Sergei Babayan in Conversation with Zsolt Bognár, 2011

Sergei Babayan plays an encore after a concerto performance with Valery Gergiev in Moscow, 2012.

Sergei Babayan plays an encore after a concerto performance with Valery Gergiev in Moscow, 2012.

Sergei Babayan speaks about music, his life and influences, competitions, and teaching philosophy. Many portions of this conversation were omitted from publication (International Piano magazine, 2012); they appear in full here. 

(Copyright of published portions belongs to International Piano magazine, 2012.)

ZB: Your student Daniil Trifonov just won the gold medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition and in addition the Grand Prix as presented by Valery Gergiev. What does it mean to you to have a student of yours win this competition, particularly after its reputation has been restored under the new leadership? 

SB: As you ask me what the Tchaikovsky Competition means to me, I realize that it marks some kind of circle in my life. Tchaikovsky was probably the most important name I heard when I was a child. Tchaikovsky is the most beloved, most important composer of my childhood, the one who brought me to classical music. His was the first music that would make me stop any activity and transfix me in a state of total awe. My mother later told me that it looked as though I had been completely hypnotized. I still remember listening to recordings of Queen of Spades and the First Piano Concerto played by Van Cliburn—that phenomenal, most singing and beautiful performance of Cliburn with Kondrashin. 

When I came to study with my teacher, the first thing I asked her was “When am I going to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto?” I was five years old. She replied “Well, your hands need to grow up a little bit before you can play that.” As I discovered Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, they came to dominate my musical mind and heart. Some years later Tchaikovsky’s world revealed itself to me anew, this time with greater depth and a renewed love and affinity which will remain with me always. At that time I came to understand his powerful narrative gifts as a musical storyteller, his mastery of orchestration, the originality of his language, and the deep humanity of his music.

ZB: The musical life in Moscow was very rich when you were growing up. It included the opportunity to attend the Tchaikovsky Competition in person. Which competitions did you witness there?

SB: Growing up in Russia, I witnessed such great competitions as the one where András Schiff was a prizewinner, and the second prize was this fantastic Korean pianist Myung-whun Chung who later became a famous conductor. After that I was a teenager cheering for Mikhail Pletnev who would become my teacher, so can you imagine how many connections there are for me personally. For my fifteenth birthday my father gave me tickets for the entire Tchaikovsky Competition in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. It was the competition where Pletnev won first prize. The level was extremely high. I was there every day, listening and absorbing everything, as well as getting more deeply acquainted with the piano repertoire. I was absolutely crazy about Pletnev's first round, from the moment he played the second movement of the Beethoven Sonata Opus 111. It left such an impression that to this day I remember his entire program, can you imagine? I can still hear his mesmerizing, intense pianissimo—it was so new. He was criticized severely for it by some self-proclaimed experts of the kind that is always present in any audience. Musicians who usually play with this very open, so-called "singing" sound simply could not understand him. Pletnev's message was not addressed to them. I think it was one of the greatest moments of justice and intelligence when the jury chose Pletnev as the winner. However, in the opinion of many in the audience, the other pianist should have won. Of course, time showed Pletnev's significance in history. He was no less than a godsend who opened Tchaikovsky for us anew - he truly initiated a Tchaikovsky renaissance. Before that Tchaikovsky’s music was played and recorded mostly in a very mediocre way. For instance, I do not remember a single good performance of the Opus 72 Pieces. When Pletnev played them, it was a revelation. Pletnev chose to play lots of Tchaikovsky in his recitals after the competition. He played the F Minor Sonata from the manuscript, introducing this all but unknown work to larger audiences. His recordings of all the concerti and the rarely played Concert Fantasia are my favorites. Nobody could quite capture and feel the intensely piercing nostalgic intonation of Tchaikovsky's soul and the fragile, innocent, and vulnerable nature of that music more deeply than Pletnev. Time is the best judge, as we know, rather than the emphatic opinions of an audience at the moment of a competition. The same thing apparently happened when Grigory Sokolov won the competition. Emil Gilels as chair of the jury awarded the first prize to this 16-year-old boy, and of course many audience members disagreed vehemently with his choice. But Gilels was an honest man. His integrity would not allow the first prize to go to someone of whom he was not fully convinced. Again, time was the real judge of enduring musical stature and proved the wisdom of Emil Gilels. In my opinion Sokolov is one of the greatest pianists in history.

