Chopin's Children. Contemporary Polish Conductors, Instrumentalists and Vocalists
Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849) is still one of the most widely recognised Polish musicians – he composed pieces almost uniquely for the piano, and was a vibrant performer. All music school graduates in Poland – great future talents included – are familiar with Chopin’s repertoire. In fact, the International Chopin Piano Competition triggers the same rush of interest in radio and television journals as a national football match would. The Competition, which first took place in 1927, is organised every five years in Warsaw.
The Competition has been a springboard for success to many great Polish pianists, most notably Krystian Zimerman. Born in 1956, he won his first important prize at the age of 17 at the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Hradcu Králové. Two years later, he received first place at the Chopin Competition. Zimerman’s artistic personality provides a stark contrast to the romantic preconception of the artist as a brooding and temperamental character. He is interested in the construction of pianos and studies the acoustic properties of concert halls; his performances are few and far between, and he sporadically records albums (when he does, it’s in cooperation with the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon).
And yet his interpretations are characterised by a sharp individuality – and a resulting proneness to scandal. That’s what happened with one Chopin piano concert, where he added eights bars to the end fragment of Allegro maestoso. Some of Zimerman’s decisions are perceived to be eccentric: he won’t travel to Russia (because of the Russian government’s lack of clear standpoint on the topic of the Katyń killings) or the United States (because of its plans to develop Ballistic Missile Defence systems). He will stop in the middle of a concert if he spots someone recording the performance on a mobile phone.
Ewa Pobłocka was born one year after Zimerman. She is the daughter of singer Zofia Janukowicz-Pobłocka, and performed her debut at her mother’s side. She has given concerts practically everywhere in Europe, but also in Asia, Australia and both Americas. As a soloist, she has cooperated with the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra, the Bayerischer Rundfunkorchester, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and the Sinfonia Varsovia. She was the first musician to record Andrzej Panufnik’s Piano Concerto (1961) on a CD, and played it at the opening of the 1990 Warsaw Autumn – it was the first time Panufnik’s composition had ever been played publicly in Poland. Paweł Szymański dedicated his Piano concerto to Pobłocka.
Young Polish pianists are also eager to play Chopin. Rafał Blechacz and Jan Lisiecki are currently working with Deutsche Grammophon, as is Zimerman. Blechacz was born in 1985 in Nakło nad Notecią and Lisiecki in 1995 in Calgary, Canada. Blechacz’s spectacular career started with a bang in 2005, when he won first prize at the Chopin Competition. He has performed in some of Europe’s most impressive venues – from Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Concert Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw to London’s Royal Festival Hall – and performed a concert tour in Japan. Blechacz is widely praised by reviewers; the following describes his performance in Rome last May:
[…] the extraordinary runs and delicate waterfall sounds of those cascading octaves were utterly magical.
Jan Lisiecki was born in Canada and debuted at the age of nine. When he was fifteen, he released his first album – selected interpretations of Chopin’s piano concertos. A student at the Glenn Gould School of Music in Toronto, he is ranked among the most promising Canadian pianists. In 2013, Lisiecki received the Leonard Bernstein Award for young musicians.
The youngest centenarian in Polish piano music is certainly Professor Jan Ekier, born in Warsaw in 1913. He has been editor-in-chief of the Foundation for the National Edition of the Works of Fryderyk Chopin since 1956. The foundation’s mission is to present all of Chopin’s output in its most authentic form. Ekier has been member of the jury at several Chopin competitions – in Warsaw, Budapest, Bolzano, Tel Aviv and Tokio. He retired in 2010, but his legacy lives on: hundreds of currently active pianists were once his students.
Władysław Kłosiewicz is an expert on early music, and one of his greatest achievements includes recording François Couperin’s entire body of work: the 13 albums took three years to record. Aleksandra Krzanowska usually plays contemporary music, and has participated in the recording of “Katedra na akordeon” / “Cathedral for Accordion”, which features the works of her father, Andrzej Krzanowski. Małgorzata Sarbak also plays contemporary music – such as Paweł Szymański’s compositions – but has recorded an album with Bach’s complete “Partitas” for keyboard. Interestingly, she released it with an independent jazz record label, Lado ABC. In an interview with Culture.pl, she said:
I haven’t yet met a pianist who, after switching to the harpsichord, wouldn’t have fallen in love with it absolutely, unconditionally, and given up the piano forever.
