ON THE MARGINS OF THE XVI INTERNATIONAL FRYDERYK CHOPIN PIANO COMPETITION OF WARSAW.
The observations, which we would like to bring to the Reader's attention, want to make clear what kind of relationship there is between Chopin, seen as a composer, pianist and teacher, with the most important competition dedicated to his memory.
According to the list of January 20, 2010 the applications accepted would have been 346; actually they were 342, as 4 names are repeated twice (i.e. Nikolay Leshchenko, Ho-Yeul Lim, Karolina Marchlewska, Hélène Tysman). The enrolled pianists admitted to the Preliminaries were 215, they were 55 more in comparison to the 160 indicated «in principle» in the Competition Rules (§ V, point 2.).
The applicable conditions for the registration excluded three categories of aspiring candidates:
– The aspiring self-taught;
– Those aspiring candidates who were not used to or did not want to turn to the recommendations from two «renowned pianists»;
– The aspiring candidates who did not possess the necessary equipment to make a DVD or who could not afford to borrow beyond a certain amount.
The first exclusion (the self-taught) arises from the silly presumption which takes for granted that no pianist could possibly play Chopin, if he/she had not attended a school or musical institution, officially authorized to issue a certificate of qualification. It is hardly necessary to recall that Arthur Rubinstein, having no title by his own admission, should not have been able to register himself, and they should not have named him as the honorary chairman of the Competition in 1960, either!
The second exclusion (those not recommended by a pair of renowned pianists) implies that the candidate has already twisted—in light of the world as it is today—relationships of “do ut des”, which he/she is just submitted to, or “obtorto collo” he/she is committing himself/herself to submit.
The third exclusion (DVD) reveals the vaguely class-biased aspect, which imbues and weaves the necessary conditions for entry:
"Do you play well Chopin?" – "I think so".
"But, do you have the money to come to the competition?" – “No!".
"Stay at home then."
The first unfair exclusion could be resolved in the following way. In the first place, the registration fee should change its name and become “contribution for the assessment of submitted documentation”, so it is not refundable under any circumstances. Secondly, those who only present an identity document and DVD must pay a deposit, which will be returned only in case of admission to the Preliminaries.
The second hateful exclusion (the recommendations) should be deleted tout court. There is nothing more viscous and binding than recommendations, the favourite food for corruption.
The third exclusion (DVD) should become more elastic: without prejudice to the conditions of continuity («no cuts during the performance»), if the friend or neighbour shows little aptitude for directing, it will not be so bad as long as the audio is acceptable. But, regarding the DVD, subsequent changes are necessary. A technical committee should be established to verify the suitability of the DVD, and only the audio track should be submitted to the jury and furthermore anonymously, marked with a secret code. The sight of the candidate allows identification and prematurely opens up hostility between the jurors, who have been tacitly assigned the task of “selecting” and eliminating in each case this or that candidate. The jurors just have to listen, they must not see and identify who is playing, so that they cannot do anything other than rely on what they are listening to. Corruption could break the suggested restraints, but its life would not be so easy.
The Competition Rules (§ III, point 2) specify that, «to a proposal from the Chair of the Admissions Committee, the Chair of the Jury of the Preliminaries may admit a candidate to the Sixteenth Competition with exemption from the preliminary auditions, based on his/her outstanding artistic achievements».
Even though apparently not used on this occasion, this is an exception that should be cancelled. Apart from the undisputable fact that people can change even in a short time, becoming better or worse, this exception creates initial differences, absolutely irrelevant to the purpose of the Competition and damaging both for the candidate that benefits from the exception and all the others. The candidate, elsewhere distinguished for his outstanding artistic achievements, can certainly not feel belittled if he/she follows the path from the beginning.
There are three juries: the First has to select those who will be admitted to the Preliminaries, the Second has to select the participants to the Competition and the Third has to select the winners. The only name that recurs in all three juries is that of Andrzej Jasiński who therefore constitutes the link. Kazimierz Gierżod and Marta Sosińska are on the First and Second jury, whilst the following jurors are on the Second and Third jury: Adam Harasiewich, Kevin Kenner and Piotr Paleczny.
First jury: Kazimierz Gierżod, Andrzej Jasiński, Bronisława Kawalla, Grzegorz Kurzyński, Magdalena Lisak, Marta Sosińska, Elżbieta Tarnawska, Andrzej Tatarski, Waldemar Wojtal, Edward Wolanin.
Second jury: Ludmil Angelov, Rudolf Bernatik, Manana Doidjashvili, Akiko Ebi (Japan), Kazimierz Gierżod, Bernd Goetzke (Germany), Adam Harasiewich (Poland), Krzysztof Jabloński (Poland), Andrzej Jasiński (Poland), Kevin Kenner (USA), Ivan Klansky (Czech Republic), Alberto Nose (Italy), Piotr Paleczny (Poland), Boris Petrushansky (Russia), Jerome Rose (USA), Jacques Rouvier (France), Marta Sosińska-Janczewska (Poland), Wojciech Świtała (Poland), Dina Yoffe (Israel), Zhong (China).
