The Chopin Piano Competition: the winners' concerts

Jed Distler
Monday, October 25, 2021

Jed Distler concludes his blog by looking forward to where the pianists' journeys will take them...

Thursday night’s gala event brought all 12 finalists of the 18th Chopin Competition on stage at the Teatr Wielki alongside the jury members for the official presentation of awards, along with the inevitable speeches and photo ops. Following a break, the runners up each played a brief solo showcase. J J Jun Li Bui went through the E major Étude Op 10 No 3 slowly and crudely. Leonora Armellini used Chopin’s uninteresting posthumous E flat Waltz as a soothing lead-in to her elegantly radiant Ballade No 3; she seemed much more relaxed and into the music without the onus of a jury.

Likewise, Aimi Kobayashi let looser than before in excerpts from the Preludes Op 28. Jakub Kuszlik’s deliciously turned-out Op 30 group justified his Mazurka prize. Martín García García’s pairing of the G flat Impromptu and F major Waltz surpassed his second-round readings. Kyohei Sorita let his hair down in the Rondo à la mazur Op 5, while Alexander Gadjiev closed the first half with a more volatile and contrasted F sharp minor Polonaise Op 44 than he had delivered in round two. After another intermission, Andrzej Boreyko, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Gold Medalist Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu reprised the previous evening’s E minor Concerto, with more playful solo work in the Rondo this time.

Moving from the Teatr Wielki to the Concert Hall of the Warsaw National Philharmonic, Friday night’s programme was musically identical to Thursday’s. So was Saturday’s, apart from three notable substitutions. Bui replaced the E major Étude with the flashier Variations in B flat major Op 12. Armellini switched from the A flat Ballade to the A flat Polonaise. Gadjiev brought out the Polonaise-Fantasie in place of the F sharp minor Polonaise. And Sorita prefaced his Rondo à la mazur with the Largo from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 1, a student work rarely heard in the concert hall. Liu played the E minor Concerto yet again, a grand total of four times over four successive evenings. I suspect that these repetitions will provide ample cover for a likely commercial recording.

Reflecting on these past weeks, I remain gob-smacked by the uniformly high level of pianism, as well as encouraged by the jury’s openness to individualism and strong personalities. Liu’s victory is a case in point. Everyone – meaning the jury, the audience and viewers around the world – seems enthralled and enchanted by him. Indeed, Liu’s knack for keyboard fireworks and out-and-out showpieces sets him apart from his fellow competitors. This is an aspect of Chopin-playing that has slowly crept back into fashion. One could never imagine, for instance, the young Maurizio Pollini tossing off the fluffy ‘La ci  darem’ Variations in the semi-finals. Or Krystian Zimerman, for that matter.

Yet, once again, I’m curious how the scope of Liu’s artistry extends beyond such repertoire. On the other hand, the maverick personalities of Alexander Gadjiev and Martín García García resist pigeonholing, especially in Chopin, where their strong ideas never seem set in stone. And one cannot forget stellar performances from candidates who did not progress past various stages.

The question is how such a large pool of keyboard talents can fulfil their potential. The late, great pianist Earl Wild summed up the situation to me when I interviewed him in 1995, on the cusp of his 80th birthday. ‘People always ask me who I think the best young pianists are. That’s impossible to answer. You can never know if someone will be great when they’re barely 20. Piano-playing at the highest level comes only with time and maturity. Believe me, it’s a difficult life.’

In this regard, one should not look upon the Chopin Competition as a final destination, but as a time-honoured tradition that, for each participant, signifies a milestone in a long journey.

Gramophone is a Media Partner of the 18th Chopin Piano Competition - you can catch-up on the competition by watching the videos at the chopin2020.pl - and look back over our daily analysis from Jed Distler. 

 

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