Brain, heart and fingers Music: Judging a piano competition requires comparing performances that are often very different, and all good

Fine Arts

July 28, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Although occasionally asked, I've always declined invitations to sit on the jury of a competition.

This is a matter of common sense. Reviewing concerts is relatively easy; I merely have to decide whether a performance is good or bad. Judging is hard; jurors often find themselves forced to compare a pear, an apple and an orange, all of which may be good.

That was certainly the situation in which the jury of the William Kapell International Piano Competition found itself last Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center in the competition's final round. It had to decide which of three talented pianists -- Italy's Maurizio Baglini, Canada's Richard Raymond or Belarus' Andrey Ponochevny -- gave the performances that deserved first, second or third prize.

This was difficult enough when the concertos performed with the Baltimore Symphony and conductor Maximiano Valdes were as different as Tchaikovsky's First (Ponochevny), Beethoven's Fourth (Raymond) and Brahms' First (Baglini). But it was made more difficult still because each pianist had such different strengths.

In a sense, the jury had to choose among brains (Raymond), heart (Baglini) and fingers (Ponochevny). But in awarding first prize to Ponochevny, 21, second to Raymond, 32, and third to Baglini, 23, the seven internationally distinguished jurors were not merely prizing pianistic brilliance before intelligence and emotion. They were also taking into account performances of solo repertory the finalists had given in the previous two rounds.

A decision based only on the concertos would have been easier. Raymond's lucid and insightful Beethoven was more successful than either Baglini's poetic but erratic Brahms or Ponochevny's technically polished but somewhat generic-sounding Tchaikovsky.

But the jury also had to consider how, a few days earlier, Ponochevny had sounded in Schubert's "Moments Musicaux," Raymond in Liszt's "Dante Sonata" and Baglini in Chopin's "Barcarolle."

It was, therefore, almost impossible to argue with the final decision.

Baglini, who was playing the Brahms concerto for the first time, was not yet able to contend with all of its challenges. And while Ponochevny's Tchaikovsky was less interesting than Raymond's Beethoven, the Belarussian demonstrated a superior technique, a bigger sound and a wider range of color.

Still, it was possible to enjoy each performance for its individual qualities -- and that is the way, I think, we should enjoy music.

That was certainly how I enjoyed the performances of the master pianists who gave the recitals in the festival associated with the competition. I heard Vladimir Viardo, Brigitte Engerer and Bruno Leonardo Gelber on successive evenings. Viardo's extraordinary recital impressed me most, but that did not prevent me from valuing Engerer's thoughtful, if somewhat deliberate, way with Schumann's "Carnival" and the ringing power and phenomenal accuracy she brought to Mussorgsky's tintinnabular "Pictures at an Exhibition." And minor glitches did not dilute my pleasure in Gelber's large-scale, magisterial accounts of two Beethoven sonatas and Schubert's "Wanderer Fantasy."

I never had to compare one of these pianists with the others. That's what keeps me reviewing concerts and keeps me away from judging competitions.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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