Chopin competition

It’s official: there is a forking of taste

Hours and hours of mindless trawling through discussion groups and countless conversations picked up and random reveal the startling truth of the existence of the forked taste (which is an ancient theme here:  two kinds of mind, two kinds of art):  those who admire Avdeeva to a man could not care for Wunder; and miss the joy of Katada completely, as if they were blind.

And vice-versa.

Us against them.

Different heads.

There was a radio play like that once in which Rossini and Wagner quibbled about art (mindless pleasure vs. deep stuff).  Rossini kept interjecting with inquiries about Wagner’s hair-do:  how do you manage to keep all that hair, such a full head, so luscious, so perfect?  At last it all clicks:  different heads.  Yes, that explains everything!

In Praise of Wunder

(I owe you guys some English language summaries from the PR2 coverage of the competion, above all from the night — the stunning night — on which Avdeeva won, but bear with me:  aunt’s obsequies, et al.  I’ll get to it, eventually.  Meanwhile, I have something on my chest.  Andrew should be happy:  he wanted commentary. Well, here goes).

There is an unspoken party line in Poland.  It holds that every Chopin work is an absolute masterpiece:  like the heroes of socialist work of the Stalinist era — and unlike God — Chopin has never ever produced a less than perfect work.

Yes, sotto voce, there is grumbling.  The cello sonata, one hears sometimes, wanders aimlessly.  The fantasia-Polonaise is lopsided.  Etc.  Sotto voce not because of any fear of ostracism — the whole thing is a little funny and everyone concedes as much — but because, well, we all wish it were true.  The notion that such a thing as absolute perfection can exist, and that we have seen it, touched it, that we live with it daily, is just too precious to throw overboard on account of mere facts.

Mere facts like… the first piano sonata.

It’s a scandal, announced C on the radio, that the jury failed Katada at second stage; but it is also a pity because, of all the participants, she alone was going to play the first piano sonata during the third round, and would it not be wonderful to hear that much underrated masterpiece it at the competition at last? A good deal grumbling in the studio followed.  The tone of C’s next words, though never their content, indicated, indirectly, that he was a little embarrassed for having let himself get carried away by the enthusiasm of the party line moment:  the First Piano Sonata sucks, and even C can see it.  (But let’s not keep going on about it).

Chopin’s concerti are the grumblers’ poster child:  youthful, inept, orchestra’s flat and mostly underemployed, etc.

For years, this was my view, too, until, well, until Wunder played the E-minor concerto during the finals.  In fact, on the morning of his performance, while browsing through the Chopin Ekspres, the competition newspaper, and its review of the performances of the preceding day, and coming upon a commentary which proposed that the Warsaw Philharmonic was too heavy, too plodding, too old for the competition; that it overwhelmed the poor contestants, with their limited orchestra experience and all; and that a lighter, smaller orchestra should perhaps be assembled for the competition; I whispered to myself, shaking my head in disagreement:  the problem ain’t the orchestra, you fool, the problem is… the concertos!

Yet, only six hours later out came Wunder — Wunder! — gave the maestro just what was needed — a low Habsburg bow , the first violin his most charming boyish smile, and a kind of hankie wave to the whole orchestra; they all smiled back; and it was all a cake-walk from there.  They breezed through it, smiling at each other, bowing, nodding, gesturing mutual admiration and pleasure.  I have never seen any concerto performance which the pianist seemed to enjoy as much; and which the orchestra supported with as much attention.

Attention?  No.  Relish.

Good, pleasurable interaction between performers is one of the most wonderful miracles of alchemy ever.  One sees it sometimes in small ensembles:  duos, or quartets; you can see it from the eye contact, from the movements of their bodies, welcoming and receiving, that they absolutely love each other’s work; that it suits them perfectly.  The result, when that happens (and it does not happen all that often) is always, always great music making.  (Which is why I bitterly regret not being able to attend 2nd stage of the Paderewski Competition to hear the required chamber music tests).  But if this alchemy is rare in small ensembles, in big ones it’s hardly ever seen.  But we saw it during Wunder’s E-minor concerto.  No wonder he got the best concerto prize.  It was the best concerto.  Ever.