Early Music Performers
The Polish public is blessed with a long tradition and wide variety of early music festivals. One of the most important is the International Festival of Oratorio and Cantata Music, or Wratislavia Cantans, established in 1966 and held every year in Wrocław. The Cantores Minores Wratislavienses choir, founded at the same time, eventually gave rise to the Kameraliści Wrocławscy ensemble. The group frequently performs at noted festivals, but also participates in educational programmes – they have given over 400 performances in rural communities, and another twice as many for children and young adults.
In the 21st century, another early music ensemble was born in Wrocław: Ars Cantus. The very quintessence of their repertoire is shaped by Lower Silesia’s musical relics – compositions from 14th and 15th century manuscripts and old prints, which had probably never been played until now. They were recorded on an album, and the work of Ars Cantus has been honoured many times in Poland. In 2004, their concert was broadcast by the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union.
The south of Poland is home to another significant early music ensemble, the Capella Cracoviensis, founded in 1970 by conductor Stanisław Gałoński, who then managed it for almost 40 years. Their repertoire is monumental: they have produced a version of “The Marriage of Figaro”, three of Händl’s great Oratorios, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven’s “Masses” – all of these being extremely demanding compositions.
Renaissance music is the forte of the Pressus ensemble. The musicians are so thorough in their work that before a composition can be performed, it’s subjected to rounds of careful research and consultations. Their instruments come from the best workshops in Poland and the world, and their inventory even contains Turkish instruments. Pressus is also active in the domain of renaissance dance.
Piotr Beczała, a tenor born in 1966, studied in Katowice but performed his first important roles at the Landestheater in Salzburg and the Zürcher Oper. His repertoire includes, above all, the great roles from Mozart and Verdi’s oeuvre, but he also sings traditional Slavic pieces. Beczała’s charismatic style is an attempt to bring back the times, when opera singers were valued as much as – or more than – pop singers and Hollywood celebrities. When promoting his album dedicated to Richard Tauber, he often appeared wearing an eccentric monocle – just like Tauber used to do. In 2013, he starred in a principal role in “Eugene Onegin”, which opened the season at the New York Metropolitan Opera. The performance astonished many critics:
(…) besides Netrebko he did the best singing of the night (Likely Impossibilities)
His performance was velvety and robust — and not at all cloudy (New York Daily News)
The Polish music scene is dominated by female voices. And who are they exactly? Ewa Podleś (contralto), whose repertoire includes both classical and contemporary music, has sung with the world’s most important orchestras and released over 30 albums. Jadwiga Rappé (alto), who won the Golden Medal at the Bordeaux Festival of Young Soloists, has released over 50 albums covering extensive material ranging from Bach to Szymanowski or Grażyna Bacewicz. Aleksandra Kurzak (soprano), former soloist at Hamburg’s Staatsoper, performed her debut at La Scala in 2010. Anna Radziejewska (mezzo-soprano) has previously sung Paderewski and Szymanowski, but she also works with young Polish composers – among them is Wojtek Blecharz, who gave her a unique role in his “Transcryptum”.
Two violins, a viola and a cello – the string quartet is one of the most popular ensembles, and has been since the Baroque. Polish composers much appreciated this genre and often used it in their creations. The list includes Szymanowski, Górecki, Szalonek, Mykietyn, Szymański… well, almost all of them, except for Chopin. That’s the main reason why so many string quartets are active in Poland, and many of them enjoy great success.
The Apollon Musagète Quartet ranks among the fine string quartets globally. They have won prestigious awards and performed in the most renowned concert venues. Founded by four Polish musicians in Vienna just five years ago, the quartet boasts a long list of achievements: it won the 57th ARD International Music Competition in Munich and became BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists (2012-2014) – resulting in a growing number of concerts and recordings in the U.K. The quartet’s album “Multitude” (2013), is dedicated to the composers Lutosławski, Górecki and Penderecki – however, listeners will also find the ensemble’s own composition.
