Friday, 8 July 2016



Preliminaries Round One, Day One

Thursday 7 July 2016 (1.30 pm)

The first two recitals in the Sydney International Piano Competition 2016 had exactly the same piece of music performed – Chopin's Polonaise-Fantasie Op.61. This kind of anomaly only happens in piano competitions when the luck of the draw and the specific kind of repertoire favoured brings two artists in “collision course”.

The first pianist to play it was LARRY WENG (USA, 28 years old), who unfortunately had a lapse earlier in its course and the distraction of an errant cell-phone going off midway. Nevertheless, he coaxed a beautiful tone from the afternoon's Yamaha grand, and brought nobility to this Polish dance of aristocracy. He finished off the 20 minute programme with an excellent reading of Ravel's Alborada del gracioso (from Miroirs), which was playful, rhythmically exuberant and capped with marvellous sweeps of glissandi. Despite the hiccups, this fine musician provided a good start to the competition.

ILYA RASHKOVSKIY (Russia, 31 years) also played the same piece, but his version sounded more nuanced with the different sections more clearly defined. The opening chords had a declamatory quality that made one sit up, and he made sure that the spirit never flagged, even in the quieter and more lyrical moments. Before that, his blistering performance of Carl Vine's Toccatissimo, written for the 2012 competition and filled with the devices that made the composer's First Sonata so popular, would have scared the wits out of anyone listening to it (especially his rivals). A very high bar has been set.

The contrasts brought to Bach's Prelude & Fugue in A flat major (WTC I) and Liszt's Dante Sonata by KENNETH BROBERG (USA, 22 years) could not be greater, but both performances were touched with a sensitivity and musicianship that is hard to dislike. The Bach was a model of clarity throughout and one might have wished for even more fire in the opening octaves in tritones or during the descent into the inferno of the Liszt, but the love music in the centre of the firestorm was wondrously realised. 

Debussy's Reverie is hardly a competition piece but consider what ALJOSA JURINIC (Croatia, 27 years) had to offer – melting legato playing and wonderful pedalling. Literally a dream performance, which was also captured in the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition's recently released CD. More fine musicianship was to be found in Beethoven's Sonata in E flat major (Op.27 No.1). The dreaminess may have continued from the Debussy, but the temperature rose for the 2nd movement and finale. The reprise of the 3rd movement's hymn just before the end capped an excellently judged reading.

DAVID JAE-WEON HUH (South Korea, 29 years) came up with a very smart programme that was greater than the sum of its parts. Rameau's Les trois mains was a delightfully tricky piece, a diversion with lots of hand-crossing, simulating three voices at play. Australian Larry Sitsky's Arch was exactly as described, building up from mysterious impressionist hues to a massive climax before gently receding. To close was Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No.1, which galloped away with nary a care to a brilliant conclusion. Could it be better played? See below.

There will always be a soft spot for RACHEL CHEUNG (Hong Kong, 24 years), who is a virtuoso without playing outwardly virtuosic pieces. Two varied Scarlatti Sonatas – C major (K.384) and A major (K.39) - immediately showed her enormous range of colour and variegated touches. Extreme legato versus extreme staccato worked to marvelous effect. In Brahms' Klavierstucke Op.19, she made the contrasts of each piece stand out, the ambiguously shifting tonality in No.1, agitation and serenity in No.2, playfulness in No.3 and the resolute triumph of No.4. She is more than a match for the virtuoso boys.

If anything, the performance of Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No.1 would reach an even more frenzied high with HA TAE GYU (South Korea, 19 years). His seemed to sound faster, more prodigious and perhaps even more refined that the preceding outing. Such is the perception (or illusion?) of more recent memory. Before that, he had opened accounts with Chopin's Nocturne in D flat major (Op.27 No.2), a model of cantabile playing and right hand filigree.

The eighth and last player of the afternoon session was ARSENY TARASEVICH-NIKOLAEV (Russia, 23 years), who is the grandson of the late Russian grand dame of the piano Tatiana Nikolayeva. The pedigree has definitely rubbed off, with his very fine accounts of Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor (Op.27 No.1), another model of grace, and Ballade No.2 in F major (Op.38), alternating serenity with violence to spellbinding effect. The three Etudes Op.65 by Scriabin had the right measure of ghostly mystique, languor and finally explosive impetuosity. He looks to be a front-runner.      

Thursday 7 July 2016 (6.30 pm)

The Fazioli grand was wheeled in for the evening session, which began with RACHEL NAOMI KUDO (USA, 29 years), playing two varied Sonatas by Scarlatti. The A major (K.332) had simplicity and not a little ornamentation while the A minor (K.175) thrived on orchestral effects by reliving a band of fifes and drums. Her considerable dexterity was brought to bear in the warhorse that is Brahms' Paganini Variations Op.35. She played the First Book, necessitating in jumping through a lot of physical and technical hoops, which received a more than competent account. But is that enough?

