CALGARY – My previous Honens competition report closed with the jurors’ choice of three finalists to compete for the title of Laureate. The winner receives a first prize of $100,000 CAD plus a three-year Artist Development Program that includes recitals in prestigious international venues, professional management, and a recording on the Hyperion label. In it, I lamented the elimination of Austrian pianist, Philipp Scheucher, 25, from the final round. His artistry and musical insight reminded me of a young Lars Vogt or Piotr Anderszewski, both of whom I heard at the 1990 Leeds (UK) International Piano Competition.
But now we have a 2018 Honens Laureate: Georgian pianist Nicolas Namoradze, 26, won the title at the triennial competition on Friday night (or early Saturday morning, depending how you count it). Namoradze saved his very finest playing for the last, when the stakes seemed highest in terms of making an impact on the seven-member jury (Alessio Bax, Ingrid Fliter, Wu Han, Annette Josef, André Laplante, Asadour Santourian and Minsoo Sohn) – and the audience which filled Jack Singer Concert Hall.
To be sure, the Jury Guidelines stipulate the final concerto performance counts as only 15% of the final result. The official mathematicians who tabulate the scoring weight the jurors’ votes according to this designation: 30% from the solo and 30% from the collaborative rounds in the Semifinals; 15% from the chamber music and 15% from the concerto round in the Finals, and 10% from an interview seen by the Jury before the results are tabulated. (Honens might want to rethink those proportions, and also make room for a Mozart or Beethoven concerto in the Finals; concertos by these two composers were proscribed this year.)
These numbers notwithstanding, Namoradze delivered when the psychological stakes were highest: the final concerto round. Partnered by the Calgary Philharmonic and guest conductor Karina Canellakis, his rendition of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 (one of the longest and most demanding in the repertoire) was etched in long lines and executed with an apparent ease that in the moment erased thoughts of the work’s reputation as a beast to be tamed.
Not so for Namoradze, who looked and sounded as comfortable playing this work as he had been with three of his own virtuosic Etudes in the Semifinals.
The two other finalists – Han Chen, 26 (Taiwan) and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, 21 (US) each received Raeburn Prizes of $10,000 CAD (named for the late Andrew Raeburn, first artistic director of the Honens – a position now held by pianist Jon Kimura Parker). Sanchez-Werner also won the Audience Award of $5,000 CAD.
Namoradze is far from a novice in the concert world, having appeared as a soloist in Europe and the US. Performances in Hungary, Georgia, Spain and the US have been broadcast; his own compositions have been commissioned and played at US festivals; and he will perform a series of recitals with violinist Rolf Schulte, a highly-respected interpreter of contemporary music.
In addition, Namoradze has composed and produced soundtracks for feature films, including one made in association with the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. He studied in Budapest, Vienna and Florence, then moved to New York to earn a Master’s degree at Juilliard. He now pursues a Doctorate at the CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center, studying piano with Emanuel Ax and Yoheved Kaplinsky, and composition with John Corigliano. Namoradze himself serves on the faculty of Queens College, CUNY.
And what of Philipp Scheucher? At 12 noon last Friday, roughly 12 hours before the Laureate was announced, he played another superb solo recital, for an audience that nearly filled the lobby of Jack Singer Concert Hall. On a Steinway baby grand, he presented a different program than the one he had given in the Semifinal round six days before. This time we heard Beethoven’s little-known Fantasy in G minor, Op. 77, and the famed “Appassionata” Sonata; then Liszt’s late, quasi-impressionistic Nuages Gris, and the Transcendental Etude No. 4, “Mazeppa”. It was wonderful – all of it.
Philipp Scheucher. Remember the name, along with that of Nicolas Namoradze.
Archived video recordings of all Semifinals and Finals performances at this year’s Honens International Piano Competition can be viewed at www.honens.com/livestream.
Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.