Two types of elegance


Day 8, Session 13

Thursday July 8, 2021

Dominic Chamot

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.

Siqian Li

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.

Home ground advantage


Day 6, Session 10

Tuesday July 6, 2021

Sergey Belyavsky

When you get right down to it, there are 8 Russian entrants in this competition; that’s a quarter of the total. Chinese musicians are next in the poll with 6, then Japan and Ukraine tie on 3 each. Not that this means anything much, except to bear further witness to the devotion that Russians have for competitions, vide the Olympic Games. Belyavsky was another of Piers Lane’s last minute substitutes to maintain the set number of participants at 32, and he is yet another pianist who rushed – or was rushed – to put his programs together. He is, apparently, the only player who has taken part in a previous Sydney competition, having appeared in the 2016 extravaganza.

But let’s not be flippant: it was certainly an advantage for Belyavsky to have something to aim towards as, according to his pre-recital interview, appearances have been scarce for him and for most of his colleagues. We (and the competition organizers) were lucky to have him on the books. Which is more than can be said for his home country, it seems. Belyavsky did his recording at the Russian State Specialized Academy of Arts in Moscow on April 9. Before he began, patrons were screened a message pointing out discrepancies between sight and sound on the tape; doesn’t matter much to me because I’ve usually got my head in a score, although I did watch his Australian piece (another Vine Bagatelle, would you believe) . What was depressing was his – no, the Academy’s – instrument: a Steinway with an F5 clearly out of tune, and some other notes on the border of the same fault.

So much for care of musicians in Putin’s regime. But, working against the odds of a late call-up and a deficient instrument, Belyavsky gave a solid program comprising Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie and three of the Transcendental Etudes by Liszt: No. 12 Chasse-neige, No 5 Feux follets, No. 11 Harmonies du soir. He encored with one of Vine’s 5 Bagatelles – the untitled IV.

The fantasie came across with excellent drive in its first phases, boasting an onward thrust that only occasionally held itself up, as at an oddly solid pause before bar 108, even allowing for the leap and tonality change involved. The pianist displayed a fine responsiveness to the melodic outline of the Adagio, giving it plenty of breathing space and rubato, all of it comprehensible in context. Very few notes disappeared in the hemi-demisemiquaver figuration edifices across bars 227 to 245, which is saying something as the action is relentless here.

An infectious Viennese lilt informed the Presto which managed to avoid the steely edge that many interpreters aim for. Later, Belyavsky maintained an attractive clarity across the long arpeggio run from bar 564 to bar 585 and his texture remained a sensible model of restraint even when the action got messy from bar 627 on. To his credit, the executant gave us a suitably clangorous set of final pages, but the mesh was not over-pedalled or ineptly thunderous.

Liszt’s Chasse-neige etude made its muffled points with high success. I could pinpoint no obvious errors that I’d swear to, but it’s a rapid-fire exercise and Belyavsky brought out its unsettled, enervating character. The Etude No. 5, another rapid piece, worked well enough with its restless chromatic cluster-runs and a few excellent throw-away right-hand moments starting at bar 124 where the approach sounded ideal for this swindling-away-to-nothing conclusion. Of the three pieces, I preferred the last, Harmonies du soir, probably because you have solid material to deal with, and Belyavsky coped with the initial flourishes well enough but blossomed at the consolidation process of the Poco piu mosso with telling individuality. His execution of detail and even negotiation of those ever-present arpeggios were highlights of his recital; indeed, throughout this piece you realized that you were listening to an artist with character, with something to communicate beyond the predictable, who can stir up excitement but knows just how to pitch it and withdraw intelligently.

Vine’s Bagatelle IV is instantly recognizable for its jazzy/bluesy strut and craft in making much of a deft chord sequence or two. Belyavsky handled it with an attractive fusion of spirit and control, keeping the pace active and delighting with his unexpected insouciance, especially his leisurely left-arm lean in the final bars.

