SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION
Day 8, Session 13
Thursday July 8, 2021
The solitary Swiss competitor in this competition, Chamot enjoyed the advantage of Australian/Indonesian entrant Abdiel by playing to a small audience. He worked on the Fazioli 278 instrument found at Opus 278, Davidstrasse 40, St. Gallen, the tape made on March 14. Here was another chaste program; I didn’t time it but he certainly didn’t go over his allocated time-limit. At all events, this was mature music-making, the accent on interpretation rather than atmospherics, even in the second offering, which somehow managed to cope with an innate theatricality without losing focus on the musical framework – such as it is.
The session began with Janacek’s In the Mists cycle and you could see immediately that making the music sensible and self-integrated counted more than any other factors. The opening Andante proved interesting, Chamot seizing its options for rambling and interspersing tempo variations that actually reflected the phrase-lengths. At the same time, these pages were treated with restraint and emanated an atmosphere of bucolic brooding – which, for me, typifies a fair amount of this composer’s later output. With a score that is not lavish in performance directions, Chamot suited himself about the following Molto adagio‘s contrast of the base tempo with several Presto interpolations. But this musician is probably working from a later edition than the venerable 1938 one available to me, again illustrated by the refined rubato at exercise in the Andantino which appeared to me to be well-suited to the two-page text, helping to bring out the melody’s occasional transference to an inner line. Unlike most commentators on this collection, I find this movement to sound the most folk-tune inspired of the four.
Last came Janacek’s Presto, which struck me as an overstating descriptor. Here you come across falling 3rds and 4ths that suggest Bartok at his most sentimentally rural/bucolic and, as with the Hungarian master, a nerve-tingling harmonic restlessness. Among the many examples of ferreting out a suitable course of action, the central repeat involving 6, then 4 bars gave us a fine burst of sustained fabric in pages that twist around obvious nodes with spare rigour. The player made us wait an unconscionably long time at the final Meno mosso for two quaver rests at the bar’s centre, but that – once again – could have been a fault in my score because the rest of the movement radiated authority and a convincing sense of taut emotion, some steps short of tragedy.
Chamot then headed for the virtuosic heights with Liszt’s Reminiscences de Norma which is a cow to handle, worse in its way than much of the bigger-named original works, let alone the other operatic transcriptions – well, those that I know. Getting the notes was rarely a problem, although an error sullied the final phrase of the second restatement of Ite sul colle and something odd happened in the right-hand octaves of the martellato con strepito descent. Little pin-pricks like these aside, the player had the work’s inner drive and drama controlled from the start. You would be hard to please if not impressed by the expertly balanced full chords across the last 10/11 bars preceding the piece’s central Recitativo.
Alongside the thunder, Chamot displayed a discrimination of considerable stature in fore-fronting the central melody – Qual cor tradisti – of the Andante con agitazione, where it moves to the alto register following the mid-way cadenza. After the time-consuming but lavish arpeggios – two per bar – that conclude this section, the pianist’s move back to vehemence made an unusual effect for its control as the Guerra guerra chorus sprang into full bellicose mode at the Presto con furia (has anyone matched Liszt for lavish tempo directions?). Apart from a few mid-torrent mishaps, including an obvious one in the 3rd or 4th last bar – all those double octave E flats – the interpretation stuck to its brief and Chamot entered into the fierce spirit of the strong, as passionate as possible coda to this summa of the virtuoso school.
The necessary Australian piece was Arthur Benjamin’s Scherzino of 1936, a gigue of sorts which gave more evidence of this pianist’s characteristics of precision and regularity, probably best illustrated by his last page which backed away from a genteel fortissimo to the requisite quadruple-piano ending.
It’s been my fate to hear a good many of the competition’s later invitees in a random selection of sessions so far. Piers Lane thanked Siqian Li fulsomely for agreeing to come in on things late in the process, and she played her recital on April 3 from a private residence in London – which turned out to be a well-proportioned salon with a formidable Steinway as the artist’s base of operations. She played a set of Mozart variations, all of Vine’s 5 Bagatelles, the B minor Fantasie by Scriabin, and a well-loved Debussy prelude as her party piece.
The Nine Variations on a Minuet by Duport K. 573 were carried out with impressive elegance and a forensic clarity of detail, the sort of purity that we came to expect as the norm after Ingrid Haebler showed us how it should be done throughout the 1950s and beyond . Li proved no stranger to varying her attack when repeating the variations’ halves, the which practice she maintained for the length of the work, alternating legato for staccato, and mezzoforte with mezzopiano in Variation 2. None of this proved intrusive or attention-grabbing and a similar discretion obtained in Variation 3 with her employment or abstention from the sustaining pedal.
In Variation 4, Li bore out the distinction between staccato and detached notes with quiet skill, indulging in a slight ritenuto at the chromatic semi-scale in bars 13 and 14. Another differentiated two-pronged attack distinguished Variation 5, a fair amount of expressive emphasis distinguishing the second half’s opening four bars. A higher degree of note-pointing emerged in Variation 6, like the opening chord of bar 22 at an unexpected harmonic switch. Li handled the next variant as a gallop – well, a fast canter – not putting a semiquaver out of place across its length. She found her melting moment in the following Adagio at bars 23 to 24, a touchingly gentle final gesture in this solitary variation without repeat markings. And she ended as she began with agile and elegant finger-work across the last variation.
Rather than keeping one of Vine’s pieces for an encore as did many of her peers, Li elected to play the 5 Bagatelles at the centre of her program , If she wanted to provide a contrast to her Mozart interpretation, she chose well, responding effectively to the first, Darkly, and its abrupt jerks and underpinning tension. Her Leggiero e legato was very much so, ultra-clean in its delivery. The Gentle enjoyed an excellently-managed calmness and control, while the unspecified IV showed that this pianist could happily enter into a suddenly jaunty, jazzy ambience and enjoy the piquancy of Vine’s interludes and commentaries. The set’s concluding Threnody found Li taking time over its slow-moving pointillism, with care given to the piece’s top notes; but she exercised her innate delicacy throughout these pages, carefully targeting each eloquent resonance to realize the composer’s striving for timelessness in his requiem.
I’ve heard more Scriabin in this past week than in a half-century of reviewing, Li expanding this experience with the Op. 28. As with previous interpretations of this composer’s work in recent days, tempi were a catch-as-catch-can affair and regularity of metre was treated as a vague universal rather than a specific. Again, in common with other entrants, Li concentrated on the music’s sweep and vehemence of declaration across the abrupt turns to Presto and Piu vivo, which turned out to be less differentiated than anticipated. But the acceleration into florid action at the final Tempo I point where the upward and downward surges featured irregular groupings of 9, 7 and 5 demi-semiquavers came across with impressive gusto: a fine build-up to the work’s well-anticipated B Major emphatic end-point.
The encore Debussy, La fille aux cheveux de lin, proved to be a straightforward business with plenty of discretion in pedalling and phrase shape, the only question a pause inserted before the C flat Major chord in bar 16. Still, it brought the Siqian Li experience to an intelligent conclusion, reinforcing a distinctive quality of her work – a kind of placid certainty.