I’m writing this late at night after hearing 56 performances of Schumann’s 3 Romanzen and a choice of Telemann’s 12 Fantasien over 2 days from 9.00-23.00. To describe me as a zombie is probably on the kind side of accurate. Thankfully my spouse has bought and chilled a bottle of Bohemia Sekt, arguably the greatest undiscovered wine in Europe, and I’m outside 2 wonderful glasses of it.

We have definitively chosen 12 people to go through to the 2nd round, as we were requested to do. It’s a huge cut, from 56 to 12 and it’s painful.  The standard was mostly wonderfully and reassuringly high, and I have been moved to tears by two performers in particular.  The marks were clear but of course the whole thing about judging a competition is that you never get exactly what you want. It’s frustrating and, in a way, ugly –  all music thrown into a competitive arena is – but all our marks are revealed to the whole jury and management, though not to the competitors, so everything is out in the open and that is something I have not seen before. There was no discussion, only marking, although various anomalies were raised and amicably discussed – not changed. Just to give you an example of the fine lines involved there was only .29 between number 12 and number 13…and this happened because of the voting of one particular judge.

We vote after every 12 performers. This requires you to start with clear expectations and marking boundaries. I’m comfortable that I did that well, but the sheer volume of performers make it very challenging, also sitting that long without succumbing to DVT is an achievement!

It’s an interesting jury. Real characters but very friendly and warm, and well grounded and experienced. We all have slightly different patterns of marking, I’m by far the toughest (Paul Dombrecht told me he sweated to give an 8 where I was confident in my lowest mark of 1!), but the scales of marking are correct and honest in their own orbits.

It’s fascinating to see how different schools of playing inside the jury have different expectations, in a way different ears. The first round recorded round of over 180 performances of the first movement of Krommer’s Oboe concerto (I’m pausing for a moment for you to take that in………) were heard by our two distinguished Czech judges, both past laureates of this competition. It’s clear that their ears are in some cases expecting and liking different things to mine, but that’s all in the nature of the thing and I respect it completely: different accepted schools of playing have different expectations. We are guests in Prague and accept their first round judging. Indeed, how they managed to stay sane listening to the Krommer 180 times I have no idea!

For me there were 4 tiers of performer. In this beautifully organised and very established competition we were asked to mark out of 25, and 19 was needed to pass to the 2nd round. 21 will be the minimum needed to pass to the final – 4 players. I marked an absolute NON at less than 10, good but not ready 13-18, acceptable 19 and really outstanding from 20-24 out of 25. We were asked to find 12 to go through and absolutely honestly I only got 8 out of my 12 and I’m a little sad for my 4 lost children.

It’s been a huge thing to listen to these unique Schumann pieces so many times. Firstly, it’s a piece that speaks immediately about whether you consider yourself or the music more important. This is more true about this piece than anything else left in the whole programme for people to play, save the Mozart concerto. Also it takes many years of performing it to become comfortable with its huge physical challenges, (my friend Alex Klein calls the 2nd movement ‘La Muerte’!)  and to understand the mental anguish, possibly madness, inside it. I have played it hundreds of times, with my beloved Julius Drake, but also with great artists such as George Malcolm, Charles Owen, Imogen Cooper and Bengt Forsberg, who was utterly fascinating to play with and convinced me of the desperate madness in the piece. Each performance I have shared and every time I have taught it, which is probably many hundreds of times,I have realized there is a Shakespearean level of depth revealed in the piece, and every exposure to it teaches you something new. This is still the case, even after the last 2 days.

Tomorrow morning we have the delicate task of explaining individually, to each performer who wishes it, why they didn’t get through. This is arguably the most important aspect of this event, what people can learn from it, I made a handwritten page of A4 for every performer filling nearly 2 pads and wearing out my gorgeous pen! I hope to reassure and inspire those that come to talk to me.

You can watch (I think) live feed of the competition from the following website. It’s on Sunday starting at 8.00 British time, 9.00 continental time. http://www.rozhlas.cz/klasika/english/

Now silent sleep is needed.

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