10 January 2023
By Ellie Palmer
We highlight seven top pianists who still achieved huge career success after failing to win piano competitions. Don't let a dip stop you achieving your dreams!
Understandably, failure can have a huge impact on a musician's career. Missing out on a prize can feel like the be-all and end-all as you start to question whether you really are good enough to make it to the top.
Thankfully for us, these seven world-class pianists didn't give up. Let's take a look at those who just missed out on top prizes, yet still achieved monumental success throughout their careers.
Fou Ts’ong (1934 – 2020)
© Giorgio Lotti (Mondadori Publishers), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
We start with one of the most well-known 20th century Chinese pianists, Fou Ts’ong, who was one of the first pianists of his origin to achieve international recognition.
Ts’ong came close on two occasions to winning two major international piano competitions; the 1953 George Enescu International Competition and the 1955 International Chopin Piano Competition. He achieved Third Prize in both, as well as the Polish Radio Prize for the best performance of mazurkas in the latter competition.
He went on to have a stellar career which would heavily feature Chopin’s works, something which prompted the legendary German-Swizz poet Hermann Hesse to declare that hearing Ts’ong was to hear the "pure gold" of Chopin himself playing.
The Chinese pianist performed with the likes of the New York Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, cellist Jaqueline du Pré and many others. Such was his talent and influence, piano greats Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu and Leon Fleisher came together in 1994 to produce an album titled, The Pianist Art of Fou Ts’ong.
Nikolai Petrov (1943 – 2011)
© Russian state specialized Academy of arts
Like Fou Ts’ong, Russian pianist Nikolai Petrov also came close to winning a major international piano competition on two occasions; the 1962 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and the 1964 Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition. He achieved Second Prize in both.
The Russian went on to perform at some of the world’s most prestigious venues including Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw and the Royal Festival Hall.
In 1986 he received the Grande Medaille d'Or award from the Académie Balzac for his worldwide performances of the novelist Balzac’s contemporaries such as Berlioz, Beethoven and Liszt. Petrov was also awarded the People’s Artist of the USSR (1991), the Russian State Prize (1993) and the Russian Federation Order of Honour (2008) among other awards.
Dan Grigore (b. 1943)
© Pavelescu Mihai, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Dan Grigore is considered one of the greatest Romanian pianists in the country’s history, and was described as a ‘prodigy’ by his childhood teacher Eugenia Ionescu.
He achieved Second Prize at the 1967 George Enescu International Competition, beaten only by his national compatriot Radu Lupu.
Grigore has released a number of notable recordings since, including Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor with Emil Simon and the Cluj-Napoca Philharmonic, Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5, Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, and Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 with Mihai Brediceanu and the George Enescu Philharmonic.
Santiago Rodriguez (b. 1952)
Back in 1981, at the age of 29, Rodriguez came second in the world-famous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He also received a prize for Best Performance of Commissioned Work at the competition.
The Cuban-American pianist is considered a leader in Rachmaninov repertoire, and received the Rosette award in the acclaimed Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music for his Rachmaninov recordings. Rodriguez recorded the entire catalogue of the composer’s recordings.
Over the years he has performed with the likes of the London Symphony, the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Weimar Philharmonic, the Yomiuri-Nippon Symphony Orchestra of Japan, the Tampere Philharmonic of Finland, the Berliner Symphoniker, the Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Seattle, Indianapolis, American Composers’, and Houston Symphony Orchestras, the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C., and the American Symphony Orchestra.
András Schiff (b. 1953)
©Nadia F Romanini
Pianist issue 76 cover star András Schiff came close on two occasions to winning a major competition; He achieved Fourth Prize at the 1974 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition and Third Prize at the 1975 Leeds International Piano Competition.
Nevertheless, failing to win has not stopped him from having an exceptional career. His list of honours includes a Grammy Award, Gramophone Award, Mozart Medal and the Royal Academy of Music Bach Prize. He was also appointed Knight Bachelor in the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to music.
Bach, Mozart and Beethoven are among the composers he has focused on throughout his career. On Decca, he has recorded much of Bach’s keyboard works, Mozart’s Complete Piano Sonatas, and the live recordings of all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas among others.
Speaking to Pianist in issue 76, he explains how Beethoven perhaps had the most profound impact on him: “He is the most humane of composers,” he explains.
Noriko Ogawa (b. 1962)
The Japanese pianist achieved Third Prize at the 1987 Leeds International Piano Competition before going on to become an exclusive recording artist with BIS Records. For BIS, she has released 28 albums – the latest being Erik Satie’s Vexations (2020).
Commendably, Ogawa serves as a Cultural Ambassador for the National Autistic Society, performing concerts for the parents of autistic children.
Gabriela Montero (b. 1970)
Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero stars on the cover of issue 121 of Pianist.
She came close to winning the International Chopin Piano Competition back in 1995, finishing in third place.
Montero has achieved multiple awards for her CD releases ever since, including Bach and Beyond (2006) which hit the top of multiple charts. She released Baroque Improvisations in 2008, which impressively received 5-star reviews from BBC Music Magazine and Classic FM. Additionally, her 2015 Rachmaninov album – which features one of her own compositions – earned her the Grammy for Best Classical Album at the 2015 Latin Grammy Awards.
Montero has a huge love for improvisation, often inviting those in attendance at her concerts to participate in asking for a melody for her to then improvise over. Watch below as she magnificently improvises with her audience during her Hong Kong debut.
Main image: Fou Ts'ong. ©Tully Potter Collection