Saturday, 9 July 2016



Preliminaries Round One, Day Two

Friday 8 July 2016 (1.30 pm)

A second day of piano fireworks began with ANDREY GUGNIN (Ukraine, 29 years) performing on the Shigeru Kawai grand. The programming of Beethoven's Fantasy (Op.77), one of the German's strangest works, was an interesting one. Its alternating sequence of downward scales and expositional material remains puzzling, but it was the pastoral-sounding subject that drew some synergy with  Liszt's Faribolo Pastour (Pastoral Whimsy) which followed. Here was one of Liszt's more serene pieces, like a Chopinesque nocturne (not too far away from the Andante spianato, but cast in G minor), which was lovingly caressed. Completing the recital was Liszt's mercurial Feux follets, a means to show that the pianist's miraculous faculties were still intact.

JEREMY SO (Australia, 25 years) presented a very interesting all 20-century programme, with two Ligeti Etudes sandwiching Scriabin's Seventh Sonata, or the “White Mass”. The devastating Desordre (Etude No.1) showed this young man could operate both right and left brains independent of one another at spellbinding speeds without skipping a beat. In the Scriabin, he conducted an unholy communion with the intoxicating sound and orgiastic ambience to match. The last time I heard this played as well was by a certain Marc-Andre Hamelin. With Automne a Varsovie (Autumn in Warsaw) and its free-fall of descending figurations, one was certain that the tinted leaves were positively radioactive.

ALEXEI MELNIKOV (Russia, 26 years) opened with Scriabin's Sonata-Fantasy No.2, its slow and beseeching first movement contrasted with the restlessly galloping second movement. This was a finely nuanced reading with its overwrought emotions clearly displayed. Equally impressive were two contrasted Debussy Preludes, the stentorian chords of La Cathedrale Engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral) cushioned by fine pedalling and the spewing pyrotechnics display of Feux d'artifice (Fireworks) which blazed across the keyboard without apology. Another promising Russian to watch.

I will admit to personal interest in POOM PROMMACHART (Thailand, 26 years) who had studied in Singapore's Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts before going to London. He is incidentally the only pianist to have previously performed at this competition. His very impressive recital opened with a Rameau Prelude, “Le entretiens des muses”, which was delicately crafted and exquisitely voiced. The main work was Liszt's Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, which comprised a prelude, massive passacaglia body and chorale to end. His sense of the work's architecture, building up like many arches of a bridge ensured that interest was maintained through its 18-minute span, finally delighting in the Bach chorale in a major key, coming like sunshine through a sky of dark clouds.

PARK WOO-GIL (South Korea, 23 years) began with Haydn's Sonata No.51 in D major in two movements, with simplicity of textures in the first leading to full flow of jollity in the second. A delightful performance, with D major then turning a shade darker to the D minor of Mendelssohn's Variations Serieuses. The subject is morose, even depressive but the inventive variations which alternate between minor and major modes never descend into technical exercises, and Park has the ability to musically engage, even in the droll obligatory fugal variation. Clearly a talent to watch. 

Like Melnikov, LINDSAY GARRITSON (USA, 29 years) also offered Scriabin's Sonata-Fantasie No.2 for starters. In the first movement, her version had slightly less contrasts but that was evened out in the second movement, where she reaped a whirlwind. Attacking its measures from the start, it made for a gripping performance. Carl Vine's Toccatissimo completed the programme, and although it was less angular or highly contoured than Rashkovskiy's earlier outing, it was still very convincing. Only a slip at the minor blotted the copybook.

DANIEL LE (Australia, 23 years) is another pianist who has studied in Singapore, specifically at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. Michael Kieran Harvey's Toccata DNA has much in common with Vine's Toccatissimo, in terms of outward display and accessibility for the audience while being awfully difficult for the pianist. The difference is that it has a quiet and slow introduction leading into a jazzy extremely fast section that hinted of the boogie woogie. Le gave a most persuasive performance that segued quietly into Chopin's Ballade No.4, which unfolded beautifully to its ecstatic climax. A short pause saw some premature applause but totally unfazed, he swallowed the coda with aplomb for a rapturous finish.    

OXANA SHEVCHENKO (Kazakhstan, 28 years) made an excellent impression with a highly varied programme which began with a Rameau Allemande. Her crystalline sound and feather lightness of touch lit up this elegant little piece, which continued into Carl Vine's Bagatelles Nos.2 and 3. The former had a scherzo-like quality, the latter's hazy opening soon gave way to a most sentimental of melodies, however short-lived. Speaking of love and death, her view of Granados Balada from Goyescas took on a more melodramatic edge, and contrasted with Xie Ming's earlier performance, hers had more fire and passion. In short, a more nuanced reading. 

