Saturday 28 January 2023




Grand Final (Professional category)

School of the Arts Concert Hall

Saturday (21 January 2023)


The Singapore International Piano Competition has come and gone, and barely a whimper was raised. Unlike the high profile Singapore International Violin Competition, organised by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory last year and widely covered in the media, its piano counterpart was unheralded and mostly ignored by the concert-going public. The reason was simple: it was organised by Global International Musicians Association (GIMA) which has no local presence, instead operating remotely from Beijing, China. Despite not being sanctioned by Singapore’s National Arts Council, it nonetheless took place in earnest.  

Truly an august bench of jurors.


The competition’s website ( was a shambles with little or no practical information about attending (or the participants), however not everything was negative. The competition had an impressive jury of world-renowned piano pedagogues (Vardi, Kaplinsky, Slutsky, Tiu and Jinsang Lee will be known to competition anoraks even without their first names), and the young pianists taking part were on a whole very proficient if not yet revelatory artists.


There were only two Singaporeans in contention, both in the Junior category of the competition. Toby Tan Kai Rong, just 14, was the standout. In his preliminary round performance, the opening Bach Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor displayed both clarity and colour, with no need for over-pedalling. In Liszt’s La Campanella, his playing was the very definition of tintinnabulation distinguished with feathery light runs. For the concluding Ravel Jeux d’eau, judicious pedalling became essential for that filigree of fluidity, which capped a satisfyingly nuanced performance. Out of 12 pianists, he would be advanced to the Final concerto round as the youngest finalist.   


The Professional Category would feature eight pianists, and I got to hear just three of them. For the semifinal recital of Alexander Lau (24, Hong Kong), there were only three persons in the audience: a mother, a boy about 8 years old and myself. Never has a competition audience been so severely outnumbered by jurors, hall stewards and competition officials.


Lau gave a very creditable showing in diverse repertoire which included Mozart’s Sonata in E flat (K.282, exhibiting some latitude in ornamentation), Alban Berg’s Sonata (a very coherent reading that communicated some existential crisis), Liszt’s Ballade No.2 (he clearly understands Lisztian virtuosity) and an impressive Scriabin set with a rapturous Sonata No.9 (the Black Mass) and the volatile Vers la flamme as its bookends. Only in the Scriabin Waltz in A flat (Op.38) was there some resort to banging. For his efforts, I was pleased he made the Concerto Final.


Time only permitted me to attend the concerto Final round of the Professional category. One way of ensuring that the fewest number of people come is to hold it on the eve of Chinese New Year. Thus there were no more than three dozen people (mostly overseas visitors) in the audience to witness three pianists performing concertos with the T’ang Quartet (Ng Yu Ying and Ang Chek Meng, violins, Jeremy Chiew, viola & Jamshid Saydikarimov, cello). In the absence of a symphony orchestra, the concertos were restricted to a narrow selection of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. So no Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov or Prokofiev this time around.


Alexander Lau gave a fluent and well-discipline account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17 in G major (K.453). His entries were clear and incisive, yet allowing fingerwork to “flow like oil”, a favourite expression of Amadeus himself. There were absolutely no technical issues and the short cadenza by Mozart himself sparkled. The slow movement was sensitively handled and the quartet responded alertly to his musings. The chirpy finale, whose main theme was supposedly mimicked by Mozart’s pet starling, was full of vitality and Lau’s very musical account of the variations was ebullience itself. The buffo element of the coda – delivered at a heady velocity - brought the work to an exciting close. Here was a very good start for the final.  


Wu Yifan (17, China), the youngest finalist, sports a nascent afro and looks more mature than his actual age. Exuding a super-confident air, his account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor (Op.37) showed he really meant business. Unafraid to let rip at vital moments, he was subtle enough to know when to pipe down and listen to the “orchestra”. Beethoven’s own cadenza, however, was given a bold and brash bashing about, and one wondered if Wu is drunk on his own virtuosity. The slow movement had its dramatic moments while the Rondo finale was given its due – a very good run and predictably emphatic end to the proceedings.   


Chen Xu (19, China) in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor (Op.21) was arresting in his solo entry and he kept listeners rivetted from there onwards. His approach even made Chopin sound more modern than the year 1830 suggested, also bringing a heightened level of virtuosity in the first movement’s development. The nocturne-like Larghetto was delivered prettily with ornaments delicately spun with satin smoothness. Unfortunately the finale’s Krakowiak almost came undone, with untidy playing from the strings (most probably under-rehearsed) which also distracted Chen on his final approach. The coda was all messed up, which put paid to an otherwise buoyant account.


Toby Tan was the only
Singaporean prize-winner.

Jury deliberation did not take long. Toby Tan was awarded the 3rd prize in the Junior category. The Professional category saw Wu Yifan claim top spot, with Chen Xu (2rd) and Alexander Lau (3rd) followed closely behind. All these pianists have bright futures ahead of them, and the big question is to find themselves an audience in this all-too-distracted world of today.

1st Prize-winner Wu Yifan, seen with
Arie Vardi (Jury Chair), May Zhang (CEO, GIMA),
Wang Xiaohan (Artistic Director)
& Poon Chuifun (Executive Director)


The Singapore International Piano Competition has a long, long way to go before it can even come close to the best concours in Australasia, namely Hamamatsu, Sydney and Hong Kong. The city-state of Singapore needs to invest far more in its branding of international events that carries its name. If the violin competition can do it, there is no reason why the piano cannot attain similarly lofty heights.   

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