Joy of Playing

Interview with Jakub Kuszlik, a Polish pianist, winner of fourth place and a special prize for the best rendition of mazurkas at the 2021 International Fryderyk Chopin Competition

by Bożena U. Zaremba

Jakub Kuszlik (Photo: Karolina Sałajczyk)

Jakub Kuszlik also received a special award for the highest-placed Polish participant, awarded by the Chopin Society of Atlanta. Pictured: Chopin Society of Atlanta's President, Dorota Lato, presenting the award at the 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition Gala. (Photo: Courtesy of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute)

Bożena U. Zaremba: A year has already passed since your success at the Chopin Competition, and those last twelve months have been filled with concerts, recordings, and media engagements. How did the Competition change you as an artist and a human being?

Jakub Kuszlik: On one hand, I have powerful memories of the Competition, some positive and some negative – associated with the pressure and stress – which, to some extent, have shaped the recitals that followed. On the other hand, the realization that my interpretations of Fryderyk Chopin’s music came to be appreciated gives me confidence while performing, and sharing my vision with the audience gives me even more joy. However, it is hard to separate professional matters from me as a person. When talking about performance, it is worth noting that the huge, overwhelming amount of work put into preparation and the fact that we play the same composition repeatedly open new possibilities. We can explore new ways of playing the piece; we can play with it – all of this to find new ways of expression.

You were born in Bochnia, a relatively small town with mining traditions. Where does your interest in classical music come from?

It is a small town but has an interesting history. The salt mine in Bochnia is one of the oldest in the world, and together with Wieliczka, these two towns propelled the Polish Kingdom’s economy for centuries. As far as my interests in classical music are concerned, my story, honestly, is very simple. My parents sent me to a music school because they very early recognized I was attracted to music. As a small kid, I used to make my own musical “instruments,” such as percussion from pots and pans [laughs].

You once said you became interested in classical music through Chopin. How would you compare the perception of his music as a child and as an adult, of course, if you still remember how you responded to his music in your childhood?

This is a difficult question because, as a nine-year-old kid, I probably did not think about it in those terms. I must have absorbed this music intuitively, through my senses, and merely appreciated its beauty in its purest form. Chopin’s music attracted me more than the music of any other composer, and during the first years of my music education, I listened to Chopin only. He affected my musical sensitivities. Today, I listen to it with a much greater dose of awareness.

Judging from what you have said in the past, your participation in the Competition was not a given. It took you some time to come to that decision as well as to understand and fully appreciate Chopin’s music as a performer.

Generally speaking, my relationship with Chopin has been pretty bumpy. I became fascinated by his music as a performer relatively late. The ubiquity of Chopin’s music in Poland can be overwhelming and exhausting, and many pianists have a problem with that. I may have been a victim of this “material fatigue,” which can even be harmful. We tend to forget how much one can learn from Chopin’s music. Also, besides the artistic value, it is great learning material. I have a feeling I came back to Chopin not long ago. When I did, I approached his music with a fresh attitude; I started to dig deeper, to break away from the patterns and standards I knew and had gotten used to, in order to find my own unique voice. I think this was, in my case, a way to success.

What do you cherish in Chopin’s music?

Many things, but most of all, his music is so honest; it comes straight from the heart. Chopin did not try to follow any trends or templates that existed during his time, but created music that corresponded to his principles and reflected his emotions 100 percent. On the other hand, I really appreciated the technical prowess required to play these compositions. Chopin’s achievements in harmonic structure, as well as incorporating polyphony into romantic music are exceptional and highly intriguing.

The Competition jury granted you a special prize for the best rendition of the mazurkas. You said, “For contemporaries who have not had a chance to learn the rhythms of the mazur, kujawiak or oberek 1, conveying the dancing qualities of these forms is very difficult.” For non-Polish performers, it may be even more challenging. How can you help someone express this quality?

Yes, it may be easier for Polish pianists because, as I said before, Chopin’s music is omnipresent in Poland – people constantly talk about it and listen to it. It is an inherent part of education, so we are used to how these rhythms and phrasing should sound. So Poles have an advantage in this respect, while it can pose a challenge to a foreigner. The best way to learn it is by watching and listening to the best performances. Also, listening to the original dances and studying dance movement. I once attended an exciting show with Chopin’s mazurkas being played on traditional folk instruments. There was also a folk-dance group performing traditional dances. Through such mindful observation, we can learn a lot. Even traditional folk costumes can be inspiring.

Then there is a matter of a generational barrier, as dance means something entirely different to today’s young people.

Indeed. Today’s dance has nothing to do with the dances performed 100 or 200 years ago. This also can be an obstacle. However, I want to emphasize that mazurkas, polonaises, or waltzes are unsuitable for dancing. In Chopin’s music, these are merely stylized versions, and one has to be careful not to bring this dancing quality to the forefront and dominate other artistic merits of these compositions, such as their intimate music language, complex melodic traits, and – in the case of later compositions – ingeniously designed form and intricate polyphony.

Let’s talk about your debut recording of music by Brahms and Chopin. It includes Chopin’s mazurkas from Op. 30, Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 58, and Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49, which you played during the Competition. Why did you choose these compositions?

