Octaves of History

Pianist Marek Szlezer on Poland’s tumultuous history and the contribution of its greatest composer, Chopin towards building the Polish identity.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Published: March 26, 2016 12:05 am

As a well-known exponent of Frederic Chopin’s compositions and active performer of modern music, Marek Szlezer has done shows around the world. But the Polish pianist matches his skill at the ivories with a deep academic interest in his country’s history in music. To that end, he has been responsible for shedding light on the works of numerous composers, including the Polish Jewish composer Alexandre Tansman, who fled the Nazis and whose work is almost never played now, despite once being world-renowned. Having played a recital earlier this week in Mumbai that featured the works of Chopin and his contemporaries, Szlezer will be playing a special concert in the city today featuring both of Chopin’s Piano Concerti in new arrangements.

How did it feel performing in India for the first time?
When I received the proposal from Maestro Piotr Borkowski (resident conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of India), I was quite excited. I saw it as an opportunity to do a recital that would present not only the works of Polish composer Frederic Chopin, who is familiar to many people in India, but also the works of Chopin’s contemporaries such as Dobrzynski, Krogulski and Nowakowski. The works of these composers are not very well-known anywhere, not even in Poland. I myself ‘discovered’ their works only because of my research on Polish music.

Was it also your research that led you to discover the music of Polish-born Jewish composer Alexandre Tansman, whose works you champion?
Tansman was a fascinating personality, who travelled around the world and used influences from everywhere in his compositions. He gave performances in Egypt, Hawaii, Japan, and even India. He came to Mumbai in 1933 and wrote a composition called The Tower of Silence as a dedication to the city. He was one of the great Polish composers of the 20th century, and yet, his name fell into obscurity, as he was forced to flee Europe during World War II, and later, when the communist regime was established, he became one of the composers who was banned because he didn’t toe the Socialist line.

You perform Tansman’s pieces as part of the Cracow Duo (along with cellist Jan Kalinowski).
Yes, as a matter of fact, we performed his works at Carnegie Hall, New York, last year. It was at one of our concerts in Paris that we were approached by Tansman’s daughter, who lives there, and invited to her home to look at the many unpublished manuscripts of her father. They are brilliant compositions and we are working to publish them.

Both Tansman and Chopin occupy very unique places in Polish national history, and the rise of Polish nationalism. Tell us about that.
Around the time that Chopin was working, Poland had not been free for 120 years. He realised that the best way to build a sense of nationhood was through culture, art and music. Officially, any expression of Polish nationalism was forbidden, but Chopin drew on our folk traditions of music and art to create music and help build the Polish identity. Tansman too was inspired by Polish folk traditions, but he placed the Polish identity in an international context, by using world influences like blues and jazz.

As a musician working today, how do you relate to the unique contributions that Poland has made to music?
When you perform internationally, there are many people who say that you should perform works that are globally appealing and that you should stay away from works that are very typical of your region or country. I don’t agree with that at all. I believe that if there is something particular and unique about your culture, you should definitely perform it outside because people around the world are interested in knowing more about different cultures.

Chopin’s Piano Concerti will be performed today at 7 pm at the Tata Theatre, NCPA, Mumbai

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