Tchaikovsky judge: ‘The best pianists came first and last’

Tchaikovsky judge: ‘The best pianists came first and last’


norman lebrecht

July 05, 2015

The Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky has given his views on the judging process:



‘I’m not satisfied with the results of the competition in the sense that our beloved Frenchman Lucas Debargue who deserved as a minimum a bronze, in my opinion even silver, was shifted to the fourth. Surprisingly, it was the decision of non-Russian jury members. The fact that we should respect audience as well who appreciated him and greeted him rapturously didn’t convince them. They said he’s not professional.

‘For me, the best pianists were these who placed first and last.’

Not professional? Maybe that’s why he’s so appealing.

UPDATE: Better to be unprofessional, here.


  • Erwin Poelstra says:

    Long Live the Amateurs! (etymology: 1784, “one who has a taste for (something),” from French amateur “lover of,” from Latin amatorem (nominative amator) “lover,” agent noun from amatus, past participle of amare “to love”)
    …But I wonder who those non-Russian jury members are??

  • Thomas says:

    These are refreshing and reassuring words. It was said before, that the Tchaikovsky Competition is not about musicianship, but much more about pianism. Particularly pianism like in the Olympics, where physical stamina, technical mastery, faultless memory and remaining cool and composed throughout prevails. The problem comes when people and even some jury members approach the competition as a MUSICAL event, where contestants are judged on their musical and intellectual depth, on their power to tell a story through music, to transmit emotions through sound. Then there are the others, who prevail, who see the competition as a sporting event, who can play the fastest double octaves, who can play faultless runs, a technically assured and perfect left hand, etc. For them the musical story is secondary and hence Lucas Debargue receives the Fourth Prize. None if this is a mystery and we’ve seen at all before. When will somebody create a competition where the first criteria is musical communication and leave pyrotechnics to the Tchaikovsky Competition and many others.

  • Neven P. says:

    I will be more than happy to pay for the concert ticket of this “non-professional” pianist next time he is in Boston. I listened parts of his recital on youtube and he is very inspiring, to say the least. Good luck Lucas, hope to be hearing more about your musicianship in the future!

  • Karen says:

    Martin Engström has expressed high praise for Masleev as well as for George Li. Per Google translation (which I know represents a rough translation only), Mr. Engström stated in this published interview (quote) :

    “What made you most impressed by?

    Martin Engstrom: I doubt that someone heard about Dmitry Masleeve – winner of the I prize – two weeks before the start of the marathon. At first, you think that such a musician, most likely was an outsider. It’s hard to believe, but none of us, music directors and producers in our high-tech age did not know that that’s so, somewhere in Russia, in the city of Ulan-Ude, the person lives; it is almost self-committed to the heights in their profession and remain unknown to the general public. And the pianist takes place in the finals and wins the grand victory! Personally for me – it is a shock, the most incredible impression of the contest, and I am very happy for him.

    What do you think, what to expect of this musician in the near future?

    Martin Engström: Now he is experiencing much tension. I really hope that he will be able to cope with the pressure exerted on him present a new position. He needs to overcome this difficult period, starting from today, as it will depend on his debut now on the world stage. If this debut will take place, all will go well. But now, for him – especially crucial period associated with the first appearance of the best concert halls of the world. I want to believe that Dmitry will cope with all this.

    Invite him to your festival in Verbier?

    Martin Engstrom: I will ask him the following year. Besides him, my guests will be the winner of the specialty “cello” Andrei Ionita and pianists Geniušas Lucas and George Li. I can not but note a separate holder II Prize George Li. This is a fantastic musician with a unique charisma that causes a range of positive emotions”

    excerpted from :

  • Karen says:

    Sorry Norman, I posted my comment under the wrong section. More appropriate to be under this article, if you please :

  • Robert Hairgrove says:

    Ideally — at least I was taught this way, and I think most of my pianist colleagues would agree — there is no separation of technique from musical expression. One cannot exist without the other. If we think of some great artists who didn’t have the same command of technical facility in their old age that they had as youths, we can still admire them for the depth of their understanding and powers of communication when they perform. But all of those whom we revere as great pianists (or violinists, or any other instrumentalists), they did have a consummate command of their chosen instrument in the beginning of their careers, without exception. Even if they missed notes occasionally, they were more the result of random risk-taking and not for any lack of technical ability (perhaps lack of practice, in some cases). People used to say about Sviatoslav Richter that his wrong notes were 100 times more exciting than all of the right notes played by anyone else.

