Amfion pro musica classica

review: The Sergio Fiorentino Piano Competition in Novara, Italy

Sergio Fiorentino

Sergio Fiorentino

Sergio Fiorentino Piano Competition, Nov. 30 – Dec 2, 2023, 3rd Edition, Conservatorio Guido Cantelli di Novara. Founder of the competition: Mario Coppola

It is likely that not many foreigners know such a place as Novara, which is in the neighbourhood of Milan, 44 km to the west. It is a historic town and so is the Conservatory, established by the permission of the Pope in 1766. Its building was constructed in the 18th century and was renovated in 1831-1856. In World War I it was used as a hospital and in World War II by partisans. In 1995 it was named after the great Novara-born conductor Guido Cantelli.

The idea of a Fiorentino competition came from pianist Mario Coppola, who – invited by the Helsinki University Music Society in 2013 – we had the joy to introduce to the Finnish audience during his recitals. Heavens, ten years have passed! I wrote about it at the time on, like now, and told how well his playing represented the famous Neapolitan piano school founded by Sergio Fiorentino (1927-1998). At the time Coppola played at the Helsinki University’s Solemnity Hall among other things Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 110. All this is still remembered with appreciation and admiration by the Helsinki audience. Coppola, like Giuseppe Andaloro, was a pupil of Sergio Fiorentino (whose recordings are abundantly available on APR and Rhine Classics, covering the central works of the piano repertoire).

Yet, the Fiorentino competition is by no means overwhelmingly grandiose, instead it is a charming, refined forum for young international pianists the majority of which were Italians this time. It has a senior series and a junior one, whose participants were born in 2004-2006. The reason why I was there was of course that my wife Eila Tarasti had been invited to the jury; hence, I heard all the participants, and now I quite willingly offer some insights based upon my notes. The chair of the jury was the internationally well-known Italian pianist Giuseppe Andaloro. The members of the jury were as follows: Aki Kuroda, who lives in Germany, and is famous for her contemporary music interpretations, Xin Wang from China, once a child prodigy who now lives in Germany and has performed among other things as a soloist of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Eila and Mario Coppola, of course.

Well, in a deeper sense what is one to think of competitions? Some like them, some do not. There is an enormous number of competitions merely in Italy. One has to state that this phenomenon has launched a new profession, ’a competition musician’, a person who circulates in competitions, wins them – and continues to the next one. Do then other kind of musicians have any chance of coming into prominence? Frankly, everyone knows that to win a competition is surely not the only way to make a career. But for young musicians (and of course they are young at this stage!) competitions offer an opportunity to learn a vast programme by heart and to perform it under a stronger nerve stress than normally. All this is positive education for their future careers.

Yet, musically, we may disagree. Since the main goal is to make a strong impression, to be as convinving and persuasive as ever, the music itself suffers. Interpretations reach to extremities and exaggerations. An artist is no longer ’a window to the art work’, as Marcel Proust once said about actress Sarah Bernhardt. Personally, I prefer to attend a quite normal symphony concert, with its often somehow sleepy atmosphere, just to enjoy the music, rather than be over-excited in a competition or a festival.

Nevertheless, the Fiorentino event thus has two sections. The senior section (up to 33 years) has three rounds: a 1st round for all, a semifinal round and a final round; the junior section (up to 19 years) contains only one round.

1st round: Gabriele Biffoni had Beethoven’s Variations Op. 34 and Scriabin’s Etude Op.42 No. 8 in his programme. He played graciously in a galant style, but the ’joy’ theme in the triple measure was too reserved. Bruno Maria Billone programmed a Debussy etude and Scriabin’s Sonata Messe noire. His Debussy was soft, it had a giocoso sound and a true jeu; what a difference there is between these two composers! Boggian Tommaso with his Chopin Barcarolle, a Rachmaninov etude and Kapustin’s Concert Etude was expressive, narrative and enthusiastic (Kapustin is rarely heard; incidentally, I think I once met him in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg). The Chopin was somewhat hasty. Ilaria Brognara played the same Chopin organically in tempo, it was interestingly narrative but somehow problematic in forte.

Gabriele Castelli had a Rachmaninov Etude and Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in his programme. He proved to be a cold-blooded musician. In Chopin the upper voice was a little weak, but otherwise he had a very classical view. By the way, how many people notice that the opening motif of Rachmaninov’s Étude-tableau Op. 33 No. 6 is a quotation from the opening of Wagner’s Siegfried? Kimoto Shuta had an expressive touch in Scarlatti. He understood the irony in Rachmaninov, which was refreshing. Tommaso Odifredi was tranquil even in Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude with its pp effects, he enlivened the Spanish secco sound in Albeniz. Mirei Ozawa’ s Chopin Etude in Double Thirds was very secure and light; The F Minor Fantasy was tragical but somewhat exaggerated, even warlike – Noch ist Polen nicht verloren – but with a substantial sound.

Danylo Saienko played some rarely heard etudes by Ignaz Friedman with a narrative tone. He had a powerful sound and emotional empathy in all and performed in a truly romantic manner. Isa Trotta programmed a well balanced Chopin Ballade No. 4, and her Debussy was very gracious.

The Junior series had as interesting talents to be shown as the senior one. So age does not matter any longer! Beatrice Baldissini’s Chopin F minor Ballade (No. 2), was soft but fluent, she also knows how to build a drama. Her Rachmaninov etudes contained varied touches, and her Ravel (Gaspard de la nuit) was exciting, clearly articulated by sudden pauses. Beatrice di Stefano had only Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in her programme; she brought out its lyricism well, but the performance was perhaps too heavy, there should be playfulness; the slow movement was glittering and the theme well exposed in the middle part. Giulia Falzarano played Haydn very graciously, the scales were quite fluent; the theme in Chopin’s Andante spianato was very expressive, she separated the andante from the rest; beautiful formation, the scale passages very smooth, chords somehow weaker. Vittorio Maggioli should have executed the melody more prominently in Scriabin. In Chopin he had a soft and beautiful, yet fragile touch, the bass was sometimes too sforzando, but ’the stars sing’ anyway, as Scriabin said later of Chopin’s Sonata No. 3.

