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9 jaw-dropping moments from the MIMC semifinals

Robert Rowat

Even though the City of Montreal declared a state of emergency over the weekend, as certain neighbourhoods are dealing with crises caused by spring flooding, the semifinal round went ahead on schedule at the Montreal International Musical Competition.

Twelve pianists each gave a one-hour recital at Bourgie Hall to compete for a spot in the finals and a chance to play a concerto with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Claus Peter Flor.

The semifinals concluded late Sunday night (actually, very early Monday morning, to be precise) with the announcement of the six pianists advancing to the competition's final round. They are:

  • Stefano Andreatta (25, Italy)
  • Albert Cano-Smit (20, Spain/Netherlands)
  • Zoltan Fejervari (30, Hungary)
  • Giuseppe Guarrera (25, Italy)
  • Yejin Noh (30, South Korea)
  • Jinhyung Park (21, South Korea)

While we wait for their final-round performances on May 9 and 10, let's take a minute to reflect on all the amazing piano music that went down during the semifinals.

We listened attentively to all 12 recitals. Here, in chronological order, are nine highlights that blew us away.

Giuseppe Guarrera’s Beethoven

While the audience at Bourgie Hall was going wild after Guarrera’s performance of Liszt’s Rhapsonie espagnole, which concluded his semifinal recital, we were still trying to recover from the beauty of Beethoven’s Op. 10, No. 3, which opened it (2:22:30 in the video below). Guarrera resisted the temptation to “place his own stamp” on the work, instead using a crisp touch and careful attention to detail to simply reveal the beauty in Beethoven’s score. The slow movement was especially powerful.

Jinhyung Park’s Debussy

We loved the arc of Jinhyung Park's semifinal recital, which began with Schubert's delicate "little" Sonata in A major, D. 664, and concluded with a great Romantic showpiece, Rachmaninoff's Piano Sonata No. 2. In between, Park played book 1 of Debussy's Images and it was a revelation (35:25, below). Even an epic sneeze emanating from the audience could not detract from the limpid opening of "Reflets dans l'eau." Park made everyone lean in and listen to "Hommage à Rameau" and played the closing "Mouvement" with the appropriate lightness of touch. A gift.

Albert Cano-Smit's Schumann

At 20, Albert Cano-Smit may be the youngest contender, but he plays the piano with the maturity of somebody three times his age. Nobody was prepared for his impeccable Bach and Franck in the quarter-finals, but when he walked onstage for his semifinal concert, our expectations were high — and he did not disappoint (a nervous-sounding Beethoven Sonata aside). His Humoreske — the best of the competition — was so accomplished, full of astute characterizations, its conflicting emotional states unfolding with ease (2:54:20, below.)

Nathanaël Gouin’s Beethoven

Nathanaël Gouin probably lost his spot in the finals due to an unfortunate memory slip in the first movement of his Chopin Sonata, but his semifinal recital began with a stunning performance of Beethoven’s Op. 109 (8:35, below), which he played with a bell-like tone and thoughtful pacing. We weren’t the only ones who thought so: from her seat in the balcony at Bourgie Hall, jury member Idil Biret was air-playing much of it along with him.

Zoltan Fejérvári's Janáček

While many of the contestants sought to show off their piano skills, Zoltan Fejérvári seemed bent on making music, and this distinction was apparent through his choice of repertoire. His affinity for Bartók's Improvisations was clear from the first note, and we loved his performance of Janáček's disturbing Piano Sonata No. 2 (1:34:36, below) — the fleeting lyrical passages served to accentuate, by contrast, the sonata's tragic exposition in Fejérvári's hands. This bodes well for a thrilling performance of Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3 in the final round.

Stefano Andreatta's Chopin

The Montreal International Musical Competition offers a special $1,000 prize for the best performance of a piece by Chopin in the quarter-finals or semifinals, and we'll be surprised if it is awarded to anybody but Stefano Andreatta. The 25-year-old Italian concluded his semifinal recital with Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 (3:06:30, below) and even though we'd been listening to piano for more than three hours by that point, we would have gladly hit "repeat." The rapid-fire chords in the second movement were brilliantly staccato, and he made time stand still during the B section of the devastating slow movement.

Yejin Noh’s Stravinsky

Yejin Noh opened her semifinal recital with a Bach Prelude and Fugue that, to be honest, seemed a bit like an afterthought. And while she did an admirable job with Schumann's Op. 11 Sonata, it's not exactly a gripping work to play in a competition. But she really turned things around with Stravinsky's Trois mouvements de Petrouchka, a terrific choice for a pianist of her temperament (45:50, below). Its effect on her (and therefore us) was transformative — her apparent joy at whipping off its frenzied jumps and glissandi was totally infectious.

Artem Yasynskyy's Britten

We were shocked when Artem Yasynskyy did not advance to the finals. (What happened, jury?) His performance of Britten's Holiday Diary left us breathless with admiration (1:16:30, below). Yasynskyy revelled in the suite's pictorial elements: the shivering gestures of "Early Morning Bathe," the luxurious doldrums of "Sailing," the jostling crowd of "Fun-Fair" and moonlit silhouettes of "Night." (The audience was so transported, there was no applause.) We're so grateful for his performance of this work, and regret the Tchaikovsky concerto he unfortunately will not be playing in the final round.

Our favourite Laurentienne

There were many good performances of the imposed Canadian piece, André Mathieu's Laurentienne No. 2 — honorable mentions go to Teo Gheorghiu, Guarrera and Yasynskyy. But our favourite performance of this Debussy-esque miniature was by Noh (9:42, below), who chose the fastest tempo of all 12 semifinalists, which ended up taking the piece to the next level. Bravo.

More to explore:

Webcast: watch the Montreal International Musical Competition

Listen to CBC Music's 24/7 Piano stream