If you’ve been following the classical guitar competition circuit at all the last couple of years, you will probably not be surprised to learn that Ukrainian guitarist Marko Topchii prevailed over a very strong field at the finals of the Third Maurizio Biasini International Guitar Competition and Festival, held January 14-17 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, which was nearly full for the occasion. Topchii has won (or placed) in competitions all over the world, and hearing him for the first time in the final round, I could certainly understand why.
With the initial group of semi-finalists winnowed down to just three excellent players—Topchii, Andrew Blanch of Australia, and Clement Charpentier of France—the competing finalists were faced with a daunting program: Joaquín Rodrigo’s three-movement Concierto de Aranjuez, played with an orchestra of alumni from the SFCM, conducted by Nicole Paiement; a challenging brand-new solo guitar work by SFCM teacher Sergio Assad called “Imbricatta (in ten asymmetrical layers)”; and then a piece of each guitarist’s choosing—Blanch picked Manuel del Falla’s “The Miller’s Dance,” which felt like a natural lead-in to the Aranjuez; ditto Charpentier’s choice of Rodrigo’s “En Los Trigales,” which clearly shares some of its DNA with the slightly later Aranjuez; and Topchii selected “The Hunt on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” from Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
I know the Aranjuez quite well, so that is the one piece I feel I can offer an educated opinion about. I felt that all three players acquitted themselves well on the concerto, but in my (truly) humble opinion, Topchii brought the most passion to the piece, particularly during the cadenzas in the famous second movement. Though his playing in the Aranjuez was certainly not mistake-free (including rushing a passage in the opening “Allegro con spirito”), in my view the combination of his power and his fluidity on the most difficult passages put him a cut above the other two guitarists, who might have hit more correct notes, but didn’t make the piece theirs in the same way Topchii did. Also, I don’t know if his showmanship gets him points at these competitions, but the 24-year-old does have a forceful stage personality—though burying his face in his left hand for half a minute during one of the orchestral interludes in the “Adagio” seemed a bit much. His version of the Assad piece also left me a little cold—it seemed a bit messy, though I only had Blanch’s previous performance to compare it to at that point. (I thought Charpentier’s was the best of the three.)
Finally, kudos to Paiement and the orchestra, whose interpretation of the Rodrigo concerto was exactly the way I love to hear it in terms of the balance and dynamics; it provided a nearly identical canvas for the three guitarists’ individualized brushstrokes.
Want to judge for yourself? The entire final round (including the intermission!) was streamed live and is archived here. I should note that the amplified guitar during the Aranjuez performances does not sound as natural on the stream as it did in the room.