In a profession that has traditionally been the domain of the individual soloist, a piano duo and its unique repertoire provide an unforgettable musical experience, whether playing music for two pianos or for one piano, four hands. After all, how else to best hear the two-piano concertos by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Poulenc, not to mention Schubert's Fantasy in F minor – and Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals? The experience was unforgettable when the Książek Piano Duo played at the 2nd Stanisław Moniuszko International Competition of Polish Music, held in the Podkarpacka Philharmonic Hall in Rzeszów, where they took first prize in the chamber music category. 

Książek Piano Duo, Agnieszka Zahaczewska-Książek and Krzysztof Książek
© Wojciech Grzędziński

Krzysztof Książek and Agnieszka Zahaczewska-Książek were required to choose their repertoire from a list of 56 Polish composers. Their playing was clear, incisive, conversational and rhythmic. It was easy to hear in their shapes and phrasing an identification with the language of Polish music, whether in a Mozartian sonata by Józef Elsner or a delirious escapade by Witold Lutosławski. They brought out inner voices without fanfare or being obvious. There was poetry in their playing and – as they are a couple also in life – signs of love in the glances they exchanged. True to the guidelines of the competition, they also brought with them two exciting discoveries: Juliusz Zarębski's Deux Morceaux en forme de Mazurka and Roman Maciejewski's uncharacteristically infectious Negro Spirituals

Agnieszka and Krzysztof established their duo in 2012, while studying at the Academy of Music in Kraków. They took a break for a few years, during which Krzysztof was awarded at the 17th Chopin Competition and the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments, both in Warsaw, and Agnieszka won prizes with her Legend Piano Trio in Gdansk, Bydgoszcz and Pörtschach. In 2019, the Książek Piano Duo then started winning together, at the 21st International Schubert Competition for piano duos in Jesenik and the Szörenyi International Duo Competition in Bucharest. In 2020, Agnieszka and Krzysztof received a "Young Poland" scholarship from the Ministry of Culture, National Heritage and Sport of the Republic of Poland and began representation by the prestigious Ludwig van Beethoven Association.

I was able to talk to the duo a few weeks after they won first prize in Rzeszów, with enthusiastic contributions from their one-year old daughter Bozena in the background. The two have known each other since childhood, having met at piano competitions, so as Krzysztof says with a smile, “we knew we both existed.” It seemed inevitable they would both wind up at the Academy of Music together. When they actually decided to form a piano duo, nine years ago, it was Agnieszka who made the decision. “It was a lot of fun,” she says. 

It also meant entering piano duo competitions on a circuit which stretched around the world. The Polish Music Competition, however, with its goal of promoting lesser-known works by Polish composers and requiring that the entrants themselves make discoveries, was something uniquely different, a sign that Poland continues to be a country where innovative artistic events of global reach take place. 

In fact, the duo had played at least half of the required repertoire the season before. Indeed, when they played at the Warsaw Philharmonic in March, their program comprised Elsner’s Sonata, Chopin’s Variations on a theme by Thomas Moore, Maurycy Moszkowski’s Kaleidoscope, Górecki’s Toccata for 2 Pianos, Władysława Markiewiczówna’s Suite for 2 Pianos, Alexander Tansman’s La Grande Ville for two pianos, and Lutosławski’s Miniature and his iconic Variations on a Theme by Paganini for two pianos. 

When they went exploring for music they had never played before, and which they felt would be worthy of the competition, Krzysztof says: “we just started googling, beginning with the list of compositions on the competition's website, and then listening. We'd known most of these composers before, especially the well-known ones like Freedman and Moszkowski, and even Elsner.” So, for the duo the quality of the music was not a surprise. “The surprise,” Agnieszka says, “turned out to be just how much more repertoire for piano duo there was than even we thought there would be.” 

And while the Polish Music Competition was, like other competitions, purely a challenge for the duo to show what they could do as pianists and musicians, it was also interesting for them to get to know new pieces “not only for piano duo but for other ensembles as well,” Krzysztof says. “It was an important event overall for Polish music.”

It was a competition nonetheless, with all the attendant stress, which the duo dealt with, Agnieszka explains, by imagining “each stage to be a kind of recital, and trying to forget about the fact that there was a jury judging our interpretation, our performance. It wasn't easy, but it helped. 

“The fact that we were together on stage also helped,” she adds with a smile. “The key point in all concerts,” she continues, “is that music is a language, with a message behind it, and our job is to deliver that message to the audience. Of course, concerning technical problems, we have to successfully execute our plans and keep in mind the musical things we care about, but each performance also has to be spontaneous in order to fully communicate.”

Książek Piano Duo at the Stanisław Moniuszko International Competition of Polish Music
© Wojciech Grzędziński

Reflecting the Competition's high standards, the duo were provided with two Yamaha grand pianos and allowed rehearsal time in the hall the day before the first stage. “It was all very professionally run,” Krzysztof says. “We had time to prepare and everything went smoothly.”

Krzysztof tells me that dealing with pianos that may or may not be well-matched is “the biggest issue and greatest concern” in their piano duo life. “There may be two pianos in the hall,” he explains, “but it is not certain that they are going to be similar to each other. In fact, the philosophy of some concert halls is to have two really different instruments, to be able to offer soloists clear-cut options. In general we are able to overcome those differences, to a certain extent, and create one unified sound. But this time the differences between the two Yamahas were barely noticeable and we had lots of fun playing on them.”

In addition to fun, you might think that it would be even more romantic to play music for piano by two hands with your sweetheart, rather than playing music for two pianos, but Krzysztof and Agnieszka greet my theory with laughter. “I wouldn't say so,” Krzysztof says. “It's just different – well, it's actually more uncomfortable. It's easier to play on two pianos!”

“It's more natural playing on two pianos,” Agnieszka cheerfully concurs, “because then each person has their own instrument and it's not a problem, for example, using pedals. When you're playing on one piano, with only one set of pedals, it can require movements of the body which are not natural.” 

“Also,” Krzysztof says, seriously, “every movement you make affects the person sitting next to you. For us it demands more time practicing together.”

But when I point out that spending more time together on the same piano bench, playing music by Chopin, still sounds romantic to me, they once again break into laughter. A duo in love indeed. 

This article was sponsored by The National Institute of Music and Dance