How this Tchaikovsky competition is being judged – a view from the jury room

How this Tchaikovsky competition is being judged – a view from the jury room


norman lebrecht

June 22, 2011

It is abundantly clear that the 14th Tchaikovsky competition differs from its predecessors in one significant respect – its transparency. Every round can be watched live online, viewers are encouraged to cast their votes and several judges are using their cellphones and notebooks to tweet and email their emotions as the contest progresses.

This is not just a necessary and healthy process: it is the perfect antidote to Russia’s Got Talent.

Here’s a personal report from one of the piano judges, who last night reduced the field to eight.

Hi Norman –

I am incredibly sad for the four who were eliminated. Despite all the mudslinging that is going on on the competition’s own Facebook page – about us as usual going for ‘respectable mediocrity’ – what we went for was a group of all-round musicians, each with a good chance of a great future. That is, at least, what I went for, and as I was almost 100% happy with the result, as was everyone of the jury, I think we can assume that everyone had the same goal. The ‘almost’ is important, because we were all undecided about one, and there was much genuine and extremely well intentioned honest discussion about that one. It has to be remembered that to have put one in to the next round who has not been, another would have to be eliminated

This is what one small-minded self opinionated individual has written – ‘Politics aside, competitors must all walk a kind of narrow tightrope to satisfy the majority of the judges, so we shouldn’t be surprised that real individuality usually goes out the window and we are often left with only respectable mediocrity. Don’t forget that Martha Argerich once resigned from a jury when Pogorelich wasn’t passed……… ‘

The bottom line is that it was hugely difficult to come to a decision for all of us, and in the end it was the concept that the composer rather than the pianist being central to the performance is what should decide it, and we all felt the same way. Many of the Facebook set, although by no means all of them, obviously view things differently. I can say that the people on this jury are wonderfully genuine in their approach, and it is an honour to be working along side them. I can also say that I am learning quite a lot about piano playing from the competitors – so we are by no means setting ourselves up as tin gods. It is a very humbling experience to hear such a phenomenal range of approaches and character from so many great pianists. I wish I could even come near to saying that about most competitions.

Van is here I believe, but I haven’t yet seen him. I am so glad he is here – apparently for the first time since his own triumph in 1958 – as I predict that the end of this competition is going to be and emotional high – or maybe crisis – that will rock the music world in the same way as in his day.

Make of this what you will. I applaud the openness of the event and avidly read incoming tweets from another piano judge, Barry Douglas. Today’s a day off. Some of the judges are going for a tour of the Kremlin. Barry tweets that he’s practising.

The eight piano finalists are: Chernov, Cho, Daneshpour, Kapachevsky, Lubantsyev, Romanovsky, Son and Trifanov.




  • Alexandra Scrope says:

    Dear Norman,
    What amazing defensive nonsense from your juror! I am here in Moscow and attended almost all the second round concerts. Whatever their personal preferences I don’t believe anyone there either audience or professional believes that Eduard Kunz plays the piano less well than all of the eight who remained however good or promising they may be.
    True to the composer? Listen again to his Gaspard but listen with Aloysius Bertrand’s text which inspired Ravel to write the piece. Unique in that it is a perfect musical reading of the poems. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody? Last year I heard Kunz play this in Italy and a well known conductor enthused to me what a perfect understanding Kunz had of the Hungarian soul, the darker side but also the flirtatious dance within it.
    Why did your juror not mention Nelson Freire’s hasty departure after being shut in with this happy band after the first round.
    For an almost 100% harmonious jury, two hours seemed a very long time for people in agreement to agree!!! The jury were slow hanclapped six times and, very unusually, when they gave their findings audience members shouted their disapproval.
    I, and they, saw and heard something quite different, a young, charismatic rising star of the piano denied a richly deserved place in the next round. Perhaps that was what galled … young … charismatic … rising … star …

    • John says:

      Dear Alexandra,

      Please consider your online posts carefully before you submit them.
      From reading your post, I don’t think you are angry about the fairness of the judging system. You’re dissatisfied that your favorite pianist, Edward Kunz, is eliminated from the competition. And you are blaming the jury for it.

      I’m sorry to tell you this, but the jury’s decision has nothing to do with the results. That means even if Trifonov gets eliminated from the top 5, you shouldn’t be surprised — although his fans are beginning to scare me.

      So please let go of the contempt. We are lucky enough to have the opportunity to see these pianists rise to stardom. And for once, celebrate the accomplishments of the pianists you disapprove of. They deserve it.

    • Kapell says:

      For the record, Kunz also did not make the Finals at the 2009 Cliburn or the recent 2011 Rubinstein competitions.

