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Leeds International Piano Competition entry #10: My Top Ten Moments

Terribly sorry for the long due post to conclude my small project of following the Leeds, but I’ve been very busy since the finale of this grand competition, and now I’ve finally got some time to write about it!

Firstly, a long due congratulations to the prize winners: Eric Lu, Mario Häring and Xinyuan Wang, getting first, second and third prize respectively. Well-deserved and fairly given out, in my opinion. To be very honest, when Eric finally stepped on stage (him being the last competitor) and played Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, everyone knew he was going to win. The amount of applause he received at the end was indicative enough, and I think the 20-year-old has really stunned the world with his musicianship. Bravo, Eric!

Now, to conclude my journey with the Leeds, I would like to present to you my favourite moments (or performances) in the competition. Since I didn’t have time to watch ALL the performances, this list is only based on the ones that I have heard, and you will notice that I am listing individual performances, and not whole concert programmes. I understand that a performer’s mentality can greatly fluctuate during a performance (as we have seen in Aljoša’s semifinal performance) or that some pieces in the same programme are just less suited to the performer than others, which is what normally happens in competitions where you are encouraged to show your diversity, and so I would like to restore justice to some individual performances that really shone and inspired.

You’ll notice that I didn’t include any chamber performances, nor concerto performances in my list. That’s because I actually found them less impressive than the solo performances–at least not impressive enough to make it to the top ten! I’ve also recalled candidates who didn’t make it into the semi finals, but whom I thought were really inspiring in their performances too. RIP.

When I listen to a performance, I decide whether it’s good by how engaging it is. If my mind starts wandering, I know that the performer hasn’t got my attention, and it is seldom my fault that I’m not focused on the performance. But what really makes a performance special is when it inspires you to listen to the piece again afterwards, and even try to learn it. In this competition I’ve experienced moments like this, and so here’s a list of those top ten:

10. Xinyuan Wang playing Bartok’s Piano Sonata, sz. 80

Now I must be frank. I am not a big fan of Xinyuan Wang’s playing. I think he goes over the top with expression sometimes, and makes quite a lot of mistakes. However, his performance of Bartok’s sonata in the second round really stood out, and in my opinion, redeemed him from the slightly dull performance of Schumann’s Humoreske before that. His rhythmic power was really engaging, and he was fearless in playing at breakneck speed. One thing I also really like about his playing is that he looks for hidden voices in the music and attempts to bring them out, giving me fresh perspectives on the music, and it worked well here in the Bartok. And how can one forget his cute bows!

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Xinyuan Wang after his second round performance 🙂

https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/second-round-with-xinyuan-wang/

9. Evelyne Berezovsky playing Scriabin’s Fantasie in B Minor, op. 28

This was back when I first heard Scriabin’s wonderful fantasy. I’ve fallen in love with it ever since, and I have Evelyne to thank. Her performance of this Scriabin work in the first round–in fact, her whole first round performance–was one of great virtuosity and power. It’s one of those pieces that really suited Evelyne’s style, I think. She may not show much in terms of facial expression, but her passion is definitely conveyed through her playing.

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https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-evelyne-berezovsky/

8. Jean-Sélim Abdelmoula playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, op. 110

It’s been a while since I heard the name, since Jean-Sélim was unfortunately not chosen as one of the semifinalists, which I thought was a shame, since he was such a good pianist. His performance of Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata really captured me for some reason. He was so attentive to his playing, and it was so clear and articulate you just couldn’t help being drawn in. I especially loved the fugue at the end of the sonata. Even though it’s been a while since I’ve heard this performance, it really stuck to my mind.

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Jean-Sélim Abdelmoula high on Beethoven

https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-jean-s%C3%A9lim-abdelmoula/

7. Florian Caroubi playing Debussy’s Images, Book II, L. 111

Sometimes I think the French are the best interpreters of their own music.

I was very surprised when I heard that Florian didn’t get the semifinals of the Leeds. He was one of my favourite pianists in the First Round! His playing of Images by Debussy–his national pride–was so sensitive and conjured such a beautiful picture I had to listen to it again. Sometimes I think the French are the best interpreters of their own music. I really want to learn that piece now, which is what I mean when I say that great performances make you want to learn the pieces yourself! Well done to Florian: he really left quite an impression on me in his first round performance.

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A French pianist playing French music is what I like

https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-florian-caroubi-/

6. Fuko Ishii playing Brahms’ 4 Klavierstücke, op. 119

I absolutely loved Fuko Ishii’s first round performance, especially her final choice, Brahms’ 4 Piano Pieces that he wrote near the end of his life. Fuko played them with such depth and contemplation it was difficult not to be moved by her performance. She took the first Intermezzo slower than normal, but its melancholic tone really hit me, and she played the final Rhapsody with such great power and intensity my heart pounded alongside it in excitement. She really took me on a rollercoaster with her performance.

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https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-fuko-ishii/

5. Evelyne Berezovsky playing Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus: Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus

Yes, Evelyne made it on to the list again! Evelyne is one of those pianists who, when she is really in her element or the music really suits her, can deliver an astounding performance. Unfortunately, the downside is that her style doesn’t suit all the pieces she plays. For example, I find her performance of Chopin’s Fantasie or Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata a bit incoherent and spontaneous. However, her performance of the 15th piece in Messiaen’s gigantic Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, which she played in the second round, was quite something else. It was the first time I’ve heard the piece, and knowing Messiaen, I was ready for some weird, atonal chords that I’d probably have to listen hundreds of times before getting familiar with it. So I was rather taken aback when I fell in love with the piece straight away, and aspired to learn it. Evelyne’s rendition painted such a starry scene, such a tender picture I almost fell in love with her. To be fair, I do have a slight crush on her, what with her pretty hair, pretty face and unique style of playing. I’ll just confess it right here, and we shall never speak of it again.

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The dazzlingly beautiful Evelyne Berezovsky

https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/second-round-with-evelyne-berezovsky/

4. Eric Lu playing Chopin’s Ballade No. 4, op. 52

I think by now it is quite unanimous that Eric is the champion of Chopin in this year’s Leeds Competition. In general, his playing is amazing and flawless, but when it comes to Chopin, he really brings you to a different realm. Chopin’s 4th ballade is one of my favourite works by the composer, and Eric just played it so beautifully in the second round I don’t really know what else to say. Nevertheless, the ballade being so famous for its beauty, I HAVE heard other even better versions of it. However, Eric, being only 20 himself, played it with maturity that finds no equal in his years.

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Will Eric be the new Krystian Zimerman?

https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/second-round-with-eric-lu/

3. Mario Häring playing Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in F Major, k. 332

In third place, we have Mario Häring playing an iconic sonata by Mozart in the –the one in F major! Let me just say, Mario is a quietly brilliant pianist. He didn’t choose anything ridiculously difficult to play, but his performances all shine with a unique brilliance. His Mozart simply sparkled! What really struck me about this performance was how much he was able to catch my attention with a Mozart–a Mozart! I’m not a great fan of Mozart, but his performance of this sonata made me a fan. He didn’t make Mozart look easy, he made it brilliant. If Mario was Trump, he would surely “make Mozart great again”. Alright, I’ll stop. But I have to stress how impressed I was by this performance, and by Mario’s other performances such as his Prokofiev sonatas. He also seems like a nice guy too, always carrying a light smile with him. Well done, Mario, and well-deserved of that second prize!

