National Styles and International Competitionsby Réjean Beaucage
/ May 10, 2004
Marc Durand, a much sought-after piano teacher on
staff at the Université de Montréal, is a regular guest professor at Toronto's
Glenn Gould Professional School of the Royal Conservatory of Music. He is often
asked to give classes at other major Canadian and American schools, and is a
frequent judge for top music competitions, including the Montreal International
Piano Competition in 1996, and in Cleveland in 1999. He took part in the initial
choice of candidates for the 2004 Montreal International Musical
La Scena Musicale met Durand to
discuss two main questions: Are participants in international competitions
affected adversely from the start by the training they've received, depending on
where they come from? And by the same token, do judges tend to have an innate
bias for one style over another? In other words, if we admit that so-called
national styles exist, is there still room for them in an international
competition, given our increasing globalization?
Marc Durand: Of course there have been
marked differences among various national approaches to teaching, but there has
also been a trend toward uniformity, as in everything else. Such differences
were much more evident in the early 20th century. People went to Paris to study
with Alfred Cortot (1877–1962), for example, and came back with a "French
style." One went to Germany to study with Artur Schnabel (1882–1951) and came
back with a "German style." It was the same for Soviet Russia. I'm simplifying,
naturally, but these traditions have left a trail. For instance, Leon Fleisher
studied with Schnabel, who studied with Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), who
studied with Karl Czerny (1791–1857). Czerny studied with Beethoven, who studied
with Haydn. And I myself studied with Fleisher!
It was normal then for a pianist to specialize in a
particular repertoire and to have an immediately identifiable style. This
approach runs rather contrary to the spirit of international competitions,
however, where a pianist is expected to be a general handyman, so to speak. But
the idea of a national style is still present. People will say, "Only the
Russians can play Russian music," for example. Some musicians take advantage of
this to cover their own limitations, claiming to be the heirs to a so-called
style that they often can't describe. However, if you listen closely you'll soon
see there are several "French schools" or "Russian schools"--although the
"German school" is perhaps more consistent, because it has stricter
LSM: Nevertheless, there are still
characteristics attributed to national styles. It's said that French music is
often light or airy, while German music is heavy and serious.
MD: That's because composers from
these countries have produced this kind of music. However, it's possible to hear
a Russian pianist playing Debussy like a Russian. It's as though you were
listening to someone speaking French with a Russian accent.
LSM: Are you saying that if you close your
eyes, you should be able to guess the geographical origin of a pianist, or at
least of his or her style?
MD: Yes, by the way the pianist
produces the sound. The "Russian school," for example, is basically
neo-Romantic. Russia didn't have a classical period: there's no Russian
Beethoven. The Russians frequently use excessive effects, with dynamics moving
from ppppppp to fffffff. This calls for very
sturdy, modern pianos. It's a new school in terms of the instrument's
LSM: But are participants who keep traces of
their national heritage at a disadvantage in an international
MD: I think that we, as Canadians,
have the advantage of not possessing this type of national heritage, and that,
on the contrary, we've been able to absorb various styles. In my case, my
teachers taught me about the three major trends: French, German, and Russian. As
a result, I think that Canadian musical juries are naturally more open-minded in
this respect. However, I also think that a good pianist, even with a marked
style, is still a good pianist; and that's what the judges are looking for. Of
course, a given jury may not like the use of a particular style. The works of
some composers simply have to be played in the appropriate style. Beethoven or
Bach à la russe just won't work. Someone like Fleisher wouldn't stand for
LSM: What about the list of participants in
this year's competition?
MD: I haven't looked at it yet.
[Consults list.] There are a lot of Asians, but few Americans... just one!
That's amazing. And not many Russians. [N.B.: The 24 candidates come from the
following countries: Belgium (1), Bulgaria (1), Canada (3), China (4), France
(2), Indonesia (1), Israel (1), Japan (1), Lithuania (1), Russia (4), South
Korea (2), the USA (1), and the Ukraine (2). The nine judges came from Belgium
(1), Canada (2), China (1), France (1), Israel (1), Italy (1), Japan (1), and
Russia (1).] I thought the process for the initial cut was terrific. There
were two separate juries of three each (two pianists and a conductor). We all
heard the 244 CDs, with the two juries listening to them in opposite order, and
of course without any information about the candidates.
LSM: So we can take it that the 24 candidates
are on a fairly even playing field?
MD: Yes, insofar as one can rely on
the recordings. Let's hope that it really was the candidates that we heard! And
some talented pianists might have had poorly engineered recordings, which would
have done them a disservice. A number of recordings were too flawed to permit a
worthwhile evaluation. You can only judge on the basis of what you have. From
here on in, however, everybody will perform under the same conditions and each
candidate will have a chance to surprise the judges.
[Translated by Jane