Saturday, 29 October 2011



Finals Day 1, Friday 28 October 2011

Oh, how I love Hong Kong! But I would not want to stay here. Take the traffic, for instance. It took me an hour and a half to get from the Airport to the hotel, and another hour from the hotel in East Tsim Sha Tsui to the City Hall Concert Hall on Hong Kong island itself. If not for the Chopin Society of Hong Kong’s President Dr Andrew Freris, whose elaborate pre-concert preambles kept an audience captive, we would have missed the music itself.

For this year’s finals, the Mozart piano concerto has been dropped. Word has it that the jury had been disappointing with performances in previous editions of the competition and felt it a chore to differentiate between six middling to mediocre readings. So it has been replaced by a newly commissioned work written for this concours, British composer Howard Blake’s Speech After Long Silence (below).

HOWARD BLAKE'S Newly commissoned Work

The World Premiere of Blake’s Speech was given by the first finalist, Russia’s Elmar Gasanov. Unlike most new works, whose fate is to be played on multiple occasions ad nauseam at a competition and then shelved for eternity thereafter, this one promises to be heard rather often. Blake’s partiality for tonality and emotional connection (unsurprising for the composer of the children’s favourite The Snowman) makes this a most accessible work. At about 8 minutes, its Romantic gestures replete with lush harmonies and crashing chords resemble an updated and extended version of one of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-tableaux. The key of E flat minor is also telling. Gasanov performed it with a score, but no matter, the performance brought out its colours, and for a Russian who might already be familiar with this idiom, the bell-like sonorities came out trenchantly.

The partnering orchestra for the competition was the Hong Kong Philharmonic, in its very first collaboration. Previous editions had seen the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, HK City Chamber Orchestra and London Chamber Orchestra, sometimes augmented with free-lancers, conducted by Christopher Warren-Green do the honours with mixed results. And it was a peculiar sight to see Chairman of the Jury Vladimir Ashkenazy step away from the judges’ table and walk directly to the stage, ascend the podium and conduct. He certainly is a busy man!


Gasanov’s chosen concerto was Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, a work he should know like the back of his hand. He certainly has the fingers for it – the bold opening chords accompanying its majestic first subject, and the ensuing cadenza of ascending arpeggios set the tone. However there was something rough and ready to the performance, as if soloist and orchestra were not fully engaged with each other. Was it opening night nerves or lack of rehearsal time? An uncharacteristic lapse just before the second subject, at one of the easier passages, underlined the apparent rawness of this outing.

Undeterred, Gasanov generated a nervous tension that makes this masterpiece the exciting work it is. He is generally reliable for most part, alert to its dynamic shifts, barnstorming alternating with and being sensitive when the situation calls for it. His octaves are good if not thunderous (here the Horowitzian element could have come to the fore) and filigreed passages well managed, as was the big cadenza at the end of the first movement. Orchestral contributions for the Andantino semplice slow movement were lovely, particularly the opening flute solo. Gasanov did not disappoint in the lightness of touch for its mercurial pages. The finale mirrored the opening movement with its element of roughness but the Cossack dance was well driven, something one might expect from a pianist born in the Crimea. There were some missed notes in the fray which although may detract if this were a note-to-note audit, but the overall effect was still exciting, with the build-up to the final rush of octaves a quite thrilling one.

My verdict: Far from being the perfect performance of Tchaikovsky, but nevertheless exciting. Will I want to hear this repeated at Esplanade next Friday? In two words, not particularly.

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