Piano Recital: Winners of the Rahn Competition 2016
Benedek Horváth, Alexandra Sikorskaya

Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2016-11-15

3-star rating

2016-11-30 — Original posting

Table of Contents


This was the first of this season’s concerts in the framework of “Musik an der ETH“. These are organized by Musical Discovery. The event was dedicated to three young talents. It was meant to be a triple recital with three prize winners of this year’s Rahn Competition 2016. This competition is a biennial event that was initiated 1976 by the Rahn Kulturfonds Zurich. The intent is to support young musicians at Swiss Conservatories at the start of their career.

In the Rahn Competition 2016, there were two first prizes ex aequo. The winners were Chiara Opalio (*1990), and Benedek Horváth (*1989). The third prize went to Alexandra Sikorskaya (1990).

Unfortunately, the original program of the concert had to be altered:

Chiara Opalio

Chiara Opalio (born 1990 in Venice) was a child prodigy. She made a first appearance already at age 4. She did her initial studies at the Conservatorio di Musica Giuseppe Tartini in Trieste. Chiara Opalio continued her studies at Accademia Pianistica Internazionale “Incontri col Maestro” in Imola (Enrico Pace). She then moved on to the Musik-Akademie Basel. There, she obtained her Master of Music Performance with Claudio Martínez Mehner (2013). She now continues with the same teacher, towards her Master in Solo Performance. At the same time, Chiara Opalio is teaching piano at the Fondazione Musicale Santa Cecilia do Portogruaro.

Her program for this recital featured two composers:

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 – 1788): Sonata in A major, Wq.55/4

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975): 13 Preludes from 24 Preludes, op.34

Sadly, Chiara Opalio fell ill prior to this recital. So, we could not experience her playing in the above compositions. Too bad: I was particularly looking forward to hearing the Shostakovich! Let’s hope that there will be another occasion to hear those compositions played by her.

In compensation for the missing pieces, the other two pianists were given more time. They presented additional compositions of their choice.

Benedek Horváth

The pianist Benedek Horváth was born 1989 in Budapest into a family of musicians. At age 5 he started learning the violin (which he still occasionally plays). However, after half a year, he switched to the piano. He did his first studies at the Music Academy Franz Liszt in Budapest. His teachers were András Kemenes, Rita Wágner, and Márta Gyulás. He then moved on to the Musik-Akademie Basel. There, just like Chiara Opalio, he studied with Claudio Martínez Mehner. He obtained his Soloist Diploma in 2015. Benedek Horváth started his part of the recital with the composition listed in the original announcement:

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856): Davidsbündlertänze op.6

Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze” (Dances of the League of David), op.6, are much more than a sequence of 18 short pieces for piano. According to Wikipedia, it is one of Schumann’s most important compositions. Actually, it is considered an iconic piano composition of the entire romantic era. Despite the early opus number, it was actually written after the Carnaval, op.9, and after the Symphonic Studies, op.13.

The key to this composition is in the underlying poetic program. That describes the interaction between two contrasting character types: Eusebius is introverted, lyrical, poetic. Florestan, on the other hand, is impetuous, impulsive, extroverted. These two personalities are essentially Schumann’s own, complementary character traits. At the same time, the work as a whole is intimate, internalized. It gives insight into Robert Schumann’s inner self. And it is of course inspired by Schumann’s love for Clara Wieck (1819 – 1896), later to become his wife.

The first version of op.6 is from 1837 (published 1838). Each of the pieces not only bears a German tempo & character annotation, but also relates to to Eusebius (E.), to Florestan (F.), or to both (F.u.E.).

1850, Schumann revised his op.6 and published a second edition. In that version, he removed the references to Florestan and Eusebius. And he simplified the tempo annotations. He also removed the lengthy, poetic annotations in the pieces 9 and 18. Benedek Horváth played the first, original version.

The Structure of op.6

Here is a list of the pieces and their annotations in the first version:

