Saturday, 13 January 2018


Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
Tuesday & Thursday 
(9 & 11 January 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 January 2018 with the title "Delicious sounds at new piano festival".

In the 25th year of the well-established Singapore International Piano Festival (due later in June), a new international piano festival has emerged. Founded by Singaporean pianist Wang Congyu, the week-long event included a competition for youngsters, masterclasses, lectures and piano recitals by members of its international faculty.

There could not have been a more varied programme than Thursday night's offering by young Portuguese pianist Vasco Dantas. Opening with Schumann's Kinderszenen (Scenes Of Childhood) and closing with Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, this was a recital of contrasts, from arch simplicity to a vivid play of exotic and sometimes disturbing visions. 

He possesses the technique and endurance to master the sprawl of these canvasses, the imagination and palette to colour and characterise each of the 28 short pieces within. In between, Liszt-student Vianna da Motta's delightfully rustic Portuguese Scenes and the fearsome Guido Agosti transcription of three movements from Stravinsky's The Firebird provided further delicious piques for the ears.

A standing ovation from the audience was a just result. Tagged on like encores were Gershwin's Three Preludes, teasing with rhythm and blues, and Dantas' own improvisation on the hit song I Got Rhythm with motifs from Jingle Bells cheekily inserted.

Earlier in the evening, Michael Bulychev-Okser (Russia/USA) held a lecture-recital that centred on the art of transciption. The Bach-Busoni chorale prelude Ich Ruft Zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, Glinka-Balakirev The Lark and Kreisler-Rachmaninov Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow) were familiar enough, but it was his selection of rarities that stood out.

Eduard Schütt's transcription of Brahms' Wiegenlied (Lullaby) was a showpiece guaranteed to keep babies (and audiences) awake. The lilt of Tirindelli-Liszt Mazurka No.2 was simply disarming while the Arensky-Siloti At The Fountain shimmered brilliantly through the underlying melancholy. Two Earl Wild etudes on Gershwin songs (Someone Like You and The Man I Love) and Rachmaninov's coruscating Floods Of Spring sealed a totally enjoyable virtuoso showcase.  

Held on Tuesday evening was a four-hands recital by locally-based husband-and-wife duo of Nicholas Ong (Malaysia) and Kim Bo Kyung (South Korea). Debussy's graceful 4-movement Petite Suite conjured visions of the Belle Epoque, from the gentle lilt of En Bateau (Sailing) to the final Ballet's exuberance. These paradigms of gentility were soon trumped by the waltzing tritones and dancing skeletons of Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, a witty celebration of things that go bump in the night.

On his own, Ong gave a scintillating reading of Schumann's Allegro in B major (Op.8), a rarity in recitals simply because it is so difficult to play. The duo resumed in the second half with Six Morceaux (Op.11) of Rachmaninov, varied short works that included a barcarolle, scherzo, waltz, romance, Russian song and Tsarist anthem. The interactive tension, delicate interplay and impeccable musicianship displayed are reasons why live performance will always be more exciting than any reproduced recording.

There will be competition performances and recitals till the closing evening on Monday. 

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