Part of this success, no doubt, was due to Wunder’s commitment to study in Poland and perform with Polish artists in Poland: it seemed clear that most of the orchestra knew him well before he came out on the podium that night.  And, perhaps, he did absorb thereby some of the Polish way of playing Chopin,which, as Adveeva found out to her PR detriment, is the way.  But, surely, a lot had to do with his sunny personality, his ease relating to people, which comes across as simple, uncomplicated joie de vivre.

It’s a rare character among pianists.  Most are introverted loners, unhappy in their loneliness, rudely isolated from the world by their own sensitivity and inarticulateness; taking a kind of refuge in their keyboard:  Ya sebya nye lublyu — I don’t like myself — ends the most famous of all Richter documentaries.  He does not like himself, one clearly gets it, because he does not like homo sapiens per se.

It’s an old dichotomy in art — the joyful Mozart versus the brooding Beethoven — and it has demonstrated itself here.  One of the most memorable — shocking, really — comments on Avdeeva’s victory came from a member of the jury, Fu Tsong, who objected to… Wunder’s smiling.  “Chopin”, Fu Tsong announced (fu, in Chinese means “kill” and tsong means “joy”)* “Chopin is tragedy.  When we play him we must suffer. Wunder smiles.  He should be lucky to get away with the second”.

Fu Tsong (fu means “hard”, tsong means “of hearing”)* may be going senile as well as deaf — his defense of Avdeeva sounds retarded — sorry, no offense to the differently-abled intended — but he expresses here an eternal truth:  the unhappy envy the happy their easy happiness.  The accusation is that the happy must be shallow.  (The view stands uncontested: there is no reposte:  the happy don’t care to argue, they have already won the game of life:  what need for them to justify themselves?)

But this is a lot of words, whilst what I had meant to say at the outset was really much simpler:  which was this:  that this is the most brilliant performance of the E-Minor concerto I have ever heard.  And that this performance makes me faint with amazement at the concerto’s range of expression, its balance, its wisdom, its maturity, its perfection of vision; from an 18-year old man, who, clearly, but for bad performance, has never written a bad work.

So, the party-line’s proven right yet again.

Bring on the first sonata?



What the Chopin Competition result says about the concept of “educated taste”

Avdeeva’s win at the 2010 Chopin Competition shocked many chopinists. Everyone I know personally, has not only complained about her interpretation inaccuracies – which, arguably, should not happen at a Chopin competition, but which are usually accepted in many virtuoso pianists as their “individual interpretation” – but, more importantly, has found her sound ugly. How could she win?

Surely, we thought, the jury got it wrong. We examined the voting rules and wondered whether there was a problem there. Indeed, many have flagged similar voting rules before as a) likely to favor non-controversial players at early stages; b) likely to result in a muddle in the event of sharply divided opinion in the final stage.

Surely, we thought, there was a voting mistake. After all, it’s alright for about ½ of the competition’s facebook fans to declare that they found Avdeeva’s performances brilliant, but they are, by and large, neither chopinists, nor even pianists; and we know that fans are often swayed by non-musical aspects of a performance: the artists’ looks, movements, facial expressions, gender or nationality, etc. But we, pianists and chopinists, we can see through those non-musical elements of the performance and train down on the actual music-making and evaluate that.

The idea here is of a trained, or educated, taste. Thanks to extensive record (Chopin’s letters, memoirs of his friends and students) and his minutely detailed score notations, we know a lot about Chopin’s taste; about five generations of constant research and debate around performing Chopin has created a kind of chopinist tradition. If you take what this school holds as axiomatic, then there follow certain conclusions for what makes a performance of Chopin good. We thought our negative reaction to Avdeeva was a result of this knowledge: her performance seemed to us chopinistically wrong. It was very good for non-chopinists to like her, but we chopinists knew better.

But read the article of Yuan Pu Chiao and you will discover that non only did some members of the jury like her (Dang, Danilovich); and Zimmerman found nothing wrong with her playing (I cannot get over this); but you will see Mr Chiao arguing that it is precisely his trained taste that leads him to judge her performance masterly. If this is true, then, clearly, we were wrong to think that there is such a thing as a trained taste; and, likewise, Mr Chiao must be wrong to claim that such a thing exists. If the jury was divided sharply concerning Avdeeva – one assumes it must have been if they awarded both her and Wunder – to like both seems impossible – then there would appear to be two different branches of trained taste: the taste of the chopinist tradition has forked into two divergent, mutually incompatible aesthetic schools.

Or else, there is no such thing at all.

