The Third Maj Lind International Piano Competition is going on in Helsinki this week and I watched one of the 10 preliminary heats, in which four or five alphabetically grouped contestants perform a 40-minute hexathlon: Bach prelude and fugue, Classical sonata, three Romantic etudes including Chopin, and a modern piece, usually placed as a break between the heavy classical and romantic segments. The YLE competition website includes a videoblog by pianist Jukka Nykänen explaining what these required figures show about the contestants.
The four pianists on Sunday night were a mixed lot. Nino Bakradze, who studies at New England Conservatory, was correct and accomplished, with an interesting trump card: her left hand is her expressive instrument, and the right hand is the percussion accompaniment. That served her well in Beethoven and Stravinsky, which is minimalist and percussive anyway, and a handbell (alas not cowbell) themed modern piece by Gabunia; less well in the lyric romantics.
For Jamie Bergin, everything is expressive and he was the audience favorite. “His touch!” they were saying at intermission. His Bach sang, and his risk of Mozart for the classical sonata paid off as he was able to infuse the open chords and simple scales with color. I would bet he dilated tempos more than average and don’t know how the judges look on that. Everything else was uniformly good but hard to tell the composers apart.
Anni Collan played mostly hard and loud and staccato. Was she a harpsichord specialist? Making a statement? Getting through it in hope of playing her own composition in the semifinal? Hard to tell. Her style worked well in the Haydn sonata and the Chopin.
Christopher Devine obviously loves the Waldstein sonata and it is his showpiece. For the rest, I was experiencing piano fatigue, never having sat through a programme of this length before. The semifinals, narrowed to 14 players, will require an hour’s playing, I hope in smaller groups than four.
In that heat, the contemporary selection will be revealing – options include pieces by Finnish composers Matthew Whittall or Maija Hynninen, a composition by the contestant, or an improvisation. The rest of the hour is a freestyle programme of the contestant’s choice including some Sibelius. The contestants listed their choices for this stage going in, mostly the usual warhorses but there were a few risk-takers bidding to play Piazolla, Barber, Soler. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is surprisingly popular; I would think it’s too referential, like playing Peter and the Wolf, but okay. The final group of six will fight for gold silver and bronze with chamber music and concerto events. Listen here, or on YLE if in Finland.
(Professional musicians who posted about this on social media had a 100% different estimate of what was going on, by the way.)