I once asked Emanuel Ax how today’s young keyboard practitioners compare to those of his generation. “Everyone plays the piano so incredibly well these days,” he replied, “as if there was nothing difficult anymore. “
These words hit me as I walked the 18th Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competitionpreliminary round sessions in July. How can we explain such high skill levels? Easier access to online courses and seminars, perhaps? Unusually ambitious parents? Part of the answer may be that in the aftermath of the pandemic and with no commitments in sight, these young competitors had no choice but to train, train and train.
87 pianists have been selected from this preliminary pool to participate in the first stage of the competition this week. Each competitor’s opening round includes a half-hour program comprising a Nocturne, two Etudes and a larger work, such as the Fantasy in F minor or one of the four Ballads and Scherzos. The repertoire reflects different aspects of Chopin’s genius and offers a measure of how different pianists respond to the myriad demands of music. Chopin’s Nocturnes, for example, merge poetry and theater in equal doses. His Studies address specific technical issues, but are more than just exercises. Then there is the challenge of not only mastering the notes of a Scherzo or a Ballad, but of giving form, character and unity to the constituent elements of the work.
I started my laptop at 3:55 a.m. New York time to catch the first competitor Xuanyi Mao, only to find that the live chat crowd was ahead of me. Impressive to see them already there, although luckily you can cut the flow in order to absorb the performances without distraction (or the occasional sarcastic comments).
Overall, the 18 pianists featured today confirmed my earlier reactions to their work, with a few surprises along the way. In July, for example, I felt like a Chinese pianist Hao raoChopin’s lyrical approach to Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat major Op 27 No. 2 was too languid. But his interpretation now transmits a stronger core, with firmer and more curved melodic lines. His Study selections (Op 10 No 10 and ‘Winter Wind’ Op 25 No 11) were as neat and thoughtful as his Scherzo No 2, which accumulated intensity and dynamism as it progressed. Szymon Nehring’s fluid, coherent and communicative fourth ballad reminded me of why this talented pianist won the Audience Award at the 2015 Chopin Competition.
Georgijs Osokins arguably delivered the most striking individual interpretations of the day. The Latvian pianist reached the final of the 2015 Competition, and he continues to intrigue me. Although I found his Nocturne in B major Op 62 No 1 strangely elongated and sectioned, Osokin won me over with his focus and mastery of the smallest details, such as the long strings of carefully calibrated trills. Indeed, his epic sense of the time scale is akin to that of Emil Gilels. Osokins’ Third Ballad appeared as episodic vignettes rather than a unified entity, but the reading captured attention in every bar. Even the whimsical and rather unsubtle “revolutionary” Study of Osokins has distracted attention from other more conventional readings of the day.
Gramophone is a media partner of the 18th Chopin Piano Competition – you can follow the competition by watching the live stream at chopin2020.pl – and visit us daily for more Jed Dister analysis.