SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION
Saturday July 10, 2021
Here we are on the competition’s home stretch. Well, something like it, now that the original 32 entrants have been winnowed to twelve. Of these, I’ve heard only two in what was a random sampling of sessions over the past week. But then, I’ve never seen much point in force-feeding during such affairs. I tried to do it one year with the international chamber music competition held at the Australian National Academy of Music but had to miss some sessions because of work commitments. Naturally, the organizers, some colleagues and a battery of press officers told me that I’d missed the best two programs and the finest ensembles in the whole enterprise. Of course, this turned out to be nonsense – malicious, in some cases – and the winners were easy to predict from the semi-finals. But it made me leery at the idea that you have to suffer along with the jury.
Even with this last dozen, quite a few are presenting programs that are close to repellent, and I suspect that the reason for this is not wholly to be ascribed to the players. According to the regulations, each semi-finalist has to present a themed recital, which I take to mean that the works presented have to have some thread running through them. That can take you anywhere and nowhere. What a limping explanation of a program tells you about the performer is negligible, but what the implementation of such a process tells you about the organizers makes you question their intelligence.
A further refinement is the demand that pianists introduce their music and the rationale behind their choices. This is easier said than done, especially as the requirement is that everyone has to speak in English on the odd assumption, announced by Piers Lane early on in the first round, that ‘everybody does’. Insularity above and beyond the call of duty because, as we have heard in those inane pre-recital interviews, some of the entrants have limited skills in this language. The one-tongue-suits-all concept ranks among the most inept arguments that could be applied and is shown to be draining as we will have to endure laboured addresses over the coming sessions as musicians try to explain their choices in terms that are not their own. I’d see a point if each pianist could offer his praeludium in his/her own language, to be translated or subtitled, but I doubt if such forethought/consideration is being applied here. In future, I want to see all Tchaikovsky competition aspirants explain themselves in Russian, or Chopin competition hopefuls churn out their explications in Polish; In fact, I’m doubtful that many young Australian pianists would pass such a linguistic hurdle at the Long-Thibaud-Crespin or the Queen Elisabeth.
So, along with making their own running in terms of doing their own recording, getting their own sound engineers, camera operators, venues and pianos, these musicians now have to say something sensible about their music. Sorry but, after many years of experience (more so in recent times), I’ve very rarely heard anything valuable come out of a musician’s mouth, unless it involves the identification of an encore. And, scarred by experience, I’m not holding out much hope for these unfortunate Sydney competition performers.
Alexander Gadjiev gave an all-Russian program, recorded in the Fazioli Hall, Sicile, on February 24. Naturally, he used a Fazioli instrument for his tour of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Tcherepnin with a heavy emphasis on the middle name. He gave his introductory talk with more ease than most but I’m not sure I took much away from it except that he wanted to demonstrate a relationship between Europe and Russia in terms of musical influences. Or perhaps I misconstrued.
He began with a Shostakovich prelude and fugue set, No. 4 in E minor from the Op. 87 collection of 24 in homage to Bach. No problem here seeing the Russian’s debt to the Baroque; even the clashing 2nds of the prelude present as a contrapuntal inevitability. Gadjiev was happy to give the work a Romantic gloss – rubato, emphases, firm forte passages – but measured, for all that. Attacca to the double fugue and, with the second subject’s arrival, more complexity and intensity which the pianist delivered with deliberation, showing throughout that he had a fine consciousness of what needed stressing and what required subordinating: an excellent gift in Bach, and here.
Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives is an odd stop-start collection, rarely programmed complete. So it turned out to be in this instance where Gadjiev offered 14 from the cycle of 20 vignettes. The Fazioli’s bass came over with excellent resonance in Vision 1, especially in bars 9 and 22, while in II the pianist showed an excellent care for murmuring passages, as at bars 5 and 6. His left hand work in Vision III showed a clever balance of crispness and laissez-faire delivery, while the following Animato pushed its forte markings hard. At the Arpa No VII, the inbuilt pulse was sustained but not at the expense of an appealing ebb and flow. I was distracted completely by Gadjiev’s large right-hand stretch throughout IX, but particularly between bars 16 and 19, and the scherzo No. XI shone in its 8-bar middle section which emerged with startling simplicity from its flippant surrounds.
For the waltz-like XII, Gadjiev proposed a fitful whimsicality – exact for the occasion. Feroce is the direction for Vision XIV and the ultra-percussive Prokofiev was given full rein; the bass shifts across bars 17 to 21 of the Inquieto sounded delectably reticent; you had to be concerned about the continuity of emotion in the one page XVI Dolente because of the skipping quality that emerged at bar 9 with the pizzicato bass – an insoluble problem (thanks, Sergei) but almost nullified by the pianist’s excellently smooth management of the three staves/layers from bar 19, a feat revisited in bars 23 to 32 of the ensuing Poetico, only in closer order.
Gadjiev took the last two words of the following Con una dolce lentezza and made much of them with an unexpectedly lavish rubato; his outlining of the upward steps from bar 24 to the end proved exemplary for its clarity of detail, revisited in the Lento Vision XX from bar 9 to the end, which the pianist spoke of later – quite correctly – as ‘evanescent’. I’m assuming that the European influence here was Debussy, and possibly Satie, even if some of the visions were too brusque and aggressive to fit into such a comparison.
