★★★★★ The first set of finalists battle it out with a trio Mozart concerti.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
July 19, 2016

In the final stretch of the competition, the 18th Century Concerto round puts the finalists under the microscope. Without the pyrotechnics and high-intensity bravura of Romantic virtuosity, the subtlety and style of the pianists is laid bare. All six finalists have chosen works by Mozart for their 18th-century concerto (Damien Beaumont’s running joke for the evening: “I hope you like Mozart!”) and the first three performers demonstrated the variety of musical personalities and alert timbres that can be drawn from the composer’s work. To the delight, I’m sure, of both the instrument’s makers and the Sydney Opera House’s stage crew, all three competitors in the first concert chose to play the Fazioli piano.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra, with Benjamin Northey conducting, launched into the majestic opening of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 25 in C Major K.503, while the first soloist, 22-year-old American pianist Kenneth Broberg, listened to the orchestral tutti with his hands resting in his lap, reaching out occasionally to brush the keys, before the subtle piano entry.

Broberg leant into the solo’s melancholy second theme, rose off the stool as he crested the movement’s peaks and bounced along with the quirky descending chords. His cadenza (Alfred Brendel’s?) was juicy and almost Beethovenian, with a quote snuck in from La Marseillaise. In the Andante Broberg was more attentive to the orchestra, looking up at the winds during their solos and shaping the lyrical passages with firm control. He switched between Mozart’s diverse characters with panache in the bright finale, the piano burbling as he accompanied wind solos and dispatching the final note with a flourish.

Russian pianist Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev swaggered onto the stage. He shook his head along with the orchestra’s singing tutti in the opening of the Piano Concerto No 23 K.488, a small smile playing across his lips as he gazed up at the ceiling. He brought a lightness to the Allegro; his left hand swirled the air as it lifted from the keyboard and his sound was graceful yet commanding. Tarasevich-Nikolaev began Mozart’s cadenza – which survived for this concerto – with tripping lightness before plumbing the darker mood it descends into with intensity. He drew passion from the yearning suspensions of the Adagio, his tone smooth, a little softer and rounder than Broberg’s in the quiet passages and his left hand echoing the clarinet’s solo arpeggios passages. He danced along to final movement with an easy grace, flicking melodies off with his wrists and bobbing his head forward on the accents. He walked slowly off stage with a smile.

The second Russian pianist for the evening, Andrey Gugnin, confidently leapt into the piano introduction to Mozart’s Concerto No 9, K.271 – the so-called Die Jenamy – before swaying along to the tutti. His arm movements were florid and arcing as he trilled playfully, his hands conducting in sympathy with Northey when not required on the keys. His sighing descents in the Andantino and passionately stretched rubato gave the movement a dark drama before Gugnin launched into the energetic finale almost without a break, relishing the comic interplay between high and low registers. His cadenzas – also Mozart’s – sparkled with bright virtuosity. There was a definite sense of synchronicity between pianist and orchestra in this performance, and Gugnin certainly received the loudest cheers from the orchestra, but the subtlety and beauty of Tarasevich-Nikolaev’s slow movement was the highlight for me. With another three Mozart Concertos tonight and the 18th/20th Century concertos later in the week, it is a pleasure to explore every musical facet of these fine musicians.

Tickets are still available for all Finals Concerts, which can also be watched free via 5stream as well as being broadcast live on ABC Classic FM.