SIPCA 9 – Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia – Auld Lang Syne

On Thursday night, I went to session 4 of Stage IV – that is, the semi-finals.

The program was:

Konstantin Shamray (Recital)
Hoang Pham (Chamber Music)
Tatiana Kolesova (Recital)
Tomoki Kitamura (Chamber Music)

This was good because it included 3 players whom I had not heard in the flesh, and one favourite (Kitamura) whom I wanted to see again.

The potential downside was that there were two Hammerklavier sonatas.

Which of the two anybody liked tended to depend on how you like your Hammerklavier. Both players were Russian, and the differences seemed really to boil down to gendered readings. Shamray (Steinway) gave the piano the classic thrashing. This was exciting in the big boilings up in the first movement, but for me less effective in the long slow movement, and a bit too much in the last movement, where he made a habit of landing on fugal trills with a kind of initial crushed note which must have been deliberate but just sounded messy. Shamray also played some Scriabin which amongst other things allowed him to deploy his large hands (protruding beyond his coat sleeves with no sign of a cuff) to advantage.

Kolesova (who also played the Steinway, by now a bit the worse for wear in its top register) took a feminine route – her dynamics had a lower ceiling which coincided with a politer range of pianistic tone. I thought her slow movement had more shape. She did, however, seem to have a tiny memory lapse at one point.

Juror Michael Brimer is probably the one to ask about this, since a few years in a critical cause celebre the Herald’s reviewer, Harriet Cunningham, accused him of memory lapses in this sonata, and he responded (backed up by Daniel Herscovitch and the recording of the concert) that this was just the way the sonata goes. (The only web-based link I can find for this, strangely, is in what appears to be Icelandic Swedish.)

As so often happens in contrasting approaches like this, I found myself wanting the best of both approaches, even though that may simply not be possible. Overall I enjoyed Kolesova’s more, though I would have preferred a bit less pedal. Nevertheless, having literally played up a storm (you could hear the rain beginning outside as it thrummed on the Seymour Centre roof – one of a number of technical deficiencies of the York Theatre) she seemed to get the warmer audience reception.

Kolesova preceded the Beethoven with an attractive arrangement of Gluck but which, with the shadow of an impending Hammerklavier hanging over it, was difficult to take too seriously.

Hoang Pham (Yamaha) played the Mendelssohn Trio with Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles. This was polished playing by all, though I still felt that Pham could have engaged a bit more with his fellow players. Most of the time the piano is playing so many notes that the other players simply have to go along with it. In that case, all the more important in the easy bits to establish rapport.

Kitamura played the Schubert B flat major trio with Helen Ayres and Timothy Nankervis. They are a more dramatic pair of players than Hall and Smiles and this does raise the question of whether there were advantages in playing with one pair of string players over another. Someone suggested to me at interval that they [gender neutral plural for anonymity] didn’t think Dimity and Julian had given one of the other competitors a fair go: they must have meant Miyeon Lee, who played the Brahms in the first half of the afternoon session.

I don’t know what was their [sic] basis was for saying that. I would be most surprised if that were the result of any conscious decision by Hall and Smiles. They have a slightly cooler, objective, way of playing than Ayres and Nankervis – and I think their long musical partnership might be a bit harder for the pianist to really break into in the competition circumstances. I’m now venturing into dangerously speculative territory, but if anything it feels as though Smiles and Hall are being almost self-consciously fair in their approach to the pianist: they will match his approach as possible, but also try their best to make it look as good as they can – the traditional accompanist’s approach. Ayres & Nankervis play more riskily, not always without mishap, but in a way which maybe leaves more openings for the pianist and for a collaboration to occur between all three.

All of this is based on precisely two hearings of each string pair (though many more of Hall and Smiles on other occasions), so it’s got to be dodgy and especially for one particularly obvious point: it could really be the pianists who were the decisive factor in each case.

Kitamura’s choice of the Schubert is technically, I would say, one of the easier choices, but everybody has that choice in this round, and what’s important is or should be what you can do with the music. I came already well-disposed to Kitamura, and I wasn’t disappointed. At the risk of sounding offensive, I can only say that when he is playing he narrows his eyes to slits – in repose when he was bowing at the end his eyes were not so. The look is definitely part of the charisma. It’s all part of his intensity of concentration – it doesn’t seem “bunged on” for effect. He can really play Schubert. I didn’t think he was quite as good as Dank at the chamber-music thing, but you could see and also hear the collaboration. Some of the result was quite electric – at least up to the last movement, where he seemed to get more back inside his own head space and for me the heavenly length began to make itself felt just a little. It was late in a long program, after all.

Since I first arrived late to one of the morning sessions in Stage One, I have regularly encountered a fellow-member of the audience at the downstairs coffee-cartish refreshment bar. He is always the first there to order a coffee. On the first time and also the next day, I was there having arrived too late for the first half, and had just ordered my coffee before the first interval exiter arrived. After that, because I too do not like to queue for interval refreshment, we met almost every interval. Last night we met also walking up behind the Seymour Centre, and he graciously allowed me to beat him for the first time ever as we strode purposefully down the steps at the head of the interval rush (there was open space behind us, let me tell you). As we were drinking or waiting for our coffee we were joined by some other acquaintances of mine (P, who had not been able to come since Stage II, Lx, who came yesterday, and R) which finally gave the occasion for some kind of introductions, including to each other.

RR, from Hobart, has been attending his second competition this year, having also come in 2004. He’s been to most sessions, but also fitted in some golf, and on Wednesday (when I noted his absence from the cafe bar) he and his wife went instead to Otello. They fly on Saturday to Hawaii for their daughter’s wedding. Last night was my last semi-final round. We said goodbye for this year. Provided we are spared, we may see each other again in four years’ time.

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