Alain Lompech © Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack
Alain Lompech
© Tristan Labouret / Bachtrack

Many years ago, so long ago that the statute of limitations has expired, the founder of a famous international piano competition surprised everyone by declaring that it was not advisable to have journalists as competition jurors, stating that “they lack the requisite sense of responsibility”. One couldn’t help but be amused by Fanny Waterman’s words. Year after year, the music industry resounded to the talk of unjust decisions, the under-the-table arrangements between jurors and the nationalist pressures that made certain winners lists look suspicious and showed no evidence of a notable sense of responsibility on the part of the musicians. By the way, we must mention that the Leeds International Piano Competition – created by Waterman – boasts a winners list that speaks in her favour – enormously so.

And it’s an open secret: several pianists, some of them famous, tell of astonishing events they have witnessed. In some, they have themselves been victims, early in their career. Often these stories remained confined within the music industry, or even only amongst those close to the musicians in question. But not always. And it has been like this for a very long time. Let me give some examples. In 1934, Alfred Cortot protested in Vienna when the 17-year-old Dinu Lipatti did not win the first prize at the hands of an excessively large and famous jury – because he was too young. In his memoirs, Arthur Rubinstein expresses his resentment towards the Concours Anton Rubinstein, organised in Paris in 1905, that crowned Wilhelm Backhaus ahead of Béla Bartók. In 1964, Nelson Freire receives the Dinu Lipatti Medal in London: the Brasilian is proud of this but does not understand why he received this prize: he is 19 and hasn’t yet performed in London or published any record in Europe. But think for a moment: Harriet Cohen had just been a member of the jury of the Queen Elisabeth Competition where Freire was eliminated at the preliminary stages... almost as if it was necessary to clear the path for the Russian who won the first prize. This respected musician, maker of great British composers, to whom Bartók dedicated a Mikrokosmos book, must have gracefully shown her disagreement: for her, Freire was the best of all.

Fanny Waterman, to tell the truth, found it unacceptable that some journalists had no hesitation in disclosing secret jury decisions in a way that damaged the reputation of a given competition. She was correct and therefore obviously in the wrong: nobody can be kept under a vow of silence and keep to themselves reprehensible decisions that they have witnessed.

As a journalist, I have been a juror many times: for national and international competitions, for competitions for acceptance into a conservatoire, or for competitions at the conclusion of conservatoire studies. Personally, I’ve never witnessed any shenanigans amongst the jurors. If there have been any, I was unaware of them and they did not succeed in having a significant effect on the list of winners. At the same time, I did not always agree with the elimination of some contestants at one or another stage of the competition. What I have witnessed is skirmishes between jurors with different opinions and I have been faced with the fact that the impression of competence of professional musicians was diminished by statements as astonishing as they are widespread, ranging from “the Russians don’t understand anything about Beethoven” to “they are way too young for late Schubert” by way of “Latinos don’t understand Brahms” or “You don’t have to be a musician to play a transcription”. And that’s not to mention some even dafter ones, idiocies of the kind that get passed down from generation to generation and which, alas, get taught just as much in music criticism, when a musician’s art is judged according to who are their teachers.

I also have encountered the narrow-mindedness of jurors fixing themselves on some pet peeve that makes them miss the big picture, to the dismay of their colleagues on the jury. And in these occasions, a specialised journalist can brush aside some idiotic objection by mentioning a counterexample that disproves these pseudo-arguments based on nationality or age. Almost every time, the most absurd decisions come from piano teachers who do not perform in public. Many of them should not be in competitions where the participants are young musicians who have finished their studies and are embarking on their careers: these should be judged by musicians, the audience and music critics – who are, after all, merely members of the audience.

Today, it’s increasingly common for competitions to be recorded, filmed and/or broadcast live on the Internet. Their audience has widened and this puts a limit to the scheming and the under-the-table agreements that drew so much unwelcome attention in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s and which are becoming less common: today, the evidence is out there, hard to deny. Competitions have also become sort of festivals integrated in the musical scene. All things considered, what we should seriously question are the public masterclasses. The truly great masters refuse to use this method of grabbing the limelight to the disadvantage of students: they prefer their artistic exchanges to be away from the spotlight and social media follows, even if they are more occasional. One would be surprised to know who has come to London for decades to play for Fou T'song and to learn who comes to play nowadays in Paris or Rio to receive the advice of Nelson Freire.

I have had the good fortune to be a juror alongside artists from which I have learned a great deal, as well as being next to Harold Schonberg from the New York Times: he was a very knowledgeable listener and despite his natural propensity towards virtuosos, he knew how to set this aside when faced with talent. We have had many interesting exchanges, including copies of records that were unknown to each other. You learn a lot in the course of a week rubbing shoulders with pianists like Aldo Ciccolini, Brigitte Engerer, Nelson Freire, France Clidat, Paul Badura-Skoda, Michel Dalberto, Catherine Collard, Rafael Orozco, Elisso Virssaladze or Dang Thai Son, without forgetting composers such as Jean-Louis Florentz or Rolf Liebermann. Each of them has their own approach to the piano, to the music. Each of them has their ideas on what it means to respect the score and the repertoire. Each of them has their artistic convictions and their own way of listening, but everyone was searching for that mysterious something that makes an exceptional artist stand out, even if it means forgiving them their mistakes when they are not a manifestation of deeper problems, be they psychological or connected to their musical and pianistic training.

It’s a funny thing that the pianists who are the strongest technically are the ones who are least bothered by wrong notes. They are there to enjoy the talent of their young colleagues. They listen to them as if they were performing a recital. And it is actually not uncommon to hear some contestants play certain works in an admirable way that, in that kind of context, is as moving as it is astonishing.

Competitions today, therefore, are a more or less mandatory rite of passage. Seeing the Long-Thibaud being reborn in Paris this November under the artistic direction of Bertrand Chamayou, with Marta Argerich as president, reminds us of a truth often overlooked: a great competition is first of all made by a great jury! Its members are those who attract like magnets young people who accept the idea of being judged by artists that they respect and admire, but are worried about second rate jurors, jealous as snakes, the “teachers of pupils” that Yves Nat loved to mock as being like “a forewoman lording over an army of part-timers.”

Competitions are an excellent way to perform in exceptional conditions, on wonderful pianos, in great halls, to be accompanied by full symphony orchestras, playing some concertos outside one’s normal reach, to be supported by a large and enthusiastic audience, to be listened to by agents who wouldn’t usually respond to meeting requests, to be noticed by concert promoters who are also usually hard to reach – without mentioning the conductors who nowadays almost never audition young artists. The very idea of a competition is of course criticised and, from a theoretical point of view, you might not like it much. But that’s going too far, because this idea is at the basis of the evolution of the species as theorised by Darwin and even a life in music can’t escape it: a musician is judged all his life, judged by his peers, by the public and the media and by those who run the musical industry and decide who has to be programmed, recorded on albums, using criteria that do not always meet the expected “sense of responsibility”.

Translated from French by Laura Volpi.