The choice of EDWARD NEEMAN (Australia, 32 years) programming Richard Meale's Coruscations seemed rather unfortunate, simply because despite his obvious ardent advocacy, the atonal work was soon lost to this listener within the opening two minutes. I just could not wait for it to end. Ten minutes seemed like a half-hour. And when he eventually did, and began on Liszt's Polonaise No.2 in E major, I could not wait for it to end either. The blatant barnstorming of this dragged out, empty and bombastic piece did little to endear, and not helped by deliberate rubatos and other posturings.

WANG YINFEI (China, 30 years) felt somewhat ill at ease in Scarlatti's famous slow Sonata in B minor (K.87). When it is taken fractionally too fast, the dreamily intimate sound world is lost. There was a grandiloquent opening to Liszt's Reminiscences de Don Juan, which had sleights of hand and grandstanding aplenty. However a lapse with a short segment being repeated and other sections left out sullied the proceedings. For these kind of party pieces, nothing less than total perfection matters, and Wang did look displeased with himself at the end.

YUI FUSHIKI (Japan, 25 years) came close to a furniture malfunction, when her Steinway stool could not adjust downwards on her command. A technician saved the day by literally sitting on it until it yielded (he was heavier, of course). Anyway, her version of Chopin's Polonaise-Fantasie Op.61 (the third performance of the day) was fuss-free, filled with nobility and an elegant touch. More of that came in Peter Sculthorpe's Harbour Dreaming, a work with thematic links with his Piano Concerto, which has Japanese musical influences.Its repeated notes, clothed in a sensuous mist of sonority from excellent pedalling, provided the most hypnotic moments of the evening.  

LUU QUANG HONG (Vietnam, 25 years) was brave to even attempt Chopin's over-familiar Polonaise in A flat major Op.53 “Heroic”. He began commandingly, but skimped on the sweeping upward scales by tricking the way to the top when he realised he could not manage the run. This happened not just once, but twice. A major mess towards the end put paid to the performance. A similar mishap dogged the second of two Poemes Op.32 by Scriabin, although the first was played close to perfectly. Rachmaninov's Prelude in G sharp minor (Op.32 No.12) and Etude-tableaux (Op.33 No.9) fared well too, but the earlier blemishes would be hard to erase.  

CHEN MOYE (China, 32 years) is one of the competition's oldest pianists, and his stage demeanour  is a modest one. His programme however worked to perfection because he was able to vary tonal colour, beginning with Scarlatti's Sonata in G (K.8), which interestingly alternated between major and minor modes, and two vastly contrasted Lyric Pieces by Grieg. Butterfly had lightness while March of the Dwarves raced through with manically plodding footsteps. The piece de resistance was however Horowitz's rewriting of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.19, which he made convincing by not pummelling through its pages but highlighting its decadent harmonies, extra notes and keeping the audience guessing what happens next.

KONG JIANING (China, 30 years) smartly traversed a 20-minute journey from order to chaos. Bach's Prelude & Fugue in G sharp minor (WTC I) came with smooth and clear lines, which descended into the loud, abrupt and jerky interjections of Graham Hair's Under Aldebaran. This kind of violence soon evaporated to the silence from which the malevolence of Scarbo from Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit emerged. Cue more convulsive and jerky movements, but of a more purposeful kind, where all the drama and volumatic surges contributed to a thrilling ride. A pianist with much to recommend.

The Australian contribution by FANTEE JONES (USA, 22 years) was none other than Percy Grainger's Country Dances, and wasn't everybody waiting for this moment of ultimate levity? This perennial light classic (would this be its first time ever in an international competition) was inserted between Haydn's Sonata No.31 in E major, which shared some good humour in common in its outer movements, and Henri Dutilleux's Choral et Variations from his early Sonata. Her Haydn was crisp and likeable and the Dutilleux very engaging in its virtuosic blend of dissonance and tradition.

TONY LEE (Australia, 24 years) completed the first preliminary round with a warm, gratifying reading of Beethoven's Sonata in E flat major (Op.27 No.1). The rich chords in the first movement had its equal in the 3rd movement's chorale theme, which had its final say just before the sonata's end. Despite a very small stumble in the 3rd movement, he recovered to finish very well. Tagged on like two encores were Rachmaninov's Daisies, a melancholic song transcription, and Oriental Sketch, which had nothing to do with the East but a short rumbling train portrait (the Orient Express). Both were played very well. 

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