Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Hong Kong International Piano Competition 2008: Gala Concerts Evening Three

Tuesday 21 October 2008

This was the highly anticipated bumper evening of piano concertos. The orchestra was the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong augmented by 30 musicians from all around Asia, under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy. As expected, the City Hall Concert Hall drew its biggest audience thus far, a stark contrast with the smallish crowd that had turned out for the competition concerto finals. They had come to witness the stellar cast on show: Ashkenazy, Gary Graffman, Pascal Rogé and Cristina Ortiz. The competition proper had ended, and the bona fide stars have come out.

First up was the octogenarian Gary Graffman, who had celebrated his 80th birthday in Hong Kong. The American only plays works for the left hand these days, and his offering was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.4 in B flat major (Op.53). His approach was one of feathery lightness, the piano part consisting for most part of single notes, balanced by a light orchestration (by Prokofiev’s standards). The accents were well placed, giving the music contour and shape. Its original dedicatee Ludwig Wittgenstein had rejected this work out of hand, but that’s most probably because he can’t match Graffman’s nimbleness and vision.

There was arch-lyricism (which Rachmaninov would have approved) in the slow movement, which unfolded like a set of variations, and rhythmic vibrancy ruled in the 3rd movement despite some messiness in the initial entry of the brass. The little finale (barely 2 minutes long) – light and ebullient - served as a delightful “encore”.

The second concerto fell to Frenchman Pascal Rogé, whose recording of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major (and its left hand companion) garnered the Gramophone Award in the late 1970s. The opening solos from the piccolo and trumpet were as good as hoped for, and the black silk pyjama-clad Rogé (looking every bit like Hugh Hefner) eased into his role perfectly. While I could have wished for a little more sensuality in some passages, Rogé is a complete natural in this music, revelling in its shimmering textures and rhythmic exuberance. Curiously, for all of Rogé’s multiple visits to Singapore, he has yet to play this marvellous concerto.

The slow movement’s nocturne-like waltz was delivered dreamlike, with a steady but not plodding pace. Also distinguishing themselves were orchestral solos from the flute, oboe and most importantly, cor anglais. The mad-cap finale made for a champagne-popping close that brought chorus of cheer from the audience. Their reward was Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No.5 (a respite from Rogé’s usual Je te veux), which sounded almost improvised on the spot.

The third performance of the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto within six days came from Cristina Ortiz, which was in many ways the best of the lot. Having lived with this music for decades, Ortiz feels that some licence is permissible - a little rubato here, and some added accents there, all of which added to the character of the music. Never mind the few missed notes in the slow second movement – which might have proved deleterious in a competitor’s case – it was just one of those things, easily shrugged off at the spur of the moment. While winner Jin Sang Lee’s was a textbook perfect look at a warhorse, Ortiz was a lifetime’s survey of what is great about this music. One can never get enough of such music, and such performances.

Vladimir Ashkenazy, who has made no less than three recordings of this masterpiece, proved to be the perfect maestro – keeping every thing on a tight rein, yet allowing the music to breathe. If there were some perfect moments, I would go for the hushed strings towards the end of the slow movement, and the excitable central scherzando section in the finale. Sublime beauty with genuine adrenaline rushes – all these make for great Rachmaninov performances.

Encore time: Ortiz declared that it could not be anything else but Villa-Lobos, in this case the A Lenda do Caboclo (The Legend of Caboclo), beautiful harmonies and that irresistible Brazilian lilt. Just perfect!

The Third Hong Kong International Piano Competition has been timed for 15 October – 2 November 2011, so watch this space!

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