Chopin: Strictly Polish? - Part 1
no-image, Chopin: Strictly Polish? - Part 1
Stanisław Dybowski reflects on the Polish struggle to overcome the Russians in the early years of the Chopin Competition
Witold Małcużyński performing at the Chopin Comeptition in 1937 roku, source: Gramophone
The International Chopin Piano Competition has always held a particular significance for Polish pianists. Just the thought of rising to the challenge of measuring up to Chopin's works is enough to rattle the nerves. For a Pole performing the works of Chopin, composer of the Polonaise and Mazurka, it often proves more difficult to attain success in one's own land than is the case for a foreign musician. This is proof of the old adage that a prophet has no honour in his own country...
There were 26 competitors from eight countries at the first Chopin Competition. The largest group, of 16, was made up of Polish pianists. Out of the four official prizes, two were awarded to Poles: Second Prize to Stanisław Szpinalski (1901-1957) and Third Prize to Róża Etkin (1908-1945), while the remaining two went to Russians. The special Polish Radio prize for the best performance of a Mazurka was given to Paderewski's pupil, Henryk Sztompka (1901-1964). Naturally, the musical establishment, audiences and Chopin fans would have preferred for their compatriots to have taken home the top prizes. Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski gave a somewhat ironic appraisal of the issue in the weekly Świat.
"A whole line of respectable patriots laments the fact that we were defeated in the Chopin Competition by the Russians. ‘Finis Poloniae' is what they're saying… In the foyer, these patriots were cheered up by an astute Warsaw University student. ‘Sir, sirs,' he called out, ‘I'm telling you: it's fine. I would prefer that they give these prizes out for Chopin here in Warsaw rather than in St Petersburg for the Rubinstein as they did before the war! It's the complete truth'".
In the remaining group of Polish competitors, there were some who embarked on quite wonderful performing and teaching careers, such as Maria Barówna (1900-1960), Jakub Gimpel (1906-1989), Leopold Muenzer (1901-c1942), Maria Wiłkomirska (1904-1995) and Janina Wysocka-Ochlewska (1903-1975) – who also played the harpsichord.
At the second edition in 1932, Poland had 31 musicians on its side, four of whom had competed the first time around. Third Prize was given to Bolesław Kon (1906-1936), seventh to Leon Boruński (1909-1942), and 13th to Maryla Jonas (1911–1959). Maria Dońska (1912-1996), Aleksander Kagan (1906-1979) and Aleksander Sienkiewicz (1903-1982) received honorary diplomas. In the periodical Muzyka, Mateusz Gliński described the Polish fiasco:
"After the saddening outcome of the first competition, it could be assumed that the Polish piano team would face… some serious rivals. This should have been worked out for at least five years (the way they do in Russia or Hungary)… pursuing the most outstanding talents scattered around the country and abroad, even applying strict preliminary elimination trials. Instead, the Polish group… has proven itself an entirely accidental group.… Alongside a few single, solitary aces, there were a few adept novices, whose performances made a miserable impression. The effects were appalling: the Polish team not only completely failed their cause, but they showed the worst side of Polish piano performance and the Polish Chopin style".
Other critics also gave harsh opinions of the nation's pianists. Were they correct?
From today's perspective, it appears that they were overly exacting and unjust as, for example, Stanisław Niedzielski (1905-1975) – a musician whose interpretation of Chopin and Schumann was impeccable and Seweryn Turel (1907-1954) – considered Horowitz's successor, both went on to enjoy worldwide careers, while other pianists, such as Jakub Kalecki – the favourite pupil of Jerzy Żurawlew – and Edmund Rezler (1906-1958) toured the country for many years with great success. Rezler could have gone further in the competition if it had not been for the howling of a dog during his performance of the Funeral March from the Sonata in B-minor which so distracted the pianist that he completely lost his place. Naturally, this knocked off some points!
The Russians triumphed once again at the Third Competition in 1937. Polish honour was salvaged by Witold Małcużyński (1914-1977) with Third Prize, Jan Ekier (b1913) in eighth place, Olga Iliwicka-Dąbrowska (1910-1979) and Halina Kalmanowicz (c1911-c1942) in thirteenth place. Zbigniew Grzybowski (c1910-1946), Jan Bereżyński (1908-2000), Fryderyk Pornoj, Paulin Szmukler, Helena Landau (d1941), Maria Bilińska-Riegerowa (1911-1969) and Natalia Hornowska (1911-1987) were all distinguished with honourable diplomas. Opinions regarding the talent of Poland's pianists were varied. Of note are the general comments expressed by Karol Stromenger in the Antena periodical:
"The Competition Jury was charged with a heavy task in placing candidates from so many different schools… Because there is no orthodoxy in performing Chopin… The Competition brought about the realisation that these days Chopin can be interpreted in many different ways; that he can be interesting to today's pianistic youth around the world; that Chopin's pianism gives an immeasurable capacity for interpretation, but it requires a great deal of work – not only technically but culturally, which is of even greater importance in our current time."
Exactly how demanding Chopin is as a composer is demonstrated by each edition of the Chopin Competition. Until today – but more about that in the next instalment.
Author: Stanisław Dybowski.
This article comes from the "Chopin Express", gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Gramophone magazine.
View the audition recitals online at chopin2010.pl/en/competitions/xvith-chopins-competition.html
Other articles of interest in "Chopin Express" 12:
"Intiution is the Key" - Interview with Kevin Kenner