Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2015! (Vol. 5, No. 14)

May the blessing of light be on you—
light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you
and warm your heart
till it glows like a great peat fire.

Not that we now know what "a great peat fire" is - as we are not Irish and live in the 21st century... 
But, whether we know what we are doing, or not, we will "muddle through somehow...." 
to quote another great song... so... 

Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

And once you do, enjoy some Christmas carols, in Polish and English (Wsrod nocnej ciszy - Poznanskie Slowiki) (Lulajze Jezuniu - Anna German) (Have yourself a very Merry Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald)

With some Chopin, of course:

Novi Singers (Jazz Arrangement): Lulajze Jezuniu fragment from the Scherzo


Monday, December 1, 2014

Chopin and Paderewski in Raleigh, NC (Vol. 5, No. 13)

Paderewski plays Chopin. Postcard from Krakow, c. 1890. Maja Trochimczyk Collection

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.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski in Raleigh

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."

Dr. A. Mark Fountain II in his studio in Cory, NC.

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.

A 1939 Portrait of Paderewski by Artur Szyk.

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:

Brenda Bruce presents performance issues to Krzysztof  Książek, seated at Paderewski's piano. 

The First of Three Concerts - Andrew Tyson

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).

L to R: Andrew Tyson, Krzysztof Ksiazek, November 14, 2014. 

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.

Andrew Tyson with  the Festival's Artistic Director, Adam Wibrowski.

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 

A. Mark Fountain II, Brenda Bruce and Adam Wibrowski with Andrew Tyson 
after the recital at Meredith College.Raleigh, November 14, 2014.

The Second Concert - by Krzysztof Książek 

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.

Adam Wibrowski on the St. Mary's School Campus.

Książek was described by a Raleigh's reviewer, John Lambert as "a no-nonsense player who largely eschews mannerisms too many of our conservatory-produced artists adopt too early in their careers." Indeed, his Raleigh debut was a step on the way to greater things - he is getting ready to submit his recordings to the International Chopin Competition.  The 24-year-old pianist has already won many prizes in a variety of competitions around the world, including the second place in the 2013 American Paderewski Competition as well as a special prize for the best interpretation of Paderewski (the competition is held every three years in Los Angeles). After starting the Raleigh recital with Mozart's Variations on "Come un agnello" by Giuseppe Sarti, a forgotten aria from a forgotten opera, Książek demonstrated his Chopin credentials with an extensive program including: the Nocturne in F-sharp Minor, Op. 48/2, two Etudes, E Minor, Op. 25/5, and F Major, Op. 10/8), the  Fantasia in F Minor. Op. 49) in the first half, followed by the Mazurkas Op. 50 (in G Major, A-flat Major, and C-sharp Minor), the Polonaise in F-sharp Minor, Op. 44, and the A-Flat Major Waltz, Op. 42. 

Krzysztof Książek at Meredith College, November 14, 2014.

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!

The Grand Finale at the North Carolina Museum of Art - by Peter Toth

Péter Tóth at the piano at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

The Hungarian pianist, Péter Tóth, shared his Los Angeles credentials with Książek, having bested him for the First Prize of the 2013 American Paderewski Competition. I would not have wanted to be in that jury. It must have been extremely hard to decide which pianist should win and which should be the second when faced with two individuals of such obvious, yet different, talents. Tóth's career includes many other competition wins (Wittenberg, Bovino, Weimar and Budapest), recordings and concerts in some of the most important concert halls of the world. On November 16, 2014, the auditorium of the North Carolina Museum of Art became one such site during his recital - due to the quality of the music and its powerful and inspired interpretation. 

The recital started with Paderewski - one of his loveliest compositions, Nocturne in B Major, No. 4 in the Miscellanea, Op. 16. In this work, as Raleigh reviewer Chelsea Hubler writes, the pianist's "capacity for extreme care and delicacy became apparent" and it was later confirmed in Chopin's Ballade in G minor, Op. 23. The Ballade, while requiring the subtle tranquility of tone that is among  Tóth's trump cards, also showcased his ability to make sweeping, grand gestures of the most romantic kind - all the while keeping his head above the iridescent, fluid waters of the music eloquently streaming from under his fingers to completely engulf the enraptured audience. There. I did it. Purple prose is sometimes the only suitable response to the astounding feats of musicianship that we witnessed during  Tóth's recital. 

Paderewski's Polonaise, Op. 9, No. 6 from his set of Polish Dances articulated the patriotism of the Polish musician that eventually doomed his career as a composer - a patriotism exemplified by the monumental Symphony "Polonia" where the depicting of Poland's tragic history was more important than purely musical considerations, resulting in a work of gargantuan proportions and a grandiose monumentality. Luckily, the Paderewski Polonaise shares little with the Symphony, and, while suitably heroic and dance-like, it ended soon enough to make room for the truly monumental compositions by Liszt. 

Prolonged standing ovation at the end of Toth's recital.

Liszt and Chopin were sometimes friends, sometimes rivals, yet their music persists, side by side, known, played, and loved around the world.  Toth's three Liszt selections - Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (S.173, No. 3), the Legend No. 2 (S.175, No. 2), and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 - could not be more different and revealed the full diversity of his talents: his titanic virtuosity, a chess-player's strategic thinking, and brooding romanticism. Liszt was a complex man and an even more complex composer and his music encompasses the musician's human condition - from virtuosic fireworks to incomprehensibility of religious mysticism. Paderewski himself often played one of Liszt's Rhapsodies to top off his programs and Toth's choice is yet another bow to the patron of the Festival. 

While thinking of a label for this great pianist, I thought of the "Titan of the Keyboard" - a title bestowed on Paderewski himself, the "Great Immortal." Toth has issued a critically-acclaimed CD of Liszt's late piano works (see his website: and is among the world's foremost Liszt specialists. His impeccable technique, intellectualism and profound expression find the best outlet in the equally rich and complicated music of his compatriot. There could be, and were not, any encores after Toth's rendition of the crowd-rousing Hungarian Rhapsody. But there was an extensive standing ovation. Richly deserved. 

Maja Trochimczyk at the Lecture Podium in Raleigh, Photo by Kinga Wojciechowska.

I had a pleasure of preceding Tóth's recital with a lecture on Paderewski in the English-speaking world. Given the number of concert tours, and concerts, the thousands of reviews, press mentions, and memorabilia, capturing all of Paderewski's "triumphs" was an impossible task to perform. Instead of endless statistics (after the initial comparison of nearly 8,000 mentions of Paderewski by the New York Times, with far less frequent notices about such classical greats as Maria Callas, Leopold Stokowski, or Pablo Casals), I decided to focus on Paderewski myth-making and his images. My starting point was the famous "archangel" drawing by Byrne-Jones - created in 1891 and used, in stylized versions, on magazine covers until 1915 and even 1934, the dates of The Etude covers reproduced below.  My talk summarized some main points of an article I published in the Polish American Studies in 2010 with illustrations in color.  After the presentation, I, too, felt like a star, surrounded by autograph-seekers. Paderewski does this to you. No doubt.

Covers of Paderewski issues of the Etude from 1915 and 1934. Maja Trochimczyk Collection.
See more portraits of Paderewski on the festival's website. 

The musical delights and scholarly insights of the Paderewski Festival could take place thanks to an impressive group of supporters, brought together by Adam Wibrowski, Barbara Stann (the Festival's Board Member and European Liaison), Dr. Mark Fountain and Brenda Bruce, including:  Wspólnota Polska, Meredith College, St. Mary's School, North Carolina Museum of Art, and many friends of classical music. The support of Ms. Barbara Stann, a Krakow-based pianist was invaluable in spreading the information about this new initiative honoring Paderewski in America. More information about the Festival's Board of Directors, all of whom ensured that this first annual event was a success, may be found on the Paderewski Festival website.

L to R: Adam Wibrowski, Krzysztof Ksiazek, Peter Toth, Maja Trochimczyk, Brenda Bruce and
 A. Mark Fountain II at North Carolina Museum of Art, November 16, 2014. Photo by Kinga Wojciechowska

Autumn leaves in Cory, North Carolina, Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

As it turned out, North Carolina is incredibly beautiful in the fall. Filled with a rainbow of colors, with red, yellow, brown, orange, and green leaves in the famed oak forests, it is also  filled with music - that will return in the Paderewski Festival next November. 

Autumn symphony of leaves, Cory, NC, by Maja Trochimczyk

Monday, October 20, 2014

Chopin's Life after Death ... Aya Okuyama and a New Sound of an Old Pianino (Vol. 5, No. 12)

October 17, 2014 - the 165th anniversary of the death of Fryderyk Chopin. Is he really dead yet? Not now and not ever. When a hostile critic like the German poet Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860), the editor of Berlin-based journal The Iris,  wanted to kill his reputation for too much novelty and creativity - breaking the rules was punishable by ridicule in his opinion - Chopin survived. When the Nazis banned Chopin concerts and dismantled his famous statue in the Lazienki Park in Warsaw, using the metal to make weapons - Chopin survived. Poles played in and attended clandestine Chopin recitals in private homes. The plans for the monument were hidden and used to rebuild the Waclaw Szymanowski's Art Nouveau fantasy in the 1950s. The concerts in the park by the reflective ponds take place every Sunday through the summer and fall. It is one of the attractions of Warsaw. Chopin - the survivor!

There is so much that has been discovered about his life, family, friends, and music in recent years. The 150th anniversary of his death in 1999, the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2010 gave rise to a large number of conferences and events around the world. Many books were published with proceedings of these congresses and conferences. New insights, new discoveries, new themes, new interpretations. I had a chance to review all this frantic activity while editing the Second Revised Edition of Frederic Chopin: A Research and Information Guide that will be published next year by Routlledge in New York. I'm a co-editor of this project with its original editor, William Smialek.

One of the most interesting discoveries  is the "Real Chopin" - of the CD series issued by the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Poland, with an astounding version of the Berceuse op. 57 by Tatyana Shebanova, as well as recordings by Nelson Goerner, Fou Ts'ung, Dang Thai Son, Marek Drewnowski, and others.  These recordings are all made on historical Pleyel and Erard pianos from Chopin's time. An reviewer wrote:

"The reason for 21 discs, and not fewer (as in some other Complete Chopin Edition's), is that there is some duplication of some pieces (played alternatively on either a Pleyel or an Erard). The most glaring of these duplications are the waltzes, played by Marek Drewnowski (Pleyel) (tracks 1-18) on one disc, and Tatiana Shebanova (Erard) (tracks 1-14, omitting the last few included by Drewnowski and ending instead with Ecossaises Op. 72, Barcarolle Op. 60 and Barceuse Op. 57) on another. Those wanting the Nocturnes or Mazurkas grouped together in self-standing programmes (as DG did in their edition) will be disappointed here. Instead what we get is one disc of Nocturnes (played nicely by Dang Thai Son on an Erard), the rest being interspersed elsewhere and played by other pianists. Complete, self-standing surveys of the Etudes, Preludes, Impromptus and Ballades however can be found, these discs being filled up with a few other pieces."


Grand pianos are not the only instruments that Chopin played. In fact, his apartments were often furnished with smaller upright pianos, "pianinos" - such as the one in the room he had in the Monastery in Valldemossa on Mallorca. He composed his Preludes Op. 28 on this instrument - a Pleyel pianino. How did that instrument sound like? Did its particular mechanism affect the texture and structure of the music?

These are all very interesting questions, and before finding all the answers you might as well listen to the music. The pianino was restored. Its twin, another Pleyel Pianino from 1838 was restored to full glory by Oliver Fadini and played by Japanese pianist Aya Okuyama. The result is an inspired and intriguing CD that makes Chopin's music sound really different from the grand, massive, voluminous, and uniform sonorities of the modern Steinways. The CD is released by Nomad Music in France.

It is also different from the percussive sounds of some historical recordings made on instruments with leather hammers that are too dry and make the sounds too harsh for what Chopin had in mind. But now, with the new recording being released we have to find life after death, new in the old...


Aya Okuyama, pianist and pianofortist, has a passion for historical instruments, especially those made by Pleyel between 1831 and 1849, during the "Chopin period". She applies herself to finding their "corps sonore" (sounding body) by approaching the game not as the adaptation of the language of the modern piano, but as a re-appropriation of ancient keyboards. By choosing excellent instruments, she rediscovers the original stamp of this great piano maker's choices: lightness of touch, depth and extreme sweetness of tone.

Regularly invited to give recitals and chamber music concerts, Aya plays all over Europe and in Japan. She has recorded works of J.N.Hummel with Solamente Naturali - Brilliant Classics - and recently pieces for piano by Lili Boulanger - NoMadMusic.

Aya Okuyama is a graduate of CNSMD Paris (1999) and CNR Paris (2002) in piano, pianoforte and chamber music.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Revised "Chopin - A Guide to Research" Is Coming Soon - Relax with the Berceuse! (Vol. 5, No. 11)

The poet disappeared, the music historian took over - I spent the last two months, all my free time outside of work (almost all, with some exceptions for family and friends) editing the second version of William Smialek's Chopin: Research and Information Guide, first issued by Routledge in 1999, and after 9 editions to 2006, in need for a major overhaul.  This is the fourth most popular book on Chopin in the world's libraries, owned by 972 libraries (the top three are biographies by Arthur Hedley, James Huneker and Herbert Weinstock). A new edition with current research information will be extremely useful to scholars.   See OCLC WorldCat Identities:

I do not know what the cover will be like, but I know that the book will be essential for all starting their research projects about Chopin's life, music, reception, portraits, or poetry. The revised Guide has over 1000 book entries and lots of information organized into six chapters, from Researching Chopin, to Reception and Peformance Studies, with Letters, Biographies, Manuscript and Editions, Studies of Works in between. The book will include an updated Calendar of Life and a List of Works.

Look for it, when it is finally ready. In the meantime, enjoy some Chopin. Listen to the astounding version of my current Chopin favorite, the Berceuse, Op. 57, with its totally insane flights of harmony into realms from out of this world... Starts from the tranquility of midnight with stars in indigo sky and flies off into realms beyond... Listen to the "Real Chopin" recording on the website of the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw. Tatiana Shebanova is my personal favorite!

Composed in the summer of 1843 and dedicated to Chopin's student Elise Gavard, the work was among Chopin's favorites to play in concerts, and also has a following among contemporary pianists.

Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski, who wrote the essay on the Berceuse for the NIFC Website, cites two experts, whose names and books are to be found in our Chopin Guide. 

Polish musicologist, Zdzisław Jachimecki, described the flow of the work, a set of variations on a theme, originally called Variants:

‘At first the melody of the Berceuse shows itself in its entirety. It is joined by the middle voice, which with its syncopations banters with the theme [bars 7–10]. Subsequently, the theme sounds solely in grace notes [bars 15–18]. Finally, it is pulverised into some luminous dust, transformed into a volatile state of almost immaterial little passages, trills and fioriture [bars 44–46]. Then (in the ending) it returns in its original form [bars 63–66]’.

British Chopin expert, author of the most popular book about Chopin in the world, Arthur Hedley, wrote the following:

‘The Berceuse is one of those happy inspirations which can never be repeated. A rocking ostinato bass, a short melodic phrase dissolving into sixteen variations – and there we have the cradle-song to discourage any one from attempting to write another.’

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Chopin's Pianinos and the Discovery of Their Secrets, or Fadini's Workshop (Vol. 5, No. 10)

Fadini works on Keys of a Playel Pianino No. 7037.

On May 3, 2014, after the end of the Szymanowska Conference in Paris, I took a trip outside of Paris to the workshop of harpsichord maker and collector of Pleyel pianos, Oliver Fadini. I went with the renowned Chopin specialist, Prof. Halina Goldberg of Indiana University.  Our tour was arranged by Fadini's friend, music journalist at Radio France, Gilles Bencimon, a fervent lover of Chopin's music and the sound of historical pianos and pianinos.

                                       Maja Trochimczyk, Halina Goldberg and Oliver Fadini

We arrived in time to see our host work on restoring a Playel Pianino no. 7037  from 1837; very close to the number of Chopin's pianino from 1830s.

Rabbit fur felt is wrapped in layers on the hammer. 

Mr. Fadini took the pianino apart and was restoring all the hammers that had old leather on the heads, and had to be refurbished with rabbit-fur felt.  We looked around at his magnificent collection of Pleyel pianos and pianinos, including square pianos, and an example of every model that Playel made until mid 1840s.

A sample of hammers with leather, rabbit felt (grey) and lamb felt (white).

Apparently, if you cover the heads of the hammers with leather, it will dry and shrivel after a year or two, and will have to be entirely replaced, or else it will cause the piano to sound like a honky-tonk instrument from a saloon in an old Western.  However, if the heads of the hammers are covered with stripes of rabbit-fur felt and leather, the sounds is different, softer, rounder, more distant and mysterious, but also more resonant.  Interestingly, the harder felt from sheep's wool does not create the same effect; and the sounds remains harsh, unforgiving.

The pianino had a built in square stand for the candle  holder.

In order to show us this difference of tone, Mr. Fadini used the hammer heads to strike the exposed strings of the pianino. Indeed, the leather-covered hammer hit the strings very hard, with a pointed, sharp accent at the beginning, and the confused, sharply dissonant resonance afterwards. In contrast, the felt-covered hammer touched the string more delicately, and did not have that sharp, twang attack at the beginning of the sound that was richer, rounder and more sonorous.

This was Pleyel Pianino No. 7037. Chopin's pianino in Mallorca was no. 6668.

The different hammers require a different performance technique and Halina Goldberg had a chance of trying out the historical pianino, playing through fragments of various preludes and etudes, from old editions that Mr. Fadini also collects.  The pianino's location in the studio was also interesting, as it was not set flat against the wall, but turned with the resonance holes, covered for modesty with blue fabric, towards the listeners. While the instrument is not very pretty seen from this side, its "underbelly" as it were, the sonorities are more present and especially the high registers sound crystal clear.

As it turned out, the pianist's "touch" has to be entirely opposed to the traditional way of approaching the keyboard on a grand piano, with heavy keys and mechanism.  The touch on the historical Pleyel pianino is lighter and never forceful; this is the most apparent in loud passages, played forte or fortissimo.  The heavy handed forte of the grand piano is entirely unsuitable for the historical Pleyel pianino, with delicate mechanism and soft, felt hammers.  The pianist has to forget what she or he knows and learn anew.

Another difference is in the use of the pedal; practically non-existent on the historical pianinos, where the legato is created on the keyboard, not by pedal, and the high register maintains the pearly quality of sounds that were often commented upon in Chopin's own performances. Chopin's pedal markings, different from one edition to the next, may also be intended for diverse types of instruments - he would use varying amount  of pedal on instruments that are naturally more resonant and more attenuated.  Sandra Rosenblum currently researches the issue of Chopin's changing pedalization and may take the structure and sonority of Pleyel pianinos into account.

Indeed, Chopin's students and listeners, have left testimonies about this delicate, nuanced way of playing, that had a full dynamic scale, but also a shimmering inner life of shifting dynamic levels, crescendos and decrescendos. They also talked about his abhorrence of loud, forced chords that sounded to him like the "barking of a dog" - in the words of his student Karol Mikuli, quoted by Aleksander Michalowski in 1932.

Halina Goldberg played on restored Pleyel Pianino No. 3495.

Mr. Fadini found a confirmation for his theories in a period study about the sound of pianos and the importance of the proper hammers and proper pianist's touch on the sonorities created by the instrument. The book, written by Nannette Streicher nee Stein in Vienna, and entitled "Quelques observations sur la facon de jouer, d'accorder, et d'etretenir les fortepiano" (transl. by Hubert Bedard and Felia Bastet, Heugel et cie., 1982) contains a lot of fascinating insights into the sonorous world of instruments used in Chopin's lifetime.  Another highly recommended book is "Art classique et moderne du piano" published in Paris in 1842 by A. Marmontel (

Streicher writes about the "veiled, mysterious" sonorities in mid-range and of the "pearly" - distinct, clear and almost translucent - scales in the high register. She insists on the proper articulation and "touch" that is never forceful but always very precise. The sounds described so vividly by the author, a Chopin contemporary, may be heard on a recording by Fadini's wife, a Japanese-born pianist. The recording is not yet commercially available, but it will contain enough material to convince its listeners about the veracity of Fadini's theories.

While few piano-makers subscribe to Fadini's hypotheses at this time, he continues to restore pianinos and show them in concerts and exhibits. Most recently, he finished the restoration of a pianino for Mallorca; where it was shown and played at a special event. Gilles Bencimon assisted his friend in the time-consuming restoration tasks, that include making the artisan's own glue, paints, and felt.

Chopin's Playel Pianino No. 6668 and Fadini's Playel Pianino No. 7037.
Photo courtesy of Gilles Bencimon.

The restored Pleyel Pianino No. 7037 is the same model and was made in the same year as Playel Pianino 6668 that is preserved in the museum in Mallorca. The restoration project is a subject of a book that is being prepared by Fadini and Bencimon. That Mallorca Pianino is important: Chopin composed his Preludes Op. 28 on this very instrument! Wouldn't you want to know how it sounds like?

As it turns out, you can. Oliver Fadini's wife, Japanese pianist Aya Okuyama ( recorded them playing on the Pianino 7037, identical to the one that Chopin composed the preludes on in 1839. More information may be found on .  

Antique pianinos and harpsichords in Fadini's workshop.

You can read more and see the photographs of various historical pianos on Fadini's blog, called Pianino Pleyel,  It is certainly a fascinating topic, worth further explorations. If more comparisons are made between fully restored old pianinos with rabbit-fur-felt hammers, and modern grand pianos, and if the various editions of Chopin's preludes, waltzes, mazurkas and etudes are played on these diverse instruments, we will be able to expand the scope of knowledge about Chopin and his musical world. I do not know if the argument will be resolved in this discussion; people like holding on to their ideas for their dear life. On the basis of what I heard in Fadini's studio, though, I can say that he certainly won one convert that day.  If I ever want to play Chopin well, I'll buy a Pleyel pianino.

In the meantime, I admired the collection of antique piano in a cramped studio, where piano legs may be found in the ceiling, and one beautiful instrument stands on its side, while another is piled up on the third.  We saw a beautiful old harpsichord with "inverted" white and black keys, and a beautiful Viennese Graf piano.

But Fadini likes only the Pleyel made by Pleyel himself. He considers these to be the best sounding instruments of all time, the most suitable pianos for Chopin's music. Listening to them and to Fadini's explanation about the role of proper materials in the reconstruction of historical instruments made me understand my decades-old dislike of historical fortepiano that, to me, typically sounded shrill and out of tune. Yes - they would have sounded like that if the leather on the hammers was worn out, which was bound to happen as soon as one or two years of making them, as Fadini explained... That was an "AHA!" moment and I felt as good as if I discovered America myself.

I have not discover America, only moved there... so on they way back home to California, I pondered the many mysteries that remain to be discovered in the performance history of Chopin's music and in the history of his pianos.

Piano by Graf from Fadini's collection (not associated with Chopin).

An instrument does not have to look pretty to sound good - and pianinos (or upright pianos) do look nice only from the front, and have that fabric covering the mechanism on the other side. Yet, they do have wheels on all legs, which is hard to understand if they are meant to just stand in place by the wall and be pretty, but easy to consider useful - when we realize that the instruments would have been moved away from their stationary position and turned towards the audience, to enhance their sound.  There is a sketch of Chopin playing a piano turned like that.

Back side of Pleyel Pianino no. 3495 in Fadini's collection. 



The restoration of the piano owned by Mme Natalia d'Obreskoff, often played by Chopin.

Fadini's Blog:


Celda Chopin y George Sand:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Tour of Chopin's Paris - Square d'Orleans, Salle Pleyel, and Musee de la Vie Romantique (Vol. 5, No. 9)

A visit to Paris in the spring cannot be complete without taking a tour of Chopin's traces in the City of Love... With a noted Chopin specialist, Prof. Halina Goldberg of Indiana University, after the end of the Maria Szymanowska Conference in May 2014, I went on a little tour to visit some places related to the life of the great Romantic composer.


As we walked up the street from the metro, admiring the lovely streetscapes of Paris, we actually missed the gate to this landmark where Chopin spent his last years.  Located in the 9th Arrondissement at 80, rue Taitbout, the square is actually a rectangular yard with a fountain and trees, and the doorway to Chopin's former apartment is on the left side of the internal gate.

We went to the next corner, the street ended and decided to turn around. Only then did we see the inscription next to a green metal gate.

Once inside, we saw an engraved map of the square, with apartments of  famous occupants marked, we turned into a gate... and voila! Two steps lead up to Chopin's door, no. 9, with a sign identifying the place on the left.  He lived on the first floor, did not have to walk high up the stairs. After nearly seven years, in the fall of 1849, he moved to Place Vendome where he died on October 17, 1849.  The years at Place d'Orleans were difficult but also filled with blessings - his health was deteriorating, but there were many friends, artists and musicians in the "New Athens" of the Square and he had companionship and warmth of affection of his admirers nearby.  

