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Category: Interviews

It's about sound

"The piano is not a percussion instrument. It’s about sound and imagination" - interview with Bella Davidovich, a Juror in the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition held in Warsaw.

 This is your second time on the Jury, and third time at the Competition. What are the biggest differences between the modern editions and that of 1949?

Now the programme is bigger, heavier and longer. In my time it was different. We had different problems. As the first post-war Competition, it was held at the Roma Theatre Concert Hall. And the Jury could not see us. That made us more nervous. When we drew our numbers, we simply drew closed envelopes.

Were there more or fewer competitors then?

Maybe 40, and no one from Asia. We had two or three from Brazil. There was a strong Polish group and a strong Russian group.

I remember reading (in James Methuen- Campbell’s book on the history of Chopin playing) your Chopin described as having more heart than Sviatoslav Richter’s and being more directly communicative than that of Emil Gilels. What was the secret of your success?

This was due to the very good Russian school – which means, first of all, singing with the piano. The piano is not a percussion instrument. It’s about sound and imagination. I studied with Flier and Igumnov. And Igumnov taught Flier. That was one school. But I remember many years ago, in the early 1960s, how Gilels played the B flat minor Sonata after his mother’s funeral. I will never forget it, not until my last moment. Here I have heard many B flat minor Sonatas, but no one was crying.

This Competition has an incredible sense of history, with so many members of the Jury being past winners, and I’m fascinated by the way in which that history is passed on. You were one of Igumnov’s last students, and he had been at the Moscow Conservatory since 1899...

And he taught Lev Oborin, the first winner.

What was he like? He had a reputation as quite a distant character.

Yes he was, I was closer to Flier and others. To me Igumnov was official, but lessons were fantastic. The year before World War II, I had a lesson with him when all we worked on was the left-hand part of the Nocturne in F minor. Nobody could match him.

You were talking about the Russian style. What’s the difference between the Polish and Russian ways of playing Chopin?

There’s a difference these days, because the Russian conservatoires have lost many famous teachers. But in 1949, I felt no big difference at all. I remember Basia Hesse-Bukowska. And Halina [Czerny-Stefańska] played mazurkas wonderfully. It all sounded very natural. The same was true about the polonaises. Now people play polonaises with big sound, sometimes even ugly sound, and faster tempos. They forget about the special Polish costume in which you have to dance a polonaise. Today’s tempos wouldn’t do for opening the emperor’s ball. Nowadays we hear too much karaoke.

Interview by John Allison. The interview published by courtesy of the “Chopin Express” editorial staff.
Bella Davidovich

Bella Davidovich