Joy in the afternoon

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO

Opera Queensland

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday July 25

Xenia Puskarz Thomas

To borrow the commonest of catch-cries: how good’s The Marriage of Figaro? Even better, seeing it in the flesh after some months of no opera on local stages. This Patrick Nolan-directed production represents the first major indication of life since the pandemic began in earnest. So it’s welcome both for breaking a long drought and for itself – the most beguiling and character-rich of Mozart’s operatic masterpieces. Added to which, Brisbane was clearly in the mood for it. This was a matinee but packed to the gills with enthusiasts coming from across all age groups, if the interval foyer was any guide.

Because it was an afternoon exhibition, we saw the second cast, which fact involved changes to only the main four principals. As Figaro, Timothy Newton replaced Jeremy Kleeman – which meant that he had a lot to live up to, Kleeman having built a sterling reputation since he appeared in a Musica Viva farrago some years ago. Susanna was sung by Katie Stenzel, in place of Sofia Troncoso – not much difference to me as I don’t think I’ve seen either soprano on stage [that’s wrong: I came across Troncoso in a Camerata concert last November]. The redoubtable Jose Carbo’s place as the Count was taken over by Shaun Brown; I know the former all too well, the latter not at all. And Eva Kong’s Countess gave way to that of Leanne Kenneally, both of these sopranos familiar to me from Opera Australia and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra appearances.

The rest of the cast remained constant, led by Xenia Puskarz Thomas‘ outstanding Cherubino: the production’s chief vocal delight. Hayley Sugars (Marcellina) was an unknown quantity, probably because much of her work has been in Queensland. Jud Arthur (Bartolo) is a regular with the national opera company and has also appeared for Victorian Opera. Tenor Bradley Daley (Basilio) is one of those singers that you feel you know well but, when put to it, can’t remember in what situation. As Antonio, Samuel Piper played a remarkably sober gardener, and Irena Lysiuk – like so many sopranos in her position – was deprived of Barbarina’s main chance to shine: L’ho perduta, introducing Act 4.

The company’s resident conductor, Dane Lam, headed the Queensland Symphony Orchestra – well, members of it – which has taken me aback mightily on previous occasions. No matter what’s happening on stage, the pit sound for Opera Queensland is top quality and Mozart’s brilliant overture emerged at concert hall standard. The only improvement would have been if the curtain had stayed down and we’d been spared the dumb show of Figaro moving in to his new quarters with chorus members carrying boxes and bed materiel across the stage in yet another vain attempt to provide visual stimulus from go to whoa. Why bother, when you’ve got white-hot effervescence in the pit?

On we went to the singing, Newton and Stenzel making fair work of the opening duet, although this Figaro could have made more of his sudden realization of the Count’s skullduggery during the Se a caso segment. The following recitative (all of them accompanied, so I understand, throughout the opera by Dane) was abridged and similar cuts were made at several points later on. Newton’s cavatina Se vuol ballare sounded confident enough, apart from the two si top Fs which were hurled out abruptly. I enjoyed this singer’s later Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi – addressed, as usual, from front of stage directly to the audience – but then that aria doesn’t rise above an E flat, And the Non piu andrai was dispatched efficiently yet lacked bounce and personality, especially in Figaro’s mock-heroic final 12 bars.

Stenzel’s character began well enough with a light touch throughout Act 1 and her interchanges with Sugars (their Via resti servita duet passed very quickly; was it cut?) pleased for their mobility as did her contribution to the trio involving Brown and Daley. The disguising of Cherubino throughout Venite inginocchiatevi went by without leaving a single memory (did it really happen?); Susanna’s Canzonetta sull’aria with the Countess proved too hard-edged for me, and it was taken at a pretty brisk allegretto which cut off any chances for indulgent dolcezza; but the Deh vieni was a highlight in a far too well-lit Act IV, that pizzicato support leaving this light soprano plenty of space to make her linear points without having to strive against orchestral force or vivacity.

Kenneally sang a forthright Countess, her character not given to self-pity yet not as aristocratic in bearing as you might have expected in the one person who should rise above the fray. Both the big arias – Porgi amor and Dove sono – came over with power and well-paced breathing control, but the singer’s vibrato strikes me as slow and steady, so it was something of a relief to reach the Ah! se almen moderate Allegro in the Act 3 aria. Still, the singer’s reliability and punch in the big even-act finales was very welcome in ensembles that occasionally veered towards muddiness.

As Almaviva, Brown made the most of some slim pickings: lots of ensemble work and rapid-fire recitative, but only one set solo. This last fared well enough, if rhythmically heavy-handed, but the inbuilt sense of outrage was present and – something like Newton’s opening solo – the only off-putting moment came with that top F sharp 8 bars from the end of Vedro mentr’io sospiro: a sudden blast of hefty effort cutting across the line’s carefully arranged phrases. Besides this one blip, Brown contributed with distinction to the Act 2 trio, and he kept his head through the audience noise that disrupted that moment of breathtaking humanity: Contessa, perdona.

The principal who put no foot wrong was Puskarz Thomas, who appeared to enter into her role with more conviction and energy than most Cherubinos I’ve seen. It helps if you are equipped with a smart-as-paint crispness of timbre and are working in a role that suits your abilities. For instance, her Non so piu made musical and dramatic sense (for once) with every note pitched accurately and her rapid phrases shaped with precision. Some time later, Voi che sapete impressed for its eloquent yearning and the naive assurance of Cherubino, who assumes that the world shares his outlook.

You could pick over this singer’s work but I took pleasure in small passages that often disappoint, like the Sospiro e gemo nervous semiquavers in the later pages of the Act 2 aria, and the clarity of her repeated B flats at ogni donna cangiar di colore and what follows in Non so piu. Another time, another place and we could have had two encores which, judging by the final curtain calls, would have been generally welcome. The only oddity came when the character was directed to mime disguising an erection; I’ve seen it done in other productions and, although it raises laughs, you’d have to work hard to find any such embarrassment consistent with the score.