Calvin Abdiel

Abdiel was classified for the competition as Australian/Indonesian, although he seems to have spent most of his later educational years in Sydney. He recorded his program on March 21 in Verbruggen Hall in that city’s Conservatorium of Music, which is the competition’s usual focus; as well, he had a small audience – an asset/drawback not available to most of the other entrants. Compared to the purity of the preceding program, Abdiel’s was multi-faceted, beginning with Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5. Right from the start, you were instantly aware of this pianist’s brilliant technical armoury; it was well-tested in this extremely taxing work which exemplifies to the full its creator’s neurasthenic personality. Abdiel held back little, content to smash out an abrupt climactic point, like the imperioso at bar 107. Yet, you could not complain that sense disappeared in welters of fabric as the sprightly textures remained just that: the wonder lay in the abrupt twists from thunder to Mendelssohnian friskiness.

As with nearly everything presented here, Abdiel faced you with breathtaking facility illuminated by passages of remarkable accomplishment, like the outburst at bar 144 – one of many – that impressed for its fire and its fluency. The executant seemed engrossed by the work’s internal obsessiveness, like the Languido repeats and the leggierissimo volando beginning at bar 235. Not that Abdiel took everything at face value; he made free with some of the detail like the irregular groups of 4 and 5 from bar 300 onward. But the whole melange was delivered with unstoppable conviction, leading to a final two bars that impressed so much more in performance than they do on paper.

Two Debussy Preludes followed the ultra-virtuosic trend. Les collines d’Anacapri startled for its percussive interpretation. Even Modere et expressif in the middle section was heavy-handed and the over-riding Vif proved numbingly rapid. Feux d’artifice, as expected, was brilliantly achieved, a marvellous exhibition from this musician who showed the cleanest pair of heels I’ve come across in this glittering jewel.

The Three Movements from Petrushka that Stravinsky put together for Arthur Rubinstein gave a centre to this program, and it enjoyed an unusually glittering reading. The Russian Dance held no hesitations or pauses but was treated with a fearless directness, even in those trademark sequences of block chords that ask for both rapid finger adjustment and full shoulder heft. No time for relaxation in Petrushka’s Room, either; the second appearance of the famous tritone was taken at a very fast pace, and the ten-bar Furioso enjoyed a massive pounding, including a final D Major chord that I thought would damage the instrument. Set against that an extraordinarily clean handling of the massive trills 11 bars from the movement’s end. The energy and fluency of The Shrovetide Fair probably took the night’s honours: a dazzling display as Abdiel burst through each of the composer’s scenarios – the nurses, gypsies, coachmen, bear and peasant – with masterful ebullience that occasionally bordered on hysteria.

But this was a display night and the presenter wasn’t finished. The program proper ended with a Scriabin study, the D flat Major from Op. 8, which simply put a hothouse-grown cherry on the pianist’s cake. An exercise in right-hand 3rds, it floated past with effortless ease, not making much impression on those of us left gasping in the wake of Abdel’s Stravinsky. And as an encore, he veered away from Vine’s little pieces and went the whole hog: Grainger’s In Dahomey ‘Cakewalk smasher’, where the clue is in the last word. For my taste, this was performed too fast, to the point where it occasionally made no sense. A brilliant negotiation of the score, I’ll be the first to attest, but not true to the composer, clogging his period piece with tumultuous overkill.

A further dip into Sydney’s virtual competition


Day 3, Session 6

Sunday July 4, 2021

Rustam Muradov

One of a phalanx of Russian pianists in this competition. Muradov was yet another of the late entrants invited to participate after several successful applicants withdrew. He recorded this recital on March 20 in the Rodion Shchedrin Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, and was (inevitably) interviewed by Piers Lane before he started playing – yet another uncomfortable experience, although rather more relevant to the occasion than Lane’s discussion with a local piano tuner about previous competitions, a diversion which opened the session. I can see the point of such a chat in any year but this one where an Australian piano tuner has absolutely nothing to contribute to anything but the historical record.

