Sean Chen (USA) sounded almost jazzy in Ligeti’s L’escalier du diable (The Devil’s Staircase); one is tempted to think of boogie-woogie here, which cannot be a bad thing. And how odd is it that the staircase seems to be heading upwards most of the time! In Debussy’s Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves), the leaves were dead but not the prelude. Another coup of smart programming was to include in his selection of Rachmaninov Etudes-tableaux (Op.39) the one in D minor (No.8), with its wind-swept autumn leaves carried off by roadside eddies. Needless to say, this group was played with much sympathy and virtuosity. Verdict: What is the chances of SIPCA being won by two Chens in succession? Not too shabby, I'll say.
Sergei Saratovsky (Russia/Canada) performed the little known Bach Prelude & Fugue in C sharp minor (WTC II), beginning with a pensive prelude followed by a vertiginous fugue very clearly articulated. I did not care too much for his Debussy Feux d’artifice which had too much pedal for my liking. The big surprise was McIntyre’s Butterflies and Bobcats (2004) which was a tonal eclectic mix of disparate influences; Debussy, Bartok, Ginastera, Ligeti, Lieberman (Lowell, not Rolf)… you name it. Performed to what seemed like perfection, this has to be included in ABC Classics’ SIPCA CD collection. Verdict: Let’s hear more from him.
Ryan McEvoy McCullough (USA) also had a strange mix of the familiar and rare. Almost too familiar was Schubert’s Impromptu No.3 in B flat major (Op.142) which had both feeling and hallmarks of good musicianship. Debussy’s Ondine has now equalled Les collines d’Anacapri in terms of the number of times heard. Why? Because it suitably represents the impressionists’ fluid style, is suitably brief and has far less notes than Ravel’s Ondine. Can’t exactly remember how RMM played it, as it was overshadowed by the five Preludes of Polish composer Milosz Magin. This is fascinating music, fascinatingly performed, the fourth being a lovely nocturne for the left hand alone. And it appears less taxing than Scriabin’s. Verdict: A sensitive and persuasive musician who should make it through.
Eric Zuber (USA) is the big-hitter among the Americans. His Debussy The Engulfed Cathedral had good contrasts and a massive climax. The two Szymanowski Marzukas from Op.50 (famously recorded by Rubinstein and Hamelin) were varied and convincing; the first was earthy and robust while the second probing and melancholic. The Liszt Rhapsodie Espagnole exhibited excellent octave technique throughout and had humour in the Jota Aragonesa. Verdict: If you got it, flaunt it. Another exzuberant showing.
We’re down to the final two. Yekwon Sunwoo (Korea) did little wrong in Debussy’s Voiles (Sails), with its thirds and apparent stasis well judged. The two Brahms selections from Op.118 had mixed outings. The lyricism in the Intermezzo in A major (No.2) was well brought out, while he submerged some murkiness in the Ballade (No.3) by over-pedalling. Finally his Balakirev Islamey was probably the swiftest among the three heard over the last two days, with no shortage of bravura and spilt notes. Verdict: A dependable pianist who should get through.
Finally, Xun Wang (China) returned with yet another short programme, running well under the 20 minute mark. Had he misread the rulebook? At any rate, his Debussy Ondine (the sixth version to be played) lacked feeling and subtlety. This was followed by two impossibly familiar Chopin waltzes. The A minor (Op.34 No.2) was too fast to be sentimental about, while the C sharp minor (Op.64 No.2) had little new to say. His Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.6 was however very dependable, with the right hand octaves predictably stunning. Verdict: Should have presented more music to aid his cause.