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Neither Over- nor Anti-Romantic – Niemczuk’s Chopin

The inauguration of the Silesian "Sundays with Chopin", which took place on the 10th of January at the Archdiocese Museum in Katowice, was entrusted – and rightly so – to a Polish pianist Grzegorz Niemczuk, the recent graduate of the Katowice Academy of Music and a likely candidate for participation at the ninth international competition of Chopin’s music to be held in Warsaw this autumn. I had heard a lot of praise about him before, and now I could hear for myself his interpretations, fully worthy of their fame and strongly confirming the dispositions and nature of the talent of this very young artist at the onset of a great career. Since 2001 Niemczuk has been working with Maestro Jozef Stompel and that distinguished piano master has been his teacher, artistic guide and promoter of Niemczuk’s excellent future prospects.
An interesting and well-devised programme, featuring ingenious dramatic tension and also interesting tonal correlations, allowed Niemczuk to display a wide array of pianistic abilities and gave us an insight into his artistic imagination. From the first lyrical touches of the accompaniment and the manner of unfolding the nocturnal melos, the pianist won the trust and inspired friendly feelings in his audience, endearing himself to us with his communicativeness, his serious approach to playing, his beautiful care for the Chopin-like variety of sound and colour, and the effectiveness of articulation nuances of expression, be it secco, con pedale, or quasi campane.
Listening to Niemczuk but also looking at him – for a performing virtuoso his physical appearance is not unimportant, complementing his spiritual individuality – I sometimes had an impression of seeing, in a free approximation, the young ... Stompel in Niemczuk’s bow, in his facial expression, or in the manner of "integration" with the keyboard, in his hairstyle and even a little bit in his gait, but more visibly in the poetics of piano playing, not for a moment "exaggerating" its Romantic quality, which does not however result in un-Romantic or anti-Romantic approach that would contradict the pianist’s natural youthfulness!
Yet, as it is easy to differentiate between Chopin’s biographies written in utterly "Romantic" style and those written in a more sober and realistic tone, the difference in approach can be seen equally well in musical practice; both Stompel and Niemczuk seem to prefer the latter, yet without being dogmatic about it. Of course in his approach and piano playing Niemczuk is nothing like the "clone"; the autonomy and individuality of the young pianist is evident and unthreatened – which I treat as yet another advantage and a great compliment paid to his teacher and guru, Professor Stompel.
The prologue to the evening’s repertoire was Nocturne in B major Op. 9, signalling the ethos of at least double nature: lyricism, even "femininity" intertwined with "manly" storm in the Nocturne’s middle part. Then our imagination was led through a series of Mazurkas from Opus 33, with heartbreakingly "empty-sounding", somewhat naive Phrygian fifth leading to the cadenza in B minor and to the sorrowful tones of Opus 41/1, and then returning to the increased nocturnal tone in Berceuse in D flat major (a phenomenal study of musical staticity, circles on the delicately pulsating impressionist "lake") and a different tone of Barcarole in F sharp major whose "gondola-like" swinging was a link to the pair of études closing Opus 10: the arpeggio Étude in E flat major and the turbulent Étude in C minor, unfolding the patriotic flags of Polish insurrection. This painful, restless "sursum corda" coded in the études touched our hearts and fuelled the final expressions of Scherzo in B flat minor, sarcastic, sorrowful and heroic at the same time.
On the way, before the Mazurkas, we were offered – as a gift going beyond the promise given in printed programmes – the truly virtuosic Grande Valse Brillante (Op. 34/1), ethereal and nuancing the transparency, the very ... air, touching the core of the idioms and twists of the waltz, the waltz idea "in itself"; at the same time, behind the music surface we also heard the subtle vibrations of eroticism coming from the half-open door, from the imaginary ballroom next to us… Having proved his piano mastery, its "surplus" technique being just a point of departure for the play with the elements of water and earth (or rather Polish soil in the Mazurkas) and the fires of rebellion or airy oneirism (in the "Lullaby"), having ascertained us just how well he feels the capriciousness of the Polish rubato, understanding really well what Lutosławski as a pianist meant referring in his piano concerto directly to Fryderyk’s writing when he said that "No composer in the entire history of music featured with such strength and inseparable cohesion the mysterious union of three elements: the hand, the keys, and the feel of music through sound"; having trusted the great intuition of Witold Szalonek, who was certain that the "archetype" of Chopin’s acoustic landscapes was the Polish church bell, having put on the stand the bunch of flowers (composed vertically, a la polacca!) received after the scherzo, Grzegorz Niemczuk bravely played – in the 90th minute of his performance – a not-so-relaxed encore, carrying away all generations of his full-house audience on the Hussar wings of Polonaise in A flat major Op. 53. This was the final contribution to the pianist’s well-earned success that evening, the pianist who does not want to challenge the Romantic quality of the style or paradigm of the "Polish school of Chopin playing" but consciously yet characteristically preserves it after Maestro Stompel, prize-winner of the 6th International Chopin Piano Competition five decades ago. Ryszard Gabryś, Gazeta – Silesia, nr 69, February 2010

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Music is a moral law.
It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind,
flight to the imagination, and charm, 
and gaiety to life and to everything.
Plato