or the other incredible musicians who were flawlessly prepared.

In 1965, it was also incredible at the competition. Martha Argerich was out of this world in a class by herself. Five years before that, Maurizio Pollini was equally above the rest.

The year 1955 marked the first time that there were real and gigantic differences between the performers. Comparing Adam Harasiewich with André Tchaikovsky, for example, one would notice André playing a few too many wrong notes; however, the performance was electrifying in the same manner as Horowitz. One of the Japanese performers played completely differently than the other competitors, but it was, nonetheless, very interesting.

These young players were not alone, however. In the 1950s, there were still a great many members of the old school playing and being successful. The teachings of Philipp, Leschetitzky, Paderewski and others still made relevant contributions to the interpretation of not only Chopin but also other composers. Still, their differences from the more modern approach were not as pronounced as you might expect.

PJ: Considering your experience and everything you know of the history of Chopin playing so far, what do you think is the paramount quality in performing Chopin’s music?

SL: Well, I was on the preselection committee in 2015, and we were all listening to the 450 DVD submissions from around the world. The process took two weeks. We committee members asked each other the same question. My answer is still the same. It is the attention paid to the space between the notes that is crucial to the success of a performance, particularly of Chopin. The space between the notes is what underpins the structure of the musical line. Otherwise, the notes are just a jumble.

If we pay attention to the spaces between the notes, we could play “The Art of Fugue,” or “Die Kunst der Fuge,” on a collection of beer bottles and still recognize it. If such attention is paid, it matters not upon which instrument we perform a great work. It’s like musical rhetoric, with the spaces between the notes serving as musical punctuation. This is true in both the 17th and 19th centuries.

Expression is organized silence, but it is only half of the whole. A. B. Michelangeli, for example, was never a good Chopin interpreter; however, we loved him for the specific organization of both sound and silence that made him not a good Chopin interpreter.

The trick is to impress your will upon Chopin’s music without burying Chopin completely. If someone can do that, then that is something truly special. The best thing about this music is the diversity in expression. Piano students should never copy their professors’ sounds. I think they should all keep their individuality while still learning; in this way, we can discover someone and something new at any time. This lets us experience the joy of hearing Chopin for the “first time” again and again, which is something we all enjoy.

I International Chopin Competition on period instruments – Winners Concert

The Complete Works of Fryderyk Chopin on historical instruments:

The Eighteenth International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition 2020


2–23 October COMPETITION
2 October Inaugural concert
3–7 October First stage
9–12 October Second stage
14–16 October Third stage
17 October Celebrations marking the 171st anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin’s death
18–20 October Final
21 October First prize-winners’ concert
22 October Second prize-winners’ concert
23 October Third prize-winners’ concert


Paderewski Festival Celebrating Poland’s Past And Present

The annual international music festival celebrating the legacy of Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) opened in Warsaw in late October and is now running for almost a month. This year the event also marks the centennial of national independence, which Poland regained after World War I. Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell visited the festival in Warsaw and the Paderewski Birthday Celebration Concert at the Philharmonie there.

Paderewski was one of the biggest music superstars of his time, drawing the largest crowds in history at a time when the solo piano recital was still in its infancy. Serving as Polish prime minister and minister of foreign affairs in the years 1918-19, Paderewski represented Poland at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and signed the Versailles treaty on behalf of the newborn republic.

Paderewski, the Pianist and Composer

Paderewski was said to be the highest paid pianist in his times and his career spanned the world from Africa to Australia and across the European continent; crossing the Atlantic more than thirty times. He gave over 1500 concerts in the U.S., appearing in every state. He was the first to give a solo recital in the newly built Carnegie Hall which held almost 3 000 people, and in 1932 he faced an audience of 16 000 in Madison Square Garden, the largest crowd in the history of music at that time. While his opera Manru was being performed at the Metropolitan, Paderewski himself was playing a recital in Carnegie Hall; both places were filled to overflowing.
Paderewski’s complete piano solo works contains some 8,5 hours of listening. In addition to this there is a Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 17 plus a Polish Fantasy for piano and Orchestra Op. 19, which both enjoyed popularity during his lifetime. Even though some of his piano scores sold in several million copies, Paderewski’s creative heritage is less extensive than his legacy as a touring virtuoso pianist. His famous Minuet in G – first of the six Concert Humoresques Op. 14 – counts among the most renowned, along with the ”Polonia” Symphony, the ”Manru” Opera, and the Piano Concerto. The Minuet sold millions of copies, was recorded by acclaimed pianists (Rachmaninov and Paderewski himself) and was transcribed for several instruments including for violin by Fritz Kreisler and for cello by Gaspar Cassado. As a carrier of Polish traditions Paderewski used forms such as Krakowiak, Polonez and Mazurek, often in smaller size works mirroring Polish folk songs and dance material. He is also widely known for his Chopin Edition where he formed an editorial board together with L. Bronarski and J. Turczynski. Based primarily on Chopin’s autograph manuscripts, copies approved by him, and first editions, it has remained a popular and widespread reference edition.