    With these competitions, most of them have an age limit, so we get all these young aspirants who want to win the grand prize (or any prize, at least). By what standards should we judge them? The same standards by which we would judge an older maestro? Perhaps, but maybe not. But if someone understands the music they are playing, can communicate it to their audience at a high level, and can raise a certain level of excitement, ideally bringing something new to their interpretations, having a memory slip, for example, or hitting a few wrong notes is not so important. Far more important is how such a slip is handled, because with proper preparation, it should be possible to carry on without undue disruption to the performance. I think there is not a pianist alive who has never had a memory lapse at some point in their career.

    Technical facility should be a given, and no more. It usually becomes pretty obvious if a young pianist is pursuing technical facility at the expense of music-making. But many great artists, even Backhaus, Godowsky or Rachmaninoff, have been accused of being “cold” in performance. In reality, they were putting the music, the message of the composer, above their own personality at the keyboard. Alexis Weissenberg, for example, was often accused of the same. In reality, there was not a more profound and dedicated musican on earth than he was.

    Another problem is the widespread misconception of what “technique” really is. It’s not about playing faster, cleaner, louder or softer than anyone else. Things that are really difficult, such as perfect chord voicing or the ability to play a real legato and shape a beautiful phrase, usually go unnoticed even by many professionals. But if someone has wonderful octaves, for example, and can present them embedded in a moving musical message … why not show it? There are so many pianists today who can play octaves just as fast and as clean as Horowitz once did. But his demonic fire, his humor, his panaché, and not to forget his utter simplicity in Scarlatti sonatas or his tone colors in works by Schubert — who has that? His octaves were merely a small part of all the rest that went into the makeup of his artistry.

    Prizes are awarded by a jury of a dozen or more people, and that is a very difficult undertaking. It’s kind of like trying to compose a masterpiece of music by committee. Of course, all of the individual committee members are the very best available (and sometimes not, but that is a different matter). By the time all have agreed on the end product, what is left of inspiration and originality? Often, it is not very much, I’m afraid.

    • David G says:

      Robert Hairgrove, a really excellent response. It does seem there needs to be a distinction between ‘mechanique’ and ‘technique’. Technique IS the music – without it, it cannot live. It also raises what the criterion for judging are, and on that I can only deduce it rests on the things you have highlighted. I’d far prefer originality, musical intrigue and revelation and to be moved by what someone is communicating than having mere competency and consistency. Thanks for your considered words.

  • Peggy W. says:

    I, for one, am immensely grateful for all the “non-Russian jury members” for their high professionalism, sound judgement and deep integrity in abiding by the high standards required of the Tchaikovsky Competition jurors. I wish to thank each of them for refusing to bend to popular sentiments and pressures from the swooning groupies for their “beloved Frenchman”.
    We may be moved by some of the pieces played by Mr. Debargue, but he needs time to learn more repertoire and to perfect his art. He is not there yet (his talent notwithstanding) – there is much hard work ahead of him if he is to at all reach the heights that the top winners have attained.
    The excesses from his adoring Russian fans (some of whom, mostly the ladies, seem ready to worship at the feet of their so-called “genius” demigod) are terribly worrisome (I have followed some of comments on the Russian online forums). This kind of total public adoration can actually hurt a young pianist in the course of his musical development.

  • Glenn Hardy says:

    I’m hoping that these comments on “professionalism” are indicative of an incipient awakening process. (But I’m not holding my breath.) The professionalization of all the arts over the past hundred years has, in many ways, been a disaster. OK, back to my bubble.

  • Eric Taylor says:

    One just has to listen to Mr. Debargue’s concerti round to know why he did not and should not receive one of the top prizes.

    It seems to me that Mr. Berezovsky may be pandering to what the Debarfue fans want. The 12 jurors were asked to judge based on their expert knowledge, versus coming up with a popular result that the public wants and likes. Perhaps, some of the jury members can start a new show called “Tchaikovsky piano competition’s Got Talent” on Russian TV where winners are determined by how popular they are.

    It strikes me as highly unprofessional of Mr. Berezovsky to publicly criticize or lay blame on the non-Russian jury members for a result which he as an individual happens to disagree with. As part of the team of jurors, he ought to respect and uphold the result based on the voting by all members of the team presumably in accordance with the Rules. He should know how the voting works in a situation where 12 independently-minded jurors are each submitting a separate vote (well, independently-minded at least for the non-Russian jury members). The aggregate result of the 12 votes came up with a final ranking that was different from Mr. Berezovsky’s own individual preferences. So what ? Does he not understand his individual preferences do not and should not dictate the final result ?

