1997 World Piano Competition, London, 28 September to 7 October; South Bank Centre (Purcell Room and Royal Festival Hall)
It would be reassuring to think that a piano competition did not just find a winner, but revealed artistic personalities. The World Piano Competition, a triennial event launched in 1991, has certainly been revealing. Each of the 20 selected candidates had to give two recitals, of 30 and 40 minutes respectively, then eight were chosen for a 50-minute recital last weekend. The first and shortest recital had to include a contrapuntal piece, a concert study, a major Viennese classic and a Romantic piece, all chosen from a specified list. The second recital had to be a "balanced" programme including one major sonata or suite from a list ranging from JS Bach to Elliott Carter. In the final recital stage, each competitor had to include a big 20th-century piece from a list ranging from Bartok's Dance Suite to Brian Ferneyhough's Lemma-Icon Epigram.

At this crucial point, one of the most promising pianists, the 26-year- old Italian Cristiano Burato, went way over time and without much sense of contrasting character, played Prokofiev, Bartok and Falla one after the other, before finding his true poetic form in Chopin's Second Ballade and Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy. Yet Burato had captured his audience from the very start of the competition, with a warm and melting performance of Schubert's Sonata in A, D664, and he was clearly a popular favourite for the Grand Final. He also won the Chopin Society Prize (pounds 500 and a London recital) for his playing in the first three stages, amply justified by his imaginative grace in a Study and a Mazurka, though his performance of Chopin's great B minor Sonata was less deeply impressive than the more objective, aristocratic account by the Scottish-born Martin Cousin.

In his first recital, Cousin's playing was strong but rather plain. Yet in his second he evoked Ravel's "Oiseaux tristes" beautifully, and in Stage Three dressed Chopin's First Ballade in all its splendour, before a deeply intelligent account of Liszt's Sonata in B minor.

Here, unfortunately, Cousin suffered two lapses of memory, though he picked up the thread neatly both times. More importantly, though he was wise, he was not very exciting, and for the thrills as well as the sense of spiritual yearning in Liszt's epic vision, you had to hear Gustave Diaz-Jerez. This 27-year-old from the Canary Islands also showed an unusual mix of fastidious taste and expressive directness in Debussy's L'isle joyeuse, Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, and Chopin's Fourth Ballade, whose final two pages were as effortless as they were brilliant. I would have put him in the Grand Final.

But the 27-year-old Italian Massimiliano Ferrari also had a strong claim. He was almost alarmingly intense in Beethoven's last Sonata, Opus 111, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. His strong technique was matched by equally strong ideas about musical character. But he performed too pugilistically, as if he were pommelling his audience into submission.

How, then, did the 21-year-old Frenchman Pierre Mancinelli get into the Grand Final? Oddly enough, he shaped the harp-like E flat major Study from Chopin's Opus 10 very nicely, and was completely persuasive in three of Messiaen's Vingt Regards. But in most other music his fingers carried him away, leaving his brain far behind, and I have never heard Chopin's Nocturne in D flat, Op.27 no.2, played so brutally.

Mancinelli was misguided enough to choose Mozart's Concerto in minor, K491, for the final concert on Tuesday evening. At least he had taken good advice on his modest embellishments and cadenzas, which were quite idiomatic and tastefully brief. But he didn't seem to enjoy himself, nor have much to express; and, as earlier in the competition, he tended to rush. The audience was underwhelmed.

The Philharmonia Orchestra, under the young Russian conductor Alexander Vedernikov, was not inspiring either. The rudderless character of their playing was particularly noticeable in Chopin's E minor Concerto. Perhaps that was because Cristiano Burato had so much more to offer in the way of tenderness and melodic eloquence than the Philharmonia's hapless strings, virtually left to their own devices as Vedernikov waved his stick with his nose in the score. Still, Burato managed to carry the day, even though the long middle section of the first movement seemed turgid. He thoroughly deserved Second Prize (pounds 6,000) in addition to the Chopin Prize.

The best last, as it was on Tuesday night. That maturity may have little to do with age is proved by the altogether exceptional artistic character of Ashley Wass. This 20-year-old, born in Skegness, a pupil of Christopher Elton at the Royal Academy, showed he was a deeply serious pianist from the very beginning. He made Shostakovich's Prelude and Fugue in D flat sound like great music, where scarcely any other pianist has succeeded. In Beethoven's Bagatelles, Opus 126, he gave a sense of searching beyond the mere notes, as if they were scraps from a feast in another, better existence. In Stage Two, he played Beethoven's Opus 101 Sonata like a veteran, tender in the first movement, explosive yet firm in the March, and gave a terrific account of Samuel Barber's gritty Sonata. He was even better in Stage Three, showing terrific intensity in Ronald Stevenson's brooding Peter Grimes Fantasy, and a redemptory sense of proportion in Brahms's unwieldy Third Sonata.

Each competitor in the World Piano Competition had to offer two concertos from a repertoire of 20. Ashley Wass chose Beethoven's Fourth and Brahms's First. Which speaks for itself, for no other candidate aspired to this sublimity. During the earlier stages of the competition, Wass had occasionally shown a tendency to underplay in soft dynamics, losing his tone in a whisper. But in the Concerto, every level was perfectly judged. The big moments of the first movement were thrillingly rugged and strong, while his expressive shading and sense of line in the slow movement were spellbinding. And then he thrilled and surprised us by hurling himself straight into the finale. He won the Grand Prize of pounds 10,000, a further concerto performance with the Philharmonia at the Festival Hall and a solo CD recital on Naxos.

Wass doesn't look the type to have his head turned readily, and I hope he takes it easy, for here is a very special, precious talent. The jury's simple voting system may have resulted in one or two baffling choices in this year's competition, and people like saying they mistrust this sort of event. Yet if a deeply thoughtful pianist like Wass can prove himself, it is encouraging. Nobody can predict how a career will develop, but I am sure that for music, the future is safe in Wass's hands.