This Sunday afternoon I went again (I went last year) to the finals of the John Allison City of Sydney Piano Scholarship.
The prize for this is $10,000, supplemented this year by awards of $1,000 for the three finalists who do not win. There are preliminary rounds and also a preliminary final. With a purse like this, the section (that’s what they call the individual competitions in the Eisteddfod) attracts a wide field of entrants. The finalists, and the works they chose to play (each may play for up to half an hour) were:
John Fisher– Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No 2 Op 35 (1913 version)
Longjie Cui – Liszt, Reminiscences of Don Juan
Adam Herd – Rachmaninov, Variations on a theme by Chopin, Op 22
Joanne Kang – Rachmaninov Piano Sonata No 2 Op 35 (1931 version)
The first three study or have studied at the Queensland Conservatorium with Natasha Vlassenko (and, in John Fisher’s case, her husband, Oleg Stepanov). Vlassenko and Stepanov are part of an international phenomenon which might loosely be called the post-Gorbachev post-USSR piano diaspora. Obviously, they are doing something right up there. Fisher and Herd are also both playing in the 2008 Sydney International Piano Competition, which starts in a little over a fortnight. So in a way, I was dipping my toe into the water in preparation for that deluge of pianism. Work permitting, I hope to take in quite a lot of it, if only because it gives a chance to hear in a concentrated way a substantial amount of the piano repertoire the surface of which the 4 or 5 piano recitals I attend in a normal year cannot even begin to scratch. [cf: “up with which I will not put”]
The section began at 2.30. I arrived at about 2.15 and was reminded why I don’t generally bother to go to ABCFM Sunday Afternoon Live concerts by the grey-haired army who had arrived already for that event. Don’t get me wrong – as a classical music concertgoer, I have nothing against the elderly, but the combination of an afternoon concert and free and general admission is deadly. These people are very determined and the competition for a decent spot is simply too fierce.
Perhaps the ABC had first dibs on the piano, because the instrument supplied for the Scholarship was certainly not the conservatorium’s best, and possibly not even its second-best piano. Things only got worse as the section proceeded as the instrument took a bit of a thrashing, particularly at the hands of Longjie Cui playing the Liszt.
John Fisher was the winner. He missed out narrowly last year to a very polished performance by Jason Gilham. This time he was easily the most technically proficient, although I would still like to see him relax and open up a bit more. This is a tricky thing because it is obviously part of his personality, and not simply a question of struggling with the technical difficulties of the music, which he has well under control.
Longjie Cui made rather a heavy handed fist of the Liszt. This starts with the Commendatore’s trombones (as prefigured in the overture) then amuses itself with a series of variations on La ci darem da mano (Chopin, amongst others, also wrote variations on this) before concluding (after a bit more Commendatore) with the Don’s “champagne” aria. There is always an interesting question in these transcriptions as to how much we should play Mozart as we hear him now and how much we need to be hearing it through Liszt’s ears. But even allowing for the nineteenth-century enthusiasm for the demonic aspects of Don Giovanni, I cannot believe that Liszt heard Mozart like this. I didn’t feel that Cui really understood the piece and I expect that is because he doesn’t really know the opera. Of course that’s an easy thing for an older person and opera goer like me to say, but the point is that even Liszt’s “warhorse” paraphrases or (in this case) reminiscences are more tasteful and at least spiritually faithful to the original than is sometimes supposed or realised.
Adam Herd was more enjoyable and his approach the most musical so far, but the variations were quite long and he tired towards the end. He does not have such a positive and varied touch as Fisher, although he projects a more genial musical personality.
Joanne Kang was the youngest competitor. She played a revision of the sonata which is a little shorter and simpler. Her approach was within a narrower compass than Fisher’s and although more sweetly lyrical, pedalled over the details which Fisher brought out in touch and texture (though some of this is also, apparently, a question of the different versions).
Oh dear, all those negative comments! It’s difficult to avoid entering into the spirit of a competition in the worst way, and I fear that’s what I have done. That is one of the things which is hard for performing artists: the competition is tough and you are only as good as your last performance. A prize just sharpens the Darwinian struggle which is going on all the time.
Whilst the adjudicators were conferring, soprano Tanyth Bryce sang three numbers. The sweetest of these was Depuis le jour from Charpentier’s Louise – an aria where the heroine expresses her joy after her first night of love. I was able to distinguish the closing lines (though I admit I have checked them on the net) as:
je tremble délicieusement
Au souvenir charmant
Du premier jour D’amour!
Wikipedia tells me that this is an opera which does not take quite the usual tragic turn. At the time, however, I was unaware of that and combined my pig-French comprehension with an understandable fear of the worst. I wondered if Louise would still feel the same about the souvenir du premier jour d’amour when she was changing the nappies on her own nine and a bit months later.