Key Points:

I sensed a winner in Bella Hristova when she first took the stage at the Queenstown semifinals of the Michael Hill International Violin Competition.

For unaccompanied Bach she chose spirited dances over finger-tangling fugues; her own energetic cadenza for the Mozart concerto movement had a whiff of Slavic determination to it.

A week later, the young Bulgarian carried off the first prize at the Saturday night final, with a gripping Brahms Violin Concerto.

Brahms' lengthy first movement was a taste of heaven, effortlessly spun from charged lyricism to a fearlessly delivered Heifetz cadenza.

The Adagio was a magnificent song, a beautifully posed response to Martin Lees' shapely oboe solo.

Rubato was subtle; the phrasing meticulous. The sheer determination of the Finale swept all before it, taking advantage of Hristova's rich-toned 1655 Amati violin.

Yuuki Wong took second prize although he had already been rewarded for giving the best account of Ross Harris' Fanitullen. Wong's Brahms had the same delicacy and whimsy that he showed in Thursday's semi-finals, when he joined Ashley Brown and Sarah Watkins in Dvorak's Dumky Trio.

There was much to admire in his interpretation but, even allowing for moments of thorny intonation, Wong lacked the dramatic projection that carried Hristova to the fore.

Stefan Hempel was a clear third. His first movement seemed sluggish, and throughout the concerto there were serious issues with intonation, from awkward octave passages to extremely insecure arpeggio work.

Hearing the same concerto three times in the one evening made for much bantering about Brahms from the various speech-givers - including Helen Clark - but it certainly provided a level playing field on which to compare the various interpretations.

It would be impossible to praise the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor Christian Knapp too much. Knapp responded with immense sympathy and artistry to the challenge of working with three different interpretations; one could hear the individuality of each soloist being underlined from the opening tutti.

The American was scrupulous in issues of balance and unbridled in his enjoyment of Brahms' Hungarian finale; as was the orchestra which can be justly proud of its association with such a premier event.