Saturday, November 11, 2023

The 2nd International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments - Observations and considerations

Recently I have been following parts of the International Chopin Competition on period instruments, which took place in Warsaw and ended on 14 October. Chopin is not exactly a favourite composer of mine, and you will not find any review of performances of his music on my website. However, as I am interested in everything that goes on in the field of historical performance practice, I was curious to see and hear how the competition was going to proceed. I am not going to give any verdict on the performances of the individual contestants. I rather offer some observations and considerations with regard to the event.

The International Chopin Competition can look back on a long history: the first edition took place in 1927. Since 1955 the competition is held every five years. It has had prestigious winners who have made a great career. In 2018 the organization held a competition for performers on period instruments for the first time. As one may gather, this did not replace the usual competition: it took place halfway the edition of 2015 and 2021 (the latter was postponed for one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Apparently the first edition was a success, which explains why this year the second edition was held.

In the first round 35 contestants participated. A look at their biographies revealed that, apart from some very young players at the start of their career, there were several contestants who had already made quite a career on modern piano. That is not without risk: what does it say, if a respected pianist falls at the first hurdle? The fact that they took that risk may attest to the growing respectability and importance of historical performance practice in the world of the piano. There was a time that pianists of the 'traditional school' - the large majority of professional players - looked down at historical pianos and considered them primitive predecessors of the 'superior' modern concert grand. It seems that the younger generation is more open to the playing on period instruments and can value them for what they are. Often they say that these instruments learn them a lot about how the music of the 19th century has to be performed.

At the same time, the fact that the competition on period instruments has the form of a 'special edition' shows that playing on such instruments is a speciality, and still takes a marginal place in the piano world. That probably will not change very quickly, if only because many players want to cover a chronologically wide repertoire in their recitals. It is nearly impossible to play a recital with music written over a period of, say, 150 years on the appropriate instruments. In such cases the modern concert grand is the preferred instrument. This is only going to change if performers decide to put together their programmes in a different way.

Obviously the contestants had to play pieces by Chopin. However, in the first round they also needed to play pieces by some of his Polish contemporaries and pieces by Bach (from the Well-tempered Clavier) and Mozart. The latter is rather surprising. Bach's keyboard music is not intended for fortepiano; only late in his life he became acquainted with the pianos of Silbermann. And Mozart's keyboard instruments were very different from those which were at the disposal of the contestants, the oldest of which was the copy of a Graf of 1819. I understand that the reason was that Chopin held both in high esteem and played their music. That makes sense, but then the question is: how to play them? Like Chopin? I wonder whether we know how he played Bach and Mozart, and from which editions. For the sake of 'historical correctness' the contestants could have been asked to play Bach's preludes and fugues from the Well-tempered Clavier in the edition of Czerny. Whether there are any Mozart editions of Chopin's time, I don't know.

There is every reason to be happy with the developments in the field of performance practice of 19th-century music, as was demonstrated in this competition. At the same time, I suspect that many - probably most - pianists see the use of historical instruments as just one of the options. That is better than a complete neglect or even rejection. That said, we are still far away from what would be ideal: the awareness that period instruments are a sine qua non when one does want to do justice to the intentions of a composer.

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