Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Hong Kong International Piano Competition 2008: Gala Concerts Evening Two

What do you call a table of judges? A collusion?
The judges who performed in the Gala Concerts
are identified with the arrows.
Monday 20 October 2008

One of the most gratifying aspects of the Hong Kong International Piano Competition is the fact that the “tables get turned on the jury”, that is those members who stood in judgment of the competitors are now required to do their bit by performing in the very same stage. The good news is this jury is formed by top class performers, just the right people to serve as mentors for the young musicians.

The 2005 competition featured one such Gala Concert with the jurors in solo repertoire. This year boasted of two Gala Concerts, featuring chamber music and concertos, the latter led on the podium by none other than the head honcho himself, Vladimir Ashkenazy.

First on stage was the UK-based Endellion Quartet, which played chamber music with the five semi-finalists / finalists. Ironically, all four of its members appeared together twice in that round – in Miao Huang and Hye Jun Kim’s outings in Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A major (Op.81). The other pianists had chosen trios or quartets.

The Endellions – formed by violinists Andrew Watkinson and Ralph de Souza, violist Garfield Jackson and cellist David Waterman – are a world class ensemble. One immediately thinks of the great British quartets of the past – the Amadeus, Lindsay and Fitzwilliams. Their combined sense of purpose is immediately apparent in the opening pages of Beethoven’s second Razumovsky Quartet in E minor (Op.59 No.2), which was urgently driven and tension laden.

And this unity and focus was followed in the vastly varied canvas of the next three movements. Heavenly longeurs occupied the slow second movement, one was transported to the realms of late Beethoven quartets. Time stood still until the syncopated third movement, which had a curiously tipsy feel. The Russian Slava theme in its Trio was passed between each member like some coveted bottle of vodka. The finale displayed that joie de vivre, one that delighted in quick reflexes and tight overall ensemble, something to be expected in a quartet that is entering its 30th year of playing together.

The foursome was joined by Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz in Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major (Op.44). The quintet was unusually colour co-ordinated with deep blue tops and black bottoms (in the case of Ortiz, a midi-skirt). Ortiz’s piano stool is slanted forwards with the rear legs on blocks, suggesting she might have some orthopaedic affliction.

In any rate, the performance had a chemistry that only close friends could enjoy. The music benefited from its moments of heightened tension alternating with episodes to breathe and occasional rubato, all adroitly negotiated. These contrasts – in the bittersweet march of the 2nd movement and scales galore of the 3rd movement – including some passages of gay gypsy abandon kept this performance alive and vital.

The Hungarian Peter Frankl took centrestage in Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor (Op.34), and he too was colour coordinated with the Endellions. Frankl is a veteran chamber musician himself (a member of the piano trio that includes Gy├Ârgy Pauk and Ralph Kirshbaum), and this experience also showed with his close communication with the quartet. The simplicity in the opening theme soon made way for a passionate and fiery account of the work, which included the repeats, and hence double the excitement. Again, contrasts came into play in the serene and yearning slow movement, and the dramatic and explosive scherzo. The dissonance of the finale’s opening page exposed some intonation gone awry on the strings, but this anguished introduction soon worked its way to an impassioned close.

Both these quintets had not featured in the semi-finals, but I doubt whether any of the young pianists in the competition could have approximated the artistry and mastery witnessed this evening. Borne from years of musical experience, living and breathing this music, the results here were nothing short of wonderful.

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