One of the favourites was Alexei Yemtsov (25, Australia, Steinway), who largely lived up to his pre-competition reputation. While his Rachmaninov Etude-tableau in B minor (Op.39 No.4) was precise and big-boned, it could have done with more irony and humour. The singular great performance of the afternoon was his reading of Ravel’s Ondine (from Gaspard de la nuit) which had that ravishing crystalline quality that all pianists dream about, bringing it to an impassioned climax that threatened to sweep all and sundry away. Now one longs for his Scarbo. His Chopin Fantasy in F minor (Op.49) was well-schooled, supplying the brain and brawn that the music needed.
The first woman to feature was Aiko Yajima (26, Japan, Yamaha) whose stunning jade-emerald green evening gown was matched by an exquisitely crafted Debussy Etude No.11 (Pour les arpeges composes), with its variegated palette of colours and nuances. Duplication of repertoire in competitions is inevitable, and Ravel’s La Valse became the first work to be heard twice. Hers was a more skittish, subtle and insinuating performance than Adam Herd’s but when it came to the sweeping climaxes, she lost out in power and brute force. Her Chopin Winter Wind Etude was however more free-spirited and tempestuous than Xixi Zhou’s.
The competition’s youngest pianist was Tomoki Kitamura (17, Japan, Steinway) whose age belied his prowess. One might dismiss Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No.2 as “easy” music, but he filled its quiet passages and pregnant pauses with so much imagination that it was impossible to ignore. And what could a mere teenager say in the sensual and ecstatically charged writing in Scriabin’s Sonata-Fantasy No.2? Apparently lots, as he released pent-up emotion and disturbing disquiet in a scarcely believable showing. His offering of Chopin’s Etude in E flat major (Op.10 No.11) provided the first quiet ending of a recital in the day. Just sublime!
Thirteen years older was his compatriot Miya Kazaoka (30, Japan, Kawai) who had a nightmare performance. Every piece of her recital was a showstopper and she paid dearly with horrific memory lapses in Scriabin’s Sonata No.5 (which had otherwise admirable qualities) and Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse. Only her superb Rachmaninov Etude-tableau in C minor (Op.39 No.1) provided a modicum of consolation.
Former medical student David Fung (24, Australia, Kawai) chose to begin with Chopin’s familiar Revolutionary Etude (Op.10 No.12) and his reading was polished and suitably showy. Then came a most unexpected and uncanny selection – Bartok’s Three Hungarian Folk Songs from the Csik District – which yielded playing of great atmosphere and understated beauty. Whoever said one needed to be Hungarian to play Bartok well? Then came the third Ravel La Valse of the day, and arguably the best one. Fung gave the illusion of careening off the rails but was secure throughout, unflinching yet breathlessly exciting. Medicine's loss is certainly music's gain!
Someone should tell Balasz Fulei (23, Hungary, Steinway) that this was a competition rather than a PhD thesis presentation. His oh-so-serious demeanour carried came across awkwardly in Bach’s Contrapunctus XI (from The Art of the Fugue) which began tentatively but gained in strength of character as it went on. The only flash came in Chopin’s Etude in A flat major (Op.10 No.10), all of three minutes but very musically delivered, and the pall of solemnity descended again in Brahms’ “Edward” Ballade (Op.10 No.1) which built up to a climax of high tragedy. Here is a pianist as a severe artist, rather than entertainer.
Almost as anti-virtuosic was Fernando Altamura (22, Italy, Kawai) whose selection of the five Posthumous Etudes – all slow movements – usually tagged on to Schumann’s Etudes symphoniques (Op.13) was a baffling one. At least he played them with sensitivity and beauty. The element of extrovert virtuosity came in the Wagner-Liszt Isoldes Liebestod which came through a slow boil with drama and a brief but ardently lyrical Scriabin Etude (Op.8 No.3)