Bartolo’s La vendetta aria impressed only fitfully, mainly as it reached its hectoring final strophes from Ogni Sevilla; but then Arthur had to labour against an improbable costuming and characterization which reminded me of a tennis coach of the Harry Hopman era – all whites and athletic bouncing around. Sugars sang a fine Marcellina, her mezzo clearly projected and working well in the Via resti servita duet and the Act 3 extended sextet Riconosci in questo amplesso even if some other cast members handled this recognition scene with a cack-handed lack of overt surprise. And I believe her Act 4 Il capro e la capretta solo disappeared; further, unless my concentration really lapsed criminally, so did Daley’s In quegl’anni in cui val poco so that his Basilio too seemed reduced to ensemble work. Ditto Piper’s Antonio (well, that’s right – he only gets some recitatives and the two big finales) and Lysiuk’s under-utilised Barbarina. Another gratifying aspect of the performance was the fact that the chorus – all 15 of them – stayed in tune and in time with Lam’s direction. The same could not be said of the Cosa sento trio in Act 1 where both male participants – Count and Basilio – at one stage wound up some way ahead of pit proceedings.

There isn’t much to say about the look of the piece. Modern costumes were all the go, the Countess’s outfits sometimes stylish and then grotesque. Marg Horwell‘s sets used grey as a fundamental, with wayward chandeliers resting on the floor another motif. A large sculpted head sat at front-of-stage for the duration, the associated body appearing for Act 4; probably a comment on the fate of unreconstructed aristocrats, and some decorative blood around the neck suggested that the premonitions of Beaumarchais might have been another of the setting’s reference points. As a production ‘look’, the result was deliberately shabby; nobody was going to much trouble over anything, least of all the upcoming nuptials, apart from a plethora of artificial flowers and a fountain of plastic cups.

Still, you don’t go to the opera to look but to listen. That’s right, isn’t it? In the end, this production held enough creditable arias and ensemble work to engage your attention and (sometimes) admiration. But the best points were that magnificent Act 2 finale, climaxing in a vital reading of the concluding septet, especially from the Piu allegro at Son confusa; and also the heartwarmingly buoyant Questo giorno di tormenti conclusion to the whole work. At these moments, you just shut your eyes – nothing is happening: the cast is just singing to/at you – and delight in unalloyed beauty. If a company can bring off these major points with success, most of a performance’s defects fall by the wayside.

Calm craft

BOWER

Genevieve Lacey & Marshall McGuire

Musica Viva

Saturday July 24

Marshall McGuire & Genevieve Lacey

This duo was scheduled to perform on Sunday July 25 at the Old Museum in Bowen Hills where I first made the acquaintance of Alex Ranieri and his Brisbane Music Festival. Because of lockdowns, both projected and actual, the recital could not take place here, so Musica Viva set up a video for us outlanders of one of the Melbourne performances – either Saturday July 10 or Tuesday July 13. The music came under a general heading/title that could have referred to the Australian/Papua New Guinean passerine that we celebrate for its catholicity of theft, or it might have been intended to summon up images of the leafy structure found in all the best gardens and wildernesses.

In fact, the name deliberately suggested both. In their little-over-an-hour of music, Lacey and McGuire raised an atmosphere of beguiling calm right from the start, walking on to a suggestive pseudo-set disposed decorously on the Melbourne Recital Centre stage. A scene of circumambient penumbra was focused on a lighting grid in which operated the two musicians, around whom spotlights shone diagonally to the roof with dry ice adding to the aura of being nowhere specific, although that soon faded with the opening work. Lou Bennett‘s Baiyan Woka, a Yorta Yorta song, was arranged for the recorder/harp combination by Erkki Veltheim; as well as giving Lacey the tune and several repetitions of it, the arranger provided an electronic backdrop incorporating relevant instrumental sounds, assorted percussion, and the hum that surrounds you in the deep bush.

What I enjoyed with this piece was the tight intersection of recorded and live strands which were not allowed to meander on their own sweet ways but kept together as a complex. Lacey used two recorders to outline Bennett’s melody and McGuire sounded at his best with low register output. The only questionable aspect were a rash of harp glissandi; no matter how much you try to turn these gestures into something old and strange, the suggestions of France are inescapable.

Moving back about 350 years, we jumped to John Playford’s The Dancing Master and a suite from that commodious collection that alternated sprightly with leisurely; nothing exceptional here but the playing which brought to the fore Lacey’s sterling talents in rapid-fire negotiations and lilting sweetness. As a pendant came Jacob van Eyck’s Bravade, with some paper interwoven with the harp’s lower strings (by Lacey, during the Playford cluster) to produce a light tambour effect, supporting the recorder’s brilliant elaborations in the Dutch piece, here handled with more metrical determination than you hear in many another version that feels drawn to rhythmic waywardness in works from the country’s musically dominant years.

Andrea Keller, whom I’ve only come across before as a jazz pianist, composed I Surrender during last year’s lockdown. It mirrors the nervous repetition of those days – nothing changes in lockdown, but you’re on edge – and moves into slowly administered additions to the melody line. I suppose the main difficulty with a pretty straightforward piece like this one is that it loses you in its own pattern-making, and that involved both players. At its heart I Surrender is unsurprising – normal and not over-ambitious – but you could relish the bird sounds inserted for Lacey (the first obvious ones I’d heard so far this night), and a suggestive, moody recession that rounded off the work.

As if to make up for avian absence, John RodgersBirds for Genevieve gave the recorder plenty of suggestive sounds in a cascade that included breathy over-blowing and passages of sparkling pointillism as the movement ranged across bird-calls with a lavishness that mirrored the male bower-bird’s taste for whatever falls in its path. Rodgers expertly fabricated a real atmosphere of controlled activity; not that any part of the Australian bush would have yielded the chain of calls that Lacey produced. But that’s hardly the point, as Messiaen could have told you. More impressive was the composer’s sustained contemporaneity: his piece sounded freshly minted, thanks to its novel material, and its language connected to a post-1950 creative world.

Lachlan Skipworth‘s Cavern was set against a sound-track of what could have been dripping water and clap-sticks. This set up a quiet but expectant aura which I found was disrupted by a reappearance of those salonesque glissandi from McGuire. Here, Lacey used a bass recorder, generating sounds that came close to a dijeridu, but much more clearly pitched and mobile. As a piece of suggestive music, it succeeded ideally in suggesting the composer’s experiences of a Margaret River area cave, the piece actually a cannibalisation of the first movement from his own Quintet for Bass Recorder and Strings.

Another contributor to this hour of patchwork came with Cipriani de Rore’s Io canterei d’amor, with Girolamo dalla Casa’s divisions on it, the whole a Lacey/McGuire arrangement, I know only the original madrigal and you could find plenty of familiar melodic fragments in this construct which gave some splendid extended ornamented flights for Lacey above McGuire’s functional chord work.

The next work was divided into five parts and I think I was able to pick them all out. Bree van Reyk‘s threaded in amongst the infinite threading began with Lacey taking up a contrabass recorder which looks rather like an organ flue pipe and interweaving (as you’d expect) with McGuire in a mildly tortuous manner, before moving to a new section with percussive work in the harp’s bass, eventually featuring some snatches of Bartok pizzicato, the recorder also showing itself a tappable, snappable sound source. The piece’s middle gave us bird sounds on a regular recorder, above harp ostinati and what can only be called scrubbing. Then, a shift to a sopranino (?) instrument operating in its top range, the harp also occupied in its highest strings, before a final section used the contrabass as a melody source while the harp produced telling isolated notes and further scrubbing.

Most of my notes concerned themselves with the accidents of this piece rather than what actually went on. And it seemed that appearance-in-performance constituted a large part of its effectiveness. Van Reyk’s musical language is based on the tonal system, but with digressions, sections apparently linked by harp bridging, but its philosophical underpinnings went way over my head. Unlike Froberger’s Lamentation on the death of Emperor Ferdinand III, here a solo from McGuire which enjoyed a free-wheeling attitude to rhythm but proved to be affecting in its use of almost predictable tropes, capped by a remarkable ascending scale in the final bars.

Veltheim’s own Nocturne over blue ruins involved a prominent tape contribution as it attempted to take on the bower-bird concept, here realised by single harp notes alternating with dyads repeated mercilessly. For some time, I had no idea what the recorder (bass) was doing, finding its timbre almost indistinguishable from the electronic sounds; possibly single notes were emitted but they did a successful job of attracting absolutely no attention. Veltheim has based his work on the bandwidth of the colour blue – the bower bird likes blue – as well as the bower-as-shelter concept. Of all the pieces in this program, this was most reminiscent of a ‘happening’ piece, in the old 1960s sense; but then, from its content, it was also close to the most non-happening work we heard, packed as it was with white noise and mind-numbing repetitions. In fact, there was no need for the work to end; we could be listening to it still.

Last of the modern works in this aural scenario that leapt whole centuries at a single bound was a collaboration between Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey: A mutual support for precarious times. This would seem to be an improvised work, in that it takes a different form every time it is played, according to the creators. This piece also had a scene-setting soundscape, across which Lacey contrived some telling wobbles on her contrabass while McGuire did the contemporary thing by slapping his strings. The work’s background included some good old-fashioned sine wave sounds, with all sources indulging in sudden flickers that sounded like neurasthenia given physical form.

To end, we were given two luminous splendours, serving as memorable branches in the shape of this shelter. First, a version of Purcell’s Evening Hymn in which Lacey gave a brilliantly shaped vocal line to McGuire’s just-rich-enough continuo support; to a sensibility as time-warped as mine, that advent in bar 69 of the composer’s light but strong Hallelujah chain is one of the most wrenching passages in music, carried out here with near-flawless beauty. Then, arranged by Rodgers, Biber’s Passacaglia for solo violin, which closes his Mystery Sonatas, found the players sharing the load by swapping bass and treble, as between bars 73 and 92. Despite this even-handedness, the piece gave us a chance to revel in Lacey’s brilliance of timbre and agility, especially when the hemi-demi-semiquavers started flying at bar 41, not to mention the rapid-fire same-note triple explosions across bars 115 to 120. This light-filled sequence of brilliant effects made the happiest of conclusions to a remarkable – and deliberately miscellaneous – program.

An unfamiliar voice emerges

MIRABILE IN PRAGUE

Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra

Move Records MD 3448

It isn’t every day that you come across a local composer who has managed to get his work recorded by a well-known European orchestra, directed by a notable musician who has been active in Australia for many years. But that’s been the case for John Allan who has managed to achieve this fortunate outcome, one that is unfamiliar to many a better-known writer of serious music in this country. You’ll find seven tracks on this CD, two of them arrangements: Debussy’s La soiree dans Grenade, the central one of Debussy’s three Estampes; and the Scherzo from Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 1 in C, his Op. 1.

The original pieces begin with an Aeolian Caprice, which was initially a piano solo but, 15 years on, Allan decided to orchestrate it. One of the major works follows, a Fantasia on Mahler’s Purgatorio: a variant on the third movement from Mahler’s incomplete Symphony No. 10. At the centre of the disc sit three works with the Latin adjective ‘mirabile’ in their titles. The first, like Aeolian Caprice, began life as piano solo celebrating the birth of the composer’s daughter; it was orchestrated a year later, then revised six years after that. As well, there’s Mirabilia Antipodia of 2005 which offers variations on the original ‘mirabile’ theme. Finally, another one of four Allan works that use the same motif/theme, comes Marcia Mirabilis – written a year before Antipodia but revised several times since: in 2010, 2014 and 2017 . . . which makes it the most recently visited work of the seven. The whole lot adds up to a little less than 49 minutes of music.

When I see a title like Aeolian Caprice, I’m reminded of occasional pieces, post-Mendelssohn in character, for amateur pianists. Of course, the naming is ambiguous: it could refer to the Aeolian mode, or it could refer to the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily, or it might be suggesting the wind-driven Aeolian harp. It starts with a suggestion of everything; clarinet-led low melody, low brass following the same pattern, until an orchestral explosion of some power, even if the heftiness is over-bearing. Then comes a series of full-blown melodies, with something a bit odd about the ensemble chording for wind and brass; can’t put my finger on it but it seems very thick and imbalanced. As the work proceeds, the texture gets thicker, then cuts back to leave the violins weaving a spacious melody, which yields to a clumsy passage for wind and percussion.

