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Stringing us along

Any event where one is judged, evaluated and compared with other pianists is definitely not the best possible moment to make real music,’ said Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini in an interview recently. He should know. In 1960, at 18, he won the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. His comments, naturally, apply to strings, singing and any other music competition one can think of.

Over the past week-and-a-half this kind of tension was palpable in Pretoria where the first three rounds in Unisa’s Fourth International String Competition, sponsored by Vodacom, were held.

The Unisa competitions — be it for piano, strings or singing — have a rather unadventurous, sophisticated tradition since their inception 20 years ago. The constant practice, gruelling pace, nervous tension, intolerable pressure as well as the sagging confidence that certain competitors go through when listening to a rival’s performance, are, however, all present, even if it seems to be behind a façade.

As with every competition, the ways of the adjudicators seem mysterious or at least a law unto themselves. All 29 competitors had to play in the first two rounds. Thirteen were eliminated in round three. Already at that stage there were questions: Why was the extremely musical Danish cellist Toke Moldrup left out? And why were both South Africans given the chance to continue?

On Monday night when the six finalists’ names were announced, there were no surprises in the case of four of them. Anyone who heard cellists Grigory Alumyan from Russia and Sebastian Klinger from Germany perform, would agree: they were instrumental in elevating this competition to greater heights than the previous three. The same applies to the violinists Graf Mourja from Russia and Mikhail Ovrutsky who, although Russian-born, plays under the banner of the United States.

Questions do arise about the inclusion of two German-born violinists, Sophia Jaffé and Alissa Margulis. Jaffé, who has a sweet, even serene personality, is quite the opposite in her performance style. She’s a big-toned, splashy, colourful player, but partly lacks stylistic insight and dynamic nuance that her performance of, for example, Schubert’s Rondo in B minor in the third round made clear. Margulis projects her tonal palette more carefully, but technically there were some rough edges.

One could rightly ask: why did the third German violinist, Carolin Widmann, not reach the final? And what about the Russian cellist Pavel Gomziakov, who staggered with his maturity and interpretive insight?

Whatever happens this weekend, music lovers can be assured that in four of the finalists they’ll experience musicians who have totally found their own style and, in the case of the over-25s — Alumyan, Klinger and Mourja — their own musical personality. But do watch out for the amazing 21-year-old Ovrutsky who bowled everyone over with his subtlety, while sudden moments of dash and temperament openned up his communicative powers even further.

Though local competitors Anzel Gerber (cello) and Zoî Beyers (violin) did give listeners some impressive performances, theirs did lack the spark of real musicianship that takes its own, and technically firm, course.

The final rounds will take place tonight and tomorrow at 7.30pm in the Old Mutual Hall, Unisa, Pretoria. Tonight Ovrutsky will play the Violin Concerto, Opus 99, by Shostakovich, Alumyan the Concerto in B minor, Opus 104 by Dvorak, and Margulis the Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47, by Sibelius.

On Saturday Klinger will be heard in the Cello Concerto No 1 in E-flat major, Opus 107, by Shostakovich, Mourja in the Concerto in D major, Opus 35, by Tchaikovsky and Jaffe in the Sibelius concerto. The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra under Christopher Dowdeswell will accompany the finalists on both nights. The prizewinners will be announced after the performances on Saturday.


The final round of Unisa’s Fourth International String Competition is on tonight (February 8) and tomorrow (February 9) at 7.30pm in the Old Mutual Hall, Unisa. Booking through Computicket

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