Which would be a huge hit to one theory of taste:  the idea of educated taste makes some sense from the cognitive science point of view:  you take like brains (it seems reasonable to assume that a shared quality like “liking Chopin” is due to some kind of structural brain similarity) and expose them to massive amount of identical experience, which further shapes the brain in a particular way and therefore makes these already similar brains only more alike.  Presumably, in a roomful of such brains, disagreements could only be minor.  (Fourth decimal place, as they used to say in physics).


Chopin Competition: End of day summary on PR2: October 19, 23:00

A:  This must surely have been the wildest ovation in the history of the National Philharmonic. B:  This is perhaps the most difficult pianistic competition in the world and the fact that it consists entirely of one composer’s music makes it especially challenging.  Each stage is extremely demanding in its own way, but the last one — the concerto — is a kind of stage of truth.  We often see those who’d done very well until then suddenly fail in the last dash; the opposite is sometimes true:  those as to whom there were some doubts, here surprise.  It’s a kind of marathon, so it’s hard to remain in good form until the end; but perhaps some do not expect to make it to the final stage and therefore come underprepared; or perhaps some are so relieved to have made it to the final stage that they just over-relax?  C:  Perhaps it’s as much relaxing in the final stage; or insufficient preparation for it; because we often see that errors which had cropped up earlier simply come to the fore in the last stage.  Consider Khozyainov.


C:  A very talented pianist; but we have seen rhythmic anomalies in his mazurkas.  Now, we see the passages of short notes ending in a longer note; not only does he cut short the last short note, even though, as it’s separated from the long note that follows by a bar mark, it should require special care; but he accentuates the final, longer note — the crowning note — whereas he should guide the phrase softly.  Or take accents.  In the third part, where we have that unhappy Krakowiak — A:  Why unhappy?  C: Because no one does it justice.  Now, the second quarter-note should be just barely delayed, because that’s the agogic accent there; but instead, forgive the expression, he kicked the first note.  Such errors do not from exhaustion; but a kind of gulf — a disconnect — between the stress his pedagogue places on the pianistic competence and the development of his musical sensitivity.  A:  Mikhail Voskresenskiy.  C:  Well yes.  B:  A famous teacher.  C:  A famous teacher, yes.  But it’s something we see everywhere now.  For instance, Rosalin Tureck, was very talented; she devoured several preludes and fugues a day; and suddenly, one day, she experienced a revelation — a metanoia — she suddenly saw what Bach wanted to say; and though she already knew these works, she went back to working on them, taking just a few lines a day.  My heartfelt wish for this pianist is that he experience such a revelation.  Tureck came by it on her own; but the pedagogue and the teaching technique has a lot to do with it.  A:  Well, he’s only 18.  B:  Zimmerman was 18 when he won.  C:  Yes.  And Arnellini, rejected in the 3rd stage, never made such errors.  C:  Michelangelo:  do not underestimate small things because perfection is made of small things.  B:  Well, he seemed a little helpless.  A:  He didn’t keep the tempo.  B:  Now went faster, now more slowly.


A:  In her short interview after the concert, Avdeeva said she’s peformed the concerto many times, but my impression was that she hadn’t really prepared.  C:  Perhaps she does not understand some of the figures — typical of style brilliant — and played them as individual, naked notes, while in fact they are part of the harmony [? i am out of my depth here] and behind the harmony there lies a melody. Her rubato was also very unstable, very whimsical.  A:  She played four sixteenths as dotted rhythm again.  C:  Well, in the third part of the rondo, when the theme returns again, there is a chromatic upward progression which is supposed to prepare the return of the theme; it has been marked by a double bar by the composer.  But she just blew right through those 16ths without much concern.  There is a question:  at what stage does the artist stop his learning of a work.  Some say that the difficulty lies in the artist himself.  How long it takes to understand and master the work depends on the artist’s talent.  A performance by an artist who has understood a work is, properly speaking, a revelation:  he reveals to us the true meaning of the work he’s performing.  It seems to me that Avdeeva’s performance is an example of a limited understanding of the score. B:  It seemed to me that her Allegro Maestoso was so very slow because she may not have learned it.  A:  Though with all fairness, the failure of lights may have upset her.  B:  Yes, yes, of course.  But also helpless rubato in the romanza, smeared pedalling…  A:  I remember seeing her in Duszniki during the Chopin competition:  she gave me the same impression then as she did today.


