Twenty seconds into a phone conversation with Ewa Kupiec, and I realise it’s going to be intense. There is a sense of purpose to every word that emerges from her silky smooth voice, and even over a phone line, she comes across as deeply thoughtful, giving long answers to my questions. With the Chopin 200th birthday being celebrated across the world next year, it seemed like an excellent time to speak to Polish-born Kupiec, who is closely connected to with his music.
I begin by asking her about her plans for the anniversary year. ‘To start with, I am putting on three Chopin recitals. The first one is called “Polish Soul in Exile”, representing the first period of Chopin’s life when he had left his country and was searching for his identity. The programme includes the early mazurkas and polonaises. The second programme is “At the Zenith”. This comprises compositions written during his peak period, including such works as the Fantaisie in F minor, the Scherzo opus 39 and the Ballade in A flat opus 47. The third programme is called “Epilogue”, which includes the late opuses 59-62, as well as the Berceuse and Sonata in B minor opus 58. This is where Chopin is searching for a new musical language and expression. And in terms of his personal life, this period is marked with illness and the separation from his long-time partner George Sand.’
Kupiec says that the ‘Epilogue’ recital has proved most popular with promoters, perhaps because she has recorded these late opuses on her most recent disc. ‘I’ll be playing these recitals throughout Europe, and in Brazil.’ She will also find time next year to play Chopin’s concertos, in the version for the string quartet and piano, as well as in the full version. ‘There will be a big tour with the Polish Radio Orchestra in Scandinavia where we will play the lesser-known works for piano and orchestra such as the Fantasy on Polish Airs and the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise. With the concertos, I’ll also be in Japan, a bit in France and so on. Next year looks really nice!’
The ‘pretty’ point is an interesting one, as many pianists say that they enjoy playing Chopin because his tunes are so ‘lovely’. But can non-professionals play Chopin well? Should they leave it, and all its trickiness, to the experts? ‘Absolutely not!’ Kupiec laughs. ‘Some of his works are written for salons – as is the case with some nocturnes or mazurkas. So he didn’t always expect professionals to play his music!’ I ask Kupiec what might be the most difficult technique to master in Chopin’s music. She replies without a moment’s hesitation, ‘It’s that sense of rubato, which is very Classical in a sense, if we think about Mozart and Bach, both of whom Chopin admired. But at the same time, the interpretation cannot be rigid. It has to be free, but not self- indulgent. It has to include the subtle emotional world of all colours and shapes of musical expression.’
Kupiec feels an affinity towards the late opuses, where ‘a musical form – let’s say the Barcarolle, or even a certain nocturne – is just a pretext to an improvisation that unfolds into its own completely restructured language. This is very important. This is his genius.’ And the concertos? ‘The concertos are works of a young man, representing his skill as a brilliant pianist, as in the No 1. But they hint already the melancholy and the poetry in his later musical language, like No 2.’
For a concert pianist, Kupiec was a late starter. She was born in Duszniki, Poland, and studied at the Karol Szymanowski State Secondary Music School in Katowice. ‘I decided to be a pianist pretty late, when I was 12, and to leave my home town for this special school – a boarding school – with an intense musical education, 300 kilometres away. Before that, I loved playing music, but I was not trained to be a pianist from a very early age. But at the Szymanowski School, my intense education started and I loved it. There was no question of doing anything else. It was not very easy, because the times in Poland were not easy. There was political turmoil. Martial law was declared in 1981, when I was 17. Music and the school were like a haven for us – the focus of our inner world. It let us escape from the brutality of everyday life.’ She went on to study at the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music (also in Katowice), the Chopin Academy in Warsaw and the Royal Academy of Music in London. Of her London days, Kupiec comments, ‘It was a very stimulating time in my student life. Nelly Akopian was a great teacher.’
There are other mentors, notably conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, with whom she recorded the Chopin concertos. ‘He is like a role model, not only for his musical approach, but also as a human being. He has that total commitment to quality in music and in life.’
She might be living in a country that gave birth to some of the greatest composers from the Classical and Romantic eras, but glance at Kupiec’s repertoire list, and there are some names on it that are far removed from the German greats: Gorecki, Szymanowski, Lutoslawski, Paderewski, Grazyna Bacewicz and Jolivet. ‘My goal is to bring attention to the composers I admire and knew were not known to the broader audience. Only a few of these composers are known to the Western audience. The rest remain marginal. They’re very popular in Eastern Europe, though. At least I can make this music accessible in the world, so it doesn’t remain “local”. My interest is Slavic composers – not limited to Polish only.’
Kupiec also champions contemporary music. ‘I think there’s a lot of interesting music written nowadays. It’s just that we need to make the effort of finding the composers and researching them. I think the audiences are more open to the new than a lot of us think. The problem of selling tickets and not getting an audience – is more the awareness of the promoter. So maybe the promoter is a little more nervous about new music. Some musicians are also opposed to new composers and the freshness of new music, so that doesn’t help either. It’s not very challenging for culture in the broader sense.’
Promoters aren’t the only ones who blanch at unusual repertoire: record companies are also cautious, as Kupiec well knows. ‘I joined Solaris, for many reasons. The biggest one being that I’m able to leave my own musical legacy. I observe it from the philosophical point of view: What remains when I die? With a lot of musicians, when they are gone, you have their recordings, and that forms an image and that’s that. I don’t want my image presented from the “outside”. I would like to decide what to record and how to record, and then I can make my own personal statement. Then I know that when I’m gone, it will show me as I truly was, as a human being and musician. The selection of the programme is so important too, and how one records it. With this label, I can give myself freedom, for the hall, for the piano, for my interpretation. I take full responsibility for the final product. I started a few years ago, with contemporary music, where I recorded the compositions that were written for me, and it just grew.’
Aside from her own recording plans, what does the future hold for this deep-thinking, gorgeous pianist? There’s the new Chopin/ Schubert CD release entitled Zal, which was released this past October. Then there’s an ‘At the Zenith’ recital at Liverpool’s St George’s Hall Concert Room on 3 February 2010. And in June you’ll find her taking part in the St Magnus Festival, all the way up in Orkney, Scotland where she plays Chopin Piano Concerto No 2 with the BBC Scottish Symphony.
Looking further forward, Kupiec reveals that she has designs on the music of the great J S. ‘I would love to play more Bach. That requires more time for studying. It’s a very different musical language. It’s a bible on its own!’ But it’s not just Bach, and when I ask about her goals, a much deeper answer emerges: ‘My goal is to live in the present, following the precepts of various philosophical directions that I study and try to integrate in my daily life. The idea of living in the present is not some esoteric concept, but an approach towards the reality. This entitles the responsibility of thoughts and actions in every single day. What is the use of planning and saving the energy, time, for the day that never comes? Of course I plan and strategise in advance, but if I do not fulfil every day with meaningful moments, I get seriously upset. This applies to music and my life with music on everyday basis. However my dream is to live long and perform for a long time on a high level. I hope my health will allow me to realise this wish.’ If only more of us could follow such thoughtful principles, then the world would be a better place.