‘Pianist’ fuels Chopin aficionado’s love of freedom

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Tears welled in the eyes of pianist Takako Takahashi when she watched the 2003 Academy Award-winning film “The Pianist” last year.

She was saddened by a scene in which Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, played by U.S. actor Adrien Brody, sits at a piano and moves his fingers over the keys without actually playing any notes, cherishing in silence the beauty of Frederic Chopin’s “Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise.”

Szpilman could not risk making a sound while hiding from the Nazis in a Warsaw flat during World War II.

“When I saw the scene, my chest felt tight with grief,” Takahashi said. “For a pianist to be told not to play the piano, it’s like telling someone not to eat.”

“The Pianist,” which won Oscars for best director, actor and adapted screenplay, is based on the life story of Szpilman, who ultimately survived the wartime horrors of the Warsaw ghetto.

Takahashi, who divides her time between Tokyo and Warsaw, saw the film just before recording her latest CD in the Polish capital — a retrospective series of Chopin’s work.

“When I played for the recording, I realized how happy I am to be able to play the piano whenever and wherever I like,” she said.

The CD was released in Japan on March 26, with Takahashi scheduled to perform Friday at Tokyo’s Kioi Hall.

It features works written by Chopin between 1841 and 1844, when he was aged between 31 and 34, including the well-known “Polonaise No. 6,” also known as “Heroique.”

The album also contains “Scherzo No. 4” and “Fantasie,” both of which were played by Takahashi at the prestigious International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in 1990, where she won fifth prize.

Chopin, the son of a French emigre father and a Polish mother, was born in 1810 near Warsaw. He grew up in the Polish capital and died in Paris in 1849.

Many in the music world say that no composer was so devoted exclusively to the piano as Chopin.

Takahashi said she cannot help but recall Szpilman’s life whenever she is in Poland. Her Warsaw apartment happens to be next to one of the hideouts used by Szpilman during the German invasion and occupation of the city.

Born in Sapporo and raised in Yokohama, Takahashi moved to Warsaw in 1988 and entered the Fryderyk Chopin Academy of Music after graduating from Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo.

Takahashi decided to study in Poland when Jan Ekier, now professor emeritus at the academy, asked her during a 1987 visit to Toho Gakuen whether she was interested in entering the Chopin piano competition, held every five years.

She had long harbored a burning desire to study Chopin’s music in Poland. Her admiration for the composer increased when she heard “Ballade No. 4” while studying piano at Toho Gakuen Music High School.

“I felt a closeness to the music,” she said. “It reached to the bottom of my heart. Chopin was a huge inspiration.”

Takahashi began performing across Europe after completing a graduate program at the Chopin academy in 1991. She became the first Japanese to win first prize at the A. Radziwill International Piano Competition in 1990.

She started teaching at Toho Gakuen in 1999, giving her a reason to spend more time in Japan.

“After living in Poland for several years, I found out how much the Poles love Chopin,” said Takahashi, who started teaching at Toho Gakuen in 1999.

She recalled a taxi driver who played Chopin waltzes in his cab and a carpenter who asked her to play Chopin mazurkas when he visited her apartment to make repairs.

“I believe it is such a feeling that prompted Mr. Szpilman to play Chopin’s ‘Ballade No. 1’ in the film’s climactic scene, in which he was confronted by a German captain,” she said.

“Playing Chopin in such a situation meant risking his life, because the Nazis had forbidden the music.”

Poland was within the sphere of Soviet influence when Takahashi moved to Warsaw. Unlike Romania and the former Yugoslavia, Poland experienced no bloody transition in liberating itself from the Soviet Union.

Takahashi said, however, that she was always worried that a riot could break out when she heard reports of uprisings in the Soviet Union and other former Eastern bloc countries.

After seeing a tank protecting the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Takahashi said she realized war was not just a distant threat.

“War deprives people of freedom and joy of life, just like what happened to Szpilman the pianist,” she said. “In the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States and the U.S.-led war on Iraq, too, many citizens and soldiers of various nationalities lost their lives, though they did not deserve such tragedy.”

Everyone has a life and dreams, and no one has the right to violate them, she said.

“I may be powerless to help establish peace in the world,” she said. “But at least I can try to share my feelings about peace and the preciousness of life with my audience, in a way similar to how music kept Mr. Szpilman’s spirit alive.”