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Session 21

Wednesday July 14, 2021

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


Session 20

Tuesday July 13, 2021

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


Session 19

Monday July 12, 2021

Kyoungsun Park

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

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

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

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

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

Calvin Abdiel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old dilemma


Session 18

Sunday July 11, 2021

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


Session 17

Saturday July 10, 2021

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.

Two types of elegance


Day 8, Session 13

Thursday July 8, 2021

Dominic Chamot

The solitary Swiss competitor in this competition, Chamot enjoyed the advantage of Australian/Indonesian entrant Abdiel by playing to a small audience. He worked on the Fazioli 278 instrument found at Opus 278, Davidstrasse 40, St. Gallen, the tape made on March 14. Here was another chaste program; I didn’t time it but he certainly didn’t go over his allocated time-limit. At all events, this was mature music-making, the accent on interpretation rather than atmospherics, even in the second offering, which somehow managed to cope with an innate theatricality without losing focus on the musical framework – such as it is.

The session began with Janacek’s In the Mists cycle and you could see immediately that making the music sensible and self-integrated counted more than any other factors. The opening Andante proved interesting, Chamot seizing its options for rambling and interspersing tempo variations that actually reflected the phrase-lengths. At the same time, these pages were treated with restraint and emanated an atmosphere of bucolic brooding – which, for me, typifies a fair amount of this composer’s later output. With a score that is not lavish in performance directions, Chamot suited himself about the following Molto adagio‘s contrast of the base tempo with several Presto interpolations. But this musician is probably working from a later edition than the venerable 1938 one available to me, again illustrated by the refined rubato at exercise in the Andantino which appeared to me to be well-suited to the two-page text, helping to bring out the melody’s occasional transference to an inner line. Unlike most commentators on this collection, I find this movement to sound the most folk-tune inspired of the four.

Last came Janacek’s Presto, which struck me as an overstating descriptor. Here you come across falling 3rds and 4ths that suggest Bartok at his most sentimentally rural/bucolic and, as with the Hungarian master, a nerve-tingling harmonic restlessness. Among the many examples of ferreting out a suitable course of action, the central repeat involving 6, then 4 bars gave us a fine burst of sustained fabric in pages that twist around obvious nodes with spare rigour. The player made us wait an unconscionably long time at the final Meno mosso for two quaver rests at the bar’s centre, but that – once again – could have been a fault in my score because the rest of the movement radiated authority and a convincing sense of taut emotion, some steps short of tragedy.

Chamot then headed for the virtuosic heights with Liszt’s Reminiscences de Norma which is a cow to handle, worse in its way than much of the bigger-named original works, let alone the other operatic transcriptions – well, those that I know. Getting the notes was rarely a problem, although an error sullied the final phrase of the second restatement of Ite sul colle and something odd happened in the right-hand octaves of the martellato con strepito descent. Little pin-pricks like these aside, the player had the work’s inner drive and drama controlled from the start. You would be hard to please if not impressed by the expertly balanced full chords across the last 10/11 bars preceding the piece’s central Recitativo.

Alongside the thunder, Chamot displayed a discrimination of considerable stature in fore-fronting the central melody – Qual cor tradisti – of the Andante con agitazione, where it moves to the alto register following the mid-way cadenza. After the time-consuming but lavish arpeggios – two per bar – that conclude this section, the pianist’s move back to vehemence made an unusual effect for its control as the Guerra guerra chorus sprang into full bellicose mode at the Presto con furia (has anyone matched Liszt for lavish tempo directions?). Apart from a few mid-torrent mishaps, including an obvious one in the 3rd or 4th last bar – all those double octave E flats – the interpretation stuck to its brief and Chamot entered into the fierce spirit of the strong, as passionate as possible coda to this summa of the virtuoso school.

The necessary Australian piece was Arthur Benjamin’s Scherzino of 1936, a gigue of sorts which gave more evidence of this pianist’s characteristics of precision and regularity, probably best illustrated by his last page which backed away from a genteel fortissimo to the requisite quadruple-piano ending.

