After three gruelling weeks in the most adverse of conditions, brilliant Italian-Slovenian Alexander Gadjiev, aged 26, took out first prize – and $25,000 – in the 2021 Sydney International Online Piano Competition.

The first of the six semi-finalists to be heard in the online recitals, he set the bar high with a dazzling 80-minute program built around the theme of funeral marches. It started with Liszt’s Funérailles – a memorial to his friend Chopin, written soon after his death in October 1849 – and then moved to Chopin’s own iconic Sonata No 2 in B flat Minor, ending with a magnificent performance of Liszt’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 7.

Alexander Gadjiev

Alexander Gadjiev. Photo supplied

Introducing his final recital, Gadjiev said he strives for respect for his talent by “being 120 percent in the music”. That talent is recognised in the UK, where he was selected for the BBC New Generation Artists Scheme, and had been on display in the preliminary round with his program of Haydn, Chopin, Messiaen, Vine and Scriabin, and even more so in his 60-minute semi-final video of Russian works comprising pieces by Shostakovich and Tcherepnin, ending with Prokofiev’s formidable Piano Sonata No 7, written in celebration of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad.

Bringing poetry and power to Liszt’s piece, the Chopin sonata was taken at a well-judged pace, with the first movement building impeccably, and plenty of edge and excitement in the following Scherzo. Gadjiev took the famous third movement at just the right pace, slow but dignified and with plenty of nuance – not overplayed as it so often is. The flurry of the final movement – Chopin said it was the attendees gossiping about the departed – was dispatched with great technical aplomb.

The Beethoven was equally impressive, if not more so, with the young virtuoso maintaining the momentum through the four rhythmic movements, described so aptly by Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance”. The icing on the cake came in the form of two encores – Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28 No 13 and Rachmaninov’s Prelude Op. 23 No 7.

After announcing Gadjiev as the winner, Piers Lane, The Sydney’s Artistic Director and non-voting chair of the judges, said that he had had an inkling when he first heard him play for the preselection panel that he would be the eventual winner.

The other finalists – Shion Ota, 21, from Japan; Ádám Balogh, 23, from Hungary; Alice Burla, 24, from Canada; Calvin Abdiel, 20, from Australia/Indonesia, and Artem Yasynskyy, 32, from Ukraine – did not leave empty-handed, however, sharing between them some of the remaining $139,000 prize money and invitations to perform when live music resumes. And two semi-finalists who didn’t make it through – 20-year-old Yangrui Cai, from China, and 30-year-old Anna Geniushene, from Russia – also received minor prizes.

Lane made special mention of Abdiel, the youngest of the 32 contestants, who took out third place, also winning the prize for Best Australian Pianist. Despite problems outside of his control with the sound recording, the judges had to look beyond that to his “amazing musical brain and musicianship”, Lane said. Born in Jakarta and living in Sydney since the age of 10, Abdiel showed remarkable keyboard skills in his final concert of Bach/Busoni Choral Preludes, a Haydn sonata, and culminating in a triumphant survey of Barber’s Piano Sonata, with its virtuosic blast of a finale. Perhaps even more memorable, though, was his interesting program of four centuries of Spanish music in the semi-final round. He also proved to be one of the most eloquent speakers of the field.

The seven judges – Olivier Cazal (France), Mark Coughlan (Australia), Dang Thai Son (Vietnam), Olga Kern (Russia/US), Seta Tanyel (Austria), Vladimir Tropp (Russia), and Mira Yevtich (Serbia) – had a tough time separating the finals contenders and each competitor had to be decided by a majority vote. Individual listeners will have had their own favourites, many of them not making the cut. For me, Ukrainian Antonii Baryshevskyi’s performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition was a standout, while Anna Geniushene’s delightful coupling of two Australian miniatures in Frank Hutchens’ Two Little Birds and Alfred Hill’s Doves made the perfect introduction to some full-blooded Beethoven Bagatelles and a powerful cutting edge reading of Bartók’s Sonata.

The finalists were all superb in their different ways. Alice Burla, whose mother is a piano teacher and father is a piano tuner, was magnificent in each of her recitals, showing why she was one of the youngest pianists to be accepted at Juilliard, and runner-up Artem Yasynskyy overcame COVID to record his three recitals, his final concert including a magical performance of seven of Bach’s exquisite Sinfonias.

Shion Ota was in complete command of Bach’s English Suite. A composer as well as a player, she also showed remarkable maturity and understanding of Debussy’s Image Book 2 and Schumann’s First Sonata, while Adam Balogh proved irresistible in his home-ground performances of Bartók in the concert hall of the Liszt Academy in Budapest.

Despite the enormous obstacles the 32 faced, having to record in pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, some of them as last-minute replacements having to learn pieces in an afternoon, this was a five-star marathon effort. As Lane said in his closing remarks: “They’ve all done it with such aplomb – hats off to them all!”

The 2021 Sydney International Online Piano Competition can be viewed on demand