The Tcherepnin miniatures came from the composer’s 8 Pieces Op. 88 and were quickly negotiated. No. 1, Meditation, proved to be an amiable wander with a strong central climax – pianist’s music, I’d suggest – while No. 5, Invocation, turned out to be much the same with the added attraction of interpolated recitatives – presumably to denote the actual summonings.
These small-scale pieces made a prelude for Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 which Gadjiev handled with considerable mastery. His Allegro inquieto showed a fine command of the work’s rhetoric, not to mention its chord sequences, here treated with feisty crispness. All the accents were in place and the returns to the Allegro tempo generated an infectious excitement, although the second Andantino‘s appearance seemed like that of an old friend because of its relieving character. The interpreter managed to infuse the movement’s rapid segments with more military suggestiveness than I’ve heard for many years, thereby observing the piece’s ‘war’ status.
More force came into play in the Andante caloroso at the Poco piu animato section, yet this pianist was able to keep the fabric lucid, even at the Piu largamente crisis. And I was most taken by his insistence on the alto line G/A flat tocsin strokes leading away from turmoil back to the Tempo 1; in fact, this typified the sonata’s prime intent most profoundly for me – a remembrance of huge-scale disaster. This two-note oscillation turned into a threatening creature in the Precipitato finale where Gadjiev thundered out the B flat/C sharp motif with a near-manic determination, thereby stressing the frightening nature of this movement. As he’d probably planned, the pianist made an overwhelming impression here – his last gasp – with a muscular exhibition of uncompromising pianism, including an admirably accurate outlining of a chain of mobile block chords on the sonata’s last two pages.
This Russian musician recorded her recital in the Niko Art Gallery, Moscow on March 27 using a Kawai instrument that I don’t think comes with the venue. Geniushene introduced her program – Schumann, Scriabin, Tchaikovsky – with hesitation and not much of an idea of what was required. She spoke of the ‘states of mind’ of each composer but spoke of her three works discretely; well, I heard no links being drawn between them, so perhaps the message was too subliminal for us morons.
She opened with Schumann’s 3 Fantasiestucke Op. 111. Here was a free-moving, ultra-Romantic reading of the initial Sehr rasch, the notes all there but the tempo a free-wheeling beast with a near-predictable pause on the first beat of each bar. The following Ziemlich langsam proved not as tempo-varied as its predecessor, yet the pianist contrived to find an unsuspected ebullience in the central Etwas bewegter section where the concluding 8 bass notes came over with high emphasis. To her credit, the bookend segments proved most appealing, Geniushene exploring their interrogative placidity with fine insight. Best of all was her Kraftig und sehr markirt third piece where the temptation to transform everything into a Davidsbundler tramp was resisted and we were treated instead to a more relaxed attack and given the contours of a narrative.
Scriabin’s Vers la flamme found the pianist extolling its prescient nature, which I’m inclined to doubt; it’s an ecstatic outpouring but its effect on keyboard technique and possibilities from a 1914 perspective is not that striking – or obvious. Anyway, Geniushene gave it an excellent exposure, even if, like every Scriabin piece I’ve heard in this competition, metre turned into a changeable factor, especially during the slow-moving opening Allegro‘s sustained chords where I gave up counting beats and just surrendered to the going rate. As intended, all bets for exactitude were off at the arrival of the joie de plus en plus tumultueuse where texture becomes all and the piece triplets and trills itself to an insistent conclusion that reflects the work’s opening in a lavish transformation.
Finally, the pianist introduced Tchaikovsky’s Grande Sonata in G Major, where Schumann’s Concerto without orchestra was cited as a precursor; a useful tip and one that I recalled several times across this long work. An opening Moderato e risoluto – heroic chord sequences – was pretty secure with very few mishaps at crisis points and the performer hit her straps with the second subject and an increase of internal interest for the listener . Unfortunately, the composer opted all too soon for a return to his portentous opening matter and the performer had little recourse to anything but exercising her hefty volume.
The Andante non troppo provided much relief after the preceding grab-fest of notes and made a fine space for exercising that tempo flexibility from the Schumann pieces. There isn’t much you can do with that peculiar interlude of 8 bars before the Moderato con animazione where the composer focuses on G, and a repetition of the same note 19 bars from the movement’s end, but Geniushene made a fair attempt at cloaking them with variety. She seemed impatient as the long movement neared its conclusion – not by rushing but by the hard edge that she imposed on the melodic line and a ponderousness that crept in from the first movement at the lead-up to the E flat Major triumph before the second set of obsessive bars. Much more attractive was the Scherzo, carried off with excellent drive and character and all-too-reminiscent of the composers B flat minor Piano Concerto at its most delightfully gossipy.
The finale brought back memories of the sonata’s opening character, although faster-paced with a syncopated main subject that in this performance seemed more than usually off-balance. By this stage, I was a tad worn out by the work’s hectic eloquence and found the revisitings of the syncopated main theme a constant puzzle. In this condition, you tend to find odd faults, like the F6 which, at this stage, I thought had gone out of tune. But you have to balance against that the player’s more ruminative pages and you understood why the jurors picked her out for a revisit. Nevertheless, this experience made me understand why I’ve never heard this Tchaikovsky sonata in live performance. I’m not a convert, even though Geniushene made a formidable apologist for it.