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Witches, bastards, whirlwinds and clouds

Witches, bastards, whirlwinds and clouds

by Angus McPherson on July 8, 2016 (July 8, 2016) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now

A snapshot from Preliminary Round 1 Concert 2 of the Sydney International Piano Competition


The crowd was still buzzing from the first concert as we lined up to hear the second group of eight players in the Sydney International Piano Competition’s first round. “I’ve never heard the Mephisto Waltz played like that!” came the muttering from one aficionado and there are certainly plenty of punters in for the long haul, ready to hear every performance and experience every nuance of the competition.

Russell Torrance was Master of Ceremonies, presiding over the event and calling the action for the live audience and ABC Classic FM listeners from the studio in the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Verbrugghen Hall. The concert began with an Australian Showcase performance by Melbourne pianist Nicholas Young, who played Serge Bortkiewicz’s brooding and passionate Ballade in C Sharp Minor Op. 42 on the Fazioli piano, treating the audience to wonderfully florid technique and pianistic beauty – and this was just the warm-up act!

The first competitor for this section, Japanese-American pianist Rachel Kudo performed a pair of Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas (A Major K.332 and A Minor K.175) with touching delicacy before tackling Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Dubbed “Witch’s Variations” by Clara Schumann, these variations on Paganini’s famous 24th Violin Caprice are known not just for their fiendish technical demands but also their emotional depth, which Kudo plumbed artfully.

Kudo was followed by Russian Sergey Belyavskiy. A powerhouse of a player, he sauntered onto the stage to perform Beethoven’s whirlwind Rondo a Capriccio “Rage Over a Lost Penny, Vented in a Caprice” with his head bowed over the keyboard. His two movements from Carl Vine’s Five Bagatelles had a dark intensity while his performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2, was an explosion of rapid fingerwork. With speed and power like that, he’ll be one to watch – and definitely a crowd favourite.

After the Liszt, Hungarian Daniel Lebhardt’s Bach was a chance for the audience to catch their breath – the Sarabande in his performance of the Partita No 1 BWV 825 particularly beautiful before a fantastically creepy, scurrying rendition of Australian composer Graham Hair’s colourful Under Alderbaran, commissioned by the Sydney International Piano Competition back in 1984.

Chinese pianist Ming Xie beamed at the audience as he walked on stage to dispatch a thrilling performance of Granados’ Ballad of Love and Death from the Goyescas Op. 11 piano suite, every emotion in the music reflected in his face. Pesson’s Speech of Clouds from Vexierbilder II was an exquisitely delicate rippling fantasy, with moments of thunder as Xie hit the underside of the piano. Xie rounded out his recital with a lively performance of Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dreams.

There were more clouds on the horizon after the break, with Swedish Martin Malmgren performing Liszt’s Nuages Gris (Grey Clouds), Medtner’s Prologue: Andante cantabile from his Acht Stimmungsbilder Op. 1 and three motoring Bartók etudes. Obviously at home on the stage, he was in his element performing Brett Dean’s virtuosic Equality, shouting “All men are bastards!” at the audience as he played, delivering the work’s punch-line with grinning relish.

Australian pianist Ayesha Gough tackled Tchaikovsky’s sombre Dunka before a haunting rendition of Sculthorpe’s Djilile, her eyes focused on a point in the distance. She capped off her recital with Shchedrin’s Prologue and the galloping Horse Racing from Anna Karenina arranged by Pletnev, a smile twisting her mouth as she rounded the harmonic bends.

Fellow Australian Peter de Jager presented a quartet of Scarlatti Sonatas (K.490, K.491, K.420 and K.421), his trills and turns elegant and refined followed by two of Ligeti’s etudes, Cordes à vide beautiful and lilting and Fanfares a festival of speed and delicacy.

Roman Lopatynski, from the Ukraine, brought gravitas to Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor Hob.XVI:32 before delivering a blistering performance of the Feinberg arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony Scherzo, tearing up and down the piano with robust vigour.

There is no doubt the jury has their work cut out for them, with a schedule in many ways even more gruelling than that of the performers. Those who performed on the first day of recitals can now rest until at least Saturday (as can the heavily worked out Fazioli) but the jury will be listening to another 16 performers today. With audience members already picking their favourites and making predictions this will be an exciting competition.


Tickets are still available for selected events, and all Competition Concerts can be watched free via 5stream as well as being broadcast live on ABC Classic FM for listeners who may not have access to the Internet.