SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION
Friday July 2, 2021
The more you find out about this competition, the sorrier you feel for the competitors. This enterprise might be called The Sydney, but that city is the least important part of anything. Entrants are not coming to Australia, presumably not even to collect prizes. Rather, they have had to record their recitals and post them to jurors. This process has involved finding their own pianos, their own venues, their own recording engineers, cameras, lighting – the whole kit and caboodle. All of this decreases the attraction of the competition as a whole, although some would argue that the times call for these straitened conditions. Faced with all this, certain pianists have withdrawn and had to be replaced by “extraordinary” pianists – about 8 of them, I believe. In any case, hyperbole is still the order of the addresses we enjoy from jury non-voting chairman, Piers Lane who is still promising “extraordinary range” across the taped recitals as we embark on a “great journey together.”
Lane also introduced the jury panel by name; so did the competition’s executive director straight after him. As in pianism, does my left hand know what my right hand is doing?
Leading the pack was Maxim Kinasov from Russia. He taped his program on April 11 in the Menuhin Hall, London, and was one of Lane’s replacements. As is apparently going to be the custom, Lane conducted a laboured zoom interview with Kinasov about his path thus far, including a teacher who discouraged his ambitions. It’s rather like Eddie McGuire dragging out tedious details from the lives of contestants on Millionaire Hot Seat.
Kinasov opened with Sergei Slonimsky’s Intermezzo in Memory of Brahms from 1980, a late Romantic-reminiscent elegy of sorts with loads of agreable surges and a wealth of Brahmsian tropes, building to a passionate conclusion and distinctive for the performer’s use of his fist on bass notes. Real Brahms followed with the first book of the Paganini Variations. Kinasov demonstrated an excellent delicacy in Variation 3, a predilection for rubato during Variation 4 which led to a loss of tension by lingering on certain final notes of bars in Variation 5. By the time he got to Variation 8, I would have welcomed something of a return to a steady tempo, and an odd rallentando in bar 4 of Variation 9 seemed unnecessary, as did the elongation process in this section’s second half. But Kinasov’s balance in the doubled melody line of Variation 11 was exemplary; his little glissandi in Variation 13 almost convinced all the time, and he kept the best wine till last with a powerful Variation 14 that kept on growing in stature.
Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 impressed thanks to Kinasov’s lightness of touch, an authoritative exhibition especially in the secondary group of the slow Andantino. Here, Kinasov’s flexibility proved welcome to give freshness to some drab textural work. In the middle movement Andante caloroso, the attack impressed for its weight at the Piu largamente marking, and this movement continued to make a favourable impression for its controlled response to Prokofiev’s insistence and stringent emotional agony. Kinasov generated an excellent feature of the tocsin repetition beginning at bar 197 in the alto line and the merciless pursuit of a minor 2nd underpinning the movement’s later progress. The Precipitato finale came across as unstoppable, remarkably fluent and vehement as it should be in the most persuasive interpretations.
Kinasov concluded with his compulsory Australian piece: Vine’s Threnody from the 5 Bagatelles, a lament or elegy for the victims of AIDS. The pianist made a fine delineation of the piece’s well-spaced textural continuity, including the moving imitation of an organ’s mixture stop, akin to a soft sesquialtera.
This Kazakhstan artist recorded herself in the Faziola Hall of the piano manufacturer’s factory in Sacile on March 29. She opened with the Sonata No. 6 from 1960 of Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Pavlova was another of Lane’s late entrants and enjoyed a slightly more vivacious taped encounter with the Australian expatriate. This final piano sonata from the Polish composer opens with a clangorous Adagio threnody, succeeded by a meandering semi-bucolic counterweight. The performance impressed for its focus and negotiation of juxtaposed segments, like a Prokofiev-style soft march, but the harmonic language proved more restrained than you’d expect from the period. The complementary Allegro molto presented a motif that expanded on itself in an assured framework, Pavlova’s rendition controlled and assured, but the work didn’t say much to me, apart from some brisk and spasmodic outbursts in a restless moto perpetuo. If anything, the movement illustrated Pavlova’s ability to persuade you of merit through imposing weight of output.
More Prokofiev: the Sonata No. 2 opening with a rubato-rich Allegro ma non troppo. You couldn’t object to this freedom in what was a student work, although it had its drawbacks, like an occasionally muddy bass-line. Pavlova almost got through the work unscathed, right up to the final D minor chord which admittedly concludes a hectic four-bar stretch. She gave an excellent airing to the succeeding Scherzo, showing both willing and aggressive. She reached a powerful highpoint rather early in the Andante at bar 17 and over-egged the drama six bars before Prokofiev neutralizes all his key-signature sharps. Possibly demonstrating that she is better suited to rapidity of motion, Pavlova relished the toccata-like Vivace finale, taking it at a very rapid speed in a sterling exhibition of legerdemain, best typified by a delectable poco a poco accelerando after the time change back to 2/4.
