Dame Fanny Waterman, who is standing down from the Leeds Piano Competition she co-founded in 1961, has caused quite a storm with her remarks about the decline of piano-playing in the UK. She attributes this partly to the growing popularity of electric pianos (‘a waste of time’) and partly to the late start of piano pupils in the UK, who miss the chance to emulate the achievements of children in the Far East, capable of ‘amazing’ performances when they are only four years old.
‘Asked if there has been a deterioration in the standard of British playing, Waterman replied: “Definitely.” When she was growing up, she said, there were “so many” great British pianists, including Myra Hess and Clifford Curzon. She was upset at how few Britons today even entered the Leeds competition, dwindling from 24 in 2000 to six in 2012.’
Obviously this whole topic is complex. However, there are some important points to be made in response. First of all, there are many wonderful British pianists today. I don’t want to name them for fear of leaving someone out, but I bet they are easily as good as the ones named by Dame Fanny.
Secondly, one might ask whether ‘the number of pianists who go in for competitions’ is an accurate gauge of a country’s musicianship. Speaking as someone who has to read a lot of CVs in the course of teaching, writing references and serving on competition juries, I know that practically everyone these days can boast a string of awards. Winning an international prize used to be special when competitions were few and far between, but there are so many now that the whole thing has turned into a kind of circuit round which all young professionals feel compelled to canter.
Many aspiring performers now set aside a few years to enter as many international competitions as they can cram into their diaries, reasoning that the same repertoire can be used again and again, and that sooner or later a jury is bound to take a shine to them, if not in Rome then perhaps in Helsinki or Brussels. This seems to be borne out by the sheer number of musicians who can cite umpteen first, second, third, ‘specially commissioned piece’ and ‘audience’ prizes on their CVs. These days my eyes almost glaze over when I read the list. I’d almost sit up with more interest if someone declared that they would never dream of going in for a competition and wished to be judged purely by their playing on the day.
Most would agree that it takes a certain kind of nerve and stamina to do well on the competition circuit. Those who’ve learned to jump through the hoops are not necessarily the most interesting artists. Indeed, many young musicians have told me they’re aware that ‘eccentric’ interpretations are likely to see them leaving the competition, because a highly individual approach is sure to irritate one or other member of the jury. One gets to know the type of player who can reliably turn out an uncontroversial performance of impeccable technical standard, but who makes very little appeal to the imagination. The sensitive artist, the poet, the nervous but erratically inspired performer doesn’t often thrive in the conditions of a competition. They may touch everyone with their imaginative performance of this or that, only to fall at the next hurdle when nerves get the better of them. In the history of competitions there are one or two exceptional artists who have bitten their way through the stressful rounds while remaining in touch with their visionary side, but there are far more prize winners whose visionary side has been hammered into invisibility.
So I’m not convinced that competitions really indicate where the talent is, nor am I sure that preparing for them is the best use of a talented musician’s time. Yes, prizes can catapult you into the public eye, but when you get there you need more than reliability and lack of controversy to sustain a career. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, a competition produces one winner, but ever so many losers. The experience of losing may be character-forming for some, but is profoundly discouraging for others. My feeling is that some of the best musicianship is probably to be found in the ‘discouraged’ group. So I don’t find it alarming if today’s pianists don’t see competitions as the pinnacle of their endeavours.