By this stage the metrical pattern is well established: a swinging (slowly) triple metre which doesn’t endear itself by a lack of variety. In fact, the piece impresses as unsophisticated, the disposition of forces clumsy, the crescendo towards the final-bar climax elementary in style. It’s the earliest work on the disc, and you can tell. As for those worries about Aeolian, I’ve no idea at the end. Probably not the harp; the score’s opening has the faintest traces of Bax’s Tintagel, so maybe the Sicilian islands.

Allan’s Mahler essay follows. Its main feature is to change the time-signature: the original 2/4 goes by the board for a deliberately unbalancing 5/8. That aside, half of this track’s length – no, a bit more than that – follows the original framework pretty closely; that is to say, you can ‘follow’ the published score’s flow without difficulty. Naturally enough, Allan has imposed his own orchestration (who hasn’t?) and so the textures have only shadings of the original. But motives and bursts of melody are transferred between woodwind, for example, or even interchanged between brass and strings. Allan moves away from this a little after the 6 minute mark and manipulates Mahler’s material for the final three minutes.

To his credit, the new score stays close in material to what we have heard already – through a glass splintered – and the entire exercise has an undeniable coherence. But, as the Australian composer observes, the work is changed considerably, its emotional intent less apparent, and the sound fabric less incisive. The whole thing is a clear homage but you aren’t quite sure what has been accomplished here. Allan takes the wind out of your carping sails, however, by calling his score a fantasia – which allows him absolute freedom; the wonder is that he didn’t take more.

At the opening of the root work Mirabile, you are reminded of Delius: a melody slowly rises out of a brooding bass before that melody is pronounced clearly in a solo horn, the lyric shifting harmonically – just like those incessant Delian bass murmurings. As the work progresses, there are shades of Hollywood sound-tracks, with some broadly swelling climaxes and plenty of swoops and ascents for the Prague orchestra to enjoy. Eventually, we come to a broad tutti statement, loaded with swelling strings. But there is also a sort of astringency added to the smooth surface with an input line or two from woodwind and/or brass. The ending is a reinforcement of the score’s orthodox harmonic nature, a triumph of sentiment over spice.

You’d like to think that Mirabile Antipodia has reference to this side of the world – Australia Olympica – but it’s more probable that the reference is formal. Allan has here transposed the voluble ‘mirabile’ theme for this piece; no, more than transposed – he has inverted it in the best Baroque or Webern fashion. The results are more disturbing than in the original work, as the accompanying material has taken on a harmonic complexity that the original didn’t contain. I found the writing here to be more sinewy – or the music’s workings were more discernible and the harmonic language a good deal more complex, although Allan cannot avoid popular tropes, like the downward movement for brass a little after the 3-minute mark, and the following full-orchestral blasts that lead to a full-blown peroration of large proportions, something like Berg piling up his forces. The whole thing then suspends for a reminiscence of Tchaikovsky – the melody’s there, if the supporting surrounds are different – before reverting to several restatement’s of the inverted ‘mirabile’ and a big finale.

So, in a real sense, this is a converse piece which largely avoids the sweetness and predictability of the previous track. Even if Allan indulges again in the lush orchestral resources available to him, they are much more interesting in their application. You feel that his compositional development has resulted in more confidence as a manipulator of possibilities. Mind you, I still think the textures are over-full, despite an attempt to add sparks; a fair bit of the brass writing is pure weight, a mid-ensemble spread.

The march based on the ‘mirabile’ melody would drive any corps to revolt: it’s too slow for military use. Not that you’d take as a principle that all marches have to be marchable; now that Tchaikovsky’s been mentioned, I can think of three major marches from his pen that also don’t fit the regimental bill. In fact, there’s not a good deal to be said about Allan’s march. I eventually found the relevant theme in the content, mainly because its initial phrase is eventually repeated till even the meanest intelligence gets the picture. This is the longest track on this CD, twice as long as the preceding tracks using the same theme; ditto for the Aeolian escapade and the Debussy rescheduling.

There’s a certain pleasure to be found in this work which strikes me as often being a bit of a ramble, despite its jaunty nature which carries it across quite a few trio interpolations. Still, it is very diffuse and, despite the efforts of Kram and his players, it could have stopped several minutes before it actually reached its big finish. Perhaps, if the composer revisits it for a fourth time, he might consider a touch more lopping than grafting because the unavoidable feeling at its end is that all concerned were labouring at their work – not that you could find much here to exercise them unduly.

If you want a benchmark for happy Debussy transcriptions, it’s hard to look past Grainger’s marvellous and richly textured arrangement of Pagodes for harmonium and tuneful percussion which I’ve heard live only once – at a John Hopkins Prom in the Melbourne Town Hall, I seem to recall. It’s colour without self-consciousness. Allan’s reworking of the next Estampe, Evening in Granada, is an orthodox piece of work in which most of the intervening chord work (bars 17-20, in the first instance) is scored in pragmatic fashion, even if the Prague players are not exact in their chord weighting. Also, I was pleased that the arranger took his time before introducing the inevitable castanets (bar 33). The horns came across as far too prominent in the Tres rythme segment; the piccolo at bar 98 was inaccurate; both Leger et lointain sections were far too slow; and surely the G sharp at bar 112 has to resolve two bars later.

Brahms’ scherzo is heavy in its humour, even in the piano original which I recently heard from one of the Sydney International Piano Competition entrants. Allan can’t do much to perk up its weightiness, although he comes close to it across the outer section’s reappearance. To his credit, he tries everything, not just content to make one version and leave it to be repeated; he’s re-scoring wherever you look. The only time anything is really unstuck is in the Trio where the chord at bar 13 – especially its top B flat – is bloated and painful to hear. Against that put the clever re-thinks that came up to revitalise your interest and you can be grateful to Allan for carrying off pretty well what many of us would have considered to be a thankless task.

