There could have been no doubt that Aleksei Sultanov could play the piano– not, at least, after the diminutive, 19-year-old Soviet black-belt (Tae Kwon Do) owner stormed through the  ranks of contenders at the Eighth Annual Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at Forth Worth13 days ago, and ended high in the saddle. The question  to be settled at his debut recital Thursday night at Ambassador, however, was how whether he could also  play  music. The answer so far: some day, perhaps, but not yet.
Young Mr. Sultanov chose a challenging  program program: Mozart and Beethoven Sonatas, the Prokofiev Seventh, Chopin’s B-flat minor Scherzo and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz: a classic calling-card to present to a competition jury. I missed the goings-on at Fort Worth this time, but it’s a safe guess that Sultanov knocked the judges off their perches with this  machine-made programming in performances spurred on by the  adrenalin such events inevitably generate. (I also assume his platform manners at Fort Worth were different from his grim, unsmiling, let’s-get-it-over-with demeanor at Ambassador.)
Chances are that no Cliburn contender will ever play again the way they all did at Fort Worth, unless any of them is so foolhardy as to remain on the competition treadmill. That’s the tragedy, the irony of competitions; after a while the adrenalin just runs out, and it had certainly run out on young  Sultanov at Pasadena.  At this generally dreadful concert — easily the worst debut recital I’ve attended since the last Cliburn winner earned his obligatory Ambassador engagement –I heard the workings of an impressive piano-playing machine run by an unimpressive musical conscience. You wanted constantly to reach up and turn down the speed control; but for the steady stream of perspiration that fell like gumdrops on keyboard and floor, you might have guessed that there was nobody at the piano at all.
The tone was set in the opening Mozart sonata (in C, K. 330), which Sultanov merely rippled though as so much finger exercise. The Beethoven “Appassionata” fared little better: great gobs of notes at breakneck speed, with  no shaping of events. One might have held some hope for the later works on the program, most of all the  Prokofiev, but no; those raging, swirling Sultanov fingers formed a juggernaut, obliterating everything in its path. As the first encore there was the much-loved E-flat Valse Brillante of Chopin, pulverized, brutalized, with arbitrarily placed stops and starts almost like a parody of a self-indulgent performing superstar.
And so, the tragedy of the world of musical competition adds another chapter. True, Aleksei Sultanov is only 19, and already he has the fingers (not to mention the major hair) for some sort of career. Whatever the judges at Fort Worth heard, I heard piano playing utterly without point of view. If this had been any old debut recital, my advice to the young musician would be to take time off to learn something about the art of music. But Sultanov, of course, can’t; he has his prize money, his recording contract and his list of concert bookings stretching on for years. His prize has become his trap.