My Pianists From The Past series continues this week with the following article featuring Polish pianist Halina Czerny-Stefańska, which has been written by British pianist and pedagogue Gareth Owen, who is head of keyboard at Eton College and professor of piano at Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
I had the good fortune to participate at the Chopin international Piano Festival in Duszniki-Zrój, Poland in 1994 and was introduced to a few members of the small, but highly select world of pianists and teachers in Poland during this time. In her seventies, Halina Czerny-Stefańska (1922-2001) was an established and highly regarded pianist and teacher in Eastern Europe and unknown to a 16-year old Welsh schoolboy! Having recently come across a photograph taken at the festival, I decided to delve a little further into the life and career of this notable musician.
Halina Czerny Stefańska studied with her father, a descendant of Czerny and continued her studies in Paris with Cortot, later to return to Warsaw to learn with Turczyński and Drzewiecki. She was the joint winner (alongside Bella Davidovich) in the Chopin International Competition in 1949 and most recordings made by Halina Czerny Stefańska before 1954 have been destroyed. Having a limited repertoire by Chopin and a few other composers, recordings of her playing exist of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Paderewski, Szymanowski, Grieg and Zarębski.
Following a broadcast on the BBC in 1981 of the 1966 release of Chopin’s E minor Concerto attributed to Dinu Lipatti on EMI, it was proven to be a recording by Czerny Stefańska from the early 1950s. The Lipatti recording was subsequently withdrawn. It is an honest and heartfelt performance without sentimentality, and interestingly reviewed as follows:
Gramophone Magazine, 1958:
‘The pianist is neat and intelligent, but I would not put this performance in the same class as Rubinstein’s.’
Trevor Harvey, 1971 as Dinu Lipatti’s recording:
‘There is a wonderful variety of playing, from refined delicacy to great power; from singing cantabile to playing of dazzling brilliance. And behind all this, as always, there is such a feeling of deep sincerity and understanding. In short, it is difficult to imagine a more beautiful, a more deeply rewarding account of this concerto’.
Listen to a recording of the concerto, released on LP in the mid-late 1950s:
’…an extraordinarily poetic performance of the dances….altogether outstanding.’
Listen to a selection of Mazurkas:
One of my favourite performances of the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante, Op. 22 can be found here:
And the Preludes, Op.28:
Having listened to these and other recordings whilst writing this short article, it seems that Czerny-Stefańska’s playing feels fresh and exciting as it somewhat departs from some of the overly sentimental style of Chopin playing in the 1940s and 50s. Later in her life, one can hear more warmth and fuller expression in her playing as can be found in the second recording of the Mazurkas above which by all accounts is from 1989. I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet and play for Halina Czerny-Stefańska at such a young age. I was fortunate to have such kind encouragement from my teacher at that time, Alicja Fiderkiewicz, who helped to arrange the trip.
Czerny-Stefańska toured internationally but opted to reduce her international engagements to raise her family. She was invited on to several juries, including the Leeds Competition in 1972, Chopin and Tchaikovsky Competitions. The Halina Czerny-Stefańska International Piano Competition is held every four years in her memory. Her obituary in the Telegraph from 4th July, 2001 claimed that she complied with the Communist regime in Poland and described the years after the second world war “the greatest and fullest flowering of Polish culture”. It is indeed most fortunate that we have a few recordings still available to catch a glimpse of Czerny-Stefańska’s contribution to piano playing in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.