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When Stuart Isacoff received an assignment to write a cover story on Van Cliburn’s comeback to the concert scene, this led to a friendship between the two that lasted until the pianist’s death.

Piano Street’s David Wärn has met the author of When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath, a personal and moving book presenting a sympathetic but honest account of the life of the legendary American pianist.

When Van Cliburn died on February 27 in 2013, the whole world was reminded of his sensational 1958 win at the inaugural Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. Since then, two important biographies of Cliburn have been written. For the British historian Nigel Cliff, whose Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story was published just before Stuart Isacoff’s book, Cliburn’s death and the ensuing obituaries provided the first opportunity to hear the full story of the pianist’s life, a tale that he thinks resonates particularly strongly today: “while we contemplate talk of a new Cold War, it can be illuminating to recall that Russia and America have had a love-hate relationship for a long while.” Isacoff, on the other hand, had wanted to write Cliburn’s biography since the late 1980s — his basement was already full of material for the book, including taped interviews with Cliburn’s boyhood friends and relatives. Isacoff, with his stronger personal connection to the subject matter and his background as a pianist, unsurprisingly provides a more knowing and intimate portrait. He also a tells a more coherent tale, taking in the larger picture without losing focus on the main character and on the cultural, political and artistic significance of Cliburn’s life story. However, for those interested in as many details as possible about the political processes of the Cold War, Cliff’s book might be a good complement.

‘The Rise and Fall and Rise of Van Cliburn’

In 1989, Van Cliburn returned to the concert scene after an eleven-year break. Isacoff received an assignment from a magazine called Ovation to do a cover story on Cliburn and his comeback. The magazine no longer exists; in fact it went under with that cover story, and Isacoff was never paid. “Van said it probably went under because his picture was on the cover. I said no, it was because of my writing.”

The editor wanted a negative story. He showed Isacoff a photo of Cliburn and said ‘look at that smug smile on his face’. Isacoff didn’t think it looked smug at all, but soon realized that Cliburn was looked down on by some people. “Van was considered sort of phony. You take a New York intellectual snob looking at him, and… he was just perceived as being a country bumpkin. He was very flamboyant, and sentimental — not an urban personality.”

Isacoff started to do research, listening to Cliburn’s recordings. “I thought, this is so beautiful… I can’t write a negative story about this man. I didn’t have it in my heart to do that. So I ignored that part of it. I flew to Fort Worth, Texas, and met with him there; it was one of the years when they were having the competition. He didn’t like to give interviews, and wouldn’t let me take him somewhere to talk privately. Instead, he stood in the middle of this room with people running over and hugging him, exclaiming: Van, Van…! He was taking time to individually hug each person and look in their eyes. He said: go ahead, interview me while I’m doing this. So I spoke with him and took notes while he stood there hugging people.” Isacoff called his article The Rise and Fall and Rise of Van Cliburn. “Van was really happy with it. His mother said there was never any fall, so she didn’t like that part.”

An utterly Van-like evening

In september that year, Cliburn performed the Tchaikovsky concerto at the opening of the Meyerson Concert Hall in Dallas. On the basis of his article, Isacoff was invited to Cliburn’s private dinner party afterwards, and was entranced. He decided that he was going to write a book about the pianist. Not only did Cliburn play like an angel: the history of what he had done, his relations with Kruschev and the Soviet people — Isacoff found all this extremely fascinating.

He went to Cliburn’s boyhood town of Kilgore, Texas, to interview the pianist’s old neighbors and boyhood friends. Cliburn also came to do a recital, in order to raise money for the Harvey Lavan and Rildia Bee Cliburn Scholarship. In his book, Isacoff writes about that “beautiful, strange, and utterly Van-like evening”: Cliburn always had terrible stage fright, and it was much worse in front of neighbors, friends, and family. His hands were shaking so badly that after barely making it through the first piece he left the stage. After about twenty or thirty minutes, he reappeared and continued, suddenly cool and calm. Later in the evening, a weight seemed to have lifted from his shoulders. There was a little buffet in the gymnasium at Kilgore College, and Van was going around inviting people to go to the town church — this was around midnight — where he had convinced the organist to open up the church and give an organ recital in the middle of the night.

Stuart Isacoff

Isacoff had done several interviews with people in Kilgore and New York who knew Cliburn and went to school with him, when he found out that Cliburn really didn’t want him to write the book. “I had all these little tape cassettes, which I stored in my basement. I put it all away when I heard he didn’t want me to do it. Then, more recently, it seemed like it was time to take it all out again and start writing. All these years later, these tape cassettes still work, which amazed me.”

