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at the Van Cliburn Competition,

ANTON MORDASOV (Russia), age 29

Anton Mordasov

What is abundantly clear is that one competitor, Anton Mordasov, has emerged as the most solid, prepared, and ruthlessly professional of all. This fellow puts me in mind of a Brill Cream advert: not so much as a hair is ever out of place. His note-perfect Barber sonata is a model of absolute control and sobriety, an ode to everything that refers, from the perspective of a competition jury collective (particularly one that averages its decisions with a computer instead of spirited discussion), the so-called highest standard of playing, with a big emphasis on 'standard'. His music making is serious, studious and generally imperturbable. That it is neither inspired, radical, fantastic or poetic should bother no one; it certainly doesn't bother Mr Mordasov. As the finale of the Barber Sonata proves beyond any doubt, he is hardly a pianist given to taken risks, as is his rival, Dore Biran, who took plenty of them in Ravel's La Valse. Mr Biran may have failed gloriously, but at least he felt alive. Mr Mordasov wouldn't dare risk his day job if it meant losing the contest, which is certainly his objective. Indeed, if he continues to play like this, my guess is, by the Cliburn's own standards and its tradition of choosing, with unerring consistency, such rock solid middle-of-the roaders, that he will win first prize. For the jury to vote otherwise, that is, in favor of a technique wed to imagination and imperfections that put a human face on musical interpretation, would take the kind of guts that I frankly doubt it has. Just listen to the wave of sustained, appreciative applause upon the conclusion of the Barber Sonata, which is a mirror image of that accorded the mediocrities Pedrone, Nakamatsu and Schub -- each of whom won the contest with nearly identical playing to this -- and there you have it, ladies and germs: the victor, canned, sealed, packaged and delivered.

Listen to Mr Mordasov's hopelessly unimaginative reading of the Spinnerlied from Wagner's Fliegende Hollander, in what would have been, in more gifted hands a mercurial extravaganza (imagine Benno Moiseivitsch in this work). Mr Mordasov's principal concern is maintaining decorum and a fastidious exterior. Poetry, remorse, the aroma of the flowers, the grand vista, melancholy, those little hesitations that give meaning to a pause as they invest a rest or a tenuto with immeasurable tension, or heighten an affect -- all this remains alien to Mr Mordasov's sturdy, workaday sensibility that sucks the life out of every bar. His way with music is nothing if not pathologically rational, and to an extreme that would make me very nervous about meeting him on a deserted street. It's easy enough to applaud Mr Mordasov for never missing a note. He nails every one down on time with all the committment of a commuter pouring over a train schedule. On time and in time, for this pianist, amount to the same thing. How nice for him that he can play note perfectly, even if it is at the expense of fantasy, passion, ardor, elegance, whimsy, fire and intensity. In a ratings game Mr Mordasov will necessarily earn high marks; his playing neither offends of inspires, bothers or titillates. It just -- well, it just is, which is to say it satisfies its own concept as a celebration of a perpetual present.

That is particularly distressing and even revelatory in the music of his native Russia. Never has a grayer Dumka flashed across the black and white landscape of a keyboard, never mind the bucolic metaphors Tchaikovsky hoped the interpreter had the good sense and generosity of spirit to convey by rising above the notes. One is left wondering if the impossibly, endlessly sober Mr Mordasov has ever thrown back a few shots of honied vodka or a tart balzam before tossing his glass in to the fireplace with the careless abandon of an enraged suitor. Judging by his playing, which turns the lackluster into a virtue, I doubt it; it is so square as to suggest that the vodka has been replaced by a tax report and the fireplace by a xerox machine.

Mr Mordasov has no imagination, none at all; no engagement with the fantastic; no ear for the exquisite moment, nor even any interest in identifying and illuminating such moments. His sound is dull, opaque and unvaried, it wants desperately for vibratory resonance in his perpetual forte. Even in purely pianistic categories, where even the most empty headed player might at least enjoy creating vivid dynamic contrasts for lack of knowing what else to do, Mr Mordasov is hopelessly out of it. He has no interest whatsoever in smelling the symbolic roses that musical experience can so painfully or pleasantly evoke; he eschews affective nuance and motivic inflection as the predominant systoles that both influence and govern rhythm, and which in turn are governed by it. Never taking so much as a moment to smell the compositional roses, Mr Mordasov simply whistles while he works; whatever get up and go the music might have had simply got up and went.

Has Rachmninoff-Kreisler's Liebeslied ever been played more drearily and unidiomatically than this? Not that I can remember. From the sound of it, and what it reveals of his sensibility and personality, to speak nothing of his philosophy of music, Mr Mordasov either grew up in a Soviet tractor factory or spent his childhood with his mouth taped and stapled into a permanent frown. There is something awfully unhealthy about such consistent consistency wherein the ever so decadent fin de siecle charms of Rachmaninoff emerge so effortlessly without so much as a hint of regret or magic, rather like the man who speaks in a monotone without even knowing he does so. Liebesfreud is likewise leaden and inflexible, demonstrating that Mr Mordasov has no idea whatsoever what constitutes, in interpretive and even in compositional categories, Viennese schwung. Eviscerating this music entirely of what it depends on for its very life -- the unique relation between the first two beats of each bar and the third, all within the context of four bar phrases which mirror that relation -- Mr Mordasov is nothing more than an embalmer, giving one pause to wonder if it is true that certain people begin to inhabit their own names after a while. Mordasov = morte = death. But in Russian, of course, his name could, but probably doesn't, trace its etymological roots to the phrase 'Given to the Sea'. Well, for my part, I wish someone would simply feed Mr Mordasov to the sharks and get it over with so as to extinguish forever such musical hegemony. Perhaps he would wake up if someone were to bite him, though in light of these bloodless performances it seems he has already been exsanguinated. Music making can't possibly get any more correct, or more pig-headedly dull than this. Even so, my guess is that, if the Cliburn Competition stays true to form and to its decades of tradition, thus satisfying what it has so long proclaimed to be its own concept --that consistently 'high' standards deserve an award -- then it will most certainly will anoint Mr Mordasov, a Nakamatsu-Schub-Pedroni clone, the victor.


Copyright © 31 May 2001 John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA




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