Alessandro Taverna, 29, Italy
Alessandro Taverna played a fascinating program with some contemporary pieces that are rarely played because of their difficulty for both the pianist and the audience. He did a remarkable job and should get extra credit for programming music by composers of our own time. If this were the case, perhaps we would be spared the constant diet of Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert and Liszt.
He started with Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 3 in B-flat Major, op. 106. This is another composer who wrote delightful—and difficult—piano music and who has not yet made an appearance in this competition. Taverna completely captured the style of the composer, especially in the Scherzo, which was typical of the composer in that it is light, bright, staccato and scampering. It was good that he took the repeats because it would have made the movement too short. Taverna brought the sonata to a stylish close. This was a wonderful performance of a refreshing work and helped to clear the palate from all the German romanticism that has permeated the competition so far.
Medtner’s Sonata in F Minor, op. 53, no. 2, subtitled “Sonata Minacciosa” (“menacing sonata”) is another rarely heard work. In fact, Medtner himself is rarely heard in this country although he is popular elsewhere. Taverna gave it a fine performance, and it actually did sound rather menacing from time to time. The first movement was slightly blurred because of overuse of the pedal. However, once he got to the staccato fugal passages and eschewed the pedal altogether until adding it judicially later. He built it to an exciting climax and then pulled it back effectively. Even though a lot of his playing bordered on too loud, hard to avoid with this piece, he still had plenty of volume for the ending.
Ligeti’s Étude XIII: L'escalier du diable (“The Devil’s Staircase”) lived up to its name as the musical material kept creeping up the keyboard until it nearly ran out of notes. Taverna accented the jazz influences and played the work in such a convincing manner that you could hear comments about the composer not beings as forbidding as they thought. He held that last note for a long time, until the ring of the piano was long gone. We all held our breath.
Nikolay Khozyainov, 20, Russia
Nikolay Khozyainov brings a The Sound of Music song to mind. “How do you solve a problem like Nikolay...how do you catch a cloud and pin it down?”
He is such an astonishing talent, with a technique that experienced masters would envy. He also has sure musical instincts and excellent control. All this is packed into a 20-year-old prodigy who is in the process of becoming an artist for the ages. However, while he is in this process, we get wildly inconsistent performances that are all exciting to experience. There is nothing wrong with experimentation when you are 20.
Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor suffered the most from his frenetic concept. He was like ball in a pinball machine, bouncing off of Liszt’s many musical bumpers. Many of his expressions worked wonderfully, even though they were not exactly the way the score is marked. (Of course, editions differ.) However, he alternated between extremes too much to let the work hold together. Some of his playing was exquisite and others parts so exaggerated that they became separated.
He overplayed the fortissimos but his forte playing was right in scale. He started the big accelerando early but ended up at a presto that wasn’t as fast as he might have played it. Even though he overplayed the fortissimos, he had enough sound in his arsenal to make the triple forte rise above the texture and stand out as a truly big moment.
Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, op. 60, started a little too fast for the rocking motion to register, but the tempo adjusted itself and felt right by the middle of the movement. He also demonstrated an ability to play very softly and still keep the integrity of the sound, which is not easy to do. He also made good use of rubato and expertly sprinkled some accelerando and ritarando pairs throughout, at just the right moments.
Chopin’s Étude in A Minor, op. 10, no. 2, was his best playing of the recital. He hardly used any pedal, keeping the right hand legato and quiet and the left hand staccato. He went right into the Berceuse and it was just as successful. Overall, an uneven but still brilliant performance.
Alessandro Deljavan, 26, Italy
Alessandro Deljavan is the most original pianist in the competition. Such originality brings both advantages and dangers for an artist. Some will love him and others will roll their eyes, no matter how magnificently he plays all the notes.
He opened with Mozart’s delightful set of variations on an aria from Gluck’s comic opera La Rencontre imprévue. The aria is titled “Unser dummer Pöbel meint” (“Our stupid rabble thinks”). It is really more of an operetta with arias and dialogue, which makes it easily extractable. Mozart frequently improvised sets of variations on composers who were present or who had a big success at the opera the night before.
Deljavan, unlike many other pianists in the world, found Mozart’s humor and devilish sense of the absurd. He loved jokes, many unprintable, and was always interested in sudden surprises. Deljavan had a blast playing this piece. Even the serious parts were delivered in a mock-serioso manner. Of course, his technique is unassailable so he had the ability to play with the materials in a most enjoyable manner. This was excellent Mozart.
Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, op. 17, is in three movements, but many in the audience didn’t know that, so they applauded after the big endings in both the first and second movement. The slow and introspective last movement left them even further perplexed. No one quite knew when the last selection started either.
Next was Schubert’s slight set of Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, D. 718. Poor Diabelli, more varied upon than heard. Beethoven wrote a masterful set of variations on a Diabelli tune as well.
This Fantasie is Schumann’s masterpiece for solo piano, and also his most difficult. Deljavan opened it in high romantic mode, worthy of sighs and the pain of love from a character such as the love-sick Werther, from Goethe’s drama. This is most appropriate because it was written early in the composer’s career and expresses his distress at being separated from his future wife, Clara. In the second movement, Deljavan switched styles to accommodate the majestic nature of this large rondo. All sorrow was left behind in his interpretation and sunnier days prevailed. The last movement brought the pace way down and Deljavan ended the piece in a reflective mood. The last selection, the variations of Diabelli’s waltz, was more like an encore. Too bad few knew when it started that it wasn’t just more of the Fantasie.
In general, Deljavan is a difficult pianist to describe. To say that he is highly individualistic hardly begins to describe him in performance. First of all, you have to overlook his various tics, such as grimacing, putting his nose within a inch of the tops of his hands, and (apparently) singing along. This is audible on occasion, but it is hard to place where the sound is coming from or if it is imagined. One advantage of his vocalizations is that it gives him a marvelous sense of the singing line; he even breathes along with it like a singer would. So many instrumentalists who don’t play wind instruments completely lack this crucial understanding.
No matter whether you love his interpretations, you have to admit that they are a perfect set and consistent throughout the piece. Nothing could be changed, not even a single accent, or it would stick out like a chair someone moved to the center of the room or turned to face the wall.
Originality is at a premium in today’s prepackaged and predigested world. Deljavan is a refreshing—and infuriating—example. Would that there were more like him.
◊ Click here to see reviews of the Prelminary Recital/Phase I for Alessandro Taverna, Nikolay Khozyainov and Alessandro Deljavan.