    • Abe says:

      I listened carefully to Kunz with fascination. Certainly he is a wonderful pianist to listen to. The question really needs to be asked as to whether his choices of repertoire and style of performance is suited for competing against other pianists in the competition format. I’d prefer to hear such an imaginative, musical, and thoughful musician like him on my stereo and in piano recital. Kunz by and large played very similar types of repertoire in front of different juries in different cities across the world. The results were consistent in that unfortunately he was not able to impress the jury like some of his competitors (makes one remember it is a competition and not about being a great musician). Tchaikovsky Competition winners have tended to be known for their performances of dynamic works from the Romantic era – and certainly the jury somehow always finds so many Russians to make the finals (compare that to some of the other competitions). Kunz kind of reminds me of Konstantin Lifschitz – a wonderful musician (check out his Bach, Rameau, etc) but I think he would be the first to admit competitions are not for him. Competitions have consistently not supported highly the more creative musicians and jurors of many competitions openly have stated that less extreme musicians (ones who play more within the “norm” – whatever that is) are the ones the make it through the competition. The Cliburn Competition has certainly had that issue. BUT, what Kunz needs is not the support of a competition but instead a couple of conductors and good management. He is much more interesting than many touring concert artists, and it is going to be those incremental relationships that he builds over time that give him the best chance to sell himself. He certainly is worth it from what I can see.

  • Kapell says:

    I rather think Jurors should not be discussing publically until the Competition is over.

  • Drew Lewis says:

    Alexandra is wearing her heart on her sleeve too ostentatiously. There is nothing wrong with her voicing her allegiance to one competitor so stridently, but to accuse so thoughtful and judicious a musician as Peter Donohoe (I believe the anonymous juror was he, since he made substantially the same points in his live webcast interview) of writing ‘defensive nonsense’ is crude, callow and simply insulting.

  • Emil Archambault says:

    Who’s left among the cellists and violinists?

  • Sergey Kuznetsov says:

    Thank you, Mr. Lebrecht and Mr. Juror, for the touching and interesting article!
    I must admit I perfectly agree with the reasoning about the composer having priority over a pianist, and am glad indeed to see that very thought have been worded by a member of the Jury.

    It is truly a hard work that the jurors carry now; all the best!


  • Alexandra Scrope says:

    Clearly your other opinions do not agree with me but I do not apologise for that. Nor do I apologise for making the case with regard to Mr Kunz because although your juror chose anonymity and did not name ‘the one’ over whom so much argument took place. His suggestion that someone disagreeing with the jury is ‘small-minded and self opinionated’ is quite arrogant too.

    I have named names and been frank because Mr. Kunz was the contestant under discussion and because the jury has not been quite the happy family portrayed. The Russian press and local opinion are not at all happy with what has been going on. will take you to an article which appeared here this morning. A Microsoft automatic translation will put you in line with the view portrayed if, like me, you do not read Russian.

    Mr Kapell is right, jurors would do better to keep their opinions to themselves until the competition is over.

    There are also technical anomalies with regard to the vote scoring since the actual number of ‘pro’ votes has not changed despite the considerably larger jury for which it was intended originally. With the further shrinkage of the jury through Mr. Freire’s departure, the proportion of ‘pro’ votes required has changed radically although the actual number has not. This does not only apply to Mr. Kunz, it applies to all those voted off since the jury size has changed.

  • Anne S says:

    I think the transparency and the organization of the competition were reasonably good with interesting cultural differences (hair and make up for the announcers? insert smilies here).. I have particularly enjoyed the interactions with the Russian students and the jury members. Peter Donohue has been a particularly refreshing, genuine breath of fresh air.. The facebook page, not so much.. But I am glad it is there. As for Eduard Kunz, his career will go on. It would be incredibly beneficial to the pianist / pianophile community if one of the jurors would be so kind as to provide a jury perspective on his playing, once the competition is over. In the meantime, we have to respect the process. After all we were presented with deeply moving artistry and very exciting pianists who promise a brilliant future for music.

  • Drew Lewis says:

    It is such a pity the competition organizers did not consult Alexandra before fine-tuning their voting system! What I found objectionable was not so much her opinion as the rudeness and immaturity with which she expressed it.

  • P D says:

    Thank you everyone for all your comments. Just for the record:
    1. The piano jury was 100% amicable and respectful in our discussions.
    2. The very reason for our only discussion was that the marking system placed two candidates extremely closely across the threshold for going on to the next round.
    3. The marking system is complex, but it seems to work better than any I have experienced before.
    4. Nelson Freire had to leave at the end of the first round because of severe exhaustion.
    5. Between the end of the second round performances and the re-appearance of the jury was less than an hour.
    6. The Moscow public is renowned for showing its passionate feelings. What would be unusual would be if they held back.
    7. Putting an artist through to the next round means denying someone else that opportunity.
    8. Not putting an artist through to the next round does not constitute a dismissal of that artist’s talent.
    9. Every single one of the twelve pianists in the second round had an enormous talent, a huge fan base and potentially a great future.
    10. The notion that those going forward are mediocre is, at best, laughable, and, at worst potentially deeply undermining of their confidence before they even get to play the next round.
    11. It is a fantasic development that we have the webcast, so that people all over the world can follow the competition as it happens. However, it has become apparent to me by comparing what I heard in the hall with what I hear on my computer that the sound is sometimes somewhat different.
    12. As far as I am aware, no one on the piano jury has revealed anything other than that the level is extremely high and the organisation is excellent.
    13. This will be my last comment until after the competition.

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