John Fisher (Australia) proved to be of much sterner stuff as he conquered the uproarious difficulties of Balakirev’s Islamey with much aplomb. Its last two coruscating minutes were nail-biting stuff as he jumped over spiked hurdles and through flaming hoops with barely a flinch. Equally important was his poetic and eloquent reading of Chopin’s Etude in C sharp minor (Op.25 No.7). The fluid realm of Debussy Ondine was also vividly realised. Verdict: Might be the first Ozzie to qualify.
Feng Zhang’s (China) programme was an absolute delight. Beginning with Debussy’s Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Sounds and scents mingle in the evening air) was evocatively painted, with snatches of melody appearing and receding, before dissipating into the ether. Two Godowsky transcriptions of Schubert’s Lieder, Gute Nacht (Winterreise) and Das Wandern (Die Schone Mullerin) – richly harmonised - added to that fuzzy, feel good factor. The innocuously titled Etude in E minor by Alkan turned out to be nothing less than that diabolical dragon-slayer Le festin d’Esope (Aesop’s Feast)! Fortunately, Zhang had much of the stupendous technique and requisite humour to carry those vertiginous variations off. Not quite Marc-André Hamelin but good enough for me. Verdict: Should get through.
Hao Zhu (China) had impressed me in Stage I with his Turina. Today, he seemed less inspired. The Bach Prelude in E flat minor (WTC I) sounded too dry and detached for my liking, although the Fugue came out better. The opening theme of his Debussy The Engulfed Cathedral lacked mystique and its handling was prosaic, despite some well-turned waves that sounded just about right. Zhu’s Balakirev Islamey was swifter and more mercurial that Fisher’s but came across as superficial, especially in the slower middle section. He also made little effort to vary the phrases that were repeated, and at his spell-binding speed, missed out on more than a few notes. Verdict: May not proceed.
Hoang Pham (Australia) looks like the Ozzie to beat now given his latest showing. The Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor (Op.87 No.12) presented dark and sombre shades contrasted with a wry and quirky fugue that was subtle handled. Debussy’s final prelude Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) made deft use of the pedal, exploited light and colour, and power. In the Schulz-Evler, Pham eschewed the lengthy introduction and launched himself in the waltz proper with lightness and ebullience. Including his own mini-cadenzas, added harmonies, inner voices and the odd blues note, he turned this warhorse into a nudge-nudge wink-wink private party piece of Cherkasskyan guile. Beside him, poor Xixi Zhou sound like some overwrought discus thrower. Verdict: Will make it through, no doubts about it.
In this company, Wojciech Wisniewski (Poland/Australia) looks like some dutiful and industrious student, whose Bach Toccata in C minor dragged on for much too long. Its fugue sounding more studied than alive, and could have benefited from a stiff dose of Argerich (or Jayson Gillham for that matter). His Debussy Les collines d’Anacapri lacked fantasy but not mistakes. Finally, his Verdi-Liszt Rigoletto Paraphrase, a work that should have free-wheeled, was bogged down by a hesitant and stilted statement of the famous quartet theme La bella figlia d’amore. Verdict: Sorry, no go.