An intriguing enterprise, this CD. It sounds as if David Kram and his Czech musicians could have gained more certainty from further rehearsal, as Allan could have benfited from the luxury of altering his orchestration at leisure after hearing it. But I admire the effort involved in getting the whole thing recorded and giving us the chance to make the acquaintance of this composer and his catalogue. What we have here is a small sample of his actual output, but it’s something to be going on with while we wait for the larger-framed scores to emerge – possibly from Kram and the biddable Praguers.

Unfortunately, that’s life

BARTOK, MY FATHER

Flinders Quartet

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday July 15

Richard Piper

The rationale behind this digital broadcast was to spread far and wide something other than the pandemic. Constraints on the Flinders Quartet’s touring schedule ensured that many of its admirers would miss out on this program concerning the life and music of Bartok as seen through the eyes of his son, Peter. Hence the MDCH taking this venture into its packed schedule. In fact, the real mover and shaker in this enterprise appears to have been actor Richard Piper, who apparently made contact with Peter Bartok before his death early last December. Quoting from his own correspondence and from the book that gave this recital its title, Piper provided the filling between performances of some Bartok scraps, as well as the mighty Quartet No. 5 of 1934.

The actor’s contribution to this entertainment lies outside my purview; suffice it to say that the autobiographical excerpts slotted in deftly with the whole quartet movements, the last piece of the evening’s playing suitably celebratory. Piper seemed upset at one stage when dealing with the composer’s death, but that’s understandable; in the descriptions by Peter Bartok, the great composer’s American years appeared to be a welter of poverty, dislocation and illness. Well, there’s little doubt about the last, but Bartok was frail life-long. As for his living circumstances, interested parties in America have been anxious to downplay any suggestions of penury, although those of us brought up with Agatha Fassett’s The Naked Face of Genius would tend to differ. Certainly, the country of refuge, in particular its scholarly institutions, treated him poorly but, as far as European refugees in general during this period, that story is not uncommon.

Three of the small pieces inserted between readings came from the 44 Duos for Two Violins of 1931. Folk tune arrangements intended for pedagogical purposes, these are some streets away from the composer’s heftier products and these three performed for us begin the third volume of the four-tome series. First violin Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba and second Wilma Smith accounted for No. 26, Teasing Song, with lots of fervour, rather more loud than the score suggests. Further along the night, the following Limping Dance was transposed for Helen Ireland’s viola and Zoe Knighton’s cello; this is a brief melody of no particular distinction but Bartok spikes it with plenty of sforzandi – 38 across the piece’s 30 bars. For the most part, these didn’t register – there must have been a momentary haze over my acoustic radar.

The third duo, Sorrow, has an introduction and mirroring postlude, the melody appearing twice – once simply outlined in the first violin, later given more intense handling by the second violin’s use of double stops. This made for a moving experience after Piper’s reading of accounts to do with Bartok’s last days and death. But then, of the three duos, it gave the players most meat to deal with, musically and temperamentally.

The exercise’s real focus lay with the Fifth Quartet. After a burst from Piper reading Peter Bartok’s early reminiscences about being his father’s boy-son-student, those trademark unison/octave B flats at the Allegro‘s opening made their usual stentorian effect, but some cracks started to appear early. The octave work between violins at bars 8 to 13 sounded untrue in intonation; Ireland’s viola sounded just as unhappy at bar 52, although a restatement-of-sorts at bar 70 was more secure; Knighton made little impression up until some splendidly carrying trills cutting through at bars 79 to 81. Despite all four performers showing tempo and dynamic control, the violins still showed discrepant across bars 87 to 96, an all-too-exposed passage over the lower strings’ overlapping ostinati. For sure, you could hear other places over this movement where the violins collaborated effectively – but that made the unfortunate moments all the more prominent.

Following verbal pictures of Bartok’s devotion to nature, forests in particular, the twitchy premonitions of night music beginning the Adagio molto gave way to those unexpected sustained chords from the three supporting players under Pavlovic-Hobba’s isolated chromatic motifs. This brief movement moved past without grief, even if it could have gained from a more meditative pace at the Largo rounding-out, and more care/precision across the segment’s crisis: the Piu lento beginning at bar 35.

Following a description of Bartok and Kodaly conducting their folk-song recording across Central-Eastern Europe (and beyond), the Flinders hit the mellifluously off-centre 4+2+3/8 Scherzo and made more of this set of pages than anything previous, coming to an early high-point in a riveting burst of vehemence at bar 30, and then some excellent performance diplomacy at the movement’s Trio, Pavlovic-Hobba making a marvellous surging creature of his melodic responsibility. The series of duets during the repeat starting at 71 sounded unhelpfully flabby but lapses of that kind were mercifully few and brief.

World War 2 arrived and Bartok left Hungary for America, a life-crisis that fitted in well with the ensuing Andante, which is the work’s fraught heart. After a successful short crescendo complex, the arrival point at bar 60 and after would have impressed more with greater uniformity of attack. Further on, both violins were too loud in the disposition of fabric importance at bar 82’s Tranquillo, although this imbalance could not erase the extraordinary beauty of this movement’s last phase.

Paul’s reunion with his parents in New York and their subsequent life there was covered, including several unpleasant vignettes, before the Allegro vivace finale started. I found much of this movement pretty rough around the edges, and it was hard to discern viola and cello at many places. Still, rays of light broke through, like the lightness of being at bar 485’s Allegretto capriccioso and the efficiently quavering block chords beginning at bar 673. But it is a furious slog, with precious few breaks and the final bars impressed as hard won – for Bartok, the players, and us.

Then came the end of the war, the composer’s swift succumbing to leukaemia, and death in September 1945, followed by the Sorrow Duo No. 28. Then, as a sort of summation, the Flinders musicians capped the celebration with the second movement, Allegro molto capriccioso, from the String Quartet No. 2 – an affirmative statement coming from the composer’s mid-life point, even if also mid-World War I. Here, the music-making (on a large scale) was at its most cogent and bitingly clear, a reading that got more engaging as it moved past. Its positioning was excellent, displaying Bartok at his energetic best. Yet, taking the program as a whole, the players did not sound comfortable with each other. Of course, rehearsal time would have been limited, given Melbourne’s unfortunate pandemic situations; but it’s clear that, even if these musicians have known each other for years, they have much work to do in becoming a convincing composite ensemble.

