Words I would never say in real life.”

Eva Gevorgyan

18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition

Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Hall, Preliminary Round, 13 July 2021

Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Rounds 1-3, 6-15 October 2021

Final, Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrzej Boreyko, 19 October 2021

[live 4K webcasts]

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Warsaw. January 1927. Inaugural Chopin Competition. Lev Oborin, nineteen, from Moscow, playing the Second Concerto, takes first prize. Shostakovich, twenty, Leningrad, offering the First, gets a consolation diploma. “No one who loves music,” he wrote later, “can be indifferent towards Chopin … because Chopin, like a true friend, speaks only the truth. His music contains unfeigned feelings, a dream of the future, and crystal-clear, fervid, exciting ideas. The soul of Chopin’s music – melody – is never artificial, contrived or schematic; it is born of life and genuine emotions – this is what gives it its power”. The eighteenth staging of the event, postponed twice from last year, is all but at an end, the original 151 entrants of the Preliminary Round (July) and eighty-seven admitted to the First (October) whittled down to twelve finalists.

I’m no great lover of competitions. Over sixty years, since Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky International in 1958, I’ve seen insipid ‘winners’ have their five years of fame and recording, then disappear. I’ve seen inspired ‘also rans’ wonder why they never make the next stage, only to be patronised with clichéd consolation or punished with harsh words. Green room tears aren’t always ones of relief. Nor are jury members (a selective club) always the kindest psychologists. Despite efforts to ‘clean up the game’, accusations of favouritism, alleged corruption, manipulation, non-compliant conductors, even sabotaged pianos, never quite go away. (Michael Glover addressed the messier side of the topic in a tartly worded opinion piece for International Piano Quarterly, Autumn 1998.) Yet I’ve also witnessed greatness and individuality emerge out of the process. Pollini, Ashkenazy, Argerich, Radu Lupu, Zimerman, Pletnev, more recently Alexandre Kantorow.

Whatever, I resolved this year to bypass goings-on in Warsaw. Web surfing derailed that. Stunning pianism, consummate technique, polished finish was to be heard, everyone comfortably (too comfortably?) into the business of feathered keys and velvet pedalling. With elegance, grace and good taste paramount, the Chopin Competition has never been about the physical thunder or extrovert “fighter pianism” of the Tchaikovsky (thank you Nils Franke), attracting a different class of player. With Chopin you wear your passions and emotions, your dreams and sighs, within.

Eva Gevorgyan, seventeen, Russia/Armenia. You listen to her, without watching, and an exceptional voice is urgently apparent, far from ordinary. Central School trained, a Moscow student of Natalia Trull (student of Zak and the Oborin disciple Mikhail Voskresensky, second to Barry Douglas in the 1986 Tchaikovsky). In 2020 Kissin chose her as winner of the Ruhr Festival Prize. Her concerto performances to date have included appearances with Gergiev (Grieg), Spivakov (Rachmaninov Paganini), Azim Karimov (Chopin One), Vasily Petrenko (Chopin Two), Alexander Sladkovsky (Rachmaninov One), Dimitris Botinis (Prokofiev Three), and Anatoly Levin (Beethoven Three).

Experienced and seasoned, youth notwithstanding, she’s minted with all the honed, exercise-drilled fingerwork, muscular sureness and superior discipline, forgiving of nothing, quintessential of the Russian school. Unsurprisingly, tonal quality is a priority. She knows how to touch and ring a note across the hall, her chords are keenly stratified, her left hand, gliding in low, yields deep pools of bass sonority. She takes time, before and after, to float her phrases. She gets the piano to speak and rhetoricize. Her maturity, her sense of design and direction, climax and repose, is astonishing to behold. The deportment is cool, the demeanour calm, the geography of the keyboard lying naturally under her hands. She wears her hair severely brushed back, sometimes in a long Slavonic plait, sometimes in a golden waterfall. A maiden out of a Nordic fairy tale.

As ‘Adagio’ artists go, she’s of a special breed – to tension a slow line, maintaining pulse and fluidity in a slow tempo, is testingly hard to achieve. D flat major – Liszt’s “face of God”, synesthetically, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “darkish, warm” colour – seems to be meaningful for her, five flats coaxing a noticeably emotive response and sound: variation XVIII of Rach/Pag (nobly retrospective); the Adagio of the Grieg Concerto (tender, barely kissed); Chopin’s many manifestations and glories.

Her Warsaw presence has been an evolving, revealing snapshot. As well as, through her traversal of organic pivot relationships, an interesting demonstration of tonally purposeful programme building.

Preliminary Round. Tuesday, July 13, 7 pm. Nocturne in B, Op 62 No 1; Etudes in E minor, Op 25 No 5, C sharp minor, Op 10 No 4. Mazurkas in D flat major, Op 30 No 3, C sharp minor, Op 30 No 4; Fantasy in F minor, Op 49. Yamaha 6432400. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKjqB_SPWBI&t=8818s The chain-trill B major Nocturne (an exposing opener) and E minor Study test the fingers and release the poet. The Mazurkas (D flat/C sharp persona to the fore) bewitch coquettishly, darker sprites shadowing the background. Uncaged, the C sharp minor Study leaps with tigerish ferocity, reminiscent of a young Demidenko. The Fantasy opens the throttle, best in its vistas of mystery, the puissance fences imperiously cleared, the theatre of bravura outpouring and juxtaposed whisper (a supremely thespian last page) balanced acutely.