    Lastly, Mr. Berezovsky is highly insensitive and fails to appreciate that by his callous words he may have hurted the feelings (and possibly the confidence level ) of some of the other top prize winners, all of whom have worked extremely hard all their lives, are exceptionally gifted, talented, and exhibit an unbelievably high level of excellence in their musical and artistic development. All 6 are winners and each excel in his own unique way. The rankings are really, really superfluous, if one were to give these young talented artists the respect and honour that they truly deserve.

    • Erwin Poelstra says:

      When I read Berezovsky’s words carefully, I think the last sentence is the most important: he wanted Debargue to have a silver medal, not because of his popularity, but because he thought he was the BEST pianist, together with Masleev.
      And it seems to me that you underestimate the knowledgeable Russian public: when they are very much delighted with a certain candidate, it’s usually for a very good reason!

    • Ilshat says:

      Sorry for my poor English. The piano section is the most popular in the competition. And also the public attention is accordingly high. If you noticed, the huge Hall of the Conservatory has been fully packed all the days. The people desire a young genius, a hero. And the pressure the audience make on jury is enormous. As some people remember, Van Cliburn could win because the government was afraid people would “destroy the Culture Ministry”. 4 years ago there was a huge scandal as Alexander Rumyantsev failed. Moscow musical critics have founded their own prize and gave it to him. You can imagine how many times the media and the public asked then the jury and Mr Gergiev about the issue. This time the Russian jury members have to face another claim willing to give the first prize to a Russian pianist due to political/business/non-musical reasons. And that is the reason why BB must answer the journalist it has not been a decision made by the Russian jury members. By the way the internet rumours say Lucas Debargue must thank his сountryman Michel Beroff for the voting result. Just remember. Mediocrity could not tolerate a genius

      • Karen says:

        I think you must have been referring to Alexander Lubyantsev ? I remember the uproar when he failed to advance in 2011 but the Moscow critics gave him a prize (if I am not mistaken, it is the same prize that has now been given to Debargue this time). It doesn’t sound like Lubyantsev is doing too well, judging by his recent YouTube video.

        • Ilshat says:

          You are totally right. I mean Alexander Lubyantsev. Sorry for the mistake. And yes it is the same prize that has been given to Lucas Debargue. The critics seem to be very satisfied their decision – as a kind of protest against jury voting – has been broadcasted 🙂 I am not sure Alexander is doing too well now since he tried to participate at the tch15 again – at the third time already! – but did not pass.

  • R.Brighton says:

    Um, Erwin, if I may, actually Berezovsky said “it is necessary to respect the Moscow audience that appreciated Luke and greeted him enthusiastically. “ “Necessary” being the word that is worrisome and problematic, in my most humble view. I also seem to recall reading another quote from BB where he indicated something to the effect that technique is not important, the love of music is. We all love music, don’t we ? Well, well, we may be witnessing the erosion of standards at the Tchaikovsky, folks. I did not know the Tchaikovsky has been dumbed down to a popularity contest nowadays. Future contestants , take note – there may be no need to waste too much time practising at the piano ; grab some popcorn and ‘study’ the many popular singing contest shows on the telly instead. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a piece or two played by this young chap from France (I quite like one or two of his pieces), but he has only seriously begun studying the piano about 4 years ago and it certainly shows during his final round when he played the Tchaikovsky pc #1 and the Liszt concerto ! Go watch his Final concerti round, folks – the Russian audience can hardly bring themselves to even clap at the end of that round.

    • Erwin Poelstra says:

      I agree with you that Debargue wasn’t ready yet to play two big Concertos in one evening. In my opinion, that final round is an “overkill” and they should change it.
      It is a pity though that you cannot recognize the strikingly original and very moving musicality of this young man. Talents like that are very rare — and it becomes even more enigmatic when you read about his unconventional background. He can develop into something very very special.

  • R. Brighton says:

    Talent he may have, but aw shucks, I didn’t know the Tchaikovsky competition was supposed to be a Talent Show. I recognize that Mr. Debargue may have moved some folks with one or two pieces of music, but let us not disregard the undeniable fact that he performed 2 concerti (and other pieces) rather poorly. You are an apologist for him, and you lack objectivity. There are thousands upon thousands of great talent and ‘potential’ in top music conservatories all over the world, this French chap is not unique as some would like to market him to be. I see him for what he “is”. Too much nonsense building around him right now. Its sickening. Lady GaGa would be proud.

