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Chengyao Zhou of China, who was third overall and winner of the Hastings Prize for best performance of a newly commissioned work.

First among equals at the piano competition

Victoria Kingham reflects on some outstanding performances during the 10 days of pianistic excellence which constituted the 17th Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition, and concludes that more than a few contestants were worthy of winning a prize. Photos by Peter Mould/HIPCC.

So it’s done. A whole year of organisation, 10 days of one-after-another performances by some of the world’s finest young pianists. An extraordinary event at the White Rock Theatre, a glittering array of talent. It was a privilege and a revelation to me to attend stage two and the final, comprising concerts by young pianists who must surely be among the best in the world.

The competitors chose from a set list of concertos in each round. At stage two they also all had to play the same new work (premiered at the competition), Time Irredeemable, by Lera Auerbach. Fiendishly difficult and furthermore interactive, it incorporates a crossroads where the performer needs to choose one of two musical paths. The three musicians I saw seemed to sail through this – the one piece of the whole competition during which they were allowed to have music on the piano. After stellar performances of that and their chosen concerto, it seemed tragic that none of these three reached the final. How good did they have to be?

There were five candidates for the finals on Friday and Saturday, 1 and 2 March. Friday’s contestants all chose the same work, so we heard Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with its grand triumphant opening chords, bouncy allegro, elegant pizzicato passages, three times. Hearing as though for the first time the nuances, the wondrous exchanges between piano and woodwind, the distribution and swell of the melody between piano and orchestra, I will never ever take this well-known work for granted.

Hyelim Kim

Friday’s candidates were Curtis Phill Hsu (19 years old), Hyelim Kim (27) and Derek Wang (25). Their styles were different – Hsu’s playing style is already that of a maestro, hands elegantly curving ready above the keyboard at every bar, movement, energy, concentration apparent in his every feature. He produced an enormous sound, great strength, drama, assurance.

Kim’s playing was different – she sat very straight, more or less still, all her concentrated effort going into her hands and interestingly, her left foot. It seemed faultlessly correct. Wang’s sensitivity brought to the fore some of the intensely lyrical passages, and a transformative appreciation of the poignancy of the melodic pauses.

It was a unique opportunity to watch these three in action. Only the judges know how the winning decision is made. Speaking to one of them briefly, I asked whether there was a set list of points which they used to make their judgement. He said yes, of course, but most of it was in here, and he tapped the side of his head.

Saturday’s finalists were Harmony Zhu, 18, and Chengyao Zhou, just 16. They played with great panache – Zhou’s choice of concerto was Rachmaninov, Variations on a Theme of Pagani, which moves one impossibly to tears at the sheer beauty of Variation 18, the famous andante. It was played with enormous intensity and perfection, but Zhou also had the command to make the lesser-known variations sound modern, elegant, and astonishing.

Zhu’s choice was Prokoviev No. 3. Not nearly so well-known, difficult, dramatic, jaggedly entrancing. She has the gift of communicating with both orchestra and audience, and her whole body engages rhythmically, with great joy, in the exposition. Unsurprisingly she won the orchestra prize from the Royal Philharmonic – the soloist they all voted for before they were rushed back to London in their pantechnicon – but came second overall.

With regard to the orchestra: wiry, active, and apparently delighted to be there, conductor Rory McDonald was totally in command. The Royal Philharmonic are exceptional, and they clearly enjoyed and responded to his direction throughout each evening, never flagging even at the third performance of the Tchaikovsky. They were spurred on by the genuine enthusiasm of the audience, who applauded with great gusto at every opportunity. Curtis Phill Hsu was announced the winner, for his assured and accomplished rendering of the Tchaikovsky. But by a hair’s breadth – it could have been anybody’s.

See also Curtis Phill Hsu crowned Hastings’ piano concerto champion

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Posted 16:45 Monday, Mar 4, 2024 In: Music & Sound

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