Friday, 25 September 2015



There are many piano festivals that exist in the world's busy calendar of music events, but they are not equal. Some boast of a month-long duration, others of the sheer number of pianists invited, the “brand name” of artists et cetera, but only one prides itself on the wealth of repertoire on show. Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum is a connoisseur's festival, one that highlights neglected and fringe works of the repertoire, forgotten and unknown composers, centering on the cult of obscurity and rarity.

The market square at Husum
with the St Mary's Church (Marienkirche)

Held within an August summer's week in the relatively remote North German seaside town of Husum in Schleswig-Holstein, it is a curate's egg. Its isolation makes a trip there seem like a pilgrimage. For years, I had feasted on the annual highlights CD recording on the Danish Danacord label, enjoying whatever offerings pianists like Marc-André Hamelin, Daniel Berman, Frederic Meinders and Piers Lane might tickle its audiences with. The choices of music would always be surprising, fascinating beyond imagination, but I never imagined actually venturing into the unknown to North Friesland.

That was until an e-mail arrived in May, sent by fellow pianophile the Japanese musicologist and Professor of Aesthetics Satoru Takaku, who has been a Husum regular since in early noughties. “Come, I'll arrange tickets for you, book your hotel, and even meet you at Hamburg airport!” was his enticement, and I was caught hook, line and sinker. A round trip that could include the BBC Proms in London, the 18th Leeds International Piano Competition and Husum in late August was a possibility, and soon I was dreaming.   

Schloss vor Husum is a 16th century castle built by the Counts of Gottorf on the outskirts just north of the marketplace of Husum. Its oxide red bricks and single watch-tower built in the Danish (or is it Dutch?) style dominate the landscape and it even has a own moat of its own. Although its concerts begin at half-past-seven in the evening, daylight still filters into the Ritter Saal (Hall of Knights) which seats close to 200 in a small and intimate space. Ancient portraits and an elaborately decorated fireplace (this castle has some extraordinary fireplaces and mantelpieces!) vie for attention, as do the nesting birds and sqawking ducks which provide a not unwelcome counterpoint to the piano music. Soon the ear settles for the feast of piano sound, and that captivates like no other.

Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum is the brainchild of Berlin-born pianist and pedagogue Peter Froundjian, a soft-spoken mustachioed gentleman in his 60s of Armenian extraction. In 1985 he received an appointment to head the music school that is resident in the castle, and he saw the possibilities of such a festival at such a venue. He was interested in non-mainstream piano repertoire, and could not understand how a narrow repertoire could have pre-occupied musical and concert life for ages. He wanted to do something for the unjustly forgotten composers, such that they could be appreciated by the public like the great masters. There is much good music to heard, except that these are rarely programmed in recitals.

He felt that this approach would not work within the confines of one or two recitals, which would garner little attention if any. Instead a festival package spanning a week with eight recitals by different pianists of different tastes might do the trick. Husum is not near a big city (the closest, Hamburg, is 2 hours away by train), so visitors plan to stay the entire week. Return visitors and word-of-mouth ensure that all tickets to concerts are sold-out when the day arrives. Late-comers are to satisfy themselves by sitting in an adjacent room with a video feed (and another magnificent fireplace) for a small fee.

The intimate Ritter Saal of Schloss vor Husum
sits around 200 for each recital.

The first festival took place in 1987 with attention from the press, periodicals and media, and it was well received. Pianists including Michael Ponti (a Vox Records legend, a champion of unknown Romantic repertoire), Daniel Berman, Rainer Klaas, Eckhart Sellheim, a piano duo and Froundjian himself performed. The year 1989 was a pivotal one, which saw the participation of Marc-Andre Hamelin and Ronald Smith (in Alkan's Concerto and Symphony for solo piano respectively), Hamish Milne (Reubke's Sonata in B minor), Jean-Marc Luisada, Idil Biret and Ponti again. That edition sealed Husum's unique position in the pianistic world, with the focus on repertoire as the guiding light.

What have been some of the more arcane curiosities that Husum has mid-wifed? Froundjian lists off the palm of his hand: Cecile Licad performing Florent Schmitt, Marie-Catherine Girod playing a sonata by Pierre de Breville in the past, and young Russian Yuri Favorin unearthing Alkan, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev and Szymanowski in this year's line-up. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Virtuosity is a given, but obscurity a definitive.

Is there a formula by which Froundjian picks his artists and programmes? There is no fixed formula. Any pianist can apply to perform just as he can approach a given pianist. There are proposals for repertoire choices and counter-proposals, based on what has been performed in past years, and what has not. It is all a very interesting experiment.

The latest Danacord CD recording
of Rarities from the 2014 festival.

Thanks to the annual highlights CD, a labour of love co-produced by Danacord label's owner Jesper Buhl, the “legend of Husum” has spread far and wide, albeit within the relatively small cosmos of universal pianophiles. Asian visitors are still a relative rarity, but my friend Satoru has done much to proselytise Husum's gospel. Through his introduction, London-based Japanese pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi has performed twice in Husum in recent years, introducing works by Boris Pasternak (the author of Doctor Zhivago), Hubert Parry and others to receptive ears.     

The year 2016 marks the 30th edition of Rarities and who is to perform at this special anniversary? Froundjian does not reveal the names of pianists yet, but he assures it will be a combination of long-time friends favourites of the Festival and a late of new names making their debuts. Given the vast pool of concert pianists who are widening the performing repertoire every day, the possibilities are endless. As long as there are terra incognita for intrepid pianists to discover, and an ever-curious audience to savour these offerings, the cult and spirit of Husum is sure to endure.


Anonymous said...

Terrific! But something is either unique (one of a kind) or not. It cannot be "most" unique. That's like being "kind of" dead, or "a little" pregnant.

Chang Tou Liang said...

Totally agree with you. There are many piano festivals, concert series and competitions that claim to be "unique". But some are more special than others, for want of using the superfluous terms "more unique" or "most unique". So let's agree that Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum is "one of a kind" and the "most special" of them all!