A Rach pack

AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL PIANO AWARD 2018

Move Records MCD 586

Oliver She

                                                                       Oliver She

No Olympics this year: they’re deferred till 2021, in case you hadn’t heard, and enthusiasts are still as optimistic as the Japanese hosts showed right up to the  last moment this year.   And no Australian National Piano Award either – also put on hold.  Everything competitive  has been thrown out of sync, although it’s probably more important for the Olympics: that time-honoured four-year interval is shattered now  .  .  .  how are we going to be able to pick out our leap years so precisely any more?

Here is a CD that nobody seems to want to own, so I’m unsure about advising you where to get it.   The disc number shows that it belongs to the Move label; mastering and booklet layout are also attributed to Move, but Greater Shepparton appears to be the the real source and aegis for this product    Well, that town is where the competition takes place every two years, in the fine Eastbank Centre; thanks to the coronavirus infestation, the next competitions will occur in 2021, 2023 and 2025 which is how long the Shepparton Council has pledged its support so far.

I’ve only been to the competition twice, dropping in on the finals nights to see what the standard was like.   Quite a few musicians who have been successful here have made solid careers:  players like Clemens Leske Jr., Eidit Golder, Kristian Chong and Kenji Fujimura (joint winners in 2000), Anna Carson, Amir Farid, Jayson Gillham, Daniel de Borah, and Alex Raineri.   Well, these are the ones I’ve seen at work since their accession to ANPA greatness and this list represents a convincing number of hits to validate its strike rate.

On this CD, we hear from 2018’s first three place-getters.   The (to me) convincing winner, Oliver She, presents the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2 in its 1931 revised version, then a sprightly Les collines d’Anacapri from the first book of Debussy’s Préludes.   Silver medallist Alexander Yau plays the fifth part of Granados’ Goyescas, El amor y la muerte, following up with Grunfeld’s Fledermaus paraphrase, Soiree de Vienne James Guan placed third and he presents three of Ravel’s Miroirs  –  Oiseaux tristes, Une barque sur l’océan, Alborada del gracioso  –  leading to Chopin’s C minor Etude from the Op. 10 set and then Godowsky’s arrangement, transposed up a semitone, of this same work for left-hand alone.

I wasn’t in Shepparton for the 2018 competition; just a touch too far to drive back to Melbourne after the adjudication and one motel experience in that town was enough, thanks.   But it seems to me that, if any one work stood out from this disc guaranteed to determine who came out on top, it was She’s reading of the Rachmaninov sonata which is remarkably authoritative, both in handling its formidable technical hurdles and in realizing the composer’s emotional world.   In fact, this performance would stand comparison with several top-class recordings and assuredly has a persuasive edge when set alongside several other European and American competition winners who put this work forward as representative of their talents.

Throughout the first movement Allegro agitato, She shows a splendid  insight into the composer’s assertive energy combined with chromatic restlessness, leavened at specific moments, like the second subject statement, with plain-speaking diatonic hiatus points.  Added to this, She has that very welcome talent of highlighting the essentials in Rachmaninov’s multiple washes of peripheral action in both hands – which is extraordinary because, all too often, the left hand bass notes disappear in the wash.  Finally, in this part of the sonata, She shows an interpretative polish which allows him to linger over nocturne-like oases without disrupting the work’s urgency.

For the Lento second movement, She manages to walk that fine line that gives equal weight to a powerful inner drive and a self-contained melancholy.   You are treated to a patch of ringing strength at the movement’s centre where the melody line sits at tenor level while orderly ferment occupies the extremes, and again later when the action moves onto three staves and the eloquent spate concludes with a spiralling brief cadenza.   Finally, the last page reminiscence of the opening movement’s second subject and the placid E Major conclusion before the bridge into the finale which recycles the Lento‘s introduction are treated without emphasis, rising seamlessly out of the work’s construction with no hint of superimposition or conscious craft.

Rachmaninov’s finale is a tumult – a fine case where the Emperor Joseph II’s complaint about too many notes might be appropriate.   She bounds through its 5-minute length with impressive command of its histrionics and without slackening to regroup his forces; the quaver/dotted minim motif permeating every reach of this segment.  The executant’s security came across most obviously in passages like the fifth bar of the Meno mosso where the requirement to interpolate four chords in octavo, interrupting the surging action down below, is exciting if unreasonable..  Then the Presto conclusion is a technical triumph, notably of the triplets that take over before a concerto-reminiscent final seven bars of maximum grandeur, carried out here with headstrong elan.

