Between clear expression and subtlety [REPORT]

The jury’s decision to qualify all pianists participating in the first stage of the competition for its second stage may be interpreted as a sign that the competition is not, in fact, all about musical wrestling, instead offering the contestants a platform for development and career-building. 

    The jury’s decision to qualify all pianists participating in the first stage of the competition for its second stage may be interpreted as a sign that the competition is not, in fact, all about musical wrestling, instead offering the contestants a platform for development and career-building. The morning session of September 14 was inaugurated by Ekaterina Richter of Russia, who performed three movements from Leopold Godowski’s Triakontameron. Richter opened with calmness and non-exaggerated expression correspondent to the character of the first piece. However, rhythmic and articulatory imperfections in Miłosz Magin’s Toccata, Chorale, and Fugue brought a rather trembling quality to the three. Richter’s forte came with her performance of Karol Szymanowski’s Mazurkas op. 50 and Serenade de Don Juan op. 34 no. 3 from the Masques cycle. The compositions were performed with self-assurance, offering a clear exposition of Mazurkas’ character and Serenade’s luminous nature. Such a selection of repertoire set her up with a fabulous chance to showcase all of her performing skills, however she failed to make the most of the opportunity. At times, she lacked freedom and the ability to reign the instrument, and her finale of Moritz Moszkowski’s Chanson bohème drifted towards feverishness. While no doubt musical, Ekaterina Richter’s performance left a somewhat diluted mark articulation-, expression-, and control-wise.

    Ivan Shemchuk of Ukraine opened with Stanisław Moniuszko’s uncomplicated Waltz no. 2 in E flat minor. He performed it tactfully, taking due care of each phrase and capturing the audience’s attention from the very first sound. In his interpretation of Karol Szymanowski’s Twelve Etudes op. 33, the different character of each movement was properly highlighted, as Shemchuk splendidly operated with the respective musical layers, balanced the consonances, in particular in VIII. Lento assai mesto (esspresivo). It should be stressed that Shemchuk narrated the entire cycle in a coherent fashion. His program also featured the underperformed yet highly intriguing Sonata in C minor op. 10 by Henryk Pachulski. This Romantic piece, too, was performed with lucidity. Rather than concluding his presentation with a bravado culmination, he went against the grain and chose to dial things down with a subtle interpretation of Mieczysław Karłowicz’s Chant de mai. Ivan Shemchuk established himself on the competition stage as a tremendously communicative pianist, offering legible interpretations coated with a splendidly natural rubato, and his play fills one with a sense of comfort. To my mind, such a style helps the audience towards a fuller understanding of unfamiliar compositions.

    The first Pole to perform on the day was Michał Sikała. His renditions of Ludomir Różycki’s Ave Maria op. 50 no. 1 from the Italia cycle and Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s Chant d'amour G-dur op. 10 were characterized by unforced musicality, and his take on Karol Szymanowski’s Scheherezade op. 34 no. 1 from the Masques cycle was a clear standout in his program. Sikała played it with a powerful expression, highlighting individual motifs with engagement and using clear articulation, while also offering in a carefully thought out narrative vision. His interpretation of Leopold Godowski’s Java Suite seemed coy, yet he did reveal a degree of sensitivity in the first two movements. The Pole introduced himself as an unobtrusive, cultured artist, although when performing Scheherezade he stirred the audience’s curiosity as to the more expressive side of his personality; unfortunately, he failed to reveal it in the subsequent parts of his audition. Well, perhaps in the final stage of the competition…

    Michał Karol Szymanowski did not make it a point to probe the limits of the dynamic scale of the piano, which made his performance different from the other contestants. He opened with Józef Wieniawski’s Polonaise triomphale in A flat major op. 21. Perhaps it was Szymanowski’s sound that caused individual figurations to lose their distinct qualities at times, which made the polonaise rhythm totter. His different interpretative approach was strongly pronounced in Szymanowski’s Scheherezade, performed earlier by Sikała. Szymanowski’s take was considerably more restrained, as he opted for a nuanced interpretation instead of expanding the expressive capacity of the piece. In his rendition of Miłosz Magin’s Polish Triptych, Szymanowski built up tension with each consecutive movement, however he elected to focus on the shades rather than highlighting the contrasts.

     The performance of the last contestant in the morning session, Jakub Cetnarowski, may be best summarized as even. On the one hand, he showed himself to be a musical and expressive pianist with considerable technical skills, capable of weaving a clear musical narrative, as evidenced among others in his performance of Szymanowski’s Scheherezade. On the other hand, he sometimes failed to exert his will on the instrument’s volume in specific registers, while also lacking a more polished sensitivity to harmonic changes and, consequently, the ability to differentiate between the respective links in Ignacy Friedman’s Klavierstücke op. 27. Cetnarowski finished with a bang, electing Cracovienne in A flat major op. 14 no. 5 from Friedman’s Quatre novelettes cycle as his final piece, in which he underscored the light-hearted and dance-like character of the composition. Without a doubt, Cetnarowski is a young musician whose progress will command attention.

Author: Radosław Wieczorek