Glinka/Balakirev’s The Lark proved to be a simple lyric in B flat minor that begins unassumingly enough and becomes more florid as the Balakirev contribution swells. Unlike most of Liszt’s song arrangements, this one is over-egged, even if it served a dual purpose of giving Pavlova a chance to exercise her Romantic interpretation skills as well as her skill in detailed cadenza work, which only let her down at the start of the final exercise in bravura seven bars from the end. Her necessary Australian work was Kats-Chernin’s Russian Rag II – no worries with this slightly effervescent illustration of he composer’s prodigal imagination, but it goes past too quickly to illustrate anything in the performer’s arsenal.
This Russian pianist performed his tape on March 30 in the Klavierhaus Manhattan, New York, using a Fazioli instrument, as had Pavlova. He began with mainstream repertoire in Haydn Hob XVI: 20 in C minor. A Moderato first movement proved measured and often lucid, with plenty of give-and-take in its on-the-page fitfulness – as in bar 19, bar 59, bar 76. The exposition was repeated. Mustakimov displayed a fine steadiness in the mordents, most of which came across cleanly. I was a tad worried about the first right-hand note at bar 91 but the player showed no other flaws, possibly because he gave himself plenty of liberty in his pacing. At the Andante, it suddenly struck me how dry the acoustic of this space was, possibly because the performer allowed himself just as much freedom in pulse – again. In part-writing, he observed the note values scrupulously, but then would labour unexpectedly, distending phrases as at bar 54.
As with all three movements, Mustakimov repeated the first section of the Allegro and was able in these active pages to keep to a regular beat, particularly in passages with extended runs of semiquavers, beginning at the set between bars 23 and 32. In fact, the less he gave ‘point’ to phrases and sentences, the more impressive his delivery.
I didn’t understand what this pianist was hoping to achieve with his transcription of the Prelude from Bach’s D minor Cello Suite, which he performed straight with the left hand alone; a show of sensitivity to line, perhaps, but it stood like an enigma in this setting until he morphed into the Busoni transcription of Bach’s Chaconne that concludes the D minor Violin Partita. Here was a splendid reading, temperamental and spectacular in its fireworks. As with other performances I’ve heard recently, one of the variations was omitted – is there some doubt about its authenticity on either Bach’s or Busoni’s side? – but you had to be impressed at the change of key signature, the Quasi tromboni segment, where Mustakimov made a fair fist of accomplishing just that. A brilliant accelerando preceded the move back to D minor and the last pages hurtled past with obvious effort but sustained ferocity.
Australia sort of got covered by Grainger’s arrangement of the Dowland lute song Now, O now I needs must part. The interpretation tended to give plenty of attention to the American resident’s chord changes from the work’s centre onwards. It’s not intended as a put-down, and the interpretation proved as languorous as you’d want, but this work stands as as a rich resource for any cocktail pianist.
This Italian/Slovenian pianist played a Kawai instrument at the Kawai Europa centre in Krefeld, Germany, and he recorded himself on March 19. For my taste, this was the most intriguing program of Day 1 and the most impressive in its interpretative breadth. Gadjiev opened, like Mustakimov, with Haydn – Hob XVI: 48 in C Major. His straightforward Andante proved to be very much more regular after the previous experience and you were not confronted by dynamic shocks. The movement had its abrupt features, but the dynamic changes remained coherent. An excellent pointillism informed the Rondo, a true presto and a delight every time Gadjiev repeated the movement’s main melody. You (well, I) thought: here’s a player with discernment and a real interpretative insight, submitting to us a Haydn on the composer’s own terms.
Chopin’s F minor Ballade also impressed for its excellent communication of construction, not to mention a sense of phrasing that seemed to emerge from the pages, rather than being imposed on them. Gadjiev forged a sensible path through the huge pitfalls that are peppered across the composer’s canvas but, as with his Haydn sonata, the interpreter proved to be a force in himself, dealing elegantly with the chromatic-rich framework and giving us as powerful a stretto as you could wish for after the mid-flight five dotted minim chords,
For his compulsory acquisition, Gadjiev gave us two of Vine’s 5 Bagatelles: III Gentle, and V Threnody. He outlined the first, easing out its deft effects and mild suspense, and gave an extra edge to the mixture-stop melodic line by emphasizing the lower part while displaying a welcome responsiveness to the piece’s fluency, letting it speak for itself without exaggerating its elegiac quality.
A clever stroke at this point was to perform part of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus, indeed one of the more significant movements of the suite: Le baiser de l’enfant-Jesus, which begins with a similar meditative placidity to Vine’s last bagatelle . Some of the pedal work interfered with the instrument’s early output but the performer was very comfortable with the composer’s placid emotional environment – until, of course, it moves into ecstasy-land with a storming surge and billow that presage the upcoming Turangalila-symphonie. It’s a solid piece of work to handle but you felt confident in this exponent’s hands which, as far as I could tell, articulated those chord-complexes without flaw.
Gadjiev concluded with Scriabin’s 1904 Feuillet d’album, a living-up-to-its-name miniature that somehow brought us back from the French composer’s Heaven-storming essay to nothing like the Russian master’s eclectic pantheism – more, the salonesque atmosphere found in many of the Preludes. It made for an easing of tension and was a real encore piece in that there was nothing here to frighten the pigeons – or non-believers.