The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is probably the most prestigious and most watched piano concours on the planet. All its rounds are keenly awaited, and watched by thousands on site as well as on the Internet. It is also the most talked about and most keenly debated. The names of the 30 competitors of this year's competition and their repertoire have been released, and here are some of my observations on this year's competition to come.
Increased Prize Money
The major difference in this year’s competition is the prize money. This year’s 1st prize winner stands to win USD 50,000, up from USD 20,000 at the last competition. This increase matches the top prize offered in the rival Cleveland International Piano Competition (also held this year), but has some way to go in topping the 100,000 Canadian dollars at the Hohens Competition in Calgary, Canada. The possibility of a shared First prize (like in the 2009 competition with Nobuyuki Tsujii and Zhang Haochen) is unlikely to happen this time.
Two bites of the cherry
The other change will give the competitors some relief. The final round recital has been removed. Instead, there will be two recitals at the Preliminary stage, giving pianists two opportunities to prove themselves before the first elimination takes place. This is a much fairer system, as pianists who start slower are given a second chance to parade their wares.
Where do the pianists come from?
There is a very strong field of 8 American pianists, so is this the year for an American pianist to win the top prize? For the record, the last American pianist to have won the coveted Gold Medal was Jon Nakamatsu in 1997, and there have been no American finalists since then. Interestingly, five of the eight Americans are of Asian ethnicity.
Italian pianists have generally done well in this competition, and there are six Italians vying for the honours, more than any other nation except the
Surprisingly, there are only three competitors from China,
and one each from Taiwan,
Japan and South
Korea. This may have been due to the venue
change from Shanghai to Hong
Kong for the preliminary auditions. In 2009, there were 18
pianists heard in Shanghai, while
this year’s audition in Hong Kong only attracted 6
pianists. So the possibility of having three Asian pianists among the
medallists looks less likely this time around.
The Slavic states (
Ukraine and Poland)
account for 7 pianists, many of whom have won top prizes in international
competitions. Nikolay Khozyainov and Alexei Chernov already appear like
potential winners. True to form, there are absolutely no British among the
finalists. Only one pianist has previously taken part in the finals of this
competition, and that is Alessandro Deljavan ( Italy)
who was a semi-finalist in 2009. Nikita Mndoyants ( Russia)
is the son of Alexander Mndoyants, who was awarded a joint 5th prize
in the 1977 competition.
The Juilliard connection
Conspiracy theorists will point out that out of the 17 non-Italian and non-Slavic pianists, no less than 11 have studied or are studying in the Juilliard School of Music. Of these 11, seven are or were students of Veda Kaplinsky (top left), one of the judges who presided upon the preliminary auditions. The list of jurors for the finals in May-June also reveals her name among the 13 people who will who decide who wins this competition. In the 2005 competition, she had excused herself from the jury, and despite that received death threats. Her student Joyce Yang won the Silver medal at that competition. One wonders whether she going to excuse herself from the competition this year.
Looking at the repertoire offered in this competition, there are several standouts from the typical virtuoso-fodder fare. Alex McDonald (USA) is offering the entire Bach Goldberg Variations in his first recital. Vadym Kholodenko (
will play only big works in his programmes, Rachmaninov’s First Sonata and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier
Sonata in the first two recitals, and all 12 of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies in the
semi-final. Yury Favorin ( Russia)
has the most atypical repertoire of all, playing four of Liszt’s Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses in
his second recital, and rarities of Liszt and Messiaen, and transcriptions of
Mussorgsky and Johann Strauss in the semi-finals. The competition set-piece is Birichino by Christopher Theofanidis (left).