By Laurence Vittes | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Major piano competitions in Brussels, Geneva, Leeds, Sydney, Darmstadt, Calgary, Albuquerque, Hamamatsu, Utrecht, and other cities now require semifinalists to play a chamber music round with strings. These competitions are finding chamber music increases audience enjoyment in terms of musical variety while providing additional criteria for separating out the finalists. It also puts a spotlight on the string players, who are expected to rehearse and give multiple inspired, differentiated performances of the same piece within a tight time frame under the pressure of intense international scrutiny.
At the Liszt Utrecht semifinals in September 2022, the chamber music round consisted of one of Liszt’s four short works for cello and piano and (chosen by lot) either a movement or movements from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet or his complete Adagio and Rondo Concertante. While the Liszts were a moving homage to the composer’s ability to distill beauty into small forms, played with unfailing poetry and precision by cellist Samuel Shepherd, there was little for the pianists to do. And the Adagio was really only a little classical piano concerto. The “Trout” however, challenged and separated semifinalists as they managed the awkward, difficult piano writing while collaborating on a personal interpretation. Each pianist had an hour of rehearsal with Shepherd and violinist Lea Hausmann, both from the Amatis Trio, violist Judith Wijzenbeek from Amsterdam, and double bassist Roberto di Ronza from Salzburg.
“Schubert’s structures take a very clear kind of shaping,” Shepherd tells me during an interview after the last of the “Trout” performances. “You can hear which of the pianists had that wider view, who could look at both ends of the spectrum. The biggest difficulty was keeping track of changes of tempos and small details during rehearsals, and what the solutions were for each person. At times we were forced to be dogmatic to help guide a pianist through a particular passage, but others were very intuitive to play with.”
Once the performances started, Shepherd says, “Some were so relaxed they were in the zone. We started to be playful, trust that their ears were open, take risks with spur-of-the-moment ideas, and catch each other’s eyes. Others would be very tight, like, ‘Let’s just stay with the plan. Don’t do anything weird.’ The biggest challenge for the participants and us was [coming together with the same] mentality.”
Asked how they found such a gig, Shepherd explains that Liszt Utrecht director Rob Hilberink found them. “He knew us before. Maybe he knew we were up for taking certain risks onstage—after all, Lea and I met busking in the streets of Amsterdam—and that we would be suitable for something like this.”
What was once an obscure feature is now trending internationally. The Leeds International Piano Competition will reportedly feature two types of chamber music in 2024. The Sydney International Piano Competition will require pieces with both violin and cello in 2023, the Concours de Genève in 2022 required one of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas played with either Tatjana Vassiljeva or Christian Poltéra.
Also in 2022, at the Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary, the Viano Quartet joined the semifinalists in one of Mozart’s Viennese concertos the day before the finalists competed with full symphony orchestra. At last year’s Chopin Competition of Darmstadt, which introduced chamber music in 2017, the Apollon Musagète Quartet and bassist Sławomir Rozlach provided the orchestra for the finals: one of Chopin’s works for piano and orchestra.
“Today’s young pianists are utterly talented and incredibly great musicians,” Didier Schnorhk, secretary general since 1999 of the Concours de Genève, tells me. “They know perfectly how to play and how to interpret the solo piano repertoire. But it is increasingly important for their careers that they can master chamber music. They will often have the opportunity to play with others, and this may become the most important part of their musical career. It’s why we believe that chamber music should be encouraged and taken into account by the jury.”
Jon Kimura Parker, the artistic director at Honens, says that being “sensitive to how the bow pulls sound from a string, to know when to lead and when to follow, to experience the joy of two or more musicians creating music together has always been an important part of my life. Having Martin Beaver play Beethoven violin sonatas with our ten semifinalists was an incredible gift to them but also a way for our jury to assess our ten semifinalists in a different light.”
To a large degree, the skills required to play ten “Trouts” in five days at a piano competition are essential to any string player who plays with pianists. They involve sound production, issues of ensemble—including leadership—and the ability to perform under stress.
Shepherd explains how a string player’s approach to sound production and timing when playing with a pianist must be adjusted to favor “a more direct and ugly attack on the string. The goal is to soften the attack of the piano sound and sharpen the attack of the strings to find a balance between the instruments. Once this is in place, it is simply a case of being open and of actively listening. Chamber music is a conversation. If we talk over one another, we fail to hear what the other has to say. Therefore, always believe that you have something to learn from the person you are playing music with.”
Shepherd adds an important perspective, that pianists “simply live with more of the score than string players. My advice for a string player would be to take special care to understand and build their melodic details around the piano’s harmonic journey. As long as the string player has a strong conviction and a clear overview of the music, one can gain the trust of a pianist to explore the flexibility within the score.”
As to the pressure of playing in a competition in which they were not competitors, Shepherd admits, “We felt invested in the success of the pianists in a way that would not even enter our minds during a festival, where every night you perform with different people after having little to no rehearsal time. At Utrecht, we wanted to serve each participant’s interpretation without putting ourselves as far forward as we would do usually.”
According to Hilberink, the chamber music round at Liszt Utrecht was “greatly appreciated by everyone involved, and it is something we will surely keep for the future. It might have put some potential participants off,” he admits, “but we like to present pianists who like playing chamber music.”
Meanwhile, Shepherd puts in a word for competitions in general. “I never went to one and didn’t come away from it better in so many ways. Preparation always pushed me to new levels while the recordings and photos gave me materials to promote myself with. It all adds up.”