Lessons to be learned from the Chopin Competition

Lessons to be learned from the Chopin Competition


norman lebrecht

October 21, 2021

1 The winner Bruce Liu is a major talent. The audience loved him and the judges had no doubts.

2 He played a Fazioli piano; the Italian runner up, Alexander Gadjiev, played a Kawai. The age of Steinway is almost over.

3 Canada is now a world piano power, ahead of France, the UK and Germany in its ceaseless talent production: Hewitt, Lortie, Lisiecki, Hamelin (x2), Parker (x2), Goodyear and now Bruce Liu.

4 Pianists of Chinese origin are proving remarkably diverse.

5 It is unacceptable in 2021 for a competition jury to contain teachers of top contestants. Warsaw does not allow teachers to vote for their pupils. However, a juror has access to those who do vote and is also in a position to feed their likes and dislikes back to his student. Seven other jurors had students among the competitors. The non-voting room must have got quite crowded at times.

Liu’s teacher Dang Thai Son won the Chopin in 1980. He was on the jury by right. But once it became clear that Liu was a strong contender he should have been asked to step down. The rules need revision.



  • TP says:

    Gadjiev played the Kawai, not the Fazioli.

  • Jonathan Sutherland says:

    Apart from error that Gadijev played the Fazioli, Norman is entirely correct.
    See my earlier comment at:

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    Fazioli pianos lack the richness and beauty of tone characteristic of the best Steinways. The ones I have played sound a bit garish: like Yamahas on steroids. Steinways — particularly those made before 1940 — are still the best all-around instruments.

    • BRUCEB says:

      “The ones I have played sound a bit garish: like Yamahas on steroids.”

      Are you sure it isn’t just you?

      Sorry, the setup was just sitting there. I couldn’t help myself. I do know what you mean though. I think of that characteristic Yamaha sound as “as a sound like breaking glass.”

      But also: Angela Hewitt played a Fazioli and made most of her recordings on it, until the movers dropped it… not a “garish” player. *shrug*

    • M. R. Samuelsson says:

      Vintage Steinways produced from 1920 to 1935 are the best!
      Solid quality, virtuosity, warmth and expressiveness…..my Steinway is as close to a human as an instrument can get. Well, maybe a Strad. And what of Bosendorfer?

  • Jed Distler says:

    Actually, Mr. Gadjiev played a Kawai, not a Fazioli.

  • ridiculous comment about the age of Steinway being over. The Kawai sounded ugly and strident and the Fazioli is so rare in concert halls that it will never dominate.

  • Rodrigo says:

    Just a word about Martin Garcia Garcia here. Spain’s ranking in international competitions and the classical music world in general should not be overlooked.

    Spain is producing great talent, more so every year. Spanish candidates are seldom connected with influential jury members yet they still place well. Did Garcia have ties with this jury? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt it. The fact that he placed with no connections speaks volumes about his talent, and country he represents.

    Despite the fact that Spain boasts pianists like Joaquin Achucarro or Juan Perez Floristan or Javier Perianes, somehow Spain isn’t “in the loop” of jury connections and never seems to be regarded seriously as a national “power” (to use the word in the article above).

    When will people start realizing that Spain is a bonafide rising power in classical music? When a Spanish candidate places, as Garcia did, it’s usually on merit, not on connections.

    • Donald Wright says:

      Albert Cano Smit, co-winner of the Naumburg in 2017, is another great Spanish pianist.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I found Garcia’s playing histrionic and this became very distracting, with the rocking, sweating and facial contortions. This isn’t professional, IMO.

      Why do the women NOT sweat? Apart from the fact that they can wear lighter clothing, is there perhaps another explanation?

    • her royal snarkiness says:

      Garcìa Garcìa won the Cleveland International Piano competition this year. I went to the chamber music rounds. He was beguiling.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        He playing is of a very high level and he seems like a very nice man; he just needs to comport himself in a professional manner whilst at the piano to allow this to be the feature rather than himself. I’m surprised that teachers haven’t picked up on this and remember watching a masterclass with Schiff when he highlighted the pianist’s manner and posture.