And then there were none – well, six

SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION

Session 22

Thursday July 15

Alice Burla

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

Antonii Baryshevskyi

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.

Pair give variable value

SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION

Session 21

Wednesday July 14

Yu Nitahara

One of two Japanese players to get this far, Nitahara took as his theme ‘Music born out of grief’, picking out two works that had their genesis in sad times for their respective composers. This musician used a Steinway sited at the University Mozarteum in Salzburg, recording his program on March 20. In the first instance, we heard Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A minor K 310, written near the time of his mother’s death and eventually showing marks of emotional stress. As a companion to this, Nitahara performed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition suite, written about the art, and in memory, of his friend Viktor Hartmann.

As seems to be customary in performances of most Classical and Romantic era sonatas, Nitahara offered no repeat of the Mozart’s Allegro maestoso exposition: a shame as it would have given us another chance to relish his sparkling treatment of the Non piu andrai bars 45 to 49. Although perhaps he might have been better served observing the second repeat after a spot of fumbling almost amounting to a stoppage at bars 72 to 73; a memory lapse that came out of the blue in the middle of an easy-flowing performance of ceaseless phrasing variety and a consistency of dynamic across the movement’s canvas.

More eloquent contouring came with the right hand outline of Mozart’s Andante cantabile (no repeat here, either) which seems to me to be one of the composer’s most benevolent mid-sonata movements. You come across a darkness that could suggest mourning at bars 43 to 51, but you’d be straining to find tragedy at any other stretch of this chaste benevolence . Nitahara was weaving a fine web until a simple error crept in at bar 69; so close to the end but enough to jolt the listener from bathing in the player’s excellent negotiation of these pages. Then the Presto finale worked well for its subdued energy, even if the pace sounded forced. No repeats at the A Major interlude; God knows why not – the halves are brief enough. A few slight errors crept in during the later stages, yet this pianist came up with an engrossing realization of those urgent last 27 bars.

Unlike some competitors, Nitahara has a massive stretch, with the largest pair of hands I’ve come across for many years. Yes, it might have been over-emphasized because of the camera angle, but I doubt it – he’s just spectacularly blest. Well-equipped then for the multiple tests of Mussorgsky’s gallery visit. A forward-thrusting Promenade sprang straight into Gnomus where the Vivo bursts were taken too rapidly. No troubles with the remaining elements, but a pity that the final top G flat didn’t sound. An excellent delineation of The Old Castle followed, gifted with a subtle fore- and backgrounding of the G flat ostinato; many pianists don’t bother, just letting it function as a bland drone. Nitahara probably over-favoured the tenor line’s downward creep in the 9th and 10th last bars.

A Mozarteum piano, but at this point I was confirmed in a belief that the B4 was slightly out of tune. Not that you could pick it out that easily in the Tuileries movement, even if it appears at the top 12 times in the middle interlude. This interpretation saw Nitahara exercise an individuality of sorts, taking his short breaths where he saw fit and stopping the patterns from becoming mechanical. Bydlo came through with a ponderousness that you could not fault. I didn’t see the point of that small hesitation before entering bar 16 – there’s a harmonic change but it’s not worth inserting a small boulder in the wagon’s path. Approaching the end, the player left his diminuendo until too late, I felt; in my edition, it can start as far back as when the treble clef goes back into the bass.

Nitahara’s Dance of the Unhatched Chicks impressed for its ideal light touch and high interest level; always a wonder how Mussorgsky brings off this brilliant aural image and the performer met expectations with delectable crisp ornamentation. I’m always unsettled by The Two Jews, even if the achievement of character is strikingly successful. But this reading could not be faulted, showing a fine schizoid even-handedness across the Andante. Grave combination.

That muscular (and substantial in length) final Promenade preceded a bustling and accurate picture of the Limoges Market, loaded with pianistic chatter that later smacked of the relentless, the whole rounded off with a sweepingly active four final bars before the safe stasis of Catacombs and its trembling pendant, Con mortuis. Nothing much to say about these quiet passages of play, the dead minor-key promenaders rustling unhappily before the composer’s light-filled final promise. Baba-Jaga hurtled in, all her sforzandi intact and only a few notes misfiring in the last third before a driving rush to The Great Gate – a gift to every pianist but especially one who can negotiate the clangour when the bells start. This movement held an impressive, full-bodied grandeur about it, the chant interludes treated with respect rather than impatience, and the final Meno mosso‘s bounding minim triplets across the bar burst on us with their satisfying, swingeing mobility.

Artem Yasynskyy

One of two surviving Ukrainian players to make the semi-finals, Yasynskyy came to us from the Artesuono Studio in Cavalicco (I think it’s in Udine), recording his program on March 31. Another performer who spoke before each offering, Yasynskyy worked at a Fazioli (an F278 Mk III?) as he proffered a set of four rarely-heard works – and their lack of currency was his theme, I gather. He was spot-on with his assessment; I’d never come across any of these rarities: Britten’s early Holiday Suite Op. 5, Myroslav Skoryk’s Prelude and Fugue in F Major, Jehan Alain’s L’oeuvre de piano Tome III, and Josef Hofmann’s Characterskizzen Op. 40.

Yasynskyy spoke at some length about each of Britten’s four pieces but, when he got to the centre of the first – Early Morning Baths – the sunny aspect had clouded over; his approach was fittingly fluid and flashy in its clever slashes yet the piece was heavy-going – more boarding school showers than anything to be remembered with pleasure. From the opening, Sailing could have been softer in dynamic, if the score is any indication, and the player might have handled it with a good deal more leisure, even a lackadaisical approach; for instance, Yasynskyy’s rendition of the central part where the winds come on strongly was not whimsical at all – no mucking-around-in-boats here but a near-escape from the North Sea.