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Zoom in for Mario’s charming smile

https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/second-round-with-mario-h%C3%A4ring/

2. Aljoša Jurinić playing Chopin’s 12 Etudes, op. 25

This monumental feat of Aljoša’s simply HAD to be listed in the top ten moments of the Leeds. Not only is this an act of pianistic bravery, Aljoša’s performance in the semifinal round also made it a memorable inspiration. Although, as mentioned before in my one of my earlier posts, Aljoša slipped in the Winter Wind etude and didn’t really recover from it, much credit has to be given to his performance of all twelve Chopin etudes. He showed me that even the most technical of Chopin could be seen and played in a musical way, and the wide palette of colours he used to paint all twelve etudes deserves great recognition. Moreover, he was very good at looking for hidden voices in Chopin’s multi-layered writings, and renewed my fascination and love for these musical gems.

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Aljoša still able to enjoy himself despite actively demolishing his fingers with Chopin’s etudes

https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/semi-final-with-aljo%C5%A1a-jurini%C4%87-/

1. Eric Lu playing Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, op. 35

Never again did he reach such heights in the Leeds. Nor did anyone.

Undoubtedly, the most magical moment in the Leeds for me–and probably for a lot of people–was Eric’s performance of Chopin’s Second Sonata in his semifinal performance. It was during the third movement that he delivered his magical sermon in the form of the Funeral March, and everyone listening to it held their breaths. It was Eric’s defining moment in the competition; it was when he told us what he was capable of being. It is such moments where you think the Muses have descended upon us, and we have witnessed artistic enlightenment come from another realm, a realm unknown. In my opinion, this was the peak of Eric’s playing in the competition. Never again did he reach such heights in the Leeds. Nor did anyone.

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Eric at his most intense, his most passionate.

https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/semi-final-with-eric-lu/

And there you go: my top ten moments of the Leeds! What a wonderful experience as an audience! I hope one day that I can be one of the candidates on stage.

And here I will conclude my little summer project of following the Leeds in my blog. It has been a great experience for me as well. I’ve learnt to listen to music more critically, reflected on what makes a good performance, and taken a lot of inspiration from these amazing musicians.

People who believe that classical music is dying is wrong. Never has classical music gained such a wide audience. With the internet, recording technology and live broadcast platforms such as medici.tv, you can literally watch a performance anywhere. We can listen to Bach when we feel meditative, or Wagner when we feel passionate or want some epicness in our lives, simply by plugging in our headphones or putting on a CD. At what point in history was people able to do that?

It is indeed great that classical music can be enjoyed by so many people, but that also means being a musician becomes a very competitive industry. But is that always a good thing? When so many people want to be pianists, all they care about is winning competitions, or playing the hardest pieces there can be found, because these are standards that can be measured. But then we might lose sight of what we really enjoy in music. The reason art, or music, prevails is because it means something different to each and every person. To allow the pursuit of making a career in music to take that from you would be a very sad and ironic thing.

People always say in their instagram bio: The creative adult is the child who never grew up or something along those lines, and I think there is some truth to it in music as well. Those who really flourish as the greatest of pianists never did it because they wanted a career out of playing piano. They did it because they retained that genuine love for music they probably had as a child. That doesn’t mean they never changed in the way they viewed music. I think that to sustain that genuine love for music requires constant redefinition of what music means. Only through constantly contemplating and keeping an open mind about music are we able to sustain our love for music, and trust me, you will never exhaust its resources. As Rachmaninoff famously said: “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

I am constantly discovering new interesting things about music that I’ve heard a thousand times, or falling in love with music that I hated a year ago, or discovering new music I never expected to like (many times in the Leeds competition, in fact!) and I think that’s what’s so great about music.

The best musicians are all-round artists. They are not people who are confined by music, but are people who, through music, discovered similarities in other art forms, and try to bring them together. This endless creative process opens endless paths for classical music to resurface in and enrich the modern world, and I am so excited about this.

I guess what I really want to say in conclusion to my series of blogposts following the Leeds Piano Competition, is that never let other people define what music is to you.

See for yourself.

Thank you for following my blog. More posts and projects to come soon! Please keep supporting!

 

Jeremy

 

 

 

Leeds International Piano Competition entry #9: What do you do when your nail comes off halfway through a performance?

So the first night of the Leeds Finals happened last night. I went to bed at 8:30pm and got up at 2 just to watch it, feeling all excited, but frankly, I was a bit disappointed.

Hear me out. I don’t think the pianist’s lack of flair or musicality is the only factor when I say the performances of the finals didn’t live up to my expectations. This year the Leeds have a new rule for the finals: candidates must choose TWO concertos from two lists A and B. List A contains mainly Baroque and Classical concertos, while List B contains the Romantic and 20th-century concertos, i.e. the epic ones. Still, the lists give candidates a pretty limited choice. Traditional “competition” concertos such as Rachmaninoff’s second or third concerto, or Tchaikovsky’s first are missing. What’s more: the judges choose what you play, which means you have to have two concertos on standby, and even though you might prefer one over the other, you might not get to play the favourable one.

I guess it really gives the finalists the ultimate challenge, having to memorize two concertos and be equally suited to both styles, but it also means they will never know whether they would’ve done better had they been given the choice themselves.

When the spotlight shines on you on stage, you’re not being judged for where you come from, whether your personality is likeable or how much work you’ve put in. The music produced in that moment is all that matters. It can be a good thing, but it can also be a harsh truth.

The first night of the Leeds Finals opened with Aljoša Jurinić playing Mozart’s C Minor k. 491. Now I really like the concerto; in fact, it may be my favourite piano concerto by Mozart, and Aljoša played it quite decently, but there just wasn’t much to captivate me, and after a while I got a bit bored. Since there’s not much technical flair in classical concertos as compared to the epic ones from the 19th and 20th century, I think they pose a greater challenge to pianists than the larger scaled ones. Even the medici.tv hostess for the night, Noriko Ogawa–a former prizewinner of the Leeds–said herself she wondered if Aljoša would’ve done better had he been given the opportunity to play his other choice, Prokofiev’s second piano concerto, rather than the Mozart. I guess we’ll never know, and that’s one of the many challenges and surprises of this competition. Still, well played to Aljoša. His musicianship has brought him so far, and now it’s up to the judges to decide his fate.

Next up was Anna Geniushene with Prokofiev’s third concerto. I don’t know how many people noticed, but while watching a close-up of her hands during the second movement, I saw that half her pinky nail of her right hand had come off! I’ve got evidence right here! I can’t imagine what was going through her mind then. Here she was playing possibly one of the most demanding piano concertos in the standard repertoire, with more than a movement to go, and half her nail has just peeled off. I was so scared for her. I would’ve panicked so hard. Somehow that issue disappeared with the beginning of the third movement, as I didn’t see it anymore, but one would wonder whether this took a toll on her playing, because Anna did make quite a few mistakes.

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I didn’t really enjoy the performance, because I felt like Anna was rushing and her playing was quite lacking in sentiment. To me, it seems like she kind of just ploughed through the melodic and emotional bits, especially in the middle of the third movement, which was a shame, since I really enjoyed those bits when listening to recordings of this concerto. But what really put me off was that the pianist and the orchestra were constantly out of sync. I understand that this is a very difficult concerto for both orchestra and soloist, and even more difficult when put together, especially with limited practice time, but I also think occasional slips in the first movement made Anna nervous, so when things started to get out of hand, she just panicked and made things worse by rushing. The ending of the concerto, which is usually the climax of the whole thing, was quite a blunder in this performance that I felt bad for Anna.

Mario Häring’s performance of Beethoven’s first piano concerto was actually the best of the three. His phrases were well thought-out and very delicate, and he really paid a lot of attention to the orchestra. He played the second movement in a very lyrical way, and I thought the third movement was quite exciting. But I have to admit, I am not the biggest fan of Beethoven’s first concerto. I find it too repetitive and slightly tedious, so I kind of lost interest for a bit and didn’t pay much attention. I’m sorry!!!