Our artist began with a true rarity: the Op. 116 Fantasies by Brahms which nobody plays; they certainly haven’t during my years of concert/recital attendance and it’s not hard to understand why. They present problems in delivery, mainly to do with off-centre metre but also because of a dearth of melodic power and a penchant for deliberation which is rarely disrupted. Muradov set an excellent standard with the opening Capriccio, not making it easy for us but staying faithful to the piece’s characteristic syncopation. The player’s sensitivity emerged in the No. 2 Intermezzo with an obvious error at the top note of bar 15, but the Non troppo presto which kept to the original right hand lay-out came across with unexpected lucidity.

Some more obvious errors crept into the No. 3 Capriccio, specifically during the central Un poco meno Allegro; mainly finger slips and not detracting from a forward-thrusting account of these pages as a whole, followed by an excellent reprise. Muradov seemed much happier with his work in the following Intermezzo which is a pretty transparent piece and which here radiated security. Like the first in this set, the No. 5 Intermezzo has pretty much everything off-balance, metrically out-of-kilter, until the first double bar when the left hand imposes regularity. Here again, the pianist stayed loyal to the composer’s quirkiness. We could take pleasure in the excellent moulding of the G sharp minor middle pages of the No. 6 Intermezzo as also in the performer’s care with Brahms’ part-writing.

Finally, the No. 7 Capriccio featured more off-the-beat work after the first 10 bars; a challenging work to make coherent and Muradov played a good hand with its physical and harmonic urgency, only one noticeable error coming out 24 bars from the end. So, we heard an honest grappling with this rather enigmatic collection, even if my main impression was of hard work rather than comfortable achievement.

Then came a Haydn sonata, Hob XVI: 20 in C minor that we heard on he competition’s opening day. This was a quick version with no repeats but the rhythmic impulse stayed constant. The Moderato‘s delivery proved to be clear and expertly detailed, even if a note would occasionally go missing, as in the downward right-hand scale of bar 63. But the main feature was the regularity of delivery. A similar no-nonsense approach distinguished the Andante con moto, with a carefully aimed crescendo from bar 45 to bar 50. As for the Allegro ending, you could be happy with the small-scale sturm attack but, once again, not every note registered, even though you could see them being depressed.

Written for an earlier Sydney Competition (2012), Carl Vine’s Toccatissimo gave Muradov scope for virtuosity and histrionics; needless to say, he seized the opportunities with plenty of panache and an obvious relish in the piece’s many flourishes and idiosyncratic textural changes. And, as the prescribed encore, we heard Scarlatti in B minor K. 87, a well-judged companion piece with the preceding Australian work, thanks to its placid inevitability and the elegant lapidary shaping of phrase. No repeats here, either, which was disappointing, as were some imposed pauses and ritenuti – bars 29 and 54, for instance. Still, you have to make the best use of your 40-minute time-limit, as this pianist did to present a mini-recital with many fine pages. But were there enough?

Alexander Malikov

You see the name and think, “Another Russian?” but you’d be sort of wrong: since he was 10 years old, Malikov has called Canada home. This artist made his recording on April 4 at the Glenn Gould School in Toronto and Lane made much in his interview of how late this artist was drawn into the competition, actually entering after the cut-off time and imbibing a Vine bagatelle very quickly to have it off from memory as his compulsory acquaintance with musical Australiana.

Where Muradov ended with Scarlatti, Malikov began his submission with two of the sonatas. K 519 in F minor/Major distinguished itself for its impeccable ornamentation and articulation throughout, with both halves repeated. The K545 in B flat put the same precision on show although the player allowed himself some metrical easing across this Prestissimo‘s second half. An excellent interpretation, the sonata brought to mind Couperin’s Les Maillotins in its requirement for a sympathetic automatism which only faltered into a near-error at bar 62 where Scarlatti turns to settle into his home key.

Malikov followed his competition predecessor with Haydn, Hob XVI/50 in C Major, finding the optimistic bounce in the initial Allegro and making an attractive entity out of the movement, so that I was disappointed that the exposition was not repeated. Amid the genial flow, some clearly-stated brisk chords at bars 100-101 brought the development to an emphatic end, and we encountered two instances of ‘open pedal’ – which, it seems, allows the executant to keep the sustaining pedal down for the specified length.

Haydn’s Adagio is a whimsical set of pages, and Malikov brought a subtle happy calm to its apparent juxtaposition of slow arches and sudden bursts of irregularly-shaped action. Rather than becoming an eccentric hodge-podge, this movement was interpreted with a steady underpinning, the whole piece a slow-moving amble-with-diversions. You found plenty of surprises in the Allegro molto ending to this sonata, thanks to the pianist’s communication of sparkling humour, particularly in those frequent pauses that lead into bar after bar of headlong high spirits, e.g. bars 160 to 161.

Debussy’s Voiles prelude made an interesting choice, mainly because Malikov’s interpretation avoided self-indulgence but somehow impressed as four-square in its approach to the composer’s initial request for a rythme sans rigueur. Later, the bar 29 direction tres retenu made no difference to the prevailing approach of getting on with it all. As with everything this competitor essayed, the result was excellently articulated but these sails had a firm canvas fabric. Mind you, such metrical regularity served the young musician well in the following Liszt legende, St. Francois de Paule “marchant sur les flots”, the lashings of left-hand scales and arpeggios kept to a steady, firmly administered pulse. Here was a highly physical reading, Malikov entering into its blazing flamboyance with gusto, especially at the massive build-up from bar 78 to 85 that takes us into our saint’s buoyant triumph over the Strait of Messina, here given full heroic status.

Continuing the exhibition of technique came the Allegro de concierto by Granados where this performer responded with open hands to the work’s not-particularly-nationalistic opulence. This is a show-piece, one without higher pretensions to depth, and we enjoyed an expert rendition that kept a rein on its fits and starts. I welcomed the imposed rubato around the change in key signature to 5 sharps only and the elegant melodic outpouring when matters moved to G Major – and when the composer actually got on with the business of writing a discernible tune. Finally, Vine’s III. Gentle from the 5 Bagatelles was played with exemplary deliberation – no lingering over its textures but a clear outlining of the brief piece’s atmospheric delicacy.

A full day’s work


Day 1

Friday July 2, 2021

The more you find out about this competition, the sorrier you feel for the competitors. This enterprise might be called The Sydney, but that city is the least important part of anything. Entrants are not coming to Australia, presumably not even to collect prizes. Rather, they have had to record their recitals and post them to jurors. This process has involved finding their own pianos, their own venues, their own recording engineers, cameras, lighting – the whole kit and caboodle. All of this decreases the attraction of the competition as a whole, although some would argue that the times call for these straitened conditions. Faced with all this, certain pianists have withdrawn and had to be replaced by “extraordinary” pianists – about 8 of them, I believe. In any case, hyperbole is still the order of the addresses we enjoy from jury non-voting chairman, Piers Lane who is still promising “extraordinary range” across the taped recitals as we embark on a “great journey together.”

Lane also introduced the jury panel by name; so did the competition’s executive director straight after him. As in pianism, does my left hand know what my right hand is doing?

Maxim Kinasov

Leading the pack was Maxim Kinasov from Russia. He taped his program on April 11 in the Menuhin Hall, London, and was one of Lane’s replacements. As is apparently going to be the custom, Lane conducted a laboured zoom interview with Kinasov about his path thus far, including a teacher who discouraged his ambitions. It’s rather like Eddie McGuire dragging out tedious details from the lives of contestants on Millionaire Hot Seat.

