Gregory Sullivan Isaacs has reviewed each of the six finalists as they performed in the last day of the Sixth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. Look for a wrap-up later, and the announcement of the winners will come in a ceremony at 6:30 p.m. today. Remember, you can watch the awards in the live stream in our site, on this page (click the link for the live stream to open a separate window).
Dominic Piers Smith was the first player up for the final round of the competition. He opened with Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52. We have heard this piece a number of times throughout the week but it has always sounded different because there’re so many changes of mood and feel, that individual players can tailor it to their own musical instincts. Smith took a very reserved approach. Lingering over the rubato, the forward motion almost came to a stop. However, he was consistent throughout so he made a case for his interpretation. The Liszt transcription of Schumann’s song Widmung ("Dedication") followed. Smith did a good job of letting the song sound out over Liszt’s excessive trimmings, which is no easy task in this overblown piece. We expected that Smith would play a series of big virtuoso pieces, and he continued to do that with one of the most difficult of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 12 “Chasse-Neige” (which literally means “snowplow”). Smith was at home here with all of the fast tremolos and even faster chromatic scales, and he was accurate with all of the treacherous wide leaps. However, he made some real music with what can often become empty showpieces. Speaking of empty showpieces, that is a fitting description for Grainger’s Paraphrase on Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from his ballet The Nutcracker. Smith played it as a sort of encore and made the most of all its excesses and flash. Overall, Smith set a high watermark for the remaining players. He is sure of technique, at ease at the instrument, sensitive musically and exciting to watch.
Ken Iisaka opened with one of Beethoven’s late sonatas, Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109. He played the last movement, marked Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung, which means full of song and heartfelt emotion. It is the focal point of the entire sonata and is in Beethoven’s favorite form—a theme and variations. Iisaka ran into some trouble here and there as he negotiated Beethoven’s ever-increasing difficulties. However, it was a strong performance. Alkan’s Etude in E minor Op. 39, No. 12 (“Le Festin d’Ésope”) followed. Alkin is a little-remembered contemporary of Liszt, and his music is in much the same vein. This etude is the last in a group of 12 that falls under the "Le Festin d’Ésope (Aesop's Feast)" subtitle. It is a slightly bizarre set of variations, on a tune that sounds very much like a child’s nursery song, which requires an amazing technique. I am unfamiliar with this work so I cannot comment on how well he played it but it sure sounded odd. Kapustin' jazzy Variations in D-flat major, Op. 41, closed his set. My impression that he was off his mark today, discernable in his whole program, was dramatically underlined when he lost his place and had to start over in the Kapustin. He is an audience favorite and they gave him a warm reception. He even threw them his tie.
Christopher Shih chose to play one major piece for the final round, Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24. This work is a set of 25 variations on a theme from one of Handel’s suites for harpsichord and it ends with a big fugue. The tune itself is very simple, which gave Brahms a clean canvas on which to work his magic. Many of the variations are quite difficult and others more subtle. This piece is full of repeats and one thing that Shih did that made this such an involving performance was to subtly change the way he played the material the second time through. However, some of his dynamics were overblown; many forte passages were increased to fortissimo (with variation No. 15 being an example). On the other hand, many of the soft and expressive passages were beautifully played, such as the rippling variation No. 21 and those that followed, building to No. 25 (and the first real fortissimo section). He was spot-on to link up the variations, pausing where Brahms indicated for just the right amount of time and moving on seamlessly where that transition was required. This gave the piece the intended architecture so that it sounded much more like a whole, rather than so sectional, as if often the case. Shih was at his best in the fugue. He was incredibly clear and transparent, so that all of the fugal entries sounded out perfectly. He paced the ending so that it built to the final chords rather than the bangfest that some less subtle players make it out to be. Shih turned in an exceptionally fine performance of a difficult work.
Jane Gibson King started off with some Bach, playing his entire Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825 (Prelude; Allemande; Corrente; Sarabande; Minuets I & II; Gigue). While she played this demanding suite cleanly, with only an occasional mishap, there was a sameness to her playing that made the piece sound longer than it is. The Sarabande suffered from her lack of an even trill, but was the most involving movement musically. She finished out her set with two Liszt arrangements of songs. The Schubert song Der Müller und der Bach ("The Miller and the Stream") comes from his song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Pretty Maid of the Mill), Op. 25. This is one of Liszt’s transcriptions that lets the song speak for itself and King played it with a fine singing line. The Liszt paraphrase of Schumann’s song, Widmung ("Dedication") has been heard earlier, and throughout the entire competition for that matter. Unlike some previous performances, King managed to find the song underneath Liszt’s window dressing and she brought it out quite beautifully. Some few inconsequential splats aside, these two song transcriptions, specially the Schubert, were the best playing we have heard from her in this event.
Barry Coutinho started off with Schubert’s Impromptu in F minor, Op. 142, No. 4, which he played beautifully. There is hardly a piano competition that doesn’t have someone play Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. This is truly a masterwork by a composer at the top of his game. It is also on the short list of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire. From the deceptively simple-sounding first measure to the devilish scales in seconds in the last movement, this piece challenges even the most accomplished pianists. Coutinho gave it a masterful performance. I could go on here for pages about all of the striking details, the superb musicianship and flawless technical playing that he demonstrated, but suffice to say that this was as fine and accomplished a performance of this stunningly difficult work as I have ever heard played live in concert.
Clark Griffith greatly impressed with Bach in the semifinals so it is not surprising that he led off with that composers for the finals. He began with the "Ricercar" from Musical Offering, BWV 1079. A mishap early on didn’t seem to unnerve him and he gave it a precise and musical performance. He then played his own arrangement of the "Fugue" from Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C major for solo violin, BMV 1005. It is based on the chorale Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott and is one of the most complex fugues in all of the solo partitas and sonatas. Griffith kept Bach’s intentions and basic language, albeit updated and expanded, while elaborating on the material to create most attractive virtuoso piece. He followed this with something lighter, the Scherzo, Allegro vivace con delicatezza from Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960. Griffith ended his program with a leisurely trip through Chopin’s Barcarolle, Op. 60. He paid little attention to the piu mosso markings in the middle of the piece so there was not much difference when he returned to the Tempo One. Griffith’s double trills were impressive but he seemed to run out of steam at the end and some mishaps snuck into what was an otherwise superb performance.
◊ Here are the reviews from the semifinals:
- The first day of semifinals, Friday, May 27, 2011
- The second day of semifinals, Saturday, May 28, 2011
◊ To read all of Isaacs' 70 reviews from the preliminary rounds, and the 25 reviews from the semifinals, go here.