Tuesday, 22 July 2008

SIPCA Stage III Day One / Morning session

Just a few words about the two newly commissioned works for the competition by two Australian composers, one of which has to be performed by each of the 20 pianists in Stage III:

Roger Smalley’s Morceau de concours is exactly what it means in French, a piece for competition. It begins quietly and meditatively, then erupting into a panoply of 20th century piano-writing styles – brilliant toccata/etude-like passages, thunderous cascades of chords, a marche grotesque, few seconds of lyrical asides and an abrupt ending in F minor. Just about everything a pianist needs to exhibit in his/her competition armamentarium.

Andrew Ford’s Thin Air has fewer notes, but the silences in between speak volumes. The left hand opens violently and its 4-note motif lingers on throughout the piece (albeit with minor variations), with the right hand playing Debussyan thirds and other figurations. There are loud moments but its nocturnal and static atmosphere created by long-held bass notes almost paints a rarefied and mysterious vista of the vast Australian outback.

Both works run for between 5 to 6 minutes. So much for my amateur analyses. Hearing them for the first time (as did the composers themselves), I shan't go into the details of how each pianist did in these fascinating works, are also terribly difficult to perform or memorise. There were 7 and 5 performances of Ford and Smalley respectively today. There weren't any poor performances, but some were more persuasive than others for a varying number of reasons. I'll have to check out the scores sometime soon.

Morning session
Hao Zhu (China) opened the next stage with Mozart’s Sonata in C minor (K.457), with a suitably dramatic statement of the opening theme. There was some roughness around the edges, and minor slips, but he is capable of much lyrical playing, notably in the slow movement. The finale began surreptitiously but the bittersweet and impulsive qualities of the movement soon took over. His Albeniz Triana (from Iberia) displayed good fingers but lacked the all-essential Hispanic largesse and that rush of blood to the head. At its climax, his sound was congested with over-pedalling. The Chopin Polonaise-Fantasy Op.61 began well but soon became bogged down with its finery and details, and the outcome was less tight than it should have been. Verdict: This is as far as he goes.

Hoang Pham (Australia) is pure poetry once again in Mozart’s Sonata in F major (K.332), which flowed like oil in the first and flow movements like the composer requested. The vertiginous finale was also very well articulated. Chopin’s Scherzo No.3 (Op.39) gave him ample opportunity for more outward virtuosity; the octave passages were immaculate and the chorale beautifully voiced. Another piece of inspired programming – Pham played the final two movements from Bartok’s Out of Doors (known as En plein air in French), just the perfect foil for Ford’s Thin Air. Separated by the Chopin, the scenery shifted from some dreamtime near Alice Springs to The Night’s Music in Transylvania. His evocation of things that go bump in the night was positively eerie, closing with the hell-raising Chase. Verdict: My first candidate to advance, without any doubt.

Alexei Yemtsov (Australia) produced very cultured playing all round in Mozart’s Sonata in C major (K.330), arguably one of his less problematic ones. Chopin’s “easiest” Ballade No.3 (Op.47) also gave him opportunities to sing unabated before the Icarus flight of Scriabin’s Sonata No.4. In his case, the closer he flew to the sun, the stronger he became, closing with the most supercharged ending of all the performance of this work in SIPCA so far. In all three rounds, Yemtsov has proven himself to be a most reliable (and almost predictable) Ukrainian-Russian pianist of the common garden variety. Verdict: Should progress unless 12 other people give stronger showings. As it is, Pham is my leading Ozzie.

Tomoki Kitamura (Japan) has had the ill luck of being called “Tommy Koh” by the ABC Classic FM announcer for most of this morning. That was as far as his misfortune went, as he proved yet again to be perhaps the most prodigious pianist here. At merely 17, he projected the wisdom of someone many times his age. The moment he laid hands on the Liszt Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen Prelude, one sensed something transcendental at work. His judgement of every phrase, every nuance seemed faultless, and its lachrymose subject soon became something spiritual. The Bach French Suite No.4 that followed was tasteful and unmannered, with each dance movement made to sound like a polished gem. The only downer was the almost breathless pace adopted for the opening movement of Mozart’s Sonata in D major (K.311), not enough nobility here. Much better, were the beautiful slow movement and the concluding Rondo, hurdling over some of Mozart’s most treacherous writing with ease. Verdict: Anyone who has the confidence of allowing Mozart to end a competition recital gets my vote.


Lady Blogger said...

It seems you and I have almost completely opposite opinions of Hoang Pham and Alexey Yemtsov...

but difference is what makes life interesting!

Chang Tou Liang said...

How very interesting. Very communicative piano-playing often divides listeners. I liked Yemtsov too, but I though Pham a bit more special. In this case, it looks like the jury fell on my side of the fence.

Boom said...

I am glad to see someone else appreciates Hoang Pham's musicianship as much as I do. Ever since I heard his recordings from the 2009 Cleveland Competition (Bach Partita No.4, Beethoven Sonata Op.7, Thomas Ades "Darkness Visible"), I felt that his quietly authoritative elegance and interpretational purity are quite remarkable.