Two Different Personalities, One Common Goal

Interview with Cracow Duo: Jan Kalinowski (cello) and Marek Szlezer (piano)

by Bożena U. Zaremba

Cracow Duo: Jan Kalinowski and Marek Szlezer. Photo: Anita Wąsik-Płocińska

Bożena U. Zaremba: How did the Cracow Duo come about?

Jan Kalinowski: We have been friends with Marek since preschool; we sat at one desk in elementary school, and whenever we played together, it was computer games [laughs]. It was after our freshman year at the Music Academy in Cracow that we decided to make music together, capitalizing on our friendship and hoping it would work in this area of our lives. It did, which was a pleasant surprise for both of us because, as we all know, friendship does not always translate into a fruitful artistic collaboration. We started with two sonatas for piano and cello, one by Fryderyk Chopin and one by Dmitri Shostakovich. I was familiar with the latter, but I found Chopin new and exciting.

BUZ: Chopin, after all, is known primarily for his piano music.

JK: It’s true, but please note that in chamber music, it was the cello that he focused on.

BUZ: What do you consider most valuable in your collaboration?

JK: From my perspective, it is the exploration of Chopin through Marek’s experience. When we were starting to play together, Marek was already a recognized pianist and had performed our great composer’s music for years. On the other hand, I think he was inspired by my fresh ideas and novel viewpoint. What turned out to be especially valuable and lasting was mutual inspiration when performing, while leaving an open space for the other person to realize his interpretation. Also, reacting to what the other person had to offer, which meant that we did not replicate the same interpretation, but every time, we explored something new and fresh. Thanks to this approach, our interpretations are interesting to us, and we have never gotten tired of them throughout all those years.

Marek Szlezer: Exactly—the spontaneity and lack of routine are most exciting, indeed. They make each rendition slightly different. Of course, during rehearsals, we decide on a joint direction while leaving the other person a lot of space. Then we carry that narrative in the same direction. This is a constant conversation.

BUZ: One of your reviewers said that “the artists, who extremely differ in their personality and temperament, perfectly agree on their stance on a musical piece.”

JK: We do have different personalities, indeed, different interests and ways of thinking, but within a performance, we are cohesive, especially in our concept of building emotions on the stage. In other words, each of us employs his own way to achieve a common goal.

BUZ: You promote works for piano and cello by Polish composers, including Fryderyk Chopin, Aleksander Tansman, and Karol Szymanowski. Why do they deserve endorsement?

JK: Chopin does not need promotion but should continue to stay in the minds of new generations. He has become Poland’s excellent “export product,” and Poles have managed to popularize his music worldwide perfectly. However, there are many Polish composers whose music is first-rate, but their names still remain relatively unknown. We play Chopin because we like him. Besides, his music is close to our hearts, even if only because it was with Chopin that we started our adventure as a duo. We also include his music in our programming to attract an audience while trying to present other Polish works, including contemporary compositions.

MS: It is worth noting that when we started working on chamber music by Chopin and other Polish composers, it was not performed very often. Of course, people knew about it, but Chopin’s cello sonata, for example, was actually considered not “Chopinesque” enough and—contrary to how it is perceived today—far from a masterpiece. This viewpoint has radically changed, also thanks to our long-term efforts and because other musicians started to include Polish pieces in their repertoire, record them, and engage in scholarly research. This is very rewarding. So, we continue to promote Polish music in possibly the most attractive and reasonable way—not to show that all Polish composers are Chopin’s equals, because this is not true, but to make them realize there are a lot of great composers and great compositions which have not been performed before for many reasons: because there was no sheet music, manuscripts had been lost, there was no adequate promotion or, sometimes, for political reasons, or simply because this music was not trendy.

BUZ: Fryderyk Chopin left three compositions for piano and cello: Introduction and Polonaise Brillante in C major, Op. 3, Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65, Grand Duo concertant in E major, Op. 63, which he wrote with Auguste Franchomme. In Introduction and Polonaise, the piano does not just provide the accompaniment but often takes over the central theme and the initiative, while the cello part is fairly simple.

JK: This piece was initially written as a polonaise for the piano, and although the cello sometimes played the leading theme, the virtuoso part and the dense texture are in the piano part. Later, Chopin changed the ending to make it more balanced and added the Introduction. Grand Duo is different in this respect—the cello part was written by a cello player, Chopin’s friend, so here, the parts are balanced, although the texture in the piano part is still typical for Chopin’s music. While writing the Sonata, Chopin had much more experience in composing for string instruments. The entire cello part was written by him.