Third jury: Andrzej Jasiński (chairperson), Marta Argerich, Dang Thai Son, Bella Davidovich, Philippe Entremont, Fou Ts'ong, Nelson Freire, Adam Harasiewich, Kevin Kenner, Michie Koyama, Piotr Paleczny, Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń.
With the exception of a few names (like Edward Wolanin, who indeed was Ekier's pupil), most of the jurors had participated in previous editions of the Competition with different outcomes. An obvious question arises: the first prizes (like Adam Harasiewich) would have more influential power than the second prizes? And the second prizes (like Dina Yoffe) would have more authority than the third prizes? And the third prizes (like Piotr Paleczny) will be able to win the initiative of the fourth ones? And so on…
According to the § IV, letter g), of the Competition Rules the candidates for the Preliminaries were judged on the base of the DVD, containing the program described in § IX. The First jury inspected these videos behind closed doors. «In case of a large number of applications the Admissions Committee may work in two groups, acting simultaneously. The Director of the Competition, the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Admissions Committee will determine the rules of dividing the Committee into the groups» (see § IX of the Rules of the Admissions Committee).
It is well known down to the nausea that no competition exists in any field at any level, where the jury is composed by members of the same competence, incorruptible and impartial. The rules can try to prevent the pitfalls that this fact implies, but only up to a certain point, the saying “every law has a loophole” underlining an unquestionable reality. Furthermore, the reputation of the members is no guarantee of honesty.
It is worth remembering what Arthur Rubinstein wrote in the second volume of his autobiography about the only Chopin Competition, in which he was the honorary chairman in 1960:
«I remember… when I was invited to be the honorary chairman of the Chopin Competition. The jury was very numerous, including names like Nadia Boulanger, Marguerite Long, Magda Tagliaferro on the French side, and my old friend Neuhaus and five or six other prominent Russian musicians, and representatives of many other countries. There were also many international competitors. Right from the beginning, Maurizio Pollini showed a complete supremacy over the others. Another young pianist, Michel Block, had plenty of personality with a perfect technical equipment. The ten others admitted to the finals played their programs but showed no particular talent.
Rubinstein was a funny person and liked humoristic jokes, but we have to correct something: the second and third prizes actually went to a Russian (Irina Zaritskaya) and to an Iranian (Tania Achot-Haroutounian), but the fourth prize—not the tenth place—went to Li Min-Chan, the Chinese «who played Chopin in Chinese». The two Poles «who shouldn't have been admitted», Jerzy Godziszewski and Josef Stompel, received a distinction, not the fifth and the sixth prize. Zinayda Ignatyeva, the «nice-looking Russian without talent», was assigned the fifth prize, not the fourth, and also the Japanese «who played Chopin in Japanese», Hitoshi Kobayashi, was given a distinction. Obviously, this does not affect the substance of Rubinstein's affirmations at all!
Well, would it be legitimate perhaps to conclude that things got better? Certainly, it would be naive! If we are to believe Jósef Kański (see the interview quoted below)—for whom since 1970 the best started to be rejected and, therefore, what happened to Block in 1960 was normal routine—we can easily imagine what happened after… Most of us remember the affaire, which featured the 1980 Competition, when Ivo Pogorelich was excluded from the prizes and Martha Argerich, as a sign of indignation, left the jury.
Even though the Competition was beautifully organized, those who chose the members of the Third jury in 2010, showed a strong sense of humour, because they put together with Martha Argerich, lowered, so to speak, to more merciful advice, just that Chopin's wishy-washy interpreter, Dang Thai Son, who was given the first prize in 1980 without any credit.
Back to the scrutiny of the DVD, it is likely to believe that the dirty work starts here, but we will never know. The unusual decision of the director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute together with the director of the Competition—no matter how one wants to interpret it (see note 2)—was a deft move, that wiped out each and every possible dispute about the work of the Committee. So, those admitted to the Preliminaries were 215, while those admitted to the Competition were 81 (actually 78, see note 17); this resulted in the elimination of 134 candidates!
Unfortunately—and we apologize to the Reader—it was not possible for us to follow the Preliminaries, therefore, not having recordings available to us, we cannot formulate an accurate assessment of the jury's work. For example, the elimination of some names is perplexing like those of Christophe Alvarez or the Russian Alexander Lubyantsev, young with a strong personality and, from a technical point of view, not inferior to any of the winners, especially in comparison with the large number of candidates from the Far East, real Lisztian machines, who showed that they did not even understand a single note of Chopin.
Before continuing, however, it is necessary to outline, even if only briefly, in which way one can differentiate a Chopin interpreter from a player who is not.
The new piano school, which Chopin longed for.