The Festival and Exhibitions

Held in venues around the Polish capital, including the National Philharmonic, the Royal Lazienki Park, the Royal Castle, and the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music, the 5th edition of the International Ignacy Jan Paderewski Festival will run until November 28, featuring symphonic and chamber concerts with national and international musicians. It also offers attractions such as film screenings and music workshops for children. The non-governmental, non-profit organization ”Ave Arte”, whose aim is to provide support for the development of culture and art has joined state institutions such as the National Philharmonic, the Chopin Institute and the Polish Radio in shedding light on the legacy of the important deeds of the Polish pianist and composer.

Also, the Chopin Institute has opened two exhibitions concerning different aspects of Polish music: ”Paderewski to Chopin” and ”Constellations: Polish Music 1918–2018” – at the Fryderyk Chopin Museum in Warsaw. The ”Paderewski to Chopin” exhibition presents selected topics from the life of Paderewski, as well as his great service in the popularization of Chopin’s legacy. Among the 40 mementos presented at the exhibition are such items as Paderewski’s suitcase, his calling card, valuable musical autographs and a collection of portraits of the pianist. The second exhibition; ”Constellations: Polish Music 1918‒2018”, is a commentary devoted to the attitudes of Polish composers from the past century toward history, tradition and modernity, displaying nearly 70 works. The multimedia exhibition in installation form will be presented from 9 November 2018 to 3 March 2019. The event will be accompanied by “Constellations: An Introductory Lecture”, which took place on 13 November, as well as by a upcoming panel discussion on 11 December. Together, its participants will attempt to answer the question ”What is Polish music today?”

The Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s Birthday Concert in Warsaw

Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell meets with pianist Peter Jablonski at the Philharmonie in Warsaw.

Paderewski’s birthday concert at the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall is certainly a very festive moment for many and particularly this year on the occasion of Poland’s 100 years of Independence. Peter Jablonski was the soloist in Paderewski’s Polish Fantasy for piano and orchestra Op. 19, with Warsaw Philharmonic under Marzena Diakun. This was a new, thrilling and positively surprising experience, hi-lighting a work very seldomly played.

– Peter, your background is Polish/Swedish and you have spent a lot of time on stage and in recording Polish music. How would you describe the Fantasy for piano and orchestra which you just performed here?

– The first thing that struck me about this Fantasy is how little we know of Paderewski as a composer. Of course he was a famous virtuoso, and even famous as a Prime Minister of Poland in 1918-19. But he was an excellent composer too, he knew how to write for the pianist’s hand very well, and while this work is technically demanding and virtuosic, it is not awkward pianistically. This work is inspired by a Polish folk tune, and it has everything: charm, brilliance, drama, and lots of beautiful music. This is a rather unknown work, it is performed much less often than the Concerto, and because of this, it remains underestimated. This is a work that has much spirit and invention, which are packed into a much smaller form than the concerto. The Fantasy is able to create much impact on the audience, and is a joy to perform for the soloist and the orchestra.

– I know that the Mazur is one of your favourite forms. How does Paderewski treat the Mazurka, Krakowiak and the Polonaise and which folkloristic elements can be found in this seldom heard work?

– All these elements are in the Fantasy. The clue is in its title: it is a Polish Fantasy that is imbued with Polish folk elements. Right from the start, in the grand opening of the orchestra, the theme is stated in a Polonaise manner. When the piano has the same theme, it is in the form of a gentle mazurka. Paderewski composed at a time when nationalistic tendencies were very strong, and especially in Poland, the country that was so torn for so long, that its people could only hold on to their roots via music, theatre, and literature.

– Paderewski’s superstar stature certainly proved that he was a great showman and a drawing card that eventually made him his own rival, as contemporary newspapers wrote. As a composer, how can we see the clash or maybe paradox between Paderewski as the international superstar and the Polish tradition bearer?

– Well, I think that for all his showmanship, Paderewski remained true to himself as an artist, and he remained true to his art. Whatever was for show or on show, always had an artistic purpose, and felt genuine. In his own music, he paid homage to Poland, to Polish music, and tried to, in his own way, to show its integrity, beautify, and independence. As a composer, Paderewski does not seem to be concerned with making new discoveries or innovations for their own sake. Instead, he is crystallising what is best in his national school and European musical heritage, and combines it with his own knowledge of the instrument, as a respected and famed virtuoso.

