Sergei Babayan: ‘Some young pianists succumb to superficial rivalry’

Sergei Babayan: ‘Some young pianists succumb to superficial rivalry’


norman lebrecht

November 28, 2015

The distinguished pianist and teacher on how competitors are prepared for international competitions:

Some young pianists succumb to superficial rivalry and choose fast, showy pieces in order to try to win over others. When I encounter a performance that reflects this, I am disappointed and wonder what the pianist is going to achieve. Even if the work is by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert or Chopin and has profound content, it has no meaning unless the pianist can convey a message to the audience through the work. I can easily tell which contestant is just trying to win the competition and which truly loves the music. The prize money in musical competitions does not compare with that given in major sports events, so it does not mean much for a musician’s life.

I think true “competition” begins at the end of the competition. It is in their everyday living that musicians are tested as to whether or not they are a true artist and able to create music which can touch the audience’s hearts.

Full interview here.

Daniil Trifonov and Sergei Babayan - Cleveland Institute of Music, Kulas Hall
Babayan, pictured with his student, Daniil Trifonov


  • Hugh Jarce says:

    Even better advice: buy a lottery ticket or emigrate to South Korea.
    At the last count, the Alink-Argerich foundation website listed 11 international piano competitions in November alone, 20 (!) in September. Skimming through the other months and even taking into account occasional double-counting of “pianists selected to take part” lists and award-winner lists, I would estimate about 120 competitions in 2015.
    My personal favourite: Odessa in Oct. with four tied 1st prizes, three tied 2nds and two tied 3rd prizes.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Good points, but it nothing new. Most of the young pianists who scooped up prizes in the 1970s, 1980s and perhaps 1990s have disappeared to some extent. It is not just because they pick pieces that are showy, or they try to show their poetic gifts to set them apart. The primary causes for these disappearances has to do with repertoire. True, as Sergei shares, just being a fine mechanic is not what makes for a true musician over the long term, for it is VERY dangerous for young artists to assume that if they win a competition–for whatever reasons–they are assured a long term career. Problem is, almost everyone plays the same repertoire. It’s great music, of course, but the secret is in bringing new works and/or neglected works to audiences and to the recording studios. Horowitz premiered Samuel Barber’s Sonata, Rubinstein premiered many new works. Indeed, there are many idols of the piano, but I often wish they would have brought new works into the mainstream repertoire for the next generation. They need it. And competitions should start commissioning composers to write new concerti for the final rounds.

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    Yeah, the young people these days.

    Fortunately, we have wise judges who can “easily tell which contestant is just trying to win the competition and which truly loves the music.”

  • Milka says:

    Among some natural basic truths Mr.Babyan gives out with the typical baloney ……Music carries a” message ” nonsense. Couldn’t his favorite pianist just hand out hard copies of whatever message he has so we can go on to better things. Is his thumping out on the piano some sort of Morse code . Would love to learn how he spots a hopeful winner from”one who loves music”? If the music lover wins does he turn down the prize ? if he or she is a music lover what in hell are they doing in a competition if not to win — The last paragraph cannot be said with a straight face ……..