The American Sputnik

Van Cliburn was taught by his mother, Rildia Bee, herself an accomplished pianist who had studied with Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Liszt. He began giving recitals at four and made his orchestral debut at twelve, in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. At the Juilliard School of Music in New York, he studied with Rosina Lhévinne, and after winning the prestigious Leventritt award he embarked on a series of debuts with major American orchestras. But with his win in Moscow, the tall, 23-year-old Texan, powerful in performance yet radiating a kind of childlike innocence, became not only a successful pianist, but a symbol for American greatness.

The American victory came as a stunning surprise. The Tchaikovsky Competition had been conceived by the Soviet regime as a showcase for Russian artistic supremacy, illustrating what the poet Mayakovsky had described as the opposition between “the materially poor but spiritually dynamic Soviet Union and the rich but spiritually poor United States.” Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had been steadily rising since the launch in 1957 of the first Sputnik space satellite. But while his Russian rivals at the competition were extremely well trained, their performances paled compared to Cliburn’s heartfelt spontaneity and his enormous, singing sound. There was something different about Van’s art; also, it was obvious that he had a deep, genuine love for Russian music. Observers in both the Soviet Union and the United States began to refer to Van Cliburn as ‘the American Sputnik.’

According to Isacoff, this was a role he never wished for. “He didn’t care about politics at all. He was made an icon in the West because of the Cold War, and because of the fact that the US was behind in the space race. When he won, he was presented in the media as the American who conquered the Soviets. But he never saw it that way. He loved people; he just wanted to… spread the love. That’s partly why the Soviet people fell so in love with him. In fact, his friends in New York used to laugh at him because he was overly sentimental, gushing all the time. Everything was love… they were too sophisticated for that. He was perceived as being not real, while in fact he had no pretenses at all. But the Soviets ate it up, and returned those warm feelings to him. He was treated so beautifully there that he wanted to go back over and over again.”

Van Cliburn celebrates with Emil Gilels

‘Oh no, I’m not a success, I’m just a sensation’

When Cliburn returned from the competition, several reporters flocked to New York’s Idlewild Airport to meet him. You must think you are a big success, one of them threw out. Oh no, I’m not a success, I’m just a sensation, answered the young prize winner. He was received by a ticker-tape parade in New York, and soon made a million-selling recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto, but after some time critical misgivings began to be voiced. Everyone had expected his qualities to mature and deepen, but this never seemed to happen. Cliburn found the treadmill of a concert career less and less bearable, and his words at the airport tragically rang more true as his career went on. “He was not psychologically prepared for what happened, and burned out very quickly. It was overwhelming. He was not used to having to perform all the time, and they always wanted the same pieces: Tchaikovsky 1st and Rachmaninoff 3rd. He became almost like a robot,” says Isacoff.

“People like Kirill Kondrashin, the conductor, said to him: Van, you have to take time off. You need to relax and study, to deepen your understanding and not wear yourself out. But Van said: Kirill, I can’t stop, because if I do people will forget me. A lot of that probably came from his mother, who became his road manager and kept him in line. She was very strict — not an easy person, and not particularly nice. But he was devoted to her; she lived almost to a hundred, and he took care of her. But the psychological impact of that was not good.”

Other types of problems also rose in Cliburn’s life. “He was getting injections for a while from a doctor, Max Jacobson, who was nicknamed Dr. Feelgood. He administered amphetamines and other medications to famous artists, movie stars and politicians, including John F Kennedy. And Van got hooked on that. When that was over, he found other obsessions, like astrology. He was afraid to go on stage unless the stars said it was a good day to do it. He was always nervous, and had terrible stage fright. Recording was very difficult, because he pictured that students from Juilliard would sit listening to his playing, finding mistakes. He had all of these psychological impairments that accompanied him, and it wore him out.”

Happy endings

Even though Isacoff had to abandon the book project, he had a lot of contact with Cliburn in the years that followed and kept up with what was going on. “Van was a very generous person. I remember a birthday party for Joseph Bloch — a close friend of mine who taught piano literature at the Juilliard School for fifty years. All the people that went to Juilliard were in his class, including Van. But Van got an F in piano literature, because he never got to class. He couldn’t wake up in the morning. He stayed up all night, and in the morning he would call Bloch’s wife and say: Mrs Bloch, would you please apologize to your husband for me, I just can’t get out of bed. Bloch was in his 90s when he passed away, and I think it was for the occasion of his 90th birthday party, at Steinway Hall in New York, that I got in touch with Van and said: your old teacher who gave you an F is having a birthday party. Van immediately called this florist that he used near Carnegie Hall and had flowers sent over.”