– Cortot wrote that hearing Paderewski in Paris as a teen, was a revelation. Flashing lightnings, ecstasy, eruption, magnetic personality and a glowing tone. A realisation of ”the coming of a pianist for our time”. How would you describe Paderewski’s playing stylistically in comparison to other contemporary giants such as Hofmann, Godowsky, Rachmaninoff or Lhevinne?

– What an interesting question! Actually, Paderewski’s reputation as a performer has suffered a lot from a misconception that he had poor coordination between hands, that he lacked sensitivity, or that he was frivolous with his interpretations. But if we remember that Paderewski studied with his very first teacher, who himself formed as a musician in the early 19th century, then we begin to understand the tradition that he inherited. Instead of thinking of poor coordination, we should think of independence of hands. Even in the days of Chopin that tradition was still alive, and in the later age of technical brilliance and perfection, which actually gives a rather mechanical, almost robotic performance that can lack heart and soul, the way Paderewski plays can seem to be messy or technically imperfect.
His style, as compared to the performers you mention is undoubtedly more free and more grand, and probably more in the style of Anton Rubinstein and Liszt. It has a grand sweep, grand gesture, and drama in performance rather than a finely combed technique. Hofmann was famous for being one of the first piano virtuosos who paid so much attention to minute details and who did not make mistakes. His playing did not suffer from this perfection, because what he inherited from his famous teacher was also firmly embedded in him – grandeur, gravitas, drama, power, and brilliance.

– Poland has very consciously continued to prove concern for its musical heritage and much effort is invested in contemporary music as well as preserving the past and its shining musical profiles. I know that you have collaborated with a number of renowned contemporary composers and Chopin is constantly appearing on your concert programs. What can you recommend us to explore when it comes to new and old Polish piano music?

Paderewski is a great start, and certainly is a composer worth discovering. He was a recent discovery for me, which is surprising, given that I have played so much Polish music, and played in Poland from the beginning of my career. I will certainly champion his work in my future concerts.
Chopin, of course, is a master of so many forms, not least of my favourite mazurka. He will always remain in my repertoire as a composer whose Polish heart belonged to the whole world.
Speaking of mazurka, Roman Maciejewski is someone who wrote beautiful mazurkas and other piano music, and whose works I really enjoy playing. And, of course, Szymanowski, whose music need to be heard more, who wrote wonderfully for piano. I had the pleasure to personally work with Lutosławski on his piano concerto, and of course, have great respect for this composer. I like performing his concerto, which is technically demanding but musically rich, and rewarding for both audiences and performers. His Paganini Variations are in my list of top favourites; it is a work that should be heard much more often. It really puts the pianist through his or her paces, and is a great fun to play, despite all the technical challenges. I do have to mention Wojciech Kilar, who wrote a piano concerto for me in 1997, which I was able to perform at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, and which received a prestigious Orpheus award. It is a reflective, I should almost say meditative work, and it is deceptive in its serenity and simplicity – the last movement is tremendously challenging to play. It is not often performed, but it should have its own place in the musical heritage of the 20th century.

Recommended listening:

Hear Paderewski’s Humoresques de concert “À l’Antique”, as well as pieces by Szymanowski, Górecki, Bacewicz, Mykietyn and Panufnik on the album “A Century of Polish Piano Miniatures”.

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The Art of Listening — Updated Notes from Berman’s Bench

Since the first edition of Boris Berman’s Notes from the Pianist’s Bench was published in 2000, it has been read by countless pianists, piano teachers, and piano students throughout the world. The book has been translated into several languages and adopted as a required text in universities and conservatories. Just recently, it was published in a second edition, available in both print and electronic formats. Piano Street’s David Wärn met Mr. Berman at the Cremona Musica Piano Experience, to talk about the contents of the book, and about the changes and updates of the new edition.

Boris Berman performing at the Cremona Musica Piano Experience, September 2018

– Mr. Berman, please tell us how the new edition came about.

– I first wrote the book because I noticed that I kept coming back to the same issues with my students. So, I thought maybe I should cover these issues in writing once and for all. But it appeared that it’s not easy to cover everything once and for all! The idea of the second edition came up because I felt that quite a few years passed; there are some things I see differently now. Also, new ideas came up in the intervening years which I wanted to include in a new edition.

