Musical competitions tend to follow a tried and tested formula. Invite young musicians to prepare a set list of familiar repertoire and then to rattle it off in front of a jury. As the field is narrowed down, the stakes are raised, the demand for technical perfection becomes more fierce, the process of elimination more ruthless. If the competition is sufficiently prestigious, the attention of record labels and management agents awaits the winner, who may then go and rattle off those repertoire standards in the studio and across the globe. And good luck to them.

Chamber music competitors at the IPMC 2021
© Filip Błażejowski

The International Polish Music Competition (IPMC) does things differently. Now gearing up for its third edition, the competition casts its net wider than most. Both pianists and chamber groups of any age may compete at the finals planned for September 2023 in city of Rzeszów.

What really makes the IPMC unique is the menu of prescribed repertoire – that is, there isn’t one. A page at the competition’s website lists 60 Polish composers from the 18th to the 20th centuries, but entrants are encouraged to do their own research into the treasure-trove of Polish music: a tapestry which extends from the more familiar figures of Chopin and Szymanowski and Lutoslawski.

Lech Dzierżanowski
© Wojciech Grzędziński

“We place less stress than some competitions on technical finesse,” explains the competition’s artistic director, Lech Dzierżanowski. “Of course entrants must be highly accomplished musicians. But we are not looking for superhuman ability or machine perfection. We are more interested in a competitor’s imagination, both in their programming and their performance, in the qualities that will enchant an audience. We want to reward musicians who can find unusual repertoire and put together original programmes. After all, most unknown pieces are unknown for a good reason. The challenge is to find the ones which are interesting and worth reviving. This is the purpose of the competition, and this is what makes it unique.”

Thus the dominant figure of Chopin is excluded from the competition’s piano division (comparative rarities such as the Piano Trio are admitted in the Chamber category). Ever since Chopin, a strain of French-accented harmony and refinement of texture has been passed down through generations of Polish composers, in the sensuous ballets and chamber music of Ludomir Różycki, for example, or the spider-spun filigree of piano works by Bolesław Woytowicz.

But that isn’t the whole story, as Dzierżanowski points out. “After all, Poland in the 19th century did not exist as an independent state. And it can be difficult to say whether a composer of that time is Polish-German, Polish-Russian, Polish-Jewish and so on. One line is French, for sure. But there is also a German influence on Szymanowski’s early pieces and other composers of the time. Scriabin is another important figure for many Polish composers in the early decades of the last century. The problem with Polish music after Chopin is that even in Poland it is often regarded as not very original, rather repetitive, and it is very good to explore if this is actually true.”

Książek Piano Duo, Chamber category winners IPMC 2021
© Wojciech Grzędziński

In any case, before making his decisive move from Warsaw to Paris in 1830, Chopin did not come from nowhere. Neither did his music, which was nurtured not only by the study of Mozart and Bach but by a rich native musical culture including figures almost forgotten today such as Joachim Kaczkowski, Karol Kurpiński and Karol Lipiński. Rather than seeing these names confined to encyclopedias and obscure record labels, wouldn’t it be fun – and instructive – to hear their music in the concert hall, played by musicians with a powerful incentive to convince and excel? Herein lies the premise of the IPMC.

Those incentives include a pot of prize money totalling €100,000. There are awards of €20,000 for each of the piano and chamber-ensemble category winners, and several €1000 prizes for performances of special anniversary composers. These include Eugeniusz Pankiewicz, Witold Maliszewski, Antoni Szałowski and Antoni Stolpe, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1872 at the age of just at 24: “his output is quite limited in scope,” says Dzierżanowski, “but it includes an ambitious Sonata which is very much worth revival.”

Perhaps of more lasting value than the financial rewards are the opportunities afforded to the competition’s winners to further their fledgling careers through return engagements, which have been organised in partnership with Philharmonic societies across Poland. Each of these comes with its own fee, as well as bringing additional experience and the possibility that the organisation will engage the prize-winner for more concerts. And lest you infer that this is a Polish competition for Polish people, the Piano category winner in 2021 was the Canadian pianist Carter Johnson (read his Bachtrack interview at the time here).

Carter Johnson, Piano category winner 2021
© Filip Błażejowski

You don’t have to spend longer than a day or two in Warsaw or Kraków or Katowice to see classical-concert posters on street corners and billboards everywhere, and to reflect that the country still values its heritage of classical music more highly than most of its European neighbours. Nevertheless, according to Dzierżanowski, the focus of attention tends to fall on orchestral, on “early” and choral music: the IPMC and its partnerships are designed to give a shot in the arm to the profile of chamber music. “We have a lot of very good string quartets,” he says. “But there are too few opportunities for them to play. The situation is much worse for piano trios: Poland has almost no native ensembles. Musicians may come together for a concert, but they don’t form a team – and again this is because there are too few chamber-music series which will regularly invite them to play.”

After the performance
© Wojciech Grzędziński

As a kind of satellite programme, the IPMC is inviting ideas for concert programmes from Polish chamber-music ensembles. The chosen ten ensembles will give concerts in Warsaw, in Torún and Lublin. “We also have a programme which takes chamber music to smaller towns and cities in Poland, with around a hundred concerts a year.” Dzierżanowski reflects: “I think it is the intimate and often delicate nature of chamber music that can make some listeners nervous. What’s worse is the anxiety and conservatism of promoters, who are afraid to take a risk. We cannot effect a sea-change overnight, but we can certainly make a difference.”

As in 2019 and 2021, the venue for the IPMC is the city of Rzeszów in the far south-eastern corner of Poland, between Kraków and Ukrainian Lviv. Is the war having an effect on life and culture there right now? “I was there a month ago,” replies Dzierżanowski. “I don’t think so. It’s true that Rzeszów is not so far from the conflict, and the atmosphere there is quite different from, say, Warsaw. But we think it’s important to keep the competition there: we want to declare that maintaining cultural standards at such a time of tension is important. It’s also important to reassure potential competitors that they shouldn’t be afraid – Rzeszow is no more dangerous than anywhere else than Poland! Life is normal there.”

Rzeszów town square
© Wikimedia Commons | Daniel Zolopa

Dzierżanowski is himself an authority on the music of Roman Palester, a relatively unsung contemporary of Lutosławski. Perhaps an adventurous ensemble will tackle one of Palester’s string quartets – especially the half-hour-long Second Quartet which has a unique structure according to Dzierżanowski: “like a combination of sonata-form and the cyclic form that Liszt uses in the B minor Sonata. It sounds in the lineage of Szymanowski, but more complex.”

In the same way that Chopin loomed over Polish music through the course of the 19th century, so Szymanowski and the Hungarian Bartók become stylistic lodestars for Polish composers before and even after the Second World War. “Some of Palester’s pieces are a continuation of Szymanowski’s late style,” says Dzierżanowski, “and many are French in character. But then 12-tone technique came into his music, and perhaps his late music returns to a Bartókian character.”

Also belatedly taking her deserved place in the sun is Palester’s contemporary, Grażyna Bacewicz: “perhaps not as sophisticated technically as Lutosławski, but she was so prolific – we still haven’t encompassed the wealth of her music, including a huge amount of piano and chamber music such as two fantastic piano quintets.” Dzierżanowski’s enthusiasm is a driving force behind the success of the International Polish Music Competition. If they’re hungry for new experiences, musicians and listeners alike will want to head to Rzeszów next September.

The 2023 International Polish Music Competition is open to applicants from Nov 9 in Piano and Chamber categories: see This interview was sponsored by the Narodowy Instytut Muzyki i Tańca (National Institute of Music and Dance).