Thursday July 1, 2021
So, here we go on another Sydney competition: an 18-day keyboard orgy of players who are – allegedly – the best young guns in the business. We’ll have plenty of time to find out if that’s the case. From this night’s pre-performance addresses, you’d think that putting all the players online was some sort of brilliant technical feat. Sorry, no; not after the last 15 months we’ve all shared where computers and their communicative possibilities have become stock-in-trade for every musician. In fact, the competition seems to have turned into a truncated exercise, if you read between the lines. One of the speakers adverted to the fact that there’ll be no chamber music segment, which is a screaming shame. Also, the concerto round has been eliminated, which is less of a pity but still a sign that 2021 will be the Year of Purification, a competition of simple solo recital ability – I suppose.
The first online event was a concert proper, coming from Moscow. Again, much was made of this being a night co-sponsored by the piano competition organization, but it was not a live affair: this concert was recorded on April 23. So we were offered a recorded performance featuring the 2016 Sydney competition winner, Andrey Gugnin, as soloist in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The Tchaikovsky orchestra was conducted by Pavel Sorokin, a long-time artist associated with the Bolshoi Ballet. For the most part, this night was an odd collection: three works by Liszt – the concerto, the Les Preludes symphonic poem, and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in an orchestration by Karl Muller-Berghaus – and two Wagner pot-boilers in The Mastersingers Overture and The Ride of the Valkyrie.
Before we crossed to Moscow and a platitudinous introduction from a music critic (!), we heard pre-recorded addresses, the first by the competition’s chief juror, Piers Lane, who set the pattern for hyperbole by speaking of the Conservatory’s “hallowed hall” – which is about as inane as calling the MCG’s surface “hallowed turf” – and promising “extraordinary pleasure” from “a host of other pianists [not the winner] who will excel”, etc. We’ll see. Then Virginia Braden, chairman of the competition’s board of directors, furthered the promises by noting that “we have created a new venture”, for which I read that we have adopted a necessary compromise after last year’s competition cancellation. She also seemed to be labouring under the delusion that the upcoming concert was ‘direct from Moscow’ through the good graces of “The Sydney”, which is apparently accepted shorthand for the competition by omitting all descriptors. In Lane mode, we were assured of a “wonderful time filled with outstanding music-making.” In contrast, patron Governor-General Hurley repeated the innovative mantra about the competition’s procedure and treated us to a few observations about the worth of music to humanity. Bronwyn Bishop, who heads the competition Friends, assured us of upcoming “magnificent performances” – by which time I was almost ready to commit to the faith. Finally, competition chief executive Marcus Barker put it all in more down-to-earth terms: “We’ve changed to accommodate the competitors.” But even this pragmatic approach couldn’t avoid hoisting out the promise of “outstanding” things to come.
The Conservatory hall wasn’t exactly packed for the occasion; perhaps the cognoscenti knew what was coming. Not much to tell about the poem. You couldn’t have much faith in the orchestra’s synchronicity, from the opening pizzicato to the following block entries. Matters had improved by Letter E in the Kalmus edition but nothing could disguise the vulgarity of the march that breaks out 10 bars before Letter G – not the musicians’ problem, of course, but who decided to resurrect this score? Odd moments intruded to make you think that the strings were unhappy in their work, like the exposed bars at Letter K and sloppy work from them led into the recapitulation at Letter M. Over-encouraged cymbal work dissipated concentration at the brawny Andante maestoso and the closing pages came over with as much broad power as you could want.
For the E flat Concerto, the Tchaikovsky players did not get off to the most convincingly synchronised opening. But then, we weren’t here for them. Gugnin used an aggressive instrument with a penetrating upper register, but he’s a player distinguished for the forward placement of his sound, as I remembered from his 2017 recital in Melbourne. Immediately, you realize that you’ve forgotten how much freedom the soloist is allowed in the opening pages and Gugnin seized the passing a piacere direction with both hands and wherever it seemed appropriate. The Tchaikovsky first clarinet merged in with the soloist particularly well between bars 34 and 36 for a sensitive spell, but Gugnin reverted to his crisp, well-defined output at the following a tempo, showing no signs of fluster at any of the stops and starts during the rest of this Allegro movement.
His Quasi adagio was notable for the dovetailing between soloist and orchestra, more apparent during these pages which are all coloured by the piano, even when it’s doing little more than decoration as from bar 154 to the last trills. During the subsequent Allegretto, there might have been a recording fault but something was missing from the keyboard contribution at the end of bar 195: the first flaw that struck me up to this point. Gugnin made a fine exhibition of the contrary motion 7th chords from bar 249, the long sequence unfailingly certain in delivery. Something odd crept in to the oboe line at bar 310 which sounded unhealthy and my screen went dead for a few bars around the piano’s fierce restatement of the concerto’s opening motif.
Gugnin demonstrated excellent digital control at the Alla breve of the Allegro marziale, which turned into a masterclass in how not to cheapen material that cries out for it. Sorokin kept his forces on point although it seemed to me that Gugnin was unwilling/unable to increase the speeds, happy with a sensible Presto at bar 483 and ensuring that his double-octave E flat punctuation points in the final bars carried past the orchestral emphases. I was surprised at the audience’s tepid response to this performance. Sure, it wasn’t as flamboyant as many I’ve seen, even in the good old days of the ABC’s Concerto and Vocal Competitions when the concerto would turn up with mind-numbing regularity. But there’s no accounting for communal taste, as we’re probably about to find out in the coming fortnight-plus.
No surprises with the Wagner overture, and not much involvement either if the opening march was any indication. In fact, the start of the woodwind solos came as doubly welcome after the lethargy of the initial statements. Still, the Tchaikovsky strings gave a fair account of the Preislied-in-four-beats section, the whole exercise not similarly settled when the great moment arrives as Wagner juggles his three themes simultaneously and these musicians – some of them – were slightly off the beat. That laboured effect returned six bars from the end with a dotted crotchet+two-semiquavers pattern hammered out without any spark. By contrast, the Ride sounded much more fresh and vigorous; but then, it’s better music with just as much repetition but more mobility.
Last, the Hungarian Rhapsody‘s first part gave the resident first clarinet another chance or three to shine in some cadenzas that were eloquent and well-paced. Throughout this edgy score, the first violins gave in to anticipation more obviously than had been the case earlier in the night. By contrast, you could find no fault with the even-tempered woodwind/brass choir near the conclusion to the lassan pages. Sorokin took a very quick speed for the friska/Vivace which really turned into a gallop. He also inserted some huge pauses, as at the change of key signature to F Major and at the end of bar 32 in the Piu mosso and he reverted to an earlier style of interpreting this work by playing around with the tempo using a high degree of elasticity. It hardly needs reporting that this proved to be the most popular piece on the program.
But at least we got to hear Gugnin approaching maturity, an example of what can be achieved through this competition. For all that, I’ve heard only two other laureates – Konstantin Shamray and John Chen – but both have impressed for their musicianship and insights. Here’s hoping the jury gets it right this year as well.