    • R.Seegobin says:

      He was heavy on the keyboard, it made it a task to watch him, third place was a mistake, should have placed lower, the first violinist was smarting from the handshake when he first came on to play the final, he tried to avoid him at the end of his performance.

    • Trifonovfan says:

      I do not think Martin Garcia Garcia is a major talent. He makes way too many errors and his interpretations are NOT Chopinesque.
      I believe the ONLY reason he got 3rd place was because he was from Spain…

  • Anonymous says:

    Jury members should step down if pupils are competing. Anywhere. Anytime.
    How can they be allowed to vote for others! Is that not weird that an individual allowed qualify or disqualify you and is having on interest and passion for own pedagogical work in the game?
    This should STOP NOW!
    Amazing pedagogues like DTS should show their work and participate in the competitions in the role of the teacher, not being on jury.

  • christopher storey says:

    I listened to the Concerto performance hoping that I would enjoy it despite the grave misgivings I had about his performances in earlier rounds . I’m afraid I found my misgivings to be justified, with peculiar pedalling, strange voicings with, in particular, the upper filigree writing in the slow movement often virtually inaudible. The earlier rounds showed a tendency to smother with sustaining pedal; very strange voicing; allowing the music to come to a halt in mid phrase from time to time; abrupt changes in dynamics. I can only explain his prize on the assumption that for some reason various jurors found other pianists’ playing offensive in some way. Overall, I fear he is yet another winner who will sink without trace , this seeming to be a feature of competitions now

    • Mark Mortimer says:

      Christopher- I’m always interested to read your perceptive views. We seem to be the English armchair SD critics of recent piano concours- including the Leeds. It has to be said that the Chopin contest displayed a far greater amount of pianistic talent- probably agreed. As regards Mr Liu- I found him to be a highly proficient young keyboard artist. His solo rounds were unmemorable however & didn’t stick out from many others (Nehring, for example, was more consistently engaging). But his concerto performance did change my mind a bit. I thought his Chopin E minor was enchanting- very delicate playing throughout- not too rushed (or overpedalled) & I heard all the filigree in the slow movement for one. He also seemed to be aware of what was going on in the orchestra despite Chopin’s obvious deficiencies in this area. So slightly disagree here. I agree that the recent Leeds winner (nice chap) may sink without a trace- mainly owing to the intense competition he faces in the real musical world. Liu- is a different matter- with the right repertoire choices & mentoring he may become a pianist people will want to hear in the long term.

      • NYCgirl says:

        “Chopin’s obvious deficiencies in this area”.

      • nimitta says:

        MM: “[Liu]’s solo rounds were unmemorable…”

        Not for me! The études and mazurka were dazzling, and the 2nd Ballade breathtaking in both narrative power and execution. After those performances I knew he’d take the prize.

        Let me add my impression about that particular Fazioli: it sounded a bit brassy for all who played it. The Steinway on hand had more woody warmth and beauty, to my ears. Still, each individual instrument, Steinway, Fazioli, or Kawai, has unique properties – I’ve heard steely Steinways and fuzzy Faziolis as well.

      • Trifonovfan says:

        Whoever says Liu is not engaging, hasn’t heard his Scherzo in E major, his Variations on Don Giovanni, or his Andante Spianato/Grande Polonaise…
        Nor his sonata and nocturne..
        He’s the most artistic virtuoso I’ve heard in years!

    • Trifonovfan says:

      As a concert pianist myself, I find Liu to be the rarest of pianists – a true virtuoso with artistry. He’s going to be a STAR!
      DG has already promoting him.
      And they’re releasing all of his live competition recordings.
      PS. As for Liu’s peddling, his subtle peddling technique is one of the reasons the jury picked him. He has clarity above all others.

  • Brent says:

    I do not agree on the assessment of Steinway at all. There are a lot of things that go into a choice of piano, including the condition and calibration of a particular piano and the repertoire that is being played on it.

