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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 8

National Styles and International Competitions

by Réjean Beaucage / May 10, 2004

Version française...

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 Competition.

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 rules.

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 existence.

LSM: But are participants who keep traces of their national heritage at a disadvantage in an international competition?

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 it.

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.

Stay tuned...

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

Version française...

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