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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » October 29, 2010
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REVIEW: Controversy Over Chopin Contest
October 29, 2010   
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It is late evening, Wednesday, Oct. 20. The name of the winner of the 16th International Chopin Piano Competition is announced. Silence. A groan of disappointment. Disbelief. Perfunctory clapping here and there.

Yulianna Avdeeva receives the Grand Prix, beating Ingolf Wunder and Lukas Geniusas who tie in second place after the judges decide they were equally good. Daniil Trifonov comes in third.

The verdict has been deemed a scandal. One should really feel sympathy for Russia’s Avdeeva, who in the coming week has to play four concerts in Warsaw in an air of hostility, even if this hostility is targeted not against her, but at the judges and their decision.

Stanisław Leszczyński, deputy director of the Chopin Institute, added fuel to the fire on the next day when, on the TOK FM radio station, he confirmed rumors that the judges initially refused to admit Avdeeva to the qualifying round of this year’s Chopin Competition. Soon later that decision was found to be a mistake and a misunderstanding and so special procedures were launched to allow her to play in the qualifying round and further stages of the competition.

Such disclosures raise various doubts. The main doubt is why similar procedures were not launched after Leonora Armellini, a phenomenal pianist specializing in Chopin’s music, failed to make it into the finals. And why did not anybody stand up for Airi Katada and Da Sol Kim?

Many bitter and angry words have been uttered on the spur of the moment. Is the verdict really so scandalous? It is certainly difficult to understand. Both the audiences and critics agreed that Ingolf Wunder of Austria deserved to win the grand prize because he is a magnificent pianist, musician and performer of Chopin’s music. After the third stage, Wunder seemed to outclass everybody except for Bulgaria’s Evgeniy Bozhanov. A contest between the two could have become the most interesting last-minute duel in years. A piano concerto is a perfect music form for an extrovert virtuoso like Bozhanov, whereas Wunder gave the impression of a rather reserved performer. In the end, however, Bozhanov failed to impress in his concerto performance, while Wunder was sensational and established himself as the supreme player. His concerto was the only one to sound like a masterpiece rather than an audition played by a student.

I suspect that if Wunder had received the Grand Prix, the public would have stomached a second prize for Avdeeva. But the Russian pianist got higher marks, even though the judges acknowledged the Austrian’s superiority in the two final stages and gave him awards for Polonaise-Fantaisie and a concerto. Neither Avdeeva nor Wunder received any distinction in the second stage, as the polonaise award went to Geniusas and the mazurkas award to Trifonov.

Avdeeva did, however, win an award for a sonata, which came as another surprise. She delivered a poor rendition of Sonata in B-flat Minor. Not worse than her other performances, but the point is that a sonata is a piece whose form is very hard to convey. Avdeeva’s “romantic” style, based on a constant change of tempo, endless rhythmic deformation and mawkish emotionalism, fails miserably in sonatas. The problem is not the tempo changes as soon as a new tune emerges, as that is acceptable, but there has to be a connection between different paces; there is a pulse that has to be preserved. The pulse is like an underground river that cannot be seen but has a decisive impact on what is going on on the surface. And that is what is missing from Avdeeva’s performances. The sonata disintegrated into unrelated fragments and the “romantic emotionalism” verged on neurosis at times. As a matter of fact, the same happened later in the concerto, when Avdeeva did not take up the tempo of the orchestral introduction which had been set during a rehearsal.

Avdeeva had quite a few good ideas in the final part of the concerto, but all in vain, seeing how the terrible textual mistakes ruined the total impression. Of course, one should take into account that the lights at the venue went down when she was playing, just the way they did during Nikolai Khozyainov’s performance.

Nevertheless, Avdeeva is a good pianist. Good, but not perfect in terms of technique. One should hope she will not be considered a Chopin expert, as her vision of Chopin takes a step back to the concept of Chopin as a composer of ladies’ music—ladies who are as rich as they are talentless. But Avdeeva makes a tremendous impression on other pianists, which has been enough to win her the Grand Prix. The jury consisted of a number of splendid and active pianists.

I am not joining those who are lamenting the supposed decline of the Chopin Competition’s significance. The dust will settle soon and what is left will be the results and future careers. Second prizewinner Ingolf Wunder, an excellent performer of Chopin’s music and a great musician, will do just fine playing concerts and the reputation of a Chopin Competition prizewinner is sure to facilitate his career. Pianists such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Ingrid Fliter and Kevin Kenner, one of this year’s judges, also came in second, not first.

What about Avdeeva? She will not prove a disappointment, that is for sure. Perhaps the Chopin music she delivers to the world will not be exactly what many would like it to be, but one must not forget that a large part of the audience liked her a lot—at least until the results were announced. Kacper Miklaszewski rightly said on Polish Radio 2 that, as a pianist, Avdeeva is well prepared to take the challenge of long tours and should be able to fill venues with thousands of viewers.

Finally, the Chopin Competition ended with the presentation of the Grand Prix. What can really harm the reputation of a piano competition is if the judges repeatedly decide against granting a first prize. As a result, the competition begins to draw inferior pianists because it cannot be effectively won. The Chopin Competition experienced such a crisis in the 1990s but that, thankfully, is now behind us.

Krzysztof Komarnicki
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