Round One. Wednesday, October 6, 1.30pm. Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op 27 No 1; Etudes in A minor, Op 25 No 11, No 4; Scherzo No 4, Op 54. Steinway 479. https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Gevogryan+Chopin+first+round Summer over, a subtly different player claims the platform. One with more time on her hands, seeking the depths of the instrument, projecting aristocratically, relaxed yet tightly reined. Back to C sharp with the Nocturne, ruminating between reverie and dance. Two Studies emphasising narrative, shading and dynamics before schoolroom dexterity, No 11 especially so. A Scherzo variously elfin, glistening, vocally contemplative (the C sharp minor middle section), symphonically energised, heroically crowned, Gevorgyan’s arsenal favouring runs, chords, octaves and double-notes equally, not a crude sound within earshot.

Round Two. Monday, October 11, 8.10 pm. Ballade in A flat major, Op 47; Three Waltzes Op 34; Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op 44. Steinway 479. https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Gevogryan+Chopin+second+round Feeding off a full house, Gevorgyan’s Ballade looks to landscape, history, story telling. Despite modulated phrasing, key changes and carefully woven contrasts of register, touches of anxiety, taking some corners too fast, deprive it, however, of ultimate stature. Likewise seemingly with the first of the Op 34 Waltzes (same key), where, for my taste (there’s no indication in the score), I would have preferred more wistful, leaning fantasy, Rubinstein/Michelangeli/Alexeev-like, in the adieu coda. The A minor Waltz, on the other hand – slower, each note felt with intensity and focussed delicacy – finds her more empathic, the music and its left-hand bias drawing out the bard. The F major, No 3, sparkles, a perfectly formed period miniature with just the right amount of grace and composure. Traditionally, the F sharp minor Polonaise of 1840-31 is a warhorse of this Competition: “a [mandatory] piece difficult in the sense of artistic interpretation” as Sergei Bugoslavsky reminded his Oborin-ites a century ago (Izvestia,16 January 1927). Physically responsive while resistant to excess, Gevorgyan finds its chivalry, the cantering cavalry and cannon fire, the nightfall mazurka imagery. Her pedalling and nuances (here liquid/legato, there dry/staccato), her ability to bend rather than caricature time, impress.

Round Three. Friday, October 15, 8.20 pm. Fantasy in F minor, Op 49; Four Mazurkas, Op 17; Sonata No 2 in B flat minor, Op 35. Steinway 479. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5115J2SjpMQ&t=833s Reaching the semifinals is to tread serious water. Gevorgyan is a serioso proposition. Occasionally, very occasionally, the glimmer of a smile. No grimaces, few florid actions, the sculpted elegance of a suspended hand shaping the aether. Furrowed brow, intensity of purpose, arched back in the ascents, head inclined confessionally towards the keys in confiding paragraphs. The sensuous beauty of the hour trembling closed eyelids. Eyes widening skywards seeking points beyond the hall in moments of solitude and stillness between pieces. She reprises the Fantasy of the Preliminary Round, her Steinway enabling a richer response and palette of colours than the Yamaha before. Virtually the same duration (13:20) but subjectively a more rounded reading overall, the orator proclaiming forth with magisterial authority. The Mazurkas wing their swaggering, quixotic, sad way, the A minor exquisitely chiselled, the maggiore middle section imbued with infinite, pained longing, Gevorgyan scarcely seeming able to live with it or herself. “When I play,” she says, “I hope people can hear words I would never say in real life.” This recital illustrates the profundity. The privacy of performance. The vocabulary of sound, touch and time it lets one develop. Why do we play as we do? Why do we hear as we do? The same notes yet each to our own inflexion and understanding. The Second Piano Sonata is marmoreal, expressive scenario and motivic cauldron laid before us. The first movement (no repeat) deals in tidal momentum, waves and troughs. The Scherzo assumes a biting Beethovenian/Brucknerian edge, forcefully rhythmic, polarisingly dynamic. With the Trio, though, we’re back to a spectrum of lingering bel canto, every voice with a role to contribute. The Marche funèbre, paced at a sombre crotchet 44-50 (you can’t rush a cortège: Rubinstein was even slower), sees Gevorgyan ascend one last time to her grand D flat climaxes, body-weighted yet cushioned, peaks and muffled drums in ceremonial pageant. Again, her involvement is personalised beyond expectation. You see someone wracked with grief, each micro-second of melodic extension or contraction sending shivers of tragedy. Listening to the nerve-end fragility and prayer of the Trio I find myself an intruder. Playing of hallowed encounter. Whirlwind Finale, tightly co-ordinated, imposingly signed off, without arrogance.

Final. Tuesday, October 19, 7.30 pm. Concerto No 1 in E minor, Op 11. Steinway 479. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JXSTQomdYc At the end of a gruelling three weeks, the last of Eva’s appearances. This is a Chopin E minor to listen to, tumbling with insights and surreptitious highlights. Her trademark clarity and projection, the moulded quality of her touch, leaves its mark, similarly her ability to hold her own against a class orchestra. Many of the cadences are outstanding for their grammatical placement, for the exactness and ‘spoken’ delivery of the roulades. Ornaments have vocal intensity, the pages of étude-like runs possess harmonic basis and shaped definition. Maybe the first movement is a shade held back, and the rondo isn’t without transient tiredness. But the rarefied lyricism of the Romance (the transition at bar 101 icily glassy) and the many expanses of reflective material find magic and touch the heart. She brings us into her world. We stay, living the journey and drama with her. The Warsaw Philharmonic, steeped in the legend of this music, supports gallantly, its Polish-Russian conductor, Andrzej Boreyko, surely one of the kindest people around, doing everything to put her at her ease. An admirably caring musician.

There’s another evening of finals before the results are announced. Where Eva Gevorgyan (her website linked to below) comes in the reckoning, how the jury sees fit to assess her, is of little consequence. She’s been the discovery of the Eighteenth Chopin. She’ll not be forgotten.