★★★★★ Three more finalists do battle with stunning Mozart concerti, and we see the first piano change of the finals.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
July 20, 2016

In the last concert of SIPCA’s 18th Century Concerto round, the second group of finalists showed off their Mozarts in another exciting concert. Kazakh pianist Oxana Schevchenko opened proceedings on the Fazioli with Mozart’s penultimate piano concerto, No 26 in D Major K.537, nicknamed “Coronation.”

Schevchenko held her arms during the tutti, absorbing the orchestra’s music, swaying and responding to musical contours with a smile or lift of her eyebrow. She dove into the solo with fluid motions and mouthed along to the notes of the bright second subject. Compared with her first performance in the competition, almost two weeks ago, Schevchenko seemed less at ease on the stage, and some of her turns felt slightly brittle. Nonetheless, there were moments of soul-shredding beauty in her performance as she poured her whole body into each phrase. Mozart left no cadenzas for this concerto – in fact, he wrote this work strictly for his own use and much of the manuscript is sketched in shorthand, which later editors and performers have had to flesh out. Schevchenko’s cadenza in the first movement was tinged with Romantic gravitas without being overly heavy. Her second movement was sweetly simple – the cadenza delicate – and the third movement rollicked along with lilting melodies, elegantly spun runs and a playful, crystalline cadenza.

Chinese pianist Moye Chen is incredibly likeable to watch and of all the finalists he seemed to achieve the greatest synergy with the orchestra. He was also the only finalist to spurn the Fazioli piano, choosing instead the Shigeru Kawaii. He strode onto the stage with a nod and smile for ensemble and audience, clasping his hands as he listened to the tutti of Mozart’s Concerto No 27 in B Flat K.595, and he almost seemed to be restraining himself from playing along. He dispatched the first solo lines with an easy elegance – grinning at some phrases and frowning at others. He visibly relished mischievous duets with the flute and his cadenza combined breakneck virtuosity with silences milked for maximum drama. His second movement was clean and unhurried while the finale barrelled along joyously, piano lines echoed in the orchestra like a sympathetic vibration. If he seemed to skate over some of the deeper emotions in this concerto, it’s hard to argue with his masterful technique and obvious joy in performance – he looked like he was genuinely having a blast.

With the Fazioli back on stage, the last finalist Jianing Kong, from China, performed Mozart’s Concerto No 21, K.467 – the so-called “Elvira Madigan”. Kong is an electric player. Perhaps too electric in the opening – he came in hot on the piano’s first solo lines, straining at the orchestra’s tempo and dragging it forward. His performance was characterised by a brilliant, unrelenting energy and a flexible, deft athleticism. His first movement cadenza (Mozart’s were lost) played on the motif that suggests the famous opening theme of the Symphony No 40, K.550. Kong leant back on the stool in the second movement, letting the melody soar, his pianissimos beautifully soft and refined before sparks flew from the keyboard in the finale.

This concert saw three fascinatingly rich personalities brought to bear on Mozart. Each player had something very unique and thrilling to offer, be it the depth of emotion, performative joy or firecracker technique. Their 19th/20th Century Concertos are bound to be spectacular and the jury will no doubt have its work cut out.

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.