C:  Let us begin the praise with details.  Note the softness of the phrase:  from a man!  Wonderful ability to differentiate color in repeats. Passages wonderfully threaded onto the harmony.  B:  Filligree.  C:  Yes.  Clarity of the score:  the upper plan — the melody — and the counterpoint elements in the right hand are respected, but they do not clash; then, in the left hand we have a kind of cantus generalis and arpeggios.  In addition, everything is played with a kind of nobility.  Then, in the first part there are octaves — a strong dotted accent which rises over the orchestra — in his hands it does not shout.  Finally, the upward passage in the third part which I have mentioned:  it quiets down, there is minimal ralentando, a short pause — an accent really, since silence is an accent — that’s like a voice which says “attention, attention, here comes”.  B:  Beautiful rubato in the Krakowiak.  A:  And what execution of the arches [?].  B: Everything fulfilled.  There is another virtue which Chopin valued highly:  simplicity.  Nothing strange, nothing odd, nothing overinvented or overinterpreted.  B:  He did not feel constrained by the orchestra.  On the contrary, I had the feeling that the orchestra payed greater attention to him, tried to follow him more closely.  A:  I have heard from orchestra members that they found practicing with him easiest of all. A great pianist gives wings to the orchestra.



Chopin Competition: End of day summary on PR2: October 18, 23:00

A: What impressions? B: I was pleased that all performances of the E-minor today represented satisfyingly different interpretations and the F-minor was presented in a way very different from all the E-minors. [Some general comments on the nature of the two concertos]. C: All four pianists took the concertos seriously (there is a tendency among pianists to take them as youthful, not very successful, not very important works). D: Yes. One sometimes sees that competitors who have gotten to the final stage end up taking the concerto lightly, relaxing as it were, if thinking that this was the easy part. Perhaps one could say that about today’s Bozhanov’s performance. A: Yes, after all he’d given us so far, this was a little less than we could have expected. B: The third movement, yes.


A: What of his interpretation? B: I looked and… didn’t find any. No objections from any technical point of view; academically speaking, perfect. One can only have one complaint: that the performance did not succeed in overwhelming us. It didn’t knock us out, it didn’t elevate us. But it was not in any way bad; it did not sound ugly. C: What do we say? Colorless? Dispassionate? B: One could try to be more specific. In the first part there are these games… now sixth degree, now third, now Neapolitan… A: You mean harmonies. B: Yes. It’s all very charming. But here these were not emphasized as especially beautiful in this performance. Or in the final section there is a kind of rocking-horse figure (hums) and it is possible to play it in such a way that listener’s mouths will just open unawares in a smirk, but that did not happen. We just had (hums) and nothing more. Two sixteenths and an eighth, that’s it. C: Alright, but the refrain in the rondo is a kind of Kujawiak and it begs at least a minimum rubato; and if one does not give it at the outset then, I suppose, consequences follow naturally. A: I wrote “unclear dynamic”. B: Color, too. D: Kultyshev seems unable to move us. Perhaps it’s because he isn’t moved himself. He plays with perfection, but the perfection of a pianola. Remember Gerald More: tempo markings aren’t made of steel. One can show some differentiation. He also plays with a kind of mannerism — and in his rendition it irritates: the base of a chord comes just a little ahead of the upper voices. A: That was a virtuoso mannerism at the turn of the last century. The competition was meant to uproot it. D: Yes, yes, but those virtuosi widly moved, hypnotized their audiences. A performer must, so to speak, be born again to the work he is playing, he must himself be amazed by its power and beauty so that he can convey some of that sense to us. B: There is one very good aspect of his play and it is that he has not undermined simplicity. A: Very true. B: The themes of the first part were presented with the simplicity of Harry Neuhaus from the 1940’s. A: Yes, I wondered if that was the inspiration.


