The old dilemma


Session 18

Sunday July 11, 2021

Shion Ota

Here was an artist working hard to meet the requirement of verbalising her program’s theme. Ota appeared to be reading from a screen but needed subtitles to be completely understood. OK, a sensible move, but it would have been much more intelligent to have her speak her language and have a translation provided, rather than put her through an obstacle when she had so many waiting just around the corner. As it turned out, her underpinning rationale was romantic variations; actually, that was exactly what she played but is that really a theme? Or a format descriptor?

Ota began with the Busoni transcription of Bach’s Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor. She took a considered and reserved path for the opening variants, intent on exposing the melody at all places. Later, her octaves in both hands proved reliable and, after the first group of more note-filled sequences, she introduced a very long hiatus point before sailing into quieter waters. The same GP came up when moving to the major key, and then another when shifting into the home key – although in this last she allowed the one to merge into the other, ignoring the cut-off that appears in my old Bretkopf edition. Ota showed admirable care for the work’s coherence, not just in the connections between variations but also with the positioning of weight in Busoni’s sometimes clotted harmonization. Her intensely powerful conclusion stands at one end of her spectrum; at the other, a limpid grace obtaining across the three variations that begin the Majore sequence.

One Romantic variations down. Next, Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli – continuing the D minor parameter – exposed Ota’s ability to handle larger-scale internal content, i. e. more substantial clumps of score. No. I saw her fine control with subsidiary accompaniment; No. II, her deft dealing with suspensions; next, a welcome sign of humor, reacting to the composer’s bluff whimsy. As in the Chaconne, No. V saw the pianist’s sensitivity in handling decorative interpolations. And on it went, half your time spent admiring the execution – the full-bodied texture of Nos. VII and IX, soon superseded by a fine clangour in XI – and the other half in tracing the composer’s trickery with its suggestions of the Paganini Rhapsody.

Along with the forceful pages, climaxing in the virtuosic final variation, the pianist revealed a clear responsiveness to the less exciting sections, as in the Adagio VIII (probably a shade gnomic), that welcome shift to the major in XIV and a sensitive delineation of the chords in this variations 4th- and 3rd-last bars, a clever split personality in XVII‘s nervous left hand against a serene melody, and a well-weighted balance in the Intermezzo‘s octaves. In fact, Ota contrived to vault around the score with just the right schizoid emotional shifts, rounding her work off with a carefully judge rubato across the Coda.

Finally, the young musician chose Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole to amplify her tour of Romantic variations. Inner continuity was assured as Rachmaninov’s handling of La Folia was followed by another treatment of that over-popular theme. As well, it appeared that Ota was leaving no stone unturned when it came to displaying technical skill; no worries – we can take a lot of that in this competition. Her opening cadenza flourishes came across with arresting scintillation and she sustained a vitality throughout the work’s most arduous pages. A fine illustration of this emerged early, in the often stodgy Folia statement at bar 58, and her double octaves from bar 106 to 117 were almost perfectly precise as well as appropriately driving.

It’s always something of a relief when Liszt turns his attention to the Jota aragonesa at bar 134 and this player immediately switched tack, adjusting to the filigree work that followed in profusion and working across her instrument’s top register with refinement. From here on, you are bombarded with replay upon slightly different replay as the composer toys with this catchy tune and decks it in ornaments and interpolations to befuddle your perceptions. But we were carried along by Ota’s enthusiastic attack on each change, no matter how slight – Pelion upon Ossa. But there’s no denying the magnificence of the La Folia return at bar 633 in D Major – a coup submitted to us with impressive conviction by this performer, pounding through the score’s last (and welcome) page.

Adam Balogh

The solitary entrant from Hungary, Balogh played at his old school, the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, recording this second program on March 23. His address proved to be quite fluent, reflective of his time studying in America; in fact, this musician spoke between every one of his contributions, amplifying the material printed in the competition’s digital program. He confined himself to two brilliant piano writers – Chopin and Bartok – finding a common ground in both composers using speech and language as an inspirational source – which is certainly true in one case, dubious in the other – and extending from this the proposition that both told stories in their compositions. Nothing wrong with that concept, although music writers suggest wildly differing backgrounds and illustrations for Chopin; even his nine-year relationship with George Sand didn’t result in music related directly to literature. Just the 19 Polish Songs stand out from that astonishing welter of piano music and you’d be going to find programs behind most of it, apart from the more militaristic polonaises.