While the tale of Van Cliburn has some of the elements of tragedy, Isacoff points out that there are also a number of happy endings to it. Van Cliburn created a lasting musical legacy and inspired love and admiration in generations of Russians, propelling diplomatic efforts between the rival superpowers. The competition and festival that bears his name is one of the world’s most important piano events, inspiring countless young musicians. On a personal level, the friendships formed in 1958 were lasting: for example, among the people who made a special journey to see him when learning he was ill was Liu Shikun, his Chinese rival at the Tchaikovsky Competition. Finally, what really made Cliburn’s end a happy one was Tommy Smith, the pianist’s life partner during his last two decades. Being with Smith, writes Isacoff, Van Cliburn “was no longer haunted by the past.”

The book on Amazon:

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The 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition concluded at night on June 27, naming the winners across its six categories. In the piano category the Gold Medal went to the French pianist Alexandre Kantorow.

Notably, Kantorow was the only finalist playing Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto and not the ever popular First. Hear his performance of this work and Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in the Final Round at medici.tv

Alexandre Kantorow in the middle section of Fauré’s Nocturne no. 6, opus 63 from the second round of the competition:

#TCH16 - Alexandre Kantorow (2nd round) - YouTube

The young French pianist recently released a much-praised album of Saint-Saëns piano concertos for the BIS label. BIS started to record with him already five years ago and surely must be very proud over this collaboration.

”Kantorow is the real deal – a fire-breathing virtuoso with a poetic charm…”
— Gramophone, June 2019

An Unexpected Special Prize Awarded

The jury led by Denis Matsuev awarded two Silver Medals and three Bronze medals (see full list of prize winners) but this year’s competition will also be remembered by a significant administrational blunder.
The Chinese pianist Tianxu An was awarded fourth place and a “Special Prize for courage and restraint” for his ability to handle the orchestra’s mix-up of Tchaikovsky First Concerto and the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody. See his confusion in this short video clip.

The official explanation of the incident:
“Due to a gross error committed by an employee of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra “Evgeny Svetlanov” on June 25, 2019, before the Competition performance of An Tianxu, the musical scores by Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff for the orchestra and the conductor were arranged in a reverse order which differed from the pattern requested by the participant. In this connection, the performance began with a failure, because the participant was unable to immediately understand what had happened, and switched to another musical piece already during the performance. By a unanimous decision of the Jury, Denis Matsuev, the Jury Chair in the Piano category, officially invited An Tianxu to re-play his program. The participant officially refused.”

The Tchaikovsky Piano Competition is held every four years in Moscow, and is considered one of the more prestigious competitions in the world, alongside other events like the Van Cliburn Competition (Texas) the Leeds Competition, The Chopin Competition (Warsaw), The Queen Elisabeth Competition (Brussels) and the Arthur Rubinstein Competition (Tel-Aviv).

Recent winners of the Tchaikovsky competition included Daniil Trifonov (2011) and Dmitry Masleev (2015).

All performances of the 2019 competition are available at:
tch16.medici.tv/en/replay/

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To get inside Steinways’s new secret addition to their New York Factory, you must be invited. “The Vault” has over $3 million in exotic veneers, waiting for the right buyer at the right time.

Steinway’s The Vault, a highly secure selection room that’s reserved for only its top clientele, showcases some of the rarest and most grail-worthy pianos instruments the company has ever built.

Currently, seven Steinway pianos are on view in The Vault, each limited edition. A John Lennon “Imagine” Model B Spirio sits in the left hand corner, with reproduced Lennon doodles and, of course, a signature—created in celebration of the late musician’s would-be 70th birthday.

Another standout among this exclusive crowd is the Lalique Heliconia Model A. Droplets of Lalique glass adorn the piano, styled as crystalline leaves upon swirling white branches.

Journey through imagination

The Vault’s crown jewel is the “Pictures at an Exhibition”. This unique concert grand piano unites Modest Mussorgsky’s immortal work for solo piano with classical painting, Russian history and folklore: landscape, the witch Baba Yaga’s clock hut, the Great Gate of Kiev, and many more.

Pianist and artist Paul Wyse started the design process in 2012 and the piano was revealed in May 2017. Hear him introduce the project:

Pictures At An Exhibition Steinway Piano - YouTube

Learn more about this piano on steinway.com.

Follow along into the Vault!

The guys at Gear Patrol recently visited Steinway’s factory and headquarters in Queens, NYC, to witness the crafting and manufacturing process first-hand. Follow them exploring the new hyper-exclusive Vault in this video:

This Week In Gear, Episode 8: What It's Like to Play a $2.5 Million Steinway Grand Piano - YouTube

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On 11 March 1966, two great young pianists appeared together in public for the first time: Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy played Mozart’s Concerto for two pianos at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon. Looking in the back mirror we realize the unique importance of this performance hi-lighting the two young pianists in the middle of building world famous careers.