Anyway, I don’t want to take credit away from any of these pianists. They have worked so hard for this competition, and this competition has been nothing but brutal to them, so hats off to them for being such amazing, enduring musicians. The fact that all the pianists accepted into the quarterfinals of this competition have the capacity to play such repertoire simply amazes me. But the hard fact is also that each performance stands on its own. When the spotlight shines on you on stage, you’re not being judged for where you come from, whether your personality is likeable or how much work you’ve put in. The music produced in that moment is all that matters. It can be a good thing, but it can also be a harsh truth.

Finally, tonight we’re going to hear Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, both of which I am a great fan of, and I’m looking forward to watching the prize-giving ceremony and voting for the medici.tv audience prize!

 

 

 

Leeds International Piano Competition entry #8: The Magic of Eric Lu

I love Eric Lu.

I think I first came across Eric when he played in the Chopin Competition around four years back. He got 4th prize, and he was only 17 then. Now, at the age of 20, he has come back to grace the stage in Leeds with his presence, bringing with him his passion for Chopin.

Chopin’s works are in almost every single one of his performances in the Leeds. I know he was going to play the composer’s Second Piano Concerto in the final round, but since all candidates of the Leeds must put forth two concertos for the final round, the jury decided he should play Beethoven’s Fourth instead. No complaints from me.

I don’t think his playing is the most mature I’ve heard in the competition. For maturity I would look to the likes of Florian Caroubi (who unfortunately didn’t make it to the semis), Mario Haring, or perhaps Aljosa Jurinic. Yet his playing is extremely sincere, and at his most sincere, he brings me closer to Chopin’s music than I’ve ever felt.

What I like about Eric is his complete lack of pretense. He does not rely on any form of showing-off. All he cares about is playing the music he loves. None of the repertoire he chooses is incredibly difficult, yet his performance draws me in all the same. And it shows on his face when he performs. Most of the time his eyes are closed, and I know all he cares about is concentrating in the moment, not about how he or his playing comes across.

The first Chopin piece he played in the competition is Chopin’s Barcarolle, which I mentioned in my review of the first round. It shows us that beneath that serene, child-like expression lies a great depth of subtle passion and sensitivity. He then played Chopin’s Fourth Ballade in the second round. The Ballade has long been one of my favourite pieces by the composer, and Eric really did it justice. He told an amazing story with his fingers, taking the audience in by developing the plot slowly. One moment we are listening to an exquisite melody, the next we are brought to heaven, and then suddenly we are plunged into the ferocious and passionate coda that concludes the Ballade, and Eric does all this without us noticing any change at all.

But it is his performance of Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata in the semifinal round that really was an otherworldly experience for me, particularly the third movement–the famous Funeral March.

If not magic, then I don’t know what else could explain how his playing left me spellbound through the screen, half a globe away.

The Funeral March has never been an exciting point of the Sonata for me, that’s because it really isn’t. Yes, the harmony is ominous and the melody of the contrasting middle section is beautiful, but the truth is it’s nowhere near as technically exciting as the other three movements. But what I loved most about Eric’s performance was precisely the Funeral March. When he got to the middle section in D flat major, I literally stopped everything I was doing and just watched the screen. It was mesmerizing. I know this sounds stupid, but his playing was so beautiful I wanted to cry, and I couldn’t figure out why (of course I didn’t cry, I’m a MAN!). I always thought that humans must go through tragedy or great suffering to produce beautiful art, and when Eric played I wondered what the 20-year-old could have possibly gone through to play something like that. Maybe this is what artistic genius is. You can convey the experience just as well without having experienced it. Eric’s face is so calm (okay, maybe twitching and contorting a bit, but all pianists do that) and yet his playing speaks a completely different story.

Afterwards, the hostess of medici.tv Lucy Parham spoke my thoughts when she said that Eric’s performance silenced everyone in the hall, enough so that you could hear a pin drop, and not one of the judges wrote anything down during that time. If not magic, then I don’t know what else could explain how his playing left me spellbound through the screen, half a globe away. And to know that I could experience this magical moment again simply by watching the replay, as if this magic transcends time, is quite something. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for the audience in the hall at the time.

Maybe you’d think I’m exaggerating a bit, and maybe I really am, but the thing is, it’s hard to put music into words, because music describes precisely what cannot be put into words. At least, I think the music of Chopin does.

Do check out Eric’s wonderful semifinal performance here and listen for yourselves: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/semi-final-with-eric-lu/ 

He’s also going to be closing the competition with his performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto on Saturday night. I don’t know any concerto that would suit him more (except for the Chopin Concertos, perhaps).

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Eric Lu in his element

Photo source: medici.tv

Leeds International Piano Competition entry #7: Aljoša’s fall from grace

I think it’s true when people say that classical musicians are only the medium between composers and their music. Ultimately a pianist doesn’t own the music he plays, even if he composed it himself. I could say that I like Horowitz playing Rachmaninoff rather than Rachmaninoff playing Rachmaninoff. Strangely, this seems to echo with religious doctrines, which teach you not to attach yourself to worldly things because they are temporary, but look instead to God, or enlightenment, or whatever. Similarly, don’t believe whatever the pianist plays you–they only provide interpretations. The truth lies in the music and the music alone.

I say this because Aljoša Jurinić’s semi final performance at the Leeds really got me thinking. By now you should’ve realised that I am being over-the title and the comparison with religion. Yes, I am over-dramatic. But so is classical music, sometimes.

The Leeds is a very brutal competition, and it only gets worse as you progress through the rounds. For the semi finals, you’re required to submit two different programmes, A and B. Both have to be around 1.5 hours each, consisting of chamber music and a select list of works after 1980 that are practically impossible to memorise. So you have to be prepared to play three hours’ worth of music, have the stamina to play half of that non-stop, and to make sure you know all of them from memory (except for the chamber music). This is where they separate the fit from the fittest.

I was elated (again, being overly dramatic) to be able to catch at least one live performance, because living in Hong Kong means Western culture only comes alive when you’re asleep. Watching the competition live is so much more exciting because you know it’s happening at the same time halfway across the world; you’re sharing a moment with them and the distance of half a globe can’t stop you (I am so dramatic I love it).

For his semi final round, Aljoša Jurinić from Croatia presented the Schubert variations by Lachenmann, the complete op. 25 Etüdes of Chopin and Dvorak’s piano quintet. Now that is a hell of a challenge!

Playing all twelve etudes of Chopin’s op. 25 set in one go is no easy feat; in fact, I think it’s one of the most suicidal things you can do in a piano competition. Yet, having been a finalist of the recent Chopin competition, I guess Aljoša was confident in his ability.

All was well until the eleventh etude, the notorious “Winter Wind”. When I say well I mean brilliant. Aljoša’s playing was creative and colourful and all the synonyms you can ascribe to a performance. I wonder if it was the matter of time constraint or personal preference, but Aljoša refused to stop between each etudes, not even taking a tiny breathing break. And so, by the time he had finished the horrendous octave etude no. 10, he looked pretty spent.

It is so easy to slip and be swept away by the blizzard of semiquavers in the Winter Wind. Aljoša, losing his concentration for a split second, fell into the abyss. For five seconds he had a memory lapse, during which he tried to regain his footing but ultimately had to begin again a few bars back. That moment was disastrous enough to make the audience realize the pianist himself was confused by the confusion of notes, and one could imagine the whirlwind in his mind as he attempted to regain control of his fingers. It was a moment in which we all held our breath, because we didn’t want this brilliant young man to fall from grace.

