Thursday, 23 October 2008

Hong Kong International Piano Competition 2008: Finals Days Two & Three

Finals Day Two (17 October 2008)

Two more pianists, four concertos, including two performances of Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto this evening. Like the previous evening, the second pianist enjoyed the advantage of not playing first.


The body language of this graceful, waif-like French lady does not inspire the greatest of confidence, and this showed up in the playing. Her view of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor (K.466) was clear-headed, cultured but ultimately small-scaled. There were missed notes, for certain, and everything seemed to operate on a lowish voltage. The Romance was beautifully shaped, however the stormy G minor interlude did not provide enough contrasts to make the performance genuinely exciting. Even the finale sounded intimate rather than dramatic, and had its fair share of spilt notes. At its conclusion, she looked shell-shocked as the Chopin F minor concerto awaited.

Thankfully, what was lacking in the Mozart came with renewed vigour in Chopin’s Op. 21. Her entry was arresting, and there began a feel for blood and guts as her performance gradually caught fire. Passion, and that sense of sturm und drang, missing in the Mozart, had come alive – finally. The nocturne-like slow movement was lovely and many passages were distinguished with a crystalline sound. The finale had a good sense of rhythm, but was not note-perfect, something which might come back to haunt her, but she finished off confidently.

Verdict: A sensitive artist somewhat lacking in confidence. Looks like the weakest pianist so far.


The Chinese-German chose to perform her two concertos on the walnut Hamburg Steinway that had a mellower sound and which seemed to blend better with the orchestra. The consequence was that her performances sounded as intimate as chamber music, which cannot be a bad thing.

That was almost ideal for her vision of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17 in G major (K.453), heard for the third time in two evenings. She is a stylish musician for whom everything is well thought-out and every phrase sensitively shaded. There was a change in oboist in the second movement, so no disasters this time around. This slow movement was the most deliberately paced of the three. Some might call this sluggish, but I loved it, because she made it sound convincing, and the finale benefited from the shift in dynamics. Positively energised, the lovely finale sang and flew like Mozart’s pet starling, and Huang could have further upped the tempi towards the end. No matter. This was my favourite Mozart performance on two evenings.

The second Chopin Op.21 on the evening yielded a totally different viewpoint altogether. For Huang, Chopin seemed like a natural progression from Mozart’s aesthete, and the same poise, grace and nobility of spirit infused the performance. Where Tysman had sounded volatile, Huang was rock steady. Time stood still in the slow movement as she cast a magical spell, with the hushed orchestra complimenting her every gesture and pause for breath. From a pianist with seemingly no rough edges, this was a dream performance which I wished would go on and on, with no one to rouse me from this reverie. The finale had to come, but it had the necessary lift and lilt to transport the performance to yet another plain.

Verdict: Based on the finals alone, my favoured pianist. A toss up between her and the equally steady Jin Sang Lee, but I’ve always favoured beauty over brawn.

Finals Day Three (18 October 2008)


The third Korean in the finals was possessed with the greatest of confidence of all five finalists. She even afforded a smile to the audience, always a reassuring sign. The orchestra also sounded the best today; all this augured for a grandstand finish, or did it?

Kim’s Mozart Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor (K.466) generated far more tension than the unfortunate Tysman could ever muster, yet the music “flowed like oil”, just to borrow a favourite description by Mozart of how his music should sound. There were no bumps, hard edges or meretricious effects, and the performance had lots of character, especially in the way the beautiful Romance was crafted. The tempestuous G minor section was vibrant and bounded with energy before a return to solace. The finale had drama and attention, and the closing cadenza (but whose?) surprised with some loud bits and unexpected twists.

The Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto opened with Kim spreading the left hand chords (like Gary Graffman did in his famous recording) before launching herself headlong into the thrall of Slavic melancholy. Her more volatile and passionate reading seemed to emote more than Jin Sang Lee’s Rachmaninov, making for a more excitable and personable outing overall. The big French horn solo toward the end of the first movement went awry, but this was made up by lovely flute and clarinet solos that opened the slow movement. Following the coruscating run in the second movement cadenza, Kim paused for what seemed an eternity before continuing on the bass of the keyboard. Was this a show of individuality or an unnecessary indulgence?

Kim packed power and punch in the finale, and everything went swimmingly until the final three minutes and it all fell apart. The bounding D major passage leading to final climax went careening off the rails, for which she never seemed to recover thereafter. Such was the cost of living hazardously on the edge; a moment of glory had turned sour, and one could not help but feel for this genuinely individual and creative personality

Verdict: It takes but a few minutes to see one’s stock fall off dramatically (sounds a bit like Wall Street of recent times), but such is a life in music. Third or fourth place at best.

My verdict (based on what I witnessed in the finals only):


The jury’s verdict:


So no complaints from me, not having heard the semi-finals chamber round which was also taken into account towards the final score, and the solo recitals. I do look forward to the solos from the five finalists in the Gala Concerts.

No comments: