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The hall is revealing in a way the broadcasts are not. For one thing, it is possible to hear how each competitor really sounds -- as opposed to how he makes music. So, as it turns out, the young Russian Primakov has a tiny sound -- one that barely projects beyond the footlights. His colleague, Koltakov sports a watery tone, which only enhances his flashy and relatively insubstantial playing that overstayed its welcome after five minutes. His glib reading of the Liszt sonata was grotesquely cavalier, turning it as he did into the kind of cocktail music you might hear in a cruise ship lounge. For this pianist rushing and slowing down in the cantabile sections while drawing attention to the downbeats over the barlines is a measure of profound expression. It was a distasteful performance, though the audience went wild after his even more vulgar reading of Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody in the Horowitz paraphrase.

On the other hand, the 20 year old Chinese competitor, Wang Xaohan, turned out to be more substantial than his performance suggested in the preliminary round. There his mechanical and appallingly ill-informed Bach playing was exceeded only by the sugary sentimentality of his own, nouveau impressionist music. But in the semi-finals he demonstrated a cutting edge to his sound that projected admirably to the rafters. I predicted accurately his admittance into the finals, though no one believed me. This I was able to determine based on my own considerable experience as a juror on international piano competitions. I reasoned it was overwhelmingly likely that the jury would take into consideration his age and progressively stronger playing, as well as his rather conservative, but challenging programming. However, it is a great pity that Wang's win forfeited any chance for semi-finalists Davide Franceschetti and Maurizio Baglini, each of whom is a far greater pianist and a mature artist. Several of the judges, I understand, were adamant that they be awarded their rightful place in the finals, but others wouldn't budge.

This brings me to a central problem at this year's contest: the makeup of the jury, which includes only three professional pianists among its 13 members. That a few others teach or play the piano, but who have no careers on stage or on disc, hardly qualifies them as peers of the virtuosos of whom they sit in judgement. Along with the computer averaging system the competition has installed on this occasion, this has eviscerated adjudication of its humanity. Discussion is forbidden, thus making it impossible to account for or even so much as consider extraordinary circumstances, wherein a competitor's unusual strengths in certain repertoire outweigh his weaknesses in others. We are left essentially with the informed guesswork of a jury made up of businessmen, pedagogues, academics and administrators. In my view, to adjudicate with anything less than a comprehensive knowledge of the music played, its idiosyncratic interpretive and technical challenges, and a profound understanding of what is involved in performing is a disservice to the competitor. Unless a juror is a professional pianist who knows every note of the Liszt Sonata, has fathomed every square musical inch of the Beethoven Diabelli or every affective nuance in a Bach suite, any judgement he renders beyond the merely obvious or superficial is already suspect.

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Copyright © 7 June 2001 John Bell Young, Fort Worth, USA







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