Sadly, even though he recovered and finished the set to tremendous applause, even the host of Medici.tv noted that Aljoša could not return to his previous state before the accident. To make it worse, his Dvorak piano quintet was not great; not only did it not live up to the standards of his Chopin performance, it was also dotted with mistakes (disappointing considering how technically easy the quintet is compared to the etudes) and when he finally finished his complete performance the Croatian could barely muster a smile.

The applause he was given was not without a touch of sympathy.

Following a pianist as he progresses through the rounds, you start rooting for them, and it’s tragic when one slip can easily eradicate all hard work put in before the competition. Especially when it concerns someone as good as Aljoša. I just want to say again: his performance of Chopin’s op. 25 etudes were magical.

Luckily for us the judges, being way more experienced musicians, are able to see past this slip and search for the potential behind Aljoša’s playing, and they have decided to let him into the final round. I really hope he can play the C Minor Mozart Concerto with the same amount of flair and beauty as he did the Chopin etudes.

Still, this made me realize (being over-dramatic again now) that we as human beings can never be superior to music, even if we are the ones who brought it into being.

I strongly encourage you to watch Aljoša’s semi-final performance, available through medici.tv here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/semi-final-with-aljo%C5%A1a-jurini%C4%87-/ 

Leeds International Piano Competition entry #6: Round 1 Final Post

Group 5

Alexia Mouza (Greece/ Venezuela)

Tamila Salimdjanova (Uzbekistan)

Yoonji Kim (South Korea)

Xinyuan Yang (China)

Alexia Mouza, 28

alexia mouza

Instead of performing Bach or Scarlatti, Alexia Mouza from Greece made the unorthodox choice of presenting Couperin’s Les roseaux in B minor as her Baroque piece-of-choice. I must confess, I’m not really familiar with the composer. Upon a bit of research, I found that he was a French Baroque composer who lived around Bach’s time. I realize that in piano competitions nowadays, pianists rarely go beyond Bach or Scarlatti, and often their music is the limit of the layman’s knowledge of Baroque music, and so we are restricted to thinking that Baroque means serious and contrapuntal music. I think it’s a good thing that nowadays there is a revived interest in ancient music and the “authentic performance”, but still, would one actively seek out an all-Rameau concert played on the harpsichord if one knows nothing about that type of music and can only associate that sort of music to monks and churches?

Couperin’s music is quite different from Bach’s. It is full of ornamentation (literally everywhere), courtly and elegant. Despite all the ornamentation (trills, turns and all that fingerwork) Alexia maintained the melodic line, and even added some rubato to flaunt her elegance. I liked her playing, and I liked how her performance of this French composer showed that the Baroque period was actually a very diverse period, even for the piano.

Haydn’s Sonata in C Major Hob. XVI: 50 has turned out to be quite a popular choice among competitors this year. I like the sonata, but when you’ve heard it so many times, your expectations tend to go higher and higher. I thought the tempo Alexia chose for the first movement was a bit too steady and the tone was a bit too serious. In my opinion, it is very difficult to get to mood right for the first movement. However, I enjoyed her playing of the second movement a lot. It was lovely.

Like Mario Haring, Alexia chose to close her programme with Prokofiev’s Third Sonata. Her performance was very intense and fast, but unfortunately there were a few wrong notes and, being familiar with the piece, I noticed it, and it kind of took away something for me. If I had to compare Mario’s performance to hers, I would choose Mario’s.

Listen to Alexia’s first round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-alexia-mouza/

Tamila Salimdjanova, 26

tamila salimdjanova

So here’s a Haydn sonata I’ve not heard of, and hasn’t been played in the competition (yet!). It is his sonata in C minor, Hob. XVI: 20. Listening to it for the first time, it sounded like a very exposing piece, like the D major one Fuko Ishii played (which I really, really liked). There weren’t many notes, and a lot of pauses in between. Tamila played with a steady rhythm and a very sensitive touch, but frankly I thought it was a touch dull, especially the second movement. I wasn’t quite a fan of the performance, if you ask me.

Next up were two of Rachmaninoff’s Moments Musicaux. I realized the MMs are quite popular in this competition, as you’ll see later on. Tamila’s tone was deep in Rachmaninoff’s 5th MM, and it sounded very warm, but like Salih’s performance, I guess I just didn’t find much in the music. I’m not a big fan of the MM5.

But the MM4! That I really like. Technically, it is a very demanding piece, requiring not only great dexterity but also great power. This is why a lot of people choose this piece as a showcase piece. Tamila wasn’t very powerful in her playing, but what she lacked in power she made up with her great lyricism. For her, it was as if the music was flowing. She didn’t care about the chords or the semiquavers; what she cared about was how the semiquavers accumulate into a torrent of passion. For her it was about the emotions barely containable in the music, and I felt it in her playing. It was very unique.

I look forward to seeing what she has to offer in her performance of Liszt’s immense Sonata in B minor in the second round.

Listen to Tamila’s first round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-tamila-salimdjanova/

Yoonji Kim, 29

yoonji kim

Another Haydn C Major Sonata and Scriabin Fantasie! I have heard both pieces played in the competition quite a few times now, and I wondered what Yoonji Kim could bring to leave an impression.

Like Alexia, I thought Yoonji’s performance of Haydn’s first movement wasn’t very interesting or lively. Yes, her tone was crystal clear and her rhythm was impeccable, but her playing seemed calculated and not all that improvisatory, lacking in the whimsical nature I find present in a lot of Haydn’s music. She also seemed a bit rigid. Nevertheless, one has to give her credit for her extremely articulate touch; it really is something.

Yet her second movement was beautiful. It seems that people whose performance of the first movement I didn’t like tend to nail the second movement! I wonder why. Maybe it’s the contrasting moods of the two movements that are more suitable to one type of people and not the other, but there, I’m generalizing. I just think it’s very easy to make Haydn a dull thing to listen to if one does not capture his witty and whimsical spirit. Especially when so many people play the same Haydn sonata.

On the other hand, Yoonji’s performance of the Scriabin Fantasie was very interesting. Yoonji seemed to caress the melody in a tender way rather than with intense emotion, as I’ve heard some others play it. Her playing was more flowing, but sometimes her chords tend to become a bit messy and at times I was at a loss as to where the music was heading .

What really surprised me about Yoonji’s playing was that despite her small and slim stature, her playing was incredibly powerful, and her fingers seemed to be made of stone as she stabbed (seems an inappropriate word to describe it but what else can I use to depict the powerful way they land?) at the keys. It was quite an overwhelming experience to listen to her performance of Scriabin, and I think she deserved the applause and cheering she received at the end. It also made me think that the Scriabin Fantasie really does give the pianist a lot of things to work on.

Listen to Yoonji’s first round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-yoonji-kim/

Xinyuan Yang, 23

xinyuan yang

In my opinion, not many people put emphasis on the classical pieces they chose for their first round programme. Mainly these are sonatas by Haydn or Beethoven, but Xinyuan Yang chose to pair up a rather hefty Mozart sonata (No. 17 in B flat Major, which added up to around 17 minutes) with a six-minute Brahms intermezzo in his first round performance.

Xinyuan was very delicate and very expressive in his playing. His Mozart was really captivating, I don’t really know what it is, but go and have a listen. Also, his face is so cute! He’s so chubby, and when he squints in his expressiveness, you only see two slits on a round and red face. It’s literally like a Chinese bun! Sorry, but I couldn’t help noticing it haha. Anyway, I loved his Mozart sonata a lot, and I loved how much he loved the sonata as well.

