Saturday, 19 July 2008

SIPCA Stage I Day Two / Afternoon session

Afternoon session

Seven more pianists, and we’re done with Stage I. Sean Chen (19, USA, Yamaha) was all introspection in the Bach Prelude in G minor (WTC II), with its dotted rhythm dictating the scene before a buoyant fugue of jazz-like feel closed the work. Chopin’s first Etude (Op.10 No.1) reared its arpeggio-laden head once again, immaculately read, needless to say. His Scriabin Sonata No.4 was also well-played, but it lacked a certain sensuality in the first movement while the Prestissimo volando that followed attaca only truly took off in its latter pages.

By the time Sergei Saratovsky (26, Russia/Canada, Yamaha) took to the stage, his piano was already several microtones out of tune. His reading of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No.10 was choppy, but had enough agitato to keep one satisfied. The much-needed contrasts came in two Chopin Nocturnes, the first in F major (Op.15 No.1) which truly sang, and the second in B major (Op.9 No.3) carrying a yearning love message. It was gloves off in Rodion Shchedrin’s Basso Ostinato, a white-knuckled bruiser and favourite secret weapon that Russians use to overawe overseas audiences and juries. Judging by the applause, it worked.

Ryan MacEvoy McCullough (21, USA, Steinway) with his 60s Beatles mullet brought nobility to the Prelude and Fugue in C major (WTC II) and a wonderfully articulated fugue, played very fast but without letting up for a second. His Debussy Estampes was splendid for two thirds of the time (Pagodes and Jardins sous la pluie were very evocative) but La soirees dans Grenade got lost in the sultry night sky. No problems though in Chopin’s final Etude in C minor (Op.25 No.12), where arpeggios in both hands amply portrayed the roar of the ocean.

To say the Chun Chieh Yen (24, Taiwan, Yamaha) was my least favourite pianist would be an understatement. His Mozart Sonata in B flat major (K.281) was treated like some toccata to conquer, with neither heart nor warmth. All that scampering around was to have little purpose except to show off a brittle and unpleasant sound. That selfsame scampering was however put to superb use in Rachmaninov’s “Little Red Riding Hood” Etude-tableau in A minor (Op.39 No.3) where Big Bad Wolf was aptly portrayed lying in wait. Yen’s Scriabin Fantasy in B minor (Op.28), which displayed some admirable sonic qualities, could have came through magnificently had he not trod on wolf poo and gotten himself stuck in a holding pattern.

Eric Zuber (23, USA, Yamaha) used the sustaining pedal liberally throughout his recital, which gave a “wet” feel to all he touched. It worked well in the Rachmaninov Etude-tableau in E flat minor (Op.39 No.9), but variably in two very familiar Scarlatti sonatas. His Chopin Andante Spianato was suitably dreamy, like a nocturne, but I would have preferred a more crisp sound in the ensuing Grande Polonaise Brilliante His grandstand finish was – pardon the pun – exzuberant to say the least.

Yekwon Sunwoo (19, Korea, Yamaha) strikes one as a very reliable and diligent student of the piano. Like Takashi Sato before him, his delivery is polished to a fine sheen and lacks nothing in the technical department. His Schumann Abegg Variations (Op.1) had a timid opening but to his credit never lost sight of the song-like theme through the myriad machinations in the right hand. His Ravel La Valse was no less accomplished, and one did not for a moment feel a sense of risk or danger. Yes, he was that secure, and so was his Chopin Etude (Op.10 No.1) played for the – thanks be to God – the penultimate time.

Finally, Xun Wang (28, China, Kawai) gave the shortest recital of the opening stage, running under 15 of the specified 20 minutes. With the only Mendelssohn on offer, his two Songs Without Words felt like manna from heaven. His Chopin Etude (yes, that same one) was close to perfection and the rollicking Rachmaninov Prelude in G minor (Op.23 No.5), while not note-perfect, had enough character and gusto to carry him through.

For the next edition of SIPCA 2012, I would like to suggest a compulsory Chopin-Godowsky Etude to be performed in Stage I. Unhyphenated Chopin is just child’s play for these kids, and there are 53 (as opposed to 27) to pick from.

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