In a letter of March 5, 1852 to Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, Chopin's older sister, Jane Wilhelmina Stirling, a Master's pupil, refers to the Liszt's recent monograph and quotes a proverb of the time: «He [i.e. Liszt] spit on the plate in order to disgust the others [Il a craché sur l'assiette pour en dégouter les autres]», and annotates:
«As for the beautiful and bright philosophy on the Art of piano-playing, as a result of which the piano has become a new instrument, there is no mention, which makes me wonder! Did he not understand anything? Or wanted to keep silent knowingly? With his pen, which is often, in my opinion, elegant (although it is said that he does not know how to write French), he could have written good things, as a Pianist. I do not understand how he skipped these sensational discoveries of truth a genius finds, but, as Chopin said, does not invent. Liszt is vain and petty, because he only thinks of himself (Quant à la belle et lumineuse philosophie sur l'Art de toucher du piano qui en a fait un instrument nouveau, il n'est est pas question, ce qui m'étonne ! N'y avait-il rien compris ? Ou a-t-il voulu se taire sciemment ? Avec sa plume qui est souvent, selon moi, élégante (malgré que l'on dit qu'il ne sait pas écrire en français) il aurait pu dire de belles choses, et comme Pianiste, je ne comprends pas comment il a sauté à picppar ces découvertes de vérités si frappantes que le génie trouve, mais comme C[hopin] disait, n'invente pas. Il est vaniteux et petit parce qu'il pense à lui)» (cf. Hanna Wroblewska-Straus, Jane Wilhelmina Stirling's Letters to Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, in “Chopin Studies” I [Warsaw 1985] p. 110s.).
Temporary avoiding to comment about manners by which Liszt was capable to show his vulgarity, manners by which not even the squabble of two whores contending a street corner could match, here we would like to stress Jane Stirling's words: Chopin had «found» a new way of piano-playing, so new that it seemed transforming the piano into a «new instrument».
The piano schools are fundamentally two, antithetical. They are represented, one by Liszt, the other by Chopin. The roots of both branch from Bach. Bach, who loved the keyboard, whatever sound it produced (organ, harpsichord, fortepiano), traced the path of the first school, which, through Mozart, leads to Liszt. The other soul of Bach, who preferred playing clavichord most likely because of the possibility of modifying the sound with the pressure and the vibration of the fingertips (Bebung), through Clementi, achieves perfection with Chopin.
The first school—which we will call “harpsichord piano school”—concentrates on the keyboard, on the fingers' articulation, on pure technical ability; the fortepiano, in comparison to the harpsichord, has the advantage of allowing the gradual insertion of different registers varying the pressure of the fingers. The quality of sound has a secondary importance and is delegated to the instrument. The piano, in short, is only an instrument that emits a certain sound, whose variations are seen in terms of volume: the more powerful, the more possibilities are offered.
The second school, on the other hand—which we will call “vocal piano school”—, discovered, already by Clementi, the peculiar quality of sound which is modified countless ways depending on how, not on how much, the keys are pressed. The fingers' articulation, the technical skill is subjected to the sound quality, and the quality of sound is not a peculiarity of the instrument, but of the performer himself. The piano, therefore, is not only a simple instrument with a keyboard, but it has a voice, the personal voice of the performer; and a piano will be so much better as it will be more sensitive to the needs of the performer (see A. Marmontel, Histoire du piano, Paris [Heugel & Fils] 1885, pp.332f.).
For the first school, the aim is to match and even exceed the orchestra. For the second school, the aim is not to imitate or exceed the human voice, but to sing like a human voice. And the purest singing is confirmed—especially from the point of expression—in the Italian Belcanto, which Chopin was in love with from when he was little.
The basic principles of the Lisztian school are of an agonistic nature, that is speed and strength in the fingers, that one can reach with a workout like it happens in the gym. To study Bach is not as decisive, as it was not for Mozart. Scales are needed, arpeggios, repeated notes, &ct. Legato-playing becomes a pedalling problem. As to the quality of sound, it is delegated, as said, to the instrument.
The basic principles of the Chopinian school are aimed at training one's own voice: The independence of the fingers becomes primary, not strength. Hence, practising Bach becomes a determinant factor (especially because Bach worried about the independence of the fingers, not about strength), as well as the study of Clementi, whose writing is already decisively piano-oriented, while that of Mozart is still clearly harpsichord-oriented. Moreover, the legato becomes fundamental, with it, the study of Italian Belcanto, so recommended by Chopin.
In short, with Chopin the piano from mechanical instrument becomes a voice of the soul.
So, to play Chopin two requisites are indispensable: 1. To understand and love Bach; 2. To know the Italian Belcanto. Without these requisites one cannot even think to come close to Chopin. But, alas, the majority of pianists, if on one side manage to tolerate Bach, from the other, ignore completely what the Italian Belcanto is. Unfortunately the actual situation does not help young people, because the Italian Belcanto has disappeared. It does not exist any more.
The two schools were already clearly distinct in the 1800's: they were called one “German school”, the other “singing and smoothly style school” (cf. A. Marmontel, ibid., p. 153). Now, while with Liszt it is the keyboard that suggests to the composer how to best exploit it up to the possible limits, Chopin subdues the piano-playing both in touch, that becomes the voice of the executor, and in rhythm, that is neither the meter nor time, but breath, that of the human voice.
The choice of piano.
In this edition of the Competition four different grand concert pianos were made available for the candidates: a Steinway's grand concert, a Kawai's one, a Yamaha's and a Fazioli's. If, at first sight, this novelty might have met with the approval of most, it is, instead, an opportunity motivated by the most bewildering ignorance of Chopin's principles.