MS: It needs to be stressed that Chopin was very young when he composed the Introduction and Polonaise. It was also his first non-solo composition. Besides, he wrote it for Count [Antoni] Radziwill, an amateur cello player, which is why the cello part naturally had to be simple so that a non-professional cello player could handle it fairly quickly. In other words, the whole weight of all ornamentation and the brillante effect in the piano part are determined by practical reasons. On the Sonata, Chopin worked for quite some time, and apparently, it was a conscious decision on his part to make it the last composition with an opus number. It is a unique piece, with a polyphonic structure and a distinctive soundscape. Because of its atypical character, Chopin decided not to present its first movement during the composition’s premiere in Paris, which affected the reception of this piece. Its first movement is very dramatic, and its harmonic construction is complex. For Chopin, this was a brave and vanguard stylistic step, which foretells the music by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Franck. This is a very progressive composition— experimental, if you will, and its sound differs from what we know from his mazurkas, nocturnes, or etudes. Here, Chopin proves, also to himself, that he is a great composer. In the 19th century, the status of a composer was measured by the range of instruments for which he composed, and although Chopin was a renowned artist, he was considered “limited” because he wrote only for the piano. His Sonata was a kind of self-validation and a confirmation of his status.

BUZ: Can we talk about the music written by contemporary Polish and foreign composers just for the Cracow Duo? You have accumulated quite a collection.

JK: The first composition written for us and premiered by us was by Jacek Kita, Professor Krzysztof Penderecki’s student, written after our first university concert more than 20 years ago. Then we got several invitations to perform contemporary music (not necessarily written for us), and people started associating us with contemporary repertoire. Our interpretations met with critics’ approval. Composers also began to appreciate them and offered us their compositions. In 2013, we both decided to put some structure into these endeavors, and we recorded Dedications with pieces written for us, pieces that we had performed in Poland and worldwide. Such compositions are still being created, and we are very happy about it because last year, we completed this project by publishing Dedications Vol. 2 and Dedications Vol. 3. Such composers as Krzysztof Meyer, Marta Ptaszyńska, and Piotr Moss have dedicated their instrumental concerts to us.

MS: We perform not only music written for us but have premiered many other compositions. We focus on contemporary music by Polish and foreign musicians. It is a common misconception that audiences prefer tonal over avant-garde music, but it all depends on the idea behind the piece; if it’s well-defined, the audience will respond to it in a positive way and will enjoy it.

JK: Going back to Chopin and our recordings, it is worth mentioning that we have recorded a CD where Marek uses a period piano, the Pleyel, which belongs to the National [Polish] Library. This was the first-ever recording of chamber music on a historical piano. The sound is so interesting because the lower-tuned string instruments have a completely different sound; the tone color is different. This is especially interesting because this is the way Chopin heard them.

BUZ: Period instruments have recently become very popular.

MS: Yes, it’s true. Not so long ago, I had a chance to serve as a commentator at the Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. I listened to the live performances at the National Philharmonic [in Warsaw], which was indeed an interesting experience because period instruments are quite responsive to the performer; on the same instrument, every pianist sounds different.

BUZ: How does playing in the Cracow Duo affect your solo career?

JK: Marek can say more about it, as the piano is more of a solo instrument. Piano recitals are also much more popular than cello. For me, solo concerts mainly involve orchestras or bigger chamber music ensembles.

MS: For a pianist, solo playing and chamber music are complementary. Chamber music teaches flexibility; it teaches you to listen and be open to other musicians, while in solo playing, we focus on ourselves—in a positive sense of the word. We construct the music in a slightly different way. Even with an orchestra, the soloist is the leader and enforces their vision. These endeavors balance each other, and they need each other. I can’t imagine myself performing only solo repertoire or only chamber music. After a few solo recitals, I miss chamber music. And vice versa.

BUZ: In Atlanta, each of you will conduct master classes. What can the participants expect?

JK: We both have almost 20 years of teaching experience, and during such classes, we always try to help students find their own interpretation of the piece, understand the music better, or help with some technical issues so that later, they can work on the piece on their own.

MS: During such lessons, we also perform; we show a lot—not to make the students copy us, but to inspire them. Meeting young people, even for a very short time, and learning about their vision is very enjoyable. We know from our own experience that sometimes, just one meeting or even one comment can push you in some interesting direction. I always encourage my students to meet with other teachers so they can appreciate such encounters and see that in the arts, this is a tangible value. As we all know very well, we all get used to our teachers—

JK: —and the teachers get used to their students. Sometimes the same comment, but coming from an outsider, can resonate better.

BUZ: You both perform on stage, teach, record, write about music, and do research, so your main focus is on music. Is there anything else in your lives that is important or inspires you?

JK: I could talk about it forever [smiles]. Of course, our close ones and everyday family life are important. We are both very much absorbed in the work at the Academy. Our roles there are demanding and require our constant engagement. As far as other areas are concerned, in winter I love the mountains, and in summer, the seaside. I find that open space calming and inspiring.

MS: My big passion is the history of ancient Rome, especially the Imperial period. I also love sports cars. But whatever I do in the arts and for the arts would not make any sense without my close ones: my wife and my children.


Translated from the Polish by Bożena U. Zaremba

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