MUSIC / Survivors of the cruellest cut of all: Michael Dervan finds the people and the jury in disagreement at the Dublin International Piano Competition

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The popular vote at the finals of the GPA Dublin International Piano Competition was with the 27-year-old Armenian, Armen Babakhanian. He's a player of strong character. His energy is vibrant, his tone-colour individual, and he has a fondness for decisively delivered personal interpretative gestures. The cheer that greeted his performance of Prokofiev's Concerto No 3 with the National Symphony Orchestra under Robert Houlihan was unmatched by the responses to any of the other finalists.

But, although the jury awarded Babakhanian the third prize and the concerto prize, they awarded a higher place to the 19-year-old Frenchman, Cedric Tiberghien, whose handling of the same concerto was less dashing and colourful, less immediately arresting, less personally contoured than Babakhanian's.

The explanation of this apparent discrepancy, of course, is not to be found in the finals, but lies in the jury's assessment of what went on in the three rounds preceding them. Tiberghien's 30-minute offering in the first round - three Bach / Busoni chorale preludes, three Debussy Etudes and the Schumann Toccata - had combined a rare sense of adventure with unusual musical and technical refinement.

The winner of the first prize, the 17-year-old Italian, Davide Franceschetti, is a young player with exceptional technical equipment and hair-raising temperamental inclinations to test it to its limits. There was fearless bravado enough in his assault on Prokofiev's Suggestion diabolique and his handling of Tchaikovsky's Concerto No 1 to attest to this. But the thrills and spills of his style of music-making seem as yet unfettered by sufficient concern for what you might call the middle ground, the normal speaking voice of music. As a first prizewinner at so young an age, he has the potential to head off in any number of directions. One has to hope that the rough edges of his co-ordination with the orchestra are a feature that will wear off quickly as he gains experience in the give and take of concerto performance.

I found the musical temperament of another Italian, 25-year- old Enrico Pompili, placed fifth, altogether more rewarding at all stages of the competition. Pompili gave one of the most reserved, introverted performances of the Ravel Concerto in G that I've ever heard, as if he were concerned to blend with the orchestra as with a chamber ensemble rather than emphasise the work's brilliance.

I found the approach both fascinating and engaging, and his handling of the slow movement, which is all too often pulled badly out of shape, was extremely beautiful. And I was sorry that the big, graphic manner of the 26-year-old Ukrainian, Oleg Polianski, whose orchestrally rich reading of Stravinsky's Petrushka in the second round was one of the competition's highlights, did not get beyond the semi-finals.

It was in the first round, however, when more than two-thirds of the 66 contestants were eliminated, that the Dublin jury came in with its most perplexing choices. How could it be that the daring Mendelssohn and richly expressive Schumann of Gloria d'Atri, the rhetorically commanding and sometimes ravishingly beautiful Busoni of Anthony Padilla, the finely crafted Rachmaninov of Ya-Fei Chuang, were passed over for the brashly unpleasant work of Attila Pertis, the rock-drummer inclinations of Niklas Sivelov and the chilly mechanics of Shirley Hsiao-Ni Pan?

Happily, in response to the obvious concern about problems in this area, the artistic director, John O'Conor, has decided to increase to 24 the number of players who will go through to the second round of the 1997 competition.

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Michael Dervan is the music critic of the 'Irish Times'

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