Each competition will be judged by the standard of the pianists of its last edition, as well as the jury that presides. On the latter count alone, Hong Kong had set itself a truly enviable benchmark. A jury headed by Vladimir Ashkenazy (left) and supported by the likes of Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Vladimir Krainev, Pascal Roge, Cristina Ortiz and three Hong Kong piano luminaries Li Minqiang, Gabriel Kwok and Eleanor Wong, reminds one of those competitions of old which used to be judged by people like Nadia Boulanger, Gina Bachauer, Clifford Curzon, and Gerald Moore, all great musicians and elder statesmen (and stateswomen) of the keyboard. So daunting and august was this set of jurors that one wondered whether the competitors were up to scratch.
Thankfully, entry to the competition was stringent enough to ensure small but very strong field. When there was more than adequate time to have heard 35 to 40 pianists in the preliminary round, only 14 were admitted. Of these, 6 were picked for the quarter finals, to be joined by a further 6 first prizewinners of earlier international piano competitions who received a bye. Three days of quarter-finals recitals and a semi-final chamber music round yielded 6 very worthy finalists, all of whom did themselves and the competition proud.
The standouts made music first and foremost, allied with strong technical abilities; typical competition automatons were nowhere to be found. That there were so many favourite moments in the competition made it all the more enthralling.
The Italian Domenico Codispoti, who sported a goatee, impressed with a wonderfully imaginative performance of Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze (Op.6). His shaping and characterisation of each of its 18 movements – introverted Eusebius and impulsive Florestan – were a joy to behold, as was his colouring of Takemitsu’s Litany, which seemed to bring out the true essence of Japanese gagaku. Quite inexplicably, he was not picked for the semi-finals. Instead an error-prone blonde Russian who happened to be a student of one of the jurors progressed.
The semi-final Chamber Music Round saw the emergence of a fiery personality that was the Malaysian Foo Mei Yi (left), whose contribution in Schumann Piano Quintet in E flat major (Op.44) was the major highlight. Her mere presence seemed to spark the string quartet from the London Chamber Orchestra into life, and the music sparked, sparkled and sizzled. Earlier, she had performed much of Bach’s Partita No.5 in G major bare-footed and gave the most intense Ravel Gaspard de la nuit thought possible. For her efforts (and occasional Lang Lang-like histrionics), I had christened her the “Tigress of Seremban” and “Argerich-next-door”.
The more competition savvy participants included the Russian Ilya Rashkovskiy (left) and Chinese Wen-Yu Shen, who had been runners-up at the Marguerite Long (2002) and Queen Elisabeth (2004) Competitions respectively. Rashkovskiy gave the most competent performances all round, shining in Schumann’s Etudes symphoniques (Op.13) which was pure elegance from start to end, with the posthumous etudes inserted most sensibly and tastefully.
He was also the most at home in his own Russian repertoire – Tchaikovsky’s nostalgic Meditation (Op.72 No.5) and a most manic reading of Shostakovich’s Prelude & Fugue in D flat major (Op.87 No.15). Shen’s Gaspard was excellent (although less characterised than Foo’s) but was bettered by a no-holds-barred Stravinsky Three Movements from Petrushka. The tussle for the first two spots was to be down to these two, Rashkovskiy’s svelte polish and Slavic steadiness versus Shen’s youthful exuberance and nonchalantly effortless facility.
The others were by no means also rans. Hong Kong’s Colleen Lee Ka Ling gave a beautifully shaped Schumann Kreisleriana (Op.16), with every emotional and stylistic nuance in their right place. The Belarussian Andrey Ponochevny (the competition’s most experienced contestant, left) poured his heart and soul in Beethoven’s ultimate Sonata No.32 in C minor (Op.111) and let fly in Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata. A dark horse was Korea’s Kim Sunghoon, whose heavyweight stature was put to good effect in a beefy but surprisingly nimble reading of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.