Two more talents on the rise

SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION

Session 19

Monday July 12, 2021

Kyoungsun Park

Park was one of this competition’s entrants whom I’d not come across before this. He presented his semi-final program from Alpheton New Maltings, Sudbury, recorded on a Fazioli instrument on March 29. As his thematic framework, he chose Op. 1 and C – in other words, he fell into the increasingly common group of those bemused young players who read ‘fact’ for ‘theme’. In fact, all three works here were in C and two of them were their famous composers’ Opus 1. Park chose to read out his preliminary statement; might as well – the whole process is seen as an obstacle by some survivors. And what could you expect? Some kind of aesthetic projection? A backgrounding of cultural/social/ethnic insights? The clever found a clear-cut if superficial identifier and stuck with that, rather than looking for links that threatened to prove tenuous.

Park opened with Mozart: Twelve Variations in C on a Minuet by Fischer K. 179, from the composer’s 18th year. These were despatched without repeats, apart from the penultimate Adagio which has them in-built. Now this musician’s approach was noticeably deft and clean with a liking for staccato, as in II, VIII and X, and a determination to stay on-track with his tempo, apart from oddities like the elongated trills in bars 9 to 11 of III. More difficult to understand was the accent on speed, moving through some defenceless pages with startling velocity, as in IV. His attack could be attractively bright – see VII – but some pages seemed as soul-less as a Clementi study. Certainly, Park has a talent in terms of polished delivery, as in the Alberti-basses and limpid scales of IX, and he has the confidence to use the sustaining pedal only rarely in this crystalline music. So, in the end, a sure and certain delivery but an interpretation that kept the composer at a distance.

Chopin published a Rondeau as his Opus 1: a sophisticated product, even for a composer of genius at 15 years old. This began auspiciously enough but suffered from fast tempi and inexplicable accelerandi, first seen at bar 45 where the performer seemed impatient with the pattern repetitions. The same take-to-the-hills ambience recurred from bar 100 up to the key-change to A flat; again, this might have been generated out of a desire to add interest to repeated mini-structures, but it wound up sounding garbled. As in the preceding Mozart, you came across eloquent and finely-spun work, as at the sequence after bar 230 up to the Piu lento at bar 275. Another clean reading in which Park wasted nothing – no note left untilled – but also deficient in freedom of motion, despite the employment of rubato and timbral spruceness by this entrant.

In the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 1, Park made a properly bold foray into the first subject, not using his sustaining pedal for ages – until the second subject? As with his Mozart, once through was enough and the exposition enjoyed but one hearing – a pity, as the following sections sounded deft but uninvolving. Then we reached the coda where the piece sprang into life with a strong Brahmsian majesty to it and some much-needed weight behind the delivery, especially welcome after a development segment that seemed like tinkering at the edges. The following Andante variations were sympathetically accomplished – and varied, as far as possible. No repeat of the Trio in the Scherzo – much missed as this was excellent playing – and Park tried for lightness in the outer pages, which here cried out for a more ponderous tempo and a heftier deliberateness.

This tendency to speed up everything reached its highpoint in the Allegro con fuoco finale. How much more sense the rondo would have made in its varied A sections if the fire had been applied to temperament rather than tempo alone. Fortunately, the performance came to a purple patch in the G Major interlude but, after the concluding Presto had been reached, errors started to creep in, too obvious to ignore, and the last crashing chords finished an interpretation that left me perplexed rather than satisfied at a major achievement.

Calvin Abdiel

This Australian/Indonesian competitor I had heard in the preliminary round and admired his slashing authority in some fiercely virtuosic material. For this semi-final, he remained in the Verbrugghen Hall of Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music, playing a Fazioli on March 29. Abdiel went for a simple jugular: his theme was Spain – just like many a restaurant or Scenic tour. As well, so far he is the most verbal (as our American allies say) of the participants, almost as full in his commentary as a program booklet. Did these discourses make much difference? They were fluent, for sure, and proposed the appearance of certain colours and emotions in his program, but I think we could have been left to discover most of these for ourselves.

