★★★★★ The finalists show off their Romantic chops in the 19th/20th Century Concerto Rounds.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
July 22 & 23

We are well and truly at the pointy end of the competition now and the level of piano playing is spectacular.

The first concert of the 19th/20th Century Concerto round began with the Fazioli piano on stage. American pianist Kenneth Broberg unfurled the fantasy opening of Saint-Saëns’ Bach-meets-cabaret Piano Concerto No 2 with his head almost touching the wood of the piano. He dispatched runs charmingly, brought out delicate melodies with taste and skill and his accents with the orchestra and conductor Nicholas Milton were marvellously synchronised. Broberg used his whole body in flourishes – with forehead to the piano in the in moments and the recoil of cadences flinging his hands behind his head – but maintained a concentrated focus. His second movement was clean and crisp, Broberg polishing the shine and reflection of Saint-Saëns’ disco-ball piano figurations. The delicate final notes were beautifully placed. The manic tarantella of the Presto was frenzied, Broberg’s hands and arms rolling forwards, his gestures matching those of the strings in perfect sympathy and his body angled forward as if to launch into the piano. His turbulent cadenza passages were excellent and the descending lines of piano and horns demonstrated both deft ensemble and musical consensus with the orchestra. As Broberg took his bow, smiling with hand over heart, he definitely looked pleased.

Russian pianist Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto saw the Steinway and Sons piano take the stage for the first time in the finals. Tarasevich-Nikolaev, sitting relaxed but upright, radiated stillness as he navigated the crescendo of the concerto’s dark opening chords. The Rachmaninoff isn’t as overtly showy as the Saint-Saëns – it’s almost a duet for piano and orchestra, a duet in which both players are vast, powerful partners. Tarasevich-Nikolaev attacked the incredibly dense piano writing with vigour, his hair flicking back on the accents, leaning in close to play with the orchestra’s bass pizzicato, rocking back and forward in the climaxes and his hands jumping off the keys. The Russian pianist embraced the piano line’s accompaniment figures, a slight smile on his face as he supported solos from flute and clarinet in the second movement. Tarasevich-Nikolaev and Milton paced the build-ups exquisitely before moving straight on to the finale, with its dark pools and whirling eddies. The work is an incredible physical challenge and after the final cadence, Tarasevich-Nikolaev bowed with a smile that looked equal parts relief and exhaustion.

Andrey Gugnin, also on Steinway, brought a wiry athleticism to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3. In stark contrast to the Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninoff, this concerto is angular and biting, and a complex work for a performer to unpack. Gugnin’s performance was stunning. He drew out musical lines and jolting syncopations, his tone glittering in the high register as he clawed one hand over the other. The second movement in this concerto seems to anticipate Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, written only a few years after. Both to watch and to listen Gugnin brought a huge amount of personality to this performance, playing arm over arm in the final, creeping along to anxious cries from the winds and letting sweeping melodies sing out over the concert hall. By the end, Gugnin looked exhausted, but a surprised smile touched his lips when he heard the audience roar.

For these pianists, the work is over. A competition like this requires the kind of discipline and focus that falls somewhere between ascetic monk and Olympic athlete, so this will be the first time in weeks they can really unwind, the result now out of their hands.

On the final night of the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia, there were only three more players left to perform their concertos with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra before the winner was crowned.

Kazakh pianist Oxana Shevchenko was free from any of the tension that seemed to plague her performance in the 18th Century Concerto Round, bobbing along as the tempo built after the opening clarinet lines of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. Energy and grace imbued her performance as she threw her weight into the heavy chords on the Steinway, jumping off the seat and slamming down bass notes with a violent deliberation. Flicks of melody arced through her body and her high register duet with piccolo glittered and shone. Her performance focussed less on the spiky angularity of the work than Andrey Gugnin’s had the night before, instead drawing smooth lines from the music. The final flourish of the first movement was dispatched with such drama that the audience broke into spontaneous applause. Soloist, orchestra and audience then had an interminable wait as a seemingly endless stream of late-comers were allowed into the hall. Shevchenko sat with head bowed while concertmaster Dene Olding stared daggers.

The second movement once again demonstrated Shevchenko’s dynamic range, her ability to make the piano whisper and roar – her tranquil accompaniment of horn and shimmering strings weaving magic and her heavy accents played with confident force. The final movement saw creeping chromatic passages, gentle cascades and warm duetting with the cello section, Shevchenko making the piano sing in the powerful, soaring melodies.

Moye Chen took the stage with his characteristic cool swagger, his only nod to the high pressure a slight adjustment of his clothing and a quick rub of his hands together before embarking on the ominous chords that open Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 2 on the Shigeru Kawaii. His bass thundered but Chen also showed himself capable of sparkling lightness. The balance is challenging in this work, and Chen wasn’t quite able to hold his own against the thick orchestral writing in the first movement. The ensemble was also less tight than it had been in Chen’s performance of the Mozart, some accents not quite landing together. That said, there was no denying the joy he took in the music, pacing the accelerando of the final movement with such drama that the audience once again broke into excited applause – and again the performance was put on hold while people were allowed into the hall, Chen patiently mopping his forehead.

The twisting melodies of the second movement were eerie and Chen’s climax with the cellos moving. In the cadenza his sense of dramatic timing was immaculate, pushing the silences to their limit and letting the piano’s resonance fade into nothing. Expressive from the stool, he couldn’t help conducting the clarinet solo and waved the orchestra on into the finale.

For his Romantic concerto, Chinese pianist Jianing Kong chose Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto, a mammoth work of four movements clocking in at around 40 minutes. While Chen took the pressure in his stride, Kong seemed completely oblivious to it. He comes across as both supremely relaxed and hyper-alert onstage. The electricity he brought to the Mozart was evident here but combined with a fearsome power that he brought to bear on the heavy Brahms. Kong’s bass notes exploded with force and precision on the Fazioli – his playing typified by an almost supernatural clarity in all registers and at all volumes. His feather-light cascades and dramatic accents were all incredibly detailed, he produced trickles of glistening sound and tore up and down the keyboard, the music pouring out of him. As with Shevchenko and Chen’s performance, the first movement was followed by an agonising pause in which ushers escorted more people into the hall. By this time the audience was shifting furiously and there was much dark muttering as the latecomers took their seats. Kong seemed unfazed, however, and his second movement was impassioned, the Fazioli’s bass an easy match for the sound of the orchestra. In the third movement, Kong laid out a shining path for the cello solo to tread and his finale felt like chamber music on a massive scale. The length of the Brahms alone makes it challenging, but Kong brought a studied intensity and high level of drama and detail to the work – and yet the fatigue barely showed when he took his bow.

Regardless of the result, the six finalists have displayed an incredible array of music personalities and style, and there is no doubt we will be hearing from them all in the future.


The broadcast final concert of the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia is available on the ABC Classic FM website.