  1. Lebhaft, Florestan and Eusebius;
  2. Innig, Eusebius;
    (Con intimo sentimento)
  3. Etwas hahnbüchen, Florestan;
    (Un poco impetuoso)
  4. Ungeduldig, Florestan;
    (Con impazienza)
  5. Einfach, Eusebius;
  6. Sehr rasch und in sich hinein, Florestan;
    (Molto vivo, con intimo fervore)
  7. Nicht schnell mit äußerst starker Empfindung, Eusebius;
    (Non presto profondamente espressivo)
  8. Frisch, Florestan;
    (Con freschezza)
  9. Hierauf schloss Florestan und es zuckte ihm schmerzlich um die Lippen, Florestan;
    (Here, Florestan made an end, and his lips quivered painfully)
  10. Balladenmäßig sehr rasch, Florestan;
    (Alla ballata, molto vivo)
  11. Einfach, Eusebius;
  12. Mit Humor, Florestan;
    (Con umore)
  13. Wild und lustig, Florestan and Eusebius;
    (Selvaggio e gaio)
  14. Zart und singend, Eusebius;
    (Dolce e cantando)
  15. Frisch, Florestan and Eusebius;
    (Con freschezza)
  16. Mit gutem HumorTrio: Etwas langsamer
    (Con buon umore) — (Un poco più lento)
  17. Wie aus der Ferne, Florestan and Eusebius;
    (Come da lontano)
  18. Ganz zum Überfluss meinte Eusebius noch Folgendes, dabei sprach aber viel Seligkeit aus seinen Augen, Eusebius.
    (Quite superfluously Eusebius remarked as follows, but all the time great bliss spoke from his eyes)

The Performance

Let me just make some overall comments, rather than going into detail with the individual pieces. I found Benedek Horváth’s playing to be expressive, harmonious, and full-sounding. Legato articulation appeared to dominate. That impression was certainly supported by the acoustics of the venue. However, generous use of the sustain pedal may have contributed as well. Horváth’s tempo was fluent. It was maybe often on the fast side, but never pushed or rushed. In general, I found the pianist to be virtuosic. And he observed secondary voices.

Benedek Horváth’s strength seemed to lay on the “Florestan side” of Schumann’s music. On the other hand, in the “Eusebius” sections and aspects, I sometimes wished for a more lyrical, more mellow, softer, simpler and a more poetic interpretation. In other words: more contrast to the “Florestan” component.

Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945): Piano Sonata, Sz.80 / BB 88

Benedek Horváth is Hungarian, and he spent much of his life so far in Budapest. It wasn’t much of a surprise that he chose to use his extra time for the Piano Sonata, Sz.80 / BB 88, which Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) composed 1926. That sonata comes in three movements:

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Sostenuto e pesante
  3. Allegro molto

The sonata was described as “tonal, but highly dissonant”. However, to me, the most prominent characteristic of this sonata is its percussive nature. This is most obvious already at the very beginning, or in the fast movements in general.

The Performance

I found Horváth’s playing to be technically excellent, virtuosic in the fast movements, especially in the very demanding Allegro molto. Occasionally, I expected more harshness in the articulation. However, from the rear of the hall it was hard to judge whether this impression was caused be generous use of the sustain pedal. Or, was it rather the acoustics, i.e., the reverberation of the venue? Should he have paid more attention to adapting his playing to the acoustics?

The atmosphere in the middle movement somehow reminded me of Le gibet from Gaspard de la nuit by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937). The characteristics of the Steinway D in this venue are inherently warm. And that warmth is reinforced by the acoustics. Yet, the pianist managed to create the impression of a cold atmosphere in this movement. On the other hand, Horváth seemed to focus on the sostenuto character. The pesante aspect appeared more episodic.

Overall, I should probably rather leave it to Hungarians to judge whether Benedek Horváth’s interpretation reflected Béla Bartók (perceived) intent!

Alexandra Sikorskaya

The Russian pianist Alexandra Sikorskaya (Александра Сикорская) was born 1990 in Norilsk, Province Krasnoyarsk (Northern Siberia). There, she also received her first piano lessons at the local music school. From 2006 on she studied at the Moscow State College of Musical Performance F. Chopin (МГКМИ им. Ф.Шопена). In 2015 she completed her studies with Daniil Kopylov at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory. In September 2015, Sikorskaya started studying for the Master of Music Performance degree at the Lucerne School of Music. Her teacher now was Konstantin Lifschitz. The third prize at the Rahn Competition 2016 is the most recent of several prizes that she earned over the past 8 years. Alexandra Sikorskaya started her program with a Russian composer:

Nikolai Medtner (1880 – 1951): Sonata-reminiscenza in A minor, op.38/1

1919 – 1922, Nikolai Karlovich Medtner (Никола́й Ка́рлович Ме́тнер) composed three cycles of piano music, which he called “Forgotten Melodies” (Забытые мотивы):

  • op.38 — 8 pieces (Cycle I), among them the Sonata-reminiscenza (Соната-воспоминание) in A minor op.38/1, also known as Medtner’s tenth piano sonata;
  • op.39 — 5 pieces (Cycle II), among them the “Sonata tragica” (Трагическая соната) in C minor, op.39/5, also referred to as Piano Sonata No.11;
  • op.40 — 3 pieces (Cycle III)

Medtner completed the “Sonata-reminiscenza“, as well as the “Sonata tragica” in 1920. This was a year before he left Russia. After his emigration, he spent a few years as touring artist, performing mostly his own works. Sergei Rachmaninoff helped arranging a tour of the USA and Canada in 1924. 1936, Medtner settled in London (teaching and composing), where he died 1951. Medtner’s oeuvre includes 14 piano sonatas, 3 piano concertos, chamber music, and songs. And there are numerous short pieces for the piano, most notably his 38 Skazki (“Fairy Tales”).

