How to win at Chopin | Norman Lebrecht

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Giving marks to people playing Chopin is no different from deciding on medals in gymnastics

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.


In the long winter nights, I dived into the BBC’s back channels and came up with Jakub Piatek’s extraordinary documentary on the 2021 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Although I had seen the contest unfold and remembered the results, I was glued to my sofa by the complete and utter insanity displayed in Piatek’s fly on the wall.

If you are going to enter a competition, start with Warsaw because it is among the least corruptible, its transparency attained by giving votes to past winners. Having Martha Argerich or Bella Davidovich on the jury is a hedge against shifty piano professors sharing out final placements between their pupils. Collusions of this kind have taken over the violin world, the result being that no major talent has emerged in this century from any violin competition.

The chances of any Grade-8 piano pupil winning the Chopin is one in ten million

Piano, meanwhile, booms and Warsaw is pre-eminent. Over three weeks, 40 contenders from around the world play Chopin all day and into the night for the benefit of a half-filled hall and large local television ratings. In the final, half a dozen survivors slug it out for the top slot, egged on by teachers, parents, bus drivers and their own damaged egos, trapped in a remorseless kind of Stockholm syndrome that makes them love their tormentors — the judges, and the contest itself.

One finalist, locked in a toilet with her teacher, is heard weeping hysterically and being ordered to stop if she wants to win. Another is watched over in sleep by his professor, herself a past contestant. A splendid Polish young man thinks he stands the best chance of winning if he has his hair done like Chopin’s; he winds up walking off stage in the middle of the second round, saying something like “I don’t want to do this any more.”

Three Italians maintain a modicum of sanity. One of them recommends, “I would say, whoever wins this competition should spend the €40,000 on a course of psychotherapy.” I so wish she had made it. But winning is a nebulous thing, dependent on a whim. Giving marks to people playing a Chopin polonaise is no different from deciding on medals in gymnastics, dressage and judo at the Olympic Games, as we shall see again in Paris this summer.

The spectacle is governed by invisible rules that connect to no verifiable reality. Did Maurizio Pollini play the G minor polonaise in Warsaw 100 per cent better than the long-forgotten Iranian who came third in 1960? All one can say from filmed evidence is that Pollini had the larger personality and, regardless of points scored, looked as much like a winner as the gymnast Olga Korbut.

Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu, left, after winning first prize in the Chopin international piano competition (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Lim Yunchan (Yonhap/Newcom/Alamy Live News)

The 2021 Chopin competition was won by the well-groomed Bruce Liu, a Montreal student of the Vietnamese exile Dang Thai Son, who won in 1980 despite Martha Argerich storming off in protest. Liu refused to be filmed by Piatek.

He said later: “I think that was the challenge, actually, to not get bored of yourself after playing these pieces and practising them for thousands of hours.” The audience favourite, Eva Gevorgyan, was unplaced. Unfairly, in my view.

Defenders of the Chopin Competition claim there are no losers, which is true up to a point. Talking to a couple of also-rans recently, I hear they are still getting lots of concerts around Poland, where every Chopin semi-finalist is guaranteed immortality. One said that the competition had upped her energy levels and her concentration, essential for a lasting career. On the bleaker side of the street, poor Gevorgyan limped off stage thin as a rake, barely able to eke a smile.

Some days after watching the Warsaw shoot-out, the death of the CBS TV presenter Charles Osgood reminded me of a 60 Minutes episode he hosted in 1976 on what was then the oldest and biggest music competition in America.

The Leventritt, endowed in 1939, set out to find the next Vladimir Horowitz. “In the world of classical music, the superstars are the pianists,” intoned Osgood. “They have the most prestige and make the most money, as much as $10,000 for each performance. To become a top pianist, sooner or later you have to be a winner.”

Leventritt pianists did not compete against each other. They had to impress a pack of hardened pros that they possessed an ineffable supremacy over all others in America’s bicentennial generation. The judges included Rudolf Serkin, Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman.

Verdicts were harsh. “Do you prefer not to continue?” carped one judge when a player broke down. “In a few moments someone says, ‘you’re terrific, or you’re not worth anything,’” said the unfortunate contender. Seventy were whittled down to 13, then five. “What do you do with a child who loses this?” said one judge. “They’re finished.”

Ultimately the 1976 jury decided none should have first prize. Among the notable losers was a Japanese-British pianist called Mitsuko Uchida. She was 27 and went on to become the most original classical interpreter of our time. The fact that a jury of America’s best pianists considered her worthless tells you all you need to know about the value of competitions.

The Leventritt was hustled out of existence soon after by the glitzier Van Cliburn competition which, in its last edition in 2022, found a genuine Horowitz in the Korean Yunchan Lim, who reduced a tough conductor to tears in Rachmaninov’s D minor concerto.

Piano competitions are thriving. The World Federation of International Music Competitions has 110 members. The chances of any Grade-8 piano pupil winning the Chopin is one in ten million. Yet still they come and still they cry.



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