Asagi Nakatu (Japan/GB), Anna Szalucka (Poland), Anna Bulkina (Turkmenistan / Russia), Pietro Bonfilio (Italiy), Varvara Tarasova (Russia), Dinara Klinton (Ukraine).
NO STICKS of dynamite were needed to ensure an explosive start to the 3rd Sussex International Piano Competition’s Grand Final at Worthing’s The Assembly Hall. The climax of a week’s absorbing solo music was starting off to the thrilling horn-call summoning of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto from the sound of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra.
The soloist drawn to play first of the three finalists was Dinara Klinton. The London-based East Ukrainian, 26, had played last of the semi-final six in Friday and had stormed into the final with the earthquakes and poetry of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies. She was the first on Friday visibly to break sweat, and the titanic appearance of eight of these 12 pieces at that point in the competition was a passport to the final if it went well.
The Transcendental Studies are only for the heavyweights of the piano world, there are few recordings dared, and Klinton expects to do this soon for German label , Genuine, in the legendary Leipzig Gewandhaus. Her semi-final recital began in the sweet faded light of Tchaikowsky’s Nocturne of Opus 10, then came Prokofiev’s Sarcasms with its hints of famous composers past.
These warmed Klinton up for her final 40 minutes still to come which were like a three day event for a warhorse all rolled into a continuous marathon, for which no amount of physical training can prepare. Klinton told me afterwards, “You need concentration, flexibility of mind for the rapid changes ahead, a body which stays relaxed to get through each Study −and some practice. Competitions are a big stress and it’s all about the moment that you and your performance is in, and where the jury are at that time.”
There seemed two probable finalists by the time four pianists had left the stage. Anna Szalucka (say it ‘Shalood-sker’), 23, and a pupil of Ian Fountain at the Royal Academy of Music, was looking likely after her two rounds of wide-ranging repertoire including, she avowed, meeting a musician’s “obligation to share their national music − and not just Chopin”. She played Szymanovsky’s Four Mazurkas and Mykietin’s Four Preludes. “Modern Polish music, I find, is so good. The 20th Century was a renaissance for our music.”
Also presenting Schumann’s 2nd Sonata, Debussy’s Estampes and Prokofiev’s 2nd Sonata, her composure, dexterity, control of dynamics, and consistency of presence across the board helped earmark her for the Final and she got the vote of the five-person jury of five, who included the Turk, Idil Biret, whose many honours include Polish national ones for her work in Chopin.
Szalucka says, “I like the freedom of playing Debussy and I like colours. But in any music one performs, every note and sound must count and make convincing sense to the listener.” She chose to play Beethoven’s 4th Concerto in the final and this will follow Klinton’s Tchaikovsky.
Semi-finalist No 3 and the second likely finalist was Turkmenistan-born Anna Bulkina, 28. This after short Scriabin and Prokofiev items in the quarters, then a Bach Fantasie and Fugue, Beethoven’s two-movement Sonata Opus 90 and a thoughtful , expressive and vibrant account of Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanz.
She is an artiste who has played for Alfred Brendel and Martha Argerich in different competitions, one the formidable Busoni one on Italy, and she has competed at Leeds. Bulkina has a catalogue of competition triumphs on both sides of the Atlantic – and, like Prokofiev, she plays chess.
But she was edged out by the fifth semi-finalist, whose recital raised the stakes with an additional degree of cleanly-delivered accomplishment. This was Varvara Tarasova from St Petersburg, with honours from Moscow Tchaikovsky State Conservatory and now at The Royal College in London under Dina Parakhina, who taught this competition’s last winner, in 2013, Poom Prommachart.
Tarasova added Beethoven’s early C major Sonata, Scriabin’s second and then Prokofiev’s second to her quarter-final Mozart Sonata K330, Brahms’ Five Pieces Opus 76 and a prize-winning performance of the Competition Set-Piece, The Devil’s Reel by William Alwyn. With no recordings of the Alwyn as guidance, Varvara was deemed to have made the best artistic fist of it.
It concluded her quarter-final programme and told me: “It was easy to interpret. It’s simpler than Beethoven. What picture do you have in your mind? It’s in the title. I think we’ve all got the devil in us! I wanted an hour’s programme with different pieces that will interest the listeners and the jury. But I don’t like competitions. If you play the same pieces you’re not developing as a musician. I try to play freely and feel like it’s a concert.” For the Grand Final, Tarasova chose for the Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto, in F minor and after this the jury would decide. “It’s one of my favourites and I’ve been wanting to play it for years.”
Japanese-born but London-residing from the age of one, Asagi Nakata was the first semi-final into action. At only 20, and showing she has time on her side. She included Scarlatti, Chopin, Schumann, Debussy and Takemitsu.
Her Beethoven Opus 7, his exciting early Eb Sonata, strives to make the piano play orchestrally and Nakata fell into a trap of wildly exaggerating dynamics which had the Steinway sounding like an overdriven Mercedes in the hands of Lewis Hamilton catching up from halfway down the starting grid. But her Liszt one-movement Dante Sonata allowed her to showed her truer potential.
A 24-year-old Italian from picture-postcard rural Tuscany, stepping out of Milan Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory, was making his first significant competition debut outside his own country. Fourth on stage, against the trademark art deco stage backdrop of the SIPC, Pietro Bonfilio looked perfectly cast: dark tall and slender, a thin Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli moustache and Hercule Poirot slicked-back thick hair.
Starting piano as late as 11, from a musical family background only of his father’s extensive record collection, which included 1970 classic rock, Bonfilio inhabits a world of Sviatoslav Richer, Glenn Gould and, yes, Michelangeli – “The trinity of the piano” as he describes them. Fascinatingly, he offered a Brahms scherzo, Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso, a Bach prelude and fugue, Mozart’s great C Minor Sonata, Debussy’s Pour le Piano, and finally Schumann’s Carnival, which began with considerable promise but whose demands of stamina finally defeated him.
We would have had Mozart’s last Piano Concerto from Bonfilio in the final – on which day Murray Perahia will be 68. And Mozart was good enough for Perahia in the 1972 Leeds Final.