For those who have missed my preliminary and semi-final reviews of the Sydney International Piano Competition 2021, here is a brief summary. The Sydney was to have been held in July 2020. As a result of the pandemic which began at the end of 2019 the preselection committee of the 2020 competition chose 32 participants from a total of over 250 applicants to compete in an original online-only version earlier this month.
Each of the 32 were mandated to record preferably by video three programmes one each for preliminary semi-final and final rounds. Almost immediately six or seven candidates withdrew with the pre-selection committee having to include extra names from a reserve list. Piers Lane the artistic director of The Sydney since 2014 who is the non-voting Chairman of the jury as well as a member of the preselection committee had the enviable task of meeting and greeting each candidate and jury member online. He also was present by Zoom online while most recitals were being filmed so as to authenticate the rules and regulations of this mammoth undertaking. At the end of 17 days of intensive listening I was left hungry for more. An unbelievable marathon of extremely gifted young pianistic athletes is yours for the asking simply by investing in a season pass or individual session passes.
The jury consisted of seven internationally renowned pianists who are still active as performers. They include:
Each of the 32 participants recorded preliminary and semi-final rounds before 31st March 2021. 12 of these participants cut the competition to get into the semi-final round by jury votes in April. Similarly, in the month of June the semi-finalists were voted by secret ballot by the same jury. All 32 participants had to record a final round submitted by 31st May 2021 regardless of progression into semi-finals or finals.
A total cash prize pool of over AU$164,000 was awarded.
Programming and repertoire
Each candidate of the 32 selected from global entries submitted last year presented a 40-minute recital program of their own choice with the sole proviso of the need to include at least one Australian piece. This could be a major work or indeed just an encore. Most participants chose one or more of the five Bagatelles by contemporary Australian composer Carl Vine. Other favourites were Percy Grainger and Arthur Benjamin mainly featured as encores. The duration of the preliminary round was not more than 40 minutes recorded in a full take with no editing. The candidates had to immediately while being observed link the video by dropbox provided by The Sydney.
For the second round only 12 candidates from these 32 were lucky to have their semi-final rounds streamed. All 32 nevertheless had to submit their own 50 minute recitals to the jury in advance with a written theme on which the recital was based. During the video recording it was necessary for each participant to speak, preferably in English about the programme: a personal introduction and logic for choice of repertoire. Here again although there was no restriction on choice of repertoire cognizance was given to the intelligence behind the programme structure and a coherent and logical theme.
In addition to the written statement which had to be presented within 10 days of uploading the semi-final video it was mandatory for each candidate to announce in his or her own words preferably in English while standing at the piano before commencing the music. Communication skills were considered by the jury. Additionally, 2 encores had to be announced and played to end the recital.
The 12 semi-finalists separated the sheep from the goats. It was a difficult choice for me to narrow down to the six eventual prize winners. However right from the start of the preliminary rounds two performers stood out as exceptional. Eventual first prize winner Alexander Gadjiev stole the show with his commitment to the letter of the score with an ease of technical virtuosity which had to be seen to be believed.
The other performer who is Alice Burla from Canada showed a maturity way past her years. Eventually winning Fourth Prize I anticipate a phenomenal career ahead for her.
Ernest Hutcheson First Prize (donated by the Friends of The Sydney) goes to Alexander Gadjiev (Italy/Slovenia)
In addition to being voted laureate Alexander received 6 other prizes:
Edward Goll Best Performance of a work by Liszt
Miriam Hyde Best Performance of a work by a Romantic period composer (excluding Liszt)
Lance Dosser Best Performance of a work by a Classical period composer (excluding Beethoven)
Malcolm Williamson Best Performance of an Australian Piece
Roger Smalley Best Preliminary Recital
Best Program Presentation in Semi Final or Final
Percy Grainger Second Prize (donated by Loz Copley) goes to Artem Yasynskyy (Ukraine)
In addition, he again swept the board by running away with 5 more prizes:
Rhondda Gillespie Best Performance of a Twentieth-Century work, donated by Minnie Biggs
Best Performance of a work from any period before 1950 by a rarely-played and unduly neglected composer
Best Program Construction in the Semi Final or Final
Isador Goodman Best Encore in the Preliminary or Finals
Ignaz Friedman Best Semi Final Recital
George Frederick Boyle Third prize (donated by the Ivy Lane League) goes to Calvin Abdiel (Australia/Indonesia)
The youngest and only Australian to win a prize Calvin received 2 other prizes:
Nancy Weir Best Australian Pianist (donated by Youth Music Foundation Australia)
An overseas scholarship for an Australian competitor to further their musical career (donated by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust)
William Murdoch Fourth Prize (donated by Silvana d’Iapico, Peter and Helen O’Meara, Gary Nash and other anonymous donors) goes to Alice Burla (Canada)
Arthur Benjamin Fifth Prize (donated by Rosalind Carlson OAM) goes to Ádám Balogh (Hungary)
Noel Mewton-Wood Sixth Prize (donated by Ron, Lynn and Marcus Ogden) goes to Shion Ota (Japan)
In addition, two more prizes were announced which went to other semi-finalists not reaching the finals.
Yangrui Cai (China) received the Geoffrey Tozer Most Promising Pianist not Proceeding to the Finals (donated by Joan Adler). Anna Geniushene (Russia) received the Rex Hobcroft Best Performance of a work by Beethoven for her astounding performance of the latter’s Op 33 set of Bagatelles.
This competition paradoxically will remain long etched in my memory. It has been a privilege to hear so much talent from round the world. We also have the possibility of going back and exploring the vast repertoire on display. There were some repertoire surprises along the way. Brahms’ wayward early C major sonata got 2 performances while his more familiar and greater F minor got only one. Schumann’s big Concerto sans orchestre also received 2 performances as well as 2 of the same composer’s Carnaval. Brahms’ Paganini Variations was simply overplayed, at least Book 1 was. Schumann’s Fantasie and Chopin’s Third sonata were missed altogether. Brahms’ 7 Fantasies Op 116 were also popular as was the Bach/Busoni Chaconne.
It was an unusual choice from the laureate to end his 3 recitals with a magnificent Symphony No 7 in Liszt’s arrangement of the late Beethoven masterpiece. Conspicuously absent were Beethoven sonatas though Haydn and Mozart got their fair share. Schubert was represented by a single Wanderer and Impromptus Book One.
All aficionados of piano playing must have access to this compendium of 4 centuries of keyboard playing in reference performances. Many of these pianists will grow to become house-hold names. Not only then is it a great historic document of a particularly trying period for musicians and other performers who live by their art. Let us pay tribute here to the sheer perseverance and astonishing skills these young people display. I urge all piano teachers to invest in this online treasure trove. It is quite simply remarkable, a huge commitment and a resource for all future competitors. Bravi tutti!
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