Warsaw's charming old town
Warsaw's charming old town

Travellers to Warsaw are immediately reminded of Poland’s most famous composer upon landing at the Warsaw Chopin Airport, renamed in 2001 in his honour. The city’s Fryderyk Chopin Institute has presented the Chopin and His Europe Festival annually since 2005, and aims to set Chopin’s extensive oeuvre in the context in which it was composed. The Festival pairs Chopin’s works with those of contemporaneous composers as well as later Polish composers influenced by him, as well as presenting his works in a historical context by making use of the Erard and Pleyel pianos in possession of the Institute.

Indeed, the 2019 Festival features no fewer than three performances of Chopin’s second piano concerto over the course of two weeks, albeit in different guises. Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire performs the work with conductor Tatsuya Shimono and the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra and the Sinfonia Varsovia, paired with Penderecki’s searing Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Also on the programme are works by Stanisław Moniuszko and Andrzej Panufnik, providing a journey through Polish classical music from 1800 to the present. Earlier that same evening, American pianist Kevin Kenner performs the concerto in its arrangement for piano quintet. Kenner is joined by the Quatuor Mosaïques, an Austrian quartet best known for their period performances of Classical and early Romantic repertoire; hearing the concerto accompanied by a quartet of period instruments will certainly provide a fascinating contrast to the lush orchestration of the original work. Finally, Japanese-French pianist Akiko Ebi joins conductor Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium to perform the concerto on period piano. The concerto is paired with Mozart’s elegant Symphony no. 29, highlighting the influence of Mozart on Chopin’s composition style. 

The Belcea Quartet © Marco Borggreve
The Belcea Quartet
© Marco Borggreve

Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn join Chopin centre stage in the chamber music programming, with solo piano recitals by Juho Pohjonen, Evgeny Bozhanov and Nikolai Demidenko, and string quartet concerts by the Apollon Musagète and Belcea Quartets. Pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout presents an all-Mozart programme with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, joined by Dutch mezzo-soprano Rosanne van Sandwijk for Mozart’s showcase for voice and piano Ch’io mi scordi di te. Other pianists, including rising British star Benjamin Grosvenor and the winner of the 2010 Chopin Competition Yulianna Avdeeva choose instead to pair Chopin’s works with Prokofiev and Debussy, who were both surely influenced by Chopin’s pioneering use of musical colour and texture. Martha Argerich returns to the festival in a programme yet to be determined, though having risen to international prominence after winning the 1965 Chopin Competition one assumes the Polish composer will make an appearance.

The festival has long had a history of performing opera in concert, and the 2019 edition promises an array of rarely-performed pieces. The festival opens with a performance of Jan Stefani’s Cud mniemany, czyli Krakowiacy i Góral. Often considered Poland’s first national opera, the performance led by Václav Luks and the Collegium 1704 presents a rare opportunity to hear Stefani’s rural comedy full of folk melodies and dances. Stanisław Moniuszko celebrates his 200th birthday in 2019, and the festival presents two of his operas. Straszny Dwór (The Haunted Manor) remains Moniuszko’s best-known work within Poland and has finally begun to achieve international recognition for its abundant melodic invention and atmospheric choral writing. Grzegorz Nowak directs an all-Polish cast, including bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny in a departure from his usual Wagnerian roles; Konieczny returns to the festival later that week in a performance of Schubert’s Winterreise

Fabio Biondi © Emile Ashley
Fabio Biondi
© Emile Ashley

Fabio Biondi offers Moniuszko’s one-act opera Flis (The Raftsman), one of the composer’s earlier operas and rarely performed even in Poland. The score is particularly notable for its atmospheric overture, depicting sunrise over the Vistula river and the subsequent tempest that provides the dramatic impetus for the opera and contains an extended clarinet solo with a rhapsodic lyricism worthy of Chopin himself. Though Chopin is perhaps today most associated with the Polish nationalist school, he was strongly influenced by Bellini and other bel canto composers; as such Biondi also presents Verdi’s Il corsaro, an early opera that contains some of Verdi’s most hauntingly beautiful bel canto arias. The exciting young cast includes the Georgian soprano Ilona Mataradze and the 26-year-old Peruvian tenor Ivan Ayon Rivas in the title role of Corrado.

Finally, the festival offers the opportunity to hear Poland’s other great composers both familiar and unfamiliar. Karol Kurpinski, often considered one of the fathers of the Polish national musical style, opens the festival with his Te Deum, performed with Cherubini’s Requiem by Václav Luks, the Collegium Vocale, and Collegium 1704. Beyond his operas, Moniuszko’s songs receive an outing in a recital by tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Schnackertz, and his shorter piano works in recitals by pianists Cyprien Katsaris, Tobias Koch, and Janusz Olejniczak. Lutosławski’s Sacher Variation for solo cello is paired with Chopin’s Cello Sonata in a recital by Alexander Rudin and Alexander Melnikov, a rare work for an instrument other than piano by Chopin. Lutosławski also closes the festival in a symphonic concert by the Warsaw Philharmonic with his Symphonic Variations, written when the composer was just 25 but already displaying a mastery of orchestration and counterpoint that would sustain him throughout his career. The closing concert also features Mieczysław Weinberg’s Violin Concerto, premiered in 1959 but rarely performed since. The concerto structurally and harmonically resembles those of his friend and mentor Shostakovich, full of cynicism and bleakness. Worlds away from Chopin’s virtuoso Romanticism, perhaps, but fully in line with the festival’s mission to challenge, provoke, and raise the profile of Polish classical music.

Click here to see the Festival's full listings.

This preview was sponsored by the National Institute of Chopin.