    • Erwin Poelstra says:

      Of course I’m not 100% objective — nobody is. If you think you are, you are incredibly arrogant and pretentious. It’s all about personal preferences. You know what is sickening? The way you belittle this ‘French chap’.

      • R.Brighton says:

        I suggest you get a grip on yourself, young chap.

        • Erwin Poelstra says:

          And may I suggest a little bit less self-righteousness in your commenting, “R. Brighton”.
          (Oh, and thanks for calling me young, I’m 49 years old)

          • R.Brighton says:

            I am entitled to my opinion as much as you are to yours, you know…talk about self-righteousness !
            (And oh, I was giving piano lessons the day you were born, young whippersnapper).

  • Erwin Poelstra says:

    To R. Brighton:
    “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”
    Let’s analyze just one of your very objective and insightful remarks here:
    “There are thousands upon thousands of great talent and ‘potential’ in top music conservatories all over the world, this French chap is not unique as some would like to market him to be.”
    And how many come in the final of one of the most prestigious and difficult competitions in the world, after having studied the piano seriously for only 4 or 5 years? Not many. In fact, just one. That’s why this “French chap” is indeed unique.

    – Berezovsky is not alone in his admiration. Let’s see what another jury member, Denis Matsuev has to say about Debargue. And these are no average adjudicators, they are both expert pianists who have won the competition themselves:
    “Lucas Debargue is the true revelation of this competition, he is a phenomenon. If there had been prizes for every round, he would’ve been a sure winner after the second round. His Medtner and Ravel were something we hadn’t seen here during the whole history of the competition. However, we all saw what happened in the finals. We looked at it with tears in our eyes.”
    – A knowledgeable group of Moscow critics gave him a special prize.
    – Valery Gergiev broke protocol by having the Frenchman play in the winners’ gala (two solo pieces).
    – The Russian music lovers were so impressed by his playing that they invited him to give a recital on the 14th of July at the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre.
    – Dmitry Bashkirov, another jury member and one of the greatest living Russian piano pedagogues: “Two years more of solid work and Debargue could become one of the greatest of all.”
    – Etc. etc.

    But we are all wrong folks, because the Ultimate Expert, R. Brighton, says that all this nonsense about this French chap is a sickening hype, it’s nothing special!
    I don’t have to be an “apologist” for Lucas Debargue, mr./mrs. Brighton — he doesn’t need that. Even if he wasn’t quite ready to play two big concertos (he also had never played with an orchestra before the competition), he is already a great musician.

    • R.Brighton says:

      You would benefit from some anger management classes. And do us a favour, don’t forget to take your meds.

      • Erwin Poelstra says:

        What a brilliant reply. You may already have given piano lessons before I was born, but after your uninformed and snotty comments here you lost all credibility as a serious piano teacher. You cannot even acknowledge true, exceptional talent.

        • David G says:

          Amen to that!!
          What terribly unfortunate replies from Teacher Brighton above. One would think with such years of experience behind said person that the disrespectful tone adopted in discussing this competitor (who has clearly created ‘hype’ based on authentic artistic merit) is unfathomable! I can only imagine how the teaching studio is run with this sort of attitude at the helm….

          • R.Brighton says:

            Happy to get a rise out of you two whippersnappers, hahaha. Thanks for the laugh.

          • Erwin Poelstra says:

            Not sure if it’s a case of senility or just general obnoxiousess!

  • David G says:

    I would assume that your calling Erwin P and myself ‘whippersnappers’ is not to endear but rather insult as this seems to be the theme that runs through your posts and what was taken objection to by Mr. Poelstra in your discussing the French competitor. I’m sure we all agree that expressing opinions is encouraged here, but why I thought your replies were unfortunate was because they adopt a tone that is uncalled for, and what I would think someone of your years would not engage in. Young we may be, but I certainly know that I would not resort to angry and ‘infantile’ remarks such as you have chosen to. Please accept the differences of opinion without the puerile remarks. It just veers things off topic and debases the discussion.

  • Erwin Poelstra says:

    Idolatry, no. Sincere admiration, yes.
    Infantile arrogance: I leave that to the readers of this blog, but your respectless language and misplaced superiority are quite telling. Please, “R.Brighton”, don’t reply to me anymore unless you have something knowledgeable to say about this competition and its contestants (so far you haven’t).

    • Ann says:

      Initially, both individuals have something interesting to say. However, both sides became equally silly and both are at fault for unnecessarily hurling personal insults at the other. Please , neither one of you three reply anymore. Please end this silliness. Just my two cents. Thank you kindly.