Winning in Montreal, next the world

Photo by Brent Calis

By Jim Lowe

The 16th annual Montreal International Piano Competition finals opened — somewhat predictably — with a performance limited by the youth of the pianist. But that was not to last.

Unusually, the Montreal competition alternates each year between three focuses. Last year was violin, next year will be voice. This year was piano. Twenty-four pianists from 304 applicants from around the world were selected to perform in the first round. Finally, six were chosen to perform in the finals, three each in two concerts, Tuesday and Wednesday, May 9 and 10, with the Montreal Symphony.

Day one

Tuesday’s finals concert, at Place des Arts’ 2,000-seat Maison Symphonique, opened with one of the grand masterpieces of the symphonic concerto repertoire. Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, is a large-scale work that can “separate the men from the boys” — or the women from the girls, for that matter. It is not only demanding technically, it is a work that requires a master to be entirely effective.

Dutch pianist Albert Cano Smit, just 20, played with a facility and an elegance that belied his years. His fingers were largely up to the work’s incredible demands, and he delivered the extroverted, showy passages with power and flair. But he missed much of the drama in the lyrical sections and, most importantly, he didn’t manage to build the grandeur that makes this Brahms so glorious. It was a facile, very young performance.

Next up was Zoltán Fejérvári, a 30-year-old Hungarian, performing Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3. For Bartók, this piece is unusually lyrical, and Fejérvári delivered its singing lines as well as its drama with skill and elegance. Unfortunately, his delivery of the slow movement, Adagio religioso, was more deliberate than expressive of its emotional depth. Still, his virtuosity in the final Allegro vivace wowed the audience.

Performing a familiar crowd-pleaser like Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, can be risky, but it worked for Giuseppe Guarrera, 25, of Italy. Of course, he possessed the requisite virtuosity, but he played with an unusual elegance and charisma. Unlike his fellow competitors, his performance encompassed the full tonal palette of the piano. Despite an unfortunate tendency to rush virtuosic passages — sapping their musical power — he delivered the fiery finale with passion, precision and excitement.

Tuesday’s honors seemed to go to Guarrera — though you can never be sure what a jury will do.

The performances were accompanied by one of the world’s great orchestras, but led by a conductor who was not always sensitive to the soloists’ needs. The Montreal Symphony, led by Claus Peter Flor, varied in success from one performance to another. (Notable was Vermont Symphony Orchestra principal flutist Albert Brauer, playing principal in the Tchaikovsky; he is on loan to Montreal as interim associate principal.)

Day two

Wednesday evening opened with another performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto, this one almost outrageously exciting. Yejin Noh, a 30 year old from South Korea and a student of Menahem Pressler, played with a formidable technique and unrelenting passion, tempered by a deep musicality.

But not tempered enough. She took enormous risks, some of them reckless. What might be a bravura performance in a concert hall could be a grave misstep in a competition.

What a contrast that was to the following Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. Fellow countryman Jinhyung Park, 21, showed immediate command of the piano in this late-Romantic masterpiece, but far less understanding of the Russian composer’s rhapsodic style that makes this work so delicious. His playing of the slow movement, Adagio sostenuto, was so reserved as to be boring. Fortunately, he rallied and delivered the virtuosity of the finale.

Wednesday’s final performance was the evening’s most unusual, both in the work and how it was performed. Stefano Andreatta, a 25 year old from Italy, gave an elegantly virtuosic performance of Liszt’s not often played Concerto No. 2 in A major, as difficult but much less showy than the first concerto. Andreatta not only played with precision and clarity, he delivered the work’s beautiful colors. And the virtuosity, rather than heavy handed, was elegant — not necessarily what competitions want.

And the winner …

This year, the winners were announced after the second concert. (According to CIMC management, the identity of the winner would inevitably leak because of the necessary rehearsals for Friday’s final concert.) After a wait of about 45 minutes, the audience returned to their seats for the results.

André Bourbeau, president and co-founder of the competition and the jury, made the announcement: Andreatta was awarded third place, receiving $10,000 (Canadian) in prize money; Guarrera took second and $15,000; and Fejérvári won first and $30,000. And as winner, Fejervari also received $50,000 as recipient of the Joseph Rouleau Career Development Grant, named for the great Canadian opera bass and competition co-founder.

A break

Thursday was a day of rest, of sorts, for the competitors and judges. That afternoon, they, along with members of the press and representatives of the World Federation of International Music Competitions, were bused out to the Dunham estate of the competition president, a beautiful horse farm in the Eastern Townships. There they were treated to cocktails and a lavish lobster dinner in a heated tent, followed by a collegial bonfire. Then back to Montreal.

On a personal note, this critic enjoyed meeting Brazilian pianist Christina Ortiz, one of the judges, for the first time since they were both at Vermont’s Marlboro Music Festival in 1972. There was also time on Friday for dinner with critics (and one spouse) from Boston and Los Angeles, as well as a young newcomer to the field from the online Musical Toronto.


The closing gala began, as usual, with the awards ceremony. Surprisingly, the winner of most of them was Guarrera, the second-place winner. He received: Radio-Canada People’s Choice Award ($5,000), André-Bachand Award for best performance of the compulsory Canadian work ($4,000), best semifinal recital ($2,000), Bach Award ($1,000), and Chopin Award ($1,000). Guarrera’s charisma certainly paid off.

Before the first-place winner’s triumphant performance, three winners from the past were showcased, all accompanied by Flor and the Montreal Symphony. First, Ukrainian pianist Serhiy Salov, 2004 winner, performed the first movement of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83. Certainly an able pianist, he delivered plenty old virtuosity but didn’t quite manage the grandeur of his masterpiece.

American violinist Benjamin Beilman, the 2010 winner, followed with a luscious and virtuosic performance of Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28. He played with a beautiful mix of passion and elegance. A Marlboro participant, Beilman will perform at Soovin Kim’s Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival this summer.

The first half was closed in an unorthodox manner by Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman. Reminiscent of Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman, she delivered the spiritual “Goin’ Up Yonder” (R. Walter Hawkins) a cappella, and with flair. That morphed almost seamlessly into one of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, “Im Abendrot,” with full orchestra. While not a mature performance by the soprano, nor a perfect one by the orchestra, it proved a powerful experience in this luscious work.

After the brilliant Festive Overture, Op. 96, by Dmitri Shostakovich, Fejérvári returned to the stage for his grand finale. This time, he was more comfortable, even delivering much more expressiveness in the slow movement. And the final virtuosic movement, with a more rehearsed orchestra, won an enthusiastic standing ovation — followed by a huge party.

Next year, it’s the singers.

For information about the Montreal International Competition, go online to