Jorge Bolet on competitions

The journalist Jeremy Nicholas interviewed legendary pianist Jorge Bolet back in 1977, and among other things asked him why “The Romantic Pianist” seemed already by then to have vanished.

Bolet’s reply was prescient, and perhaps even more relevant today than it was in the 1970s. Here is his response:

“It’s the era of the score-worshipper.
These young pianists go to the international competitions and they don’t dare play one note that is misplaced. They don’t dare anything, you might say, that is their own personal thought. They can’t step on anybody’s shoes. They can’t do anything that might be slightly controversial.
If I could possibly disguise myself as a 23-year-old and play the way I play in one of these big international competitions, I would be eliminated in the first round. Because very personal views on what you’re playing are anathema to most of the big international juries.
If you have this kind of very individual, very personal approach to piano playing, then in these competitions you are a dead duck. You just have everybody against you.”

These comments raise important questions of course –

  • To what extent should we “worship” the score?
  • How far dare we depart from it?
  • How personal should our interpretation be?
  • What is the balance between composer and performer?

It seems to me that faithfulness to the score is hugely important – but that creativity and personal engagement with the music are equally crucial. So how do you find the best balance?

For Bolet, that balance had been lost by the upcoming players of his time, but how about today? Have we moved on, and have the big personalities been welcomed back onto the classical music stage?

It is interesting to compare Bolet’s words from 1977 with those of the young Russian pianist Zlata Chochieva, a student of Mikhail Pletnev who has won an impressive TEN international competitions.

Zlata said in a recent interview (International Piano, Mar/Apr 2015):

“At one time I was playing in competitions almost every year…
But then I stopped about three or four years ago. I couldn’t find any reason to play in competitions any more.
If you have brave ideas, the competition world doesn’t work.”

Do you have brave ideas?

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

3 thoughts on “Jorge Bolet on competitions”

  1. Interestingly enough, in his masterclass on Rach3 (available on Youtube)…Bolet criticizes a young Jose Fegali for “taking too much rubato” and “being too free with a score”, saying “you cannot put that much of yourself into the music”. Hypocrite much?

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  2. Not so much 😉
    Recognising the sterility of the “score worshipper” (as he put it) at one end of the spectrum is not the same as advocating “anything goes”, however kitsch or over-the-top. If Bolet felt Fegali was, in that moment, going too far towards the other extreme then of course he needed to say so. Surely it’s about balance, being true to the composer while still having something to say ourselves.

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