Piers Lane writes about the winner of the 2021 Sydney International Piano Competition – the first to be held online – a selection of whose live recordings are released on Decca Eloquence.

What an exciting time it was in January 2020! I had appointed four experienced musicians to listen along with me to the 285 or so applications received from all corners of the globe for the opportunity to compete in the 2020 Sydney International Piano Competition (The Sydney). It took weeks and weeks of listening, taking notes and sorting thoughts, but each juror eventually made a list of 32 preferred candidates and those with a majority of three votes out of five were immediately ‘in’.

There was an animated discussion and further voting procedure to determine the remaining slots – and then the delicious recognition that we had a brilliant lineup of competitors. The decisions had proved tough: the artistic bar was set very high, with many previous prizewinners seeking a place alongside younger players of huge accomplishment and potential. I kept a long list of reserves, any of whom would be of the same level as many of the accepted players. In the event, eight of those reserves had to step in, five at the very last minute, to replace players who either found themselves in the finals of competitions just before ours, or who were indisposed in one way or another.

After this preselection torrent of talent, three of the other jurors said to me privately they thought the winner of the 2020 event could well be Alexander Gadjiev. I agreed: he stood out from the crowd even with that first video. I knew his name already from his Wigmore Hall appearances as part of the BBC’s Young Generation scheme, so knew he was viable, but competitions always throw up anomalies and you cannot count your prize-winners before they’re hatched! As non-voting chair of The Sydney’s jury, I wasn’t totally sure, after the Semifinal and Final rounds, that Gadjiev would emerge the victor – the finalists, and, it has to be said, some who didn’t make it through even the Preliminary round, were a starry bunch and gave him a run for his money. However, he did emerge the winner – a brilliant trajectory from start to finish! His playing is not uniformly immaculate, the recorded sound not equally grateful across the three rounds – but the majority vote by seven international jurors, listening in their homes in far-flung parts of the world, was for Alexander Gadjiev.

Of course, while the preselectors were busy making their decisions eighteen months ago, Covid-19 was busy ensuring its passage into 2020 and across the world. It soon became apparent our July competition wouldn’t work. It was moved to January 2021, then to July 2021 – but with talk extant of Australian borders not reopening until at least mid-2022 and non-availability at that time of certain key partners, we had to decide basically ‘to be, or not to be’. Bearing in mind the plight of our brilliant pianists and the lack of serious opportunities available to them in these bleak times, we decided ‘to be’ and I set about devising an online competition. There could obviously be no chamber music, nor concerto rounds: the competition would morph into a recital prize.

All 32 competitors were required to submit videos for all three stages of the competition, the Preliminary and Semifinal ones by the end of March, the Final by the end of May. The jury would receive the 32 Preliminary videos for assessment during the first half of April, the twelve Semifinal offerings during the second half, the six Final ones in June. Nobody, including the competitors, would know which of them had advanced through the various stages until the public streaming of the event from 1–18 July 2021.

Competitors received financial help through The Sydney’s Club 32 system, where they are matched with donors through a lottery, the donor’s money used specifically to help with the costs of ‘their’ competitor. The videos were to be set up entirely by the contestants, with help from The Sydney when needed and feasible. Recording venues, instruments, tuners, sound and video engineers were the responsibility of the competitors. Very specific requirements were to be met for camera angles, each recital to be played from beginning to end with no repeats or edits allowed. They were to be recorded under strict supervision: a representative from The Sydney would be present online at all 96 sessions and immediately after would watch the raw tapes being uploaded to a secure online portal through screen-sharing. It was the Australian company 5stream who would later edit the tapes into more entertaining videos for public consumption, but the jurors were sent just one unedited camera angle of each competitor. Several sound engineers later commented on the efficacy of the whole system – but there were a lot of late nights and early mornings for the proctors involved from different time zones!

The repertoire for each round was own choice, the only requirement being an Australian piece of any length or period in the Preliminary recital. An encore was to be appended to the first 40-minute program. The 50-minute Semifinal recital was to reveal a coherent theme of the competitor’s choice and, in addition, required verbal introductions. If they provided written word-for-word translations, competitors could speak in their native tongue, but none availed themselves of this alternative – they all spoke in English of varying fluency. However, many had never previously spoken to audiences or cameras before playing and found this test the most terrifying part of the Semifinal! The Final recital was to be 80 minutes long, the competitor’s concept of an ideal debut recital program, with two appropriate encores added, and again, those telling verbal introductions.

Alexander Gadjiev provided intelligent programs, with plenty of core repertoire for jurors to get their teeth into, pieces they’d all have played themselves, so they could immediately appreciate, or otherwise, his personal take on phrasing and structure or harmonic nuance or tempo or rhythm. But there were curiosities too, to spice things up – Tcherepnin and a Beethoven/Liszt symphony – and a wide selection of periods and styles, from Haydn, through Chopin and Messiaen to Carl Vine. He was the only contestant to mirror The Sydney’s 2016 practice of prescribing different piano brands for the first four stages of the competition. In the live event, the 32 competitors are divided into four groups of eight and each group plays four different piano brands, Fazioli, Kawai, Steinway and Yamaha, as they proceed through the four rounds of the Preliminaries and Semifinals. At the concerto stages, they can choose which instruments they will perform on in the Sydney Opera House. Gadjiev played Kawai for the Preliminary round of the online piano competition, Fazioli for the Semifinal and Steinway for the Final.

The recitals took place in three different venues, the acoustics and recorded sound rather different in each situation. It was felt for the purposes of this recording that it was more satisfactory to keep the repertoire ordered largely along Round lines. Thus the Haydn, Chopin, Messiaen, Scriabin and Vine are from the Preliminary Round, Carl Vine’s Threnody, ‘for all the innocent victims’, displaced to sit between the Semifinal’s Shostakovich and Prokofiev (the ‘war’ Sonata No.7), and Liszt’s Funérailles from the Final round. I think it striking that we can hear bells clanging in the background during this live performance of Liszt’s tolling elegy.

Gadjiev is 26 years old, the son of musicians, which often, as in his case, implies a precocious musical maturity and innate awareness of how the musical world works. He seems to have not only extraordinary musical sensitivity and intelligence, but practicality, awareness of promoters’ needs, the ability to think from various angles, facility in several languages, and a grasp of history and underlying connections in the world of arts and ideas. He has already made impressive inroads into a busy international concert pianist’s career and seems happy in his own musical skin.

We at The Sydney hope that our competition, with its various concert, festival and recording prize opportunities, will enhance, build on and broaden the foundation already laid for his career and wish Alexander Gadjiev health, happiness, ongoing development and all the satisfaction a profound life of musical communion can confer.

Piers Lane

Piers Lane AO is Artistic Director of the Sydney International Piano Competition