Monday, 9 December 2013


Sunday (8 December 2013)

The grand final of the Piano Artist Category of the biannual National Piano & Violin Competition is the closest thing one gets to the final round of any international piano competition. Three finalists get to play a full length concerto with an orchestra, a formula which also applied to international competitions I have attended in London and Shanghai. For years, it has been the grand showcase of piano talent in Singapore and the previous finals have been memorable to say the least. This year it was even better.

In some ways, this seemed like a repeat of the 2007 finals held at the Victoria Concert Hall. That edition pitted Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto (played by a Chinese student from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts) against Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 (by a student from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory), with a Grieg Piano Concerto as an also-ran. On that December evening, the Tchaikovsky triumphed.

Due to the order in which participants had drawn earlier, it was the Tchaikovsky that opened this final, accompanied by the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra conducted by Chan Tze Law. NAFA’s Wan Jing Jing (China) was a rock solid soloist, comfortably issuing big chords that thundered through the orchestra’s majestic statement of the main theme. The early cadenza was dispatched with relative ease. A crying baby (why are they even allowed entry?) did little to faze this assured young lady on her mission. There were a few missed notes in the long cadenza at the end of the first movement, but that mattered little.

The main problem with this warhorse of a concerto is that it calls for big gestures through most of its pages, stampeding octaves, emotionally driven romantic clichés and the like all worn heart-on-sleeve. Wan delivered these with true weight and aplomb, but the overall effect with her and the orchestra operating at full blast in this reverberant hall was one of sensory overload and exhaustion.

Some respite came in the second movement, where the serene opening theme was well contrasted with the quicksilver prestissimo central interlude. The rollicking finale was also well pulled off, with the orchestra build up towards the final salvo of octaves being one of the work’s most thrilling moments. Wan did not disappoint, and even though she could develop further by bringing more nuances to this less-than-subtle work, this was job well done.

There was a good reason why Camille Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto was not on the list of concertos for the last three editions of the competition. It was the 2005 final which infamously featured three consecutive performances of the piece, each worse than the last. It made for a mind-numbing concert that nobody was keen to repeat. Thankfully Yap Sin Yee (Malaysia) gave a swashbuckling performance that topped all three of those, thus restoring some faith to the superficial delights of this work.

“Bach to Offenbach” is the apt description applied to the concerto’s journey from sobriety to outright frivolity, one which Yap understood well and took to her heart. The opening G minor cadenza with its long held pedal-note was delivered in its full gothic glory. Hardly a note was missed in the loud parts of the first movement, but it was the fairy-tale lightness in the quieter passages that impressed. While the second movement’s scherzo could have done with more crispness, the waltz-like soft centre was milked to its max. Any more sentimentality would have been a descent into schmaltz, a fine line which the performers treaded quite gingerly. 

Any doubts as to this performance were dispelled in the tarantella finale, which saw Yap flying off the blocks at a furious pace. How she maintained this momentum from frenzied start to scintillating end was a testament to her athletic prowess, but one which took all musical considerations in the stride. Amid the chase, there was humour and an ebullience that sparkled like champagne.     

Singapore’s hopes lay in Jonathan Shin who cut a supremely confident figure in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor (K.466). He was informally attired and looked like an epitome of coolness. The playing was however one of warmth and svelte elegance, though he closely identified with the music’s sturm und drang. Making the music come alive, with its emphasis on natural flow and innate urgency, there was no resorting to ear-catching agogics or exaggerated accents. The Beethoven cadenza was well-chosen, dramatic and trenchant in its delivery.

The slow movement’s Romanze was poetically shaded, and if there were a minor quibble, he could have stirred up the turbulent central G minor a bit more to show up the movement’s contrasts. The finale was a return to the first movement’s dramatics, and while some thought that it was taken too fast, I felt that he maintained the movement’s tension well, culminating with an excellent cadenza. In certain ways, this was for me the most satisfying performance of the afternoon. This was not because Shin did not put a foot wrong, but because Mozart is so darned hard to interpret convincingly. He seemed to get everything just right.

So how does one decide between a sturdy Tchaikovsky, a rip-roaring Saint-Saëns and an urbane Mozart? I don’t for a moment envy the jury of Gennady Dzubenko, Dean Kramer and Ick Choo Moon who have to judge these things. For myself, and those fortunate to have attended the final, this has been a most absorbing concert – perhaps the best final in years. The result had to be a close one, and here are the placings:

3. Jonathan Shin in Mozart 20
2. Wan Jing Jing in Tchaikovsky 1
1. Yap Sin Yee in Saint-Saëns 2

The moment when Yap Sin Yee
finds out she has won.

Congratulations are in order to all the pianists, as well as the semi-finalists (I heard another three) who have set a very high overall standard for the cohort of 2015 to emulate. Till the next time!

All the three winners (from L):
Wan Jing Jing, Yap Sin Yee & Jonathan Shin

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