Enjoying the sound of their different personalities, it is easy to get captured by their cultivation, spontaneity and mastery of dialogue. By covering rehearsal and private situations, film maker Christopher Nupen manages to communicate a deeper understanding for the artists’ personalities when giving their voices in Mozart’s wonderful double concerto in E-flat major, a work originally written for Wolfgang himself and his sister Maria Anna.

Barenboim, Ashkenazy: Double Concerto

Documentary of 1966

Barenboim, Ashkenazy: Double Concerto - Documentary of 1966 - YouTube

0:31 Workshop
5:06 About Daniel Barenboim
8:20 About Vladimir Ashkenazy
10:20 First rehearsal
16:55 First rehearsal with the Orchestra
29:45 Barenboim conducts Mozart – Symphony No. 29
32:58 Double Concerto, First movement
43:14 Double Concerto, Second movement
51:16 Double Concerto, Third movement

Film Maker Christopher Nupen

Renowned music film maker Christopher Nupen began his broadcasting career in the Features Department of BBC Radio when he made HIGH FESTIVAL IN SIENA in 1962 for the BBC Third Programme at the invitation of Laurence Gilliam, a radio documentary of a new kind about the extraordinary summer music school of the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, where Nupen studied with Andrés Segovia and Alirio Diaz.

As a result of his radio programmes, he was invited by Huw Wheldon to move to television where he became the originator of a new kind of intimate classical music film – made possible for the first time by the invention of the first silent 16mm film cameras in the 1960s. His first film (DOUBLE CONCERTO) made in 1966, at the invitation of Huw Wheldon and David Attenborough with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim won two international prizes (Prague and Monte Carlo) and became a seminal work.

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Our meeting took place in Krefeld, at Kawai – the Japanese make of piano with which Alexander Gadjiev has become so familiar since his success at the Hamamatsu competition. Now his career is really taking off in Europe too: Gadjiev is a BBC New Generation Artist until the end of 2021.

“At the competition in Hamamatsu I decided on a Kawai. I immediately felt at ease, and for me the best thing about Kawai is that, as a pianist, one can influence the sound itself. Playing legato, creating a mysterious atmosphere or rising to a grandiose climax: everything works, thanks to the exemplary way the mechanism functions.”

You were born in Gorizia, on the border between Italy and Slovenia, at a meeting point of peoples, cultures and languages.
Gorizia is just a small town, but the mixture of influences left its mark on me. Precisely because the town was so small and there was absolutely nothing by way of distractions, a few curious people had the opportunity to look inwards rather than outwards in their search for treasures. And that’s a central factor in developing an aesthetic that isn’t standardized, isn’t taught at high school – one that is born from inner compulsions rather than adhering to conventional rules. Moreover, my father taught an interesting class with many talented people, among them Giuseppe Guarrera, one of my best friends, who this year won a scholarship at the Klavier-Festival Ruhr.

Your father studied in Moscow.
Yes, under Boris Zemliansky, whose other pupils included Vladimir Ashkenazy and Alexander Toradze. At the heart of his teaching method was the development of a very personal way of thinking as an artist. At the root of it all was an extremely precise conception of the music’s character, a result of especially thorough study of the score – but also laying tremendous importance on the sound image: sound, sound quality, duration, colour and sound relationships were the main ways of achieving an ‘interpretation’ and opening up the listeners’ hearts. In addition, in his teaching, he demanded urgency and necessity, and empathy with the music while playing. After all, you don’t sit like a lump of stone at the piano, with everything carefully planned in advance; you ‘soperezhivat’’, as the Russians say – a big word that means roughly ‘live through something’. It’s very interesting to note how often people in those days used to compare musicians with actors (much more frequently than nowadays) and that some aspects of the Staniskavski method also found their way into music. Richter is perhaps one of the most important examples of such experiments.

Is that a key to the interpretation?
My intuition tells me how to play something. The analytical phase that precedes this is very interesting and informative, but in the end you have to go beyond that.

To turn the Bach/Busoni ‘Chaconne’ into a great narrative, for instance?
I’m very interested in science, and almost chose to pursue an academic career. Mathematics in particular appeals to me, because of the clarity with which you proceed from A to B. This inner logic is for example very strong in Beethoven and Brahms as well. But you can also achieve this in a mystical way. In a work with so many perspectives it isn’t easy to create a continuous line; I’ve worked hard on that. But you can give each variation its own character. Maybe you can experience this beauty most intensely in the concert hall, whereas you can grasp the rationale for the overall structure better on a recording.

