Alessandro Taverna, 29, Italy
Alessandro Taverna, a native Italian, has toured the world as a pianist. He received his master’s degree from the Accademia Pianistica Internazionale “Incontri col Maestro” in Imola, and currently attends the International Piano Academy Lake Como and the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien in Hannover. He was wearing a standard black tux and gave the deepest bow of the evening in response to his warm welcome.
His program was more varied than most, including something from three centuries and demonstrating a mastery of all the styles. He started with Beethoven’s 15 Variations and Fugue in E-flat major, op. 35 (“Eroica"). His is based on the theme from the last movement of his third symphony—called "Eroica." Many music fans and musicologists alike are puzzled by this seemingly childlike theme with its suddenly loud three-note signature. However, Beethoven loved this theme as a subject for variations and, some speculate, it had a deeper and more personal meaning for the famously grouchy composer. He used it in the finale of his ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus (1800) and the seventh of his 12 Contredanses, WoO 14 (1800–02). Reportedly, it was his favorite theme when he would sit at the piano and improvise for friends or for himself.
While Taverna played the set of variations with great skill and expression, he missed Beethoven’s sly point—that these are meant to be fun and that Beethoven is cracking musical jokes in many of them. It is not hard to imagine Beethoven laughing as he crashed down on the statement of those three notes in the bottom of the piano’s range with a dissonant note added to boot. Every variation has an example of something amusing. Besides, each variation changes in character and that has to be expressed. Once we get to the fugue, however, Beethoven is all business and must have felt the spirit of Johann Albrechtsberger, his counterpoint teacher, over one shoulder.
Busoni’s Élegy No. 4: Turandots Frauengemach (translates as “Turandot’s woman’s chamber”) is a strange work that was completely unfamiliar and only one recording is available. It is based on the English folk song Greensleeves (known to Christmas audiences as “What Child is This?”). It was short and offered a pleasant respite before we plunged into Stravinsky’s Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka. Taverna was at his best in this piece and he brought his first appearance to a rousing close.
Nikolay Khozyainov, 20, Russia
Nikolay Khozyainov made his much-anticipated first appearance next. At 20, he is among the youngest competitors. If his shock of curly blond locks didn’t already set him apart, his top prizes at the Dublin and Sydney International Piano Competitions and the Moscow International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition for Young Pianists would do it. Further, he was the youngest finalist in the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2010.
If you were expecting a young firebrand who ate the keyboard whole, you were in for a surprise. His playing is marked by understatement and technical brilliance. He has no need to show off, or even to be showy at all. Some of the most technically challenging passages, such as the nearly impossible runs in seconds in Scarbo (in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit), he practically ignored, relegating it to part of the overall texture instead of a bravura moment for the pianist to shine.
He started out with an elegant performance of Haydn’s Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI:33. The most impressive part of this performance was the space he gave the slow movement, turning it into something both profound and simple at the same time. Chopin’s Etude in C Major, op. 10, no. 1, flashed by in an instant. Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 5: Feux follets and Scriabin’s Etude in C-sharp Minor, op. 42, no. 5, each demonstrated a mastery of a technical aspect, such as fast trills with all fingers in the right hand (in the case of the Liszt).
However, it was Gaspard that was amazing. This was a completely mature interpretation of one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, both in terms of technical proficiency and interpretative ability, being played with no obvious effort by a 20-year-old prodigy. In a piece that it known for its big climaxes, what you remembered when Khozyainov was finished is how delicate and hushed most of it really is.
Surely his take on this piece will change over the years as his career progresses, but this early take on it was as valid as any and played with absolute conviction. Makes you wonder how you understood it wrong all these years. There are more Gaspard's to come in the competition, and it will be interesting to hear them, but they have a high wall to climb to reach where Khozyainov now sits.
Alessandro Deljavan, 26, Italy
Just when you thought that eccentric pianists were out of style, other than hair-dos, Alessandro Deljavan took the stage to give a highly individualistic performance that caused eyes to pop open. First, he sat low to the keyboard. Next, he was dressed in a black suit (might have been a tux) with a black shirt and open collar. His buzzed head and five-day scruff was a marked contrast to the mass of curls that had just appeared. Further, it appears that he sings along as he plays, perhaps to made-up lyrics, or maybe just to a series of grimaces. Sitting near the back of Bass Hall, we could still hear him, but not distinctly, trying to hear what he was singing or if it was even on pitch.
There was nothing eccentric about his playing, though. His version of Bach’s Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829 brought another similar player, Glenn Gould, to mind in its clarity. His foot never came anywhere near the sustaining pedal and the Romantic-leaning styles that have been in evidence in this competition were nowhere to be found. This is not to say that he was Gould-style cold and deadly accurate. He was expressive and did allow for swells and dynamic contrasts that were unavailable in the instruments of Bach’s day. However, it was all within a much more limited range that we have heard before. Thus, these expressive gestures became as vital as any of the larger gestures, once we put them in Deljavan’s scale.
The other work on his program was the entire set of Chopin Etudes, Op. 25. These are a series of studies of technical challenges for the pianist. Each one tackles a specific problem, such as fast octaves or fingered thirds, and makes some great music while working the exercise from beginning to end and in every configuration. Playing them all is an endurance test that few can master. He played them flawlessly and the audience sat mesmerized.
Weird facial expressions matter not a whit, and he received a standing ovation.
And the morning and the evening were the second day.