The reason for which Chopin preferred the Pleyel's pianos is not at all the one referred by Liszt, and not even, as correctly observed Marmontel, because of the friendship which Mr Pleyel showed to him. Chopin himself explained that in a way that could not be clearer: in spite of the quotation marks, Marmontel probably does not report the Pianist-composer's own words, but specifies a detail—not referred by Blaze de Bury—, which he could only have heard from Chopin:
«That is how the great virtuoso expressed his feelings: “If I do not have my means available, if my fingers are less elastic, less agile, if I don't have the strength to touch how I want to, to guide and modify the action of the keys and the hammers as I desire, I prefer an Erard's piano: the sound is ready made in its clearness; but if I feel well, ready to make my fingers work effortlessly, without being tense, I prefer a Pleyel's one. The intimate transfer of my thoughts, of that which I feel, is more direct, more personal. I feel my fingers in more immediate communication with the hammers, which translate exactly and faithfully the sensation I want to produce, the effect I want to obtain" (Voici le sentiment exprimé par le grand virtuose: “ Si je n'ai pas la libre disposition de mes moyens, si mes doigts sont moins souples, moins agiles, si je n'ai pas la force de pétrir le clavier à ma volonté, de conduire et modifier l'action des touches et des marteaux comme je le comprends, je préfère un piano d'Érard, le son se produit tout fait dans son éclat limpide; mais si je me sens vaillant, disposé à faire agir mes doigts sans fatigue, sans énervement, je préfère les pianos Pleyel. La transmission intime de ma pensée, de mon sentiment, est plus directe, plus personnelle. Je sens mes doigts plus en communication immédiate avec les marteaux qui traduisent exactement et fidèlement, la sensation que je désire produire, l'effet que je veux obtenir ”).» (ibid. p. 256).
Well, to feel «my fingers in more immediate communication with the hammers» is a detail that Marmontel could only have heard from Chopin's lips and that he made it its own, repeating it in his Histoire, without quoting the source. It is astonishing that a great pianist like Josef Lhévinne, who had not read Mamontel's Histoire—we deduce that from the image which he resorts to—, says the same thing: «Instead imagine that you are actually playing upon the wires, ringing them with soft felt-covered hammers and not with hard metal bars.» (J. Lhévinne, Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, New York [Dover Publications] 1972, p. 21).
Till the beginning of the second world war the piano market offered a much greater choice: there were, other than Steinway's grand concert pianos, splendid Bechstein's ones, marvellous Pleyel's, excellent Kaim's, wonderful Grotrian-Steinweg's. Lhévinne who from Russia moved to the United States, preferred the Baldwin's grand. All of these pianos, beyond all their own characteristics, were very sensitive to the different touch of various pianists. Unfortunately, however, the success of the “modern school”, means to say “German school”, and the decay of taste, together with complex social-economic reasons, decreed the death of those instruments: Pleyel went bankrupt; the Bechstein's factory was bombed out, and what the bombs did not destroy, the Allies' economic power did in the immediate post-war period; the Kaim disappeared from the market, and so on.
Only Steinway remained. We are not fans of Steinway, but, not to be factious, we are forced to admit that even today Steinway is the piano most sensitive to touch. It is one of the characteristics, that it is slowly losing, but it still exists. Under different hands the best instruments' sonority does change.
Avoiding to give this test to a candidate, allowing him/her to play an instrument with a ready made tone, is a very severe error and is absolutely against Chopin's piano ideal.
Out of the three instruments offered, other than Steinway (good, but not exceptional), the Kawai revealed itself to be the best, followed by Yamaha and, notably distanced, the Fazioli one, the worst of the three; but all three are much more inferior than the Steinway one.
The management of the Competition should retrace its steps and only make the Steinway available to the candidates, unless they find some Pleyel's and Bechstein's from the 1920's, have them restored by someone who knows how to and propose those! The present-day Pleyel's grand pianos, in fact, are neither worse nor better than lots of other grand pianos (we deduce that from the recordings in which they were used). Neither the Pleyels of Chopin's era play as they did when they were new: the soundboard is flat, the felts are dried; no conservative restoration could make up for it. It would be like expecting a great actor who is over one hundred years old to have the same voice, which he had when he was young; and… a new set of false teeth would do no more than make matters worse! It would need a manufacturer to make a decision to insert in some of their grand pianos the Pleyel's mechanism, reframed for the size of modern pianos. The secret, nevertheless, it is all in the intonation and in the quality of the felts.
If a candidate is a student of one of the jurors, the same juror has to put an 'S' by the student's name (§ XIV, second paragraph, of the Rules of the Admissions Committee). This instruction implies that the bias of the jurors towards their student is ineluctable.
Such partiality was confirmed by § XV: «If the number of points awarded by one of the Jurors deviates from the arithmetic mean of the total points obtained by a pianist by more than 8 points, then a second, auxiliary arithmetic mean of the total points obtained by that pianist will be calculated, excluding the deviant marks. All the marks falling outside the above-specified norm of deviation from the auxiliary mean obtained in this way will then be corrected to the nearest whole number within this norm. The final, determinant mean will be that obtained from the marks corrected in this way.»
Let us give an example. In the First session the first candidate (Soo Jung Ann) had obtained from the 12 jurors the following marks: 45, 72, 79, 50, 30, 50, 76, 75, 74, 73, 80, 76, with a total of 780 points, of which the arithmetic mean is 65. Now, as the difference from the provided mean for the First session is 10 points, a new mean needs to be calculated considering only the marks within the band 55÷75, so (72+75+74+73): 4, of which the result is 73,5, generating a new band, that is 64÷83. The marks within this second band remain unvaried, those higher are lowered down to 83 and those lower are raised to 64. Hence, the new series result to be as follows: 64+72+79+64+64+64+76+75+74+73+80+76; the new total, 861, will give the definitive mean, 71,75, which was assigned. Furthermore, the juror has to indicate a “yes” or a “no”, to signify if in his judgment the candidate deserves or doesn't deserve to pass through to the next session. The candidate in the example had obtained 5 “yes”.
Unfortunately we do not have the scores for all the 342 enrolled and, so, we cannot valuate the jury's behaviour; neither do we have the votes of the 215 admitted to the Preliminaries. Nevertheless, taking note of the voting in the three sessions, we can give ourselves an idea that it plausible enough.
According to that provided in § IV, letter g) of the Competition Rules the DVD has to contain «the program of Stage I». It is divided into three sections:
1.: two Etudes as preferred (from Op. 10 nos. 1, 4, 5, 8, 11, 12, Op. 25 no. 11) or two Etudes as preferred (from Op. 10 nos. 2, 7, 10, 11, Op. 25 nos. 4, 5, 6, 10).
2.: one Nocturne as preferred (from Op. 9 no. 3, Op. 27, Op. 37 no. 2, Op. 48, Op. 55 no. 2, Op. 62) or another Etude as preferred (from Op. 10 no. 6, Op. 25 no. 7, Op. 10 no. 3).
3.: one Ballad, or the Barcarolle, or the Fantasy or one Scherzo.
These three sections might seem to correspond to a precise criterion: the first section ought to test the pure technical level of the candidate; the second, his/her interpretative qualities; the third, the first and second together.
But, here one can immediately verify the ignorance of the Chopin piano school to Liszt's total advantage. We have indicated above that one of the primary characteristics of the Chopin school is the legato typical of the human voice: according to the testimony of a real student of Chopin, one of the least flattering comments from the Maestro was: « He/she cannot play two notes smoothly». The skill to play smoothly is not an interpretative fact, but a technical prerogative indispensable to be able to perform the works of Chopin well.
Even though it is impossible to play any works of Chopin without legato, Belcanto, souplesse (= softness, suppleness, elasticity) and rhythm (= natural breathing), the Etudes dedicated by Chopin in particular to legato are two: Op. 10 no. 6 and Op. 25 no. 7. A false tradition has distorted the correct execution and the technical value. Both are proposed in the second section together with the Nocturnes, which have nothing to do with them. We remained astonished reading again in a recent publication dedicated to the Etudes, the decadent opinion of Koczalski, according to whom the Etude Op. 10 no. 6 «is not an etude in the traditional way, but rather like a nocturne, since the character of this wonderful composition corresponds entirely to this type (Es ist keine Etüde in hergebrachtem Sinn, eher aber ein Nocturne, denn der Charakter der wundervollen Komposition entspricht ganz dieser Kunstgattung)» (cf. Jan Marisse Huizing, Frédéric Chopin. Die Etüden, Entstehung-Aufführungspraxis-Interpretation, Mainz [Schott] 2009, p. 102).[13bis] In other words, since Chopin called nocturne an etude, he was an imbecile, because he did not know how to distinguish between an etude and a nocturne! Well, do you really want to know whether the Etude Op. 10 no. 6 is an etude or a nocturne? Then, play it as Chopin wrote, that is keeping the time indicated by his metronome and absolutely—and we underline absolutely—without any pedalling: if you find easy to sing with the right hand and to convey, with the left one, the flow of a stream, it is a nocturne, otherwise, it is an etude!!
The Etude Op. 25 no. 7 puts the student's technical improvement to the test by inserting, if the distances prevent a good legato, the pedal, which must be limited only to the passages where it is necessary.
A false tradition, now consolidated, requires the indiscriminate use of the pedal in both of these Etudes and, for the no. 6 Op. 10, a tempo so absurdly slow, as if to distort the musical significance of the piece and frustrate its technical purpose.
Today nearly all pianists commit the legato to the pedal, so that they free themselves from one of the major difficulties that the Chopin school wants to see overcome.
As for Belcanto, there is no work of Chopin, which does not ask for singing. But, pay attention!, Chopin does not transfer the Italian Belcanto to the piano, in the sense of the spianato singing, as does rhetorically Liszt, but he recreates it on the piano, so the Italian Belcanto becomes piano Belcanto and, more precisely, Chopin Belcanto. Chopin did not dedicate any Etude for his new Belcanto, since all of his work is impregnated with it. In two of his Etudes where the singing voice is present in its simplest form (no. 3 Op. 10, no. 5 Op. 25), the technical purpose is different.