Kinasov opened with Sergei Slonimsky’s Intermezzo in Memory of Brahms from 1980, a late Romantic-reminiscent elegy of sorts with loads of agreable surges and a wealth of Brahmsian tropes, building to a passionate conclusion and distinctive for the performer’s use of his fist on bass notes. Real Brahms followed with the first book of the Paganini Variations. Kinasov demonstrated an excellent delicacy in Variation 3, a predilection for rubato during Variation 4 which led to a loss of tension by lingering on certain final notes of bars in Variation 5. By the time he got to Variation 8, I would have welcomed something of a return to a steady tempo, and an odd rallentando in bar 4 of Variation 9 seemed unnecessary, as did the elongation process in this section’s second half. But Kinasov’s balance in the doubled melody line of Variation 11 was exemplary; his little glissandi in Variation 13 almost convinced all the time, and he kept the best wine till last with a powerful Variation 14 that kept on growing in stature.

Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 impressed thanks to Kinasov’s lightness of touch, an authoritative exhibition especially in the secondary group of the slow Andantino. Here, Kinasov’s flexibility proved welcome to give freshness to some drab textural work. In the middle movement Andante caloroso, the attack impressed for its weight at the Piu largamente marking, and this movement continued to make a favourable impression for its controlled response to Prokofiev’s insistence and stringent emotional agony. Kinasov generated an excellent feature of the tocsin repetition beginning at bar 197 in the alto line and the merciless pursuit of a minor 2nd underpinning the movement’s later progress. The Precipitato finale came across as unstoppable, remarkably fluent and vehement as it should be in the most persuasive interpretations.

Kinasov concluded with his compulsory Australian piece: Vine’s Threnody from the 5 Bagatelles, a lament or elegy for the victims of AIDS. The pianist made a fine delineation of the piece’s well-spaced textural continuity, including the moving imitation of an organ’s mixture stop, akin to a soft sesquialtera.

Alexandra Pavlova

This Kazakhstan artist recorded herself in the Faziola Hall of the piano manufacturer’s factory in Sacile on March 29. She opened with the Sonata No. 6 from 1960 of Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Pavlova was another of Lane’s late entrants and enjoyed a slightly more vivacious taped encounter with the Australian expatriate. This final piano sonata from the Polish composer opens with a clangorous Adagio threnody, succeeded by a meandering semi-bucolic counterweight. The performance impressed for its focus and negotiation of juxtaposed segments, like a Prokofiev-style soft march, but the harmonic language proved more restrained than you’d expect from the period. The complementary Allegro molto presented a motif that expanded on itself in an assured framework, Pavlova’s rendition controlled and assured, but the work didn’t say much to me, apart from some brisk and spasmodic outbursts in a restless moto perpetuo. If anything, the movement illustrated Pavlova’s ability to persuade you of merit through imposing weight of output.

More Prokofiev: the Sonata No. 2 opening with a rubato-rich Allegro ma non troppo. You couldn’t object to this freedom in what was a student work, although it had its drawbacks, like an occasionally muddy bass-line. Pavlova almost got through the work unscathed, right up to the final D minor chord which admittedly concludes a hectic four-bar stretch. She gave an excellent airing to the succeeding Scherzo, showing both willing and aggressive. She reached a powerful highpoint rather early in the Andante at bar 17 and over-egged the drama six bars before Prokofiev neutralizes all his key-signature sharps. Possibly demonstrating that she is better suited to rapidity of motion, Pavlova relished the toccata-like Vivace finale, taking it at a very rapid speed in a sterling exhibition of legerdemain, best typified by a delectable poco a poco accelerando after the time change back to 2/4.

Glinka/Balakirev’s The Lark proved to be a simple lyric in B flat minor that begins unassumingly enough and becomes more florid as the Balakirev contribution swells. Unlike most of Liszt’s song arrangements, this one is over-egged, even if it served a dual purpose of giving Pavlova a chance to exercise her Romantic interpretation skills as well as her skill in detailed cadenza work, which only let her down at the start of the final exercise in bravura seven bars from the end. Her necessary Australian work was Kats-Chernin’s Russian Rag II – no worries with this slightly effervescent illustration of he composer’s prodigal imagination, but it goes past too quickly to illustrate anything in the performer’s arsenal.

