Who were the greatest Chopin performers of all times? I wrote a list, once. (I copied it at the end of this post, for those interested). Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) has a place of honor on my list - not only of Chopin specialists. A great pianist, statesman and a fascinating composer, Paderewski is beloved by Polish Americans, still grateful, after almost a century, for his role in Poland's regaining independence.
On November 13-16, I had a pleasure of participating in the first Annual Paderewski Festival in Raleigh, organized by Dr. A. Mark Fountain II, President of the Festival and Honorary Consul for Poland for North Carolina, his wife, concert pianist Brenda Bruce, and Artistic Director of the Festival, Adam Wibrowski (with intensive support of Polish pianist Barbara Stann, the Festival's European liaison). Three concerts and four lectures were spread over the four days Festival encompassing, so it seemed, the entire city: the City Museum, the Meredith College, Smedes Parlor at St. Mary's School for Girls, and the North Carolina Museum of Art. All halls were filled to capacity and the audiences included both the local Polonia (with many researchers and professors in biological and engineering professions), and the luminaries of cultural life in the so-called Triangle area - the greater Raleigh-Durham, with Duke University and about 2.2 millions of residents.
Due to work obligations, I missed the first lecture given by Dr. Mark Fountain on November 13, 2014, but I was happy to later attend a "private tour" of this informative and fact-packed introduction to Polish political and social history before Paderewski, and during his life. Dr. Fountain's doctoral dissertation was about Roman Dmowski, the leader of the National Democracy movement in Poland, both pre-and-post independence. He wrote it at Columbia University, but started his graduate work in history with an intent to study German history. A trip through Poland in the late 1960s changed all that, and the country gained a tremendous friend and advocate. His library of books and old prints features items going back to 1591, and consists of thousands of volumes organized in the largest Polish-themed history library I have seen in a private home (PIASA's history library may be larger, maybe, just maybe...).
I asked about the "whys" - why Poland? why Paderewski? "It's really quite straightforward," said Mark Fountain, "I first came to Poland in 1965 from four weeks of travel by bus through Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. We had come straight west from Moscow to Warsaw. The difference in culture was so striking that I had to ask 'Why?' I've been asking that ever since. On the Festival proper, I thank my wife whom I met only twelve years ago. I had done a lot with music, but she is a professional musician; she'd come to Poland by way of Chopin."
The interesting thing about Paderewski and Raleigh - as Dr. Fountain pointed out during his talk - is that the pianist played four times in the area: in 1917, 1923, 1931, and 1939. Each recital was given at a time associated with a major political event. Dr. Fountain writes: "The first of these performances occurred on the notable date of January 23, 1917, the day following President Woodrow Wilson’s first public statement in support of a free and independent Poland, a statement made at the express request of Paderewski only a few days before. Almost one year later, on January 8, 1918, President Wilson issued the famous 'Fourteen Points,' of which the Thirteenth Point expressly provided for a free and independent Poland. The last of Paderewski’s performances in Raleigh occurred April 28, 1939, mere months before Germany invaded Poland and began World War II."
In 1919, Paderewski was Poland's representative at the Versaille meetings to forge the Peace Treaty after World War I and signed the Treaty along with representatives of European countries and world's superpowers. Later that year he was elected the third Prime Minister of newly independent Poland, but left the post after a year to return to his music career. Music making was replaced, again, by political activism when, in 1939, after the start of WWII, he return to touring America to promote the Polish cause. He died along the way, of pneumonia.
There is another connection between Paderewski and Raleigh: a Steinway piano signed by the great pianist (and personally selected by him) for the secretary of his wife Helena Paderewska, Mrs. Mary Lee McMillan, who returned to her home in Raleigh after years of working for Helena (years that she documented in her memoirs, My Helenka). The Paderewski piano is now found in the music room of Dr. Fountain and his wife, pianist Brenda Bruce. And, yes, it is played daily - as shown in the photograph below. Mark Fountain explains: "Brenda is playing on her own Steinway 'B' which she purchased in Boston in 1968; Krzysztof Książek is playing on the McMillan Steinway 'M' (with the wing up), the piano which Paderewski signed and gave to Mrs. McMillan at 1810 Park Drive, Raleigh, in 1924. A concert grand ('B' or 'D') would have overpowered that relatively modest house and would have been completely beyond the capabilities of Mrs. McMillan herself." For more information about Paderewski's Raleigh and Durham concerts and his piano in Raleigh, please visit the Festival's website: paderewski-festival.org.