Some Nocturnes are excluded, in our opinion, for the ignorance of the Chopin piano school. From an interpretative point of view the Nocturnes, together with the Mazurkas, are the most difficult composition to translate, and therefore, to interpret. They are somehow philosophical compositions: if we glance through the titles of great classical tradition's works, there will be a lot which might well summarize the topic of this or that Nocturne: de amicitia, de senectute, de anima, de caelo, etc. They should be reserved to the successive stages of the Competition; in any case, it is wrong to propose a choice: all the candidates should play the same Nocturne.
In the third section, Ballads, Scherzi, Barcarolle and Fantasy are joined. The Barcarolle and the Fantasy are to be reserved for the subsequent stages; in this phase they are premature. The first Ballad and the first Scherzo are more than sufficient and both should be performed. If they do not want to give up offering a choice, the Barcarolle and the Fantasy should be replaced by the Allegro de Concert and the Rondo Op. 16.
To conclude, in our opinion, the DVD, necessary for the access to the Preliminaries should contain: 1. (For the legato technique) the Etude Op. 10 no. 6 or the Etude Op. 25 no. 7 (to be performed according to the indications above); 2. (For the souplesse) a choice of one of the following Etudes: Op. 10 nos. 1, 7, 8, 11, Op. 25 nos. 4, 9; 3. One Etude from the ones dedicated respectively to the thirds, the sixths and the octaves; 4. Two compositions as preferred from the first Ballad, the first Scherzo, the Allegro de Concert and the Rondo Op. 16; 5. One Mazurka (the same for everyone).
Such a group of works would consent a deaf person to understand if the candidate possesses the minimum of requirements to play Chopin. However, every evaluation on the interpretation should be skipped here. It will be sufficient to draw attention to the observance of the Chopin text.
Technique and gestures.
One of the evident differences—that can be seen by all people, competent and not—between the two schools, the Lisztian and the Chopinian, is in the opposite gestures. The followers of the Lisztian school love the clown's grotesque gesticulation: they wave their arms around, toss their torso in all directions, lower their heads towards the keyboard and abruptly move away, shake their hair, laugh, sneer, squint his yes, contract every muscle of their face assuming the most disconcerting look, move their hands in useless movements; sometimes they conduct themselves as if they have the baton in their hand. After all, it is known that Liszt himself agitated a lot, shaking his head to make a tuft of hair fall over his eyes! On the contrary, it is equally well known that Chopin had a noble sedateness at the piano: his elbows were softly dangling from his shoulders, his torso was slightly leaning forward, his hands were almost motionless but incredibly elastic, no convulsive movements, no contortion of the face; only his eyes betrayed an almost mediumistic state.
Well, the clown gestures take away concentration and transform the performance into a circus act. This was well demonstrated both by the Bulgarian Evgeni Bozhanov and the French Hélène Tysman: sometimes, the first, framed frontally by the camera, had such a terrorized expression, as if a colony of mice was attacking him in the groin. The latter's hands looked like spiders, which, sliding across the keyboard, remained entangled in the web they had made. So, both demonstrated the effects of the mentioned absurd gesticulations (which are indeed horrible to see): in fact, Bozhanov—omitting other episodes—lost on the mordent of bar 448 of the third movement of the Concerto Op. 11; fortunately, the passage's simplicity enabled him to collect himself. Tysman, who just in the Etude Op. 10 no. 2—however well executed with compelling interpretative ideas—got stuck at bar 27 (other trifles aside), in the third movement of the second Concerto—we are overlooking other details—attacked the cadenza of bars 317ff. one octave below, stopped, and, in the attempt to recover the passage, got into a daze.
It's a teacher's job to worry about how a pupil is at the piano! Every tic or repetitive movement, be it in the face or body, is always an indicator of a technical problem, that sooner or later emerges. The more it is neglected, the more difficult it is to eliminate the cause.
Formulation of the judgments.
In the interview published in “Chopin Express” of October 12, 2010, Kevin Kenner was asked, «if two professional pianists can have a totally different opinion of the same performance». The indefiniteness of the expression of “two professional pianists” allowed Kenner to evade the answer in an intelligent way: in fact he answered yes! The interviewer should have specified that with that phrase he meant “two great pianists who had demonstrated to be also great interpreters”. The trouble is that among the jurors there are, yes, great pianists, purely from a technical point of view, like Marta Argerich, but no great interpreters; in fact, there are very mediocre interpreters and, what is more, no real Chopin interpreter. Among the jury, the worst players never improved, and the best, above all as interpreters, in time always got worse. Despite this, it is not necessary to be a great pianist or a great interpreter to recognize who is and who is not: it is enough to have intelligence, sensitivity and honesty; but such qualities, alas, are not bound to fame.
Analysing the published votes, it could be possible to reconstruct the phases of the various battles up until the last, the decisive one. Nevertheless, not finding any interest for such a boring investigation, we will limit ourselves to some remarks.
