London International Piano Competition: The search for a new star

Throughout April, 21 young pianists of promise have been competing in the fifth London International Piano Competition. Last week, three of them reached the final stage. Adrian Jack reports on the winner and losers
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One spectator said that the standard had gone up; another, that it had dropped. But during the fifth London Piano Competition which ended last week, it was striking how the nine contestants who got to the third stage, out of 21 pianists in the first two, grew in confidence and in some cases surprised us.

One spectator said that the standard had gone up; another, that it had dropped. But during the fifth London Piano Competition which ended last week, it was striking how the nine contestants who got to the third stage, out of 21 pianists in the first two, grew in confidence and in some cases surprised us.

Among them was the only British contender, Danny Driver, who chose the wrong pieces for his talents in stage two before delivering a finely judged performance of Schumann's Kreisleriana in stage three. Some who didn't make it so far were awarded education grants: an amazing 14-year-old American girl of Russian parents, Natasha Paremski, whizzed through Schumann's "Symphonic Studies" as if they were child's play – which, if it's not too dismissive, was precisely why, for all her brilliance, she didn't get any further. Then there was a 21-year-old Korean, Hea-Jung Cho, who had lots of energy and really caught the spirit of Liszt's "Rigoletto Paraphrase", and a Russian, Alexei Zouev, not quite 20, who was both melting and powerful in Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit.

The competition rules allow for a good deal of individual choice, but what they try to ensure is a range of repertoire, so that finalists should not be narrow specialists. Yet by coincidence, certain works recurred from one player to another, including Liszt's "Dante" Sonata, Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata, Chopin's Third, and – most popular of all – Rachmaninov's Second Sonata, three performances of which followed one after the other. There was yet another on a later day, the most explosive and heavyweight of all, delivered by a bear-like Turkish-American with the splendid name of Ozgur Aydin. He acknowledged applause, half-standing, with his right foot still holding the final chord on the pedal. Aydin should never have attempted a Chopin Polonaise, for which he had no stylistic feeling, but that, perhaps, reflects on his teacher, who happens also to be the new teacher of the 15-year-old Chinese boy, Wen-Yu Shen.

Shen won all hearts – and minds – at the last competition two years ago, when he played with a purity that was never boring. He was amazing again this time, and made Petrushka as sharp, colourful and sonorous as anyone (more colourful than Pollini, for instance), without getting into a lather. Yet he was prosaic in the first two movements of Chopin's Third Sonata, and bland in three Ligeti Studies – one of the particular pleasures of this year's competition was hearing several very different performances of these intriguing, still controversial, pieces.

Shen might well have been a finalist, had his innocence not put him in a different bracket from most of the other contenders. Not that they all plumbed the depths of adult experience or showed the widest command of musical character. Konstantin Krasnitsky, 26, from Belarus, for instance, seemed focused on the Russian Romantic tradition, and as a gentle giant, he even looks a bit like the young Rachmaninov. Apart from Shen, Krasnitsky had the most sheerly beautiful sound – sumptuous and mellow – which he achieved with wonderful economy, and his understated way with Rachmaninov's Elegy, or Pletnev's arrangement of The Nutcracker Suite, was more than respectful: it was deeply affectionate. I'd welcome the chance to hear him again.

A pianist's approach to the instrument, how they "perform" on stage, is something that cannot be ignored, and it's impossible to separate how they appear from what they do with the music. At the opposite extreme from the quiet composure of Shen or Krasnitsky, the 27-year-old Russian Andrey Shibko – one of the three finalists – made a huge fuss and literally showered sweat all over the place. Unappealing to watch, he didn't have a beautiful sound, either, though what tone he did produce flickered with a thousand gradations of volume: his fingers loved whispering. Mozart's Sonata in C, K330, was cool and much too elaborate. But he was serious and thoughtful in Brahms's Op 116 Fantasies, and built up Rachmaninov's Second Sonata impressively. He swept through Prokofiev's Second Sonata – a welcome change from No 6 – like a chill wind from the Urals.

If Shibko had to be a finalist, he was far from my favourite either as a pianist or as a musician. The most complete, ripest artist was the Italian, Alberto Nosè. In stage two he gave an exceptionally perceptive performance of Debussy's L'Isle joyeuse, which appeared out of the blue and climaxed effulgently, its cinematic non-sequiturs captured brilliantly on the way. Nosè was equally responsive to the grand narrative of Chopin's Third Sonata and wonderfully ardent and capricious in Scriabin's Fifth.

His compatriot, Giuseppe Andaloro, was a puzzling case – undoubtedly interesting, for he did delightful and humorous things with Haydn and Ligeti. But he didn't offer a coherent view of every piece. Chopin's Fourth Scherzo felt very long; but he had more success with the cut-and-paste structure of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No 12.

Each finalist had to offer two concertos, but Andaloro was the only one to choose two by the same composer – Liszt – which suggests a limited range of artistic sympathy. Andaloro played Liszt's Second Concerto with chiselled brilliance on Tuesday, but his quieter playing needed to be projected more clearly. Shibko raced through Tchaikovsky's First Concerto like a high-speed spider; he did the fast middle section of the slow movement delightfully, but never filled out the more lyrical passages.

Perhaps he was not encouraged to do so by Tomasz Bugaj conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, though this was the concerto they played best. Their phlegmatic opening prelude to Chopin's E minor Concerto set a dismal scene for Alberto Nosè, but he gave an impeccably stylish performance, if lacking a degree of flexibility in the finale. He confirmed his impression as the most mature artist, yet the jury evidently thought otherwise and placed Andaloro first, Nosè second and Shibko third.