The Brahms intermezzo, his last one from his op. 118 set too, was quite something as well. The ominous tone of the piece is immediately detectable with the opening diminished arpeggios. Xinyuan played it so quietly, yet he made you strain to hear rather than lose interest in the music. I think one would almost describe his playing as “electrifying” in a silent, intense sort of way. Although he didn’t choose anything that which shows technical formidability–nothing like a Liszt Tarantella or a Prokofiev sonata–he certainly convinced me that it doesn’t always take amazing technique to pull you into a performance.

That being said, I look forward to hearing him play big works like Schumann’s Humoresque and Bartok’s Sonata in the second round!

Listen to Xinyuan’s first round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-xinyuan-wang/

Screen Shot 2018-09-06 at 8.08.58 AM
Isn’t he cute??

Photo source: https://www.leedspiano.com/2018-competition/#competitors and medici.tv

 

 

Leeds International Piano Competition Entry #4: Mid-week Muse

A blog post I recently read about individualism of musicians really struck a chord within me (pun intended). Written by Hong Kong pianist Stephen Hung–who, coincidentally, shares the same former piano teacher with me–muses on the idea of being “individual” in the world of music. The Chinese word 自我 literally translates into “self-me”, so one can imagine being “individual” here also involves a certain extent of narcissism and showing off. Modern society encourages us to be “individuals”, and yet when you start becoming different people often comment that you are “showing off”. Is being “different”, or being “individual”, an equivalent of showing off? This is why we often see artists behaving in eccentric ways. A thin line divides showing off and being individual, and yet with time it reveals itself either by enduring the test of time or being dismissed as superficial, fading into forgotten history.

Forgive me if I go on tangents, but I think this kind of relates to what I thought when I was reviewing the performances of the Leeds competitors. Why do some performances keep my riveted, while I itch to go on Facebook watching others? People often say that “charisma” and “personality” constitute a brilliant performance, but there seems to be a missing link between personality and performance. Does that mean artists have an inherent personality required to perform brilliantly? Often when one is fully immersed in something, one does not detach himself from the thing to analyze why he is enjoying it, just as it is very difficult to describe what it feels like to be in love when one is in love. Analyzing or criticising something means you are past the point of enjoying it. Still, since I have given myself the task of writing about performance–which in itself is quite an unnatural thing, since I must put what cannot be put into words, into words–this is what I must do, and I do that by detaching myself from boring performances to muse on such a subject.

Stephen suggests that it is very difficult to conscientiously portray one’s personality, to purposefully show off one’s “individualism”. He likens this to trying to make a cup of water look like a cup of water. When one tries hard to be something, one usually fails in doing so. In the Leeds, every performance is technically perfect and each performer shows that they are expressing something. So what makes some interesting and some boring?

Stephen goes on to say that although humans may do the same things–in this case, they all play the piano, and most played pieces that have been performed countless times–we are inherently different in our thoughts and values. What makes us “individual” are these intangible forces that cannot be easily described, but at moments of great artistry, shows forth through our artistic craft. And when such moments happen, it touches everyone who is there to experience it. Quoting a parable by Zhuang Zi in his blog post, Stephen states that it isn’t easy to bring out such individualism, especially when this “individualism” is labelled by others thus subjecting one to all the other thoughts in society. Maybe this is why rare moments of artistic individualism touch us and make its mark in our minds.

Sometimes I think music is similar to literature. As an English Literature student, I try to use Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as an example. Reading Jane Eyre as a child, one would probably see it as a love story where the lady never gives up on her belief in true love. One would therefore be surprised to know that some read Jane Eyre as a work that could provoke a political rebellion, or compared it to position of imperialists. Similarly, while some regard Brahms’ Second Symphony as a triumphant and joyful work, Brahms himself said of it as an intensely melancholic symphony. Yet all of these are technical. What about expression in music and literature?

In reading literature, one could find consolation in the fact that intense feelings that one feels have been felt by someone somewhere down the line of history, and through that one can find expression one’s feelings, which is why I think people like to quote song lyrics or poems as their Instagram captions. I often find beautiful passages in books which I copy onto my notebook. In Alan Bennett’s words, spoken through Hector from his play The History Boys:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something–a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things–which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”  (That is a beautiful passage I copied onto my notebook!)

Similarly, I think music is a medium for the artist to express himself or herself. Some may advocate the idea that one should “respect the score and the composer”, but I think that is only to refine the means of expressing oneself, as well as reaching a higher degree of understanding of this means of expression. Everyone has a unique individuality that can either be brought out or suppressed. To bring it out results in freedom, to suppress it would be cruel.

And so, those who find expression in the repertoire they’ve chosen find a way to reveal their “individualism”, a term behind which is a myriad of thoughts and experiences and cultural roots that cannot be put into words. When put in that way, how can we say that a written score restricts the expression of an artist, or that a pianist’s performance is merely “humourous” or “melancholic” or “filled with mirth”?

I will link Stephen Hung’s blog post here for those who can read Chinese: http://www.gooclasshk.com/archives/8856

This was originally going to be an introductory paragraph to my next entry lol. What I’m trying to say is, this is simply a train of thought that I have put together in a more coherent way, so I welcome and respect any opinion or comments!

 

glenngould
 This is a photo of Glenn Gould, an example of a very “individual” artist which Stephen used in his blog. His recordings are characterized by his singing along with the music. 

Leeds International Piano Competition Entry #3: Round 1 (still)

GROUP 3

Anna Geniushene (Russia)

Salih Can Gevrek (Turkey)

Yilei Hao (China)

Mario Häring (Germany)

 

Anna Geniushene, 27

anna geniushene

Your profile picture doesn’t look bad, why do you have to dress like a grandmother? Sorry, that was my first thought when I saw Anna’s concert dress. For her first round, Anna Geniushene presented Clementi’s Sonata No. 5 in F sharp Minor, op. 25 and Schumann’s 3 Fantasiestücke, op. 111.

I don’t really have much to comment on Anna’s performance of the Clementi. She really put a lot of effort in it, and was very expressive, but I thought the Clementi was slightly over the top with expression. The slow movement did her justice, and her fingerwork was brilliant in handling the last movement, but as I said, I thought it was a bit over the top.

The Schumann, however, really suited her style. She really showed the turbulence of the music. One second it is soft and tender, the next it is flowing with passion. I especially liked Anna’s rendition of the final Fantasy piece. After that, I downloaded an album of a youngster on iTunes playing the same piece, and it just didn’t have the same kind of emotion wracked into it, and that’s when I knew Anna’s performance of the Schumann really cut it for me.

Anna will be playing Brahms’ Ballades op. 10 and Bartok’s notorious Piano Sonata in the second round. Gotta love the alliteration in the programme. I hope she plays with as much contrast as the programme promises (I’m sure she will!).

Listen to Anna’s first round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-anna-geniushene/

Salih Can Gevrek, 26

salih can gevrek

Seeing him sitting at the piano, one could already observe that Salih Can Gevrek is a calm and calculated man. He wasn’t here to fling his head into the piano, but he WOULD deliver the passion when the music calls for it (and SPOILER ALERT: he does in the Rachmaninoff!).

Salih started off with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 20 from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, but in no way did he bring the audience back to the Baroque period. Under his fingers, the prelude and fugue sounded fresh, unfamiliar, improvisatory and even eerie. He showed how chromatic Bach’s music could be, and although it wasn’t dissonant music, it was definitely not familiar C major territory. The stop-starting subject of the fugue had a strikingly different character to the more mellow prelude, and Salih showed it clearly. The fugue kept me on the edge of my seat from the beginning to the abrupt end in A major. Needless to say, I was very impressed.