The first singularity is given from the less than 60 points marks awarded in the First session. Argerich gave 17 (ten times 50, five times 45 and twice 40), Davidovich 4 (once 58, once 55 and twice 50), Entremont 38 (always 50), Fou Ts'ong 35 (four times 50, five times 40, once 35, fourteen times 30 and eleven times 20), Freire 11 (twice 55 and nine times 50), Harasiewich 1 (55), Paleczny 8 (once 59, twice 58, twice 55, once 54, once 53 and once 52). Excluding a single low mark given by Harasiewich, we can divide the jury into two factions, the good and the bad; among these last ones, Entremont and Fou Ts'ong behaved more like executioners than judges!
But let us see some astounding comparisons. Always in the First session, Geniušas got 95 from Koyama and 35 from Fou Ts'ong, for which the candidate did not deserve to pass to the next session. Gilbert got 80 from Jasiński and 20 from Fou Ts'ong. Tysman got 94 from Paleczny and 30 from Fou Ts'ong, who thought—together with Davidovich, Freire and Harasiewich—she did not deserve to pass to the next session.
The evolution of some scores in the Second session is even more disconcerting. Fou Ts'ong changed idea about Geniušas, who with a 97 became worthy to pass to the Third session. Also Tysman, although collecting five “no's” (from Thai Son, Davidovich, Harasiewich, Jasiński, Popowa-Zydroń), received a “yes” from Fou Ts'ong with a 76! Now then, if it is not avoidable that at a certain point a juror thinks a candidate is no longer worthy to continue, a contrary conduct is most suspect. For Tysman, for example, Davidovich was coherent: in all three sessions, she was given a “no”; Fou Ts'ong, instead, had expressed a “yes” with a 76 in the Second session after a “no” with a 30 in the First. Even with Entremont, who in the Second session expressed a “no” with a 66 for Geniušas, while in the Third session he granted him a “yes” with an 84. Also Jasiński changed his opinion about Bozhanov, but a 73, not a 50 or a 30 accompanied his “no” in the First session. In our judgment it remains unacceptable, but it is certainly more justifiable.
It is quite incontrovertible that such votes had nothing to do with the evaluation of the candidates, but answered to other instances. A juror who first crushes a candidate, then exalts him/her, is an incompetent or factious judge, in any case unreliable.
Finals and prizes.
However the jury worked, that is enough. Let us pass to the Finals. The finalists were: Yulianna Avdeeva, Evgeni Bozhanov, François Dumont, Lukas Geniušas, Nikolay Khozyainov, Miroslav Kultyshev, Daniil Trifonov, Hélène Tysman, Paweł Wakarecy and Ingolf Wunder.
It is difficult to explain what do Dumont, Trifonov, Wakarecy and (for different reasons) Tysman in the Finals do! In fact, we deduce all that we know, from the acquired documentation, and what we see in the crystal ball, we keep it for us…
A word about the program. To limit the test only to one of the two Concertos is offensive for Chopin: the splendid Variations Op. 2, the Fantasy Op. 13, and the Krakowiak, where shall we leave them, in oblivion? Every finalist should perform, besides a Concerto, also the Variations or the Fantasy Op. 13 or the Krakowiak. We are therefore perfectly in agreement with Jósef Kański, who thought it appropriate to enlarge the program of the Final session «to include another piece. For one reason, to keep things interesting, but also to promote Chopin's works with orchestra, which are much less well-known throughout the world.» (cf. “Chopin Express” of October 14, 2010).
Let us start with the «best performances». Geniušas would have been the best interpreter of a Polonaise, Wunder of a Concerto, Trifonov of Mazurkas, Avdeeva of a Sonata and, again, Wunder of the Polonaise-Fantasy. Once more, we have got here the evidence of the jury's inadequacy. In reality, in the Op. 44 Geniušas restrained himself, he did not want to risk; he played well, yes, as Miroslav Kultyshev did too, but we are really a long way from Chopin.
Geniušas performed the best Concerto without any doubt. The performance of Wunder was full of anti-Chopinian details (grace notes, trills, etc.). For example, he missed the first C of bar 530. At bar 603, failing to perform the triplet under the quintuplet, he messed up. In bar 110 of the second movement Chopin did not write any rallentando. In any case, Wunder performed a good Concerto, deploying a nice brilliancy in the final of the third movement, but not so winning as Geniušas did. Nevertheless, Wunder, when he plays without worrying about some effects like piano and pianissimo, draws from the instrument a good tone; also, his forte or fortissimo have a mellow sonority; which signifies that his arms weight correctly on the keyboard. It is a natural gift, of course, because, if he was conscious of his touch, his piano and pianissimo would not be, as they unfortunately are, empty. Moreover, like all the competitors, he plays legato almost exclusively with the aid of the pedal. Geniušas—the only one who has the makings of a virtuoso in the way of the great Russian tradition—lavished brilliancy and youthful burst, and averaged a better touch. Unfortunately, both totally ignore the Belcanto.
