Name a Polish composer. Frédéric Chopin. Very good. Now name ten more. If that challenge leaves you floundering, then an immersion into the Stanisław Moniuszko International Competition of Polish Music – named after the 19th-century composer whose operas are starting to make an impact outside Poland – will have provided you with ample opportunity to discover many more. Across the two categories, pianists and chamber ensembles, entrants chose from repertoire lists of 56 composers. With nearly 50 hours of streaming covering the preliminary stages and the finals, it was a pretty intense deep dive into Polish music! Chopin himself had only a marginal presence, with a few works for chamber ensembles and the pianists able to select just a single étude during Stage 1. And of the 11 concertos listed for the piano final, Chopin’s two were conspicuous by their absence… but then, he already has his own, well established competition in Warsaw. 

Maciej Słapiński and Bartłomiej Dobrowolski
© Wojciech Grzędziński
By contrast, the biennial Moniuszko Competition is the new kid on the Polish block, this being only its second edition. Its clear aims are to celebrate the legacy of 19th– and 20th-century Polish music, “presenting the rich heritage of Polish music to the world” as Head of the Piano Jury Jarosław Drzewiecki enthused when announcing the results. This year’s competition took place across eight consecutive days in mid-September in the Artur Malawski Podkarpacka Philharmonic Hall in Rzeszów, the largest city in southeastern Poland, straddling the Wisłok River. A week of concentrated activity, cordially presented by hosts Katarzyna Sanocka and Piotr Krasnowolski, culminated in an awards ceremony and Laureates’ Concert on Saturday 18th September, repeated two days later in the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall. In addition to the top three placings, there were 38 further prizes, mostly of concert engagements. 

The 23 ensembles that qualified were all from Poland apart from a Czech piano trio and a Ukrainian piano quartet. There was a slightly more diverse contingent among the eleven pianists, with a Ukranian, a Canadian and two Russians among the entrants, but the competition will surely want to attract a wider geographic spread in future editions to fulfil its international remit. 

Some performers appeared more than once, such as pianist Maciej Słapiński (accompanying both clarinet and flute), and Trio Legend’s cellist (Monika Krasicka-Gajownik) and pianist (Agnieszka Zahaczewska-Książek) each competed in rival duo combinations. Martyna Kubik of the Artesania Piano Duo also featured in the solo pianist category. 

Tansman Trio
© Filip Błażejowski
Musical standards were high but from an online spectator’s point of view, the chief glory of this competition was the chance to encounter composers and repertoire that were almost entirely new to me. Names like Henryk Melcer-Szczawiński (1869-1928), Artur Malawski (1904-57) and Władysław Żeleński (1837-1921) are all worth exploring, as is Józef Wieniawski (1837-1912), younger brother of violin virtuoso Henryk. Bolesław Woytowicz’s (1899-1980) Flute Sonata was given a lovely rendition by Konrad Fiszer. I only previously knew one work by Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013) – his minimalistic Orawa – so his high-spirited Wind Quintet was a delightful discovery, given a punchy performance by Kwintofonia. And the Tansman Trio, in co-ordinated blouses, performed – appropriately enough – Aleksander Tansman’s Trio no. 2 with high energy. Not everything, however, was worth savouring. The world doesn’t need a revival of interest in the pale music of Józef Ksawery Elsner (1769-1854). 

As a clarinettist, I was familiar with Lutosławski’s Dance Preludes, but I could only dream of playing them as puckishly as Bartłomiej Dobrowolski, the better of the two performances in the competition. Lutosławski’s Variations on a theme by Paganini for piano duo are great fun and were polished off with élan by both the Artesania and Książek piano duos. 

Julia Dmochowska
© Wojciech Grzędziński
Alas, there was little actual Moniuszko on display, the best being a very fine performance of his String Quartet no. 2 in F major by “Op1”, who can consider themselves unlucky not to have progressed beyond the first stage. Among the better known Polish composers, there were some dazzling Moszkowski and Chopin etudes from Mikołaj Sikała, plus Paderewski’s charming Nocturne in B flat major from Krzysztof Kozłowski. Both Ruslan Kazakov and Martyna Kubik gave strong performances of Leopold Godowsky’s Passacaglia in B minor, a remarkable tribute to Franz Schubert to commemorate the centenary of his death, the passacaglia theme based on the first eight bars of the “Unfinished” Symphony. Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69) was well represented, with Julia Dmochowska and Carter Johnson performing her Second Piano Sonata (famously recorded by great Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman) and Johnson and Mikołaj Sikała selecting her Piano Concerto for the final. 