I was surprised that Salih chose to play Chopin’s Variations Brillante, op. 12, in the Leeds. I don’t think I’ve seen many people choose this as a competition piece; in fact, this rare gem by young Chopin is rarely performed nowadays. Having played it myself in a competition, I found it really satisfying to perform since it ended with a great flourish. Salih really kept the light character of the piece as he played, bringing out inner voices whenever there was the opportunity, but to him the piece seemed like a piece of cake. It was a great performance, but after hearing it from a professional pianist, I seemed to feel less satisfied by the piece. Maybe there is a reason it’s not Chopin’s most loved pieces. Maybe I liked it before because it was so challenging–and definitely not a piece of cake–to me. I wonder…

To close his act, Salih chose three of Rachmaninoff’s op. 16 Moments Musicaux set: no. 2, 5 and 6. He was very economical in his use of the pedal, which I thought was very nice, especially since it made what he was playing very clear. No, he didn’t hide behind the texture; he made himself as vulnerable as if he was playing Mozart. His show-closing piece, Rachmaninoff’s sixth and final Moment musical, put at rest any doubts about him as a virtuoso. At times it seemed he was playing with six hands and yet he managed to play with such clarity!

I look forward to hearing Salih play Bach’s majestic Partita in E Minor, as well as some of Rachmaninoff’s op. 32 preludes, the composers of which I believe he has now established as his trademark go-to’s, in the second round.

Listen to Salih’s first round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-salih-can-gevrek/ 

Here’s me performing Chopin’s Variations Brillante (plus his etude op. 25 no. 5 in E Minor) back when Chopin definitely was not a piece of cake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9pVA6nMfTU

Yilei Hao, 21

yilei hao

At the mere age of 21, Yilei Hao looked…so old! Honestly he could pass as a young Chinese professor in his thirties, but not a kid barely older than me!

In this performance, Yilei presented two very contrasting sonatas: Haydn’s Piano Sonata in G major, Hob. XVI: 6 and Scriabin’s Tenth Sonata, op. 70.

I have never seen someone with such poised fingers! While he was playing, his fingers were poised high in the air like the tail of a scorpion about to sting the ivory keys, and I cringed not only knowing how much effort it would be for me to remain in that finger position for 25 minutes, but also hearing him stab at the piano during mellow passages in the Haydn.

Honestly, Haydn was boring so I don’t have much to say about it. I went on Facebook.

Scriabin was more interesting. The Sonata is known for its tremendous amount of tremolos and trills (sorry couldn’t help alliterating!) and great complexity. Yilei’s technique was impeccable–he could trill with any finger–and so Scriabin was delivered in a convincing manner.

Yet, as you can tell from my short review, he has failed to impress me.

Listen to Yilei’s first round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-yilei-hao/

Mario Häring, 28

mario haring

Like Yilei Hao, Mario Häring offers up two contrasting sonatas in his first round: Beethoven’s 6th Piano Sonata, op. 10 no. 2 and Prokofiev’s Third Piano Sonata. Both sonatas written in the respective composer’s youth, one can imagine the amount of energy required to play them back to back, and Mario offers just that in his playing.

His Beethoven was so full of contrasts, and played with youthful vigour. Mario was daring in his tempo, and so involved with the music one would dismiss a wrong note with a flick of the wrist like a posho. Mario showed off his technique in the third movement of the Beethoven, playing the imitative music at breakneck speed. He emanates intensity with his playing, unlike Salih Can Gevrek, who played in a calmer manner. Yet I was equally transfixed by both.

Mario’s performance of the Prokofiev was also fresh and exhilarating. Having learned the sonata myself a while back, I’m quite familiar with its difficulties, but I was surprised at the way Mario saw the music. Above the driving rhythm with its tempestuous character that permeated the one-movement sonata, Mario let a humourous melody break through the registers here and there, wittingly alternating with the tempers of the lower register. I was really taken aback, but I absolutely loved it. Now that I think about it, it did seem that the sonata kept a light-hearted tone somewhat despite all of the brash chords, and I’m glad Mario highlighted that for me. Also, the sonata is such a great way to end a performance.

It seems like Mario is a fan of early Prokofiev, as he will be playing the composer’s second Piano Sonata, along with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F, k. 332 and Kapustin’s Concert Etude, op. 40 no. 1, in the second round. I look forward!

Listen to Mario’s first round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-mario-h%C3%A4ring/

Photo source: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/candidates/

 

Leeds International Piano Competition Entry #2: Round 1

After my first entry on the Leeds Piano Competition, an avid reader of my blog (my dad actually) suggested to me that I should take into account the quality of sound I get from the laptop I use, which is why from now on I vow to refrain from listening to the performances on the Lenovo laptop I use at work. I will only use my Macbook to listen to them. It definitely provides better sound quality. On to my next entry then:

GROUP 2

Florian Caroubi (France)

Yuchong Wu (China)

Jean-Selim Abdelmoula (Switzerland)

Evelyne Berezovsky (United Kingdom)

 

Florian Caroubi, 28

florian caroubi

I must say, when I first saw Florian Caroubi’s programme for the First Round, I was very excited. A Frenchman playing French repertoire is not to be missed, but then again, they always include French works in their programme…I’m not sure why I’m excited. I guess it’s because I love watching the French play their own stuff.

For his First Round, Florian played Haydn’s Andante and Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII: 6 and Debussy’s Images: Book II. I’ve grown to appreciate Haydn’s Andante and Variations. Although I’ve always been an “Allegro-over-Andante” person, the steady pulse of the theme in the Haydn has really grown on me and I feel like underneath it lies a sense of excitement. I know this sounds weird, but Florian’s playing really made me nerves tingle with excitement. I’m sure he knows that feeling too. His perfect rhythm, the clear and crisp touch made it all the more apparent that he knows what he is doing. Haydn keeps his surprising character even in this seemingly straightforward piece. Florian makes everything before 7:15 sound like a build-up; he certainly knows how to keep his audience on their toes. This is a performance well done, but if I want to compare this performance to a steak, then it is medium rare.

But I shouldn’t compare Florian’s performance of the Haydn variations to steak. It is merely a starter which gave the audience a taste of what Florian can deliver as a performer. His Debussy was the essence of his First Round performance. As he plays the opening bars of Cloches a travers les feuilles (Bells through the leaves), his playing transforms him from a courtly gentleman to a monk who meditates in stillness while his surroundings flow past him like water. He transported the audience into a surreal, dream-like state, and made us fall in love with Debussy’s music, even through our laptops. Everything was subtly passionate; it was wonderful. In the last piece Poisson d’or (Golden fish) Florian showed me a tapestry of voices from different layers, weaving them seamlessly together. I wouldn’t even call the way he handled all the semiquavers technical brilliance; he simply flowed with the music, his fingers dipping here and there, wherever the sound demanded.

I felt a subtle exhilaration after the performance, and I can’t wait to hear more of Florian Caroubi. He will be playing Liszt’s Sposalizio in the Second Round, which I have never heard of, and–oh my god!–Schumann’s Carnaval, one of the pieces I’ve been looping lately. Now I really can’t wait.

Listen to Florian’s First Round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-florian-caroubi-/

Yuchong Wu, 22

yuchong wu

At around 28 minutes, Yuchong Wu’s First Round performance tops it as the longest performance I’ve heard so far. Although it isn’t the most interesting performance I’ve heard so far, it was nevertheless very decent. For his first round, Yuchong presented the fifth French Suite of Bach, Chopin’s Third Scherzo and Gounod’s Waltz from “Faust”, arranged by Liszt.

Yuchong played the Bach perfectly, and I liked how he played it in a simple way with a clear sound; Bach played simple brings forth its beauty. He seemed to enjoy it, humming the melody (I could see his mouth move) as he played, and that was enough to keep the music interesting to listen to. I especially liked the Gigue, which he played dexterously whilst never forgetting to lend each voice its significance.

