Musicologist and critic Marcin Majchrowski goes behind scenes of the International Chopin Piano Competition with Andrzej Jasiński, pianist, pedagogue and a member of the jury of the Chopin Piano Competiton. Andrzej Jasiński has sat on the jury since 1975 and served as its chairman between 2000-2010.
Marcin Majchrowski: There were 12 members on the jury in 2010, including eight winners of prior Chopin Competitions. Was this your personal choice?
Andrzej Jasiński: No, the directors of the National Frederick Chopin Institute selected the proposed invitations to the competition jury. However, acclaimed professors of piano approved the suggestions. I approved the ultimate composition of the jury, though it could have been larger because the greater the number of votes, the easier it is for everyone to accept the results. The ideal result would have been a small jury, consisting of five or six First Prize-winning laureates, but it is very difficult to get such a group together. Pollini never wanted to be a juror, Zimerman initially maintained that he was too young and later that was difficult for him to judge the performances (Krystian Zimmerman, winner of the 9th edition in 1975, was a student of Jasiński's). Ohlsson had other obligations that year. In such a jury, I would like to have seen, for example, Bernard Ringeissen, idolised by our audiences at the time, or Hiroko Nakamura, the first lady of Japanese piano. I was counting on Vladimir Ashkenazy, but his schedule did not permit him to be there for the whole competition. I could go on. I am happy that those who were there - acclaimed experts and artists who understand Chopin - had accepted the invitations.
MM: One can understand Krystian Zimerman's point - it is difficult to judge fairly, because it depends on moods and preferences. Luckily, since 2000, the use of an arithmetic mean has been required. Is this a revolutionary change?
AJ: It is a very good change because, to put it simply, it requires a yes or no vote. A democratic majority decides, just as in an election. However, there is a point system that helps, one that judges can reference in case of a tie. Remember that jurors cannot judge their students, and then there are fewer votes. That is when the backup point system can be used.
MM: That is how it works up to the third round. In the final, it is the total number of points that decides, so does that mean there will be no majority vote to place the winners?
AJ: I liked the previous system, when we worked in just that way, but I agree with the will of the majority. The justification is that someone who plays a concerto with an orchestra extremely well but was weaker in the preceding rounds could get too high a place - conversely, a weaker performance in the finale could result in a disproportionately low placement. I highlighted that the jurors could use their notes, but the prevailing opinion was that this system would be better and that, as a result, jurors would be forced to pay closer attention to each of the rounds.
MM: The way Chopin's music is interpreted is changing. Is this more evident in the competition?
AJ: It is true that the paradigms of interpretation have been changing over the years. In the past, young pianists were accused of not respecting the great Polish Chopin tradition. However, if you listen to recordings of Paderewski,, for instance, you will hear that he treats agogics very liberally, exceeding the norms of today's aestheticsJózef Hofmann - a wonderful pianist - frequently plays too fast; his playing gives the impression of being too rapid. Meanwhile, Rubenstein's playing continues to sound modern - he plays in a simple way, but at the same time, with great dignity that reflects the spirit of the music. Seeking originality in music does not always work. There are pianists who have an imagination and temperament, but do not respect Chopin's scores. That is when the evaluations of professionals differ from the impressions of the public: the latter is drawn in by the artist's suggestiveness. The Chopin is not just any contest to find the best virtuosos in the world. It seeks to promote those who truly feel and understand Chopin's music, as they are to pass on the models for interpreting it to future generations.
MM: There have been changes in 2010 to the competition repertoire. In the third round, all pianists must have performed Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, and the Sonata No. 1 in C minor has been admitted for performance...
AJ: Sonata No. 1 is a work by the young Chopin in homage to Józef Elsner. It is very difficult technically, demanding elegance and differentiated articulation. It deserves to be heard more frequently in the concert hall, though it should not be compared with Chopin's later sonatas. Meanwhile, the Polonaise-Fantasie requires poetic sensitivity; it is a visionary piece, very different from Chopin's heroic Polonaises. Sensitivity is the most appropriate key to Chopin's music; it releases the spirit of his art.
MM: Do you expect that we will hear many participants who can meet the demands of pieces as exceptional as the Polonaise-Fantasie?
AJ: Going back to the nominations, I think it is a diverse group of pianists. They are all at a very high level of technical ability. Today, even pianists with small hands are extremely adroit at playing the most difficult pieces. The temperament, beautiful sound, articulation, playing with colour – all that is there. The trouble is with getting through to the emotional layers of the pieces, which are hidden beneath the sound layer. One has to build a transcendental bridge between the composer and listener. My advice: I know the competition engenders great tension, but it is worth treating the auditions like regular concerts – play for the public and forget about the jury. Remember also that life tends to verify even the highest prizes. This is just the beginning of the artistic road. One more thing: I believe that to be a good pianist, you have to be a good person.
Andrzej Jasiński interviewed by Marcin Majchrowski, October 2010. This article comes from the current edition of the Chopin Express gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, in coooperation with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and "Gramophone" magazine.