...a country (Hungary) whose population, even today, is barely over ten million has produced so many musicians and so much outstanding music. I am grateful for having been born and trained there.

Sir Georg Solti

“Bartók’s universe is unique and inimitable”

13 September 2019

The jury for this year’s Bartók World Competition is headed by Kenji Watanabe, one of Japan’s best-known pianists, who is also noted for his authentic interpretations of Liszt and Bartók. Currently a lecturer at the Tokyo University of the Arts, he studied at the Liszt Academy in the 1980s, where he learned to speak Hungarian, and he believes that his command of the language has helped him a great deal to uncover the inner logic of Bartók’s musical world.

There is one member of the jury whom you met earlier on as a competitor in another contest in Budapest. Mūza Rubackytė won the International Liszt–Bartók Piano Competition in 1981, where you took fourth place. Can you recall that event?

I was a student of Péter Solymos’s at the Music Academy at that time, and I played Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in the finals. I recall the competition was very strong. I was rather stressed in the preliminaries, and it took me a long time to ease up. Mūza and I only exchanged a few words during that event in 1981, but we met again at the foundation ceremony for the International Liszt Society in Weimar. So the piano round for the Bartók World Competition is our third encounter.


Photo: Liszt Academy/Andrea Felvégi


What would you advise your 1981 self before going on stage? What do you think would be most important for a pianist entering a competition with any of Bartók’s pieces?

You have to find your way into the inner logic of Bartók’s music. This is all-important. When I graduated from the Tokyo University of the Arts, I just had a few minor pieces by Bartók in my repertoire. I gained admission to the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in 1978, and I became acquainted with Bartók’s large-scale compositions during my years here. Péter Solymos advised me to try his more abstract pieces, so I picked two of the Romanian Folk Dances and learned Bartók’s Sonata for Piano. Interestingly, it was only after I returned to Japan that I started playing pieces that more directly reflected his Hungarian identity. By then I had learned Hungarian, and I believe that this helped me to get closer to the inner logic of pieces rooted in Hungarian identity. The fact that the structure of Japanese and that of Hungarian are rather similar and that our peoples are connected by our Asian origins also helped me to understand them.


One of Bartók’s arguably most difficult pieces, Piano Concerto No. 1, is in the repertoire of the orchestral final during this year’s competition. What does it take for a pianist to give a masterly performance of this piece?

It is not enough to acquire manual technique, this piece requires temperament. If you have Hungarians’ blood coursing through your veins, you definitely have an advantage. However, Bartók never mentioned that he would expect his Piano Concerto No. 1 to be performed in a Hungarian style. It is worthwhile hearing how he played it himself. Behind his apparently reserved precision and sensitivity, you will notice passion throughout his performance. So it is wrong to equate the Hungarian temperament with some kind of savagery.


Photo: Liszt Academy/Andrea Felvégi


Just like Liszt before him, Bartók preferred to play on a Bösendorfer piano, although he also had a Bechstein in his study. In all the rounds of the Bartók World Competition, competitors will be playing on Steinway pianos. How does the instrument affect a pianist’s performance?

Every artist can have their favourite instrument; I, for example, like Steinway pianos. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the brand of an instrument can be an excuse for a poor performance. A good pianist must be able to provide the same level of performance whatever the instrument. Having said that, it is true that pieces by certain composers, for example, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, do not play really well on a Bösendorfer, but Bartók sounds just perfect whether played on a Bösendorfer or a Steinway.


In what ways have Bartók’s pieces changed piano playing worldwide?

In Hungary, Bartók’s mastery has been handed down through the generations, but there are too few authentic Bartók interpreters on the international scene to bring pianists’ playing style close to that created by Bartók. Every artist knows that playing Bartók is a challenge. There are only a few Japanese pianists who are brave enough to keep Bartók in their standard repertoire. I remember my surprise during a visit to Budapest at how much Hungarians knew about Bartók, especially since he is considered to be difficult to play and understand. I recall a serious exchange with a plumber on how enjoyable Bartók’s music was to listen to and how easy it was to understand.


Do you think playing Bartók can enrich the pianist?

Bartók’s musical universe is unique and inimitable just like those created by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and the other great composers. What makes it so special is the tension between harmony and dissonance. Prokofiev played a game like that as well, but it is Bartók who gives you a real taste of this duality.


Réka Muray-Klementisz