SIPCA 2 – Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia, 2

On Wednesday night to the opening recital by John Chen, the 2004 first prize winner. He is an impressive player. As another has rightly said, his playing is immaculate, but he is if anything too neat. He never really got wild, though it is true that it was a tough audience to get wild in front of.

What the recital mostly indicated to me is just how high pianistic Parnassus is, because though definitely far ascended, he is still at the lower heights. In a way he still gives the impression of playing like somebody’s pupil, which he of course still is. The two other aspects of his playing which I thought worthy of remark are that he is not really crazy about imitation in lower registers, and that he favours pretty uniformly the soprano register. Perhaps this was where we were sitting, though I can’t see why that should be. He pedalled very sparingly, and I thought the piano sounded nicer when he pedalled more: the acoustic at the Seymour Centre is pretty dry.

There is a choice of pianos in the competition. Although Chen is not a competitor, presumably the same choice was available to him. He chose the Kawai, as he did when he competed in 2004. This led to a funny moment at interval. A friend of mine had been sitting at the side and didn’t note the make of the piano. He simply assumed it would be the Steinway. When greeted at interval by Ara Vartoukian, the Steinway rep and tuner, m friend said chipperly, “Piano’s sounding good!” Ara didn’t respond at all apart from, or so I fancied, a very microscopic double-take. My friend was mortified when I drew him aside and put him right. In fact my friend wasn’t really keen on the piano sound at all and was just engaging in a little plastic or phatic flattery.

Today I slept in because of a failure to “save” the alarm on my mobile phone. As a result, I missed the first half of the morning session, though I heard some on the way on the radio. Of those I heard in the second half, Zhu Hao (or, as the program has it, Hao Zhu) impressed me the most. He played with composure and I liked the way he listened to what he was doing. Some thought his first piece, Turina – Fantasie Dance – rather too mild for competition purposes.

In the afternoon I went to work.

In the evening, I went with D. We sat, as chance would have it, next to my old teacher, P. P intends to come to all of the first two stages; after that, term begins again and she is back at work. Previously, the stages I-IV, or at least I-III, have been completed in the school holidays.

One of the funny aspects of the competition, a bit reminiscent of the Leunig cartoon where, instead of looking out the sun at the sunrise, a man and a child look at the same sunrise on the television, is how in between the sessions a lot of people put in their earphones and listen to Gerard Willems’ commentary on ABCFM on the players who have just played. There is a certain sport in this and indeed I listened in for some of it. This was almost not necessary since, as I changed into my bike gear in the handicapped toilet in the Gents’ (cycling was necessitated by the papal gridlock in town this afternoon) after one session, Gerard’s commentary provided conversational material for a couple of gents who were, I presume, attending to their business in the standing-room-only department outside my not-sound-proof booth. Likewise, one could catch the gist of Gerard’s commentary indirectly in the foyer buzz at interval.

For me, the best player of the evening and of those I have heard so far was Takashi Sato. He came out and launched boldly into Chopin’s study Op 25 No 1, and he could really play it. The Bach-Busoni Chaconne is a piece I rather dread as it can be a bit of a bore. Not so in his hands. The Poulenc Presto in B flat major with which he finished was like a cold shower after a sauna – and also a kind of built-in contrasting but highly effective quasi encore which rounded off things nicely. Apparently Gerard didn’t think Sato made a spiritual connection with the Busoni.

P annotates her program methodically, correcting program changes or misdescriptions, noting which piano is played (Sato played the Kawai) and also making a judgment – P, F, G, VG or O. She gave Sato “O.” She also liked Tomoki Kitamura, whom I didn’t hear, though she wondered if he was strong enough to last the distance (he is only 17, and rather slight). “Needs a good feed,” said P. I think she may have given him an “O(?).”

Of the others this evening, Mariangella Vacatello (who was described as a Neapolitan, on which basis she ought surely to come sixth) was strong. I also liked Yoon Soo Rhee. She had a terrible running nose (I think they often catch colds on the plane) and there was one particularly poignant bit where she paused to wipe a drip from it.

One thing which has emerged so far is that it is very difficult to play anything other than an ordinary version of Chopin’s Winter Wind study. This is one reason why I liked Rhee’s choice of the less showy but refreshing Op 25 No 4. She also played Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz (I think this was where the nose drip came in).

Gerard didn’t think this was devilish enough. He went on about how it was about Goethe’s Mephisto, who (and here I necessarily paraphrase but only a very little) “seduces Marguerite and all sorts of other terrible things which cannot be talked about on a respectable station like ABCFM.” He was joking of course, and maybe I misheard him, but if that is what he said then he cannot be very familiar with Goethe’s Faust or even its operatic or symphonic avatars.

2 Responses to “SIPCA 2 – Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia, 2”

  1. Thom Says:

    What was Mr Willems doing talking about Goethe and Marguerite anyway? Liszt takes Lenau’s Faust as a starting point, doesn’t he?

  2. marcellous Says:

    Thom, that could be my error, not his. You’ve now got me wondering whether I am the one who assumed that he was speaking of Goethe. I honestly can’t remember now whether the statement to that effect was Gerard’s or mine and I see it is not in direct speech. I’m more certain that Marguerite got a guernsey and I may have assumed Gerard was thinking of Goethe via the French, and I I have also assumed (possibly wrongly) via Gounod (could, of course, be Berlioz).

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