    I would go further on the comment about judges. I think it’s even more of a problem in the early rounds. I think some of the best pianists were eliminated after round 2. I think the judging of the finals ends up ok, it’s just is the pool of finalists correct?

  • Piano lover says:

    No teachers on the jury should be allowed!

  • Henri says:

    The most remarkable fact about this competition is that the most outstanding pianists by maturity a excellence didn’t make it to the finals: Hayato Sumino and Avery Gagliano. Mediocrity has won once again, really a pity… and both played a Steinway, btw.

    • Nijinsky says:

      WOW that’s right, I’d never heard of Hayato, he does things already the winner will never get to till it’s over with… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDZWLP7TgBM and he’s creative, which apparently is some sort of sin these days. I don’t think Chopin would have picked, these winners or so many of the prior ones. This is more like a competition for those shining in the heyday in Paris that are forgotten now, like Thalberg and Kalkbrenner.

    • Frances says:

      I would hardly call Liu mediocre. That’s one heck of an insult.

  • Phil Smith says:

    Disagree with your piano assessment. Not one of the instruments I heard do not match the Steinway sound. I would not play on any concert grand except Steinway. You also said Bruce Liu was a favorite of the audience. That doesn’t mean that the audience always makes the right choice. I liked the man from Poland. Nehring. Incredible pianistl.

    • Michael says:

      Nehring played very poorly in the Third Round. I was in the hall. His performance was dreary. Even “incredible” pianists can have off days. By contrast, Liu grew stronger as the competition progressed. By the finals, there was little doubt.

    • Michael T says:

      Yes, audiences don’t always make the right choice, but elitists such as yourself always succeed in making the right choices.
      Reading the comments here tend to make one disgusted with the opinions voiced here. You supercilious elitists are the reasons classical music is fading into obscurity and the norm is trending into “ rap” becoming the musical standard.

  • Monty Earleman says:

    “Competitions are for horses, not artists”. Bartok

  • Couperin says:

    Yeah, I really wouldn’t rank the piano alongside the winner. I couldn’t stand the Fazioli sound, the more I heard it. Whenever a contestant played the Fazioli and then the Steinway returned, it felt like a relief. Sorita was my number one pick!

  • her royal snarkiness says:

    Listening to García García on the Fazoli; it is shrill.

  • Dan says:

    Jurors cannot score their students but they can score other contestants lowly, especially those that pose a threat to their students. To say that jurors not being able to score their students will take care of the problem is an insult to the intelligence of the music world. This competition is being renamed the Dang Thai Son competition. I just hope Bruce will have a more significant career as a soloist than his teacher and not end up as a corrupt juror in the 2060 edition of the Dang Thai Son competition.

    • HR says:

      I do agree that jurors can influence even without voting for their own students, but I would not blame DTS, but all the Polish jurors with own students! Pachelec and Kuszlik did not belong in the final and took places of f.e.Khosyainov and Kim, but also Wiercinski

    • Nick says:

      Thank you, Dan. I feel less crazy reading your comment. To me, if a competition allows this, it is a complete joke. In my mind the Chopin International Piano Competition has lost all of its prestige and credibility. Reminds me of when Kaplinsky had 9 of her students in the Cliburn. These people have no respect for the institution that they benefited from. It’s a club of good ‘ol boys. A bunch of political animals.

      • Martine says:

        As pianists and musicians the honourable members of the jury are an absolute zero. Mediocre people chose mediocre people.

  • Ivory says:

    My wishlists: Blind judging for stages 1 – 3 (blinded only to the juries, but not to the audience). Teachers of finalists should abstain from voting on their student in the final round. A set of finalists from every continent – in addition to Europe and Asia (to make it a more global participation). Criteria for judging should be transparent and published to the public (i.e., scoring value corresponds to certain qualitative merit). Add to the juries of the final round: respected talent managers/agents, major recording company label producers, classical Grammy award representative, orchestral conductors. Explain if the scores earned in the 3 stages are ‘reset’ for the final round (or are they cumulative?). Deliberation is not in a “closed door”. Allow curtain calls starting the 3rd stage. Only 2 finalists per evening performance (spread over 4 nights for 8 finalists). Give online viewers the chance to vote for the ‘online audience prize’ including best in etude, mazurka, sonata, etc. A special commendation for the youngest (and promising) finalist. Announcement of laureates: on concert stage, properly dressed contestants, announcements translated in English, presentation of medals/trophies to winners by distinguished people, and unhurried pace….make it memorable and dignified).