The “Sonata-reminiscenza” consists of a single movement (Allegretto tranquillo). It now is Medtner’s most popular sonata, entirely in Medtner’s very typical, personal style. A nice, very atmospheric piece, melancholic, also in its more virtuosic, central part.

The Performance

I liked Alexandra Sikorskaya’s dynamic differentiation, the clarity in dynamics and polyphony, and how she formed the big build-ups and phrasing arches. She paid attention to both main and secondary voices, played fluently in the middle part. Overall, I felt it to be a romantic interpretation, with pensive, thoughtful moments. The warm sound of the concert grand appeared to dominate the performance.

Quite obviously, the audience was not really familiar with Medtner’s music. The unclarity about the ending of the sonata made people hesitate to start applauding. OK, the piece does not end with an affirmative cadence. Rather, with a silent question mark. No applause set in, which I did not take as a sign of disapproval, for sure. Alexandra Sikorskaya waited for a moment, then started her extra piece. This was by Chopin, which must be one of her favorite composers:

Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849): Scherzo No.4 in E major, op.54

Chopin’s Scherzo No.4 in E major, op.54 was completed 1842, published in 1843. Among the composer’s four Scherzi (all very popular in concert halls), this is the least extroverted one. I don’t need to introduce this any further here.

The Performance

Alexandra Sikorskaya selected a demandingly fast tempo, played with high virtuosity. I found her playing to be rounded, fluent, very emotional and expressive. She built up impressive, towering masses of sound. Here, too, I felt a tendency towards legato playing. The acoustics may have contributed to this impression. Or was it that Alexandra Sikorskaya did not resist the temptations of the exceptionally well-sounding instrument, and/or of the warm, supportive acoustics? In any case, with the brilliant ending of this piece, there was no question about whether and when to applaud!

Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849): Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante, op.22

Chopin’s op.22 started off as a Grande polonaise brillante for piano and orchestra, composed 1830/1831. In 1834, Chopin was invited to perform at the conservatory in Paris. For this concert, he added an introduction for piano solo, the Andante spianato, to the Polonaise:

  1. Andante spianato in G major
  2. Grande polonaise brillante in E♭ major

1836, Chopin arranged the op.22 for piano quartet. Finally, in 1838, he also created a version for piano solo (performed in this concert). This has also become very popular.

The Performance

In the Andante spianato, Alexandra Sikorskaya appeared to focus on large-scale phrasing arches and developments. More so than on agogics and “local” tension. One might view this as being in-line with the annotation spianato. After all, this means flattened, even or smooth.

Even without the original accompaniment, the Polonaise part felt orchestral, rhapsodic, virtuosic. It was indeed brilliant. Nothing was superficial. The pianist played with lots of momentum. However, she also kept an eye on secondary phrases. Again, the focus appeared to be on the large gestures. More than on “talking” motifs, transparency or clarity in runs and scales. Overall, I found it to be a fascinating, enthralling performance that made me think of Liszt of Paganini.

Encore — Chopin: Nocturne No.7 in C♯ minor, op.27/1

The strong applause reflected the virtuosity of Chopin’s Grande polonaise brillante. Alexandra Sikorskaya chose to play the Nocturne Nr.7 in C♯ minor, op.27/1 by the same composer. I experienced wonderfully differentiated playing. There was an excellent dynamic balance, but also small-scale tension and agogics in the calmer (outer) parts. In scales I sometimes wished for slightly more reflective retaining (more than “just fluent runs”, but that’s already an exaggeration). In the agitated central part, Alexandra Sikorskaya played with a big gesture. Maybe a little (too) grand for a Nocturne? A Russian view on Chopin’s nocturnal music? Whatever! The lucid ending of this piece made me ignore these minor objections.


We heard two promising talents in this concert, for sure. Congrats in the aftermath for the success at the Rahn Competition 2016! And best wishes for a successful career!


For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.

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