Siqian Li

It’s been my fate to hear a good many of the competition’s later invitees in a random selection of sessions so far. Piers Lane thanked Siqian Li fulsomely for agreeing to come in on things late in the process, and she played her recital on April 3 from a private residence in London – which turned out to be a well-proportioned salon with a formidable Steinway as the artist’s base of operations. She played a set of Mozart variations, all of Vine’s 5 Bagatelles, the B minor Fantasie by Scriabin, and a well-loved Debussy prelude as her party piece.

The Nine Variations on a Minuet by Duport K. 573 were carried out with impressive elegance and a forensic clarity of detail, the sort of purity that we came to expect as the norm after Ingrid Haebler showed us how it should be done throughout the 1950s and beyond . Li proved no stranger to varying her attack when repeating the variations’ halves, the which practice she maintained for the length of the work, alternating legato for staccato, and mezzoforte with mezzopiano in Variation 2. None of this proved intrusive or attention-grabbing and a similar discretion obtained in Variation 3 with her employment or abstention from the sustaining pedal.

In Variation 4, Li bore out the distinction between staccato and detached notes with quiet skill, indulging in a slight ritenuto at the chromatic semi-scale in bars 13 and 14. Another differentiated two-pronged attack distinguished Variation 5, a fair amount of expressive emphasis distinguishing the second half’s opening four bars. A higher degree of note-pointing emerged in Variation 6, like the opening chord of bar 22 at an unexpected harmonic switch. Li handled the next variant as a gallop – well, a fast canter – not putting a semiquaver out of place across its length. She found her melting moment in the following Adagio at bars 23 to 24, a touchingly gentle final gesture in this solitary variation without repeat markings. And she ended as she began with agile and elegant finger-work across the last variation.

Rather than keeping one of Vine’s pieces for an encore as did many of her peers, Li elected to play the 5 Bagatelles at the centre of her program , If she wanted to provide a contrast to her Mozart interpretation, she chose well, responding effectively to the first, Darkly, and its abrupt jerks and underpinning tension. Her Leggiero e legato was very much so, ultra-clean in its delivery. The Gentle enjoyed an excellently-managed calmness and control, while the unspecified IV showed that this pianist could happily enter into a suddenly jaunty, jazzy ambience and enjoy the piquancy of Vine’s interludes and commentaries. The set’s concluding Threnody found Li taking time over its slow-moving pointillism, with care given to the piece’s top notes; but she exercised her innate delicacy throughout these pages, carefully targeting each eloquent resonance to realize the composer’s striving for timelessness in his requiem.

I’ve heard more Scriabin in this past week than in a half-century of reviewing, Li expanding this experience with the Op. 28. As with previous interpretations of this composer’s work in recent days, tempi were a catch-as-catch-can affair and regularity of metre was treated as a vague universal rather than a specific. Again, in common with other entrants, Li concentrated on the music’s sweep and vehemence of declaration across the abrupt turns to Presto and Piu vivo, which turned out to be less differentiated than anticipated. But the acceleration into florid action at the final Tempo I point where the upward and downward surges featured irregular groupings of 9, 7 and 5 demi-semiquavers came across with impressive gusto: a fine build-up to the work’s well-anticipated B Major emphatic end-point.

The encore Debussy, La fille aux cheveux de lin, proved to be a straightforward business with plenty of discretion in pedalling and phrase shape, the only question a pause inserted before the C flat Major chord in bar 16. Still, it brought the Siqian Li experience to an intelligent conclusion, reinforcing a distinctive quality of her work – a kind of placid certainty.

Home ground advantage


Day 6, Session 10

Tuesday July 6, 2021

Sergey Belyavsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calvin Abdiel

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

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

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

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

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

A further dip into Sydney’s virtual competition


Day 3, Session 6

Sunday July 4, 2021

Rustam Muradov

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Malikov

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

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

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

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

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

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

A full day’s work


Day 1

Friday July 2, 2021

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

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

Maxim Kinasov

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

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

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

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

Alexandra Pavlova

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

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

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

Timur Mustakimov

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

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

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

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

Alexander Gadjiev

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

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

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

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

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

A delayed gala


Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra

Moscow Conservatory

Thursday July 1, 2021

Andrey Gugnin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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