ZB: Some competitions actually include the audience in the process. There are audience prizes, and now there is also an internet forum. People are discussing their opinions about competitors online. What’s your feeling about the criteria people use in their judgments—how perceptive, would you say, are audience members? 

SB: Many of them are, but many of them are not. Obviously, there are some real musicians in the audience whose expertise means a lot. I would be interested in the opinion of Martha Argerich. I would be interested in the opinion of Glenn Gould. Some audience members went to music schools or even conservatories, but that does not necessarily make their opinions insightful or meaningful. The famous quote from Alexander Pope comes to mind: "A little learning is a dangerous thing." When was the last time they actually walked on stage, played a recital—not just one, but many in a row—in front a serious audience?  Those people who still actively perform or performed recently—their opinions we should value above all. That is why I think a jury of performers is absolutely essential. That said, I realize perfectly well that in rare instances people can be amateurs and have tastes that are much more refined and sensitive than those of certain professional pianists. Unfortunately juries can be mistaken just as much as the audiences. Sometimes though there are those rare moments of clarity when both the audience and the jury pick the right person. 

ZB: Some piano competitions have professional, performing musicians as jurors, but some also include music critics or performers from other instruments. 

SB: I'll give you the following example: I myself would never want to judge, for instance, a clarinet competition, even though I am a musician. Clarinet is such a different discipline than piano. Many specifics I would not really get. I would hear when there is a personality, and I would hear when there is genuine musicianship. But as a pianist I would never dare to judge clarinetists in a competition—no. There are these subtle details about breathing and technique that are not analogous to what we pianists do. For this reason I also object to music critics being placed on juries. I would value the opinion of an instrumentalist higher than that of a major critic from a major newspaper. The instrumentalist practices and therefore can hear more subtle variables, unlike someone who has never played an instrument well enough to understand what is required of performers to produce the results he is judging. Of course there are always exceptions, and critics can be extremely intuitive and talented—thank goodness such examples do exist—whereas some performers can be square and closed-minded. Nevertheless, the greatest reviews Chopin received were from Schumann and Liszt. And when Liszt opened the score of Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces Opus 12 for the first time and sight-read them, he wrote a most amazing and perceptive review. Liszt as a composer understood far more deeply than any critic or journalist the significance of Schumann's talent. Furthermore, Schumann could foresee like no one else the place of Chopin or Brahms in the history and future of music. One of my all-time favorite books is Nabokov's analysis of the work of his well-known colleagues. The book is in fact a collection of his lectures at Cornell University about Proust, Stevenson, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, and Flaubert. Another book containing analyses of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is an example of the kinship, understanding, and appreciation of one genius by another on a level entirely hidden from common perception. His depth of knowledge and insight into Pushkin are unparalleled and unsurpassed. 

ZB: Is it possible that competitions are taken a little bit too seriously as a means to an end in pursuing opportunities to play?

SB: As with Daniil Trifonov, when you win several important competitions in a row like the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky Competitions, as well as 3rd prize in the Chopin, and in addition you are a Grand Prix Medalist in Moscow and win the audience prizes in two of them—at the age of 19—all these taken together can shape a musical future. Winning a regional competition at the age of 30 will not build the same momentum. However, participation in any competition can mobilize qualities such as consistency, control, ability to focus and concentrate in extreme situations, and the capability to keep a relatively large repertoire. These are unfortunately essential in order to endure the challenges a pianist faces these days. I use the word unfortunately, because none of the above-mentioned qualities are the ones I find to be the most important in a musician. I value humanity, sincerity, a certain child-like openness to the world, sensitivity, creativity, integrity, warmth, and vulnerability… the list can go on, but these qualities are not fostered or born in competitions.

ZB:  Daniil Trifonov won the Tchaikovsky Competition playing the Chopin E Minor Concerto—that is unprecedented. What dictated this choice of repertoire?