Switching to the more tumultuous Chopin after Bach was no problem for him. I thought the Chopin was well-played but I don’t have much to comment about it, except that I liked the hesitant mood he conveyed somewhere around 17:00, and I liked the way he did rubato in the fast and agitated coda.

I think Yuchong added the Gounod-Liszt Waltz into his programme merely to show off his technique. Maybe it’s his wow factor. I didn’t find much of the piece interesting, but I have to say, the ending was pulled off with spectacular brilliance. I wish he was more exhilarated himself.

Listen to Yuchong’s First Round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-yuchong-wu/

Jean-Selim Abdelmoula, 27

jean selim abdelmoula

Before I begin to review Jean-Selim Abdelmoula’s performance, I must note that he looks nothing like his profile picture on the competition website. In fact, I think he looks better from the replay! This seems to happen a lot with classical musicians though, I wonder why…maybe they’d like to preserve their youth in their public photos, or that they simply don’t care about their looks unless people do their make-up for them…

From the way he sits, the way he dresses, the haircut he has and the glasses he chooses to wear, you can tell Jean-Selim Abdelmoula is a humble person. And it shows through in his humble playing. But when I say that he plays with humility I mean he treats each piece with great respect, whether it be a five-minute Scarlatti or a twenty-minute Beethoven, and I admire this respect a lot.

For his first round, Jean-Selim presented Scarlatti’s Sonata in F Minor, K. 481 and Beethoven’s 31st Piano Sonata in A Flat Major, op. 110. Not only are they contrasting in period–one being from the baroque and the other from the late Classical pushing onto the Romantic period–they are also of contrasting length; the Scarlatti is one of the earliest examples of the sonata form, whereas the Beethoven challenges the form’s conventions and extends it into an epic creation. Yet Jean-Selim places equal weight on both pieces; the way his face contorts as he relishes Scarlatti is similar to the way he enjoys the Beethoven. Whether it be a piece from the Romantic or Baroque period, his playing shows that he doesn’t believe one should deserve less emotional attention than the other.

What really captured me in his performance was that for Jean-Selim, everything in the music was important; everything had a reason; every note and rest deserved attention. This was why I felt that the Scarlatti was just as significant in the programme as the Beethoven.

Jean-Selim’s performance was quite flawless, but I never really noticed how virtuosic he was because he never made a point of showing it. He simply flowed seamlessly from minims to semiquavers as the music required. It was only at points such as the second movement of the Beethoven that I noticed how fast his fingers moved. From the way his jowls shook when he played, he was definitely very emotionally involved with the music, yet he was never rushed in his playing, and I think there’s something very attractive, encapsulating about it, something similar to the way girls find quietly intelligent boys attractive.

What unique and attractive interpretations can arise when one finds and attaches a value that is personal to oneself in a musical work! I look forward to hearing Jean-Selim’s interpretation of Janacek and Schubert in the second round.

Listen to Jean-Selim’s First Round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-jean-s%C3%A9lim-abdelmoula/ 

Evelyne Berezovsky, 27

evelyne berezovsky

After seeing Jean-Selim play in his all-black attire and bookish glasses, Evelyne Berezovsky was a great contrast. In the world of classical music, you’re pretty much considered edgy if you’re not wearing either an all-black dress or a dress of one colour only. And so, Evelyne, with her short-sleeved dress that was black from the waist down and white with dots from the waist up, together with a beaded bracelet on her left wrist, was basically bohemian.

If the Nike training app had a finger workout, Evelyne’s First Round programme would definitely be high up in the “Advanced” category. Opening with Scarlatti’s K212 A Major Sonata, the semiquavers became double notes and octaves as Evelyne continued with Liszt’s notoriously difficult Paganini Etude No. 6 in A Minor, which then morphed into the monster of an etude that is Scriabin’s op. 42 no. 5 in C Sharp Minor. Evelyne left the longest and most passionate for the last: Scriabin’s Fantasie in B Minor, op. 28.

In contrast to Jean-Selim, who also opened with a Scarlatti, Evelyne seemed to play hers with indifference. That doesn’t mean her playing didn’t glitter, because it certainly did. Her face gave away nothing, as if she was letting the music speak for itself. This, I feel, shows a great sense of the self-assurance of her own virtuosity, an inner confidence that allows her to let her intuition flow through her fingers onto the keyboard. Impressive and mesmerizing in a very unique way.

Another thing that I thought separated her from other people who chose to include technical showpieces into their programme was that she didn’t care about showing off. Despite all the semiquavers in the upper register in the Paganini etude, Evelyne was constantly bringing out the theme or the bass, while showing the semiquavers for what they are: flamboyant decorations. This is also true for the Scriabin etude. Her strong bass octaves were so satisfying because they really increased the emotional intensity to another level for me. It’s exactly why I love this particular Scriabin etude: it’s virtuosic, but its virtuosity is used to generate the passion.

Evelyne’s performance is the first time I’ve heard Scriabin’s Fantasie. For me, one thing about Scriabin is that it’s very easy to lose track of the melody and become confused by the mass of notes and swells and all that “avant-garde”-ness. But Evelyne paid close attention to the melodic lines even amidst the jumble of notes and gave the whole thing meaning and coherence that is so crucial to the build-up to 17:26. And oh man, when you get to that B major bit (which is 17:26) it is soooo satisfying! Please go and have a listen and I’m sure you’ll be impressed.

Evelyne will be playing Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 (my fave!) and Rachmaninoff’s second sonata (glorious!) and another piece by Messiaen (something about Jesus) and I can’t wait!

Listen to Evelyne’s First Round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-evelyne-berezovsky/

Screenshot (1)
Dotty dress and beaded bracelet–isn’t she cool?

 

Photo source: https://www.leedspiano.com/ and https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/

 

Leeds International Piano Competition Entry #1: Round 1

The first round was held internationally in three different venues: Berlin’s University of Arts, Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Music Conservatory and New York’s DiMenna Center. Competitors only played for 25 minutes (yup, that’s considered short), and had to offer a programme which included pieces from the baroque/classical AND romantic/20th century periods. Listening to the 24 participants who got into the second round, I categorized them into six groups of four competitors each, and for each entry, I will review one group. They are not ordered in any specific way, but randomly chosen.

GROUP 1

Eric Lu (USA)

Fuko Ishii (Japan)

Jinhyung Park (South Korea)

Yuanfan Yang (United Kingdom)

 

Eric Lu, 20

eric lu

I’ve heard of Eric before. I watched him play in the Chopin Piano Competition online three years ago, and was pretty impressed by his playing, so I was excited when I saw him on the list of the Leeds. What really shocked me was that he’s only a year older than me, so I had to swallow my own ego while I watched him gracefully work miracles on the piano.

For his first round, he chose Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 330, and Chopin’s Barcarolle, op. 60. A pretty bold choice, since both pieces really expose the performer. They aren’t technically showy piece, but they are gems for the piano repertoire, and to make them shine the performer must polish them perfectly and not be afraid to show them in their entirety. Eric is very brave in putting his faith on these two pieces.

His Mozart had an innocent quality, almost as if a child had played it, except a child would definitely not have managed this sonata with such ease. I especially liked the way he played the first movement, probably because I am most familiar with it. His lightheartedness really showed through in his playing, making a listener feel lighthearted as well, and I wonder how he’s able to feel that way under such pressure. Although he plays the sonata with ease, he never loses his concentration; I could tell from the way his playing captured my attention. Normally, any easy piece would bore me quickly, but Eric’s playing really did make me marvel at the delight of Mozart, I feeling I frequently forget after hearing his stuff played in shopping malls and elevators all the time. I especially admire the improvisatory way he played it, as if he was Mozart improv-composing his new sonata.

