Maciej Grzybowski review: Interpretive insights

Exceptionally talented Polish pianist brings unexpected perspectives to classic and contemporary music


Only 24 folding chairs had been provided in rows; three round tables at the back held eight or nine of us. I counted a total of 22 people in the hall, including the concert organizer and the man doing the audio recording. That’s how many people had come to hear a pianist of exceptional talent and genuine interpretational genius. A shame.

Polish Hall, in north Portland on Interstate Ave. in St. Stanislaus parish, is a modest structure; adjoining it are a one-room library of Polish books and a small bar/dining room. Across the street is the modest church of St. Stanislaus itself, a Catholic center for locals of Polish and Croatian descent. These buildings are unassuming, to put it mildly. Polish pianist Maciej Grzybowski (mah-CHAY zh-BAWV-skee), born in 1968 and a resident of Warsaw, deserved a grand concert hall and at least a small cathedral next door.

Mr. Grzybowski was in town as part of a small performance series, in which the main events are a Polish Festival in September and occasional musical events; the hall also offers swing dance classes. The concert space in Polish Hall has a tiny stage with a shiny baby grand, at which Mr. Grzybowski sat for his adventurous program of old and new music.

Maciej Grzybowski performed in the Polish Music series at Portland's Polish Hall/

Maciej Grzybowski performed in the Polish Music series at Portland’s Polish Hall/

He began with a selection of six Inventions and Sinfonias by Johann Sebastian Bach, to which he devoted rapt attention. His phrasing and tempos were roughly the opposite of the infamously fast versions by Glenn Gould, although his intensity was the same. For the listener, at these slow tempos it was almost as if hearing these familiar pieces for the first time, so strange did they seem.

This proved to be the pianist’s method with music written by composers who were not alive during his lifetime. A set of three intermezzi, designated Opus 117, by Johannes Brahms were similarly treated: slow, with free tempos. Brahms wrote these pieces, along with the intermezzi of Opuses 118 and 119, near the end of his life, and he referred to at least some of them as portraits of his anguish at growing old alone and ill. So Grzybowski’s interpretation made some sense. Most noticeable at this level of microscopic investigation, Brahms’s harmonies seemed at the very edge of tonality, as if the aging composer were leaning toward the new musical language just then (in the 1890s) being explored by such younger composers as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. But this was a momentary illusion brought on by the pianist’s unique interpretation; in fact, the intermezzi, although soulful and introspective, lie well within the boundaries of late Romantic harmony.

Mr. Grzybowski began the second half of the concert with an innocent enough piece by Mozart, the Sonata in E-flat major, K. 282. It soon became clear why this piece was chosen, for the first of the three movements, when played at a relatively deliberate tempo, works through some surprising changes of key, undoubtedly much enjoyed by the playful composer. Elsewhere, the Sonata offers great contasts of delicacy and power, which the pianist seemed to revel in.

It could be argued that Grzybowski’s approach was more appropriate to a short selection of Claude Debussy’s Preludes, Part 2. These are Debussy at his most modern and least “pretty,” and they seemed very dark indeed under Mr. Grzybowski’s fingers. Next, in a five-minute set of three mazurkas by Frédéric Chopin, Grzybowski stuck close to the interpretive norm. These pieces, after all, are in the blood of all Polish classical pianists, who have heard them played all their lives.

Maciej Grybowski performed at Portland's Polish Hall.

Maciej Grybowski performed at Portland’s Polish Hall.

With more recent composers, Mr. Grzybowski proved an altogether different sort of pianist. His playing seemed more informed by the music — the notes, the tempos — and far less by what the music might have meant. A set of Four Preludes, written in 1992 by the young Polish composer Pawel Mytiekyn, started with a motoric number punctuated by very sharp and strong accents, then moved to a slower pace in the second, although still pungently accented. The third was very short but the fourth zoomed as if at a frantic pace. The four provided a strong finish to the first half of the program.

Similarly, a lovely version of Witold Lutoslawski’s Twelve Folk Melodies, from 1945, proved an excellent closing selection. Some of the 12 are quite beautiful, and all are pleasing and well-crafted. Grzybowski’s interpretation was more than equal to the best versions this reviewer has heard.

It was a fascinating night of music, with unique interpretations of old music spiced by glimpses of the present, all played by a man of real gifts and a distinct musical personality. So here’s a challenge for you, Portland concert presenters: let’s get this pianist back with an audience or four or five hundred!

Recommended recordings

By Maciej Grzybowski:
• André Tchaikowsky, Piano Concerto No. 2, Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Paul Daniel conducting (Toccata Classics).
Dialog: Bach, Schoenberg, Berg, Szymanski, Mykietyn (Universal).
• Pawe Szymanski, Works for Piano (EMI Classics).

Bach Inventions & Sinfonias (on piano):
• Andras Schiff (London ).

Brahms Intermezzi:
• Glenn Gould (Sony).
• Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Gramophon).

Mykietyn Four Preludes:
• Elena Brunello (You Tube).

Debussy Preludes Part II:
• Walter Gieseking (EMI).

Chopin Mazurkas:
• Alexander Brailowsky, Complete Mazurkas, Vols. 1-3 (Columbia).

Lutoslawski Twelve Folk Melodies:
• Hayk Melikyan (You Tube).

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at

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