Timur Mustakimov

This Russian pianist performed his tape on March 30 in the Klavierhaus Manhattan, New York, using a Fazioli instrument, as had Pavlova. He began with mainstream repertoire in Haydn Hob XVI: 20 in C minor. A Moderato first movement proved measured and often lucid, with plenty of give-and-take in its on-the-page fitfulness – as in bar 19, bar 59, bar 76. The exposition was repeated. Mustakimov displayed a fine steadiness in the mordents, most of which came across cleanly. I was a tad worried about the first right-hand note at bar 91 but the player showed no other flaws, possibly because he gave himself plenty of liberty in his pacing. At the Andante, it suddenly struck me how dry the acoustic of this space was, possibly because the performer allowed himself just as much freedom in pulse – again. In part-writing, he observed the note values scrupulously, but then would labour unexpectedly, distending phrases as at bar 54.

As with all three movements, Mustakimov repeated the first section of the Allegro and was able in these active pages to keep to a regular beat, particularly in passages with extended runs of semiquavers, beginning at the set between bars 23 and 32. In fact, the less he gave ‘point’ to phrases and sentences, the more impressive his delivery.

I didn’t understand what this pianist was hoping to achieve with his transcription of the Prelude from Bach’s D minor Cello Suite, which he performed straight with the left hand alone; a show of sensitivity to line, perhaps, but it stood like an enigma in this setting until he morphed into the Busoni transcription of Bach’s Chaconne that concludes the D minor Violin Partita. Here was a splendid reading, temperamental and spectacular in its fireworks. As with other performances I’ve heard recently, one of the variations was omitted – is there some doubt about its authenticity on either Bach’s or Busoni’s side? – but you had to be impressed at the change of key signature, the Quasi tromboni segment, where Mustakimov made a fair fist of accomplishing just that. A brilliant accelerando preceded the move back to D minor and the last pages hurtled past with obvious effort but sustained ferocity.

Australia sort of got covered by Grainger’s arrangement of the Dowland lute song Now, O now I needs must part. The interpretation tended to give plenty of attention to the American resident’s chord changes from the work’s centre onwards. It’s not intended as a put-down, and the interpretation proved as languorous as you’d want, but this work stands as as a rich resource for any cocktail pianist.

Alexander Gadjiev

This Italian/Slovenian pianist played a Kawai instrument at the Kawai Europa centre in Krefeld, Germany, and he recorded himself on March 19. For my taste, this was the most intriguing program of Day 1 and the most impressive in its interpretative breadth. Gadjiev opened, like Mustakimov, with Haydn – Hob XVI: 48 in C Major. His straightforward Andante proved to be very much more regular after the previous experience and you were not confronted by dynamic shocks. The movement had its abrupt features, but the dynamic changes remained coherent. An excellent pointillism informed the Rondo, a true presto and a delight every time Gadjiev repeated the movement’s main melody. You (well, I) thought: here’s a player with discernment and a real interpretative insight, submitting to us a Haydn on the composer’s own terms.

Chopin’s F minor Ballade also impressed for its excellent communication of construction, not to mention a sense of phrasing that seemed to emerge from the pages, rather than being imposed on them. Gadjiev forged a sensible path through the huge pitfalls that are peppered across the composer’s canvas but, as with his Haydn sonata, the interpreter proved to be a force in himself, dealing elegantly with the chromatic-rich framework and giving us as powerful a stretto as you could wish for after the mid-flight five dotted minim chords,

For his compulsory acquisition, Gadjiev gave us two of Vine’s 5 Bagatelles: III Gentle, and V Threnody. He outlined the first, easing out its deft effects and mild suspense, and gave an extra edge to the mixture-stop melodic line by emphasizing the lower part while displaying a welcome responsiveness to the piece’s fluency, letting it speak for itself without exaggerating its elegiac quality.

