About this Recording
8.579068 - Piano Music - CHOPIN, F. / SCHUMANN, R. / RACHMANINOV, S. / KURPIŃSKI, K.K. (2nd Chopin Festival Hamburg 2019) (Koch, Tysman, Olejniczak, Ritter)
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2nd Chopin Festival Hamburg 2019


Experimentation and Tone

‘The 2nd Chopin Festival Hamburg 2019 features some wonderful pianists. This festival of classical music is unique in having them play works on original historic instruments and, by way of comparison, on a modern grand piano in one and the same performance.’ The 2nd Chopin Festival Hamburg 2019 thus enables both audience and pianists to make comparisons between historic and modern grand pianos.

This gives rise to an experiment in tone colour that is captured on this album—a tonal juxtaposition of historic and modern during which the listener decides which sounds he or she prefers. The Chopin Society Hamburg & Sachsenwald Inc., which launched this festival in 2018, is the only one in the world to compare and contrast what music sounded like in bygone eras and what it sounds like today in this vivid way.

As was the case during the 1st Chopin Festival, even the participants didn’t know what the outcome of the experiment would be. Is it actually possible to make an objective judgement? Can historic and modern tone be compared with a view to valuing them? For not even authentic historic sound is always the same. That too will become clear during the 2nd Chopin Festival Hamburg 2019.

In 2019, the Museum fü r Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (‘Museum of Arts and Crafts, Hamburg’) again furnished an ideal, stylish venue for the festival. The rooms housing the musical instrument collection became an intimate salon, and the neoclassical hall of mirrors dating from 1909 became the concert auditorium. The priceless collection of musical instruments includes around 70 original historic keyboard instruments tracing the development of the piano. All periods in the history of keyboard instruments are represented, from an Italian harpsichord built c. 1540 to a 2015 Steinway grand.

This festival album features three period pianos and two modern ones: an 1847 Pleyel grand piano, an 1872 Steinway grand, an 1832 Pleyel cottage piano and two 2019 Shigeru Kawai grand pianos—an SK-5 and an SK-6.

We invite you, the listener, to make your own mind up about the unique tone-colour of the instruments, their sound and the wonderful pianists’ multifaceted interpretations, and fi nd out how it feels to hear ‘old’ and ‘new’ in a completely fresh way.

Chopin’s Piano

‘Pleyel’s pianos are the last word in perfection’, Chopin is said to have exclaimed when he visited the Pleyel workshop in Paris. His regard for the high-quality instruments from this workshop was to grow. Chopin and Camille Pleyel (the founder’s son, who later went on to head up the workshop) became close friends and business associates.

Chopin gave both his first and his last Paris concerts in the rooms of the Pleyel factory playing Pleyel grand pianos. Two Pleyels are heard on this festival album, both of which were built while Chopin was alive.

Tobias Koch gives a varied performance of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 4 in F major, Op. 15, No. 1 and two Preludes from Op. 28 No. 9 in E major and No. 6 in B minor, on Chopin’s Pleyel ‘pianino’ (or cottage piano) of 1832. Koch, who is inspired by historical sources and timbres, opens this festival album with a performance of Chopin’s Nocturne that is as passionate as it is dreamy. He also captures the spirit of the Preludes, which he plays on the Pleyel, which was built seven years before they were published in 1839.

But why Chopin’s piano and why Op. 28? When Chopin was in Valldemossa, he had a model corresponding to this Pleyel piano delivered for composing and making music. According to a letter to Pleyel dated 22 January 1839, this was the piano on which Chopin composed some parts of 24 Preludes, Op. 28. However, the piano he had ordered only arrived a couple of days after he had completed Op. 28. This emerges from a letter written by George Sand dated 15 January 1839, which states that Chopin had to make do ‘with a miserable Mallorcan piano’. Chopin had sent his 24 Preludes to Paris with a dedication to his friend Pleyel (‘à son ami Pleyel ’) before the pianino arrived. The 24 Preludes are clearly modelled on J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier – the only book Chopin had with him on this trip was an edition of this work.

From Pleyel to Kawai

One special feature of the 2nd Chopin Festival Hamburg 2019 was that Tobias Koch and Hélène Tysman both played pieces from Op. 28—Tobias on the historic Pleyel of 1832 and Hélène on a modern Shigeru Kawai grand piano built in 2019, the year of the concert. This sets up a direct comparison of their tone, with one and the same Opus being heard in both historic and modern sound.

Whereas the Pleyel pianino has a compass of six octaves from FF to f3, that of the Shigeru grand is seven and a quarter octaves from AAAA to c4. By way of comparison, harpsichords built c. 1540 have a compass of about four octaves, from CC to c2. Not only the compass, but also basic attributes of the piano mutated until they came to form the modern concert grand. Current standards include, for example, 88 keys, three pedals (soft, sostenuto and sustaining), the cast iron frame and the braces (to help with stability and the greater string tension, which can be anything up to 30 metric tonnes in a modern piano), the key depth (nowadays around eleven mm; during the Classical period up to five mm) and the curved shape.

Hélène Tysman’s part of the concert was given on the Shigeru Kawai SK-5 grand piano of 2019 (a Shigeru Kawai SK-6 can be heard later on this album). This series of grand pianos is distinguished by the use of spruce for the keys (in Chopin’s time, ivory and ebony were preferred) and an ABS-Carbon action which stabilises the piano and transfers the pianist’s energy almost seamlessly onto the strings. At 200cm long, this SK-5 model with its delicate sound is suitable for smaller halls. The SK-6, by contrast, is suited to larger concert halls. It measures 214cm long and has a more powerful sound. Matched to their venues, the SK-5 was played in the rooms housing the musical instrument collection and the SK-6 in the hall of mirrors of Hamburg’s Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe.

