PIANISTS / Looking for the keys to success: Stephen Johnson basks in the relaxed atmosphere of the 11th Santander International Piano Competition

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The Independent Culture
IN CERTAIN lights the Spanish resort of Santander hints at equatorial or exotic influences, but on the grey, wet afternoon when I arrived, it looked more like Brighton with healthier palm trees: grey-white cliffs, grey-blue sea and an oddly familiar mix of faded modernity and near-Victorian extravagance.

In spirit it's rather different, though. Santander appears prosperous, and wherever you are, whatever the time of day (or night), there's the same persistent ambience - bustle and relaxation; foreign visitors inevitably wonder when anyone sleeps. The Santander Festival, of which the 11th Santander International Piano Competition forms the centre-piece, follows the bizarre Spanish custom of beginning its concerts at about 10.30pm, with post-concert receptions following fairly promptly at around 1.30 or 2am. But the laid-back feeling gradually seeps into everything. 'We haven't said much about music,' one member of the jury told me, 'but we're having a lovely time.' Organisation too, presided over by the Competition's Founder- President, Paloma O'Shea (proud descendant of a long line of distinguished Spanish O'Sheas, and reputedly one of the richest people in Spain), was on the whole smooth and unobtrusive. And if the awards ceremony fell some way short of Hollywood slickness, nobody seemed to mind. Not even the spectacle of the prizewinners struggling to find their way through the labyrinthine auditorium to the stage seemed to disturb the audience or the assembled worthies. Everything rolled on as agreeably as before.

It was sometimes easy to forget that this was a competition. The feeling of the concerto finals could hardly have been less gladiatorial. The applause for each contestant was warm, but hardly frenzied, and no one in my part of the vast Palacio Festivales seemed to be rooting for anyone in particular. The competition was further weakened by the lucky coincidence that there was almost no duplication of pieces. In the Mozart concerto event, only two contestants chose the D minor Concerto, and the line-up of Liszt, Brahms, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky for the final stages was reasonably varied - though the combination of three minor- key Russian concertos around Friday midnight might not be everybody's ideal in programme-planning.

The contrast between the two final concert-contests was surprisingly strong. Thursday evening left a disappointing aftertaste. The 22-year-old German Markus Groh opened with Liszt's Totentanz - an odd choice. There was a fine display of colouristic and expressive refinement in the central soliloquy, though his pianissimo was rather too intimate for all but the first rows of the Palacio Festivales, and one sensed that he might have more to show than the piece allowed. Perhaps he should have played the Brahms D minor - the decidedly unwise choice of the Bulgarian finalist, Mariana Gurkova. Apparently, few young players realise that more is needed in this work than an ability to get to the end without keeling over. Interpretation in the Adagio was minimal, and voicing virtually non-existent - I was far more impressed by the RTVE Orchestra's principal oboist. After enthusiastic reports of Gurkova's Mozart this was a particularly heavy let-down. It was left to the Brazilian Edoard Monteiro to save the evening. His Prokofiev Third Concerto was not especially refined, and the big tune in the finale was more than a touch overwrought, but this was at least exciting - pounding, driving rhythms, if not much magic.

Friday's concert could have been from a different competition. Again there were no fully rounded artists here, but there was much more to be hopeful about. The 17-year-old Tashkent-born Russian Eldar Nebolsin still has things to learn about articulation and sound production, but this performance of Rachmaninov's Second Concerto was still a remarkable effort - sweeping, highly charged and well-shaped, with moments of delicacy. Vadim Rudenko, Nebolsin's compatriot and his senior by seven years, then gave a Rachmaninov Third that showed unusual power and grasp of shape, but in which subtlety and fantasy were a little too thinly spread - especially in the strange, static dream- cadenza at the head of the finale. Finally, the Chinese Xu Zhong led on the mother of all competition war-horses, Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. His reading was strong, posed, but not deeply characterful or especially colourful, and inclined to draw attention to rather than smooth over structural bumps and cracks. Here, certainly, was a big talent, though one apparently not in deep sympathy with the music he was focused upon.

How to choose amongst these? There was no hurry for the result. Through most of Saturday the contestants appeared sporadically in the hotel lobby, each evidently uncertain as to how serious was the need to practise - would they be playing again in the evening's celebratory concert? Secrecy was well maintained until the announcements at the unusually early time of 9pm. The winner was Nebolsin - an understandable choice. Each of the contestants had problems, but at 17 he has the most chance of sorting them out in time - if, that is, the dice roll well for him and he manages to avoid the all too frequent catastrophies of unsympathetic teaching, prodigy fatigue and aggravated personal problems. The choice of Xu Zhong as second prize-winner was unobjectionable too, though it was a pity there was no third prize to recognize Vadim Rudenko's flawed but imposing achievement in what was in most respects the most difficult concerto of them all. We were left simply with four very varied runners-up.

So to Eldar Nebolsin go the spoils: Ptas2m ( pounds 11,000), a recording contract, and tours of Spain and of the world. Is he ready for it, one wonders. Whether he is or not, he seemed to rise in stature when the competing was over. When he finally got to play his Rachmaninov again at 12.30am on Sunday morning, after a big programme of Ravel, Xenakis and Strauss's Don Quixote (the latter well-played by cello soloist Antonio Meneses and messily accompanied by the RTVE Orchestra), his interpretation seemed to calm down and reveal more delicacy and inwardness. There's still a lot that needs polishing up though, and vulnerability was more apparent than ever. May the musical world be kinder to him than it has been to many like him.