One would apply the same question to SERGEY BELYAVSKIY (Russia, 22 years) whose claim would be “I'm all fingers!” in Beethoven's Rondo a Capriccio, also known as the Rage over a Lost Penny. The great German composer in “etude mode” does not sound such a charming or humourous fellow from this account. His mandatory Australian work was the first two Bagatelles by Carl Vine, which were sensitively played, with bell-like sonorities contrasted with mercurial scampering fingers. Does one really need to hear Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 in a competition? It was a good performance, and sufficiently exciting but what does it really tell about the player? 

There would be more to recommend DANIEL LEBHARDT (Hungary, 24 years) whose choice of Bach's Partita No.1 in B flat major, the only major Bach work to be heard in this round, was a brave one. His very musical and articulate account was a joy, built around the oasis of calm that is the Sarabande, where time stood perfectly still. The brusque interjections and atonal violence of Graham Hair's Under Aldebaran did little to dispel the earlier charm, and his programme closed with Bartok's Etude Op.18 No.1, where angry coruscating ostinatos dominated. A game of two halves, as they say.

XIE MING (China, 22 years) opened with Granados' El amor y la muerte (Balada), the final and longest piece from Goyescas. His was a very polished performance, almost to the point of being squeaky clean. The lucidity belied the romantic impulses that eventually came out to the fore, but there was always something sinister lurking in the shadows, as if kept in reserve. In Pesson's Speech of Clouds, there was a Debussyan lightness and delicacy, with floating wisps and flurry of arpeggios before an episode that involved thumping on the wood of the piano. With Rachmaninov's fearsome transcription of Mendelssohn's Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream, his ever-busy fingers flew with the lightness of sylphs. Here is a pianist to hear again.

It is funny how the most interesting pianists get lumped together in a single session. MARTIN MALMGREN (Sweden, 29 years), who has shoulder length frizzy hair, is probably the most wayward and bizarre (in a good way) of the 32. He began his 20 minutes with Medtner's Prologue (from Stimmungsbilder Op.1), a perfect “once upon a time” set to music if any. Its E flat major entreaties soon gave way to Liszt's late and bleak Nuages Gris (Grey Clouds) in G minor, which pointed to the increasing level of dissonance as the music progressed. The broken final chord, left hanging in the air served as a prelude to Bartok's Three Etudes (Op.18), which was a summation of the Hungarian's idiom – rhythmic violence, impressionist harmonies and the exploration of variegated scents, textures and touches, all served to perfection with Malmgren's faultless pianism.

His programme closed with Australian Brett Dean's Equality, but how many people in the audience knew this was a work for a vocalising pianist? Perhaps for the first time in this competition, one got to hear a pianist's voice as well, when he interjected “All men are bastards!” There were guffaws and dropped jaws a plenty in this feminist work, to which he added “We will fight for equality...” while pounding away on the keys, and wait for the punchline, “... until all women are bastards too!” This competition has sought for pianists of individualism and creativity, and I think they got more than they bargained for. Bravo!

AYESHA GOUGH (Australia, 21 years), also blest with a frizzy top, has to be Malmgren's female counterpart. Her first piece was not unusual, Tchaikovsky's Dumka (Op.59) was served with a rather prosaic opening but soon erupted into a Slavic fantasy in its short variations. Finishing well, the mood shifted into the dreamtime land of Peter Sculthorpe's Djilile, its tonal allure of distant tones, echoes and silences heightened by excellent pedalling. Equally unexpected was Mikhail Pletnev's transcription of Rodion Shchedrin's Prologue & Horse Racing from Anna Karenina, a showpiece which opened quietly on high registers before a chorus of octave cascades, violent chords and the exploitation of dynamic extremes. Gough was a most persuasive advocate, so more please.

PETER DE JAGER (Australia, 26 years), bearded and with beyond-shoulder length locks, looks like the portrait of biblical Jesus. And by God he can play too, contrasting 4 Scarlatti Sonatas with two Ligeti Etudes. Even if all of the Scarlattian tetralogy were in major keys (D major and C major), he made them sound varied. The D major group had a march-like number and one filled with trills, while the C major tandem played with staccato technique and a fanfare for trumpets. Ligeti's Cordes a vide (Open Chords) and Fanfares were like day and night, the former's mellow dissonances with fourths and fifths, and the latter's jazzy and rhythmic machinations in an escalating perpetuum mobile. Another breath of fresh air.

With ROMAN LOPATYNSKI (Ukraine, 23 years), it was back to the East European power-lifting brand of pianism. The big man however surprised with his crisp and clear handling of Haydn's Sonata No.32 in B minor, with its alternating between major and minor keys providing dramatic moments, and a chattering finale where he kept things interesting. Also in B minor was Samuil Feinberg's bristling transcription of the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony. A tour de force of power playing (think Volodos and Berman), Lopatynski pulled all the stops for sweeping delivery, barring a few missed notes. A grandstanding (and noisy) way to close a day of marvellous pianism.

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