The Silesian String Quartet prides itself on the cutting edge of tradition. Formed in 1978, it had Marek Moś as its first violinist (currently the artistic director of the AUKSO Chamber Orchestra). It has collected awards during the 30 years of its musical activity that include a Fryderyk award and the Polish national Medal for Merit to Culture – Gloria Artis. With over 300 compositions in their repertoire, the Silesian String Quartet has participated in world premieres and gained great acclaim. Already in 1992, journalists described the ensemble as "the summit of Polish chamber music" (Adam Walaciński), and in 2007 Witold Paprocki wrote in his Ruch Muzyczny (Musical Movement) that "this ensemble’s performances are characterised by a wonderful harmony of sound and something that I would call a collective imagination, a unity of intention throughout all elements. And what an extraordinary tonal palette!"
The Lutosławski Quartet, founded in 2007, focuses on the music of 20th century Polish composers. Apart from Lutosławski, they also perform pieces by Bacewicz, Baird, Lasoń and Szymanowski. They have worked with Eugene Indijc, another laureate of the Chopin Competition, the Canadian trumpet player Kenny Wheeler and Uri Caine, a pianist who, like no other, is capable of uniting the world of classical music with jazz improv.
The Royal String Quartet was created in 1998. At the beginning, the group was tutored by distinguished professors from the Camerata and Wilanów Quartets only to advance into the mentorship of the virtuoso Alban Berg Quartet. In 2004-2006, the musicians participated in the BBC New Generation Artists programme, which enabled them to enter the highest ranks of quartet music worldwide. In addition to leading their own festival (Kwartesencje, which occurs each November in autumn), they have released two CDs on Hyperion and are planning to record a Szymanski disc in 2014. As far as their activity is concerned, they go beyond the strict limits of classical and contemporary music. In 2013, they recorded the album “Nowa Warszawa” / “New Warsaw” with pianist Bartek Wąsik and actress-singer Stanisława Celińska. The album is a collection of songs about Warsaw in new arrangements by Wąsik – and the intensive interpretations of Celińska.
Jacek Świąder wrote that "together with Wąsik’s piano, the musicians create an incredibly intense space, musically impressive, but one that never overshadows Celińska’s voice".
Performers of New – and Newer – Music
Playing contemporary music requires the kind of skill that isn’t usually taught in music schools. Reading scores is not only about hitting the right notes, but also about understanding the composer’s underlying idea – and that calls for profound expertise or even collaboration with the author himself. Sometimes, the ability to improvise is what really makes the difference. So – who are the most interesting performers of contemporary music in today’s Poland?
Kwartludium, formed in 2002, stands out as one of the top ensembles confronting contemporary music’s demanding textures. In their performances, accuracy and precision are combined with flexibility and a solid sense of humour, making them unique on the spectrum of traditional philharmonic repertoires. They specialise in graphic scores, i.e. scores noted down in an unconventional manner using symbols, drawings, ideograms; in other words, their scores contain suggestions rather than exact instructions. On their debut album, Kwartludium also interpreted the works of such visual artists as Pola Dwurnik, Rafał Bujnowski, or the Twożywo group.
Kwadrofonik is a conglomerate of two long-standing ensembles: the Lutosławski Piano Duo and the Hob-beats Duo.
The piano turns into a percussion instrument, and percussion instrument groups take over the functions of melodic instruments – wrote Małgorzata Jędruch-Włodarczyk in an attempt to convey Kwadrofonik’s sound – Every concert they give relies on a perfect dramatic construction and turns into a spectacle of music and theatre.
Their repertoire includes Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Lutosławski, Zych, but they’re also familiar with variations on folk music. In 2006, Kwadrofonik won the Nowa Tradycja (New Tradition) competition organised by the Polish Radio. The inspiration for the fascinating “Folklove” album comes from traditional rural songs and dances, the themes and motifs of which form the album’s character.
The TWOgether Duo stands out thanks to its unusual pairing: accordion meets cello. They play Bach and Piazzola, but contemporary Polish music dominates their repertoire, including Penderecki, Hanna Kulenty and other, less renowned composers. The artists independently adapt existing compositions to suit their instruments – however, composers admire their unusual instrumental combination and write new pieces just for them. In 2012, TWOgether won the annual Passport prize from Polityka magazine in the Classical Music category and released their Satin CD.