The heart of the Paderewski Festival was, of course, the music. Not only by Paderewski. Similarly to the Paderewski Competition in Los Angeles, organized every three years by Ignacy Jan Paderewski Society (2010 and 2013 so far), the pianists presented one or two works by Paderewski among a choice of music by others. In this case: Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, and even Dutilleux. Each recital was different and each presented Paderewski's music and his pianistic achievements in a new light. For the selection of the pianists we have to thank Prof. Adam Wibrowski, who also serves as Artistic Director of the Paderewski Competition and selected two of the 2013 Competition's winners for presentation in Raleigh. (In Los Angeles, Wibrowski shares his artistic duties with Prof. Wojciech Kocyan, but in Raleigh he makes major musical decisions alone).
Andrew Tyson, a native of nearby Durham, started the concert series on November 13, 2014 at the recital hall of the Meredith College in Raleigh. Tyson, tall, energetic and handsome, has all the makings of the future piano star: impeccable technique, intellect, and expressive power. In short: charisma. His program placed Paderewski's music in the context of classical "heavy-weights" - Robert Schumann and Henri Dutilleux.
Tyson began his program with two works by Paderewski, Minuet in G Major, Op. 14, No. 1 and Intermezzo Polacco, Op. 14, No. 5, both from Humoresques de Concert, Op. 14 of 1887-1888. The Minuet from the first book of the Humoresques, subtitled Cahier I - à l'Antique, is Paderewski's greatest hit, a graceful and virtuosic portrait of the ancient and elegant dance of the aristocracy. By starting the concert from the work that Paderewski typically played at the end, as the last encore after a grueling three-hour recital, Tyson honored the old master with a look backward, through modern lenses. The Chopin section of the recital showed his prowess as an intellectual-virtuoso in four Mazurkas Op. 30 (C Minor, B Minor, D-flat Major, and C-sharp Minor), the Polonaise in C-sharp Minor, Op. 26, No. 1, and the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat, Op. 47. Tyson, who just released a CD of Chopin's 24 Preludes Op. 28 (on a Zig-Zag label, distributed by Naxos), may be called a Chopin specialist.
The smaller works demonstrated clearly Tyson's expressive range from melancholy to heroic drama, but the Ballade was the most impressive of his interpretations of Chopin works. Composed in 1841, the Ballade is often associated with Adam Mickiewicz's literary ballad, Switezianka [The Water Nymph] and praised for its structural and contrapuntal richness. Tyson's performance highlighted the structural integrity and expressive contrasts of the work, consistently building up its large-scale form. The second part of the recital consisted of non-Polish works by Henri Dutilleux, a 20th-century French composer and Chopin's contemporary Robert Schumann. The Three Preludes by Dutilleux (of 1973-1988), were the favorite part of the recital identified by many listeners, attracted to their clearly articulated forms and kaleidoscopically rich expressive nuances. The Études Symphoniques, Op. 13 (1834) by Robert Schumann again showcased Tyson's ability to construct temporal flow into massive musical architecture. As befits this intellectual of the keyboard, the encore was not an obvious choice for a celebration of Paderewski's virtuosity: an etude for the left hand by Alexandre Scriabin.
The Paderewski Festival surrounded the talents of the pianists by the beauty of historic Raleigh. The second recital took place at the historic Smedes Parlor on the elegant campus of St. Mary's School for Girls - a private boarding school filled with international students getting the best quality education, including the music of Paderewski. The Festival's Artistic Director, Adam Wibrowski, opened the event with a lecture about Paderewski's international career and his debut in Paris. The lecturer pointed out the similarity of the 1839 Parlor to aristocratic salons where Chopin himself preferred to play. (Wibrowski's first lecture preceded Tyson's recital and took the audience on a trip back to Poland's of Paderewski's youth - to the Russian-ruled area of Podolia, fertile backwaters of European breadbasket, now in the Ukraine.) On Saturday afternoon, the Smedes Parlor, named after the founders of the school, was filled to capacity with modern audience and overflowing with Chopin's music.
As Lambert observed: "These performances were revelatory in terms of the fresh insight the artist brought to them... constantly alive with carefully-controlled infusions of interpretive life that in turn brought the music to vivid life as if emerging from the printed pages for the first time." Indeed, after hearing this young pianist it is hard not to start writing such exorbitant and extravagant expressions of praise. "Revelatory" is the right label for this poet-philosopher of the piano. From the sorrowful, most poignant and tranquil notes of the Mazurkas, to large-scale twist and turns of emotions and form in the Fantasia, to the joie-de-vivre of the Waltz and the tragic heroism of the Polonaise - there was something new and previously unheard-of in each of the Chopin works selected for this journey of re-discovery. Książek's rendition of Paderewski's works was equally original, revealing the depth of expression and abundance of detail in the Variations in A Major, Op. 16, No. 3 and the fantastic, shimmering impressionism of the encore, a Krakowiak from 1884. How could anyone ever doubt Paderewski's talents as a composer is beyond me - especially after this performance!