Top of the town in Shepparton - Review by Clive O'Connell

Australian Classical music critic - Clive O'Connell - reviews the 2016 Australian National Piano Award C.D. featuring the top 3 pianists from 2016 Award (September 13, 2017) - from: O'Connellthemusic.com

According to the booklet that accompanies this CD, ‘the winners deserve the same acclaim accorded to top national athletes.’ Considering the current crop of sportspeople who occupy the headlines whenever Australia hits the big-time, I suppose we can take the comparison as well-intentioned but you’d hope that the three place-winners at last year’s Shepparton competition would be prepared to forego the company or example of Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic or – to juggle with the term ‘top national athletes’ Shane Warne.

In fact, the three musicians featured on this album display a kind of discipline and authority under pressure that even gifted sports-persons can only dream of acquiring. Those hoops that competitors are required to jump through can’t slowly diminish into the near distance like those for the Sydney Piano Competition where the number of prizes for specific abilities stretches from the Opera House to South Head. This national award – and it is just that: to enter, you have to be a citizen, not a laurel-gathering visitor – focuses on an entrant’s abilities as shown in solo recital format, An Australian work has to appear in a candidate’s repertoire, but the choice of core material is wide open: Baroque, Classical, 19th century Romantic, French impressionist, music written between 1900 and 1950, and works written in or after 1951.

New South Wales musician Tony Lee (24 at the time) won the first prize in the 2016 event. He is a veteran in competitions in this country, France and Norway and on the present recording (made during live performances) he plays Scriabin’s two-movement Sonata No. 4 in F sharp Major, Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre as arranged by Liszt and then revamped by Horowitz, Chopin’s posthumous E Major Waltz (not the E minor one, as the CD has it listed) and the same composer’s Mazurka in C sharp minor Op. 50 No. 3.

In 2013, Lee won first prize in the Under 24 division of the 13th Scriabin International Piano Competition, so he came to Shepparton with his credentials for the Russian composer well-established. The performance of the Fourth Sonata has an admirable drive, especially in the Prestissimo volando second movement where the pianist executes a dazzling tour de force, realizing all the detail with fine discipline yet still responding to this music’s neurasthenic core.

Lee suits himself about parts of the slow opening Andante, freely adopting several interpretations of the direction con voglia found in my score, to the point where I can’t hear the lower right hand notes in bars 33 and 34; but the approach is impressively confident and takes full advantage of the composer’s rhythmic flexibility. The sonata’s second section flies along, Lee managing the long bursts of athletic movement and twitchy melodic particles with admirable musicianship – inserting short pauses, changing his weight of attack, giving adequate measure to the relieving moments (the few of them there are) but reading the score with discrimination, even when it reaches its bombastic climax at bar 144 and the shades of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov become fused in a powerful polemic on the work’s first theme.

Saint-Saens’ tone poem, especially after two legendary pianists have applied themselves to it, makes another brilliant exhibition. This work is very familiar and stands up fairly well to the interpolations added to its already exhilarating momentum and Lee handles it with plenty of 19th century virtuosic flair. I could find only one moment where a momentary faltering occurred; the rest is a dazzling exercise, nowhere more so than in the chromatic riot that starts to build up at bar 431. For the purist, not all the notes are there and careful attention shows up some points where there are a few subterranean additions; in this, Lee is only following in his distinguished predecessors’ footsteps and the results are formidable.

Both Chopin tracks are amiable enough. There is one miscalculation in the waltz in the right hand at bar 50 but the trills are as crisp as you could desire. Across the mazurka, the pianist exercises his God-given right to rubato but he impresses as one of the few pianists who thinks that taking time over one phrase means you have to make it up further down the track. So, his reading is a fine combination of the ruminative and the assertive, effectively and sensitively carried off. By this stage, Lee has demonstrated a telling sympathy with the 19th century Romantic division of the competition’s repertoire (yes, I know the Scriabin was written in 1903 but its language sits unsteadily on the 20th century cusp).

In second place came Peter de Jager, a familiar face around the Melbourne traps from his contributions to ANAM events and occasional appearances at the Recital Centre. His offerings on this disc are idiosyncratic to say the least, far more adventurous than you would expect at a competition of this nature, although I’m no authority on what the other entrants performed. This musician is dedicated – among his other interests – to contemporary music and is a composer in his own right, so two of the works he presents here are post-1951. He begins with Lyapunov’s Transcendental Study No. 10, sub-titled Lezghinka and a refined version of that Caucasian dance (for unrefined, you can find a lezghinka in Khachaturian’s Gayane score). De Jager’s attack is not as tumultuously rapid as that of some other pianists but you can hear every note in this Allegro con fuoco. The pianist’s command of the composer’s sophisticated setting/adornment of two unremarkable melodies is excellent, the first toccata descending-scale motive given without the mindless martellato punchiness that it usually suffers.