Your expression is very personal but still remains close to the composer’s intentions.  
Yes, but I also treasure Pletnev’s recording, who takes quite the opposite approach. He plays the piece like a free fantasy. This contrast is deeply rooted within me.

Richter and Horowitz are important for you, and they also embody a contrast.
I admire Richter for his spirit, his inner urgency and the compelling logic with which he plays. He’s one of the finest examples of the extra-musical in music. He follows not only the rules of music, the harmonic phrasing, but also a higher idea that encroaches and guides the entire interpretation – with grandeur, but also with a universal sadness. Horowitz was almost on the same level as composers. I think that’s what Rachmaninov meant when he said that nobody could play his Third Piano Concerto like Horowitz.
Compare that with Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata as played by Richter. In both recordings you hear the primeval power, something frightening. Prokofiev also plays with death and doom in a grotesque manner. The logic and structure of his music are unequalled, he sheds new light on tradition, his melodic gift is almost as great as Mozart’s, and still you find this inexplicable inspiration. I feel that very strongly in Richter’s interpretations.

You also think very highly of Keith Jarrett – there’s a lot that’s inexplicable about him too.
He is one of my greatest inspirations. When I first got to know him, it almost seemed like a sin because up until then I had heard only classical music. I’ve heard him twice live, and it was fascinating to hear how his musical ideas had developed. At the same time it was also very exciting on a spiritual level. It’s great to see how someone makes a piece of music grow before your eyes, and in the process – just like you – hears the music for the first time. He started with nothing more than a single grain, and then you suddenly saw an incredible amount of blossom emerge. That is precisely what I feel when I listen to his recordings or concerts.

Shouldn’t it always be like that?
Most pianists today have a very rational approach. You see that everywhere in society nowadays, the urge to understand and to be productive. And that way there are probably many things that we don’t fully grasp. I also see it as the pianist’s duty to infuse a piece with new life.

Can music save the world and make people better, as Bernstein said?
Bernstein got that from Dostoyevsky, of course, but I do think it’s true. And it isn’t so complicated. Listening and making contact are a way of empathizing. And it isn’t a one-way street. For a pianist it’s an adventure that’s dependent on the audience, the hall, the instrument and the moment.

One person who seems to have wanted to eradicate that was Sokolov.
I have great admiration for his perfection, devotion and control. They say that he is immersed in the material 24 hours a day. For me he is an incredible architect… no, rather a film director. Every detail, every movement is planned in advance. I also find that scary. I think that for a surgeon for example, who must also be very concentrated and precise, Sokolov is the best. Horowitz suits me better. He’s more of an artist on stage, who transforms the energy of the moment. With him you feel the tension, the fear and the enormous vulnerability. He doesn’t play as if he was in his study. Richter had it too, the same quality, and it reflects inner richness, it has something mystical about it. It can’t be forced, and it’s difficult in our society, where we are almost compelled to be productive. But our opinions are simply a reflection of our own reality, and are 90% subjective.

Celibidache said that you can get to know yourself in music. Do you agree?
With Celibidache I admire the highest level of pure music. He was interested in the relationships between notes, cause and effect, structures. And yes, if you go to a concert with Bernstein’s words in the back of your mind, with awareness and sensitivity, then you can learn a lot about yourself. Then it’s one of the most beautiful things you can imagine.

Author: Eric Schoones

Photo credit with the KAWAI PIANO: © Hamamatsu International Piano Competition

Most recent CD: Literary Fantasies

Liszt’s Three Sonnets of Petrarch and Après une lecture du Dante, and Schumann’s Kreisleriana and No. 2 of the Op. 111 Fantasiestücke.
Acousence Classics ACO-CD 13117

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‘I love literature. As Italians, Petrarch and Dante are close to each other and also to my own personality – therefore I understand the undertones that you might otherwise miss. The Dante Sonata is a very modern piece. Liszt is the inventor of the soundtrack. In it you can really hear hell and love.’
–Alexander Gadjiev

This article is a contribution from the German and Dutch magazine Pianist through Piano Street’s International Media Exchange Initiative and the Cremona Media Lounge.

Pianist Magazine is published in seven countries, in two different editions: in German (for Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxemburg and Liechtenstein) and in Dutch (for Holland and Belgium).
The magazine is for the amateur and professional alike, and offers a wide range of topics connected to the piano, with interviews, articles on piano manufacturers, music, technique, competitions, sheetmusic, cd’s, books, news on festivals, competitions, etc.
For a preview please check: www.pianist-magazin.de or www.pianistmagazine.nl

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Frankfurt Musikmesse kicked off its 2019 edition by presenting the 9th edition of The International German Piano Award’s Grand-Prix-Final Concerts initiated by The International Piano Forum (IPF), which was founded in 2008 by friends and supporters of classical piano music. It offers outstanding young national and international artistic personalities a platform accompanying them on their way to an international career. The prize money amounts to a total of €20,000.