Gabrile Nesossi played Bach and Beethoven (Sonata Op.7, 1st movement, with topics of galloping horses and a chorale fighting with each other!) in a classical style, very exactly and correctly. His Debussy was humorous just as it has to be. Matteo Pinna was at his best in Liszt’s Polonaise; it had a certain jeu perlé quality but the tragical side was also convincing. Yet, the rest of his programme, i.e. Schumann’s Aufschwung and Rachmaninov did not suit him well. Massimo Urban amazed the audience by playing the first movement from Beethoven’s last Sonata Op. 111 which represents the end of Beethoven’s monumental style, heavy and tüchtig as Germans say. The interpretation was truly brilliant and youthful. With Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 he reached, frankly, the top of the entire competition. This was, as Frenchmen use to say, estupéfiant, breathtaking. The treatment of the rhythm with all its sudden accents was wunderbar. Only at some points the sforzato chords were a little too rude. Morever, he played his own cadenza. Bruno Massimo performed a very fluent Chopin etude, his Bach was confident and rigorous; yet his Mozart was devoid of expression; if the title is Unser dummer Pöbel meint, there should be humour. Simone Zorini had much emotion and Einfühlung in his Liszt; Mazeppa was full of speed, yet, on the stage the pianist displayed somewhat too many gestures.

Then there arrived the second round of the seniors. Gabriele Castelli had chosen Beethoven’s Op.110 and executed it in a totally perfect, well balanced manner. Everything was correct, the music breathed in its own, organic way, there was no exaggeration in anything. Only at the end of the finale, in the second fugue, it is not necessary to double the tempo, because the acceleration has already been written to the rhythmic values of the notes themselves. I remember how Charles Rosen always emphasized this. Yet, also this interpretation might be defended, there is a movement to transcendence, and existential sublimation. In any case that was very enjoyable!

Shuta Kimoto played Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 101, in which the march movement was very bright and rhythmic. In the final fugue he made a monumental ascent. A suitable enthusiasm was displayed in Albeniz’s capricious rhythms. Arthur Rubinstein said once that all the notes can never be played in Albeniz’s Iberia; however, here I think we heard everything which is in the score. Mirei Ozawa started with Haydn and then went on to the difficult Schumann Humoresque Op. 20. It is hard to play because it is technically demanding, but thematically, so as to music, not very interesting compared to Schumann’s other piano compositions; I tried in vain to distinguish those famous Rasch moments which Roland Barthes liked in Schumann! Ozawa’s Prokofiev was convincing, the pianist has a substantial sound, all went brilliantly.

Danylo Saienko gave us a truly strong interpretation of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 101. He is a very serious musician with higher emotional investment and strength than anyone else in this competition. His Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue grew metaphorically into a powerful Cologne cathedral. Its chorale motif is of course the bell theme from Wagner’s Parsifal. But, otherwise, ce n’est pas Parsifal as Jacques Février said to me once in Paris when I played it to him. So it must never become too heavy, not even in the huge stretto at the end. This is French music after all! Isa Trotta played Beethoven’s Op. 109 in a classical style with a rather thin, almost graphic sound. How many different styles the variations evoke, from the theme itself which is a Ländler and a Sarabande at the same time! Now Gregorian polyphony, then an impressionistic sound etc. Her Prokofiev was very reliable.

In the end the jury chose the finalists: Ozawa, Saienko and Trotta. Normally at this stage of a competition, the audience would be agitated. Incidentally, there was not much public in any round. Where did Gabriele Castelli disappear?

Final round: Ozawa programmed Prokofiev’s Sonata Op. 4; her sound was at first soft, with silent moments in sections of intimate atmosphere. But in Liszt there should be more emphasis in the upper voice, to pursue that transcendental gesture which is always present in his music. Danylo Saienko had a well chosen programme, as in a real recital; it was refreshing to be transported to 18th century Parisian salons of précieuses ridicules in Couperin’s clavecin pieces – which, however, also had a certain melancholic espressivo quality; this was a peaceful and witty contribution. Then Funérailles: quite heavy, almost macabre but it is justified, as the piece moves in the limits of banality. One of the most inspiring moments was certainly the lovely Goyescas by Granados, just appropriate at the end of a recital with its deliberating melody. The audience went home with the main melody playing in their heads, a true memorandum of the whole work. I have to admit that I did not hear Isa Trotta’s rendition of Chopin’s Third Sonata due to a meeting with a colleague.

Finally came the grand finale, the distribution of prizes by the whole jury and sponsors of the event. And, above all, by the new director of the conservatory, Alessandra Aina. Now the hall was crowded. The first rows were reserved for the city’s important cultural personalities. Professor Alessandro Zignani, teacher of music history at Novara Conservatory, gave a lively introductory speech; it was revealed that he is also a Sibelius scholar and a well known musicologist in Italy.

The winners – vincitori in Italian, which sounds to my ears almost like fighters of a Gladiator combat played the most successful pieces of their repertoire; thus we heard once again Massimo Urban’s phantastic Liszt rhapsody as well as Isa Trotta’s Chopin Andante spianato with much determination and form. As first prize was not given at all, Saienko was given second prize and two other finalists shared third prize. Saienko, who by the way is of Ukrainian origin and known to many Finnish colleagues, allowed us once again to admire his Franck and Granados.

– Eero Tarasti



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