Extreme Chopin

Paul Wells experiences the madness of Warsaw’s Frédéric Chopin International Piano Competition

Extreme Chopin

Ingolf Wunder got standing ovation. Evgeni Bozhanov won fourth prize. | Kacper Pempel/Reuters/ Bartek Sadowski/NIFC

By the third stage of the 16th Frédéric Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, the jury had winnowed the field of contestants from more than 300 to 20, and the rules now gave the survivors more rope to hang themselves. In earlier rounds they had been asked to play only a half-hour of Chopin. Now each pianist had nearly an hour to show what they knew about Poland’s greatest composer in the 200th anniversary year of his birth. If what they knew wasn’t much, there was lots of time to show that, too. It was gruelling.

The 16th pretender to the greatest crown a young pianist can win was Ingolf Wunder, a pug-nosed blond 25-year-old from Klagenfurt, Austria. On this Friday evening he followed a petite, fastidious Russian, Yulianna Avdeeva, and a Polish kid who rummaged around in Chopin’s mazes to little effect. From the first notes it was clear Wunder was another matter.

He began with rarities, a rondo and a bolero, deft where others had been turgid. His program grew more challenging, ending with the Sonata in B Minor and the Polonaise-Fantaisie, a 14-minute epic. Wunder reacted to his own playing with detached interest, nodding at a quick change of dynamics, smiling at a clever turn.
When he finished, the audience at the National Philharmonia gave him a standing ovation, something it had done for only one other pianist. A woman behind me with a laminated press pass was crying.

There are dozens of piano competitions around the world. The Chopin is probably the most important. It began in 1927 and has happened every five years since 1955. Contestants play no Brahms or Mozart, only Chopin. The jury is always studded with great pianists. The winner is pretty much set for life: Maurizio Pollini won in 1960, Martha Argerich in 1965, Yundi Li in 2000. Finishing out of the winner’s circle doesn’t end a career. But to be recognized as a great Chopinist in the city of his birth will make one, and the tension in and around the Philharmonia was palpable.

Stanislaw Leszczynski, one of the competition’s organizers, told me Chopin is “the only figure of Polish culture that is recognizable everywhere.” In this 200th anniversary of his birth in 1810, Warsaw is Chopin crazy. You hear Chopin in the cabin of your flight as it lands at Frédéric Chopin Airport. The gym at my hotel had a grand piano in it, decorated with a replica of Chopin’s signature.

“This madness is sometimes driven by money,” Alicja Knast, the curator of the newly refurbished Chopin Museum, told me. “But also it is genuine.” The Chopin competition was broadcast live on television and radio. Street hawkers handed out a daily competition newsletter and free next-day CDs of each performance. The Philharmonia was full for a month with fans who often brought musical scores so they could be sure the competitors were following Chopin’s markings faithfully.

The challenges Chopin throws in a pianist’s path are almost cruel. In his 39 pale and sickly years, half spent in exile in Paris, he did much to invent the tradition of the romantic piano virtuoso. Chopin’s pieces demand an athletic pianist who can execute dizzying passages in either hand and at any volume. But that’s barely the half of it.

Poland was partitioned by its imperial neighbours before Chopin was born, and would not return to existence as a sovereign country until 70 years after his death. His music is intense and steeped in folk rhythms an outsider can struggle to master. The second round of competition tests competitors on Chopin’s mazurkas and polonaises, lilting off-kilter variations on Polish dances. Seventeen Japanese pianists arrived for the first round; none lasted to the finals. (The only Canadian, Toronto’s Leonard Gilbert, made it to the second round. He plays with real grace and deserves Canadian audiences’ attention.)

So the challenge with Chopin is not merely to play him well but to get him right. Which helps explain why the greatest story at this competition was a jut-jawed Bulgarian about whom it was impossible to be indifferent. Evgeni Bozhanov is 26. He is handsome in a heavy-lidded, full-lipped way. He looks the way Jude Law might if he took a year off acting to drink beer.

In performance Bozhanov is a sight, pumping his left fist in the air like a boxer while his right carries a melody, looking at times like he might burst into tears or shout aloud, eyes wild. “He’s a brutal player,” a British man sitting near me said after Bozhanov crashed his way through Chopin’s E Minor Concerto in the finals.

Bozhanov’s fidelity to Chopin’s sacred texts is shaky. But his passion cannot be denied, nor his command of the keyboard. He was a challenge for the jurists. None more so than for Dang Thai Son, a Vietnamese-born pianist who won the 1980 Chopin competition and today teaches, in inexplicable obscurity, at the Université de Montréal. Son won in the most uproarious of the Chopin contest’s many strange editions. The sensation that year was a mad Croatian named Ivo Pogorelich, another wild man with his own ideas. The great Martha Argerich quit the jury when it refused to advance Pogorelich to the finals. When Son finally won, a short kid from Hanoi who had never played with an orchestra before, few noticed.

Son laughed as he admitted Bozhanov reminds him of Pogorelich, another eccentric with a chip on his shoulder. But Son expected Bozhanov to win the competition, perhaps sharing first prize with a more orthodox pianist, until the Bulgarian nearly collapsed under his own mannerisms in the final concerto round. “His concerto was so disappointing,” Son said, “including for people on his own side.”

The audience had latched onto Ingolf Wunder as a tidily expressive rebuttal to Bozhanov. On the contest’s second-last evening, Wunder won a second standing ovation for his own fleet concerto performance. The audience had its darling. But Son had no idea who might win. The field of entrants was the strongest in years, but it was hard to spot a genius among them. “Very important who is first prize,” Son said. “That’s a problem. Exactly. Exactly.”

Kevin Kenner was also tense. The gentle, pensive American beat every other competitor in 1990. But the jury refused to bestow a first prize that year. Kenner went home with second. “That was very difficult,” he said now. “I did feel for a long time that I was in some way inferior as a pianist.”

Now he was on the jury. “I certainly insist that there be a first prize in this competition,” he said. “I will not agree to a result that does not reflect how the majority of the jury feels.”

Kenner was looking for a spark of greatness. He would forgive misfires along the way. “It rarely happens to those performers who we would consider the most consistent. In fact, consistency can be an impediment. The most consistent are the ones who take the fewest risks.”

Not long after, the last three finalists played three more Chopin concertos. The jury retired to deliberate. Shortly after midnight Andrzej Jasinski, the jury chairman, told an overflow crowd, “Our task was very difficult.” Bozhanov, the storm at the centre of everything, won fourth prize. He would leave Warsaw before the next day’s prizewinners’ concert. Wunder tied for second. The winner was Yulianna Avdeeva, the quiet, brooding 25-year-old Russian.

There were gasps in the room. In an online poll on the competition website, only 12.3 per cent of fans had put Avdeeva first, one-third Wunder’s level of support. Polish commentators were scathing. “The verdict is shocking,” the newspaper Rzeczpospolita said. It called Avdeeva “lamentably predictable.”

That’s a wild overstatement. I saw Avdeeva play three times in a week. She plays with a big sound and never flags. The jurors lauded her fidelity to Chopin’s markings. It’s a Chopin contest after all. “She was one of the most consistent,” Kenner said.

So Avdeeva is the choice of a jury that was surprised to find itself acting the way juries do. Bozhanov and Wunder, the bull and the aristocrat, will be fine. And Chopin? Two centuries later he still has Warsaw at his feet. The spark of genius was there on the manuscript page, where it had been all along.

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