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Do high scores in competitions equal playing it safe?

Carnegie’s Zankel Hall piano recital on December 5th was part of the Mixon First Prize, granted to this year’s Cleveland International Piano Competition winner, the personable German pianist Alexander Schimpf. Aged 29, he was on the more mature side among a group of 28 competitors. His choice of repertoire, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4, the only offered classical-period work, may have helped to impress the jury.

It certainly served him well in competing with three other final-round competitors in Cleveland, gaining him the sought after credit with the jurors, as well as some rave reviews from the critics. At Zankel Hall, Schimpf’s general tone was ranging from admirable to beautiful with, at times, filigree-like execution. He mastered his all-German repertoire with all its nuances, from introspective to devout, with reliable inner voicing.

It was in the more expressive passages that needed a larger dynamic range, where Schimpf’s quality and power of tone was lacking. Failing to build up momentum when approaching a crescendo, his delivery either sounded harsh, because he arrived at it too sudden, or not powerful enough. The somewhat monotonous character of his program choices did not help him here. I would have liked to ask him whether it might have been the piano that gave him a hard time, or the acoustics of the hall, which might have given him a false sense of how his performance was perceived by the audience in the hall. It almost appeared to me, as if he did not want to disappoint a teacher, who may have once scolded him for ‘banging too loudly’: his ‘louder’ passages needed to be fuller, played more freely and with more charisma – he seemed to hold back –perhaps playing it safe?

Alexander Schimpf Photo:Joshua Gunter

Since Mr. Schimpf’s emotionally serious and sensitive approach to the piano is quite obvious, especially in Bach’s English Suite No.3 and beatific Encore. One may wonder if certain qualities like ‘playing it safe’ had been promoted for use during the stressful rounds of a competition. Was there a misunderstood fear of sounding too virtuosic?

One may ask, if playing and winning competitions comes with its very own set of rules, which might, very well, differ from those employed when trying to captivate an audience. And what does a jury need to hear when judging competitors, as opposed to a performance that captivates the audience’s attention? But why would one differ from the other, if the ultimate reason for a pianist taking on the taxing environment of a competition is to build a reputation, attracting the attention of critics and the public, which, in turn, leads to new opportunities to perform.

There may be many different answers to this question, largely depending on who offers their point of view. There are also artists who refuse to play at competitions, despite the opportunities this exposure might present. For Mr Schimpf, winning a major competition not only brought him to Zankel Hall, but it will offer him the opportunity to play 50 recitals worldwide. For more information on Alexander Schimpf go to

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