Orchestras and Their Conductors
The most famous Polish orchestra is based in Warsaw, and played its first concert on the 5th of November 1901, with Jan Paderewski performing a piano solo and Emil Młynarski conducted. With over 120 tours under its belt, the National Philharmonic Orchestra has appeared on practically all the important stages worldwide, and released acclaimed albums with the most noted record labels, including Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and MUZA Polskie Nagrania. The musicians, widely respected in the world of classical music, have also recorded compositions for… a number of Japanese anime series (including the cult series “Cowboy Bepop”) and games (“Final Fantasy XIII” being the most famous one).
In the years 2002-2013, Antoni Wit took up the role of conductor and director of the National Philharmonic, overseeing countless world premieres of Polish compositions. During his tenure, the orchestra frequently travelled abroad and produced many records; one of the most recent, of Penderecki pieces for Naxos, was recognised with a Grammy award. On the 1st of September 2013, Jacek Kasprzyk was appointed as Wit’s successor.
Another well-known Warsaw-based orchestra is Sinfonia Varsovia, founded in 1984 and expanding upon the superb legacy of the Polish Chamber Orchestra. The motivation behind its creation was the visit of Yehudi Menuhin, the legendary American conductor and violinist. In order to live up to his planned repertoire, the PCO increased its ranks to 24 string instruments, and doubled its wind sections. The ensemble’s creator back then was Franciszek Wybrańczyk, and Yehudi Menuhin became his first visiting and honourable guest conductor.
Today, the Sinfonia has the French conductor Marc Minkowski as its director, and Krzysztof Penderecki as the artistic director. The orchestra’s headquarters is located on Grochowska Street in the Praga suburb of Warsaw, where informal, open concerts are often organised. In addition to this, the Sinfonia regularly participates in world-class festivals, for example the La Folle Journée international festival, which takes place in Nantes, Warsaw, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.
If we look at the history of Polish music, one of its most significant orchestras is the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, established in the 1930s in Warsaw, then reborn in Katowice after the war. It was there, in Silesia, that the PNRSO first performed Witold Lutosławski’s “Symphony No. 1”. Still today, the orchestra faces no competition when it comes to the world premieres of Polish compositions: the Festival of World Premieres happens annually in Katowice, and features musical presentations by a wide range of musicians, from young students to accomplished professionals whose photographs feature in music textbooks.
The PNRSO frequently releases albums and does so with resounding success. The recordings of Penderecki’s pieces produced with the label DUX were rewarded with the prestigious Midem Classical Award 2008 in the Contemporary Music category. Currently, Alexander Liebreich – the celebrity conductor from Germany – is the orchestra’s artistic director and conductor.
We should also give a mention to the Sinfonietta Cracovia, Created in 1992 by a group of students from Kraków’s Academy of Music, it was honoured in 1994 with the official title of the Orchestra of the Royal City of Kraków. Elżbieta and Krzysztof Penderecki support it actively. The ensemble’s current director is Robert Kabara, an exceptional violinist and conductor.
The Sinfonietta Cracovia participates in various festivals in Kraków, most notably at Sacrum Profanum and Unsound, where its repertoire extends far beyond the material taught at the academies. At Sacrum Profanum, the Sinfonietta worked with artists as diverse as the Icelandic band Múm and the jazz/electronic band The Cinematic Orchestra; at Unsound – with Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnason (Music for Solaris), Demdike Stare and Julia Holter, stars of alternative music. In 2013, the orchestra performed with the eccentric American artist Dean Blunt.
One of Poland’s best chamber orchestras was set up in Tychy and is currently led by the charismatic Marek Moś. The AUKSO Chamber Orchestra specialises in 19th to 21st century music, but has also co-operated with Pianohooligan, the rock band Voo Voo and the jazzman and trombone player Tomasz Stańko. In 2012, the AUKSO musicians recorded Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” with the prominent label Nonesuch Records. It comes as arguably the most daring interpretation of this composition ever since its creation 50 years ago. The performance dazzles with its technical superiority, resounds with shock and pain, the notes piercing and assaulting the listener.
The French philosopher of music Bernard Sève once said that
You can be a musician without being a composer or performer: it’s enough to be a true listener.
And so, at this point, I would like to thank all the musicians described here for how they allow thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of listeners to become true listeners, and to participate equally in the beautiful experience that is music.
Filip Lech, October 2013, own materials, translation: Ewa Bianka Zubek 18/10/2013