I was assuredly warmed by Balogh’s encounters with the Polish composer, here limited to the Three Op. 59 Mazurkas and the F minor Ballade No. 4. In the A minor Mazurka, he wove a lean, melancholy soundscape, leavened by powerful statements in the central A Major/B Major-G sharp minor segments. I was even more impressed by this player’s breadth of vision in the following A flat Major work, with its just-rich-enough affirmative nature and its ideal fusion of resignation and action. With the last and longest of the three, in F sharp minor, Balogh employed rubato more sparingly and rose with clear purpose to meet its many challenges, its chopping and changing from one state to another, certainty to ambling, sudden impulses of passion yielding to a kind of valse triste gloom – music with a dying fall, indeed.

Possibly this performer’s work on the ballade might have carried more weight if I hadn’t heard Alexander Gadjiev’s reading of it in Round 1. It began well enough as Balogh showed a keen sensitivity to the composer’s key shifts, and he used rubato sparingly, as at bar 35 and the following lead-in to G flat. He also had me onside with his return to taws at bar 135 where the initial narrative comes round again; here was a fine sense of completion, even if we were only half-way through. But you were aware of mishaps peppered across the surface and something went wrong at the bar 183-4 mark where the flow was disrupted. In the end, I didn’t find this account as authoritative and clear as anticipated, especially given its program precedents.

On the other hand, I could listen to this young fellow play Bartok till the cows come home. He is right on target for interpretation and what you can only call Bartokian ethos, best shown through his facility across an 11-year tour d’horizon involving the Two Romanian Dances Op. 8a, the 1916 Suite, and the Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, finished in 1920. Balogh played these in reverse chronological order, starting his recital with the Eight Improvisations and handling them with remarkable facility. This score begins simply enough, the song’s accompaniment simple but growing in complexity, the second song increasing in complexity. The interpreter used a wealth of rubato in No. III, as directed at the start, and infused the work with eloquence as the improvisation took over from the tune; unlike IV where the melody is omni-present, if transmuted.

Balogh gave an exemplary lesson in musical dissection across V, pointing both the simple song line and the aggressive accompanying figures moving from 2nds to 5ths then 7ths with the occasional 9th until the final 12 bars which resolve into biting clusters. An extra-brusque start to VI, then three statements of the tune with abrasive escorting figures to which Balogh gave just the right amount of weight, before a fierce bitonal conclusion, expertly handled. It was at about this point that you gave yourself over into the executant’s management, secure in his command of this collection.

At VII, the improvisation element has swollen in significance; the melody is still stated clearly at the start, but as the piece lurches forward, keeping track of it is close to impossible unless you’re following a score and can trace lines in its challenging harmonic cross-fire. The last piece strikes me as both the most exciting of the set and the most complex. Again, you can discern the melody clearly at three points, even at the grandiose conclusion, but the brief ostinati, polytonal breaks and chordal explosions that murder any folksy simplicity turn this into a striking world unto itself. Balogh must have been using a different edition to mine because a double-octave crotchet in the third last bar was not in my Dover 1998 reprint.

After this, much of the Suite presented as formally less adventurous. Balogh’s Allegretto took no prisoners, flowing past with exemplary facility. In the Scherzo, discords were given full weight, serving as an antidote to the previous movement’s harmonic placidity. At the Allegro molto, the interpretation moved into a rhythmic feast – not so much disparate, off-the-beat material but an observation of different accents in both hands; particularly outstanding was the build-up and arrival at the Tempo I return. Balogh took his time in the Sostenuto, taking care with the acciaccaturas and maintaining a moderate pace in the central four bars. Even the close-knit bass chords in the last six bars made their presence felt in a splendidly-executed descent into quiescence.

I didn’t know either of the Romanian Dances, the Allegro vivace moving close to Allegro barbaro territory later on as the texture gains complexity, level piling on layer. I heard a few errors in the six-bar lead-in to the Molto agitato race, but this was the final element of the program and Balogh had put in a mammoth effort before this. The following Poco allegro dance might have been a bridge too far. It opened chirpily enough but inexactitudes started to creep in and the gradual increases in textural complexity and tempo strained the pianist’s precision. But, as with his previous forays into this composer’s works, the overall experience was elevating and cast a welcome spotlight onto an unparalleled master of keyboard writing.