Issue 59 This article was last updated on26 June, 2001

More Chopin:

– Adam Harasiewicz – The Legendary Chopinist An ink-troduction and tribute by Evan Stephens

with Recommended Discography including Preludes & Nocturnes | Piano Concertos

Adam Harasiewicz (b.1932)
The history of pianists playing Chopin is rich with names such as Horowitz, Askenazy, Pollini, Ohlsson, Rubenstein, Rachmaninoff, Argerich, Pogorelich, Zimmerman, Cortot, and Arrau. And yet one name, usually neglected or forgotten by the classical listener, is Adam Harasiewicz (b.1932). The pianist, legendary in his native country of Poland and across Europe, won the prestigious and lofty First Prize in the 1955 International Chopin Competition, beating both Vladimir Askenazy and Fou Ts’ong – highly regarded pianists themselves. From his victory to the present, Harasiewicz has dedicated his professional career to playing the music of Chopin, even playing before the UN in 1960 to inaugurate the Year of Chopin (the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birthday).

When first listening to a set of pieces such as the Preludes, or Nocturnes, or even Polonaises, a listener is usually subjected to even tempi, mild individuality, and moderate technique: in short, average performances. Standard renditions of this repertoire deluge the classical market every year, by performers both celebrated and recondite. Harasiewicz far departs from the “usual” recordings, bringing to the music a vision unparalleled in originality, virtuosity, imagination, and erudition.

Harasiewicz’s playing is difficult to describe: he achieves an effective synthesis of every style I have heard so far. He has the balance of Arrau – both left and right hands are always discernable, every note, every harmony is well displayed. He has the intelligent sensibilities of Askenazy – every note sounds like hours of thought went into it. Musical notions are mature, and well-developed. But he is sonically dangerous like Kissin – his bass ROARS, his treble *~*sparkles*~*, and the whole range in between is well-defined.

He is dramatic like Horowitz – he shows a wide field of emotions, from full rage to lugubrious tragedy, from buoyant happiness and unutterable joy, to oppressive melancholy and delicate passion – he displays all and many more. He is the most complete pianist in this sense, for many pianists fall into the trap of applying Chopin’s music to their own vision – Argerich is lustful and wildly frantic in each piece, even Nocturnes; but humanity, as Harasiewicz demonstrates, is more than one emotion- it is an entire wealth of them, and he applies his own peerless and flawless technique to the pieces, not the other way around.

His piano tone itself is gorgeous – and versatile. He can play softly, with a warm and swirling sound. He can play sharply, with a piercing sound. He can play with bell-like tones that glimmer and glisten like raindrops. Every sound conceivable is possible in his artistic palette!

Complete Preludes (including Op.45 and Op.posthumous) Complete Nocturnes (including both op.posthumous)

Philips 442 266-2

Let’s start with his Preludes. Each one is given a unique personality: no two replicate any mood. The 1st reminds me of a Parisian cafe, with the climactic crashes like champagne glasses ringing in cheers. The 2nd, in stark contrast, in like an ominous announcement of war: the raw and cutting undermelody punctuated with gunshot-like declarative statements by the right hand.

The 3rd is, to me, the Song of the River: the left hand is the fastest I have heard, yet smooth and flowing, with the right hand melody like sprays of water flying atop the rippling water. And the 4th is like a view of a mountain tomb in the cold rain, with the right-hand lyrically telling a tragic story, reaching a pinnacle, then descending into 3 funereal chords closing the piece.

The 5th is like a Tree of Songs, with two revolving textures like the light and shadows among the swaying leaves. The 6th, like a cello-player, alone and mourning, playing out his bitter anger and sadness on his instrument while rain falls. The 7th is like a simple Polish dance, as danced by a young girl just beginning to learn to dance.

Each Prelude follows suit, expressive and imaginative without being too risky to be unbalanced. The towering 24th is absolutely breathtaking – a shattering, thunderous bass ostinati becomes the foundation for a defiant and raging melody, with monstrously difficult glissando scalar passages seemingly carelessly tossed off, yet clear dramatic, and precise. The death knell of the ending, with the three canon blasts, is the best I’ve heard. More sonorous than Pogorelich, more final than Argerich, more furiously intensive than anyone else, Harasiewicz truly masters the music.

Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Heinrich Hollreiser. Recorded Oct 1958. Philips 422 272-2 [71’50”] budget-price.

His Chopin Concerti, too, are undeniably penetrating works of art, punishing and powerful in the way that Harasiewicz combines sheer unadulterated might with concerned lyricism, spinning rubato, and gorgeous piano sound coupled with quick and furious orchestration.

