Bachauer, Bachauer, who's got the Bachauer? Well, it isn't Poland's Krzysztof Jablonski, who was eliminated from the ninth Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition following Wednesday and Thursday's semifinal rounds in Symphony Hall.
Instead, those who will perform a concerto with the Utah Symphony in the finals Friday and Saturday are:- Joachim Arnold, 22, West Germany.
- Alan Chow, 31, a native of Florida, currently teaching at the University of Arkansas.
- Eckart Heiligers, 24, West Germany.
- Kevin Kenner, 25, a native Californian studying at Maryland's Peabody Conservatory.
- Kong Xiang-dong, 19, China, currently studying at BYU.
- James E.K. Parker, 25, Vancouver, Canada.
Few surprises there except for Jablonski's elimination, about which even a contest official admitted being shocked. Because based on their performances in the semifinals, if you had asked me who the front-runners were, I'd have said what we had at that point was a four-way contest, the four being Kong, Kenner, Heiligers and Jablonski, any one of whom could have captured the top spot with his concerto.
That's not to say there weren't differences. If Kong - still the audience favorite - has a fault, it is a tendency to give too much, something increasingly apparent in his semifinal rounds. Thus his Faure piano quartet (the Op. 15) in the chamber round was projected within an inch of its life, sometimes at his colleagues' expense. And although there was much to admire in his strongly chiseled Rachmaninoff - here the Second Sonata - for my taste it lacked the effusive elegance of Kenner's performance of the same piece (different texts, however). Nor was I altogether taken with his ultraclear but rhythmically uneven account of Albeniz's "Triana."
Kenner, by contrast, has managed to raise my estimate of his work, and nowhere more so than his Brahms G minor Piano Quartet on Wednesday, in which he overcame the handicap of below-par string playing - something true all that day - to turn in a truly rhapsodic account, capped by a particularly enlivening finale. High points, moreover, to his gorgeous rendition of the Berg Sonata, in which its very real beauty was invariably to the fore.
No one distinguished himself more in the chamber round, however, than Heiligers, whose beautifully shaped Mozart (the K. 478 Quartet) had both grace and fluency - a marvelous complement to his outstanding "Gaspard de la nuit" (Ravel) from the day before.
At the same time, none of the solo recitals was more remarkable than Jablonski's, a wonderfully imaginative account of the 24 Chopin Preludes. Granted, a daring choice for a competition round, but was it more so than Arnold's decision to give us the Beethoven "Hammerklavier," which, for all its merits, I wouldn't have said was even as astute technically?
Perhaps the chamber round made the difference, for here I do think Arnold made a more favorable impression, as did Parker (a handsomely integrated Brahms A major) and Chow. Poor Jason Li's Schumann Quartet, on the other hand, was compromised from the first by faulty string intonation and a comparatively pedestrian interpretive stance.
Otherwise Parker again proved himself technically adept but prone to skim the music's surface. And whatever faults I may have found with Chow's and Alfredo Perl's Liszt (the "Dante" and B minor sonatas respectively) I'd have taken them in an instant over Arnon Erez's hard-as-nails "Wanderer" Fantasy.
On the whole, however, everyone seemed "up" for this one, making for perhaps the most memorable semifinal sequence in Bachauer history. If the concertos are anywhere near this level, we could be in for a couple of unforgettable evenings.
The performing order is: Friday - Kenner (Rachmaninoff Second), Arnold (Prokofiev Third) and Parker (Beethoven "Emperor"); Saturday - Heiligers (Beethoven Third), Chow (Rachmaninoff) and Kong (Brahms First). Joseph Silverstein will conduct the orchestra, and following Saturday's concert the jury will announce its decision. (At last report tickets were still available.)
At stake is nearly $100,00 in prizes (including a grand piano and a slew of concert engagements for the winner) and maybe one critic's sanity. But, then, was it ever not thus?