Period pianos evoke sounds of Chopin at new contest

WARSAW (AFP) – A rare collection of historic grand pianos emits the authentic but forgotten sounds that transport the audience at a celebrated new music competition in Poland back to the times of Frederic Chopin.

Unlike their modern, glossy black, lacquered heirs, the instruments dating from the 19th Century also boast rich brown hues of varnished wood.

The makes and models include some of the favourites of the prolific 19th-Century Polish-French pianist and romantic composer, who died in France aged 39 in 1849.

Now 30 pianists from around the globe, taking part in Poland’s first International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments, can pick and choose from among the pianos.

“They all date back to the 19th century and Chopin played on each of these models,” Director of the Warsaw-based Fryderyk Chopin Institute Artur Szklener told AFP, referring to five grand pianos gracing the stage of the Warsaw Philharmonic among the special collection.

Benjamin d’Anfray of France performs during the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments in Warsaw, Poland. – AFP

“His favourite was the Pleyel, but we also have Erard, Buchholtz and other period pianos,” he added, saying that they were borrowed from various collections, including his institute.

Unlike today’s standardised grand pianos, models created during a period of technical innovation during the 19th century vary widely in their construction and quality of sound, giving each instrument its own individual personality.

Depending on the model, the brand and year of manufacture, “it feels like you’re listening to a lot of different sounds, lots of different pianos,” said Claire Chevallier, a specialist in antique pianos and a jury member at the competition in Warsaw.

Chevallier said she wanted competitors to “be at one with what each instrument can offer” so they can express “very personal things, very adapted to the instrument and its quality of sound.

“At the same time, there should be a little bit of novelty in the music of Chopin that is heard so often,” she told AFP, as the competition got under way.

The use of the historic pianos makes the event held from September 2-14 with a first prize of 15,000 euros unlike any other in the world, according to the Chopin Institute.

The competition is modelled on the venerable International Chopin Piano Competition, launched in Poland in 1927 and held every five years since 1955.

Winning the prestigious event opens doors to international careers.