“I had the sense I was on a mission when I decided to do this project,” recounts Poland-based Japanese pianist Yuko Kawai, who has been introducing authentic versions of the works of Chopin (1810-49) — as restored in musical scores published as the National Edition — through her Chopinissimo recital series since 2001. “But since it started, it has given me a lot of pleasure.”
The National Edition of Frederic Chopin is a series of scores, approved in 1959 by the Polish government, of works by the artist widely regarded as the country’s greatest composer and virtuoso pianist. His music is among the most performed on stages around the world, and also the most often published as sheet music.
Unfortunately, though, there are many textual differences among more than 100 editions that have been issued in the past 140 years, and it has become difficult to know which are truest to the master’s originals.
The aim of the National Edition is to present the whole of Chopin’s musical output, free from editorial additions and based on the most authentic sources, as close to the composer’s handwritten manuscripts as possible. The National Edition has been officially endorsed by organizers of the International Chopin Piano Competition since 2005, and is due to be completed in 2010.
Polish pianist Jan Ekier (b. 1913), a prize-winner at the third International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition in 1937, and the head of the juries of the competition from 1985 to 1995, has devoted himself to working for the National Edition for 50 years, since he was appointed its editor in chief at the age of 45 in 1959. This veteran pianist and professor was the very person who spotted the talent of a young Japanese girl and changed her life.
Born in Nagoya, Yuko Kawai had her first piano lesson at the age of 5. The precocious little girl would play records by herself, picking through her father’s collection, and would listen to Chopin’s music over and over again.
“Chopin has fascinated me since my childhood,” she says. “His music is so graceful. A noble music. I can hardly explain in words, but I just feel it.”
In 1990, while studying piano at Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music, Kawai got a chance to take a lesson from Ekier when he was on a visit to Japan. This encounter paved the way to Poland for Kawai, who had stayed in her hometown until then and never thought of studying abroad. From 1991 to 1994, Kawai studied at the Fryderyk Chopin Music Academy in Warsaw under the tutorship of Ekier.
“Those were such happy days,” recalls Kawai. “I felt so at home in Poland. Professor Ekier’s excellent method retrained me from the very starting point. For example, he taught me how to sit at the piano. And my weak fingers, which made me almost give up on being a professional, were surprisingly strengthened.”
In 1995, Kawai participated in the 13th Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. Even though she did not win a prize, her soulful performances impressed the jury members as well as the media, leading to an article by the renowned Polish critic Janusz Ekiert and a special feature broadcast by Polish state radio. Kawai played a 14-concert tour around Poland in February and March 1996, and has been active ever since, giving performances in Poland, Japan and many other countries.
She was the first Asian artist to play on a recording of the National Edition disc series by Polish label BeArTon, releasing her first album, “Lento . . . and Other Works” in 1999.
She also gave the world premiere of Chopin’s piano concertos in E minor and F minor for one piano as published in the National Edition.
“It was not rare that concertos were performed by a single pianist in Chopin’s day, because a full orchestra or a large concert hall was not always available,” explains Kawai.
These two famous concertos were composed around 1830 in Chopin’s youth, before he left his home country. Looking at the original handwritten score of the Concerto in F minor, it is apparent that the handwriting for the orchestra parts is different from that for the solo piano part written by Chopin himself. Recent research suggests that the young composer received help from some experienced elder in the orchestration, and the later editions made the orchestra sound even thicker. According to Kawai, the original concertos were written by Chopin himself as solo piano versions.
“Of course, these pieces were meant to be concertos, but, in a sense, we can rediscover the real sound that Chopin intended by listening to these solo piano versions,” she says. “And in the National Edition, the comments of the composer are noted. For example, this part should be played by flute and that part by strings. I try to vary the piano tone like the instruments of the orchestra.”
Following the Tokyo premiere of the Piano Concerto in F minor for one piano at her last recital at the Hamarikyu Asahi Hall in June 2008, the Piano Concerto in E minor, also for one piano and written by Chopin, will be featured at Kawai’s upcoming recital at the same hall.
“Some say that I am like a missionary of the National Edition,” laughs Kawai. “But I think that you should say ‘No’ to the wrong information that goes around, and if you know the right thing, you should inform people of it.”
Modest and quiet, yet earnest and determined, Kawai has touched the hearts of audiences through her Chopinissimo series of concerts.
“The title of this long project, Chopinissimo, is of my coinage,” she says with a smile. “I want to get to the essence of Chopin’s tunes, as close as possible to every single piece. Performing the entire body of Chopin’s work in the National Edition is not the purpose but the result.
“Now I am convinced that I was born to perform Chopin’s music. No doubt.”
Yuko Kawai Piano Recital (part of the Chopinissimo series) takes place at Hamarikyu Asahi Hall in Tsukiji, Tokyo on Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. Tickets are ¥3,000-¥5,000. For more information, call (03) 3235-3777.