Is Poland really the paradise of period instruments? For two weeks, Warsaw has put out the red carpet for pianists attracted by the ghosts of Sébastien Erard, Ignace Pleyel, Fryderyk Buchholtz: faces of instrument-making who still leave us plenty of room to explore.

It's September 12th. On the invitation of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, I'm spending four days on-site to listen to the six finalists and the prizewinners' concert, in the company of several fellow journalists assembled from all corners of the planet – and not without reason, since this is the first competition of this size to be devoted to piano on period instruments. It's a heavy calibre jury that the organisers have assembled, filled with names to entice us, amongst which several veterans of the "main" competition: Claire Chevallier, Nikolai Demidenko, Nelson Goerner, Tobias Koch, Alexei Lubimov, Janusz Olejniczak (6th prize in 1970), Ewa Pobłocka (5th prize in 1980), Dang Thai Son (1st prize in 1980), Andreas Staier, Wojciech Świtała (best Polish performance, 1990). Organised in tandem with national radio and television, the event is timed to coincide with the centenary celebrations of the Polish state. Which tells you what you need to know about the ins and outs of this spectacle, in which one senses a strong desire for the affirmation of Polish identity and for international recognition.

Naruhiko Kawaguchi and Aleksandra Świgut (2nd equal prize) and Tomasz Ritter (1st prize) © Julien Hanck
Naruhiko Kawaguchi and Aleksandra Świgut (2nd equal prize) and Tomasz Ritter (1st prize)
© Julien Hanck

It's clearly worked as designed: 24 hours before the judging, you already need to elbow your way through crowds, microphone stands and cameras to get any chance of speaking to the six finalists, who are surprising not least for their diversity. By far the youngest of the group at 23, first prize winner Tomasz Ritter is unique in having been involved with early instruments since the age of 12. When he plays them, intuitively, he imbues the melodic line with admirable intensity; it's an interpretation with something of the unique, the inimitable. But like the others, he hasn't been fully devoted to this practise (to the exclusion of modern pianos) until recently – four years ago, to be precise. Several finalists are migrants from other disciplines. At 26, Aleksandra Świgut (joint second prizewinner) started with the harpsichord before becoming interested in pianos with a so-called "Viennese" mechanism. Her playing exudes a visceral neediness, superposed by grace of gesture. The other joint second prizewinner, Naruhiko Kawaguchi (29) is a specialist in the repertoire and instruments that preceded Chopin (Mozart and Haydn). After giving us a finale from the Concerto in F of rare invention, he enthuses about the rapid evolution of piano making. "It took me nearly a year to find my bearings in the world of Chopin and 19th century pianos!". Finally, for Antoine de Grolée, the only French representative, period instruments are a recent addition: "Although I've worked on a hundred year old Érard for a long time, I had never touched a piano from Chopin's era before receiving the email from the competition. So I scoured the landscape nearby and found four or five pianos on which I could work and record my DVD for the application. So it's a very new sensation, but there's a crazy side to it that I adore!".

The organisers have assembled twenty or so period pianos, some from collections in the Netherlands and Belgium. Trying out a few of these (Érard, Pleyel, Graf, as well as Broadwood one Buchholtz), one is soon struck by the specific sound world and feel of each instrument. Sometimes, there are significant differences between pianos from a same makeur, which poses a challenge, according to Antoine de Grolée: "The organisers have been kind enough to keep for us in the wings an instrument of the same make that we're going to play in front of the jury. The trouble is, even though you can get perfectly comfortable with the piano in the rehearsal room, the chances are that you'll get the destabilising effect of arriving on stage to find a piano whose touch and travel bear no relation to it... It's a testing week for me in terms of learning the right feel!" Although Tomasz Ritter has a long acquaintance with the vagaries of period pianos, he agrees: "It's very difficult to jump from one instrument to another in this way. Often, the seat position is different, and therefore the hand position also. However, it's a great chance to be able to express ourselves by our choice of instrument, notably by changing the maker and therefore the soundscape, between two works during the same session."

By the end of a studious afternoon at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music, a 300 year old building not for from the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall which hosts the competition,  the tension of the last few hours before the final concerto challenge affects each candidate differently. For Dmitry Ablogin, the experience is more physical than anything else: "I feel like a giant mountain is crushing my whole body". For Świgut, it's the amount of media attention in the hall that makes her nervous: "It's really hard to be at peace with your own head and the musique you're playing when there are a dozen cameras trained on you. Fortunately, the orchestra listens to us hard and is a great support."

The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century on stage at the Chopin Competition © Julien Hanck
The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century on stage at the Chopin Competition
© Julien Hanck

To remind you: the finalists have been asked to play either of the two Chopin concertos with the prestigious Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, co-founded by Frans Brüggen and Sieuwert Verster, who is in attendance. Which, for some finalists, is itself more of a motivation than the hope of a trophy, as Świgut explains: "Whatever the result of the competition, the most important thing for me will have been the chance to be accompanied by an orchestra like the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. The more so because I feel that we have the same way of thinking about music: I feel that they understand the direction of my phrasing." (When saying this, Świgut did not yet know that later in the evening, she would be receiving from the hands of Verster the special prize awarded by the orchestra).

The two preceding weeks of trials have been an intense experience not only for the candidates: the jury's schedule has at times been punishing. Goerner, who was also a member of the jury at the "main" Chopin Competition in 2015, makes this clear: "It's a highly demanding exercise requiring up to six hours of listening per day." Chevallier, one of the two women on the jury, attests to the complexity of the deliberations: "Each jury member had ther own specific criteria based on their experience of period instruments, their approach to the scores, how accustomed they were to listen to Chopin on period instruments. But that allowed us to have a rather distilled final judgement, since we were taking into account some very disparate opinions". One of the reasons for this was the varied profiles of the artists, from those well versed in the genre " Ablogin, who began each work with a little improvised introduction, which brought one into the tonality" as well as novices "I'm thinking about Antoine, who was very modest in his biography about his experience with period instruments and arrived at the final with relatively few tools in his box, but pleasantly surprised the jury with his ability to produce a beautiful sound."

However, Goerner says, the conversion from modern piano is not an easy thing. "You spot very quickly whether the musician has a healthy and natural approach to a period instrument, if he embodies that culture". He is also supportive of the musicians with the greatest experience in this. "It's a good thing that a pianist can use this event to discover period instruments, but that isn't the principal objective of the competion." Chevallier agrees: "At the end of the deliberations, we are trying to give a future to people who are profoundly interested in period instrumental practise".

So what is within reach of this practice? For sure, it hasn't yet reached the level of, say, the harpsichord. But it's no longer correct to suggest that historical pianos are the realm only of a clutch of nonconformists on the sidelines. And if you hadn't seen the welcome that this competition received, you would not have realised that it's a national phenomenon: I would never for a moment have expected that a random young person somewhere in the middle of Warsaw would be up to speed with events at the competition. It's hard to imagine Paris airports adorned with giant banners for the Long-Thibaud-Crespin...

The competition's jury © Julien Hanck
The competition's jury
© Julien Hanck

"This competition happens at a critical moment where a number of modern pianists are beginning to play both ways", Goerner assures us. This new freshness is not without a certain institutional relucance, and pianists who play on early instruments are still a species hard to track down. "Still, by the number of candidates, we've been able to prove that this interest isn't nearly as niche as one might have imagined."

September 15th. Every eardrum in Warsaw is vibrating with the effect of this brilliantly executed first-time run. Without question, a memorable episode in the story of period instrument practise.


Translated from French by David Karlin
This article was sponsored by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute