Blog of the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition 2015
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Finals - Day 2
An embarassment of riches

There was something in the air tonight.

Competitors for this evening were Eric Lu, Szymon Nehring and Georgijs Osokins. Eric had stunned in the previous stages, but could he keep it up? Szymon was good enough over the previous stages, but what about tonight? And Georgijs, there is always an air of risk, of uncertainty. What will we hear from him tonight, more originality and individualism? And if so, will he go too far?

Despite the fact that we were going to hear the 1st concerto another three times (making it 7 times in a row over the course of both days), there was a real feeling of excitement and expectation from the audience. But I don't think anyone really expected quite such a string of incredible performances as we got.

Eric was of course great, bringing the delicacy and charm that we had seen in the previous stages. He had a number of technical slips though (there was a wonderful moment with the conductor when they were turning to look at each other to begin the next section when Eric made a slip, it didn't phase Eric and Maestro Maestro Kaspszyk flashed a warm smile that said "It's okay, it doesn't matter" and they carried on as if nothing had happened), and there were a couple of occasions where the Orchestra did not get their timing right with him, but the final section of the last movement was incredible, with a very interesting left hand, and a great build of tension up to the final chord (which the orchestra perfectly timed).

Szymon surprised. From his opening declamatory octaves it was obvious that this wasn't the old Szymon. Looking over my notes, all I have jotted down for various places is 'really very excellent'. There was a feeling that this young man knew the score inside and out, that there were no surprises in it for him, and that he knew what he wanted to say and nothing had been left to chance or to inspiration. His playing was strong and mature. At the outset he was emoting as usual (though for him, even this is subdued), but at a certain point he stopped and started watching the conductor carefully. Overall, it was a beautiful concerto, and beautifully made music. Initially a little too focussed on the beat, but it really developed well over the course of the whole concerto. The orchestra was exceptional at drawing the drama out of the music, and the final section of the third movement was just fantastic.

At this point, I must admit I had written Georgijs off. The beauty of Kate Lie, the perfection of Seong-Jin Cho, and the excellence of Szymon in my mind excluded him from a top three spot. And I couldn't see him equalling Eric, so possibly only as high as 5th.

But within a few moments of his performance I was astounded at what I was seeing and hearing. This Georgijs in front of me had not made an appearance at the competition so far. Gone was the brash soloist, the challenging pianist looking to wake up his tired audience. Here was a chamber musician. A consumate chamber musician at that. There was a nearly unbelievable sensitivity for the music on display, and for the performance, he was just another member of the orchestra. Of course there are virtuoso moments in the concerto, and solo moments, where the piano takes the fore. But he slid effortlessly into these giving only what was required to make the music shine, and never overstepping his role or dominating the orchestra. This was really intimate and personal playing. I remember sitting there astonished that in this, the 7th performance of the concerto, we were still hearing something different and something exciting. The crowd errupted on his final chord and were very vocal.

Really, the standard is so high. Remarkable too that all pianists are really very different from each other.

Finals - Day 1
18 October

At this point, all 10 Finalists are winners in a technical sense. However, this Stage will differentiate the major winners (1-3, who will receive medals) and the minor winners (4-6), from 7-10 who will just receive a small amount of prize money each.

In Stage 3, competitors must perform a concerto. Chopin only wrote two concertos, making it not such a difficult choice. Making it even easier, it is considered that the 1st Concerto is the easiest to perform in Competition. The 2nd is considered quite difficult to interpret sufficiently well to distinguish yourself from you fellow participants.

And so for the final 10 competitors, nine have chosen the 1st concerto, and only one the 2nd, that being Charles Richard-Hamelin.

The Orchestra for this Stage is the Warsaw Philharmonic, conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk. Kaspszyk conducted the inaugural concerts with Marta Argerich, Nelson Goerner and Garrick Ohlsson, as well as the Mozart Requiem last night.

There is only one session per day, from 6pm to 10pm, and the competitors for each session have set schedules for practice with the orchestra over the course of the day before their performance.

Going into this stage I have my favourites, Kate Liu, and Charles Richard-Hamelin. So I am nervous for them. Not that someone will do better, but that they won't do their best for some reason. The first day brings Seong-Jin Cho, Aljoša Jurinić, Aimi Kobayashi, and Kate Liu.

All gave tremendously of themselves, as did the orchestra to each of the soloists, no mean feat considering they were playing the 1st concerto four times in a row. Seong-Jin Cho was first, a difficult proposition, but a tremendous musical accomplishment. He and the orchestra were hand in glove, both listening attentively to each other, and perfect in their timings. I would characterise Seong-Jin's performance as almost chamber in approach, seemingly more informed by historical performance practices than modern soloist practices. I made a note at the time that he may very well be the winner.

Contrasted to Seong-Jin, Aljoša's performance was Chopin in his masculine aspect. A performance of seemingly Lisztian sensibilities, nevertheless capable of great beauty and passion. Unfortunately there were at least a dozen technical slips across the entire concerto. Nevertheless, he was a crowd favourite.

Aimi Kobayashi gave us something different again. Emoting considerably throughout the entire performance, she was also a favourite of the crowd, who started applauding before the orchestra had stopped playing the final phrase, and were very vocal. A tremendous performance, but not one to my tastes, however, I was in the minority with this opinion after speaking to a number of people.

Kate Liu...I am not deviating from anything I have said so far. An incredible performance, and moments of the most indescribable beauty. Chopin as I have not heard before. She had a couple of technical errors, and there was a slight hint that nerves around this was going to derail her performance. But she rallied magnificently. Even more so than with Kobayashi, the audience started applauding the moment she hit her final chord, nearly drowning out the orchestra as it finished the last few moments. Incredibly, about a third of the audience rose in ovation, and to this point noone has stood for any other competitor.

The orchestra enjoyed each performance, and each soloist, and it was a joy to see the warmth and happiness of the conductor and the first violin towards each competitor while taking their bows. An incredible first day, and I can't wait for tomorrow.

Chopin in Memoriam
Mozart's Requiem performed in the Church of the Holy Cross
17 October, 8pm

Chopin died on 17 October 1849. His last wish was that Mozart's Requiem be performed at his funeral.

In keeping with a tradition begun in 2005, a performance of Mozart's Requiem Mass was staged at the Church of the Holy Cross, where Chopin's heart is interred. It was performed on period instruments.

I arrived an hour early, and there was already standing room only, and the Church was already three quarters full. By performance time this had swelled to absolute capacity.

Words are enqual to the task of describing this performance. It was exceptional, and exceptionally moving. I captured a brief amount of audio to give an idea. This is a partial section of the end of the Introitus and the beginning of the Kyrie.

Press Conference
17 October

Dr Artur Szklener and Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń gave a Press Conference at midday today to discuss the Competition so far.

Dr Szklener began by talking about the conscious decision to make this edition much more accessible to the world, by live broadcasting on tv, radio and the internet, all performances in all Stages. [I'd also like to point out that because of the broadcasts, there is an active program of interviews and other material around the live performances to keep all audiences entertained while there is a hiatus between performances]. Dr Szklener also noted that an agreement had been reached with the Chinese Government to enable full web-streaming of the competition into China, noting that in a few instances of the competition so far, viewing figures from China alone were equal to the figures for the rest of the world combined.

Dr Szklener was quick to point out that the statistics are as yet incomplete, but even so, highlighted the following:

  • About 500,000 competition videos are watched daily
  • About 1,000,000 unique visitors are tuning into the Competition daily
  • About 1/3rd of all visits are from mobile devices
  • The average length of a visit is 24 minutes
  • In order, the top 5 viewing countries, excluding China, are Poland, Japan, USA, Germany and South Korea
  • The viewer demographics are dominated by 25 to 34 year olds, followed by 18 to 24 year olds
Dr Szklener finished by reflecting that although this is a time of change, they are happy that they are able to make high art and values accessible to the widest possible audience through mobile devices, and that the Competition is receiving such attention.

It was time for questions for the Chair of the jury. Predictably the first of which was "Are you happy with the results so far" to which the answer was a straight forward "Yes". Responding to questions from the various media organisations present, the Chair advised that:

  • the Jury had been working well together and there had been no significant disagreements
  • Noting that there were 14 Polish pianists in competition, and 13 Chinese pianists, and that there was only one Polish competitor in the Finals, and no pianists from China, the Chair noted that the quality of the field had been extremely high, and the job for the jury is to select the best, not eliminate the worst
  • No discussions had been had yet regards the Mazurka prize, or any of the other minor prizes as they have been too busy with the decision regarding who would pass to the next round.
  • As with the previous Competition (responding to a question from Gustav Alink of the Alink-Argerich Foundation) the jury's voting for each round will be made public at the end of the competition.
There was an interesting question from the floor regards the fact that in the Finals there appear to be some drastically different pianists, to the extent that they are diametrically opposed, and the question was what message was being sent to the world and to the next generation of pianists about how to approach the music of Chopin.

The Chair noted that only after the Finals can a useful discussion begin about the message. Dr Szklener noted as a theoretician that in any piece by any composer there is a theoretically infinite number of interpretations, and that if there were only one possible interpretation of Chopin then it may as well be found, recorded, and left at that. The Chair noted that although there are infinite possibilities, there is a certain canon, or boundaries of taste and interpretation. The purpose of the competition is to preserve Chopin's legacy, but it also should not be a museum. New approaches are encouraged, but it is always dangerous to allow new and strange things just for the purposes of entertaining the audience.

The final question was regards the inclusion of the Preludes in the repertoire of Stage 3, however, the Press Conference had already gone over time so this question was held over.

Announcement of the Finalists
16 October

After the afternoon session, we were told the list of competitors who passed to the Finals will be announced some time between 8:30 and 10pm. As it was 7:30pm, there didn't seem much point in going anywhere, so I sat in the Filharmonia updating the Friends of Chopin Australia Facebook page (you will notice a flood of photos yesterday, but there are more to come). As time wore on, more and more people gathered, and the level of conversation, and tension, increased from a buzz to a whir. Everyone was excited and nervous. I caught Charles Richard-Hamelin standing by himself waiting patiently so went over for a chat. A very humble young man, genuinely not certain he would pass to the finals. I was certain though, and am happy that the jury thought like me. He may win, though some people are also tipping Dmitry Shishkin.

At about 9:15pm, the word (I can't reveal my source unfortunately) was that the jury were, shall we say "hotly debating", and were expected to take another hour. I passed the time happily with some colleagues from Chopin Societies in the US and Canada. When the time finally came, there were no real surprises, and there were many cheers and tears (of joy) from friends and family, and fans, as each finalist's name was read out. Though the moment the list was complete the crowd started to disperse, not even waiting for Dr Szklener (Director of the NIFC) to finish his announcements. It is all business here sometimes.

I am headed back tomorrow for the Press Conference at midday, though not entirely sure what the purpose is beyond an overview of the competition so far. More anon.

Stage 3 - Day 3 - Final session (afternoon)
16 October

Only two competitors left, Yike (Tony) Yang from Canada and Luigi Carroccia from Italy. There was a slight delay to the start of proceedings. There was a rumour it was due to an unexpected visit from the front-runner of next weeks Prime Ministerial elections Beata Szydło (www.beataszydlo.pl). This turned out to be true.

Tony was first to play, and once again, astounded with his talent. I was able to meet his teacher and his mother after the performance, and they informed me he is currently only 16 years old, he will turn 17 in December. He chose to play the Bolero, a piece not often heard, and I didn't know it. But it was an excellent choice, it is a young man's piece, written in 1833 when Chopin was 23 years old, displaying virtuosity, but also the promise of maturity to come.

Luigi, very unfortunately, was suffering from some kind of hand complaint. Luigi is a talented young pianist and musician, and his playing is full of colour and energy. But there is not much to be done when you have an injury. He excused himself briefly from the Stage between his Mazurkas and the Preludes. The audience were not sure he would return, but he did and tackled the entire Op 28 Preludes, the last of his list. It was a tremendous effort for him to get through it, and the audience let him know that they appreciated his determination and commitment. It is unfortunate that an injury ended his competition aspirations, but, he is a semi-finalist in the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, this in itself is an extraordinary feat, and one to be proud of. I hope we see him again in 2020.

I happened to strike up a conversation with the people sitting next to me at the start of the session, a Polish couple, and they let me know they had been sitting next to two Polish-Australian sisters in the morning session. After the afternoon session, not only did they make sure to take a picture of the future Prime Minister for me, they hunted the hall for the two sisters and made sure they introduced us (seemingly the only Australians here, but I am still on the look out). Poland really is a great country. Poles are incredibly friendly, and Warsaw is a very easy city to be a traveller in because of this.

Speak of the [well ... not Devil, that would be rude]
A surprising encounter

I am writing this blog from a small pizzeria near the Filharmonia. There is only two hours between morning and afternoon session, so I needed somewhere clsoe and quick, with a powerpoint for the computer and the phone.

This pizzeria is nice, but nothing special. It is cheap, quick, and quiet. Not good, but not bad.

To my surprise, 5 minutes after I arrived, the Chair of the jury, Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń, walked in and sat down at the table beside me. Although she didn't recognise me, she recognised that I recognised her. I decided not to disturb her (really, the jury must be nearing a zombie state by now).

But really, that was unexpected...

Stage 3 - Day 3
16 October

Unfortunately, the idiosyncracies the Russian/Belarussian border delayed my return to Warsaw by a day. Meaning I missed both the first and second days of Stage 3. You can listen to all of them here though.

There are only six pianists performing on the third day, four in the morning and two in the evening. However, the morning session began with Charles Richard-Hamelin. I have been a big fan of Hamelin since his first performance, and anticipated his stage three with much anxiety. However, he did not disappoint. This young man is a rare talent. The jury has agreed with me so far, and I hope today means that I will be listening to his Concerto in the finals.

Dmitry Shishkin from Russia gave a performance that alot of people were talking about afterwards, but I found him a little too technical. However, he did present something different from all other competitors in that he performed four impromptus as part of this thrid round repertoire. The last pianist in the session was Zi Xu from China, who I personally found very boring. There was an emotional distance in his playing that just did not engage. With the exception of the last half of the final movement of the sonata (the sonata was the last piece in his performance). The first group of pieces he played were the last 11 Preludes (14 through 24). There was an elder Polish woman sitting next to me (and we had already worked out that I didn't speak Polish and she didn't speak English). As Zi Xu finished Prelude 24, she leaned over to me and felt the need to convey, in any way possible, that his was the best possible playing. Whether he spoke to her as she believes Chopin would have, or whether it is because Xin Lu is actually a student of the Chair of the jury (Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń), or has already been recognised in Poland for his pianism and interpretations of Chopin, I don't know. But, maybe we will see Zi Xu in the finals?

Some activities during the interim
A Russian Interlude

I am taking the only real oportunity during the competition to make a side trip to Moscow, to visit the 2nd prize winner of the Australian International Chopin Piano Competition, the very talented Daria Kameneva.

A very brief trip, but productive. As well as being busy with competitions (after Australia she competed in the Golden Ring Chopin Piano Competition, and the International Tchaikovsky Competition) and with an upcoming tour of China as a Kawai Artist, Daria is a dedicated teacher, dividing her time between students at the Moscow State Conservatory, and the 'Music College Named After Fryderyk Chopin' (a specialist musical secondary school).

While in Moscow I was able to observe one of Daria's students, who is preparing for an open competition in Chelyabinsk, undertake an academic assessment. This was much like a formal grading in appearance, with only the assessors (the head of keyboard for the college, Daria, and another teacher) and the student allowed in the room (special exception was made for me on this one occasion), but the relationship between teacher and student in Russia is much more personal and informal. In practice, the student is demonstrating under performance conditions, but the assessors are much more free with their actions and will openly (if silently) express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction through their body language.

Daria's student was a talented young man of 18, who played some Schubert, Chopin, Shostakovich and Rachmaninov. He passed with Distinction (it is a 5 point scale and he scored 5).

After this, I was priveleged to be able to sit in on two of Daria's lessons. Before going in she felt it necessary to warn me that Russian teachers don't teach like ordinary teachers. This is of course true, and I already knew something of it. Russian teachers have a very close relationship wih their students. When a teacher takes a student, it is a commitment to that student to give them everything they have, to do the best for them, and to do anything they can to bring out their best. To care, as much as possible. Daria felt the need to warn me that I might see her get angry. As such, I felt determined to watch the students closely.

As always, speaking plainly and true to her word, she hammered her students. But at no point did either of them take it as criticism. They did not falter, they did not stop, and they did not switch off. They took every interruption as encouragement. They knew she cared, so they wanted to do their best, and they kept improving throughout the lesson. They were better by the end of the 45 minutes. And they were happy, and happier that they were better.

Deeply appreciative, I still had to pinch myself, was I really in Moscow, in a music school, watching a Russian piano pedagogue, pedagoguing the life out of (make that in to) some young Russian talent? Do I have to leave?

Some passing thoughts in the interim
Where to sit when watching someone play the piano

So, it is not an earth shattering question, and for the most part it boils down to two outcomes: what can I see, and what can I hear.

For me though, this was a pressing, but also totally irrelevant (because I had no choice in my seats) question. Normally, if I have my choice, I sit so I can have a clear view of the pianists hands. I love everything about piano and piano playing, including down to the sheer mechanical ballet of the hands (when playing, I enjoy the physical act of moving my hands just as much as the more abstract act of making music). I like to watch to improve my own technique, but also to marvel at the speed, the grace, and also the different ways (the choices that they make) in which pianists move their fingers across the keys.

One thing I had experienced, almost revelatorially, in the Eliminations in April was the actual possibility of closing my eyes during a performance, and just listening (yes, quite an embarassing revelation). Although it sounds simple, I doubt many people would close their eyes during a performance except for a few seconds at a time. For me, during the performance of Ronald Noerjadi from Indonesia, it became apparent just how much of how we listen is informed by what we are seeing at the time. Ronald's performance, with eyes open, was barely worth mentioning, but with eyes closed, without interpretation foisted on me by seeing which notes he was paying attention to, how he was preparing for the next phrase, or whether he was emoting, I was able to experience only the sound world that he was very carefully, with great skill, and enormous learning, presenting for me. It was like the difference between listening to a mono recording in a different room compared with listening to a symphony (anywhere) in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

In any case, for the competition so far, I have mostly been seated on the right hand side of the hall, with no view of the keyboard, and virtually no view of the pianist (being mostly obscured by the piano itself. But in these case, I have found myself totally uninterested in the pianist, and only listening to the sound. On the rare occasions I have had a full view of the keyboard, I have been far to pre-occupied with the pianist as a physical presence that informs my view of their music. And I have noticed a marked difference in the notes I take of each performance.

In more concrete terms though, where you sit in the Filharmonia does actually make a difference. I had long heard, from many different people, that the acoustics of the Filharmonia could be better (I am being diplomatic, and also, there is the possibility that children and people of a sensitive disposition could be reading this, so I cannot use some of the actual words used). These opinions have come from even the most establishment of persons and tastes in Warsaw. For myself I have noticed that anywhere between row 3 and row 12 on the ground floor, on either side, is great. Anything further back is doing a disservice to the performer. As for the upper level, I have not experienced it yet (and unlikely to this trip), but I am reliably informed that the acoustics are terrible. To the extent that there is much conjecture of why the jury sits up there.

For me now, the general question of where to sit - where I can watch, or where I can listen - is still a question of what I wish to know about the performer, that is, what do I want to know about them as a person (engaging in this very complicated act), versus what I wish to know about them as an artist with something to say. And sometimes these two mines of information are mutually exclusive.

Some passing thoughts in the interim
Wrong Notes

Wrong notes are the most immediate negative feedback available to an audience and to a pianist. They have nothing to do with interpretation, so they are not hard to decipher nor discern. Wrong notes are wrong notes and they shouldn't be there.

But what do they matter? A seasoned audience member would be hesitant to dismiss a performance as not worthwhile on the basis of a few wrong notes, after all, they are a fact of life in even the most highly regarded of performers. A few more than we were expecting might indicate the pianist is having a bad evening, again, something that can be easily taken into account.

But what about in a competition? Aren't they all about perfection? Don't we expect flawless performances precisely because these young pianists have spent months with this repertoire? Hundreds of hours spent memorising, shaping, honing, consolidating and above all repeating until they can literally do it with their eyes closed? But everyone is human. Concert halls can be awful places, hot, stuffy, cold, terrible acoustics, the audience is too close, the audience is too far away, someone might drop their program on the floor, a mobile phone might go off, there may be a coughing fit, or, the sin of all sins, somewhat might feel they want to open a cough lolly in the middle of the delicate passage you have spent months perfecting the softness, silence and timing for. In an imperfect world full of perfect distractions, why would we expect perfection from the pianists?

But we do, and so do the pianists. Over the course of the 112 odd performances I have witnessed so far, nothing derails a performer quicker than a wrong note. For some, after the wrong note the performance cannot be the perfection they envisioned, and so it distracts them, for others they attempt to construct a 'new' version of the piece that will allow for the wrong note that just happened. Both cases act as a distraction from the vision the young performer walked onto the stage with.

Some, with perhaps more performance experience, do not let it bother them at all, and continue as if nothing happened. And this works well, until their second, or their third slip, and immediately they are asking themselves what the jury is thinking; how many mistakes is too many mistakes? Is this an acceptable slip or an unacceptable slip? Am I out of contention? OH GOD, AM I OUT OF CONTENTION ALREADY? BUT I HAVE FOUR MORE PIECES TO PLAY?!

Competitions can be brutal in this regard, not because the jury is cruel, or have unreasonable expectations, but because a line has to be drawn somewhere, and if you cross it you cross it.

Stage 2 - Day 3
11 October 2015

Today I am only seeing the morning session, as I will be on a train to Moscow when the afternoon session begins (actually, I am on that train as I write this...a sleeper from Warsaw to Moscow, it all feels very James Bond). However, the morning session brought Piotr Nowak and Georgijs Osokins, which was something to look forward to.

However, there were a couple of other surprises. Firstly the performances by the two Japanese girls, Mayaka Nakagawa and Arisa Onoda. They were both very beautiful in their interpretation, and their approach to the music. Their performances could have been spurred on by the fact that the Filharmonia had a Royal visitor in attendance. Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado of Japan was in the gallery, for the sole purpose of watching the two girls from Japan.

The Japanese girls book-ended the performances of the two Polish boys, Piotr Nowak and Szymon Nehring - both of whom played well, but Szymon was a little underwhelming, and Piotr, well, his performance in the first round was much stronger, and I sometimes get the feeling Piotr is keeping his talent hidden under a bushell; you get glimpses underneath sometimes and they are tantalising, but I wish I had seen the whole Piotr today. Unfortunately for Georgijs Osokins, Her Imperial Highness left the hall after Arisa played. Georgijs too was full of fury, and gave a program of repertoire of which half had not been heard in the competition yet, but there was a little of his performance in Stage 1 that did not make it into Stage 2.

I wish I could be in the hall for Hamlin's performance this evening, but the early indications from the live stream are that he is in excellent form, and I really look forward to catching up viewing online when I get a stable internet connection (www.chopincompetition2015.com).

 

 

Stage 2 - Day 2
10 October 2015

Day 2 was extraordinary for three pianists, though one of them not in a good way. Kate Liu and Eric Lu gave two of the most amazing performances of the competition so far.

Kate Liu, a young pianist from the USA, nearly made me fall out of my seat. Words are nearly unequal to describe. Her music comes from somewhere else, and you get the sense that there is no intermediary between the music and the piano. With some pianists you are very aware of their performance, with Kate, there is just the music. And what music. If you get the chance to hear her at any stage (and there is a very easy way by visiting www.chopincompetition2015.com) you should leap at the chance.

The audience responded in kind, with only the second incidence of unending applause interrupting moving on to the next competitor. Even more extraordinarily, she got a standing ovation from Garrick Ohlsson, one of the jury members (and former winner of this competition). To give you some idea, this is not generally accepted behaviour from a jury member.

Against this, Eric Lu had a difficult task in following Kate. But this young man, also from the USA, not only held his own, but gave us the second stand out performance of the competition. Both of these pianists will be in Round 3, and I would suggest, barring any unfortunate incidences, we will be seeing them in the Finals.

In contrast, Alexia Mouza (Greece/Venezuela) gave the most disappointing performance of the competition so far, and equally sadly, consistent with her performance in Stage 1. It left a number of audience members scratching their heads regards Alexia and the pianists that did not make it through the Eliminations or Stage 1. However, it has to be said, she is an interesting pianist, with a very individual approach. She has tremendous power of sound, and the most powerful and rapid left hand I have seen so far; her octaves are simply breathtaking. It also has to be said that it is important for the jury to be open to new, original, dynamic and individual pianists, otherwise the competition would soon cease to grow and explore new avenues and approaches to Chopin. To my mind, I was wondering if she was having an off night in the scond round. Something that is just a natural occurence in the career of a concert pianist. It is easy to happen, and it has happened all to frequently in the 112 performances of the competition so far. For a concert pianist, that is life. As she left the piano it was obvious that she did not feel she played well, and with that in mind, I would like to be in the audience on the day that she does feel she has played well.

Piotr Nowak is up tomorrow morning, so I'm looking forward seeing his performance.

Stage 2 - Day 1
9 October 2015

At this stage I must admit that I am finding the Competition a little hard going. Although the music of Chopin is some of the most beautiful ever written, and the most excitingly virtuosic, at this point I have listened to 80 pianists over the course of 40 hours, or 8 hours a day for 5 days. I am wondering if you can get too much of a good thing.

However, a few days ago I had the good fortune to be able to have lunch with Dr Wojciech Bońkowski, a musicologist, historian and critic that has had a long association with the NIFC, but who also has a whole other life as a professional wine critic. Naturally the topic of the competition and my attendance at every session came up, and he said, "It is okay, I feel the same way about wine sometimes after a particularly long tasting, 'I will never drink another glass, I have had too much', then I find the next day I am ready again to try something new". So it was with me and Stage 2.

Chatting to a colleague in the audience, they said Stage 2 generally seperates out those pianists with something to say from those who are less engaged with the music. This was very evident on Day 1. Seong-Jin Cho, Ivett Gyöngyösi, Chi Ho Han, Zhi Chao Julian Ja gave commanding performances showing real depth of art. I would not be surprised if all of them pass through to Stage 3. I was a little disappointed by Olof Hansen's second stage as he had given a great performance in Stage 1. Similarly the Italians Michelle Candotti and Luigi Carrocia were lacklustre, and did not engage. Galina Chistiakova gave a very fine performance, which she was very happy with. She is also a favourite with the audience in general.

In Stage 2 competitors must play for between 30 and 40 minutes. Once they meet the minimum syllabus requirements for the round, they can play any additional pieces they choose up to 40 minutes worth. Seong-Jin, Ivett, Chi Ho and Julian all chose to cram as much syllabus into their time as they could. Ivett's performance was notable as she walked to the piano, sat down and played with no hesitation, centering or adjusting of the piano stole.

My "Day Off"
8 October 2015

My supposed "day off" between Stage 1 and Stage 2 was filled with meetings for the International Federation of Chopin Societies.

Firstly the general meeting which was held in the performance hall of the Chopin Museum (where I got to see Grzegorz Machnacki's exceptionally restored 1855 Erard again, though I didn't get a chance to play it this time), which included lectures from Dr Mieczysław Tomaszewski and Dr Irena Poniatowska. Then on to the Chamber of Commerce of lunch and the Board meeting of the IFCS, which went for a delightful four hours. Luckily I was sat next to the very firendly, and very English speaking representatives Alexandra Castro from Chile, Jill Rabenau from the Darmstadt Chopin Society (and Competition) and Jadwiga Gewert from the Miami Chopin Society (and Competition), which made it an enjoyable time. Simultaneous translation via headset was a nice touch. The Friends of Chopin Australia got a glowing welcome as a new member from Dr Elżbieta Artysz, General Secretary of the IFCS. We had an excellent application, and she made sure everyone knew about it.

Day 5 - the results
8 October 2015

I cannot believe Xin Luo and Chuhan Zhang didn't pass to the second round!

Another suprise for me was the loss of Kausikan.

Łukasz and Piotr are through.

It is what it is.

The performances finished a little before 9pm, and the results were announced a little after 10pm, so presuming no catastrophic disagreements.

Stage 2 apparently seperates the true artists from the rest of the pack, so it will be interesting to see what happens.

Stage 1 - Day 5
7 October 2015

The morning session brought three exceptional young pianists. Alexander Ullman from the UK, Zhu Wang from China, and Andrzej Wierciński from Poland.

Ullman is a fine pianist, totally in command of the piano, and bringing a gravity and a dignity to his performance, as well as a very fine interpretation of Chopin.

Born in 1997, Zhu Wang is one of the youngest pianists in the competition, but he is already a huge talent, and has tremendous potential. He excelled in the longer form works (the Nocturne and the Barcarolle). That's not to say his etudes weren't good, they were very good examples. But there have been a number of pianists so far who have added rich depth and character to their etudes, making them easier to enjoy on more than just a technical level, and Zhu's etudes were a bit dry in this regard.

Finally, Andrzej Wierciński. If Poland needed a champion, it is young Wierciński. He has the look, he has the presence, and he has the art. A very impressive performance from a very impressive young man, well worth revisiting.

The evening session, and final session for Stage 1, brought a powerhouse of performances. Yike (Tony) Yang from Canada, Chuhan Zhang from China, Annie Zhou from Canada and Miyako Arishima from Japan all gave performances breathtaking in their artistry and technical accomplishmant. I suspect we'll be seeing more of all of them.

Stage 1 - Day 4
6 October 2015

The morning session of Day 4 was dominated for me by two pianists, Kausikan Rajeshkumar from the UK, and Charles Richard-Hamelin from Canada.

Kausikan's playing was witty, intelligent and urbane. An absolute delight to listen to, as if he was carrying on some kind of Noel Coward-esque conversation through the piano. Whether it is Chopin or not I am not qualified to say, but for me it evoked the type of atmosphere you would likely get in a salon in Paris packed with intellectuals, and how Chopin may have responded to such an environment. Kausikan is a laureate of the Darmstadt Chopin Piano Competition (2nd prize, 2013), and I was able to chat with a representative of the Darmstadt Competition about Kausikan's playing, apparently his Mazurka's are perfect, so I hope to be hearing them in Round 3.

Hamelin had the most profound effect on the audience, something no other competitor has come close to. An astonishing performance of artistry of the highest order. The audience would not stop applausing at the end. Competitors are not allowed to linger on the stage, nor are they allowed to come back for a second bow. But the audience kept applausing. The MC for the session came on to stage, and waited until the applause died down, but it did not. She tried to speak to bring the applause to an end, but it kept going forcing her to stop talking. Eventually she had to raise her voice and keep talking until the audience realised they had to stop and the competition had to resume.

To be honest, the evening session passed in a bit of a blur. Some good candidates giving fine performances, but I suppose (quite literally) nothing to write home about. With the exception of Michał Szymanowski from Poland, whom I enjoyed very much.

Day 5 tomorrow and only 16 competitors to go

Stage 1 - Day 3
5 October 2015

Day 3 opened spectacularly. The first pianist was Xin Luo from China, and he gave a truly beautiful performance. It was a genuine pleasure to sit and listen to him go through repertoire I had heard many, many times already (he was the 33rd competitor to perform). He is currently training in Poland in Bydgoszcz, and has been a pupil of Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń (the current chair of the jury). Technically perfect, though far more than this his playing is polished, delicately phrased, and rich in its depth and variety. He can be furiously passionate, loud and angry, but then soft, and so delicate you are afraid his music is about to break. The best way to experience his playing is with ones eyes closed, unfettered by the visual world, and communicating only with the music. The same way that he does; he was born blind.

I was looking forward to the afternoon session immensely. Ronald Noerjadi from Indonesia (though trained in France) was due to play. I had heard him in the Elimations in April where his performance was an unexpected pleasure, and surprising in its beauty and accomplishment. Unfortunately, his performance this time around showed none of the maturity or beauty I had heard previously. As he left the stage it was obvious that he wasn't happy with his performance.

He was followed by another familiar face. Young Piotr Nowak from Poland, who like Łukasz, was a semi-finalist in the Australian International Chopin Piano Competition. Also like Łukasz, Piotr has matured considerably. When I first met Piotr, my impression was that of a quiet yet friendly young Polish boy. As I opened the door of the Green Room to take him on to stage for the first round of the AUstralian comeptition there stood a young man made of iron, determined to be a bullet-proof competitor. This time I saw a different Piotr again. A young man at ease, clearly enjoying the moment, and with great openness and affection for the music and the stage before him.

Last to perform, and of note, Georgijs Osokins from Latvia. An explosive performance, full of speed and fury, colour and passion. Certainly enough to wake me up and shake me out of the groove I had worn in the seat. Speaking of seats, he sat very low at the piano. Incredibly low, reminiscent of Glenn Gould.

Over half way through Stage 1 now and there has been tremendous variety of performances. Day 3 was dominated in numbers by pianists from Japan, with the Polish contingent close behind, and the Russians bringing up the rear.

Stage 1 - Day 2
4 October 2015

Day 2 I will try to sum up very briefly, and in this case, it is made easier by the impression made on me by Dinara Klinton, a young pianist from the Ukraine. Truly remarkable, and a truly remarkable performance. Her playing was many layered and multi-dimensional, evocative, beautiful and deeply moving. It is unfair to the other pianists in the morning session, but I could really not think of any others after I heard her performance.

The afternoon session brought a familiar face. Łukasz Krupiński from Poland who was a semi-finalist in the Australian International Chopin Piano Competition last year. Łukasz gave a very mature and accomplished performance, and he has clearly grown alot as an artist since we saw him in Australia. He was followed by Krzysztof Książek, he gave a very interesting, and very different interprative approach. Not unorthodox, but something new. And he clearly enjoyed every minute he was on stage. Rachel Naomi Kudo of the United States was another of the more interesting pianists from Day 2.

Stage 1 - Day 1
3 October 2015

The atmosphere of excitement and anticipation is palpable for the first day of the competition. The audience gathered to listen in the Sala Koncertowa of the Filharmonia Naradowa in Warsaw has come from all over the world, though so far I think I am the only Australian accent joining the buzz of enthusiastic conversations.

The National Philharmonic dates from 1901, but was destroyed during the war and rebuilt in a different style (it re-opened in 1955). The building houses two halls, the concert hall (Sala Koncertowa) and the chamber hall (Sala Kameralna). The Filharmonia itself is a beautiful building, and very much what you would expect; marble, elegance and old world charm. The main concert hall is smaller than you would expect though, seating a little over 1000 people, and the Kameralna much smaller again, seating a little under 400. The Eliminations were held in the Kameralna in April.

There are three main foyer entrances to the concert hall itself, and during the competition they are being occupied by a NIFC shop (the National Institute of Fryderyk Chopin) selling a range of NIFC publications and recordings, as well as other Chopin related books and paraphernalia (I have a new glasses case, but we will not talk about how many kilos of books I have added to my luggage home), an exhibition on Jan Ekier, laureate and juror, and editor of the National Editions of the published scores of Fryderyk Chopin, and finally, one is being used for interviews with competitors after their performances. Channel TVP Kultura and Polish Radio are ones I have recognised, and they are "on the spot" interviews, competing with fans hungry for autographs and to get photos taken with their favourite performers. I am not ashamed to admit, I have probably been in shot every day so far as I wait to get my program signd by whoever is available.

In the hall itself their is an upper gallery where the jury, the family of competitors, most of the media, and other notables have their seats. The lower floor is for everyone else, and a couple of permanent tv cameras. The whole competition is being broadcast live on the internet, and you can view it at www.chopincompetition2015.com or via their smartphone app available for Apple and Android. The whole of the first round is available on YouTube on the NIFC Channel (Chopin Institute). You can access the first round playlist by [ Clicking Here ].

The competition draw began with the letter B, meaning Tymoteusz Bies from Poland was the first competitor to perform. In fact the first three competitors were young Polish hopefuls (as well as Bies there was Rafał Błaszczyk and Łukasz Piotr Byrdy). My favourite of the first three Poles was Łukasz Piotr Byrdy. For the most part he delivered beautiful contrasted playing which for me is an essential aspect of Chopin. He had clean, crisp harmonies, and a soft, gentle left hand that worked beautifully with his right to create a very substantial emotional and aural landscape. And in the right places, he could create a huge wall of sound that picked you up and swept you along with it.

Next were two Itallians, who played colourfully and beautfully. The singing quality of Michelle Candotti's performance was a true joy. Then came the first of the Russians, the sisters Galina and Irina Chistiakova. Irina was the first to play the Ballade Op 52 (No 4) which is not just one of my pfavourite of Chopin's works, but one of my favourite pieces of music. And she played it beautifully. The morning session was completed with Seong-Jin Cho of South Korea, who was astounding in his confident, mature and deeply thought performance. One to watch I think.

Interestingly, the choice of pianos for the competitors was not as I would have expected. Four chose the Yamaha, two the Steinway, and two the Kawai. The Russians chose the Kawai, Rafał Błaszczyk and Seong-Jin Cho chose the Steinway, and the rest chose the Yamaha. However, it must be said, they are all equally fine instruments, and in the right hands with the right piece they are perfect. But in the wrong hands, they are all as equally bad as each other.

After eight pianists in four hours though, I was very glad of the three hour break before the evening session, which began with the UK pianist Ashley Fripp and finished with the Chinese pianist Zhi Chao Julian Jia. This was a very strong field, but the stand-outs for me were the final four to play, Hungarian Ivett Gyöngyösi, Chi Ho Han from South Korea, Olof Hansen from France, and Zhi Chao Julian Ja. All displayed technical command that went well beyond brilliant technique, musical sensitivity, and a deeply felt connection with Chopin.

16 pianists in eight hours...what have I let myself in for!? I am already exhausted and it is only Day 1 and there are 64 more pianists to listen to. Still, it is all worth it when that one pianist plays that hooks you from the very first note and carries you with them until before you know it, they have finished and are leaving the stage. We'll see what tomorrow brings...

"Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars...Beethoven embraced the universe with the power of his spirit... I do not climb so high. A long time ago I decided that my universe will be the soul and heart of man."
(Fryderyk Chopin in a letter to Delphine Potocka)
2 November 1924 - One of the earliest radio broadcasts featuring Chopin.
Miss Myrtle Liddy (Melbourne) performed Chopin's E minor Valse