I’ll begin with his First Concerto: the orchestra begins as if the piece were a symphony, treating the dual themes with equal impact. Harasiewicz enters at 4’04”, with the famous crushing raging chordal passage, so noble and so defiant. His arpeggiations climb thoughtfully and deftly into the highest registers, and then the lightening harmonic scalar passages comes rippling down the keyboard. Very few pianists give this sort of treatment; with a staple of the Romantic repertoire as this, usually most concerti are played thunderously throughout, with a few token quiet sections, as Maurizio Pollini, or with extreme poetic insight usually not coupled with overwhelming power, like Murray Perhia.

Only the very few can reconcile both elements into the work. Harasiewicz plays the bass notes resoundingly, and the treble is clear and bell-like. I often admire the forward-looking aspects of Chopin’s work, how ahead it was of its time, so I am glad when pianists, such as Harasiewicz, accent the chromatic aspects of the piece, the dissonant as well as the assonant.

He plays very tragically, often bypassing possibly sticky saccharine-lined moments for the deeper drama at work in the piece. In the end of the first movement, the left hand is given some violent trill-like figurations that complement a wide, scalar theme that the right hand plays. Harasiewicz is the first performer I have ever heard to accent these left-hand figurations, which are loud and drilling, underpinning the sweeping right hand with a turbulent and ferocious authority.

In the second movement he allows the sweet and melodic bass line to ring loud in complement to the sad and fluent line of the right hand, so fluid and vocal. He is at all times emotionally expressive, never letting a chance at developing an emotion go untouched. The piano solo section near the end of the movement reminds me very much of dreaming by midnight moonlight, as Chopin himself intended.

The third movement opens quickly, with exotic figurations by strings and woodwinds, the piano stating a dance-like declarative theme which is advanced rapidly by Harasiewicz, who plays flawlessly, with technical wonder yet strong and vital imagination. The piece ends with satisfaction, an epic.

Chopin: Piano Concerto No.2. With the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Warsaw under Kazimierz Kord. Includes performance by Martha Agerich of Piano Concerto No.1. Laserlight 14-061 “Live” recordings.

There are two versions of Harasiewicz playing the 2nd Concerto, one on Laserlight, his winning performance in the 1955 Competition, and on three years later with the Vienna Philharmonic. I found his early performance and later performance (there are more in the Philips vaults) quite different, yet unified. The early one is stunningly fresh and elephantine in scope – he plays hugely, with absolutely mind-bogglingly fast runs and volume in parts. His later recording, more mature in interpretation, is colossal in piano tone, where he overpowers even a loud orchestra in several key areas. In fact, I thought that this Concerto, as played by Harasiewicz, was given the same treatment as a Rachmaninov Concerto!

And yet many of his masterpiece recordings lay in the vaults, collecting dust, not to be released soon. After contacting Philips, and learning that indeed only about half of his repeater is available in any format currently, I can only hope that world-wide attention will bring those vaunted recordings to the public eye, which will surely savor the rich playing and lilting tone he brings to the music he loves so well.

But from my myriad Chopin recordings, I believe I know a superior pianist when I hear one, and Harasiewicz is it. He embodies everything the composer would have wanted: crystal sadness, brutal fury, mechanical precision, blinding virtuostic, and a very large expressive tonal vocabulary. Imaginative and of the highest artistic integrity, Harasiewicz is all I could ask for in a Chopinist, and more.

Summary of Recommended Harasiewicz Discography: All music by Chopin

  • Complete Preludes and Complete Nocturnes (including posthumously published works). Philips 442-266-2
  • Miscellaneous works for piano: Barcarolle, Berceuse, Waltz No.1, Op.18, Impromtu No.4, Mazurka No.37, Op.59-2, Nocturne No.5 in F#, Op.15-2, Mazurka No.5 in B-flat, Op.7-1, Etude No.3, Op.10, Scherzo No.2, Op.31, Scherzo No.3, Op.39, Polonaise No.3, Op.40, Polonaise No.6, Op.53, Nocturne No.13, Op.48-1, Waltz No.6, Op. 64-1. Philips 422-282-2
  • Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Hollreiser. Recorded Oct 1958. Philips 422 272-2 (Out of print).
  • Complete Etudes, Op. 10 and 25. Philips 420-062-4 (Out of print).
  • Miscellaneous piano works: Sonata No.2, Op.35, Nocturne Op.62-1, Ballade Op.47-3, Polonaise Op.53, Mazurkas Op.63-2 and 63-3, and Scherzo No.4, Op.54. Discover DICD 920180.
  • Laserlight 14-064 is a compilation of performances by winning Chopin Competition pianists. Harasiewicz here plays the 3rd Impromptu, Op. 51. and the Prelude in C# minor, Op. 45.
  • Laserlight 14-061 is two live winning Concerto performances – Argerich playing a heavily cut First Concerto, and Harasiewicz, under the National Philharmonic Orcestra of Warsaw with conducter Kazimierz Kord, playing an uncut 2nd Concerto.
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1998 Evan Stephens

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