In 2012, I was fortunate enough to witness two incredible young pianists playing alongside each other - one as soloist and one as accompanist - in the Piano Concerto section of my local Eisteddfod. They were Konrad Olszewski and Stefan Cassomenos. Even in what one could say was the secondary role of accompanist, it was evident that Stefan was an extraordinary musician. They played one of my favorite concertos, Prokofiev's 3rd, and the whole experience was unforgettable. I was therefore very excited when I found out that both Stefan and Konrad had got into the Sydney International Piano Competition (SIPCA), and heartbroken when they didn't progress to the 2nd round.
I've just returned from the first recital I've heard Stefan play in person. This took place in the salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and I have to admit I much prefer this more intimate setting to the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall - the acoustic is beautiful and, in my opinion, far more flattering to the piano.
The closeness to the performer also gives me the opportunity to study a pianist's pedalling at close range, which I certainly did tonight.
I loved Stefan's choice of repetoire, some of which I'd already heard him play in SIPCA, and some of which he obviously learnt for SIPCA but didn't get the chance to perform due to not progressing past the first round. This included one of the Australian works commissioned for the competition, Carl Vine's Toccatissimo, with which Stefan opened the program and in which I would be completely confident to say his accuracy was 100%. For some reason I never fully appreciated this masterpiece when I heard it on the radio during SIPCA - I don't know whether it was never played particularly well (it's a technical monstrosity) or whether I was just so exhausted from hours of listening that I couldn't even take it in. But tonight, it left me fervently wishing I was able to compose like that - as did the 3 Ligeti etudes (Nos. 4, 11, and 8), during which I simply gaped the whole time.
After the Vine and before the Ligeti, Stefan played 3 Liszt etudes (Nos. 7, 11 and 8). I confess I'm not a fan of Liszt, but I marvelled at Stefan's technique in these extraordinarily difficult works. I particularly noted that Wilde Jagd, which I heard several times played by different pianists (including Stefan) during SIPCA, sounded distinctly more accurate than when I had heard him play it previously. In fact, I would venture to say it was 100% accurate.
Following the Liszt and Ligeti, Stefan played a Debussy etude (No. 11) which for some reason has left less of an impression on me than the other works on the program. I quite like Debussy, and I like that etude, but it didn't particularly stand out for me, perhaps because I was so busy anticipating the 5 Rachmaninov Etudes that followed.
When I hear what is, for me, a definitive interpretation of a work, from then on I never really like any other interpretation. This is how I feel about Ashkenazy's Rach Etudes, with one exception - Op. 39 No. 1, which I first heard played by Konrad Olszewski in SIPCA. Ever since then, no other interpretation of that etude has sounded right to me, and Stefan's interpretation of Op. 39 No. 1 doesn't quite cut it for me simply for that reason, but on some levels he has more technique than Konrad. It was interesting to hear how Stefan brought out melodies in this etude that I hadn't heard before.
At this point I can no longer put off discussing the one thing that struck me most about Stefan's playing this evening: his pedalling.
I was watching Stefan's feet the whole way through the recital, and was amazed to see that he frequently took the pedal completely off in technical passages where most pianists I've heard leave it down. Stefan used little to no pedal wherever he could, and only a pianist with impeccable technique can get away with the exposure this results in.
When he wasn't playing completely pedalless, Stefan changed the pedal frequently and subtly - sometimes fully changing, sometimes half or quarter-changing - so that there was always the utmost clarity. I was particularly struck by the way he used the sostenuto pedal in one piece to hold a bass chord while he played a
delicate, virtuosic passage in the right hand, completely without the damper pedal. This is the kind of pedalling technique that seems to have been forgotten, or has gone out of fashion, and of which Rachmaninov is the supreme example.
My only criticism of Stefan's pedalling is a fairly minor one. He has a way of very abruptly lifting his foot off the pedal. He never does this in the middle of passages - as many pianists I've heard do - but only when he comes to the end of a pedalled section. Often it's quite effective, if the music is agressive, since the 'clunk' of the pedal adds to the overall harshness. But occasionally he does it when the music is less suited to added clunking, and I don't like it. However, it's part of his playing style and insignificant in comparison to his otherwise extraordinary command of the pedal, which particularly made itself clear in the Rachmaninov etudes.
Most modern pianists I've heard pay little, if any, attention to pedalling, and I
gather that many judges don't either, considering some of the finalists
in competitions. It's refreshing to come across a pianist who grants the
pedal the importance it deserves. I reckon if we could hear Rachmaninov play his own etudes today, in person, his pedalling would not be unlike Stefan's. And as a self-confessed pedalling freak and Rachmaniac, that's more or less the highest praise I could give anyone.