This year’s winner in the finals at Alte Oper Frankfurt on March 31 was South Korean pianist Jeung Beum Sohn, presently a student at the Conservatory in Münster. Jeung Beum Sohn’s rendition of Brahms’ D minor Concerto defeated the other finalist Luka Okros’ in Rachmaninov’s C minor Concerto who received the Audience Award and €3,000. The competition attracted some one hundred applications and six nominated semifinalists were invited to come to Frankfurt. All nominees will be supported by The International Piano Forum in their following careers. IPF arrange concert series and performances internationally and establish contacts with both orchestras and their leaders. This platform is named IPF-MASTERS.

Despite countless other piano competitions, something like the International German Piano Award has never existed before says IPF Patron Dr. Peter Ramsauer. Patrons Maestro Valery Gergiev and Dr. Petra Roth points out the award to be a cultural highlight and a commitment and support for young pianists in their international careers. Also pianist Lars Vogt finds it especially important to pinpoint the young pianists’ ”deep understanding of one’s self and the boundless vastness, which is slumbering in all of us and composers have wonderfully expressed across all boundaries of time”.

Watch videos from past and current events on International Piano Forum’s YouTube channel.

Hear two of the nominated pianists for the 9th International German Piano Award 2019:

Nominated for the 9th International German Piano Award 2019 - Lika Bibileishvili - YouTube

Nominated for the 9th International German Piano Award 2019 - Sergey Belyavskiy - YouTube

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Not enough space for a piano? A foldable paper piano may solve that particular problem but don’t expect to play your favourite piano pieces on it.

Nintendo surprised many last year when it first revealed the initial set of cardboard-based constructible toy-sets that are a part of its Nintendo Labo product line. These ‘Toy-Cons’ have accumulated a split reputation, with some being quite fond of the concept – like elementary school children and their teachers – and others feeling as though it’s a waste of time.

One of the toys you can build with the “Variety Kit” is a playable cardboard piano – including keys and knobs – that can even be used to record tracks with a simple DAW. It’s part of a legacy of music-making on Nintendo devices that stretches back to the music editor on Mario Paint on the SNES in 1992 and continued with the Korg DS-10 for the DS in 2008.

It is encouraging to see that a toy replica of an acoustic piano is included in a mainstream toy set, but can it be used as some kind of serious musical instrument, or at least as a source of musical inspiration comparable to Apple’s iOS app GarageBand? FACTmagazine have been seeking answer:

Is Nintendo Switch’s Labo Piano a serious music-making tool? - YouTube

What is even more impressing though is that Dutch paper folding virtuoso Jean-Paul Leconte using some glue, scissors, construction paper and a lot of skill has managed to squeeze all of the functionality into a pop-up book that it can seamlessly fold and unfold!

The piano uses the same Joy-Con controller as Nintendo’s version to control the companion Switch game. Watch the pop-up paper piano in action:

Nintendo LABO Piano Pop-Up book: Final build - Detailed demo of all LABO piano functions - YouTube

Related reading:

Build a LEGO Piano to Learn Basic Piano Mechanics!
Super Mario – The Czerny Studies of Our Time?
John Cage: Suite for Toy Piano

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Piano Street’s mission is to promote classical piano music, and we are always looking for new ways to enable you to listen, learn, and play. There’s no question that piano playing is thriving all over the world, and on the World Wide Web – just look at the flood of new recordings, videos, and streamed concerts constantly available just a few clicks away.

Focusing on new audio albums, we’ve found that there are at least a handful every week that are definitely worthy of our members’ attention. We wanted to offer you an easy way to keep informed of these recordings when they are released.

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The whole piano world is teaming up for the 18th International Chopin Competition to be held in Warsaw, 2 to 23 October 2020.
Initiator of the festival series ”Chopin and his Europe”, now on its 15th year, the recording project ”The Complete Works of Fryderyk Chopin on historical instruments” and ”The 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments” (2018), Stanislaw Lesczcynski of The Chopin Institute sat down with Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell at the Philharmonie in Warsaw.

