Stage 3 – Semi-Finals: 8-10 April 2005, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Participants:

Henri Bonamy
László Borbély
Jayson Lloyd Gillham
Rostislav Krimer
Pierre Mancinelli
Benjamin Moser
Alexandre Moutouzkine
Jean-Frédéric Neuberger
Herbert Schuch


Jury:

Sulamita Aronovsky (Chairman)
Carlos Cebro
Sándor Falvai
Michael Finnissy
Bernd Goetzke
Jun Kanno
Andrea Lucchesini
Erik T. Tawaststjerna
David Titterington
Begoña Uriarte
Timothy Walker

From the 24 hopefuls in Stages One and Two to the 9 of the semi-finals, the London International Piano Competition (same initials as Leeds!) is once again seeking a winner; this will occur with the Concerto Final on 12 April. All 24 participants are heard in the first two Stages, first in the Duke’s Hall (Royal Academy of Music) and then in the Purcell Room.
First into the ring to lead-off the semi-finals was Henri Bonamy (French, aged 25) to give a shapely and expressive, if a little cluttered account of Chopin’s Fantasie-Polonaise that became too pressed and was lacking in soul. Bartók’s Sonata displayed rhythmic finesse and light and shade. During the first movement some explosion-like sounds emanated from the microphone (used for a opening announcement) that had been left on and which allowed ‘white noise’ to seep through the loudspeakers and which deteriorated further to grunge-like interference for the second pianist, the left-on microphone seeming to add resonance to László Borbély’s tone.
Bonamy concluded his lengthy recital (each is supposed to 50 minutes) with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a matter-of-fact rendition that may have been vividly characterised in one sense but which was also one-dimensional; The Great Gate of Kiev concluded with wrong notes and was too loud. Borbély (Hungarian, 21) brought refinement to his playing – in a fleet but articulate Chopin F minor Ballade, and he sustained three of Ligeti’s more intimate Etudes with sensitivity. That he also chose Schumann’s rarely heard Homoresque was a plus-point and he gave it with lucidity, rhythmic buoyancy and fine balance that made a strong case for the work.
Jayson Lloyd Gillham (Australian, 18) has the looks and physique to be suggested as good for publicity purposes; his playing was engaging too – a strong candidate for the Final. Whether his Ligeti Etude No.2 was quite as haunting as Borbély is debatable, but he certainly displayed an understanding relationship with his trio of choices. Bach’s C minor Toccata (BWV911) was rather special; this was Romantic Bach-playing, heartfelt, full of springy rhythms and delightful pointing. Chopin’s B minor Sonata was more a mixed bag: heroic and generous in the first movement, brilliantly nimble in the scherzo and with a trio that was, unusually, kept in tempo – to advantage. However, the Largo was rather too flowing and consistently too loud, something which blighted the finale, too – although his articulate tempo here was a pleasure.
The second evening began with Rostislav Krimer (Belarusian, 24). His stiff, sluggish and strangulated account of Schubert’s G flat Impromptu did not bode well and, indeed, there was little to differentiate his playing – whether in Chopin, Szymanowski or Prokofiev. Chopin’s Fantasie-Polonaise was seamlessly modulated but became soporific, Szymanowski’s Don Juan’s Serenade had a lot of notes but little music and Prokofiev’s over-played and not particularly great 7th Sonata seemed more note-spinning than usual, the motoric finale not the last word in accuracy. Pierre Mancinelli (French, 29) gave a recital that a colleague aptly described as “purgatory”. Mancinelli did seem ill-at-ease and the opening Chopin F major Ballade was a pretty dire mix of foursquare phrasing and barnstorming and splashy faster passages. His Scriabin selection (6 Etudes from Op.42 and Vers la flamme) was more persuasive – although the gaps between each were too long, tension was lost – and Debussy’s Estampes were short on atmosphere and over-pedalled, so too (unless the fastidious composer has detailed every particular) the Three Preludes of Henri Dutilleux, which here seemed interminable.
Closing the second semi-final was Benjamin Moser (German, 23) whose virtuosity proved heavy-duty and decidedly resistible. He had no identification with Falla’s Fantasia Bética (which meant this monotonous piece seemed more pointless than usual!) and dealt a ruthless and literal hand to the ubiquitous Fantasie-Polonaise – until he tried to seem profound by slowing down; he failed. Prokofiev No.7 (again) was superficial, thumping and too damn loud; the closing pages mechanical if accurate. He had begun with Heinz Holliger’s Elis (from Three Night Pieces); maybe he was making a point, but this anonymous piece of Modernism really made little impression. Moser left the platform between each piece; he lost momentum as a result, and drew attention to himself in the wrong way.
The remaining three competitors (if we must so describe individual artists in this way) raised the stakes. Alexandre Moutouzkine (Russian, 24) began with a slightly showy if naturally unfolded Chopin F minor Ballade and continued with an impassioned account of Copland’s Variations that embraced its strict structure and it emotional content. Liszt’s B minor Sonata was given a fully communicative rendition, creative and wide-ranging, deftly fingered and intelligently shaded. Some passages were appropriately demonic, some were hectoring and short-changed the music’s breadth, but a lively mind was at work here.
Jean-Frédéric Neuberger (French, 18), following an account of Beethoven’s E major Sonata (Op.109) that never really got inside the wonderment of the music, nevertheless managed then to suggest himself as the Competition’s winner with mesmerising accounts of Chopin’s B flat minor Scherzo – the most identified-with Chopin-playing of these semi-finals – a wonderfully coloured and heated version of Shéhérazade (from Szymanowski’s Masques), which made one eager to hear Neuberger play Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, and a staggeringly good account of Liszt’s Dante Sonata, that found Neuberger blessed with a transcendental technique and an ability to draw the listener into the music through both perception and personality.
To conclude, Herbert Schuch (German, 25), who gave a surprisingly diffident account of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, one with too many pauses, too much loudness, and an almost calculated eschewing of fantasy and volatility. Interestingly, the most rewarding moments reminded of Chopin, and it was Schuch who gave the finest traversal of the unusually popular (with the pianists) Fantasie-Polonaise. He seemed less than happy, though, with a couple of Ligeti Etudes. Like his countryman, Moser, Schuch seemed overly concerned with producing, rather than making music.
It was good to hear Borbély, Gillham, Moutouzkine and Neuberger. Surely the latter will be selected for the Final, and one imagines that Gillham and Moutouzkine will make it, too. The LIPC website, however, may reveal a different result!

 

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