London International Piano Competition – 14th April

Semi-final stage (Recitals 2 & 3)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 April, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The nine semi-finalists playing in alphabetical order, the first of the remaining six was Konstantin Krasnitsky (Belarus, born 1976). He failed to return after his recital to acknowledge applause. Perhaps he was disappointed with his performance. He impressed initially with an improvisatory opening to Chopin’s Fantasy (Op.49) but remained aloof, the odd finger-slip all the more noticeable due to a lack of structural and emotional focus. Two of Samuel Barber’s Excursions were a little stiff but a pair of Rachmaninov pieces drew the best from him – the Elegy (Op.3/1) the highlight in that it suited his introspective self. Polka de W.R. (the ’W.R.’ being Rachmaninov’s father) was rather strait-laced, certainly when remembering the highjinks Cherkassky brought to it; it’s music that does seem to need a nudge and a wink. Choosing Mikhail Pletnev’s transcription of pieces from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker seemed bold. Reducing Tchaikovsky’s magical masterpiece to ’black and white’ terms perhaps requires more intervention from the performer than Krasnitsky gave; the transcriber himself, for better or worse, would have done more. Only in the ’Pas de deux’ did Krasnitsky connect with this listener.

Mikko Merjanen (Finnish, born 1976) begun with a classy rendition of Liszt’s Rapsodie Espagnole – flamboyant, nimble and vivid, the coruscating final pages delivered with maximum diablerie. He too opted for Ligeti’s etudes – No.1, in a reading halfway between Andaloro and Driver in its balancing of rhythmic drive and variation, and No.4, also fast, which passes ideas between the hands, and delivered fluently. Chopin’s B minor sonata had an uncertain start and developed into a strict, unsentimental performance. The ’Scherzo’ was rather earthbound, the ’Finale’ bullish; only in the slow movement did Merjanen seemed engaged, and this was fleeting.

Alberto Nosé (Italian, 1979) gave a superb recital – of discriminating musicianship and stimulating programming: Berio, Chopin, Webern and Scriabin. In the absence of any notes on the music, I must assume that Berio intends his Four Elemental Studies as aids to keyboard development. The first is alluring – I made a note under my Chopin heading! – and if the other three studies are more typical of the composer in terms of expression and quick-witted changes of pulse and timbre, Nosé brought an artist’s touch to them, every note important and vibrant. Darmstadt seems a long time ago! Nosé ’s ability to bring music alive removed any antiseptic tag that Webern’s Variations (Op.27) might collect – the music may be of the barest essentials, but Nose brought a magnanimous dimension to it. Nosè ’s Chopin B minor sonata had plenty of impulse but with all-important punctuation. In place of Merjanen’s steady pulse, Nosé was expressive and yielding but without threatening overall shape. The ’Scherzo’ was mercurial, the slow movement played like a ’song without words’ and the ’Finale’ found its own momentum without being pushed. Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata impressed in the music’s heightened state and enigmatic cascading; mysticism and perfumed expression encapsulated.

Alexandre Pirojenko (Russian, born 1979) was, like Krasnitsky, somewhat disdainful of Chopin’s Fantasy, but he was more attuned to its diversity within the whole and well inside the volatile impressionism of ’Sheherazade’ from Szymanowski’s Masques. Liszt’s B minor sonata was a big challenge from which Pirojenko emerged with considerable honour. It was a young man’s reading in that fast passages were very fast – although well within his technical compass and played with control – and he didn’t debase the music. Emotional, somewhat naïve, this was a sensitive and vivid reading that held the attention with its persuasive rhetoric and demonic drive.

Wen-Yu Shen (Chinese, born 1986), although the youngest of the semi-finalists, also seemed the wisest. He is very musical, perhaps too much so in that he just plays. While one is listening to the third Chopin B minor of the day, one is happy to sit back and enjoy the pianist’s uncomplicated ruminations. His playing is so likeable, his tone pellucid and warm, his phrasing sympathetic and eloquent. But! One can admire the time taken, the charming innocence of it all, and the effortless technique, yet a deeper response is not yet in place. Shen rather pounded another old friend – Ligeti Etude 1 – fearsomely controlled though it was, and found tenderness in No.5. Andaloro though set the standard for this music, and nobody shifted him. Shen’s triumph, perhaps surprising, was the transcription of Petrushka scenes that returned the music to Stravinsky’s original ballet score in its pathos, burlesque and sense of theatre (which Pollini on his over-rated recording doesn’t).

Finally Andrey Shibko (Russian, born 1975). He began with a glib account of Mozart’s C major sonata (K330). He has crisp fingers but this mix of the classical with romantic leanings didn’t gel. He was more attuned to the rather facile Chopin Rondo (Op.16), very much of the salon, and played with flair. Falla’s Fantasia bética needs more than the hard-edged, unsubtle pianism that Shibko brought to this and Prokofiev’s Second Sonata, the latter rarely settling. Shibko did bring some quiescence to one episode of the Falla and in some pared-down tone towards the end of Prokofiev’s slow movement showed he could be reflective.

I did not wait to hear the judges’ decision as to who is in the Final. My choices would be Andaloro, Nose and either Pirojenko or Shen. The latter is a joy but I think he needs more time to prepare for a competition victory. So Pirojenko to join the Italians … but I think Andaloro won’t make it … and while Shen’s Chopin has faded, Driver’s Schumann casts a long shadow. Let’s see.

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