As to Mazurkas and to the Polonaise-Fantasy, no candidate amid the 78 admitted, had understood and performed even one Mazurka well or the Polonaise-Fantasy, let alone Wunder. The style is the same for all, that is Lisztian, not Chopinian, and this is most disturbing especially in the Mazurkas and in the Polonaise-Fantasy, where Wunder's phrasing revealed itself trite, anti-Chopinan: at bar 149 he applied a dynamic contrary to that written by Chopin; at bar 215 he anticipated the forte demonstrating he had not understood the passage; at bar 220 he did not respect the rallentando expressly written by Chopin, etc. Wunder, as a Harasiewich's pupil, showed that he had not significantly improved since the previous participation in the Competition: he still makes too many grimaces, whose effect we heard in the Third session, where he made some mess both in the Rondo and the first movement of the Sonata. Wunder has reached the maximum level, he can reach: he is without doubt a good pianist, but he has not got the makings of a virtuoso like Geniušas. At last, Wunder is an anonymous Chopin interpreter. The Chopin's legato and the Belcanto and softness are completely unknown to him.
Trifonov now hams, now flares up. Furthermore, he chose a Fazioli's piano, showing everyone that he ignores what touch is. His Mazurkas' interpretation is abstruse; he did not understand the sense of those gems.
We agree only with award for the best Sonata to Avdeeva. Although the Sonata Op. 35 is beyond her technical means, as resulted in the “Scherzo”, she managed within her limits to offer a credible and appreciable interpretation, demonstrating notable interpreter qualities, which marked her out just from the beginning.
And let us come to the prizes. With these ten finalists it would have been the last straw if Avdeeva did not win the first prize. In fact, not to award a prize, as happened in the past, is really ridiculous; it is as if in a sports competition the winner would be awarded the second prize, because he didn't beat the world record! And we do not even approve the ex aequo prizes. There are not two candidates, identical and worthy at the same degree. The ex aequo prizes are always an hideous compromise for the jury: who gains more is the one who gives less. Wunder and Geniušas are two very different pianists, representatives of very different piano schools. Probably, Avdeeva had upset the plans, because Wunder was the one destined to win: this was clearly revealed from the first voting.
Avdeeva's clear superiority is in the correct relationship between technical possibilities and interpretative conception. Avdeeva does not perform a single passage with the risk of taking a false step and does not perform a single passage without having a precise interpretative idea, which has to be freely expressed with the means at her disposal. This is the reason why her least convincing interpretation was just the Concerto: bound by the orchestra she must have felt a little bridled, and did not express herself at her best; during all the Concerto the phrasing did not turn out as she would have wanted, and in the third movement the relation technique-interpretation was a little broken up. As to the relationship Avdeeva-Chopin, we can only repeat what we have already said several times: ignorance of the Belcanto, rhythm/breathing non-Chopinian, and pianissimi toneless, not to mention the choice of the wrong piano (Yamaha).
We would have awarded, yes, the first prize to Avdeeva, but the second to Geniušas, the third to Kultyshev (not wishing to take into account his Nocturnes that looked like the gaiting of a goose that, fattened to excess, cannot manage to fly), the fourth to Osaki (not admitted to the Finals), the fifth to Wunder, the sixth… we would have drawn lots for it!
Last but not least, we would have set up a special prize that should be introduced in every future edition of the Competition, to award to the most promising youngster (i.e. who has not yet reached 20 years of age). Nikolay Khozyainov, who also chose the wrong instrument, would have deserved a prize, but, having shown great gift and great possibility, it would have been a pity to give him a fifth or a sixth prize, when, having matured, could deserve one of the first three. So, an award-invite to return, which would carry with it a direct (in this case and only in this case) and free admission—that is all expenses paid in full, including the stay for two people—to the Competition.
We would not have awarded any prize for the best interpretation of any work, to signify that, since a competition had been announced, the prizes were necessarily awarded, but, as far as the Chopin piano school is concerned, we are still very far away.
At last, we want to quote a nice, but not superficial, short article published in no. 78 of the “Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung” of 1841, p. 327:
«Liszt, Thalberg, and Chopin are the triumvirate of the piano. If Liszt uses this instrument without any constraints, as he likes, if Thalberg's fingers run over the keys with grace and lightness of breeze, we can say that Chopin plays piano in the truest sense of the word. Liszt amazes with his extraordinary technique and power; in Thalberg we admire the formal elegance, and when one listens to Chopin, one is led to believe that the spirit and the poetry of his graceful playing style and the deep feeling that is reflected, are of divine nature. Hence, it can happen that the style of Chopin would not cause an uproar from listeners, since it takes effect on the heart rather than gratify the external senses. His playing is very similar to the Parisian women, as they do not have that beauty that wins at first glance, but if you look at them a bit longer, you are irresistibly captivated by something that you cannot explain. A regular beauty can be understood and dissected, so that the elements which compound it, can be identified, but the spirit, the fantasy, which always one finds in the charming Chopin's playing, do not themselves get either grasped or analysed.»
We invite the Reader to listen to all the finalists—and, why not, to the jurors…—and verify if one of them even remotely causes such a feeling!
If this competition does not change, it should at least change its name, because it is not a Chopin competition in the suitable sense, but a competition for a Lisztian interpretation of Chopin! And let us drop struggles, blackmail and compromises, which characterize the work of the most of jurors in all juries in all competitions.
 All of the data cited derived from those published on the Internet site of the Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina
[All rights reserved © Franco Luigi Viero]