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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Spreading the best-kept secrets of Polish Music

Published on Classical Post - July 21st, 2023 - Photo Credit: W.Grzedzinski@NIMIT

This summer, in its third installment since its launch in 2018, the International Competition of Polish Music in Rzeszow, Poland, opened its stage to 115 contestants.

Pianists and chamber musicians hailed from cities across Poland, as well as from Japan, the U.S., South Korea, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Belarus, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland, joining in the competition’s three-rounds elimination process.

Organized every other year by the Polish National Institute of Music and Dance, the competition’s segments are filmed and broadcast over its seven-day course at the Artur Malawski concert hall, home to the Podkarpacka Philharmonic.

Six finalists in both categories (Piano and Chamber Music) competed for monetary prizes (with a first prize of 20,000 euros) and subsequent performance opportunities.

The real winners, though, are Poland’s lesser-known composers from the 19th and 20th Centuries. A broad and varied compilation of around sixty composers’ works offered a vast number of repertoire choices from the national collection.

It is not easy to identify what makes Polish music Polish. Given the wide-ranging aesthetic differences between the pieces, one may be hard-pressed to define the binding elements based on the use of Polish folkloristic motifs alone.

What gives Polish music its cohesive thread when many of the pieces were written when there was no Polish state, and others were composed by refugees who never returned to their country of origin? These works include – to a large extent – many of Poland’s Jewish composers, who widely contributed to the country’s music history.

Rather than providing conclusive answers to what elements constitute the music’s connective tissue, the competition offers contestants and audiences alike an in-depth exploration of these works in the hope of leading to their re-discovery.

Using the slogan “Did you know that there are many other Polish composers besides Chopin?”, the competition requires musicians to select pieces from specific “other” composers, and to interpret their works with a fresh outlook, hopefully leading to future recordings and performances of these works on international stages. In doing so, the competition removes itself from any direct rivalry with two of the country’s other leading contests—Warsaw’s International Chopin Competition and the International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments.

The competition’s location fortifies Rzeszow’s profile as the cultural center of Poland’s southeastern Subcarpathian region. There are select direct international flights to Rzeszow’s airport, conveniently situated near the town of 200,000 inhabitants, picturesquely centered around its old town square dating back to the 16th Century.

“The idea for the competition really started to take shape as an extension of the former Moniuszko Competition,” explains Lech Dzierzanowski, the deputy director of the Polish National Institute of Music and Dance and director of the Institute’s music department.

What makes it stand out is that the international jury focuses on the capacity of the performers to forge a deep relationship with the works—many of which are new to them—and present an overall program that is convincing.

“Besides having to choose from the given list of composers, they have to convince the jury—their immediate audience—of the special character and interest of each of their pieces, and that is only possible if they work out all musical details that make it so,” explains Dzierzanowski, adding “much studying goes into preparing completely new material and pairing such pieces into a program that makes sense.”

Forging a deep relationship with the music will make each of the pieces—and their combination by the competition’s parameters— more plausible, but for performers unfamiliar with the majority of the repertoire; this provides some potential pitfalls.

He mentions a few. “I noticed, for example, that many of the performers will put a piece with many intricacies at the beginning of a program and then be left with a piece that does not provide a triumphant ending. Especially in the pianist section, many works have been written by some of the great Polish performers, like Leszetycki, Lutoslawski, Moszkowski, and of course Paderewski himself, for their own virtuoso performances and are technically extremely challenging,” he explained.

Kiril Keduk, a Belarusian Polish pianist whose sensitive coloration and expressive performance style stood out, especially in the rendering of the second round’s more intimate works, can confirm this. (Photo Credit: Grzedzinski) Awarded the competition’s third prize, he shared some impressions in an interview after his final performance of the Piano Concerto No.1, from 1925, by the Polish/Jewish Aleksander Tansman. “Even though I had my very own personal journey with Polish music early on,” he stated (referring to a recording he made titled: My Polish Diary, * dedicated to his father, whom he lost at an early age), “many of the works were new to me and pianistically, perhaps, some of the hardest ones I have ever performed,” he said.

“Learning Karol Szymanowksi’s Mosques, Op.34, a piece I adore, for example, or Witold Lutoslawski’s two etudes, there was simply not enough time to bring out my full vision I had in mind for the Tansman concerto. I would have liked to project it in a more impressionist manner, like seen through a veil. But regardless, I must thank the orchestra profusely for their hard work. While there was only one hour of rehearsal time for each of us pianists, they had to study all these concertos for us – and this, after a full season’s program,” he remarks.

