SIPCA 4 (Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia)

On Saturday afternoon, to the Seymour Centre for another instalment of Stage II of this competition.

Thankfully, today the endess loop of the Brandenburg concerto movement piped through the foyer had been switched off.

I was just a little late, so I stood at the back for the first of Alexey Yemtsov‘s pieces, which was “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” – his choice of the (obligatory) Debussy Prelude (any prelude except for Book I No 7 – my guess is that they just got sick of hearing this one by competitors eager to impress). Alexey is one of a bunch of boys who came to Australia in 1998 or thenabouts from the Ukraine. He now officially studies with Gerard Willems, though other pianists have rather unkindly suggested to me that Alexey could teach Gerard a thing or two.

I finally heard Tomoki Kitamura.

My former teacher, P, told me that sitting behind her was a “young whippersnapper” who has come from Adelaide to take in a bit of the competition and also to have a couple of trial lessons with Gerard Willems and Natalia Sheludikova – to decide which he [could be a she but I suspect “whippersnapper” is a male term] wants to learn from when he comes to Sydney. His comments, she said, were driving her mad. Apparently this young Adelaideian said of Kitamura, “of course, everyone just wants him to do well because he looks so cute.” And it’s true, he does look cutish – in a way to which I, for one, confess a susceptibility. But it certainly isn’t just that. It is Kitamura’s poise and intensity which is attractive – and which bears fruit in his playing. He opened with a Sonnet by Sibelius, and then played a very assured Rondo Op 51 by Beethoven. The telling thing about this was the way that he sustained the ornamental and quasi-cadenzal moments in a way which simultaneously maintained the momentum but also suspended time. This boy has charisma.

Backtracking, P didn’t like Aiko Yajima‘s Prokofiev Sarcasms and crossed her off her list on account of them. I didn’t have much of a view, though the one Sarcasm which I knew (having played it myself for an exam at the age of 16) was pretty unrecognizable to me. Later though, when I heard Fernando Altamura‘s to me preferable version of these on the radio, I began to see what P meant. I also felt Yajima had missed the point of the big moments in the Liszt transcription of Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu singen. It is meant to be expansive but the heart should open without the volume knob twisting round too far.

I had heard that Miya Kazaoka‘s first round was disastrous, so it was kind of a relief that she got through this round unscathed. She is one of the older entrants, and she is an attractive player (see further comments on Gerard’s view below). However, I did feel that La cathédrale engloutie and the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde were a bit too much of the same thing. (In addition, from all reports and from my radio listening, Konstantin Shamray overshadowed her in the Liebestod department.)

As the above foreshadows, I had to leave before Fernando Altamura played, in order to have a nap and turn around for the Missa Solemnis. Of the two I heard after interval, I wish I could be more enthusiastic about David Fung, but I just couldn’t get carried away by his Chopin Ballade No 4. That’s a high mountain to climb and it is also a piece where any perfomance must surpass or overcome all sorts of preconceptions. Balasz Fulei played “Footsteps in the Snow” as his Debussy Prelude. This would have been better without the very persistent cougher who finally left the hall. What I enjoyed more was his very lively Scarlatti sonata. Gerard liked Fuleis Bartok “Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs” (also assayed in Stage I by Daniil Tsevkov). I have to confess that I have a limited enthusiasm for Bartok’s solo piano works (forgive me, shade of Nancy Salas!). Fulei’s may have been the real McCoy but if so I preferred Tsevkov’s.

Speaking of Gerard, his commentaries are developing a kind of trope about the women in the competition. We are always hearing what gown they are wearing, or how attractive they are. Gerard should take a bit of a look at himself and check this line of commentary before it goes too far.

Alternately, I’d like to see a few more of the cuter male competitors come out in a strapless number or even (since decency certainly permits it) topless. Unfortunately, given the (unflattering to the abs) stance which pianists have to adopt towards their instrument and their general physical development, I doubt if such an idea would be quite as attractive in practice as I am prepared to imagine it might be in theory.

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