This gives audiences the chance to hear Shigeru grand pianos belonging to two series in two different venues and also to compare the Shigeru SK-5 grand played by Hélène Tysman with the Pleyel pianino of 1832 played the same evening. After Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52, Hélène Tysman follows on from Tobias Koch’s performance with the Preludes, Op. 28 No. 15 in D flat major ‘Raindrop’ and No. 3 in G major. She ends her performance with Chopin’s delicate Nocturne No. 3 in B major, Op. 9, No. 3.

In the Presence of Chopin and Pleyel

Janusz Olejniczak is particularly famous in Poland, not only as a pianist, but also as an actor and teacher. In his concerts he likes to give his audience useful information about the pieces, and he has undertaken the piano part in several films. In 1991, Janusz portrayed Chopin himself in Andrzej Żuławskis film La Note bleue, and in 2002 he was the hand double for Adrien Brody when he played Władysław Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, for which Olejniczak also recorded the complete piano soundtrack.

Janusz Olejniczak draws on his experience as ‘Chopin’ in his performances. The Pleyel grand piano of 1847 increases both the power of his touch, moving the listener, and the brilliant Pleyel sound, which Chopin may also have heard. Olejniczak coaxes a rich palette of colours out of the instrument in the Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31. Its Trio in A major develops out of the home key, before a melancholy theme in C sharp minor is introduced. From there a section in E major dominates, followed by A major chords. The theme in C sharp minor returns, doubled at the octave, preparing the climax of the Scherzo. The reprise brings the work to a close in the parallel key of D flat major with the first subject group and then a passionate coda.

The Scherzo is followed by three Mazurkas (No. 13 in A minor, Op. 17, No. 14 in G minor, Op. 24, No. 1 and No. 27 in E minor, Op. 41, No. 1), which showcase both the lightness and the weight of the Pleyel sound. This 1847 grand piano has full bass notes, a singing mid-range and a bright upper register, all uniting to give a balanced sonority.

This sonority is produced, among other things, by a patented Pleyel innovation: the iron bracing. These braces run along and across the case of the piano to stabilise it. This makes it possible to increase the tension of the strings, producing a greater dynamic range and louder sound. The bass strings are wound with copper wire and—unlike modern grand pianos—they run parallel to the other strings. By virtue of this English action, the pianist’s energy can be transferred from the keys through the hammers onto the strings, which the hammers strike rather than bouncing off as in the other great action, the Viennese.

The delicate tone and outstanding quality of Pleyel’s pianos convinced Chopin—and will perhaps convince you too.

Into the Modern Era

The youngest pianist appearing in the festival, Tomasz Ritter, compares the Shigeru Kawai SK-6 grand piano and an 1872 Steinway grand.

Like so many other musicians, Robert Schumann is known to have venerated Chopin and his sophisticated music. Schumann began his career as a music journalist in 1831 with a review in novella form of Chopin’s Op. 2, the Variations on Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’, in which the fictitious characters Florestan and Eusebius rave about the piece. Schumann’s Des Abends in D flat major is the first of the eight Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 composed in 1837. The pieces contain a musical representation of Florestan and Eusebius, who express different aspects of Schumann’s personality. The dreamy Eusebius appears in Des Abends, which is marked Sehr innig zu spielen (‘To be played with deep feeling’).

Chopin maintained close contact with both Schumann and Karol Kurpiński. In Chopin’s youth, Kurpiński was one of the most influential musicians in Poland. In May 1830 he conducted Chopin’s first public concert in the Polish capital Warsaw. Chopin was greatly influenced by the rhythms in Kurpiński’s mazurkas and polonaises.

Des Abends and Kurpiński’s Polonaise in D minor open and close Tomasz Ritter’s recording. For his performances of these pieces and of Rachmaninov’s Élégie in E flat minor, Op. 3, No. 1, Ritter chose the 2019 Shigeru SK-6 grand. Two pieces in G sharp minor by Chopin, the Polonaise No. 14 and Mazurka No. 22, Op. 33, No. 1, are played on a historic Steinway grand piano from 1872. This piano, built during the late Romantic period, already displays the most important characteristics of modern piano construction and its build and functionality correspond to those of a modern concert grand. The choice of pianos—modern for Schumann, Kurpiński and Rachmaninov, historic for Chopin—highlights Chopin’s works.

Old and New

The oldest piano used at the 2nd Chopin Festival Hamburg 2019 was the 1832 Pleyel pianino or cottage piano, and the most modern a 2019 Shigeru Kawai grand. The end of the album brings a return to Chopin’s 24 Preludes with Tobias Koch giving a historically informed performance of the Prelude No. 7 in A major on the Pleyel piano.

The final work on the album offers a real contrast in timbre, genre and mood: Tobias Koch completes the sound-survey of the collection of musical instruments with the Jazz for the Young Pianist, Part III – Exercise No. 3 in B flat major (1965) by the legendary pianist Oscar Peterson, played on the Shigeru SK-5 grand. Like Chopin, Peterson is very much influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach and his Well-Tempered Clavier. Peterson would always recommend that his pupils practise Bach and internalise his works, then build on that foundation to become (jazz) pianists.

Which instruments, which genres, which composers, which timbres …? Any performance by any pianist is unique. This album documenting the 2nd Chopin Festival Hamburg 2019 reflects that. There are delightful differences in timbre, style, performance and mood. The pianists make their own decisions regarding how they experiment with tone and what the outcome will be. This album is intended to encourage you to use your ears and senses to tell different instruments apart—and to hear the different colours produced by one and the same instrument—in a fresh way, with the festival’s innovative approach helping you to explore the tone of the instruments with real intensity.

Nora Ebneth
English translation: Sue Baxter

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