Whispers from the Chopin jury: it was too close to call

Whispers from the Chopin jury: it was too close to call


norman lebrecht

October 21, 2015

The midnight oil had burned out before the judges reached a final decision. Several of them have been talking privately about the process. The difficulty was choosing between the top two pianists, the Korean Seong-Jing Cho and the Canadian Charles-Richard Hamelin.

charles-richard hamelin

Several judges felt either of them could have been the winner. The final vote went to Cho by a narrow margin.

The process was completely transparent and fair, devoid of controversy. It was an ideal competition.



  • debussyste says:

    The verdic is much more satisfying than in the case of the Tchaïkovsky competition . For me Debargue was the real winner by far and he was not even on the podium ! It was a great shame, not for Debargue but for jury.

  • Malcolm James says:

    In the long run the result doesn’t matter. Missing out on the first prize didn’t hold back Bryn Terfel, Mitsuko Uchida or Andras Schiff.

    • David says:

      But if you’re not, it does.

      • Brian says:

        Those competitions do open doors. But if one doesn’t have anything to say, the public finds out soon enough, and those doors close. There have been many first prize winners(just look at the Van Cliburn Comp) whose names we don’t even know. After winning, they have disappeared.

  • Rodolfo says:

    There’s no scandal at all even if I was favorable to Hamelin: Cho, Hamelin, Liu and Lu they were the best and the most regular performers in the 4 stages. Since there’s a special prize for the best concerto (unawarded), it is clear that the judgement is based on all stages and not only on the final one, otherwise the best concerto prize should be always also the winner…Cho is an amazing pianist, even if he’s not at all emotional or thrilling. Hamelin will have a woderful career, let’s remember that Trifonov was 3rd…..anyway Cho and Hamelin were the only ones who didn’t disappoint (me) in the final stage, Liu was disappointing compared to other stages and maybe Shishkin 6th. is too low, but the jury made a good job.

  • John says:

    How long will it take until certain readers of this website start complaining that neither of the two potential winners were women!?

  • Brian says:

    The 2015 Chopin competition made the same mistake as the Tchaikovsky a few months earlier – choosing a first prize winner who is technically brilliant, but is emotionally lacking. Seung Jin Cho has not displayed any change in his playing since being a prize winner in the 2011 Tchaikovsky and the 2014 Arthur Rubinstein Competitions. A New York concert review of his playing in the Rubinstein’s is revealing: http://nyconcertreview.com/articles/14th-arthur-rubinstein-international-piano-master-competition-in-review/
    If this is where current classical piano playing is heading, then the pianistic art may be in trouble,

    • Tony says:

      It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen “Asian” spelled “emotionally lacking,” thanks Brian.

      • Mike says:

        Agree. Dismissing Asian performers as ’emotionally lacking’ is not only racist but belongs to another era. We are in the 21st century and we live in a global culture. Most of the ( Asian) kids in that competition are either born in the US/ Europe or live there since a long time. Cho is a student of Paris Conservatoire. They are just extremely good and they raised the bar very high: others are frustrated that they cannot reach that level of perfection together with a musical understanding – and, instead of working on it, they prefer the easy way out and accuse the Asians of being ‘lacking in emotion’. On the other hand we have Hamelin: a true musician, with well thought ideas and technically very perfect. What will they say about him?

        • Brian says:

          Racism has nothing to do with my comment about Cho being ’emotionally lacking.’ It has nothing to do about him being Asian. Yundi Li is Asian and is not emotionally lacking.

          • Brian says:

            Kate Liu and Eric Lu were very expressive in their sound and emotional projection of Chopin. They’re Asians.

          • Tony says:

            I’ve heard enough; you’re a great friend of the Asians. Look, “emotionally lacking” is a cop-out. It’s no more of a reasoned or relevant critique than “I don’t like her.”

            If they’re in the final round of a major international piano competition, someone found their performance sufficiently infused with that mysterious substance we call emotion. If you, the listener, choose not to derive that kind of satisfaction from the performance, that’s on you.

          • Brian says:

            I can appreciate our differences in opinion as to the results of the competition. What I can’t appreciate is dragging racism into this, which has no place in it. Regardless of race, ’emotionally lacking’ is a legitimate description of someone’s playing and has been used for millennia. Details could be discussef as to why. Look at the review of Rafal Blechaz’s recent Wigmore recital below:

            And by the way, I am Asian.

          • Neven P. says:

            What’s happening with Blehacz these days? He seems to be nowhere in sight.

    • anon says:

      Cho is actually an excellent MUSICIAN, and not some technical machine like Yuja Wang. Unlike some of the other competitors (cough, Osokins), he has an understanding of line and structure, which is something not easy for amateur listeners to notice, but the jury surely did. He also has a variety of subtle touch and sound and color. Listen to the variety in his preludes, op. 28. Listen also for structure and drama in his op. 35 sonata. This is beyond what say Liu or Lu were getting in their mostly lyrical approach.As for Hamelin, he could not get the range of expression that Cho does, either in articulation or dynamic.
      I hate to come to this conclusion, but writing him off as a mere technician is probably a go-to response for people seeing that he is Asian. At least the jury proved itself able to see past race.

