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Conversations with the 2011 piano preselection jury


Four members of the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition piano pre-selection jury came to Moscow in mid-January– Marcello Abbado from Italy, Dmitri Alexeev from Russia, Sergei Babayan from the United States, and Jurgen Meyer-Josten from Germany — to choose 35 participants for the competition’s second round on the basis of DVDs submitted by some 160 first-round applicants.

In the course of conversations, the four jury members expressed their views on the value of musical competitions and the criteria for selecting competitors and eventual prize winners, as well as on the subject of what constitutes the so-called “Russian school of piano playing.”

“Competitions have always been important for young pianists,” said Marcello Abbado. “In any case, they are the most widespread means of starting a career. Today, it’s true, that there are fewer and fewer competitions that offer an opportunity for a real start. I can count them on the fingers of one hand. It also seems to me that a contestant needn’t aim at being the absolute leader in a competition. A person who receives second or third prize can also count on a future.”

“I took part in many competitions,” said Dmitri Alexeev. “Not all of them were successful. I’m not a fan of competitions. They’re sporting events. I consider them a necessary evil. Nevertheless, competitions can add something useful to the development of young musicians. Extreme concentration is needed for success in a competition. It’s necessary to bring together the very best that a musician is capable of producing. The same is true on the concert stage. Therefore, competitions, by their very nature, are excellent training for a future concert career.”

“The secret of any competition,” said Sergei Babayan, “has nothing to do with the orchestras that play or with luxurious pianos. The secret is the honesty and decency of the jury, and, of course, its level of artistry.”

“Becoming acquainted with future contestants by means of DVDs is, of course, not just a matter of listening,” continued Babayan. “A DVD helps one to understand the artist and to get a feeling of his energy. But, in principle, I sometimes prefer only to listen, since certain things can be annoying, like clothes or outward appearance, and can influence you. When you close your eyes, you sense purely the music.”

Abbado declared that he had not changed his criteria over all the years he has judged competitions. “First,” he said, “is the sound. Second is faithfulness to the composer. We also must not forget about technique. That is extremely important. But the critical things are individuality and charisma. It is also very important to be able to communicate with the audience.”

“I fear,” said Jurgen Meyer-Josten, “that present-day pianists have lost a sense of fantasy. Some of them clatter like machines. Do you remember Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” – clack, clack, clack? I recall how Vladimir Horowitz played, what he did with music, how he colored it. Today, very many pianists limit themselves to a range of ‘black and white’.”

Alexeev finds the question of who belongs to what school of piano playing a very complicated one. “For example,” he said, “my teacher was Dmitry Bashkirov, who belonged to the school of [Alexander] Goldenweiser. At the same time, there existed the school of [Heinrich] Neuhaus. And it seems to me that Bashkirov, by his very nature, was more attached to that school. Of course, he received much from Goldenweiser and I, in turn, received much from Bashkirov. But I have the idea that it really isn’t necessary to ask to which school a pianist belongs. Everyone decides that question for himself. I, for example, consider Neuhaus to have been European, both by descent and in relation to traditions, including family traditions. Yet, for Europeans, he represented the Russian school. Just like Richter, and just like Anton Rubinstein, the founder of Russian pianism.”

To that, Babayan added the thought that “the greater a pianist, the less sense one has of his belonging to a particular school. Can you really say that Glenn Gould was of the Canadian school, or Richter of the Russian school?”

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