At the same time the publisher, Yale University Press, was interested in getting on the technology bandwagon. We spoke about it and decided that it would be nice to include some audio and video demonstrations. The idea was to find certain moments in the book which are hard to put in words, but easier to understand by hearing or watching a demonstration. When you are reading the E-book this new material is very easily available: you just click on the page. For readers of the printed book, there is a dedicated website through which they can access the video and audio. (View sample >>)

Some of the visual demonstrations actually came to me quite spontaneously: for example, there is one moment when I talk of different levels of clarity, comparing it to perspective in painting. Since I had the opportunity, I could not restrain myself but to give an example of a painting. Of course, it could have been done in print as well, but it felt more spontaneous to do it in a video.

You put great emphasis on sound — the first chapter in your book is called Sound and Touch. In it, you explain in great detail how different movements influence the sound of the piano. But you also write that some teachers and students neglect the topic of sound. How can that be?

– Well, I had the great fortune to study with Lev Oborin, who among the illustrious professors of the Moscow Conservatory was known as paying particular attention to the sound. Consequently, this was something which was constantly referred to when I was a student, and something which I continued to carry on in my pedagogical work.

There are several reasons why sound is a neglected topic. One is that many students are primarily interested in acquiring velocity. This is what their teachers and themselves are concerned with above all. Additionally, many of them practice on terrible instruments, which don’t give them much chance to discern fine gradations of the sound. Or some of them practice on electronic pianos, which limits the possibilities even more. But I think the primary reason is that too many students are thinking that the way to success is to play as fast as possible, and as loud as possible. Unfortunately, some teachers — by no means a majority, but some — cater to this group of students.

Boris Berman teaching

You write that we need two kinds of ears: the subjective one, which we use to imagine the sound that we want, and the objective one, which actually hears what is coming out of the instrument. What are the best ways of developing one’s ‘musical ears’?

– Let’s start with the objective ear. There are many students — especially talented students, students with a great imagination — who are so engrossed in.. emoting, that they do not actually hear themselves. I have a student right now, who is phenomenally gifted. But his performances are full of various exaggerations. In our lessons, I ask him to record himself. I have done this on many occasions before, but never so persistently as with him. Then we listen to the playback together, and I point out: ‘Hear this: I don’t think it’s a good idea to play this way because of this or that’. Or he says: ‘Oh, I didn’t realize I changed the tempo so much!’ The thing is: nobody can hear himself objectively 100%, even the most experienced performers, but we all must try to develop this ability. Recording oneself is a very good way of developing an objective ear.

As for the subjective ear: here I talk about creative imagination. You can say, ‘I want to play this place piano’. Fair enough. But there are many kinds of piano, and this intention alone will not take you far. You can say, ‘I want to play it piano with great intensity’. This is is something different — then you have to figure out what creates the feeling of intensity. Because at the end of the day, it is your physical action that conveys such a feeling. It’s never imagination alone, but you have to start with imagining something.

And so you work to get the sound which you think conveys the idea of intensity. Then you suddenly may have another idea: ‘This should be played like a cello solo’. Again, this is something different, this a new task that you put in front of yourself, and so on. This is how many people work. Others need an extra-musical image. Some musicians may have the synaesthetic way of listening to music: they would perhaps say, ‘I want this to be of a dark red color’. If this helps you — fine. Some would say: ‘I want it to sound like I lost the love of my life’. If this helps — go ahead. All this is to spur your imagination. And hopefully, your imagination will spur your technical know-how.

Is there also such a thing as ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ technique? You write very objectively about how various physical actions influence sound. At the same time, you encourage students to seek their own approach, to find what works best for each person.

– I work with students of different backgrounds and different temperaments, and this all has a bearing on the way they play— but we should probably begin with their physical build. It is clear that a very heavily built, tall pianist, needs different physical actions than a very tiny, delicately built person. I’m constantly telling this to students. And if I have an opportunity — if, for instance, I work with a student, and another student who is built differently is present in the room, I say: “Well, for you it is better to play this way, but she needs something completely different. And if you will be teaching somebody of her physical build, you would need to know what to suggest to this student.”

Each pianist feels what is convenient and comfortable for himself — but the teacher needs to know what will be the most practical and convenient for this particular person. Sometimes, I will say to a student, ‘You see, this can be achieved this way, or this way, or that way. I suggest that you try them all to see what works best for you.’ I often see my students — and some of them are fantastically gifted and greatly advanced — doing something that would never work for myself. But if it works for them — fine!

