Friday, May 29, 2009

What's Wrong With Chamber?

As promised, here's my post on what's wrong with the chamber music portion of the competition. Right now, the competitors have to choose one piano quintet from the ones composed by Brahms, Dvorak, Franck, and Schumann. These are all great works, unquestionably. However, the scope is too narrow. We've already seen competitors whose talents and temperaments don't fit any of these quintets.

I understand that having such a narrow scope gives the judges and audiences a common reference point. We can compare Pianist X's performance of the Schumann with Pianist Y's. Since the competition abandoned the repertoire requirements for the solo recitals in the 1990s (the right move, by the way), it's more important than ever to be able to judge these musicians by comparing apples to apples, as Steve Cumming put it earlier.

Yet restricting the repertoire to four works seems unnecessarily severe. (And when you take into account the fact that the Franck Quintet is consistently less popular than the other three, it effective is three works.) At the very least, the competition should give competitors the additional choice of Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, a spiky underappreciated work with a weird Spanish-flavored scherzo in the middle. This would give competitors an option for 20th-century music as well as Russian music. Better yet, including some judiciously chosen piano quartets and trios would open up the field to Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Faure, and Mendelssohn, as well as more works by Dvorak, Schumann, and Brahms. More contemporary composers might include Daron Hagen, Arvo Part, or local favorite Lowell Liebermann.

For all its inherent difficulties, chamber music should definitely be kept on at the Cliburn. It helps make the competition unique, and with ensembles as prestigious as the Takacs signing on, it gives the competition added sheen. I just think that with a few minor tweaks, this round would be more interesting for the audiences and more rewarding for the pianists.


  1. I'm not sure how feasible such a wide range of quartets would be for the Quartet, which only finds out what performers it is working with and what pieces it will be playing about 40 hours in advance of the first performance.

  2. I'm not suggesting the full range of the composers I mentioned. However, I don't think it's unreasonable to expand the range of choices to 8 or 10 different works, especially if the string quartet engaged at the Cliburn is given four years to prepare.