A: Played on a Fazioli. His first performance of that concerto with an orchestra. B: He moved me deeply with his love and feeling for the music he plays. His treatment of the middle movement was full of great poetry. If there is any complaint, I would say that the left hand was not sufficiently emphasized. But very beautiful performance, hard to believe it was his first. His colors of sound are wonderful. And his modulations — that’s really the heart of this concerto. C: Yes. Delicate, legattissimo. Very touching. And his ability to create colors of sound, especially in the high register. D: Like baby bells. C: Yes. We have heard Fazioli several times at the competition, but it has never sounded this beautifully. Hats off! B: Yes, hats off. I didn’t like this performer during his first appearance, but each time I like him better, it’s a magnificent thing when it happens, when one is surprised positively. And special ability to manipulate tempi. There was one interesting solo moment during the rondo when he suddenly sped up — surprised the conductor and the orchestra — I spoke to a member of the orchestra and she said it did not happen during the practice session; this was completely spontaneous, on the spur of the moment — but he did it so well that the orchestra was able to follow him.  His ability to manipulate the tempi is wonderful.  While his predecessor played as if he had a metronome in his heart, he was able to give each theme and each repeat a slightly different tempo and do it well.  C:  And yet avoid cheesy sentimentality.  D:  There was no doubt all this came from him, not from his teacher, not from years of playing, but from him.  It was very fresh, very youthful, very virginal almost, very moving.  A very promising artist. Only 19!


A:  Very delicate performance, unlike so many others who have at this competition played too fast and too loud.  But to me there seemed to be an absence of rhetoric.  His colors are beautiful, very beautiful sound, but the tempo was sometimes confused and there were moments of… well, kind of gurgling.  B:  Well, the use of the rubato in this concerto is supposed to soften up the written tempo somewhat, but in a manner that’s accessible, comprehensible and clear.  and I think this performance did this well.


A: After all the brilliant performances this pianist gave us earlier, but I have to say I was disappointed  B:  It was a bit matter of a clash with the orchestra; perhaps better I should say that it was a little as if the orchestra acted as a restraining corset.  But there were things he did wrong himself.  For instance, his idea that every time you repeat the same phrase you must play it differently, well, yes, it’s a good idea but his execution of it seemed a little excessive at times.  The second question was the left hand:  I think his left hand was too marcato, too dominant.  C:  Too loud.  B:  I did not like his treatment of the theme of the third movement:  H H E Gis, the first Krakowiak motif, the Gis must be delayed; there is a film footage of Wit demonstrating this to Argerich; but he did not do it.  A general remark:  this is a great artist in a class of his own, but perhaps we could say that his style of play belongs in the category of artificialis.  And artificalis, I think, is not in keeping with Chopin’s aesthetic ideals which are simplicity and naturalness.  Which does not change the fact that I think he is a great pianist and a fascinating personality.  D:  To me he remains amazing, though not always in positive sense.  There were elements of the rondo that sounded almost wooden.  The middle section did not sound interesting — there were sections which seemed to beg to please be played appasionato, but he didn’t.  Yet, he also did absolutely brilliant things: the transposed the c-dur etude (number 1) which appears in the finale was absolutely phenomenal, for instance.  A:  I had the impression that the fantastic machinery — technical and interpretative — which amazed us in Stage 3 somehow disappeared.  B:  Problem cooperating with the orchestra?  C:  I have seen him play Weber with orchestra before in which he was able to actually lead the orchestra.  D:  I wrote to myself that the dialogue of the first theme of the first movement was over-dramatized; but then immediately noted also that the second theme was wonderfully sweet and calm.  And the rondo, I think he made an elementary mistake there:   there are all sorts of emotions in the rondo, but there is no tragedy and I had this feeling that Bozhanov really wanted to find — or put in — tragedy there.  But, he is a great pianist and he knows why Chopin writes octaves in the middle section.  Octaves were used to increase the power of the old piano; ergo, where there are octaves there is supposed to be storminess, agitato.  No other interpretation of a cantilena written in octaves is possible. And he does that.  Today, everyone melts into some sort of sweet sound, no, no, that’s wrong and Bozhanov is right.  C:  but the dialogue of left and right… for instance, there is a half-note with a dot in the right hand, then the left hand takes the lead and realizes stress;   and if in a syncopation the first note of the melody is in the right hand, then the left hand dictates the pulse, etc.  A:  Yes, yes C: No other pianist did that!  Only Bozhanov.  Well, OK, sometimes he exaggerated the dynamic or volume.  B:  Yes, manipulation of tempo and volume which he did so brilliantly in the 3rd stage, today sometimes his piano sounded like forte or forte as mezzo-forte.  C:  A great artist and a great personality.  We could say that he came out in order to meet Chopin but the meeting didn’t take place.  A:  Not in the final stage.  C:  No, not in the final stage.