If there is one Polish composer I’d urge you to seek out it is Ludomir Różycki (1883-1953). I recently got to know his Violin Concerto which, in what reads like a thriller, he abandoned, hiding it in a suitcase which he buried in his garden when Różycki had to flee Warsaw during World War 2, and which was long believed to be lost. In the Moniuszko Competition, his Rhapsody for piano trio was performed three times and it is a gem, composed just before World War 1 in a late romantic style. His Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor (completed in 1918) was selected by three of the piano finalists and is a sumptuous, high calorific feast, Rachmaninov-like in temperament and scale. 

Inevitably, you pick your favourites as the competition progresses and pit your choices against those of the distinguished jury. In the chamber category, personal favourites included the Dobrowolski/Słapiński Duo (clarinet and piano), particularly for their Lutosławski, and Trio Legend, who played a sublime Chopin Piano Trio in G minor in the final. Both earned Honourable Mentions, (worth €1500 each). The Airis String Quartet were unlucky to miss out, demonstrating gutsy playing in crunchy, high-fibre repertoire by Andrzej Panufnik and Krzysztof Penderecki in the finals.  

Książek Piano Duo
© Filip Błażejowski
But the winners of the chamber category were very fine. The husband and wife Książek Piano Duo – Agnieszka Zahaczewska-Książek and Krzysztof Książek – took first prize (worth €20,000) with dazzling displays of pianism in lighter repertoire by Ignacy Friedman, Moritz Moszkowski and Roman Maciejewski before closing with the pyrotechnics of Lutosławski’s Paganini Variations. Wind quintet Kwintofonia deservedly took second prize and the violin and piano duo of Aleksandra Kuls and Marcin Koziak were placed third by the jury, their performance of Bacewicz’ Violin Sonata no. 4 particularly persuasive. 

Jury member Gary Guthman praised the Książek Piano Duo, especially “the way they connected emotionally and mentally on the stage.” He especially enjoyed the opportunity to discover so much repertoire. “It was a pleasure for me to be introduced to some fabulous Polish compositions, with some of the most superior playing anywhere in the world.”

Although there were fewer competitors, the piano category was harder to call, although Julia Dmochowska deserved a place in the final. All eight finalists were strong, each performing a concerto accompanied by the Orchestra of the Artur Malawski Podkarpacka Philharmonic. I was very impressed with Russian pianist Ruslan Kazakov, whose assured playing of the Różycki concerto, with dynamic energy and huge phrasing, was most persuasive. The jury awarded him an Honourable Mention, as they did Adam Mikołaj Goździewski and Krzysztof Kozłowski. Michał Karol Szymanowski, very much a favourite of the Poles in the comments section while watching on YouTube, offered playing that was always poised, pristine and undemonstrative in the concerto by Poland’s third Prime Minister (he was a signatory of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles), Ignacy Jan Paderewski. His dynamic range erred on the tasteful side but this suited the music, earning him third place. Ukrainian Ivan Shemchuk, who played beautifully constructed programmes in his solo rounds (including a gorgeous Caprice orientale by Zygmunt Stojowski), took second prize. He also tackled the Różycki concerto, playing it with a lovely limpid touch, never trying to hammer the life out of the piano or to drown the orchestra. 

Carter Johnson
© Filip Błażejowski
But the piano category winner came from Vancouver. Carter Johnson exuded confidence in a slick performance of Grażyna Bacewicz’ Piano Concerto, a striking work composed in 1949, with a finale that really showed his mettle. I’ve a feeling it was his earlier rounds that swung it for Johnson though, programmes that looked very “bitty” on paper with lots of short works – he featured six different composers in each of the two stages – but which were entirely integrated as mini recitals, the second ending with an outstanding performance of Bacewicz’ Second Sonata. 

“It was very exciting to become newly acquainted with such a variety of Polish music and to present programmes almost entirely composed of fresh repertoire that I learned over the summer,” explained Johnson. “Winning was extremely exciting, of course, especially given the high level of the playing and the many other accomplished candidates, but I put a lot of work into the music for this competition and am so proud of what I was able to accomplish, and happy that it paid off. I look forward to using many of these new pieces by Polish composers in my other upcoming recitals and competitions.” With concert engagements across Poland, he’ll certainly have plenty of opportunities. 

Click here to watch all the laureates perform in the Prize Winners' Concert.

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