The International Chopin Competition 2020

This grand occasion – taking place every five years – attracts the finest young pianists in the world and the competition is regarded as one of the most important venues for creating important international careers. Past laureates lists an amazing number of world famous performers starting back in 1927 with Lev Oborin and include winners such as; Davidovich, Czerny-Stefańska, Harasiewicz, Pollini, Argerich, Ohlsson, Zimerman, Thai Son, Bunin, Yundi, Blechacz, Avdeeva and most recently, Cho. Other laureates include Ashkenazy, Ushida, Fliter, Montero, Trifonov, Wunder and also non-laureates such as Pogorelich. Its influence on piano playing in the world cannot be overestimated.

Piano Street will cover the 2020 competition and as a starter we are happy to share an interview with an important profile in the competition’s history and programming which also includes a multitude of projects managed by The Chopin Institute in Warsaw, hi-lighting the influence of Chopin’s music in the world.

Interview With Chopin Institute’s Stanislaw Lesczcynski

Patrick Jovell: Dear Mr. Lesczcynski, we all know you as a portal figure in Polish music life. As deputy director of the Chopin Institute you are responsible for the prestigious International Chopin Competition. You have also initiated the “Chopin and His Europe International Music Festival”, and started a vast project concerning Chopin on period instruments, involving concerts and recordings of a number of world famous pianists. In September 2018 you arranged the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. Tell me a little about your background?

Stanislaw Lesczcynski: In 1978, I was appointed to oversee the classical recordings for the Polish record label Muza and I’ve been doing the same kind of job ever since. I became the first director of the Doslovski studio, which has very strong connections to both piano music itself and keyboard recordings. Our goal was to enrich the Polish Radio so that it could become like the Deutsche Rundfunk or the BBC. After much work, we have succeeded in creating many interesting and excellent recordings under the umbrella of the Polish Radio.

After that appointment, I also spent a few years as the director of the Polish National Opera, but I still kept in touch with the world of piano and pianists. When the Chopin Institute called a couple of years before the great 200th birthday jubilee, I took the job. I then had to examine the national composer of Poland from many different angles. It was extremely interesting to see the influences he had. He was smitten with Bach, who had died 60 years before Chopin’s birth. His background came almost exclusively from the great Leipzig master.

PJ: So, Chopin was a classical romantic?

SL: Well, not exactly. It must be stressed that Chopin was a Classical composer, not Romantic, regardless of when he lived. His compositions have very strict form and are quite precise. Because his music is intensely introspective – even when he’s being boisterous – he seems Romantic; however, his style is strictly Classical. Of course, he also looked forward. For example, Wagner wasn’t the only one to use the “Tristan Chord.” You can hear Chopin use the exact same harmonies on multiple occasions.

PJ: How is it possible to recreate a genuine Chopin sound?

SL: It would be impossible, of course, to perfectly recreate the sound Chopin made at the keyboard. We are, after all, not him. But through our research, practice and process of discovery, we can emulate the Polish master.

Chopin’s last Pleyel grand piano. Chopin Museum, Warsaw

What’s most difficult about approximating Chopin’s sound is that the new materials have different physical properties than the materials from the 19th century. The stuff reacts differently to being struck. For example, it doesn’t vibrate the same way. It’d be the same thing if a violin maker of today claimed to have copied a Stradivarius exactly. He couldn’t do it because not only is the climate for growing wood in the Mediterranean much different now than it was in 1680, the varnish isn’t the same because some of the ingredients no longer exist.

I’m really crazy about the history of both music and instruments. I would also like to travel to the future to see what kind of improvements they’ve made on our improvements. Haha, of course, I’m just joking. I do think, however, that it’s crucial to be able to compare sounds and construction practices between different eras.

PJ: Which are your thoughts on the subject “original instruments”?

SL: Well, not only were these instruments constructed using different techniques and materials, but they were also based on different tunings and centers of pitch. It doesn’t matter which composer the pianist plays, the two kinds of instruments, original and modern, sound quite different.

Let’s take, for example, Chopin’s Opus 10, No. 12, the “Revolutionary Etude.” Chopin wanted the two registers of the piano to sound different, which the 19th-century instruments did quite well. Contemporary models, however, are more homogenized, so we cannot achieve on them the same effect as we can on 19th-century pianos. These were not mistakes of construction; instead, they revealed a different philosophy.

Chopin’s autograph of the “Revolutionary” Etude Op. 10/12, Chopin Museum, Warsaw

PJ: You have a great many years as part of this competition. What happened during this whole time span in terms of performance style?

SL: Nothing very special, really, although we do see, from time to time, different waves of performance style. Take, for instance, the large number of contestants in the 2015 competition who wanted to emulate the style of the 19th century. They don’t keep their hands together. They exaggerate certain phrases. Some of them are typically quirky. But they all have their own vision.