The central section, when the key changes from B minor to D flat Major, finds de Jager indulging in some late Russian Romanticism. Lyapunov formed part of Balakirev’s circle and this tune has an inflection that recalls both Prince Igor and Scheherazade; indeed, the melody could have been a candidate for adoption into Kismet if the composer had been somebody else. But the study makes a fine contrast with Lee’s Danse macabre; not surprising as the composer’s aim in these studies was to complete the work begun but not completed by Liszt through his own similarly named exercises in pianistic impossibility.

Next comes the only Australian work on the CD: Chris Dench’s tiento de medio registro altofrom the composer’s Phase Portraits Book 1, the piece itself occupying Dench from 1978 to 2003. The score states that the work is ‘after Francisco de Peraza’, who is probably the 16th century Salamanca-born composer to whom is ascribed one work: a Medio registro alto (de) Premier Tono, although the work’s authorship remains a dubious quantity among the scholars. Dench’s brief fantasia is a ferocious-looking complex on paper, packed with metrical subdivisions that recall early scores of Boulez and Stockhausen, although not as insanely demanding. De Jager makes light of its terrors and those summoned up by the score’s irregular scalar rushes from one node to another. The work is awash with sustained textures, its connection to Peraza’s little piece escapes me (no surprise there), and its performance complements the preceding track’s calisthenics.

The silver medallist ends his group with Stephen Hough’s arrangement of My Favourite Things from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Another fleet-fingered display piece which is dispatched with a good deal more determination than Hough himself invests in it, this song setting works as a pleasant encore, which is how Hough uses it, I think. But its whimsicality goes a-begging here.

Of the three artists featured, de Jager gets the least amount of playing time; Lee has a tad over 24 minutes, Oliver She enjoys 23-and-a-half minutes, but de Jager clocks in at just a bit over a quarter-of-an-hour.

After this mixed bag, third place winner She comes to us with one work only: Beethoven’s C Major Sonata, the Waldstein – that unforgiving, deceptive behemoth with its many temptations to take the easy path and substitute glitter for power. Stretching back into the past, She is bolstered in his enterprise by the interpretative wealth of great Waldsteininterpreters – Solomon, Schnabel, Kempff, Richter. Arrau, Brendel – and every so often he breaks through into a stretch of originality that takes you by surprise. For example, he achieves a refreshing continuity and felicity of phrasing in the 12 bars or so that conclude the first movement’s exposition and, by the time we reach the recapitulation proper, he is at home with the work so that the semiquaver patterns show few signs of blurring and the sonata’s surging action is expertly maintained, even if the three fermatas before the final rush to judgement are a touch overlong.

The Introduzione is given an appropriately slow pace, its measured progress marred by a muffed melody note at the start of bar 10. However, from bar 19 to the attacca, She shows excellent discretion in dynamic restraint and – apart from an odd shuffle in the left hand on the first beat of bar 21 – the climax and decrescendo cap a worthwhile realization of this incongruous page-and-a-bit.

A few more glancing errors creep into the Rondo but nothing too disturbing. The pianist intends – as do we all – to keep the semiquaver ripples at the start on a very soft level, but the first movement’s opening blurring recurs; if you turn up the volume very high, you can hear the notes are all there but, in live performance, you’d have to be very close to She to discern them clearly. Happily, the interludes are enunciated with precise lucidity, notably the C minor one that begins at bar 175 and the riot of triplets taking flight at bar 344. She has no hesitation in taking the Prestissimo at a cracking speed; the wonder is that he perseveres with it, keeping his nerve at the glissando octaves from bar 465 to 474 and keeping the pressure on himself at bar 484 and not slowing down , unlike many pianists who, for unknown reasons, take the arrival of crotchet triplets in the left hand as a signifier of a change in metre.

You’d be hard pressed to disagree with the final ranking of this competition, judging by this CD’s content. It was recorded a little over a year ago on September 9 and 10, 2016; I presume in the final rounds so that each of the three pianists was working at full capacity. Thanks to the ABC recording staff and the Award administration, we have a picture, albeit a second-hand one, of the event’s climactic points and a reassuring illustration of the state of the country’s pianism.

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