A clever stroke at this point was to perform part of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus, indeed one of the more significant movements of the suite: Le baiser de l’enfant-Jesus, which begins with a similar meditative placidity to Vine’s last bagatelle . Some of the pedal work interfered with the instrument’s early output but the performer was very comfortable with the composer’s placid emotional environment – until, of course, it moves into ecstasy-land with a storming surge and billow that presage the upcoming Turangalila-symphonie. It’s a solid piece of work to handle but you felt confident in this exponent’s hands which, as far as I could tell, articulated those chord-complexes without flaw.

Gadjiev concluded with Scriabin’s 1904 Feuillet d’album, a living-up-to-its-name miniature that somehow brought us back from the French composer’s Heaven-storming essay to nothing like the Russian master’s eclectic pantheism – more, the salonesque atmosphere found in many of the Preludes. It made for an easing of tension and was a real encore piece in that there was nothing here to frighten the pigeons – or non-believers.

A delayed gala


Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra

Moscow Conservatory

Thursday July 1, 2021

Andrey Gugnin

So, here we go on another Sydney competition: an 18-day keyboard orgy of players who are – allegedly – the best young guns in the business. We’ll have plenty of time to find out if that’s the case. From this night’s pre-performance addresses, you’d think that putting all the players online was some sort of brilliant technical feat. Sorry, no; not after the last 15 months we’ve all shared where computers and their communicative possibilities have become stock-in-trade for every musician. In fact, the competition seems to have turned into a truncated exercise, if you read between the lines. One of the speakers adverted to the fact that there’ll be no chamber music segment, which is a screaming shame. Also, the concerto round has been eliminated, which is less of a pity but still a sign that 2021 will be the Year of Purification, a competition of simple solo recital ability – I suppose.

The first online event was a concert proper, coming from Moscow. Again, much was made of this being a night co-sponsored by the piano competition organization, but it was not a live affair: this concert was recorded on April 23. So we were offered a recorded performance featuring the 2016 Sydney competition winner, Andrey Gugnin, as soloist in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The Tchaikovsky orchestra was conducted by Pavel Sorokin, a long-time artist associated with the Bolshoi Ballet. For the most part, this night was an odd collection: three works by Liszt – the concerto, the Les Preludes symphonic poem, and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in an orchestration by Karl Muller-Berghaus – and two Wagner pot-boilers in The Mastersingers Overture and The Ride of the Valkyrie.

Before we crossed to Moscow and a platitudinous introduction from a music critic (!), we heard pre-recorded addresses, the first by the competition’s chief juror, Piers Lane, who set the pattern for hyperbole by speaking of the Conservatory’s “hallowed hall” – which is about as inane as calling the MCG’s surface “hallowed turf” – and promising “extraordinary pleasure” from “a host of other pianists [not the winner] who will excel”, etc. We’ll see. Then Virginia Braden, chairman of the competition’s board of directors, furthered the promises by noting that “we have created a new venture”, for which I read that we have adopted a necessary compromise after last year’s competition cancellation. She also seemed to be labouring under the delusion that the upcoming concert was ‘direct from Moscow’ through the good graces of “The Sydney”, which is apparently accepted shorthand for the competition by omitting all descriptors. In Lane mode, we were assured of a “wonderful time filled with outstanding music-making.” In contrast, patron Governor-General Hurley repeated the innovative mantra about the competition’s procedure and treated us to a few observations about the worth of music to humanity. Bronwyn Bishop, who heads the competition Friends, assured us of upcoming “magnificent performances” – by which time I was almost ready to commit to the faith. Finally, competition chief executive Marcus Barker put it all in more down-to-earth terms: “We’ve changed to accommodate the competitors.” But even this pragmatic approach couldn’t avoid hoisting out the promise of “outstanding” things to come.

The Conservatory hall wasn’t exactly packed for the occasion; perhaps the cognoscenti knew what was coming. Not much to tell about the poem. You couldn’t have much faith in the orchestra’s synchronicity, from the opening pizzicato to the following block entries. Matters had improved by Letter E in the Kalmus edition but nothing could disguise the vulgarity of the march that breaks out 10 bars before Letter G – not the musicians’ problem, of course, but who decided to resurrect this score? Odd moments intruded to make you think that the strings were unhappy in their work, like the exposed bars at Letter K and sloppy work from them led into the recapitulation at Letter M. Over-encouraged cymbal work dissipated concentration at the brawny Andante maestoso and the closing pages came over with as much broad power as you could want.

