London International Piano Competition, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

What do Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Murray Perahia, Krystian Zimerman, and the egregious Lang Lang have in common?

All are stars in the pianistic firmament, and all came to prominence by winning competitions. And how did that Croatian dynamo Ivo Pogorelich put himself on the map? By getting knocked out in the first round in Warsaw, and having Argerich storm out of the jury in a rage at this injustice: not-winning can be as potent as winning. Piano competitions often get a bad press, with now-ritual accusations of bias and corruption. But as an intermittent juror myself, I would say that bland compromise represents a greater systemic flaw.

There was no trace of compromise in the final judgment at the triennial London Piano Competition. The winner was an 18-year-old Uzbek named Bezhod Abduraimov, whose electrifyingly physical delivery of Prokofiev’s exuberant Third Piano Concerto left no room for doubt as to where the first prize should go. With hands springing off the keys in the big staccato chords faster than the eye could register, and with his body almost levitating with excitement, he combined unbridled joy with a hugely impressive technical control. His semi-final recital had included a crystalline account of Ades’s ‘Traced Overhead’ and a performance of Brahms’s ‘Paganini Variations’ which was at times revelatory. Interesting that his politically-repressive ex-Soviet homeland should continue to produce fine musicians - but music was always the art which fared best under Communism.

Both the other finalists would have made worthy winners. Third prize went to Andrejs Osokins from Latvia, who chose Liszt’s First Piano Concerto to go out on - perhaps unwisely. Was it thanks to the music’s skin-deep showiness that his impeccably stylish performance left no residue in the mind? At all events, when Alessandro Taverna followed him with a magisterial account of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, the world was suddenly suffused with grave beauty. This 26-year-old Italian is a remarkable musician, of whom we shall undoubtedly hear more: his semi-final recital, spanning Ligeti, Chopin, Bach, and Stravinsky, was fifty flawless minutes of variegated poetry.

A hundred pianists had entered the lists, 24 came to London, and nine made the semi-finals, of whom three others will also, I predict, become significant figures on the landscape; Stephanie Proot (from Belgium) for her tone-painting, Sasha Grynyuk (Ukraine) for his perfumed way with Scarlatti and Ligeti, and Sofya Gulyak for the sheer glorious Russianness pervading everything she plays