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From the 2011 ARD Competition, Day 8

Piano is, in theory, one of the more pleasurable categories in a competition, because of the amount of great music available to pick from, in any round—from first to finale. And because there is a vast pool of pianists to choose from, which presumably would suggest a higher general level of quality. In practice, that isn’t so, because in the piano part (as with violin) of a competition, it seems, the worst qualities of competition-playing—technical prowess married to bland-as-can-be risk-avoidance—come out. Everything an étude, nothing inspired.

That’s one reason why I didn’t regret too much that I only started listening to the participants in round two, and then only to a small sample—four of the 18 pianists that made it to the second round, down from 47 that had qualified for (though not necessarily all participated in) the first round. First up were two Ukrainian pianists, that (once-upon-a-time) hotbed for great pianists. Vasyl Kotys performed Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata in f-minor, op.57, opening it softly to the point of hazy, heavily pedaled, unclear, with ostentatiously emotion coming through in outbreaks, with peaks, valleys, and notable pulling and pushing of tempo. The slow movement was very slow, indeed, with Kotys going for the lyrical at the expense of the wonderfully crisp rhythm that underlies this variation movement. Absolutely gorgeous were the emphasis-shifts between hands in repeated material; phrasing being his strong suite, not architecture. He raced through and labored away at the third movement—enthralling in a way, but also slightly senseless-sounding. Much clearer than the first movement it wasn’t longer awash in indistinct loudness, until the end that is, when it was just too darn fast for anyone’s good, not the least Beethoven.

Schumann’s Fantasie in C-major continued where the Beethoven had left off: High romantic, fast, and with very pronounced dynamics and tempo changes. Fortunately that suits Schumann better than middle-Beethoven. Kotys, whose body always announces the next interpretive move, rushed himself a little and while there were a couple too many slips towards the end—perhaps betraying waning concentration—, at least he succeeded in not making the piece sound longer than it already is.

His countryman Alexej Gorlatch played Beethoven’s op.110 after Brahms Four Ballads op.10 (thank him!) The first of the Ballads, “after a Scottish Ballad ‘Edward’”, seems to quote Schubert’s “Götter Griechenlands”, but wasn’t songful in many other ways. The opening was monochrome and, just as Kotys before and South Korean Da Sol Kim after him, ungainly-loud on the Steinway that everyone plays. The latter might be a detriment by contributing to the unhealthy grand-piano monoculture, but is surely outweighed by avoiding the distracting manufacturer-politicking. (See the Chopin Piano Competition.) Beethoven, after the Brahms (a piece for which I must admit ever-waning patience) was cleansing to the ears, lean and swift and youthful vigorous, neither thick nor lumbering. During the terse scherzo was inclined towards a choppy and crude sound, with either some odd interpretive choices or very cleverly marked memory blanks. Gorlatch recovered in the blustering third, fugal movement, even though its various parts sounded just like moments, strung on a line… awkwardly first, eventually muddled.

Da Sol Kim offered a glimpse of a much more pleasant ‘loud’ being possible on the instrument in the Great Hall of the Academy of Music—and his gratuitously stormy & wild style suited the early Beethoven in op.10/3 better, too, than it had many of the passages in middle and late Beethoven. I found something beguiling, even pretty in the way he flailed the instrument in the first movement, though eventually he got carried away by the loudness factor. His facial expressions threatened a ‘most tender and yearning’ Largo, but the hands—thankfully—provided something more sober and well articulated with only a few heavier-than-necessary accents. His Liszt Dante Sonata—a dazzling, appropriately flashy, loud, and feckless, was received with enthusiastic ovations and even hollering by the crowd which, especially in that venue during the free-admission rounds of the ARD competition, is staggeringly obnoxious; every year, every time. And that’s before taking their overt Liszt-appreciation into account.

Then, alas, came a revelation. Jamie Bergin (2nd Prize Winner earlier this year in the PianoRama Competition in Århus) made an exclamation mark bigger than any of the previous techno-banging with his quiet opening of Beethoven’s Sonata op.31/1. Wit like Haydn, color and sensibility (at last!)—how very enjoyable was this, endearing and puckish. Bombast was employed only for brief moments of contrast, almost as if to make light of the ‘grand air’ that Beethoven is so often given. He had a tendency to be fast in the Scherzo, but didn’t sacrifice the ioie de vivre of it. The Menuetto. Moderato e grazioso was a balm on soul and ears and the closing Presto con fuoco very smart, indeed. Why would a musician like that chose the Liszt Sonata in b-minor for the non-Beethoven piece? Especially when Schubert’s Six moments musicaux were an option or, better yet, his Drei Klavierstücke?The tender, more obliging episodes of the Sonata suggested a few reasons; that there were a few things very young Mr. Bergin might have wanted to say (and did) in this music. His playing continued to be organic, including his struggles, his loud never hurt, and he could sound just as bold in Liszt ad did his South Koran colleague, and without that neutral glam-sound. Only technically it wasn’t nearly as proficient as that Dante Sonata. It certainly didn’t bother me, but perhaps the jury; sadly Bergin did not make it onward into the semi finals, unlike Da Sol Kim and Gorlatch.