The Chopin Piano Competition: final reflections

Jed Distler
Thursday, October 21, 2021

Following a thrilling few weeks, Jed Distler celebrates the winners

It took longer than expected, but the jury has finally spoken, and individualism rules again in the land of Chopin. As it happened, the 18th Chopin Piano Competition’s most iconoclastic personalities all claimed top prizes.

I adored how Gold Medal winner Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu oozed old-school charm and went wild with inner voices in his solo segments, yet worried that the jury might catch brain fever. Apparently not! Liu’s effortless, insouciant yet relatively straightforward Chopin E minor Concerto this evening may have clinched the deal.

Yet the jury couldn’t discount Alexander Gadjiev’s strong, maverick personality and original voice, nor the less demonstrative yet imaginatively consistent Kyohei Sorita. That these stimulating musicians share the Silver Medal honours says a lot. The fact that the jury awarded the Bronze Medal to an inveterate chance-taker like Martín García García also speaks volumes, although I’d wager that the fact that he toned down his act in the concerto final round only helped his cause (and the same may be true of Liu).

Aimi Kobayashi and Jakub Kuszlik both won Fourth Prize ‘ex aequo’. It must be said, though, that Kuszlik’s red-blooded, forward-moving Chopin E minor Concerto totally upstaged Kobayashi’s micro-management and tense finger-orientated pianism.

Leonora Armellini’s utterly natural pianism and communicative immediacy earned her Fifth Prize. Perhaps her semi-final and final-round efforts didn’t quite live up to the promise of her first and second rounds, and I want to hear Armellini in other repertoire. A professional pianist colleague of mine with many years of experience rooted for Sixth Prize winner J J Jun Li Bui. For my money, this 17-year-old pianist has unquestionably capable fingers, but musically speaking he’s as green as grass.

On to the special prizes: the Polish Radio Prize for the best performance of mazurkas went to Jakub Kuszlik, and rightly so. Bucking the trend of the E minor Concerto being the more likely to win plaudits at this competition, García García’s F minor Second Concerto earned the Warsaw Philharmonic Prize for best concerto performance. Gadjiev’s astonishing account of the B flat minor Second Piano Sonata earned him a well-deserved Krystian Zimerman Prize for the best performance of a sonata. The jury did not award the Fryderyk Chopin Society’s special prize for best polonaise performance, which was just as well.

There’s no doubt that readers and viewers around the world will weigh in on the results. But while the jury ultimately has the last word, I’d like to offer my own personal ‘Dinu Lipatti/William Kapell Best Performance of the B minor Sonata Award’, which I bestow upon Jakub Kuszlik.

While we decompress from these high pressure yet undeniably exciting past few weeks, I want to give my own special award to Andrzej Boreyko and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. They played the same two concertos over and over again, making Chopin’s much maligned orchestration sound consistently vital each time, regardless of soloist. As my late mother would have said, that’s not chopped liver.

Gramophone is a Media Partner of the 18th Chopin Piano Competition - you can follow the competition by watching the live stream at the chopin2020.pl - and visit us every day for more analysis from Jed Distler. 

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