Memories of an Unforgettable Musician

By Maciej Grzybowski

18 October 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 energy.

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.

Maciej Grzybowski