Miranda Heggie

IF THERE was ever a contest that embodied the phrase, "It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part", then the International Competition for Outstanding Piano Amateurs, held annually in Paris, would surely be it. Its founding president Gerard Bekerman started the competition in 1989 "to share with other people throughout the world the same passion as mine".

First and foremost, the event, in which amateur pianists from across the globe take part, is a declaration of love for the piano. Don’t let the word amateur fool you either. Although none of the entrants make their primary living as a pianist, the standard in the final was certainly as high as can be found in professional competitions, with past winners going on to release CDs and play with major orchestras.

Although one of the principles of the competition is the free choice of repertoire, it’s hardly surprising that a quick flick through the programme sees a generous smattering of Chopin and Liszt. Stalwarts of the competition repertoire, each of the five finalists offered a work by one of these composers; three of them works by both.

First to take to the keys was William Galton, a maths teacher at London’s Westminster School, who commuted each day to Paris from London. Opening with Schubert’s Impromptu no. 3, Galton’s execution was clear, measured and poised from the outset. It was, however, during the next two pieces – Chopin’s Waltz in A-flat major Op 42 and Scherzo in C-sharp minor op 39 – where Galton truly came into his own. His glassy, delicate, descending ripples in the Scherzo were beautifully balanced by strong, determined chords, as he lent a remarkable depth to this piece. For his final offering, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 6, Galton’s syncopation was spot-on, as he made higher resisters of the instrument to really sing.

Following Galton was Israeli estate agent Eric Rouach. Ferruccio Busoni's piano transcription of JS Bach’s Chaconne, from his Partita no 2 in D Minor for solo violin, was given a meaty intensity, as Rouach teased out the rich dissonances with subtle rubato. His interpretation of Liszt’s one-movement piano sonata Apres une lecture du Dante was equally bold, the foreboding message of the piece’s inspiration – Dante’s Divine Comedy – shining through.

It’s not just the pianists that are breaking from their daily routine. A law lecture theatre in the Pantheon-Assas University in the south of the city had been transformed into a concert hall, providing a presumably temporary home to a Steinway concert grand. Perhaps then our third entrant might have felt somewhat at home – advocate general Julien Eyraud began his programme with a sumptuously tender Chopin lullaby, before bringing out a more fiery feeling in Liszt’s devilish Mephisto-Valse no 1.

Next up, Jean-Roch Le Henaff, a medical student at the university of Montpellier, gave a thoroughly musical rendition of Liszt's piano sonata in B minor. His tone was fresh and youthful, his playing bubbling with energy. The sonata’s tranquil ending is thought by some to have been a later alteration by Liszt, the original manuscript containing a scored out ending section which culminates in a loud flourish. Perhaps the composer’s former thoughts would have suited this performance better, since the spell Le Henaff had beautifully woven through the penultimate bars was tragically shattered by an errant mobile-phone. The rogue smoker in the audience though somehow added to the charm – after all, this is Paris!

Our fifth and final competitor was Zach Weiner, an information engineer for Google, hailing from California. Opening with Chopin’s Sonata no 3 in B minor, this was a technically flawless performance, although it could have done with a stronger dose of emotion. With subtle shifts to the rhythm, he construed a sway in the music, before delving into a totally different soundscape for Ligeti’s Etude no 6. The composer’s enchanting, blurry harmonies were at once intriguing and calming.

From 100 entrants, the pianists had been whittled down to a final 5 by a jury comprising esteemed soloists and teachers, including Rena Shereshevskaya, Simon Ghraichy and Tristan Pfaff, to compete for the top prize of €3,000 (around £2650) and a concerto engagement with Paris’s Orchestre de la Garde republicaine. While some had entered in previous years, the competition was a brand new experience for finalist William Galton. "I perform fairly regularly – little concerts, lunchtime recitals, that sort of thing. Someone mentioned this competition to me and I thought that it sounded like a really good challenge, a good goal to work towards. I feel I’ve learnt loads from preparing for it."

His hard work and preparation – and advance flight bookings – certainly paid off, as he was was deservedly awarded both first prize and the Press Award, from a jury of 10 critics from titles such as La Lettre du Musicien, International Piano, and, of course, The Herald.

Second prize went to Eric Rouach and 3rd to Jean-Roch Le Henaff, while Zach Weiner scooped the audience prize. As Gerard says though, "here, the desire to win is outweighed by the love of music", and indeed, the dedication to that art was the greatest triumph.