Thursday, 23 October 2008

Hong Kong International Piano Competition 2008: Finals Day One

Finals Day One (16 October 2008)

The first day of the Finals seemed to begin on an anticlimax, with the realisation that there would be five finalists instead of the allotted six. Ten concerto performances would be heard instead of twelve. The talk was that the unfortunate “sixth” person had not garnered enough votes to make the cut. Of the 22 piano concertos on the list, only five would be heard over the three evenings.

The competition orchestra was the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong conducted by Christopher Warren-Green (left). In the Mozart concertos, a very small orchestra was to be used, with the strings configured 6-6-4-2 (6 first violins, 6 second violins, 4 cellos and 2 basses), a wise choice so as not to overwhelm the pianist. For the Romantic / 20th century concertos, the orchestra was augmented with a further 30 musicians.


First up was a young diffident-looking Korean desperately in need of a hair cut. His demeanor suggested nerves but this soon became apparent. His entries in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17 in G major (K.453) were clean, crisp and well crafted, but there was a niggling feeling he did not have much to say about the music except to play as nicely as he could.

The slow movement was dogged by unsubtle woodwinds, the opening oboe solo was just too loud and what could have sounded magical was lost. Park’s pacing was very deliberate but was this due to deeply felt emotion or just being overly cautious? Again it was difficult to say, and the movement came apart with a major desynchronisation between orchestra and soloist for what seemed an eternity. To the young man’s credit, he did not lose his nerve and played on until normality was restored. The chirpy finale began on a somewhat lacklustre pace until the piano’s entry, and there were several wrong notes. No grumbles about the ebullient ending, but this was a not a beginning that one had hoped.

Park was however a different creature in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Grabbing the bull by its horns, here was a far more encouraging showing. However there was a second’s rupture in one of the early variations, as if soloist and orchestra were waiting for each other to make the next move. Not good. The emergence of the Dies irae in Variation VII was just too slow, not helped by a geriatric-sounding bassoon. After this, Park rallied strongly and gained in confidence with each variation. The treacherous Variation XV flew through effortlessly and the famous Variation XVIII unfolded quite beautifully. Not one to gild the lily, he resisted the temptation to stretch out the music until near its end. After that, a superb show of octave technique ensured the work ended on a high.

Verdict: An uneven outing, with Rachmaninov topping Mozart (isn’t it always the case?) Might not finish within the top three, I’m afraid.


The second Korean of the evening looks only a bit slightly older than Park, but one possessed with far more poise and confidence. This was all the more apparent in the same Mozart concerto (K.453) where his playing sounded crisper and more in focus. The music seemed to leap out of the pages, adding that extra dimension to mere notes alone. The woodwinds fared far better in the slow movement, and the problems that plagued the earlier performance did not surface. It is certainly an advantage to be playing second in the evening. And when the pianist is more confident, the orchestra feeds on these cues and a far better collaboration results. The finale, delivered with a cleaner overall technique, sounded casual in a good way, although it could have picked up on its wattage level way before its closing pages.

Lee’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto was the undisputed gem of the evening. The opening chords showed his intent, and rarely have I heard the arpeggios that followed transcend the lush orchestral melody on the strings as well as this. Lee feels the Romantic sweep of the music, and lives its ebbs and flows very naturally. The flute and clarinet solos in the slow movement were spot on, and Lee’s ability to build up this beautiful evocative music, arch-like to its wondrous climax by gradually ratcheting its sound, pace and overall tension, was inspiring.

The finale was close to perfection itself, with the scherzando sections living to their name, but it was his delivery of the famous big tune – plainly at first but later suffused with increasing ardour – that impressed most. His emphasis on the doubled bass notes for added effect in the short sweeping cadenza on its second run seemed an indulgence, but one he had earned, and richly deserved.

Verdict: A far more formed musician and artist. Will finish several notches about Park and on this form, a possible winner.

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