For the E flat Concerto, the Tchaikovsky players did not get off to the most convincingly synchronised opening. But then, we weren’t here for them. Gugnin used an aggressive instrument with a penetrating upper register, but he’s a player distinguished for the forward placement of his sound, as I remembered from his 2017 recital in Melbourne. Immediately, you realize that you’ve forgotten how much freedom the soloist is allowed in the opening pages and Gugnin seized the passing a piacere direction with both hands and wherever it seemed appropriate. The Tchaikovsky first clarinet merged in with the soloist particularly well between bars 34 and 36 for a sensitive spell, but Gugnin reverted to his crisp, well-defined output at the following a tempo, showing no signs of fluster at any of the stops and starts during the rest of this Allegro movement.

His Quasi adagio was notable for the dovetailing between soloist and orchestra, more apparent during these pages which are all coloured by the piano, even when it’s doing little more than decoration as from bar 154 to the last trills. During the subsequent Allegretto, there might have been a recording fault but something was missing from the keyboard contribution at the end of bar 195: the first flaw that struck me up to this point. Gugnin made a fine exhibition of the contrary motion 7th chords from bar 249, the long sequence unfailingly certain in delivery. Something odd crept in to the oboe line at bar 310 which sounded unhealthy and my screen went dead for a few bars around the piano’s fierce restatement of the concerto’s opening motif.

Gugnin demonstrated excellent digital control at the Alla breve of the Allegro marziale, which turned into a masterclass in how not to cheapen material that cries out for it. Sorokin kept his forces on point although it seemed to me that Gugnin was unwilling/unable to increase the speeds, happy with a sensible Presto at bar 483 and ensuring that his double-octave E flat punctuation points in the final bars carried past the orchestral emphases. I was surprised at the audience’s tepid response to this performance. Sure, it wasn’t as flamboyant as many I’ve seen, even in the good old days of the ABC’s Concerto and Vocal Competitions when the concerto would turn up with mind-numbing regularity. But there’s no accounting for communal taste, as we’re probably about to find out in the coming fortnight-plus.

No surprises with the Wagner overture, and not much involvement either if the opening march was any indication. In fact, the start of the woodwind solos came as doubly welcome after the lethargy of the initial statements. Still, the Tchaikovsky strings gave a fair account of the Preislied-in-four-beats section, the whole exercise not similarly settled when the great moment arrives as Wagner juggles his three themes simultaneously and these musicians – some of them – were slightly off the beat. That laboured effect returned six bars from the end with a dotted crotchet+two-semiquavers pattern hammered out without any spark. By contrast, the Ride sounded much more fresh and vigorous; but then, it’s better music with just as much repetition but more mobility.

Last, the Hungarian Rhapsody‘s first part gave the resident first clarinet another chance or three to shine in some cadenzas that were eloquent and well-paced. Throughout this edgy score, the first violins gave in to anticipation more obviously than had been the case earlier in the night. By contrast, you could find no fault with the even-tempered woodwind/brass choir near the conclusion to the lassan pages. Sorokin took a very quick speed for the friska/Vivace which really turned into a gallop. He also inserted some huge pauses, as at the change of key signature to F Major and at the end of bar 32 in the Piu mosso and he reverted to an earlier style of interpreting this work by playing around with the tempo using a high degree of elasticity. It hardly needs reporting that this proved to be the most popular piece on the program.

But at least we got to hear Gugnin approaching maturity, an example of what can be achieved through this competition. For all that, I’ve heard only two other laureates – Konstantin Shamray and John Chen – but both have impressed for their musicianship and insights. Here’s hoping the jury gets it right this year as well.