      • Brian says:

        Cho is a fine pianist, well-trained musically and technically(so are the other finalists). But the public wants an artist than just a fine pianist. A deep artist possesses something intangible that goes beyond knowledge of the music(not just giving out information), creating a genuinely moving, even spiritual, experience for the public. As for your assertion that amateur listeners did not hear what you heard from Cho, listeners come in different forms, amateurs and professionals, both of which could have very good understanding and appreciation of music, and artistic music making. And racism, as you implied, is never an issue here – four of the six winners are Asians.

      • YC says:

        I have the exact opposite view: Yuja Wang is much more of a musician than Cho. For me the difference lies in their ways of phrasing.

    • David says:

      While it’s fair to say that his concerto at the final round lacked dynamics and emotional depth, if you think of Seong-jin Cho as an emotionally lacking technical machine, please check out his performance of op.35 Sonata, “Heroic” Polonaise, and Nocturne 48-1 (all available on the Chopin Institution’s official youtube channel). He also performed a much better concerto at the post-award gala concert.

      • Marc-Antoine Hamet says:

        Asian or not, Cho is a student at the Paris Conservatoire…

      • Andrys says:

        That’s true. Cho’s prizewinners’ concert version of the Chopin was way superior to his competition rendition, which was just “there” — which is one reason why no concerto award was given, since either not enough jurors agreed on a candidate…or no candidate was able to get the required majority vote of jurors present (and half the jury is required).

        After hearing that amazing winners’ concert version, I felt that Cho’s ability to play well (and lightly) at the orchestra’s speed when necessary did not prevent him from using scaled dynamics (rather than notes all sounding the same in any line), varied tones depending on importance of the beat or progressions, and appropriate note-lengths — a combo that no one else did successfully (incuding him) during the Competition. And that encore Polonaise was full of amazing musicianship as well as technique. I think it’ll be unlikely to hear a better one.

        Here are the gala concert’s PC1 as well as the encore Polonaise.

        and a direct link to the encore Polonaise:

        Apparently, at the winners’ concert, he felt freer to play with possibilities, but he has a facility that Richard-Hamelin didn’t quite have, in my view. So their final choice made sense to me.

        Having said that, I considered Cho’s competition-round ballade uncharacteristically harsh although I know others really liked it.

    • judith Lyn Lister says:

      can you at least spell his name correctly

  • Dark Daggller says:

    Great! Now we can look forward to recordings nos. 156 through 161 of of the piano concertos.

  • Tommy says:

    Does no one think Aimi Kobayashi is a bit low down the final order here?Incredible range of emotion and colours. Took risks and made a couple of slips but finest musician by far. I listen to her and think she is one of the most thrilling pianists I’ve heard for years.

    • Mike says:

      I agree with you. Aimi is a wonderful musician. I think she was in a way not treated fairly, who knows why. She certainly did not deserve to be ranked as low as Osokins etc. Also, I felt Nehring performed wonderfully in the finals and deserved perhaps more recognition than merely a finalist diploma-

      • Hugh Wilson says:

        Does musical genius not come into it?Amongst the finalists Aimi Kobayashi is the only one.
        Annie Zhou is also very special and of course George Li,who left early to concentrate on the Tchaikovsky Competition.

  • Mariusz says:

    I don’t agree with the results of 2015 Chopin-Competition! For me Hamelin was the best pianist and Chopin interpret by far. Cho is the superb pianist but Hamelin is a musical phenomenon which very rarely happens. First of all he hits the “Chopin-idiom” accurately. Thanks for the worships. This makes the life bearable

  • Mariusz says:

    Thanks for the whispers of course

  • Salieri says:

    I don’t think it was a close call and Cho won by a narrow margin at all.
    The fact was in the final stage concerto, both Cho and Hamelin had 2- 10’s
    from the judges, but this is where the tie broke with a wide margin.

    Hamelin had 5- 9’s, when Cho had 12- 9’s.

  • Jack Wheat says:

    Read two years later, much of this conversation seems exceedingly stupid and retrograde. It reminds me of something … let’s see … discussions of women pianists in the 1980s. One benefit of that remote time was no internet — and thus much less permanent memorialization of the vague alleged deficiencies in performances of people pushing through invisible walls.

    There is one line from this 2015 discussion that surely should make this decade’s short list of nonsensical faux discernment: “But the public wants an artist [rather] than just a fine pianist.” By which was meant: that certain indescribable something. Although I believe some respondents certainly described it well. If the guiding principle is what the public wants, just piut Simon Cowell at the judges’ table and let the audience text their votes. Or failing that, the judges might keep in mind that the Asian public is vastly larger than the American and European public.

  • Patrick Park says:

    There is no question in my opinion that Kate Liu should have been given the gold. The main problem is appearance, if the jurors couldn’t see the performers the outcome would of been different. Kate was by far the better pianist with the most emotional and beautiful sound. However she looked so young in her appearance that the judges I’m sure felt how could it be possible she could achieve so much being so young.

  • judith Lyn Lister says:

    Cho was in a class of his own, and the following years have verified his emotional depth