New Classical Tracks

New Classical Tracks: Piano Poetry

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
September 28, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — If you've ever watched the hit reality show, "American Idol," you know the second-place winner often launches a career just as successful as the singer voted number one by the American public. So, too, has been the case for a number of second-place winners in the International Chopin Competition:  most recently, the 25-year-old Austrian, Ingolf Wunder, who's just released his debut recording, a recital of Chopin works for solo piano.

After listening to him play, you might find it hard to believe Ingolf Wunder became a pianist solely by chance.  As a teenager, he studied violin. As he was waiting for his lesson one afternoon, he practiced the piano. His teacher heard him and knew right away that this 14-year-old violinist was really meant to be a pianist. Wunder is no fan of competitions, though he has won numerous competitive awards.  But in 2010, he decided to enter the Chopin Competition, after immersing himself in the composer's music with his teacher Adam Harasiewicz, who won the same competition 55 years ago. Wunder won second prize overall, as well as the audience award, and prizes for the best performance of a required solo piece, and of a concerto. Now his career is on the fast track, and Wunder is thrilled to never have to take part in another competition.

Wunder spent 18 months preparing for the Chopin Competition, yet he says not a day goes by where he doesn't discover something new in each of the pieces, which now appear on this debut recital recording.  He earned a special prize for one of the pieces he plays on this recording Chopin's, "Polonaise-Fantasy in A-Flat Major, Op. 61. Wunder felt the honor was especially meaningful because that was the one piece all the third-round finalists were required to play. He has a special affinity for this work which he spent two years preparing. According to Wunder, the key to playing this piece well is to make it sound as spontaneous as possible. In the Polonaise Fantasie every subtlety can be heard.  Wunder strikes just the right balance between the resonance, the phrasing and the rubato. This technique, often used in the 19th century, literally means "robbed" -- freeing up the melody by allowing the performer to play with the tempo, in effect, "robbing" time from a strict, regular beat.

Ingolf Wunder models his playing after his Chopin heroes, in particular Arthur Rubinstein. It was Rubinstein who said the rubato is like rubber. If you pull in one place, you have to restore the balance elsewhere. Details like that make Chopin a difficult composer to play well. Wunder paints a beautiful mood in the Ballade No. 4 in F minor as he stretches, and gently pulls at the tempo.

Frederic Chopin composed his last sonata, the Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 in the summer of 1844,  when he was 34 years old.  It's an imaginative work that's also technically demanding. It begins with bold, majestic chords, and then crescendos into a tender second theme. The sparkling scherzo is brief,  just under three minutes. It's delicate touch gives it the impression of being simple, yet the right hand is executing an incredibly demanding part. In the beautiful Largo,  Ingolf Wunder guides the listener through this gorgeous movement with an approach so tender, it's clear this work has become part of him.  There's sheer joy in Wunder's fingertips as he leaps into the powerful eight-bar introduction of the final Presto. It's a brilliant close to this incredibly challenging sonata.

Ingolf Wunder believes there is some kind of connection between himself and Chopin. As you listen to his debut recording, you'll find that like the composer, Ingolf Wunder is a "poet of the piano." 

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