Poland is celebrating a century of independence this year, and to mark the occasion the Chopin and His Europe festival is honoring two musical icons who were key figures in forging the countryʼs cultural and national identity. The festivalʼs namesake, Fryderyk Chopin, gave his countrymen hope during dark times by imbuing his music with a new sense of nationalism. Nearly a century later, Ignacy Jan Paderewski left the keyboard to enter politics and was instrumental in the establishment of the modern Polish state.

Seong-Jin Cho at the 2016 festival © Grzedzinski
Seong-Jin Cho at the 2016 festival
© Grzedzinski

Their legacy provides the foundation for a wide-ranging showcase of Polish music featuring new works, variations on mainstays and seldom-heard gems. Of the 120 pieces that will be performed at the festival this year, fully half are by Polish composers. Highlights include Chopin Institute-commissioned works by Krzysztof Penderecki and Agata Zubel; entire evenings devoted to the music of Paderewski and Mieczysław Karłowicz; concertos by Ludomir Różycki, Maurycy Moszkowski and Witold Maliszewski; and the flute and strings version of Andrzej Panufnik’s Hommage à Chopin.

The Polish programming also offers intriguing variations, like Paderewskiʼs 12 Songs to words by Catulle Mendes, sung by lyric tenor Christoph Prégardien, and a concert performance of Stanisław Moniuszkoʼs opera Halka, sung in Italian with period instruments. Fresh interpretations are on tap with a Polish translation of Schubertʼs Winterreise, and an all-star trio of violinist Gidon Kremer, cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė and pianist Yulianna Avdeeva assaying Chopinʼs early Piano Trio in G minor. Organizers have even included E.T.A. Hoffmannʼs Symphony in E flat major, better known as the “Warsaw symphony” for the city where it premiered in 1806.

Avdeeva is one of many International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition laureates who will be at this yearʼs festival, a group that includes Seong-Jin Cho, the young Korean prodigy who stunned the classical world (and became a hero in his homeland) when he won the 2015 competition. Other recent prizewinners like Szymon Nehring, Dmitry Shishkin and Charles Richard-Hamelin are still building careers, but veteran players like Akiko Ebi, Kevin Kenner and Dang Thai Son long ago proved their victories were no fluke.

The granddaddy of returnees is Garrick Ohlsson, who launched his European career and established himself as a world-class talent by winning the 1970 competition. On this visit he will join the Apollon Musagète Quartet for piano quintets by Franz Schubert and Juliusz Zarębski, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for a Paderewski concerto.

Václav Luks © David Tureck
Václav Luks
© David Tureck

This being a Chopin festival, there is no lack of A-list pianists: Benjamin Grosvenor, Marc-André Hamelin, Jan Lisiecki, Leif Ove Andsnes, Nelson Goerner, Elisabeth Leonskaja are all here. Audiences will also have a chance to hear rising keyboard stars like Plamena Mangova, Alex Szilasi and the remarkable Vadym Kholodenko, who swept all the top prizes at the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition. And for aficionados, there are a handful of specialty performances – fortepianists Tobias Koch and Alexei Lubimov, Howard Shelley playing period piano and Makoto Ozone lending a jazz flavor to Mozartʼs Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat major (K271).    

Other anniversaries are in the mix, notably Debussyʼs centenary, celebrated by the Beethoven Academy Orchestra in the opening concert with his popular Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and lesser-known Rhapsody for Saxophone and Piano. The latter will give Polish sax player Łukasz Dyczko an opportunity to show why he won the 2016 Eurovision Young Musicians competition. The Poles are even more proud of the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra of Polish Radio, founded as a modest ensemble by conductor Agnieszka Duczmal in 1968, when she was still a student. Along with creating more than 8,000 minutes of music for Polish radio and television, the group has toured Europe, the US and Asia, and recorded with artists like Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich. For this appearance the ensemble will serve up a tasty mix of Haydn, Mozart, Serocki and Paderewski.

That concert will also feature the top three winners of this yearʼs Witold Lutosławski International Cello Competition – Haruma Sato, Michiaki Ueno (both from Japan) and Yibai Chen (China). Itʼs a good chance to see why young Asian musicians are dominating so many European competitions these days, though the Poles set a high bar for cello players, as Andrzej Bauer and Marcin Zdunik will show.

While there arenʼt so many big-name orchestras, this leaves room for a wealth of chamber orchestras, in particular smart period ensembles like Concerto Köln, Europa Galante and Polandʼs Orkiestra Historyczna, which has invited Czech Baroque impresario Václav Luks to guest-conduct.

© Grzedzinski
© Grzedzinski

Also noteworthy: the Grammy Award-winning Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, famous for its democratic work ethic and conductorless performances; Sinfonia Varsovia, a favorite of Yehudi Menuhin; and Gidon Kremerʼs Kremerata Baltica ensemble, which will accompany him in the first of his two appearances.

And with two or three concerts scheduled on most days, there are many opportunities to enjoy smaller chamber performances and the intimacy of solo recitals. The performers range from famous to relatively unknown, which is one of the marks of a good festival – offering audiences a chance to see a Chopin specialist like Kevin Kenner play in the splendiferous Royal Castle Concert Hall, as well as up-and-comers mixed and matched in halls so small that people in the front row can almost turn the pages for the musicians.

And for traditionalists, the final week of the festival includes some fine soloist-orchestra pairings: Renaud Capuçon playing Schumann with the Russian National Orchestra, and Benjamin Grosvenor playing Chopin with the Warsaw Philharmonic. The latter brings a festival that opened with Penderecki full circle, honoring its past and looking ahead, keeping alive a flame of independence that has burned brightly for nearly 200 years.


See the full listings for Chopin and his Europe festival.

This article was sponsored by National Institute of Chopin.