The following Anacaprese excursion is determinedly bright, despite one particular section where the sustaining pedal is over-used.   Here also, She keeps this miniature on the move with plenty of scintillating rushes, although I was very taken by his dynamic balance at bar 21 where the melodic work shifts to the left hand.   And he brings the piece to a  finely insistent conclusion; the hills are sparkling in this vision, not the haze-shrouded outcrops they are today.   When it’s over, you’re pressed back to memories of full performances of Book 1 of the Préludes and how welcome this gem is, given its surroundings, and this reading often catches the exuberant, carefree quality that inspired the composer.

Yau’s exposition of the Granados balata shows  a clear understanding of the piece’s progress towards a sombre conclusion with the young man’s death; the climactic points are eloquently realized, each outbreak of eloquence is given full play, and the figuration comes over with a certain amount of colouring.   This interpretation has some brilliant moments, like the tempo tranquillo starting at bar 37, continuing through the melting modulations of the fandango at bar 45, up to the tautness of the octave interplay at the non tanto allegro direction.   Further along, Yau’s integration of the mordents starting at bar 73 demonstrates his subtlety of interpretation, the melodic lily remaining ungilded.

Probably the chief defect of this reading is an occasional one, points where the fioriture is delivered neatly enough but sticks out from the narrative.  To Yau’s credit, his articulation is pretty lucid, apart from a tendency to muffle bass notes, but he is unable to integrate odd moments like the lento at bar 67 and the following two measures with the lyrical episodes that precede and follow.   Yes, these are isolated bravura moments but they have a functionality that escapes me here; much the same comes later at bar 131 where the technique is excellently able but the passage itself seems aimless; mind you, that might be Granados’ fault, but I don’t think so  –  it’s more a question of finding what needs to be emphasized and how to make he passage appear consequential, with an accent on the ‘sequential’.

For all that, Yau gives us the most impressive technical exhibition of the CD with his Strauss paraphrase.   This heady display of vaulting leaps, rapid scale passages and integration of separate melodies is a delight to hear realised with such buoyancy and an excellent awareness of how to make such a flashy piece work, obvious in Yau’s well-placed hesitations and his almost-perfect chord placements.   Even if you’re not that sympathetic to the Strauss waltz vogue – and I’m not enamoured of it – this is intelligent virtuosity and a cleverly judged postscript to the Granados work.

Taking on the central three pieces that make up Ravel’s 5-part suite, Guan fits right in with his colleagues by owning a splendid technical apparatus, well-exercised in each of these extracts.   His Oiseaux tristes succeeds on all fronts with some glittering passing notes in bars 15 and 16 and a finely muffled presque ad lib cadenza; the whole a generous reading of this brilliantly compressed vignette where everything counts.  It’s not hard to praise the fluidity of the following Une barque sur l’océan where the executant’s negotiation of those endless arpeggios in both hands impresses considerably, even as he strives to keep them in time  –  a hopeless task, it seems to me  –  until the inevitable explosion in bar 101 where both hands indulge in a violent juxtaposition of 4 against 3, triple forte, before the piece sinks away (at length) before reaching port.  This work has its longueurs – bars 80 to 95 an example, where the action wallows – but Guan treats it all with suitable agility or deliberation.   His Alborada del gracioso strikes me as hyper-metallic in the guitar-imitating moments; I know its a percussion instrument but its prime appearances – starting at bar 43 and persisting right through to bar 57, then picking up again in bar 174 – come across as hectic.   And a more expansive brilliance might have come about if Ravel’s  high-stepping climacteric starting at bar 219 had been pronounced with a less frantic attack.

Guan follows up with the Chopin Revolutionary Study and the Godowsky transposition. Both are given powerful readings and you  can find a bridled ferocity in the original that takes you back a few generations when pianists were just as desirous as Guan of unleashing big splashes of sound with a hefty use of the sustaining pedal;  these days, the players I hear put their emphasis on left-hand lucidity at the expense of drama.  Mind you, I would have welcomed a greater pulling-back towards the end, and a real rallentando at bar 80, if not starting one three bars before.   And the real crisis at bar 37 might have gained by more carefully weighted preparation.  As for following up with the Godowsky, such a move probably proved to be an unlucky choice with the judges.   It’s a mighty test, even if Chopin has already set his own, but its necessary shortcomings –  like the absence of powerful chords and an inbuilt distraction from the main melody  –  make it a curiosity rather than a compositional entity.

For all that, the competition for 2018 brought to our attention three confident musicians, all well worth attention.   I’ve given up being astonished by sheer executive skill in young performers; rather, what I look for is insight, the ability to see the direction and potential of a statement as part of the whole construct.  You found this throughout She’s Rachmaninov sonata, fitfully during Yau’s Granados and more obviously in his Strauss frolic,, and again in the first and second of Guan’s Ravel excerpts.

As I’ve pointed out above, I don’t know where you can obtain this disc – despite its Move identifier, it’s not to be found on the company’s website.   I suspect Shepparton Council might be a fruitful place to make initial inquiries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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