At the Fun Fair, again, the approach proved over-aggressive, without much bustling pleasure imparted. Britten’s exuberance dissipated under a Prokofiev-like determination so that some rows of booths and rides came over as more duty than delight. In sum, the piece sounded like a study. But Night resisted hard-dealing: a series of chords at either end of the keyboard, investing the fabric with calm – the whole accomplished very satisfactorily as the performer inserted the middle motifs in keeping with their surrounds: smoothly, the notes telling but not made over-important.

Skoryk is a fellow countryman of this pianist – well, he was, and Yasynskyy played for him early in his life. The work is an odd amalgam of your anticipated formal structure and jazz, the prelude making its way through some bluesy chords and sequences. The whole impresses as a very sophisticated form of improvisation, the free-wheeling jazz elements undercut by conservative patterns and procedures. More memories of Brubeck and the MJQ rose up during the fugue with a stride bass cutting in after the subject’s introduction. As far as I could tell, it was in three voices, all formally announced before a sort of continuing oscillation between technical procedures and Newport on a summer’s day.

I know very little of Alain’s music, apart from Litanies of 1937, which I first heard performed by the composer’s sister, Marie-Claire, in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral – a memorable experience . His three Tomes of piano pieces seem to be collections from across his short compositional career and once more the performer gave introductions to each of the four in Volume III, although the content told us little about the individual pieces. Etude on a theme of 4 notes is just that, although its processes seemed more various than sticking to the title’s limitations; I’m sure a serious analysis would show the writer’s veracity. The piece is an atmospheric delight, leading past three discrete segments to a florid finale, negotiated with panache in spades. Second, a Petite Rhapsodie – half slow and half rapid – made little impression, apart from Yasynskyy’s taking liberties with the tempo, as though the option was left open whether or not to follow directions.

The same applied in the following piece based on Villon’s Ballade des pendus where the simplicity of its material begged for imposed interest, like a freedom of movement, reading accelerando in with crescendo, and storming through the admittedly massive treble chords at the piece’s highpoint . There’s a case to be made for fleshing out spartan material, of course: the whole early music scene relies on such dispensations. I’d like to hear this again, though, played straight. Finally, the Tarass Boulba piece left me nonplussed. It has the spectre of Bartok rearing over its block chords, coupled with Prokofiev for the work’s hurtling rigour. But what aspects of Gogol’s Cossack hero were meant to emerge, beyond galloping across the Zaporizhian countryside? Not a hindrance to Yasynskyy who gave it an idiosyncratic interpretation of impressive fervour.

Hofmann, reputedly the greatest pianist ever, was a prolific composer and this performer issued a CD in 2015 of some Hofmann works, including these Character Pieces. Naturally enough, the performances proved to be extremely proficient and authoritative. The first, Vision, showed Hofmann’s work to be a step-up from salon music, mainly because of its demands on technique with the executant most persuasive in the central Piu vivo e agitato – a chromatic-rich digital melting-pot. Then Jadis felt like a waltz/mazurka cross, most attractive in its surface matter but more conservative harmonically than late Chopin. Nevertheless, the interpretation impressed for its balance and the performer’s facility with the genre.

Nenien is a strange, elusive piece: melancholy, but with a spine. Not all of it sounded continuous – a sequence of linked parts, maybe – but it boasted page after page of passage work, a cut above the norm and congenial for Yasynskyy’s talents. And the collection came to a spectacular conclusion in Kaleidoskop: a piece calculated to round out an evening of fireworks with an almost uninterrupted chain of brilliant effects that begin with crisp energy and then move into a different room or two along the way before winding up in a festive clatter of over-lapping chords, a last zoom down and up, and a quick, widely-splayed cadence

I think all of us were happy to go along on this musician’s eclectic ride, taking in music we would never hear in the content-stratified (and even -stultified) recital halls of these times. Yet, for my taste, precious few of these scores live in the memory. All thanks to Yasynskyy and more power to his arm(s) but I’m not driven to investigate most of these, with the exception of Alain’s volumes. That’s the trouble with arcane music: it is what it is, even if for puerile, often unworthy reasons.

Head and heart

SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION

Session 20

Tuesday July 13

Yangrui Cai

This musician was the only member from a phalanx of six Chinese pianists to reach the semi-final round. I can’t speak for the others but Cai is a mightily gifted player, with an interpretative flair that is proving elusive to find as this week’s nights wear on. He worked on a Steinway in the 1900 Building, Mission Woods in Kansas City on March 28. As far as I could tell, his theme was ethereal, not coming down to anything approaching solidity. Indeed, it would be hard to find any common thread between the two works that Cai performed: Schubert’s Four Impromptus D. 899, and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka. That lack didn’t stop the artist from introducing each work with small addresses that revealed some personality but laboured to find any common ground between the pieces he was presenting.

Despite that, Cai showed an individuality when he came into the core of the C minor Allegro con moderato impromptu. He has a varied approach to underlining Schubert’s modulations – sometimes applying a cosmetic touch, at others sailing straight ahead without adding any colour. The G minor section revealed a clear application to the task, which brought back memories of the finale to the final B flat sonata with its off-the-beat individual notes and, throughout all four impromptus, the never-suppressed penchant for triplets. Added to this, Cai avoided muddiness in the repeated notes and chords – the ostinati – that are often given a prominence well beyond their significance.

Cai’s light touch with pedalling came to the fore in a lucid reading of the E flat Major No. 2, his right hand triplets admirably even. It was all as regular as you’d want, the player reserving flexibility of approach to the central B minor episode where the tempo jockeying was applied with care. As far as I could tell, this – like its predecessor – was note-perfect. As, I suspect, was the G flat Major work where I noticed an old-fashioned oddity in Cai’s style whereby he lets his left hand have a split-second first say at the start of a bar; it doesn’t happen all the time but the effect can be helpful in setting up a harmonic status and also giving the melody an added primacy. His alto sextuplets murmured placidly and, from my seat, they were all properly filled in.