SB: First of all his natural gift for Chopin. Only in extreme moments do I become insistent, as I was with Daniil when he told me he wanted to learn the Rachmaninov Third Concerto for the Tchaikovsky competition. I absolutely did not let him even think of choosing that work because too many of his other pieces were new already—his Chopin Etudes Opus 25 were new, the Shchedrin piece was new, the Tchaikovsky pieces were new, the Tchaikovsky Concerto was new, the Haydn, Prokofiev, and Scarlatti Sonatas were new, so I refused to let him learn a concerto from scratch. The Chopin concerto makes high enough demands. Daniil played it for the first time with an orchestra on stage during the Chopin Competition. That was crazy. For the Tel Aviv and Moscow events I absolutely did not let him change concertos. He told me that with the Chopin Concerto it would be impossible to win. I think I made one of the wisest decisions of my life when I told him, “I hope you will be the first to prove that you can indeed win the Tchaikovsky Competition with the Chopin Concerto, because Chopin is like Mozart: you see through the person, and you find out everything about the musician and the human being.” If a person can convince others with Chopin, that person is worth to me more than a pianist who wins with Prokofiev’s Second, for instance. I love Prokofiev dearly—he is one of my heroes—but in Prokofiev Second Concerto you can deceive almost anyone—the jury and audience alike—as to the real nature of your inner musical and human condition. Unfortunately I have witnessed well-prepared pianists who were cold, and less than mediocre musicians making big impressions on certain types of jury members with their performances of the Prokofiev Second. However with Chopin, from the first note, if you do not have a really God-given talent, you stand no chance of convincing or deceiving anyone.

ZB: Having witnessed so many competitions in person, and having been a competitor yourself, how would you say that Daniil’s playing differs from the usual competition winners?

SB: I got millions of messages, from friends and strangers far and near. My voicemail and email boxes were flooded. It is interesting what many emphasized: “Thank God, real artistry won. Thank God, real musicianship won.”

There were very strong pianists in this competition, like Yeol Eum Son, who was absolutely fantastic in many ways. One of her very appealing qualities as a competitor is her ability to play seemingly without the slightest hint of nervousness. She played the Mozart concerto beautifully. It was refined and absolutely charming. And Seong Jin Cho, whom I know so well from the masterclasses in Korea where he played for me—he is an absolutely fantastic pianist. Romanovsky, too, is a brilliant pianist with a rare pianistic facility.

As for your question, I think Daniil Trifonov has an amazing capacity for colors. Music seems to speak directly from his heart. One could name many specific qualities in his playing which could be measured against other competition winners, such as a sophisticated emotional palette, effortless pianistic ability, or a sharp musical intellect. However, none of these characteristics describe the essence of his playing. It is his deep love of music that sets him apart. I think maybe this is what touched some of the jury members. He won the audience prizes in both competitions because of this ability to communicate. He played as though he wanted to tell everybody with his playing “look how beautiful this music is.” That is one of the most important feelings I get when I listen to Daniil. It is disarming.

ZB: You have often resisted participating as a member of juries.

SB: No matter the outcome, you will be considered part of a convoluted and conspiratorial "mafia" system, even if you are impeccably fair and and fight for who is best in your opinion, and you go to sleep with a quiet heart and a clear conscience. There will be only one happy person—the first-prize winner. Of course, your opinion is only a fraction of the decision-making score and you have to "agree" with the end result. Unfortunately, the results of these combined scoring systems can be devilish. Add to that the fact that you sit there for two weeks and get out of shape as a musician. You cannot really practice during those days. The competition starts in the morning, and even if you play two or three hours beforehand, it is not too helpful because the rest of the day your mind is preoccupied with something else. You stop being creative during that period. You dedicate yourself to this event. And in the end after a lot of very hard work you will be blamed for being unfair even though you were crystal clear. So, what I learned from the few times in my life as a juror is that this job is one of the most ungratifying things imaginable. When you are a jury member and the results are being announced, you very often feel like shouting, "I stood among them but not of them!" 

ZB: The pressure to succeed at a competition is immense; sometimes it seems one's entire career is at stake. But there is this inherent essential contradiction—musicians work as hard as possible to be on stage free from perceived judgment, and yet by their very nature competitions are all about judgment. You have prepared many students for competitions, many of them very successfully. How do you coach your students mentally? Do you even spend any time addressing these issues? Or do you concentrate exclusively on music? For example, do you have strategies about repertoire?

SB: Thank you for these questions, as they address very important subjects. I will start with the last question. I do have strategies with programming. I tell young people, for example, that when you need 40 minutes of music in a round, you do not want to put the Liszt Sonata as an entire round. I learned this from my great teachers, one of whom was Lev Naumov and the other one a great musician who worked with him closely and with deepest understanding, Vladimir Viardo. They always said that instead of one long shot you should have several short shots. Meaning, if you played the Liszt Sonata as your entire round and somebody did not like your Liszt sonata, then they disliked your entire first round. However, when you play one Scarlatti Sonata, one Haydn Sonata, then one smaller Prokofiev Sonata, and end with a piece of Chopin, you are giving yourself four chances—somebody does not like the Haydn, but likes the Prokofiev; somebody does not like the Prokofiev, but likes the Chopin. That is a strategy. In musical terms, another very important thing I learned from Vera Gornostaeva is the significance of key relationships. You can create miracles with the right contrasts of moods and key relationships as well as with their order in the program. 