In a chapter called The Art of Teaching and the Art of Learning, you mention that some students of today adopt a kind of ‘consumerist’ approach, rather than subscribing wholly to their teacher’s general musical and aesthetic principles. They view lessons as a visit to a supermarket; if they do not find exactly what they want, they just go to the next store. What are they missing?

– You have to realize that every accomplished performer plays a certain way because he believes that it corresponds to his musical, aesthetic aspirations. Somebody may say. ‘Oh, I really dislike his interpretations but he has a gorgeous tone, so maybe I will learn from him the tone but leave alone his interpretation.’ But the tone of a pianist is this and not any other because this is how he hears the music. It cannot be separated.

What students often don’t understand is that a teacher is much more than a provider of useful tips. Of course, we are all constantly learning by picking things up, sometimes subconsciously, but to go to this teacher for wrist technique, and to that teacher for finger technique, and to this teacher for upper arm technique, I find lacking sense.

What you will lose is musical integrity. Horowitz had a fantastic technique,he was one of the greatest virtuosos. Do you think his technique could be organically adopted by somebody like.. Radu Lupu? No, because their whole musical Weltanshauung is very different.

You write that one of the most important things a teacher communicates to the students is ‘a sense of the right measure’. Excesses and exaggerations — in our physical actions as well as in our musical interpretations — must be avoided. Reading this, I was wondering if you are not too hard on exaggeration? Aren’t there certain situations or stages of development where it can be a good idea to ask students to exaggerate musical ideas or physical motions?

– It’s a very good question; I remember I got a comment specifically about this from a teacher who also thought that I’m too hard on exaggeration. I know the teacher and I know his students, let’s say many of them are very… obedient. Of course, he would crave for somebody to exaggerate! And I was thinking of my own students, who often seem to have no inhibitions… So yes, it depends what kind of students you are working with.

So, how would you encourage a student not to be too obedient or timid?

– In this case, I would say, after we discussed what their intention is: ‘go for it, don’t be afraid to exaggerate!’ Sometimes I tell students an old joke about how one makes a bagel: ‘well, it’s very simple — you take a hole, and you wrap it in a dough.’ Obviously you don’t start with the hole, you start with the dough — you start with something material. Then you trim it. You don’t start with void.

And how do you deal with your students’ exaggerations?

– Exaggerations are always motivated by something. For some people, the mere justification might be to be original, or to do something that nobody did before. There are also some people who feel that music becomes more expressive this way. You know, I write about it — it’s so seldom that we musicians say to each other, or teachers say to their students, ‘oh this is absolutely wrong, you treat this piece like a brilliant presto and I feel it is a dark andante’. Usually, we’re talking about “how much”: how much to slow down, how much to make a crescendo… and this is what the teacher needs to communicate. Of course, it’s very simple to say ‘it’s too much’, but I find it very valuable when, instead, you say: ‘this ritenuto would be logical and legitimate if the section was ending here. But it is ending a few bars later. By slowing down so much, you signal that this is the end of the section, and it is not.’ This is one of the ways of dealing with exaggeration.

But often — and here I come back to where we began — the student doesn’t realize that he exaggerates. Early in my pedagogical work, I had a very talented student who played with all kinds of exaggerations, but because he was talented it was still very interesting to hear. And I said to myself: ‘With this boy, I need to be careful, I should not conform him. He has his own vision.’

So, I was kind of pussyfooting around him for quite some time, until once he played in such a way that I really could not accept. I said, ‘Well, I know you want it to sound this way’, and I played it for him, and he said, ‘No no no, I don’t want it to sound like that! And I said, ‘How would you like it to sound?’ And he demonstrated something quite commonsensical. Then I understood that it’s not that he hears it differently. His listening — objective listening — is distorted, and it’s a completely different story.

How would you like the book to be used? Do you use it yourself as a complement to your teaching?

– I do. Sometimes, I say to a student, ‘You know what, we have discussed this issue, but I also write about it in my book in a more general, or more extensive, way — why don’t you read a certain chapter’. This is how I think the book should be read. Probably not from cover to cover — it’s not a novel or thriller. But I hope that a teacher may assign a certain chapter to a student. We all know that the lesson time is quite short. A teacher has to deal with numerous things: correcting notes, correcting rhythms, correcting specific issues in the piece. The teacher may not have time for a general discussion. This is where I think the book can be very useful. I think that all the topics I discuss should be of interest for professional pianists, but not to the same degree at any given time. What I mean is that maybe at a certain point a student needs some help with certain technical issues. Perhaps a few months later, more general aspects of interpretation will come to the fore. I would hope that different parts of the book can serve musicians at different stages of their development.

The book at Amazon.com:
Notes from the Pianist’s Bench: Second Edition

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