Mention the International Chopin Piano Competition to any pianist or piano-lover, and you’ll see a wild gleam in their eyes as they wax lyrical on the likes of Argerich, Pollini and Zimerman. Mention, instead, the International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments and you are almost sure to stop them in their tracks. That’s because this September sees the inaugural edition of the competition taking place, fittingly, in Warsaw, a city in which he lived for half his life.

Stanisław Leszczyński © National Institute of Chopin
Stanisław Leszczyński
© National Institute of Chopin

As Poland celebrates the centenary of its independence this year, the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in collaboration with Polish Television and Polish Radio has organised this competition not only to celebrate the country’s most beloved composer but to recapture Chopin’s sound world by using Érards, Broadwoods and Pleyels – period pianos with which Chopin was intimately familiar.

One does not simply found a piano competition as a result of inspiration. After all, if anything there is a glut of piano competitions to choose from. For director Stanisław Leszczyński, the idea of a Chopin competition evolved organically from the music festival Chopin and His Europe which he founded in 2005. This festival’s raison d’être was to present Chopin’s music in its broader European context, performed on period pianos. “I noted the interest generated by the recordings of all of Chopin’s music on period instruments,” declares Leszczyński. “And this was the moment I first concocted the idea of establishing a piano competition that used period instruments solely.”

By hearing pieces performed on the kind of instruments available in the 19th century, we get to know the timbre and quality of sound that was heard by the composer. This, for Leszczyński, is extremely valuable as “it allows us to get to the essence of the music as the composer would have envisaged it, to reconstruct Chopin’s sound world – something that is lost when performing on contemporary Steinways, Kawais or Yahamas.”

Another reason is that “a competition is an excellent method of popularizing and getting a younger generation of pianists to think about historically informed performances,” says Leszczyński. It also helps that this is the world’s first competition on period piano specialising in Romantic repertoire. Perhaps the surprise, after all, is that nobody had yet thought of such an idea before.

Buchholtz piano copy, made by Paul McNulty on the request of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute © Wojciech Grzedzinski
Buchholtz piano copy, made by Paul McNulty on the request of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute
© Wojciech Grzedzinski
The old saw that violins appreciate in value as they get older while pianos depreciate doesn’t hold true to in relation to period pianos. In October 2015, for example, Sotheby’s auction sold a 19th-century Érard piano for over half a million dollars. The competition boasts a very handsome range of six grand pianos and two uprights, one of which was signed by Chopin himself. This all started in 2005, when the Ryszard Krauze Foundation bought the first historical piano for the Fryderyk Chopin Institute: the Érard from 1849, which was first presented in Warsaw during a restaging of Chopin’s last Paris concert.

There is an earlier Érard from 1838 (“a wonderful one” according to Leszczyński), a Pleyel from 1848 and a Broadwood from 1843. There are also two copies, both built by expert piano builder Paul McNulty: a Graf copy of the model from ca. 1819 and – the latest addition to the “family” – the Buchholtz, a copy of a piano from ca. 1825. This was the missing element in the collection and understandably the Institute is extremely proud of it. It took eight years and a huge effort from a whole team of people to finalize this project, but in the eyes of the director it was definitely worth it: “We got a wonderful instrument from Paul McNulty, which gives us the idea of how the piano that Chopin actually owned in Warsaw, on which he composed as a young genius and on which he first performed his F minor Concerto in public, might have sounded,” says Leszczyński. Before this, there were no instruments by Buchholtz, a gifted Warsaw piano builder, in such a condition that they could be restored, and only two in a shape that could serve as models for making a copy. One of them – the only accessible one – they found quite by chance in Kremenets in Ukraine, abandoned and demolished in one of the local museums. But it was enough for McNulty to examine closely and start creating a copy.

Sometimes strokes of luck come in twos. The Institute has been very fortunate to have recently received an exceptional gift. Two upright pianos, one with Chopin’s signature on it, were presented to them by the Hungarian pianist Alex Szilasi. They also have one Érard and one Pleyel (on loan) dating from the 1850s – with these instruments in perfect concert condition, it makes quite the collection.

The 1849 Érard piano © Wojciech Grzedzinski
The 1849 Érard piano
© Wojciech Grzedzinski
Each of these pianos has their different styles – “their own unique voice” in the words of Leszczyński. The Érards are more “pianist-friendly instruments” due to the ease in which one can perform in the brilliant style on them, the director explains. The Pleyels have generally “more colours” and offer what pianists tend to describe as a “singing” sound. Chopin preferred the latter type, in particular the upright pianos of Pleyel, and in his correspondence he frequently noted the need for the right hand to “sing out”. The Broadwood combines both those characteristics and is an instrument which is being chosen by both the Érard- and Pleyel-fans. All these make up a magical world, which allows artists of great sensitivity to luxuriate in the sonority of their instruments.

Unsurprisingly, this is a piano competition with a difference: according to Leszczyński “the visually impressive virtuosic firework display”, so prevalent on the international piano competition circuit, “is not looked for here”. The main challenge for the competitors in the First International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments is the need to “step back from the spectacular effects related to the power of huge sound”. From the very beginning the pianist must find pleasure in discovering all the subtle colours, the surprising “rustle-effects” and sound worlds available on these instruments. The pianist does not have the extraordinary dynamic range available on a modern concert grand. “An instrument from the 19th century will immediately protest” if a pianist were to attack it in such a manner, warns Leszczyński.

However, even for pianists unaccustomed to period instruments, there is not such a huge adjustment, the director insists. So long as the pianist takes his sound from his fingers, not the whole body, and is open to exploring a different sound world, then that is the main distinction for competitors who lack experience with period pianos. Some of the greatest pianists of our time who are not specialists in period instruments – Martha Argerich, Maria João Pires, Kevin Kenner for instance – have successfully delved into this world. Of course, specialists in period pianos such as Andreas Staier or Kristian Bezuidenhout are de rigueur listening experiences.

Martha Argerich, Stanisław Leszczyński and Maria João Pires (2010) © Annelies van der Vegt
Martha Argerich, Stanisław Leszczyński and Maria João Pires (2010)
© Annelies van der Vegt
The openness of the competition to pianists from non-specialist backgrounds is reflected in the composition of the jury, which includes members who have a special affinity for Chopin and are celebrated for their interpretation of him, while the others are performers of the highest calibre on historical instruments.

While the financial incentives are certainly there in this competition, perhaps even more alluringly there are a generous amount of concert engagements and recording possibilities for the prize-winners. All finalists will play with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and the prize-winners will have future concerts and recording opportunities with this orchestra.

The competition takes place over three rounds. The first and second are solo recitals, whose repertoire are largely concentrating on Chopin, though they will feature selected works by other 19th-century Polish composers and J.S. Bach too, will be fully recorded and broadcasted by the Polish Radio Channel 2. Meanwhile Polish TV will issue a live audio-visual broadcast of both the second round and the final. All this makes for a fascinating novelty among piano competitions, and not only will it popularize interest in historically-informed performances but it will also reveal the astounding sound world of Chopin to a vast new audience around the world.

 

The Chopin International Piano Competition on Period Instruments takes place from 2 - 14 September 2018.

This article was sponsored by the National Institute of Chopin.