When choosing the program, I am like a movie director finding the right person for the right role. If you play Chopin beautifully and Beethoven is not your strong side, I might make you play lots of Beethoven for your own development. By developing your weak sides we make your stronger sides even stronger. However, I will not jeopardize your chances by giving you the Hammerklavier Sonata for a competition. So, I have to find the roles in which a pianist will thrive and show his or her best. When people ask me what other professions I could do, I tell them that I could probably be a psychiatrist, a movie director, a casting agent, or a composer. When Daniil Trifonov first came to my studio, I could, just by talking to him, immediately sense a natural Chopin pianist. You can teach to expand this affinity, you can cultivate it, and you can deepen it, but you cannot just implant it in someone out of nowhere. It is an innate quality. I assigned him lots of Chopin. Then he asked me if he could prepare for the Chopin Competition, and I said, “but Danya, you have only one year. You realize I do not want you to play any of your old pieces. I want you to learn a new Chopin Sonata with me. I want you to learn new Mazurkas. I want you to learn a new concerto." Most of his program was absolutely new. We worked together on a completely new Chopin program in a very short time.   

You ask about mental preparation. I believe that we must be free—if that is at all possible—from the feeling of being judged. Mental preparation is as important as the purely pianistical work. In fact, I am sure it is more important. To be attuned to your mental state is actually a professional skill and is at the heart of being an artist. I remember I talked to Daniil about our mission as artists and musicians right before he was to walk on stage to play his Mozart Concerto on the Tchaikovsky competition. I shared with him what my deeply personal thoughts and my inner world are when I am about to walk to the piano. He was very grateful for those insights, and I could feel that they helped him to free himself from the burden of the competition. Some of those thoughts are too personal to share in an interview. The general idea is that musicians are on a mission to elevate the audience from the trivialities of everyday life and everyday worries. It takes humility and kindness, and I think Daniil’s playing has these qualities. As I was listening to him online I kept forgetting that I was listening to my student. There were so many moments of true artistic revelation. I knew that I was witnessing something very special. Music has the power to take us away from our earthly existence and bring us to a transcendental level where we begin to trust in miracles, believe in the rebirth of our lives. The power of music is to give us hope and the desire to create, to dream, and to understand the meaning of humanity. 

ZB: Many musicians who do not win competitions become very unhappy. On the other hand, many non-winners go on to have successful careers, and many competition winners, even major ones, very often fade. What do you tell young musicians who do not find recognition in competitions or otherwise?

SB: First of all, that they should not give up if things become difficult. One must believe in what one does. That is absolutely crucial. When you believe in something passionately, fanatically, that is when you reach into that inexhaustible source for your inspiration to continue. Those who quit playing because they did not win or became unhappy were not meant to be pianists in the first place. True artists, who are meant to inspire people with their music, will persevere to find their own way. Their voices will be heard. I believe that everyone has his or her place. Yes, some names fade, and some sooner than others. Musicians do have their prime and their best moments in time. However, some of them last for a very long time -- some of them will never die. To answer your question: if a musician of today—I am talking here only about a genuine artist—manages to leave a significant trace in the history without competitions and the attention of concert presenters or audiences, more power to him or her! True artistry and dedication have nothing to do with winning a competition or playing many concerts.

ZB: How can the successful competitor sustain the excitement and promise of the moment?

SB: To sustain creative energy means to be fully dedicated. Or, as the wise man said, "The road to success is going from one failure to the next with undiminished enthusiasm." 

ZB: What is the most important artistic impulse once a musician is past the competition age? Would you say it is sharing your music with an audience?

SB: Thank you for this question. Maybe sharing with an audience is not even that important. Glenn Gould stopped playing publicly, I think, because he no longer cared for an audience. If you have the self-ignition mechanism within yourself, it will become an inexhaustible source. If you put me on a desert island with a piano, I would simply practice and play for many hours every day. In the absence of a piano, I would play the music in my head. Sharing is not what motivates me so much any more—it is my love for the music. Very often I realize that I am playing not for the audience that is physically present, but for an imaginary, ideal one—full of my friends and those who are attuned to understand me, those who are there with me somewhere in time and space with pure hearts and open minds.