SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION
Thursday July 15, 2021
The only Canadian entrant and semi-finalist, Burla performed on a Steinway in the Musik Akademie, Basel; she made her recording of this program on March 28 and specified her theme as ‘Spiritual Journey’. Well, most of us would be prepared to go along with that when it comes o the last item played: Messiaen’s Regard de l’esprit de joie, No. X in the Vingt regards. But it’s more than a tad trite to claim Bach’s Overture in the French Style as spiritual, even if the consensus is that Bach wrote everything with a written or implied Laus Deo at the head/completion of every work, like the Ad maiorem Dei gloriam initials we were trained to put at the top of every written page at school. And you’re probably stretching it to find the spiritual in Debussy’s Feux d’artifice or Minstrels. There might be something to be said for Les fees sont d’exquises danseuses and Ondine if spiritualism is your bag and ephemeral beings have reality for you.
Whatever, Burla opened with Bach’s overture/suite and sent us hurtling back several decades to her countryman Glenn Gould and his remarkable Bach interpretations – free of Romantic blather and heavy pedalling . Her negotiation of the Ouverture‘s initial fits and starts, all that ornate ornamentation and abrupt turns, impressed for its sheer competence, particularly in laying bare the polyphonic skeleton, Burla played the first repeat before launching into the lengthy fast section which seemed to gain in mastery and interest the longer it lasted. Piano and forte contrasts passed by without overkill and the metrical drive was maintained without recourse to interpolated decelerandi – only the slightest trace at a few harmonic transitions. Sadly, Burla didn’t repeat these pages; but then, who does?
So on we moved to the dance movements, leading with a perfectly poised and accurate Courante. A right-hand trill flaw (bar 17) rippled across the limpid surface of Gavotte I, while the second showed this performer’s sense of style, of what’s appropriate when faced with what in Bach passes for bucolicism, here spiced up through a few delicious imposed triplets. The pair of Passepieds furthered your admiration for Burla’s precision of delivery, the second pellucid in the organization of its three lines. Bach’s Sarabande enjoyed a good deal of ornamental accretions but moved past all too rapidly, even if Burla observed both repeats, as she did with every number after the Ouverture. A flawless couple of Bourees led to a reading of the Gigue that would be hard to equal for its level-headed bounce and apparent ease of production, the whole apparently free of sustaining pedal use. Only in the Echo, at bar 26’s top B, came the slightest sign of a faltering.
You found it hard to take issue with Burla’s Bach – straining at gnats that were so infrequent as to be unimportant. I much preferred its sense of purpose and admirable control to her Debussy group, extracts from both books of Preludes. Even though she showed an unfoolable eye for the French composer’s finicky washes, her interpretation of Les fees etc. sounded over-studied, not as loose-limbed as anticipated and realizable in a convincing rendition. You could say the same about Ondine – you were often conscious of the bar-line – but Burla handled the effects and sudden rushes in this twitchy piece with a fine spiritedness, imposing a cooling veneer over the unsettled surface.
Much better came with Minstrels, although it seemed that Burla was following a latter-day trend of belting into this piece’s little bursts of ragtime, giving a lot of weight to its louder passages; yet in my old Durand edition, the only fortissimo comes in the final two chords. As for Feux d’artifice, the interpretation was exact in tempo, no matter which section you took, and sensible in giving the accompanying figuration its right value as a presence in Debussy’s fabric. I couldn’t swear to it but I believe Burla avoided the sustaining pedal until the score moved into three staves. The only question arose with her deliberate pause at the third-last bar.
