Wrestling with Dragons
Day two, and this time I did avoid the morning session and as there were two cancellations I only had a measly 7 concertos to look forward to! It was still very good value,writes HOT’s David Pullen.
First some general observations. The list of approved 17 concertos gives plenty of choice from Mozart to Prokofiev, and you might have assumed they would all appear at least once in the heats, and that those without the power to impress with the big hitting ones would settle for demonstrating their ability to float a line, and play pianissimo filigree runs. In fact a third of the 39 contestants went for either Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky, and a staggering 15 went for the two punishing Prokofiev concertos. Prokofiev’s 3rd concerto is now a standard repertoire piece, but like the Tchaik. and Rach. 2&3, it is harder to impress with it, because we have heard them performed by the most formidable pianists over the years.
Until they did all five of his concertos in one evening at the proms last year (what five piano concertos one after the other? you may well ask) I’d never heard Prokofiev’s 2nd live. It is to most people a curiosity – longer, louder and wilder than the third that took decades to be accepted as more than a bit of 20’s Brutalism. Indeed the 2nd was considered, by Sviatislav Richter no less,
as like wrestling with a dragon, and whilst he premiered and championed a lot of Prokofiev, he and most pianists avoided it. Not so our contestants who shunned Grieg, Mendelssohn and Mozart – instead 7 reckon that just being seen trying to slay this wild animal in public will get them through to the next round.
My guess is that they will be disappointed, and I’ve only heard three of them! It’ll be very interesting to see what the jury thinks, because whilst bravery is a great virtue so is prudence, and with the savage cuts to get it finished in time, the work makes even less musical sense.
Which brings me onto another thought; there’s a lot more to this malarkey than piano technique. It’s a Piano Concerto Competition, and that means they are looking for someone whose appearance in the middle of a symphony concert would be welcome to the orchestral sponsors and the audience who see the piano concerto as part of the evening’s
programme. Being really good at the Grieg is a good bit more useful at building a career than being able to nail Prokofiev 2.
In 1913 the work was a colossal bit of youthful bravura, both boasting of prodigious technique and thumbing a nose at the rest of the musical establishment by providing a vehicle for Prokofiev’s career as a concert pianist,
like Rachmaninov, Medtner, Liszt, Beethoven and Mozart before him . Over a century on, we are still waiting for a a similar young turk to appear who could make it so thrilling that they were allowed to programme it regularly. Tomorrow it is played three times on the same piano in 6 hours – is this a world record ?
Now a final thought: having seen half the contestants – this Competition is looking for someone who can walk onto the stage of a Symphony Hall and impress a large audience with his presence. I’m not asking for military bearing or sharp tails (sorry ladies), but someone who can walk on with the conductor as a colleague and acknowledge the audience with some
gratitude for their willingness to applaud him even before he has played a note – having the appearance that they look forward to impressing the audience is a very important part of the job. Which is why many great pianists have withdrawn from the game after having been been perceived as more audience friendly at the start; or maybe they were just so good that people paid despite their lack of presence (or were they just invisible a la Richter, or too PR savvy like Glen Gould?)
So my vote does not go to the ones who look frightened or forgot that whatever they were wearing (or not wearing) would be more apparent to most of their audience than any fancy fingerwork they had lined up
to impress them. It’s a performance, not a recording session. If you’ve read this far, you can imagine how much better I feel for getting it off my chest! Please respond with your comments via HOT (below) in whatever way you like.
Don’t let the above put you off spending that bargain fiver to get Liszt, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Brahms and Tchaikovsky between 2 and 5 o’clock – as memorable and more fun than a dip in the sea. You’ll love it once you’re in !
Stage One Thursday 25 – Saturday 27 February: contestants play their chosen concerto from a list. Maximum performance of 28 minutes including all breaks/pauses. Parts selected must include part of every movement and any main cadenza. The jury’s first deliberation and result to be given soon after 7pm on Saturday night.
Also in: Piano Concerto Competition diary« David’s Blog 3
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