David Fung (Australia) adorned the first movement of his Mozart Sonata in E flat major (K.282) with so many ad libitum ornaments – albeit tastefully done – that it began to sound fussy. The Minuet was jaunty instead of stately, but the spirited finale had spark, looking forward to Papageno’s music from The Magic Flute of years later. The last half dozen of Rachmaninov Preludes (from Op.32) received mixed treatment. There were Romantic surges and nostalgic backward glances that made much of the music sound fresh. The famous number in G sharp minor (No.12) had melancholy and regret to last a lifetime, but mistakes in the syncopated dance of No.11, and a lapse near the climax of the valedictory final Prelude (No.13) might have put paid to his chances. Verdict: At this stage, there really is no room for error. Sorry.
Fernand0 Altamura (Italy) had the misfortune of two handphones (different ringtones) going off one after another in his recital. No matter, he made every note count in a cultured reading of Haydn’s Sonata in D major (Hob. XVII: 1). The first big 20th century sonata to be delivered this stage was by Henri Dutilleux. Altamura has a very secure technique overall, but the swinging first movement wanted for a more rhapsodic feel. He was able to bring out some hidden inner voices but was a little too coy with the sexy slow music (don’t think for a moment that this doyen of living French composers is lacking it). The central Lied produced some crystalline pianissimo, while the Chorale and Variations was rightly accorded a tour de force. Verdict: Should get through.
Mariangela Vacatello (Italy) gave a humorous and well-judged account of Haydn’s famous Sonata in C major (No.50) all through to the “wrong note” finale. There was even room for rubato in the slow movement. Although considered a no-no, it was elegant and persuasive enough for more catholic tastes. There was a change in programme, replacing Schumann’s Sonata No.2 with the final three Transcendental Etudes of Liszt. The restless No.10 received the best performance so far, but she messed up in Harmonies du soir (No.11) despite producing a rich and lovely sonority, and packed in enough raw power in Chasse neige (No.12) to end satisfactorily. Verdict: A close call, but we need more women in Stage IV!
The mature Spaniard Jose Menor is an interesting case. His short Haydn Sonata in B flat major (No.41) was vibrant in its dotted rhythms, and filled with enough bubbly the keep the corks popping. Then came his Achilles heel – Chopin’s Polonaise in F sharp minor (Op.44) which I thought he over-pedalled, and missed rather more notes than one is comfortable with. The two-movement Sonata No.1 by Australian Carl Vine, probably the most accessible (for listeners, but definitely not pianists) and performed sonata in the world from the 1990s, was simply magnificent. Every chord, ever phrase seemed judged to perfection, and when the big climaxes arrived, it came with the inexorable force of a tsunami. The whirlwind that began the second movement (Crotchet = 120) seemed right out of Ginastera’s Sonata No.1, also performed by Menor to great alacrity in Stage II. Verdict: Let’s hear his Liszt Sonata in Stage IV!
Yes, Christopher Devine (Great Britain) returned, and I was totally receptive to everything he had to say. To his credit, his Mozart Sonata in D major (K.311) was better paced than Kitamura’s; the opening movement sounded just right and the Rondo finale was buoyant and spirited. Only his over-accenting of the vital three notes at the end of each phrase in the slow movement disturbed me. This was some show of character, to say the very least. The Prokofiev Sonata No.7 (Op.83, the centrepiece of the three “War” Sonatas) was clean and very accurate, combining percussive violence with reflective moments. My only problem is that he does not vary his sound enough, for example in the stormy central section of the slow movement and the subsequent tolling of bells. Even in the precipitous finale, he began at a very sprightly pace and maintained it till the desperate end without actually going for broke. Without risk taking, music making becomes merely efficient and mundane, like doing the laundry or taking out the garbage. Verdict: Why has he progressed thus far? He’s as safe and durable as a factory-tested three-pack of trojans.
Like his fellow compatriot Kitamura, Takashi Sato (Japan) is another gem awaiting discovery. Similar was the tiny jewel-like Les roseaux by Couperin that opened his recital. Anyone who programmes the poor maligned Muzio Clementi in a competition obviously has something valid and urgent to say. The Sonata in G major (Op.37 No.2) is neither bad nor totally memorable music, but Sato’s performance recorded it five star status. Its cheeky Haydnesque finale with some unusual harmonic turns was a charmer. Now who wants to hear some overplayed Prokofiev? He also delighted in the barbed harmonies and rhythmic thrusts of Bartok’s Sonata, finding joy in the pentatonic paradise that is its rip-roaring finale. Verdict: Both Japanese boys will have to slug it out again in Stage IV.
Like two double-decker buses that arrive together at almost the same time, the two Korean women also seem inseparable. I simply cannot decide whether I liked Miyeon Lee (left) or Yoonsoo Rhee better. They were both so different, yet with so much to offer. Lee’s Haydn Sonata in A flat major (No.46) had a combination of crispness and intimacy. Her showpieces were three pieces from Albeniz’s Iberia. Her Evocacion was gentle and seductive, and the El Corpus Christi en Sevilla showed everything that Yen (from Stage II) lacked – scintillating brilliance without resorting to histrionics, and a rapt prayer-like close blest with holy water. Finally her El Albacin was vibrant and imaginatively coloured.
Rhee offered the much better known Haydn Sonata in C major (No.50), which was inhabited with the same verve that brightened her Beethoven Rage over the Lost Penny (Stage II). Her showpiece was Brahms’ very early Sonata No.2 in F sharp minor(Op.2), with its virtuosic but embarrassingly gauche piano-writing, over-thick with octaves, chords and thin material repeated over and over. However one could sense possible influences from Schumann and Liszt on the beardless Johannes (like Samson, his strength grew with his state of hirsuteness). Despite all that, she made so much music from it, and she was amazingly error-free. Richter and Arrau, anybody? Verdict: These Korean women are like Siamese twins; both should advance, and let no jury tear asunder.