Which pianist does not dream of being the new Rubinstein? Or at least Emanuel Ax, winner of the first prize at the very first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv forty-three years ago?
It is claimed that ‘the public’ is crazy about competitions, and I certainly believe that. Already in ancient times, people managed to keep their minds calm with bread and games; and all kinds of competitions were organized, also for singers, poets and philosophers. One wants to be entertained and the tension is tempting. Also for the spectators, but first and foremost for the participants, for whom a lot is at stake: commitments, record contracts and – who knows? – a great career and eternal fame.
The world is getting tougher, so are the competitions. Rivalry, not only among the participants but also among the competitions themselves, is increasing. In that world, the Tel Aviv competition feels a bit like a warm bath, at least that is what is claimed.
Idith Zvi, artistic director of the Competition for thirteen years, likes that: “We want to be a competition with a human face. It is – and remains – a competition, but we must not lose sight of the human aspect, it is stressful enough for the participants.
It was Jan Jacob Bistrizky, himself a pianist and – before he emigrated to Israel in 1971 – one of the leaders of the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, who took the initiative to found a similar competition in Tel Aviv. His main intention was to enrich Israeli cultural life, but also to honour the name and artistic heritage of his friend Arthur Rubinstein.
Since its foundation, the competition has also focused on promoting the work of Israeli composers. All participants are obliged to study a work of an Israeli composer ordered by the competition. There are always two of them, a man and a woman (in 2014 there were Ella Sheriff and Benjamin Yusupov) in Israel gender equality is more than important.
The enormous success of the first three editions led to the founding of the Arthur Rubinstein International Music Society in 1980. The year 2014 took a special place in the history of the competition: it was forty years ago that the competition was founded and ten years since the first ‘Piano Festivities’ had taken place. In 2014 it was also five years since the death of Bistrizky.
A few figures: in forty years fourteen competitions were held, there were six hundred participants, 43 pianists have won prizes, 180 often world famous musicians have been a member of the jury and the prizes amount to more than half a million dollars.
Idith Zvi is a famous pianist. She was the founder and director of the chamber music festival in Kfar Blum in the Upper Galilee, director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra and for many years head of the classical department of Kol Israel (Israeli radio). She became involved in the competition fourteen years ago.
How did it all start?
“In 2000 I was approached by Arie Vardi, chairman of the jury but also a well-known pianist and piano pedagogue. Among his students he counts among others Yundi. Was I interested in becoming Deputy Director? With the promise that I would succeed Bistrizky after his withdrawal. However, I first had to be interrogated by the members of the Supervisory Board and Bistrizky himself. I was elected. Three years later Bistrizky retired and I took his place as Director General.
“I had known him for years, also because I had done the competion’s radio broadcasts from the start. Bistrizky was a very erudite, intelligent man who was well organised and knew exactly what he wanted to achieve. It was not difficult to succeed him: what he left behind was a very well oiled and excellent running competition.”
“This year we have 39 participants, more than usual. The level of the candidates, therefore, was very high, it was not easy to choose. The medals the winners receive are decorated with drawings by Picasso of Rubinstein, with a fascimile signature of the maestro himself. Plus the emblem of the State of Israel”.
Once you said that you don’t have to be a pianist to be asked for the jury.
“I still stand behind that. We are looking for real musicians in heart and soul, people we know and respect.”
“This year we have an ex-rocker, Yoni Rechter, among the jury members. He comes from the better pop music, but don’t be mistaken: he has also studied at the conservatory and has a great sense of music! But anyway: there should be at least one pianist, don’t you think? For the first time this year we have a fantastic Egyptian pianist in the jury, Ramzi Yassa.”
Ramzi Yassa talking to Arik Vardi about the Rubinstein competition. Only the introduction is in Hebrew:
“Fortunately, I am not a member of the jury and I don’t have to make any decisions! I think I would have a lot of arguments with the others!
What about the repertoire that candidates have to play? What are the rules?
“At the recitals they play what they want, they have no restrictions. Lately you see a shift towards ‘modern’ and ‘less common.’ We had a participant who had Ligeti on his list and Igor Levit, our second prize winner from 2005, played Reger and Hindemith.”
Igor Levit plays Suite 1922 Op. 26 pt 1 by Paul Hindemith:
No modern composers at the obligatory concerts? The list from which candidates may choose does not go beyond Prokofiev and Bartók?
“This is true, but how many good piano concerts from the twenty-first century do you know? The chamber music section changes each time. The emphasis is on the type of ensemble we have in mind, this year we have selected repertoire for wind ensembles”.
Among the 39 candidates there are many Russians (10) and Asians (11); do you have an explanation for this?
“It is of course due to music education and discipline. Perseverance and personal ambitions also play a significant role. Now you should not start to generalise right away. Nor should you lump all Asians together, because the differences between them are immense. Also the often heard comment that they lack emotions is not true! For example, the Chinese use a lot of expression in everything they play, more so than the Japanese, but that is also generalising and I don’t want to be guilty of that.”
What strikes me is the total lack of participants from the Netherlands. Can’t the Dutch play the piano? Or have they just not heard of the competition?
“Is our competition so unknown to you? That scares me! We need to do more about that!
“But the explanation may also be that there are few Russians studying at your conservatories. If you look closely at the list of participants, you will see that many of the American candidates, for example, originate from Russia. Or from one of the Asian countries”.
Meanwhile, the winners take over the international stages by storm. Daniil Trifonov, the sensation of 2011, has also won other competitions within a few months and signed an exclusive contract with DG.
Igor Levit, the somewhat timid winner of the second prize in 2005, has also fared well and has a CD out for Sony with Beethoven’s last piano sonatas – an absolute must for every music lover:
From 25 April to 11 May 2017, the fifteenth edition of the International Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition was held. How will things turn out for Szymon Nehring, the latest winner of the competition? Time will tell, but I predict a great future for him.
Nehring plays Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto:
And playing chamber music in Gabriel Fauré’s first piano quartet:
And what do you think of the Israeli participant Yevgeni Yontov? Below he plays Prokofiev ’s third piano concerto:
Weergaloze Liszt-recital door Boris Giltburg
Daniil Trifonovs weergaloze Rachmaninoff: cd van het jaar?
Thank you for this piece, Basiu.
It is only apt that Israel will hold The Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition. Although internationalist at heart, he chose Israel as the place where his ashes were buried.
The essay mentions contemporary music performed at the competitions, Rubinstein himself, in one of the interviews I was lucky to hear, confessed that when it comes to the 20th century, he does not go beyond Brahms (technically the end of the 19th century). He claimed he does not feel that music.
It is thanks to your very informative essay I learned about both Trifonoff and Levit being winners of that competition. And many thanks for wonderful YouTube links.
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well…. Rubinstein did play modern music. He was the first one te perform Szymanowski, his friend. He played Prokofjev. Not so modern now, but in his time…
What he mentioned was the dodecafony. He didn’t get it.
Thanks for your reaction!
He also played a work of Villa-Lobos often…
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True. Rubintein did a lot voor Villa Lobos and his music
He also played, Poulenc, Granados, de Falla, Debussy, Albéniz, Fauré, Gershwin, Milhaud, Mompou, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saens…
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