A Gripping Look at the World of Piano Competitions

Jan 23, 2023

When it comes to art, there is creating art and then there is perfecting art. Anyone can learn the piano, but can you perfect it? Pianoforte dives deep into the torture and elation that comes with perfecting a talent, something that takes not only natural skills but years and years, hours and hours of practice. The setting: the International Chopin Piano Competition. The characters: a group of driven, competitive concert pianists who vie for the coveted prize of first place. Unlike other piano competitions, this is not just about the money. As one of the contestants puts it, “Money doesn’t solve anything, the thing that solves is your name.” The prestige that comes with winning the Chopin Piano Competition, a competition that started back in 1927, has launched the careers of famous virtuosos. But what is unseen are the hearts and dreams that it crushes every five years when the competition is held.

Even if you know nothing about the world of pianists or piano competitions, director Jakub Piątek is able to completely immerse you into the world of these young competitors, all of who have dedicated their entire life to this single skill. As a pianist who competed in competitions as a child (though nothing nearly as prestigious as this), the feeling of the nerves, the pressure, and the fatigue of endless hours of practice are all too familiar. But unlike me, this isn’t just an extracurricular. These competitors practice hours and hours a day, they are drilled endlessly, and they are tested and evaluated at every step. It’s not really about the passion behind the music — though that pushes to the forefront when we see them on stage — it’s about achieving the absolute peak.

Image via Sundance

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If that sounds more traumatizing than invigorating to you, then you would be right. Pianoforte follows a group of contestants, among them is Eva Gevorgyan, Marcin Majchrowski, Alexander Gadjiev, Hao Rao, Leonora Aremllini, and Michelle Candotti. Although each contestant walks their own path through the competition — some with nurturing coaches, others with exacting ones, some with supportive parents, others with critical ones — the common thread that binds them together is trying to survive the competition without being crushed under the weight of immense pressure.

What Pianoforte balances perfectly is the mesmerizing and evocative nature of Chopin’s music against the brutality and fickleness of the competition. These are make-or-break moments, there is no plan B, and only one person can truly come out on top. There are no breaks for these kids, one contestant mentions wanting to just play Xbox, maybe for just a little time, before going back to the punishing schedule of practice. Another one leaves one round of the competition and goes right back to practicing for the next. Even when you play a piece perfectly, not missing a single note, you can still fail.

Image via Sundance

So, you might ask, why do these kids continue to compete? Why do they keep practicing? Pianoforte dances around the answer to that. For some, it’s the thrill of the competition. The rush of endorphins that occurs when you hear your name in the select few who are pushed through to the next round suddenly makes all those hours worth it. It’s addictive for them. The rollercoaster of fear, anxiety, joy, and ambition keeps them going.

Piątek is good at tunneling into the minds of these contestants. By the end of the documentary, we know all the subjects. We feel for them, we celebrate their wins, and are devastated by their losses. One contestant is told by their coach to keep smiling even after facing a devastating loss, and cry when they get home, as we hear them sobbing in a bathroom with the mic on. And Piątek doesn’t just focus on the winners, for this to be a complete story, we need to look at the vast majority and those are the kids who don’t make it to the top.

He layers the performances together, letting us completely immerse in the music, and it’s impossible not to be moved by the music. It’s Chopin, the Romantic era composer is known not only for his infamously stirring compositions but for the depth of skill it takes to play his music. So when you hear a nearly flawless rendition of his music, you can not only feel the passion behind every measure of notes, but you can feel the passion the pianist has for the piece. It feels impossible to judge the contestants from an amateur’s point of view, the differences between performances seem like splitting hairs. But Pianoforte gives us a look inside this privileged and punishing world, finding the heart within and exposing both the highs and the lows of this exclusive community.

Rating: A-

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