The theme was clear and then illustrated in eight pieces. What I found a constant distraction throughout Abdiel’s recital was the sound quality. Perhaps it came from the crisp and clear acoustic of the preceding semi-finalists, but each of this pianist’s pieces came across as though the hall had suddenly acquired a lot of muffling fabric. This meant that headphones were crammed tight and the volume was close to the maximum, just to distinguish detail; a peculiar anomaly as Abdiel had the services of the same sound engineer at both recitals so far.

Another problem came with the program’s (necessary?) temporal cramping. Abdiel went back to Scarlatti (an honorary Spaniard, at the very least) and Soler, but then made a great leap forward to the trilogy of Albeniz, Granados and Falla, with a side-bar to the last-named’s significant student, Ernesto Halffter. So we left the Baroque/Classical for a set of four writers whose nationalism and use of colours was profound – and which brought about a plethora of similarities, even if aficionados can tell them apart with ease. By the end, to be honest, I was saturated in suggestions of blood on the sand, castanets in the cantina, and festive foot-stamping. But Abdiel lived up to his theme with bells on.

The Scarlatti sonata was a well-known quantity – the A minor K. 175. It came over as rather restrained, a significant shock to someone raised on Puyana’s electrifying version of 1966. Still, the repeats were observed, it was almost error-free (apart from a mishap at bar 62 in the repeat), and the player inserted some delicious ornamentation coming home in bars 100-102. The graver Soler sonata – No. 21 in C sharp minor – passed without blemish, taken at a sensible speed, like the Scarlatti, and invested with careful character, although I didn’t see much point in the pauses imposed at the trills in bars 68 and 124.

Abdiel began with two Granados works, both from the Goyescas suite: El Pelele and El Fandango del Candil. The first of these demonstrated the pianist’s talent for sustaining a metre without making its insistence irritating, mainly because of an attack style that impressed as benign, the outpouring in the closing pages all the more impressive as coming after a gradual slow crescendo. As an introduction to Abdiel’s powers of restraint, this made a considerable impact – smooth in delivery and poised in style. You found much of the same in El Fandango de Candil with passages of splendid subterranean murmuring and intonative delicacy, so that the sudden flurries into the sunlight burst out with added force. I lost track of Abdiel near the powerful conclusion – to my shame, I’m probably using an incorrectly modernised edition.

After the Scarlatti/Soler double, Abdiel presented two Albeniz pieces: El Corpus en Sevilla (from Book 1 of Iberia) and Eritana (the last number in Book 4). While he was introducing this pair, it struck me that the pianist was talking too much, the explanations verbose and, in some instances, self-indulgent as he struggled to find/remember the right word. Nevertheless, you came across fine treasures in the first piece, particularly a deftly drawn ebb and flow at the a tempo un peu plus calme point . Later, the work brought back memories of Rubinstein and Horowitz-style transcriptions, chiefly because of the fiddly manner of writing – not actually getting anywhere but marking time brilliantly. The sheen was definitely wearing off with Eritana, as far as content went; you could still find room to admire the grandeur of Abdiel’s interpretation, mirroring the score’s movements in every particular, despite the composer’s long-windedness.

Halffter didn’t bring much new to the party with his Danza de la gitana; at this point, I felt that we’d heard it all before, in particular the imitations of rasgueado strokes and hot collations of fast triplets. And it went over ground that had been treated by greater composers with more sophistication. Abdiel ended with Falla’s Fantasia Baetica of 1919, which has the gloriously atmospheric Nights in the Gardens of Spain written all over it – and very welcome it was. Here, the performer showed himself in full blistering flight, his glissandi breathtaking in their rapidity, the detail attended to with throwaway mastery, the whole an admirably persuasive pianistic tone-poem that, the mid-way Intermezzo apart, increased in intensity until its percussive – no, timpanic – ending. Oddly enough and very much to the player’s benefit, this solid work reanimated the Spanish theme rather than going over previously-tilled ground. Now, if only the recording character had been bright-edged enough to give this formidable artist more vital performing conditions.