The pianist spoke before starting her French bracket of identifying strongly with Messiaen; well, it could have been worse. As she worked through this rhapsody, I was working hard to glean some of the delight that Burla was trying to transfer but it looked as though she was working through a fiendishly difficult exercise, the whole effect a set of hurdles and any interest arising was conserved for the startling passages at both ends of the keyboard. Those hard edges of her Bach reading came to mind – all very precise, the ecstatic melodic sections ringing clear – but the result was less spiritual journey and more well-exercised bravura
The second Ukrainian semi-finalist (standing alongside Artem Yasynskyy) and last of the competition’s twelve semi-finalists to perform, Baryshevskyi recorded this program in the Fazioli Hall, Sicile on March 17. His theme sounded cosmic – ‘Imagination’ – but he brought it down to earth with some halting introductions. As far as I could make out, this musician thought that each of his work had a program; maybe so, but you had to work hard to find it at the end. To be sure, his major offering was one of the more impressive examples of imagining in Western music, as we were (yet again)) admitted to the colourful semi-autobiographical world of Schumann’s Carnaval. A different kind of imagination emerged in Ravel’s Jeux d’eau: lapping with glittering cascades and sonorous buckets. And bringing up the rear came Messiaen’s Regard de l’esprit de joie – for the second time tonight, rounding out a program which struck me as an organizational oddity.
The Schumann Scenes mignonnes strutted out in a firm Preamble, turning into a rush at the Piu moto but the piece came off with excellent fidelity to the composer’s desire for a boisterous whirlwind. I was grateful to the pianist for his piano and forte juxtapositions: they weren’t all exactly the same in weight or lack of it. Throughout the score, Baryshevsyii made a moveable feast of repeats, avoiding them in Pierrot and Arlequin, this latter taking on unexpected weight, despite its innate skipping character. The Valse noble lived up to its adjective as the swooping of the bookend bars gave place to a gentle, malleable middle section. Eusebius enjoyed a placid, spacious interpretation – probably too kind to this wilting milksop, whose delineation was blessed with a fine left-hand contribution.
Florestan erupted onto the scene with an excellent mixture of enthusiasm and mania, the piece’s progress featuring one very loud passage. Baryshevskyi displayed individual ideas on dynamics in Coquette, all of them comprehensible if not in line with Clara Schumann’s directions. The pianist’s Papillons came across as sturdy insects who didn’t benefit from a D. C. ad libitum but fitted in with the ensuing spiky Lettres dansantes. Still, we were clearly in a vitality-loaded groove and Chiarina impressed as headstrong and muscular, although fortunately, Chopin enjoyed a rich bout of nocturne-like musing.
Estrella came over as particularly wayward (what is it about Carnaval‘s women?), and the bubbling Reconnaissance made a welcome appearance for its light character after some rich personalities. With Pantalon et Colombine, we’re back with the commedia dell’arte crowd, but this couple’s musical presentation was accomplished with splendid precision and plain-speaking., the which qualities also covered the Valse allemande. Paganini was all passionate, pell-mell action, fiercely rapid virtuosity, while that melting-moment Aveu enjoyed well-placed rubato during its second repeat. Both Promenade and Pause prepared the ground, in waltz-time and a headlong rush respectively, for a pompous Davisdbundler March, which turned into an object lesson in acceleration with a satisfying rush at the last Piu stretto. bringing this whole work to a satisfying, oddly agile conclusion.
He’s not just an urging player, though. Baryshevskyi made a glittering object of Ravel’s water-works, never forgetting the actual music by giving excellently judged weight to each bar, with a fine eye for the small notes and their place – present but fleeting – in the work’s progress. As an instance, you could see this discretion at its best in the chains of soft 2nds across bars 80 and 81: a soft cloud present, but that’s all.
As for this version of the Messiaen exuberance, I found more joy here than in the Burla performance. It’s still a series of events but the seams weren’t as obvious in this player’s portrayal. On the whole, this Regard struck me as more consistent because it was able to make its points with more weighty emphasis in the chugging centre-of-the-keyboard passages. As well, this reading involved you in its emotional scope. In other words, Baryshevskyi had the ecstatic rhetoric right in what was probably the best Messiaen performance I heard across the competition so far.
Actually, so far is as far as I want to go. The finals begin in about 60 minutes from now but I’m not that interested. The jury has gone for Alexander Gadjiev and Adam Balogh, which I certainly endorse. Among the other four – Shion Ota, Calvin Abdiel, Artem Yasynskyy and Alice Burla – I heard exemplary performances in the semi-finals, but not much consistency across their programs. Worse, I can think of two in the penultimate twelve who haven’t cracked it for end-of-competition consideration and who would have brought me to my feet if I happened to be many decades younger.
Enough said; certainly, enough written about this oddly moving but half-cocked enterprise.