Any seasoned piano player will know the difficulty in pulling off a brilliant performance of Chopin’s Barcarolle. People have often talked about how hard it is to evoke the lilting quality in the left hand that pervades the entire piece. Honestly, the starting tempo Eric chose was a tad bit too fast for me, and I didn’t really feel the lilt, but he makes it up with the way his right hand sings the melody. It was beautiful. I especially loved the tense moment when the music goes really quiet, at around 18:40, like the calm before the storm. Overall, I thought the Barcarolle was very nicely done, but the ending could be even more dramatic. Chopin’s Barcarolle is one of my favourite pieces by the composer, and I have high expectations for any performance of it. Eric has delivered a decent performance, but it isn’t the best performance of the Barcarolle that I’ve heard.

Despite my criticisms, I think Eric definitely delivered a convincing First Round performance, and I look forward to hearing him play my favourite Chopin piece in the Second Round–his fourth ballade.

Listen to Eric’s First Round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-eric-lu/

Fuko Ishii, 27

fuko ishii

She might be small in size and stature, but Fuko Ishii certainly delivered a powerful and dramatic First Round performance! Her choice of repertoire includes Haydn’s Piano Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI: 42 and Brahms’ 4 Klavierstücke (Piano Pieces), op. 119. I’m not too familiar with Haydn’s sonata, but the set of pieces by Brahms is arguably my favourite set among all the Klavierstücke sets by the composer.

Fuko’s performance of the Haydn sonata was an absolute delight. She produced a wide range of colours with her touch, jumping from extreme delicacy to dramatic surprise without a moment’s notice; very characteristic of Haydn indeed. I feel like she was aware of how much more the modern piano can bring to sonatas from the Classical period, which were originally written for the fortepiano, an instrument that is restrictive in its sound and quality compared to its modern successor. She never lost any of the creative and improvisatory flourish that is so essential to playing Haydn, especially when the first movement only recycles a couple of the same chords, adding embellishment to each return. She also fully demonstrated her virtuosity in the Assai vivace second movement, closing the short but delightful sonata with a humourous touch. I’m quite tempted to learn it now.

Brahms’ op. 119 is the composer’s final composition for the solo piano, completed only four years before his death, so naturally piano teachers would say one has to be “very mature and experienced” to evoke the essence of it *imitates posh tone*. They’re not wrong though. For me, the last piece–the Rhapsody–has always been the most exciting, and I love the way Brahms plays around with the rhythm of the melody in the third Intermezzo, but Fuko showed what a beautiful piece the first Intermezzo can be. She played it slower than most recordings I’ve heard, and each chord was so carefully fondled in a way that I heard the melancholic tone of the Intermezzo in a way I’ve never heard before. Also, her interpretation of the middle E major section in the second Intermezzo–around 11:45–was a fresh one. Rather than being a warm embrace, it felt like a reminiscence of good times, and the touch of melancholy certainly lingered despite the warm tone of E major; I really liked that.

Bravo to Fuko! I look forward to hearing her rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 22 and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze in the Second Round, both of which are not staple competition pieces but I’m sure she’ll bring something good for the audience to remember.

Listen to Fuko’s First Round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-fuko-ishii/

Jinhyung Park, 22

jinhyung park

In recent years, South Korea has risen to be a great threat in the world of classical music competitions. Some memorable figures for me would be Yeol Eum Son, who won Silver in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, and Seong Jin Cho, who won Gold in the last Chopin Competition.

For his First Round, Jinhyung Park performed three pieces: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 24 in F sharp Major, op. 78, Chopin’s Nocturne in C Minor, op. 48 No. 1 and Liszt’s Tarantella, S. 162. Beethoven’s 24th sonata is one of his two-movement sonatas, alongside the likes of his op. 79 Sonatine and op. 90 (which I adore). The melody of the first movement is beautiful in its simplicity and the second movement is quirky and humourous in its dramatic changes between fortissimo’s and pianissimo’s. Frankly, I think Jinhyung was a bit too serious in his rendition of this piece for my liking. He added too much pedal and rubato in the first movement instead of letting its simplicity show forth. In the second movement he was careful in creating the changes in dynamics and tone, but I think a bit too careful that he wasn’t able to evoke the humour I believe demanded from the piece.

His sombreness suited the next piece in line, though. The Chopin Nocturne, I believe, is very melancholic, and Jinhyung’s slow take on the beginning really worked. However, when he got to the doppio movimento part, or the recap, his playing was flowing, but the intensity of feeling didn’t really come through, at least not through my laptop speakers, so I can’t say the Chopin Nocturne left too deep an impression in me.

After his performance of Liszt’s Tarantella, there should be no question about Jinhyung’s technical brilliance. No repeated notes, octaves or leaps was daunting to him. His fingers are nimble and so quick even the high resolution of the camera couldn’t follow it, and his full command of the Tarantella’s difficulty made the ending all the more exciting. Nevertheless, I think Jinhyung put far too much effort in crafting the melody of the middle section (which begins at around 16:03); rather, I think the beauty of the melody should come from the effortlessness with which it is played, together with the dazzling ornamentations in the high registers that embellish it. Something similar to the melody of Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase.

All in all, Jinhyung’s performance was decent, but apart from his technical brilliance, nothing struck me as particularly special. Hopefully Tchaikovsky’s Dumka and Chopin’s infamous Third Piano Sonata will suit him better in the Second Round.

Listen to Jinhyung’s First Round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-jinhyung-park/

Yuanfan Yang, 21

yuanfan yang

Having gone to the finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016, Yuanfan Yang has taken a step up onto the international stage with the Leeds Piano Competition, and as one of the youngest competitors, he’s doing pretty well for himself! With a different twist, Yuanfan takes us back in time, starting with Granados and concluding with Haydn.

Enrique Granados’ El Amory La Muerte is the fifth piece from his famous piano suite Goyescas, which was inspired by the paintings of Francisco Goya. Admittedly, this is the first time I’ve heard it, and it was quite unexpected for me. Dissonant and improvisatory, it didn’t sound very Spanish-y to be, what with their rich melodies and luscious harmonies, if you understand what I mean. Despite its technical demands, Yuanfan played it with relative ease, but that’s about as much as I can note from that performance.

Following that was the first piece of Ravel’s piano suite MiriorsNoctuelles. Despite this being by a French composer, I don’t think it created such a huge contrast from the Spanish piece that preceded it, and I’d say it wasn’t the best choice for Yuanfan’s programme. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the unique harmonies of Ravel, and I’m sure I only enjoyed it because Yuanfan enjoyed it just as much. Once more, this is the first time I’ve heard the piece, and it got more and more interesting as I listened.

I thought Haydn’s Fantasia in C didn’t sound interesting when Yuanfan started playing, but gradually I started to see where he was going at, and by the end of it I think it was the most striking piece in his programme, and he definitely made the right decision of ending his First Round performance with this. To me, it sounded like a perpetual argument between the bass clef and treble clef in different keys, and when I saw it that way, it started becoming interesting and fun to listen, especially when Yuanfan was really attentive to the changes of key, as if it came not only as a surprise to me, but to him as well.

I must say, my impression of this young pianist at the end really differed from what it began with. I’m also very intrigued by his choice of Second Round repertoire: Beethoven’s Sonata in G, op. 31 No. 1, Chopin’s Berceuse and Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on Bach.

Listen to Yuanfan’s First Round performance here: https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/first-round-with-yuanfan-yang/

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Photo source: https://www.leedspiano.com/ and https://leedspiano2018.medici.tv/replay/