The two steps leading to the door of Chopin's staircase.

The Map of the Square d'Orleans.

Once we passed through the gate, we entered the courtyard, which was very pleasantly arranged, with pansies in bronze vases, potted plants, and large magnolia trees. We looked up into Chopin's windows on the first floor in the corner.

The door to Chopin's staircase is on the left.

Chopin's windows would have been on the first floor in the corner behind the tree.

We took another look at Chopin's building and went to search for the one where his lover, George Sand (1804-1876) resided. It was very close by - even after the separation of lovers, she kept an eye on him!

Entrance to the apartment occupied in 1842-1847 by George Sand

The interior courtyard where Chopin used to live. 

I wondered around for a while. I went on to the next courtyard and looked down on the ground under my feet. The ancient cobble stones, overgrown with moss, were probably from Chopin's time.

While lounging around the courtyard, filled with new parked cars and passersby, I thought about the beautiful poem by Adam Zagajewski describing Chopin's last days and the lasting beauty of music.  I was particularly impressed by the poem's interpretation by Zagajewski in a documentary film by Ophra Yerushalmi, "Chopin's Afterlife" - I was still thinking about our great, fragile musician and the pain of his last days, as we were walking away to our next destination. 


Having satisfied our curiosity about Chopin's final years in Paris, we went in search of a location of his first years: the site of his debut concert, Salle Pleyel, not far from the Square d'Orleans. Sadly, the Pleyel company has just gone out of business; people stopped buying pianos and a great tradition ended. In 2011, I visited the modern Salle Pleyel, with a wonderful display of colorful pianos.

Somewhat off the beaten tourist track, the building badly needs repainting. 

But Chopin's debut and his last public concert took place at at the former location of the Salle Pleyel, now somewhat decrepit. The tall ballroom windows gave the place away.  Chopin's music first sounded in its spacious space in 1832: Chopin plays the Concerto in F minor and Variations, Op. 2, on the Aria "La ci darem la mano" from Mozart's Don Giovanni. 

The windows were filled with flickering candle light on the 16th of February 1848, when Chopin appeared in Paris in a public recital for the last time. Actually, it was not "in public" - the 300 listeners were all friends of Chopin. Amid familiar faces, surrounded by fragrant bouquets of flowers, Chopin relaxed and played exceedingly well.  His program included études, preludes, mazurkas, waltzes, the Berceuse and Barcarolle. Auguste Franchomme joined the composer in his own Cello Concerto in G minor and they also played Mozart’s Trio in E major, with the violinist D. d’Alard. The complicated program included also songs performed by A. Molina de Mendi and G. H. Roger. 

The windows face the courtyard, with some sheds, that were better left out of sight.

Halina Goldberg sat in the courtyard with the windows of the former Salle Pleyel above.

The street leading the Salle Pleyel had a series of somewhat faded buildings. 


Since it was getting late, we decided to move on. We had to make one more stop - at the Musee de la Vie Romantique, in a former home of Chopin's friend, painter Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) who created a beautiful portrait of the composer, along with many other wonderful portraits and paintings. 

Courtyard of the Musee de la Vie Romantique with antique rose bushes.

Located at 16, rue Chaptal in the 9th Arrondissement in Paris, the museum includes many artefacts from the life of George Sand and Ary Scheffer, her friend and portrait maker. The painter held regular salons on Fridays, frequented by his artistic neighbors: Chopin, Sand, Franz Liszt, Pauline Viardot, Eugene Delacroix and others. 

Salon in the Musee de la Vie Romantique with the portrait of George Sand.

One of the portraits was of Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), Chopin's friend, and a wonderful Spanish singer.

Chopin's portrait by Ary Scheffer.

The cosy rooms of the Museum gave an insight into artistic interests and leisure activities of Sand and her family - her son Maurice, daughter, Solange,  and her son-in-law, sculptor and artist, Auguste Clesinger.  There were family jewels, paintings by her brother Maurice and mother, and other memorabilia. There is a Sand family tree, and her portrait as a young girl.

Detail from the family tree of George Sand - Aurore Dupin, wife of Casimir Dudevant.

Aurore, the future George Sand, as a child.

I was happy to see the painting of poppies by Pierre-Joseph Redoute (1759-1840) 
and the antique roses in the garden.