Tuesday, 30 June 2009

FAMILIAR GROUND: Singapore International Piano Festival 2009 / Review

16th Singapore International Piano Festival
Victoria Concert Hall
Thursday to Sunday (25-28 June 2009)
An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 30 June 2009.

As the former Artistic Director of the annual piano festival, this reviewer enjoyed the wry in-joke of this year’s theme, a welcome return from the “unfamiliar” piano repertoire and artists of the past five festivals. A parallel may be drawn with the fortunes of the Singapore Arts Festival, as this edition posted a return to higher attendances with its roster of mostly Russian pianists playing music of the most usual suspect – Frederic Chopin.

On the first evening, the Russian-American Vladimir Feltsman (left) probed the bittersweet vistas of two less-played Op.26 Polonaises. Between violent eruptions, Chopin’s vulnerability was poignantly bared, with self-conscious attempts at lightness and jollity in the latter dance an unexpected highlight. The popular Ballade No.3 built to its heady climax, with delicious inner voices brought out along the way.

Feltsman’s evening began with a romanticised view of Bach’s Partita No.1 in B flat major, its dances tastefully ornamented but not without indulging in tantalising rubatos. Liberty from the written score distinguished one of the most interesting readings of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition in memory.

Generous pedaling ensured that each run of the Promenade theme sounded like clangourous carillons, while the work’s weird and wonderful characters vividly leapt off the walls. Never a dull moment, the witch Baba Yaga’s bloodthirsty swoops, claw and fang-laden, led directly into The Great Gate of Kiev, which began subito piano rather than the anticipated fortissimo. With Feltsman, surprises never cease.

Equally personal and provocative was Nikolai Demidenko’s (left) account of Chopin’s 24 Préludes Op.28, painted with every possible shade of dark grey. His world-weary journey accentuated the somberness of minor keys while inflecting major keys with touches of melancholy. The mysterious A minor Prélude was unveiled as a funereal procession, while bells of doom replaced raindrops in the familiar D flat major number. When the music afforded sunshine and a smile, out came clouds and scowls.

The thaw came with Schumann. Faschingsschwank Aus Wien (Carnival Jest In Vienna) had jollity and ecstasy in equal measure while Demidenko’s variegated touch relived the humour and high spirits of Carnaval. Its 22 short character studies flitted quixotically between with bipolar extremes of Florestan (passionate) and Eusebius (withdrawn). Like Rachmaninov before him, Demidenko performed the movement nobody ever plays: the bare enigmatic notes of Sphinxes, Schumann’s only flirtation with atonality.

Surely the most refined pianist was Pascal Rogé, whose hour-long collage of Nocturnes, Préludes and Études by Fauré, Poulenc, Chopin and Debussy – played uninterrupted – stood firm in the memory. Every note and nuance was coloured with sensitivity and beauty. His Debussy was peerless, from the arch-simplicity of Girl With The Flaxen Hair to the torrential squall in What The West Wind Saw. Several Chopin Préludes were heard again, and the effect was like night and day. Where Demidenko had brooded, Rogé shone and illuminated. In Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude, he showed that Frenchmen could barnstorm with the best of Russians.

Rogé was joined by his Japanese-Indonesia wife Ami (above) in 4-hand works by Schubert and Ravel. The former’s Fantaisie in F minor was a study of balance and intimacy, most eloquently marrying Biedermeier prettiness with contrapuntal mastery. The sensuality exuded in the latter’s Rapsodie Espagnole was never in doubt, the rhythms alternating between hypnotic and exuberant. The Rogés, matched in complementary black Chinese outfits, sounded and looked a most handsome couple.
Young Sudbin is a new giant of the keyboard (Photos: Collin Tan)

Although still in his twenties, the Russian Yevgeny Sudbin (above) who closed the festival was a throw back to the great pianists of the Golden Age such as Horowitz and Friedman. His suite of four Chopin Mazurkas rejoiced in rhythmic vitality and rich bass-notes, evincing varying degrees of nostalgia and moodiness. Two Scarlatti Sonatas and Haydn’s E minor Sonata (Hob.XVI:34)also elegantly revealed tragicomedic elements that belied their staid titles.

Sudbin left his boldest stamp in music of his homeland; two Medtner Fairy Tales exuded the ironic mix of fantasy and pathos that only a Slav could express, and the relentless pulverising force of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata left one stunned, numbed and later enlightened. Its precipitous finale began on a frantic pace, and plunged headlong without let up till its fateful end. With artists like these, the future of the “live” piano recital is never in doubt.
The Singapore International Piano festival was presented by Singapore Symphonia Co. Ltd.

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