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Critic's journal: Winning pianists weren't the best

Published: Sunday, July 9 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Hinrich Alpers of Germany performs at Gina Bachauer competition.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

In the years that I've covered the Gina Bachauer competition, I've always been struck by the spectacular talent exhibited by the pianists, regardless of which age group was competing.

But during that time, I've also been at odds with the results after the final round. From this corner, the best haven't always come out on top.

That fact was driven home once again last week, when the International Artists Competition concluded with two evenings of final-round competition, accompanied by the Utah Symphony.

The six who were chosen to compete in the finals unquestionably should have been there. They deserved it. But those who took the top three prizes did not give the best performances.

Stephen Beus of the United States won first prize, although his performance of Prokofiev's Third Concerto wasn't gold-medal quality. It was the most unmusical interpretation of the work I've heard. Granted it's an immensely demanding and unforgiving work, but Beus made absolutely no attempt at bringing any finesse to his reading. It was obvious he struggled with the bravura writing throughout the piece.

Nor did Japan's Takashi Yamamoto impress me with his performance of Tchaikovsky's B flat Minor Concerto. Taking second prize, Yamamoto exhibited more refinement in his playing than did Beus. But Yamamoto, too, garbled the tricky passages and overplayed the outer movements. The slow movement on the other was, for the most part, nicely phrased.

And while there were some delightful moments and some technically solid playing in Ukrainian Vadym Kholodenko's reading of Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," which took third prize, he left me cold with his unemotional and expressionless interpretation.

It was the bottom three competitors who made the biggest impact on me.

Hinrich Alpers, Germany; Jue Wang, China; and Ka-ling Colleen Lee, Hong Kong — taking fourth, fifth and sixth place, respectively, were the pianists who, in my opinion, gave the most well-rounded, nuanced and articulate performances during the finals.

Alpers gave a wonderfully musical reading of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto, which was subtle and expressive, yet technically dazzling.

But it was Wang and Lee who were stunning and who ought to have walked away with the gold and silver medals.

Lee gave a particularly sensitive and exquisitely romantic reading of Chopin's E Minor Concerto that was noteworthy for its warmth, expressiveness and rich colors.

Wang captured the intensity of emotions and the dramatic outpourings of Prokofiev's Second Concerto compellingly. His luminous playing exhibited piano artistry at its finest. Hopefully this 22-year-old will soon be noticed on the international scene.

I didn't attend any of the preliminary rounds during the competition. My assessment of these six is based solely on their performances with the Utah Symphony during the final rounds.

And that is how the 10-member jury should have judged them.

Obviously, in my view, they didn't, otherwise the outcome would certainly have been different, more reflective of the wide-ranging quality of the performances.

Once competitors reach the finals, the slate should be wiped clean. Only in instances where there is no clear-cut winner based on the final-round performances should the competitors' rankings in earlier rounds come into play.

That would ensure everyone enters the finals on an equal footing. And it would also ensure the integrity of the judging.


E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com

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