(c) GAZETA - 15TH FREDERIC CHOPIN INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION
n°9/10 October 18, 2005
Alexei Sultanov, winner of the 8th Van Cliburn International Piano
Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1989, and winner of the highest
prize at the 13th Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition in
Warsaw, in 1995, died June 30, 2005 in Fort Worth. He was 35.
When did I first hear Sultanov play? That was 16 years ago,
in the late summer of 1989 in Warsaw. It was a real treat to
hear someone who had just won the first prize at the famous
Van Cliburn Competition-especially at the age of 20. The
program promised someone truly special, a musician who also
played jazz, did not shun rock music and who was also a fan
of martial arts, with considerable achievements in this
pursuit. The photo showed a face watching the world with
curiosity, gazing at it brightly, kindly, warmly and with
genuine joy; the gaze was intense, decided and brave. It was
the face of a watchful observer of reality, with a
determined attitude to it and precise views. That was how it
felt at the time.
I was a different person when I left the recital at the
Philharmonic. What I experienced in the Chamber Hall had
never happened to me. Never before had I heard a live
performance with such spontaneity, confidence, wisdom,
intelligence and innovation-natural, without a trace of
ostentation and deception. Haydn's Sonata in E flat major
XLIX sounded so melodious and light, it was so thoughtfully
constructed, so thoroughly directed and served with such
grace that I instantly lost all my vain illusions that I had
known the sonata well enough. Then came the scherzi by
Chopin, in B minor and B flat minor. Another enlightenment.
There came narrative conceits
which showed Chopin's phrases in a new and unknown shape, which,
however, seemed to be in perfect harmony with them. Then the sense
of surprise after I had hurried home to check the sheet music in the
excitement of the Warsaw night: the boy had got everything right in
line with the letter of Chopin. Then, the catlike softness of the
sound, which called to mind the legendary legatissimo of Ignacy
Friedman from his renditions of Mendelssohn's Wordless Songs,
Mazurkas and Ballade in A flat major by Chopin. The range of the
dynamic scale in Sultanov's playing forced listeners to prick up
their ears so as to catch the extremely subtle shades that the
phenomenal Russian pianist let them hear. At other times, you had to
revise your opinion on the limits in hitting crescendo on the
contemporary piano. Emancipation, absolute control over the tiniest
detail that made up the musical creation and the rare charisma that
radiated from Sultanov evoked astonishment, adulation and escalated
the tension inside the concert hall to the zenith. Sultanov had a
way of keeping his listeners in a truly incredible excitation
throughout his recital.
The recital continued with the Fifth Sonata by Skryabin, illuminated
with colors the world did not know existed, Prokofiev's Seventh with
a precipitation that defied the laws of physics and an orgiastic
rendition of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz that Sultanov played for the
highest stakes with.
In later years, I got a few more opportunities to hear Sultanov in
concert. All those other times, I would always get the impression he
was only trying to relight in him that holy fire of a master
confident in great skills, the master that he had been that night at
the Warsaw Philharmonic and when he had taken the American
competition by storm, which I saw in a beautiful documentary devoted
to the competition. The fire seemed to be slowly burning out in him.
Until it burned out completely, depriving Sultanov of any more
chance to grace us with the fire's blinding glow, heat and volcanic
This extraordinary musician gave the world a rarely experienced joy
of interacting with pure, unfeigned beauty which he created out of
the highly unique world of his own intimate dreams, desires,
experiences and fantasies and then revealed to us. Witold
Lutosławski beautifully and wisely described talent as an entrusted
good. Alexei Sultanov shared that good with the world with extreme
generosity and dedication, tenderness and sensitivity,
sophistication and simplicity. He was always painfully honest,
whether he flung thunderbolts or softly whispered confessions.
The envious gods take their favorites away from us much too early.
This truth is as old as the gods themselves.