Friday, 4 November 2011

The Joy of Music Festival 2011: Concerto Gala Concert

Cheekily referred to as the "Mother of Piano Concerto concerts", the final gala concert of this year's The Joy of Music Festival and 3rd Hong Kong International Piano Competition closed with a big bang. There were four piano concertos in total, featuring four judges from the competition partnered by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The evening began on a lighter note with Cristina Ortiz performing Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto in F major, one of her signature pieces. Interestingly, the very first recording I had of this work (on EMI Classics) was performed by her as well, and bought in Hong Kong way back in 1981! Make no mistake, despite this being an "easy" work written for a teenaged Maxim Shostakovich (DSCH's son), this is by no means a walk in the park. Perfect timing, wit and humour are crucial for its success, and she succeeded with great aplomb. There was tenderness and nostalgia in the Rach-like slow movement, and perfect prestidigitation in the Hanon-like exercises of its riproring finale. Marvelous, just like old times!

I had never heard of the Russian piano pedagogue Tigran Alikhanov prior to this, but I did check out a Melodiya recording of his playing Taneyev and Mendelssohn chamber works, which was very impressive musically. In Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, he is a livewire, capturing the ascerbic wit and mechanistic brilliance very well. There were some unfortunate lapses in the slow movement's 2nd and 5th variations but that did not cloud a very lively finale - perfectly hewn - to close an enjoyable Russian first half.

The pianists got older as they came. Peter Frankl is now 76, but would not have guessed it by the way he launched himself into Liszt's Second Piano Concerto in A major. A far more subtle work than its predecessor, its transformation of themes unfolded majestically in his hands. The sublime page with cellist Richard Bamping was particularly beautiful, and when it came to crunching chords and those outlandish octave glissandi on both hands, Frankl is up there with all those youngsters. A totally impressive showing. Let's hope he play's Bartok the next time around!

Finally it was the turn of Gary Graffman, who just turned 83, in the Left Hand Concerto by Ravel. These days he only performs concertos for the left hand, which means he plays this and the Prokofiev Fourth Concerto with some frequency. His was a thoroughly assured reading, although sometimes the piano gets drowned by all the dense orchestration. The central jazzy march was totally delightful, as if turning back the years, while the final cadenza - one of the most fearsome exercises thought possible - was taken with great confidence. A chorus of bravos greeted the fiery end of the concerto, and of a magical evening of concertos with the stars.

What will they think of next in 2014?

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