How to win a contest: being young and Russian helps

One of the most interesting parts of the First New York International Festival of the Arts has been the International Competition Winners Series in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. It is fashionable to deplore competitions and the tensions they put on the competitors. But in this imperfect world, there is no other way for a pianist of talent (even if armed with nerves of steel) to make the sort of mark needed to launch a career. And the interest in the winners remains a constant in the concert world, if the audiences encountered at this series are any indication.

Of all the schools of playing that appeal across a diverse international panel of judges, the Russians fare the best. They have the technique, a certain fire, and a tonal richness that can be quite irresistible.

Certainly, the three Russians heard here - the pianists Vladimir Ovchinnikov (1987 Leeds winner) and Lilia Zilberstein (1987 Busoni winner), and violinist Dmitri Berlinsky (1987 Montreal winner) - all had a surface excitement and technical proficiency that could turn a pleasantly attentive crowd to a foot-stomping, ``bravo''-ing throng.

Of the three, Ovchinnikov was the most unusual, not, perhaps, because of his deep insights into his repertoire, but because he commands the entire dynamic spectrum of the piano - from quiet to roaring - with confidence and skill.

Berlinksky's mastery over the louder aspects of the violin was consistently impressive - a generous, uncomplicated outpouring of sumptuous, effortlessly large tone. Zilberstein, at her best, proved that she is a fine colorist, possessing a technique that is amply up to every challenge her repertoire throws her way.

Yet no recital was ideal, mostly because programming tended to focus on only one aspect of the respective artist's talent and featured all-Russian music. All could have taken a page out of the Ysa"ye Quartet's programming book, for this group gave one of the better concerts of the festival.

Bewitching sound study

The Ysa"ye (the 1988 Evian Quartet Competition winner) chose works by Shostakovich, Boucourechliev, and Ravel. The Ravel is one of the most popular works ever composed for string quartet; the Shostakovich (C minor, Op. 110) is writing at his moody, highly personal best; and Boucourechliev's ``Archipel II'' proved a bewitching sound study that involves annotated passages mixed with improvisation, each section of which is advanced on the verbal cue of a given player.

The Russians' fare was far more chauvinistic, even doctrinaire. Ovchinnikov's program was particulary oppressive and monochromatic: The Second and Seventh Sonatas of Prokofiev, six ``Etudes-Tableaux,'' and the Second Sonata of Rachmaninoff do not a rich musical palette make. And Zilberstein's menu of Medtner, Taneyev, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff was equally dull, particularly since the first two composers are best forgotten, and the Shostakovich is as poor a piece as he ever wrote.

At least Berlinsky's blend of Ysa"ye, Prokofiev, Shchedrin, de Falla, Falic, and Szymanowski offered a bit of variety and a smattering of non-Russian music. But Berlinsky is only 19 years old and cannot be expected to be a profound interpreter. He also has time to work on his quiet playing, which is consistently choppy, colorless, toneless.

Zilberstein is 22, and as yet she has a dogged quality to her playing that makes everything sound rather effortful and overcalculated. In fact, it was not until her Debussy encore that she revealed an exceptional ear for color and mood, as well as a relaxed fluency that, had it appeared earlier, would have made a more favorable impression.

Although the dour-faced Ovchinnikov is formidable, Weill Hall is too small a venue for this much sound. How nice it would be to hear him in Carnegie itself.

And how nice it would be to hear the Ysa"ye Quartet again soon. It plays with a splendid unity, and, if violist Miguel Da Silva is clearly the best player of the four (an exceptional violist in every way), he never calls attention to himself, but rather adds luster to an impressive, nuanced ensemble.

Finally, I would like to cite a gifted young clarinetist I heard earlier in the season, because temperamentally and musically he would have added such luster to this festival.

Haken Rosengren played his New York debut recital at Merkin Hall last January under the auspices of the Concert Artists Guild.

Freshness, commitment, affection

His program was mostly 20th-century, chosen imaginatively, and performed with the sort of fervor the Russians couldn't manage even in their country's standards. Here was a young man who loved performing, communicating his insights - in music as varied as Poulenc, Schumann, Lutoslawski, and LaPorte - with freshness, commitment, and tremendous affection.

Rosengren's is the sort of talent that needs to be heard in so big a city as New York, if only to remind us all that technique is not the end-all of playing - to remind us that without that extra spark, all those notes can become an empty musical experience.

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