In Cai’s handling of the last piece in A minor, you noticed some details that hadn’t struck you much in all those interpretations from previous years, like his insistence on the right-hand quaver rest that concludes so many of those digested versions of the initial arpeggio figure. As well, he showed a chain of insights in phrasing this repetitious score and ferreting out the right notes to air, regardless of their position in the texture. At the end of the set you were left with two memorable facets to Cai’s performance: one, these impromptus were sincerely felt, the performer very involved in their emotional content; two, he is always on the grimace, the face never at rest. Stravinsky, speaking of Rachmaninov, praised his great compatriot above all else for never pulling faces; he wouldn’t have been happy here.

With the Stravinsky interpretation, you missed the ferocious excitement of Calvin Abdiel’s preliminary round execution but Cai gave a more considered interpretation, his Russian Dance ideal in its transparency, even with those consecutive rich block-chords in rapid succession. Rather than pounding the pages into submission, this time round the piece had the quality of a dance achievable by humans, not giants. Also, Cai added his own foot stamps at certain points, as involved in this music as he was in his Schubert.

After the rhythmic vitality of the opening, Cai retreated to Petrushka’s Room with a much more lithe approach, setting his own pace, particularly in a slower-than-usual Adagio, which turned out to be finely pitched to contrast with the upcoming Andantino. Loaded with abrupt shifts from loitering to mechanical, these pages made an intriguing study in mobile texture as the underlying choreography ran its course with excellent delineation of character and action. And, again, the clarity of this player’s output impressed mightily.

Even in The Shrovetide Fair conglomerate, you were given the precious gift of hearing everything in a movement that is packed with massive blasts. Cai kept the levels clear, improbably so in those three-stave very loud passages, especially the final instance of this where the obsessive chord sequence almost tips into mania. But Cai kept them startlingly detached, just as some interpreters of The Firebird do with that ballet’s final peroration.

I’m not given to predictions, having fallen flat too many times. But I’d be very surprised if this performer didn’t wind up somewhere near the top of the prize list, if not at its apex.

Philipp Lynov

This second Russian semi-finalist chose Sonata as his theme; enough said. He operated from the Central Music School in Moscow, taping his program on March 26. Here was another performer who spoke before each segment, having learned off his addresses; rather stilted and inclined to philosophical/musicological observations that came thick and fast, with no time to absorb (on our part) and left unamplified (on his side). However, Lynov at the keyboard covered a refined wealth of material: two Scarlatti sonatas, Beethoven No. 17 in D minor, and Bartok’s monster. One of the other Russian competitors spoke of the traditional big Russian piano sound, but this artist proved that such an expectation is not necessarily met on all occasions, although his reading of the Hungarian sonata smashed an already-bristling score out of the ball-park.

His approach to the Scarlatti, K. 27 in B minor and K. 113 in A Major, proved to be clean and circumspect, tending towards the neo-Romantic with some sustaining pedal work that many other players eschew. He observed the repeats and showed a keen sensitivity to the imitative entries in the first work. The second piece got off to an unfortunate start with an ‘off’ top A or B in bar 3, standing out like a sore thumb because of this player’s precision of articulation. He inserted some delays in his cross-over work and it took me some time to realize that this wasn’t a flaw in his legerdemain but that he was attempting to mark a difference between crotchets and minims in the bass.

Beethoven’s absurdly named Tempest sonata was preceded by a high-flown talk that flirted with the Shakespeare play, although not going further into parallels – a fruitless exercise – but proposing illumination through aesthetic verbiage. You had to admire Lynov’s mental determination while observing this futile requirement, as well as the effort he put into learning his text in a language that doesn’t quite flow from him convincingly. Nothing to be worried about with the first gambits of the Largo-Allegro, even if the bass E in bar 25 was fumbled and the exposition was not repeated. Still, the development came over with no deficiencies and the brooding final bars finished off a well thought-out interpretation – a real one, and impressively observant of the movement’s inherent drama and plentiful contrasts.

I’d never considered some details that Lynov brought out in Beethoven’s Adagio, like the obviously sensible breath before starting bar 27, because of its change of dynamic and sudden break into a major tonality; ditto at the same situation in bar 69. Here also we were treated to an uplifting interpretation that stuck close to contemporary editors’ dynamics. As with the first movement, the repeat at the start of the Allegretto did not happen. Upping the D minor ante, Lynov’s forte attack moved into the ff spectrum and he made a headlong assault on the bar 107 to bar 150 crisis that seemed almost certain to end in overkill; it came close enough to being a near thing. On the other hand, he was aware enough pick out certain points to lend his progress some finesse, like the left-hand crotchets found between bars 327 to 349. It was possible to find that this pianist was exercising that traditional Russian force and heft during this finale, if nowhere else.

But this was nothing compared to his approach in the Bartok sonata, which also enjoyed an introductory preamble with some distracting pronunciations. At the start of the Allegro moderato, intentions were made clear, gauntlets were slammed down, and we were left in no uncertainty that this ride was going to be a tough one. Even on the first page, the composer’s sforzandi were hammered; as for any double octave – solitary, or in a sequence – it stood no chance of passive handling. In spite of the overworked atmosphere, the pianist remained accurate while moderate expression markings were hyped up by a factor of 2, if not higher. Unlike my previous encounters with this work, this one from Lynov served up a spiky world of temperamental outbursts.

That repeated E across bars 2 to 6 of the Sostenuto e pesante was in danger of being forced out of true by heavy emphasis – and this comes early in the piece. Not much changed as the three pages passed by with unnerving deliberation, although, to be fair, Lynov was scrupulously observant of the sparse pianissimo directions. During an improbably rapid Allegro molto finale, the player took fierce delight in the chord clusters thrown out with growing frequency as the movement gains speed. But the melodic material – and there is a certain indispensable amount – disappeared in the assault, although it has to be admitted that the performer’s handling of those mighty dissonances proved flamboyantly impressive. The whole work showed every sign of expert preparation, but in the outer movements the (metaphorical) pedal was pressed flat for too long.

Two more talents on the rise

SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION

Session 19

Monday July 12

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.

The old dilemma

SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION

Session 18

Sunday July 11

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.

Opening the cast of survivors

SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION

Session 17

Saturday July 10

Alexander Gadjiev

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.

Anna Geniushene

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.