Less than two weeks after winning the eighth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Ft. Worth, Tex., Aleksei Sultanov on Thursday night launched an extended period of fulfilling the concert engagements that come along with his gold medal. The 19-year-old Soviet citizen gave a sold-out recital to an overflow audience at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.
And, unlike the last three Cliburn winners who began their post-competition tour with a first stop in Pasadena (in 1977, 1981 and 1985) and later returned with disappointing results, Sultanov conquered immediately--and unequivocally.
More important than his musical and technical credentials--which seem perfectly in order and even surpass in some respects the standard we have come to expect from international competitors--is Sultanov's personality.
He has one. It seems individual, perhaps even unique. And the impassioned, articulate and sensitive playing that flows from his arms and fingers with the naturalness of a lion's roar or a bird's cooing expresses something more--much more--than mere good training, as cherishable a quality as that may be. It expresses a successful bonding between performer and listener.
Playing an old-fashioned (some might even say hackneyed) debut program consisting of well-worn sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Prokofiev and too-common showpieces by Chopin and Liszt, Sultanov distinguished himself in every way. And won hearts in the process.
He probed familiar works with a bright but never perverse imagination. He reinstated appropriately the conversational flow of musical sentences most of his listeners could recite by themselves. And he heated up these chestnuts to their full flavor.
Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata became a celebration--and not for a moment a cerebration --of direct communication from pianist to audience. Sultanov gave it the full range of his dynamic interests, caressed the inner workings of the great slow movement, then rode the finale to a glory to which many aspire but few achieve.
In a very few moments, his Mozart--the Sonata in C, K. 330--went beyond the limits of style and restraint. But, in general, it purled along, made sense as music, and stayed in its own century. Prokofiev's sure-fire Seventh Sonata seemed, after the fact, a tad contrived--Sultanov may by now have earned the right to be tired of it--yet it emerged as predictably effective and hair-raising as any reiteration of it we have heard in this locale.
The compact, tireless pianist seemed most at home in the display mode of Chopin's B-flat minor Scherzo and Liszt's "Mephisto" Waltz, where his accuracy, speed and passionate delivery gave them a surprising freshness.
In an evening of quick responses and hyperactive tempos, Sultanov saved the fastest for last: His two encores were both by Chopin, the "Grand Valse Brillante" in E-flat; and the "Revolutionary" Etude.