The International Chopin Piano competition is known for its incredible power to turn unknown prodigies into pianists of global standing. Other than the actual prize, these young artists win a schedule packed with concerts in the most prestigious halls in the world and an unparalleled opportunity to bask in the spotlight for decades.
Every five years the jury faces an almost impossible task. They have to select the best pianist out of over 80 outstandingly gifted and perfectly trained contestants. Keep in mind that this is a competition where it all comes down to the subtlest nuances; no easily measurable values are judged, and the verdict is final and non-negotiable. This is why the competition’s history has been full of controversy and heated debates but it is a fact that almost every winner sooner or later proves to be an absolutely distinguished artist and one of the world’s leading pianists.
But who are the most memorable and accomplished winners of the competition?
He was only 18 – the youngest of 89 competitors – when he won the 6th edition of the competition in 1960. Arthur Rubinstein, a prominent pianist and jury member, said of him:
(…) that boy plays better than any of us jurors.
Unlike the other winners who often immediately embark on endless tours Maurizio withdrew from the spotlight and didn’t resurface until the late 1960s.
[After the competition] I wanted to explore other arts and other things. So I stayed away from concerts for about a year and a half, and when I returned I didn't take on too many. But I always enjoyed performing and I made my debut in London in 1963. By the end of the 60s my performance schedule had extended itself to a more normal rhythm.
Nevertheless Pollini was never interested in just capitalising on his fame as a Chopin Competition winner and in the years to come he became strongly involved in promoting contemporary music as well as supporting left-wing political movements in Italy. He devoted many years of his career to popularising the music of composers such as Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, and Nono because he believed that although they were established and recognized, their works appeared in concert programmes far too rarely. He shared the same political views as Nono and they collaborated closely on projects which blended musical education and social criticism.
Maurizio Pollini is an icon today and his recordings of Chopin and Schumann are widely recognized as elementary for every classical music lover.
Marta Argerich is not only one of the most celebrated living artists but also one of the most complicated and rebellious ones. She's notorious for cancelling her shows at the last moment, for changing the programme without notice, and for delaying her appearance on stage and making the audience wait. At the same time she is appreciated for her passionate performances, for never falling into routine, for her great honesty and for constantly pushing against the boundaries of how the greatest compositions are interpreted. The apparent ease with which she plays and her seemingly unforced virtuosity are known to have been achieved at the cost of the highest mental burden and struggles with contradictory moods before her every performance.
A vortex of emotional trouble seems to swirl around this woman. Yet once she sits at the piano, disorder and doubt fall away. She plays piano the way a gazelle leaps from one crag to another, with mesmerising natural mastery. – Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph.
In 1965 Martha Argerich won the competition at the age of 24, when she stunned the audience and the jury with her defiant interpretations, perfect articulation and, last but not least, outstanding appearance. Fifty years later she is undisputedly one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century as well as an experienced member of the competition’s jury. This year’s competition will commence with a concert by Argerich, the tickets for which sold out a long time ago.
He won the competition in 1975 and was the youngest pianist to be awarded the first prize along with all of the special awards (for the best performance of polonaise and mazurkas). Like Marta Argerich, his present day status goes beyond any scale of prestige, respect and admiration.
The specific aura that he creates around himself as well as his unusual ability to create his own magnificent musical world, where every sound that he plays is extremely significant, are foundations of his phenomenon. – Jacek Marczyński, Rzeczpospolita.
After starting his career like this it should have been a challenge to even meet the world's expectations, but Krystian Zimerman has miraculously gone even further and exceeded them. He is not only an absolutely outstanding artist but also an original, old-fashioned and good-natured character. He releases a very limited number of albums, plays a few concerts every year, does everything not to let unauthorised recordings of his performances leak to the Internet, and closely guards his private life. He devotes a lot of time to his studies of acoustics and always travels with his own piano. He rarely speaks in public or gives interviews but when he does he presents his views in a very determined way. It has led to a few controversies, such as him publicly vowing to never perform in the US again in protest against the country’s foreign policy, or halting his performance when a stubborn audience member continued recording him despite his request to stop.
However what he is best known for is constantly striving for perfection and for broadening how seemingly well-known compositions are perceived. For example, in 1999 he founded the Polish Festival Orchestra composed of young musicians with whom he worked for a very long time on presenting Chopin concertos from a brand new angle. Instead of usual focus on piano parts, Krystian Zimerman (who not only played but also conducted) decided to give extra exposure to the orchestra. He went as far as to make little amendments to the orchestration and even added eight bars to the finale of Allegro Maestoso of the Piano Concerto in E minor, op. 11. Regardless of (or maybe thanks to?) these highly controversial actions his tour with Polish Festival Orchestra was overwhelmingly successful and provoked a lot of discussion on the boundaries of interpretation of the classical music.
Even though Dang Thai Son (1980’s winner), Stanislav Bunin (1985) and Yundi Li (2000) experienced a great deal of success after winning the competition none of them managed to come close to achieving the superstar status of the three winners presented above. Both subsequent competitions in the 1990s went down in history as no first prize was awarded (the jury believed that nobody deserved it) so at the beginning of the 21st century discussion about the crisis of the competition was more intense than ever.
Luckily for the competition, the audience and the jury in 2005, Rafał Blechacz took part and not only did he walk away with all the prizes but the judges were so taken with him that no one was awarded second place. It was a stunning, unprecedented and undisputed victory, the first of its kind since 1975. Krystian Zimerman wrote him a letter of congratulations ending with a comment very unusual for the overly elegant world of classical music.
Bro, you smashed it!
The world’s most prestigious classical music record label – Deutsche Grammophon – immediately signed him and Blechacz continues to release great albums with the music of Chopin, Debussy, Szymanowski, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Ten years after his victory Rafał Blechacz shows no signs of slowing down. On 8 January, 2014, he was awarded the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award, which made him the second artist from Poland (after pianist Piotr Anderszewski) to win the prestigious award. Blechacz was given a prize of $300,000, most of which ($250,000) he was expected to spend on his career development. He keeps touring worldwide and broadening his repertoire and seems to be on the right path to becoming one of the greatest artists of his generation.
This year’s Chopin Competition will be extremely competitive, as always, all while showcasing the most talented piano players in the world. Hailing from 45 countries, of the over 450 performers aged 16 to 30 that originally entered the competition, judges advanced a total of 84 pianists to the three final recital stages which will run from 3 to 16 October in Warsaw. The top 10 pianists will qualify for the Grand Finale, to be held on 18-20 October. Will the 17th edition witness the birth of another superstar pianist?
Everything You Need To Know About the Competition
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 21 st September 2015.
Sources: Artists' websites, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Rzeczpospolita, Culture.pl, ChopinCompetition2015.com