If you remember, critics in the 1970s were fond of saying, “the traditional Chopin interpretation is done,” and “Romantic music is passé”. There was a group of very strong American players from Juilliard that came to Warsaw for the competition. Ohlsson, Ax, Fialkowska and Swann, all showed up with their idiosyncratic styles that reinvented how we both play and hear Chopin. They blended 19th-century style with a more contemporary style and were quite successful at it. I can remember very clearly all their bravado. They all thought, “I’m the one! I’m going to win.” In the end, Ohlsson won, but you could have made an equally strong argument for Ax or the other incredible musicians who were flawlessly prepared.

In 1965, it was also incredible at the competition. Martha Argerich was out of this world in a class by herself. Five years before that, Maurizio Pollini was equally above the rest.

The year 1955 marked the first time that there were real and gigantic differences between the performers. Comparing Adam Harasiewich with André Tchaikovsky, for example, one would notice André playing a few too many wrong notes; however, the performance was electrifying in the same manner as Horowitz. One of the Japanese performers played completely differently than the other competitors, but it was, nonetheless, very interesting.

These young players were not alone, however. In the 1950s, there were still a great many members of the old school playing and being successful. The teachings of Philipp, Leschetitzky, Paderewski and others still made relevant contributions to the interpretation of not only Chopin but also other composers. Still, their differences from the more modern approach were not as pronounced as you might expect.

PJ: Considering your experience and everything you know of the history of Chopin playing so far, what do you think is the paramount quality in performing Chopin’s music?

SL: Well, I was on the preselection committee in 2015, and we were all listening to the 450 DVD submissions from around the world. The process took two weeks. We committee members asked each other the same question. My answer is still the same. It is the attention paid to the space between the notes that is crucial to the success of a performance, particularly of Chopin. The space between the notes is what underpins the structure of the musical line. Otherwise, the notes are just a jumble.

If we pay attention to the spaces between the notes, we could play “The Art of Fugue,” or “Die Kunst der Fuge,” on a collection of beer bottles and still recognize it. If such attention is paid, it matters not upon which instrument we perform a great work. It’s like musical rhetoric, with the spaces between the notes serving as musical punctuation. This is true in both the 17th and 19th centuries.

Expression is organized silence, but it is only half of the whole. A. B. Michelangeli, for example, was never a good Chopin interpreter; however, we loved him for the specific organization of both sound and silence that made him not a good Chopin interpreter.

The trick is to impress your will upon Chopin’s music without burying Chopin completely. If someone can do that, then that is something truly special. The best thing about this music is the diversity in expression. Piano students should never copy their professors’ sounds. I think they should all keep their individuality while still learning; in this way, we can discover someone and something new at any time. This lets us experience the joy of hearing Chopin for the “first time” again and again, which is something we all enjoy.

I International Chopin Competition on period instruments – Winners Concert

I International Chopin Competition on period instruments - Winners Concert - YouTube

The Complete Works of Fryderyk Chopin on historical instruments:
http://en.chopin.nifc.pl/institute/publications/musics

The Eighteenth International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition 2020


COMPETITION SCHEDULE

13–24 April PRELIMINARY ROUND
2–23 October COMPETITION
2 October Inaugural concert
3–7 October First stage
9–12 October Second stage
14–16 October Third stage
17 October Celebrations marking the 171st anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin’s death
18–20 October Final
21 October First prize-winners’ concert
22 October Second prize-winners’ concert
23 October Third prize-winners’ concert

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Daniil Trifonov, the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Artist in Residence this season, plays a solo recital February 21 in the Philharmonie. With works by Beethoven, Schumann and Prokofiev, he travels through the almost one and a half centuries when piano music flourished. The recital will be live streamed in Digital Concert Hall.

Free tickets for Piano Street’s members

Thanks to a continuous collaboration with the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall, all Piano Street members enjoy free access for 48 hours to the Digital Concert Hall. Log in to your Piano Street account to get your free voucher code which gives you instant access to the Digital Concert Hall. Take the opportunity to hear a live concert with pianist Daniil Trifonov on Thursday 21 February 2019 and to access all concerts in the archive for 48 hours!

No Piano Street account? Sign up here to get your live stream ticket!

Members: Get your free 48 hours ticket! >>

“He has everything and more, there is tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that,” — Martha Argerich

LIVESTREAM: Thursday 21 February 2019, 19.00 (UTC/GMT)
Program:
Beethoven: Andante favori in F major, WoO 57
Beethoven: Piano Sonata op. 31 No. 3
Schumann: Bunte Blätter, op. 99
Schumann: Presto Passionato *
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 8, op. 84

(* First Version of the finale from the Piano Sonata Nr. 2, op. 22)

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