Another aspect of this competition is that it has—unlike most other international competitions—no age limit. Open to professional musicians who are not necessarily part of the competition circuit, this opens opportunities for a host of gifted performers you might not find elsewhere.

For some of them, the competition offers “particularly interesting challenges at the instrument and, of course, performance opportunities,” explains Krzysztof Kozlowski, who won the last competition’s audience prize in 2021, qualifying him to participate again this year. (Photo Credit: Grzedzinski) Aged 38 and with a late start at the piano, he is an avid performer of contemporary programs with the eclectic Hashtag Ensemble, a collective specializing in contemporary music, improvisation, and music education, founded by flutist Ania Karpowicz in 2013.

Well-established in the contemporary Polish music scene, the ensemble performs at European festivals and institutions, such as Warsaw Autumn, Sacrum Profanum, Intersonanzen, Sinfonia Varsovia, and POLIN Music Festival. When it came to choosing repertoire for his solo piano performances in the second round of the competition, he felt deeply inspired by the more Romantic works, like Ludomir Rozycki’s Balladyna, Op.25, a work richly flavored with Polish folk motifs, or the mid-19th Century late Romantic style of Ignacy Feliks Dobrzynski’s Nocturne in F-minor, Op.24, No.1, which brought out his emotionally expressive playing.

He contrasted those, as required by the competition’s rulebook, with more modern works, like that of Antoni Stolpe and Artur Malawski. While Stolpe’s work has recently been re-discovered, Malawski—who died in 1957 in Krakow and lectured composers and conductors like Krzysztof Penderecki, Witold Rowicki, and Jerzy Semkov—has a longstanding reputation in the Polish modern music canon as one of the most progressive composers of his time. “It was a fantastic experience for me, preparing this program, which—also as a regular accompanist of a dance company—I will be utilizing down the line,” said Kozlowski.

Among the six contestants who remained as finalists for the competition’s third round of concerto performances with the orchestra, the Korean/American pianist Linda Lee must be mentioned. (Photo Credit: Filip_Blazejowski) Like Keduk, she performed the exciting Piano Concerto No.1 in four movements by Tansman. Tansman’s exquisite work is an example of the extent to which Polish music has benefited from its artists in exile—artists who significantly influenced 20th Century music.

Achieving international fame after winning three prizes in the 1919 Warsaw composing competition (a feat only repeated by Penderecki forty years later), Tansman moved to Paris and then the United States. Identifying as a Polish national throughout his life, his prolific output as a composer/performer— encompassing every genre from solo piano and celebrated guitar works, to chamber music and symphonic works, to operas, ballets, and film music—Tansman reached phenomenal success on international stages. In 1927, Nicolas Slonimsky called Tansman a "musical plenipotentiary of Poland in the Western World."**

His Piano Concerto No.1, lasting ca. 20 minutes, has been programmed by many of the foremost conductors of the 20th and 21st Centuries, and many star pianists—including Arthur Rubinstein and Martha Argerich—have continued his legacy. Both Keduk and Lee performed the work under the baton of Pawel Przytocki.

While contestants are judged during each of the competition’s stages, the concerto performance of the six finalists certainly left a lasting impression of their performance traits and pianistic personalities. Despite her free-spirited concerto performance, rounding out the concerto’s lyrical, more prominent lines with rhythmic and tonal substance, the jury’s decision to reward Lee with an overall fourth position came across as somewhat disappointing.

The pianist section’s first prize went to the Bulgarian pianist Georgi Vasilev, who delivered a well-planned and musically vivid final performance of Milosz Magin’s Piano Concerto No.2 for piano, strings, and timpani. (Photo Credit: Filip_Blazejowski) Between passages of spared-down accompaniment that challenged the pianist to an almost Bachian intimacy, interspersed with hues of Ravel and Rachmaninoff, Vasilev showcased a nimble and well-versed performance of the composer’s unapologetically joyful writing. See the prize winners’ concert here:

Photo Credit: W.Grzedzinski@NIMIT

Next-time applicants for the 2025 competition should take note that the first prize for best chamber ensemble went to the Japanese Aka-Duo, which, in their final and stirring performance, also included a work by Magin, his Andante for Violin and Piano. Both Vasilev and Aka-Duo were also awarded a special prize for a performance of the composer’s work by the Magin Foundation, presented by the composer’s daughter, Margot Magin.


**Slonimsky, Nicholas (2004). Writings on Music. Early Articles for the Boston Evening Transcript. New York and London: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-97028-4.


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