  • Luke Moissinac says:

    Taking the results at face value, these are the special prizes for best performances in 4 different categories:

    Mazurkas: Kuszlik
    Concerto: Garcia Garcia
    Sonata: Gadjiev
    Polonaise: Not awarded.

    So, one can win the Chopin Competition these days without being the best at any major genre category??

    That means that one can win by being above average in all the major categories??

    What kind of bevelling down of standards is this??

    Personally, I think there should be a fifth category of Ballades/Scherzi.

    But even without that, the choice of a winner who is not the best in any existing category is incomprehensible to me. And it points to a compromise winner among the jury.

  • Raro says:

    Truly the most corrupt aspects of major international competitions do not come from individual jury members — the difficulties arise from the influence and procedures imposed by the administrators.

  • Colin says:

    “4. Pianists of Chinese origin are proving remarkably diverse”.

    In what way, specifically?

  • Dana Franchitto says:

    Piano competitions are foolish and miss the whole point of music

  • Krystyna Collier says:

    Bruce is Not the winner, Sorita is. Favoritisn of Tang students should be not allowed, the results should be rescinded and revised.

  • Fsm says:

    I felt the most moving, nuanced and refined playing, in probably more of the intimate style Chopin played in, came out of 4th place winner Aimi Koyabashi, playing a Steinway. I’ve listened to all of contestants that placed above her and there music making is ordinary next to her. Further, she has no connections, is Chinese and plays a Steinway. Go figure why she placed 4th. Her finals performance on YT has grown to over half a million views in 4 days because it’s word of mouth and I can only surmise people can see and feel the difference thank goodness.

  • Bill says:

    Liu’s secret weapon was his intense JOY in the music.

  • Heretically Rational says:

    The blind loyalty to Steinways in the comments is strangely religious. Fazioli is a fantastic piano. More importantly, there are many brands that are equal in caliber. Please reflect on your Steinway indoctrination and how that came to be.

  • Martine says:

    What about Hayato Sumino who was eliminated after the third round? His Sonate Funebre was absolutely amazing.

  • Dan says:

    The writing is overly dramatic and biased.
    1) is the age of Steinway over, seriously ?
    2) the origins of the pianists are not relevant at all and even if they were, you ranking of “piano power countries” is childish and untrue.

  • Trifonovfan says:

    Those who think Nehring is superior to Liu need to know there were 17 Juror in the Competition.
    7 were Polish while only 3 are Asian.
    And the verdict was almost unanimous that Liu won.
    I think the jurors are more accomplish pianists than most of you…

  • Lim says:

    Bruce Liu’s playing has all the colours of the palette and many shades the same colour. Shimmering, sparkling, lightness, natural shapes of melodic lines, balance, control, crystal clarity, immaculate pedalling, intensity, just the right amount of sentimentality and no excessive lingering dragging in slower sections. I enjoy his wonderful rhythmic inflections, superb trills, pearly delightful runs and just the right amount of strength and duration of cadence chords – so satisfying and pleasing to the ears. Can’t hear enough of this young man’s playing! The others are very good as well but this young man is very different – his interpretations, technical skills and spontaneity stands out. Music appreciation is very subjective.

  • Lim says:

    I think all reputable music competitions must be judged with judges blindfolded and competitors completely anonymous to them. I find the level of personal bias so great and histrionics so distracting that genuine talents are missed. Bruce Liu deserves his first prize.

  • LLI225 says:

    I love how people keep on bashing DTS when Piotr Paleczny was also a jury member who had a student (Sorita) placing very high.