The musicologist and music critic Józef Kański talks to Bartosz Kamiński.
Bartosz Kamiński: How long have you been observing the Chopin Competition?
Józef Kański: Since the first post-war competition in 1949. I was just a student then, and sometimes I would sneak into the sessions. During the 1955 competition, I began writing music criticism; before that, I thought I would become a professional pianist. That competition had more panache and a more international character than in 1949, so a competent writer was well received. That is how I became a music reviewer.
Which of the competitions is most memorable to you?
Who knows, maybe those two just after the war. Do you know why? Because when they ask me today, "Who is your favourite?" I'm at a loss to answer. No one in particular stands out. However, in the 1949 competition, I was in the audience with one of the competitors, Barbara Hesse-Bukowska, sitting right next to me - she had already played (and went on to take second prize). A competitor played the Nocturne in G major. I looked at my neighbour and said, "There is the first prize!" It was Bella Davidovich.
It was similar in the 1955 competition. Although there was no single favourite, there were four players clearly in the lead. Ultimately, those pianists took the first four places. There was no discrepancy between the impressions of the audience and the verdict of the jury.
Was it the same with Maurizio Pollini in 1960 and Martha Argerich five years later?
Yes, though in Pollini's case, I couldn't say until after the first stage. He wasn't a Chopinist par excellence. However, when everyone had played, it was clear he outshone them all.
Then came the 1970 competition, and the first time the Jury rejected a pianist that the public and press felt was one of the leaders, if not the winner. That was Jeffrey Swann, who didn't even make it to the final. That was the beginning of a new era - the greats being rejected at the Chopin Competition.
Which one of those greats do you consider was treated especially unfairly?
Nelson Goerner. In 1995, he didn't even make it to the final. Today we know he is one of the world's leading pianists. Luckily Kazimierz Kord, the director of the Polish National Philharmonic at the time, organised a concert several days after the Competition, where Goerner had an opportunity to present his repertoire for the final stage. At the time, competitors had to perform not just one of the piano concertos, but also one of the other Chopin compositions for piano and orchestra. In fact, that was my idea. I was part of the programming committee for the competition, and came up with the initiative to expand the programme of final sessions to include another piece. For one reason, to keep things interesting, but also to promote Chopin's works with orchestra, which are much less well-known throughout the world.
Nonetheless, that idea was quickly dropped, because they decided that playing another piece in the final did not add much to the performer's evaluation.
Professor Zhuravlev's wife was really against it: she thought it was too ambitious for participants who should be focusing on performing a concerto. At the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, competitors are required to play two concertos, including one by Tchaikovsky. To add to that, participants often select a Rachmaninov or Brahms concerto as one of the second pieces, and that is not too ambitious for anyone. For a pianist who makes it to the final of the competition as prestigious as the Chopin competition, it should not be a problem to perform two pieces with an orchestra, especially since the second one is much shorter.
All the more so, because with each competition, participants play increasingly difficult pieces with greater ease. Organisers have pointed out that, with respect to piano technique, this year's competition is at an extremely high level.
I remember when John Browning, an American virtuoso and laureate of the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels, was a guest in Warsaw. Jan Weber played him Ignacy Friedman's recording of Chopin's Polonaise in B major. Browning nodded and said, "We have no technique at all". Because excellent technique is more than just about fingers running at a breakneck pace across the keyboard. Ignacy Friedman, as my piano professor recalled, played the fastest passages in Liszt's Mephisto Waltz at such speed so that you could hardly hear them, but the audience got the chills because it sounded like satanic cackle. That is technique. Meanwhile, today, well… young pianists don't take their example from the old masters. What's worse, I have the impression that their professors do not listen to the old recordings either, or do not draw the right conclusions from them.
It seems unfair to compare young pianists to great, mature masters.
You know, there are those who maintain that one of the best concerts by Martha Argerich was her performance at the Geneva competition in 1957. I listened to that performance on the radio and must admit that I didn't hear such a well played Schumann Piano Concerto again for many years to come. Great talent usually sprouts early. Later, you might perfect technique, or develop your personality.
Interview by Bartosz Kamiński
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.