I must admit that the third round of the Competition was the easiest, or rather most obvious, from the point of view of picking the repertoire because these are my favorite compositions of Chopin. It was an utter joy to perform these pieces. When I found out I moved on to the third round, I was overjoyed that in such an important moment of my life, I could play them – especially the Sonata in B-flat minor and Fantaisie in F minor, because I love all mazurkas. They are a true mine of fantastic musical ideas. I decided on Opus 30 because I thought they would fit the program best. I feel really comfortable with this music; I love its complicated architecture and mystery. Attempting to decipher it all is very inspiring.

What about Brahms?

My fascination with Brahms’s music appeared relatively late – that is, during my last years in high school. When I got to know it, though, I felt completely engulfed. What I love about Brahms is his skill in creating beautiful melodies and his control over expressiveness. Whenever I listen to his music, the culminating points always give me goosebumps. Ambiguousness in his compositions is also highly intriguing, especially in his late pieces, which I decided to record. From a technical viewpoint, they are relatively simple, but because there are very few notes there, you have to try hard to create an extraordinary, distinctive mood. I felt indescribable joy when I started working on these compositions, which is why I decided to include them in this recording. My repertoire choices were also influenced by my eagerness to show how much Brahms was inspired by Chopin. A good example is his Scherzo in E-flat minor, Op. 4, which he wrote at seventeen. He also transcribed Chopin’s Etude Op. 25, No. 2 in F minor and converted it into a composition based on the sixth. I wanted to draw attention to these connections.

When do you get those goosebumps while listening to music? Is it when you listen to live music or on the radio, CD, or vinyl record, which is enjoying a renaissance these days?

The difference in the reception is gigantic, and it is not only my opinion. For example, an interesting experiment was carried out when the members of the Chopin Competition jury were presented with a recording of the exact rendition they had earlier listened to live, and their evaluation was utterly different. I think the most significant value is in listening to live music. Only then is this unique bridge between the artist and the listener created, as well as the characteristic vibe that cannot be conveyed in a recording. A live concert is always a special occasion for me as an artist. It is because of the live concerts that I want to play better.

You have had many outstanding teachers. As you said in one interview, Professor Olga Łazarska from the School of Music in Cracow gave you the foundation of piano technique and music in general. On the other hand, Professor Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń from the Academy of Music in Bydgoszcz, helped you create the “superstructure,” if you will. Can you elaborate on these two aspects of music education?

For any rendition to make sense and be attractive to the audience, both these aspects are essential and indispensable. The sooner the pianist masters the basic skills, including the technique, the understanding of style, and phrasing, the sooner they will have the ease and freedom to work on the second aspect. You must keep them in mind, especially when you start breaking the rules to seek your own unique musical voice. They involve years of tedious work and practice, of course, and people who participate in the Chopin Competition come with these skills mastered, to a great extent. Without them, participation in the Competition is practically impossible.

Are you a traditionalist or a rule breaker?

You cannot play strictly according to the rules because we would all be playing in exactly the same manner. That would be extremely unattractive and insipid. The purpose of the live concert would become pointless. I am in for experimenting, but we need to remember about the composer’s intentions, that the composer wanted the composition to have a particular sound, and we need to respect that. So experiment with respect.

Please tell us about the pianists who have inspired you.

This is such a broad topic. Drawing from inspiration and studying other pianists are essential elements of music education and, for a mature artist, even more so. At his stage, perhaps that is more important than lessons and practice. I am not saying these are unimportant, but studying others can make a huge difference. I try to listen to a wide array of artists; I do not limit myself to just a few names. Instead, I look for the best rendition of a particular composition, which, for some reason, appeals to me the most. Sometimes, it can even be a section of that performance. I like Krystian Zimerman, for example, for his sense of humor. In this respect, he is truly exceptional on the global scene. I admire Martha Argerich’s honesty, spontaneity, and vivacity. There is magic in her performances. Seong-Jin Cho, the winner of the Chopin Competition in 2015, displays similar qualities. I am fascinated by [Grigory] Sokolov’s rendition of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s music. I love his articulation and ornaments, which he uses with great precision. Also, he can create an incredible mood, and his interpretations are imaginative, distinctive, and unique.

Recently, I watched a newly released movie, Chopin: I Am Not Afraid of the Darkness, which shows three international pianists trying to change the world with classical music. Do you think music should have superior objectives besides the artistic and entertaining goals?

The answer is simple. When we look at the history of music, we can see different roles music played in ancient Greece – in education and resocialization, for example, or served as a medium for conveying a particular philosophical idea. Today, we have music therapy, so music can be therapeutic. When we feel down and want to improve our mood, we listen to music. Pop music can serve the same purpose – some songs have carried ideas or have been an expression of protest against established social norms.

Do you like listening to the so-called “background music”?

When I was still at school – yes, I did. I used to listen to Bartok or Ravel a lot because these were my fascinations back then while simultaneously studying or doing something else. At some point, I gave up this practice because I found it hard to concentrate on anything. I have read the research that this is precisely how background music can affect trained musicians. When I listen to music these days, I sit down, put my headphones on, and focus on listening.


Translated by Bożena U. Zaremba

1 Traditional Polish folk dances.

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Jakub Kuszlik's recital for the Chopin Society of Atlanta took place on November 19, 2022. See details here.