The Last Laugh...
small, The Last Laugh..., Maurizio Pollini, Chopin Competition 1960. Photo: Tadeusz Rolke / Agencja Gazeta, maurizio-pollini-1960-fot-tadeusz-rolke-ag.jpg
The list of First Prize laureates in the Chopin Competition is studded with stars, from Lev Oborin, who won the inaugural contest in 1927, through to Maurizio Pollini (1960), Martha Argerich (1965) and Krystian Zimerman (1975) and on to the more recently victorious Yundi Li (2000) and Rafał Blechacz (2005). But, as with any competition, subsequent successes do not necessarily depend on coming first
international chopin competition
It certainly did no harm to Vladimir Ashkenazy that he should come second to Adam Harasiewicz in 1955. Ashkenazy was then and still a student at the Moscow Conservatory, but he was the leading contender in the Soviet Union's contingent to Warsaw. Ashkenazy bore the biggest burden, not just in excelling as a pianist but also in stoking national pride and providing cultural propaganda. That year, the Soviets walked off with three prizes, Naum Shtarkman coming fifth, the Ukrainian Dmitry Paperno sixth. Ashkenazy was ahead of all the other competitors in the preliminary rounds, even though he did not at that time consider himself to be a Chopin specialist, but, as he later related to Jasper Parrott in the biography 'Beyond Frontiers' (1984), "I had to play first at the final stage which was rather unsettling, and the Queen of the Belgians was there, so it was even more of an event than usual. As a result, I felt terribly exposed and didn't do well...At least I got the second prize; it could easily have been worse, I suppose".
First prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels followed in 1956, and then, famously, joint first with John Ogdon at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962. Ashkenazy's career was already burgeoning, and it blossomed even further after he defected to the West in 1963. In those days, he and his wife lived near my parents and me in London. I was an awed admirer, in the habit of cycling round and finding a concealed spot outside his house to listen to him practising. "Oh, you should have knocked at the door and come in", he said when I recounted this story of idolatry many years later. Unthinkable then for a shy teenager, but his natural geniality has remained as distinctive a facet of his personality as his phenomenal musicianship. Since the 1970s he has been as prominent as a conductor as he is a pianist and his discography in both categories is extensive. He still makes recordings as a pianist, and, while guest-conducting worldwide, is also in charge of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Now seemingly ever-youthful at the age of 73, that 17-year-old Warsaw contestant can have few regrets that he did not secure the ultimate accolade.
Nor can the Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter, who was pipped to second place by Yundi Li in 2000. A few years later she was spotted and selected by the talent scouts of the celebrated and financially beneficial Gilmore Artist Award in Kalamazoo, and she was a BBC New Generations Artist from 2007 to 2009. Competitions, whether or not one wins them, or whether or not one views the combative element favourably, can be a vital tool in gaining experience and public exposure. Fliter's global presence has certainly broadened since her appearance at the Chopin Competition.
I first heard her at the Miami International Piano Festival in 2006, at about the time her Gilmore Award was being made public, and I was bowled over by her sparks of individual imagination, her fertile mind and her all-encompassing technique. Although she plays a catholic repertoire, Chopin has become very muchher calling card, on disc and in recital. The music seems to flow from her with a lyrical impulse, and, as I once commented in a Daily Telegraph review, her playing is "graced with power, luminous delicacy and a spectrum of tonal colouring that combine to mark her out as one of the most instinctive and eloquent Chopin interpreters playing today".
Warsaw was wise to include Ingrid Fliter among its prize-winners, as was the case with Polish pianist Ryszard Bakst in 1949. He came sixth that year, and in the pantheon of international performers he has not perhaps made quite such a splash as some others have done. But his particular gifts were in teaching. He left Poland in 1968, badgered and hampered by the Communist regime, and he made his home in the UK. Manchester became the centre of his work, at Chetham's specialist music school and at the Royal Northern College of Music, where he was revered for his inspiration and authority. The RNCM's Ryszard Bakst Memorial Chopin Prize is named for him in commemoration. At Chetham's, one of his young pupils was Paul Lewis, who was runner-up in London's World Piano Competition in 1994. Second prize on that occasion doesn't seem to have been a stumbling block to his career either.
Author: Geoffrey Norris
This article comes from the current edition of the "Chopin Express" gazette, published by the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, in coooperation with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and "Gramophone" magazine.
Other articles of interest from the first edition of Chopin Express:
"It's Getting Better and Better"