More thoughts on the Sydney International Piano Competition 2012

More thoughts on SIPCA 2012 from the armchair listener in Singapore:

In a very short space of two days, the quarter-finals (Stage III) of SIPCA have come and gone. Eight pianists have been eliminated, and twelve proceed to the gruelling semi-finals (Stage IV) where a 50 minute recital and chamber music (piano trio) await. Hearing these sessions on the Internet, I had the sense that this year's quarter-finalists were not as strong as four years ago. In 2008, at least seven pianists of the 20 seemed capable of winning, and the strong field had included the likes of Konstantin Shamray (eventual winner), Ran Dank (3rd prize), Tatiana Kolesova (2nd prize), the two Japanese lads Sato and Kitamura, the Italian hottie Mariangela Vacatello and Australia's excellent Hoang Pham. 

This year, only Nikolay Khozyainov had impressed me greatly, for his rock steadiness and seemingly easy way he swept through his extremely taxing repertoire. One experienced piano juror once told me that Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy should never be programmed in a competition because of its outsized demands and propensity for disaster, but Khozyainov took it head on and swallowed it whole. Ditto to his Rachmaninov Op.39 No.1 (yet another √Čtude!) and the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No.1 in Stage II. Is he already waltzing to the top prize? 

More disappointingly, all the Australians have fallen by the wayside with James Guan's non-progression. This is the first time since 1981 that no Ozzie features in the semi-finals at the very least. 

The two specially commissioned set pieces by Anne Boyd and Carl Vine were heard for the first time. 13 pianists picked Boyd's Kabarli Meditation (Dawn), which has far less notes and is a refreshing change from the storm of notes around it. Despite it being a placid depiction of the great Australian outback, it sounded a lot like Japanese music (unsurprising from a student of Peter Sculthorpe). Despite that, both Japanese pianists Atsushi Imada and Tomoaki Yoshida opted for the far louder and more visceral challenge of Vine's Toccatissimo, a work that distils the piano calisthenics found in his sonatas. Given the choice, I would much rather hear the Boyd work again. 

The Chinese still around: Li, Shen, Yu and Zhu

History favours the Russians (and Russian-speaking) or Chinese (including overseas-born Huaqiao) to win SIPCA. The semi-final roster seems to point to that fact again, unless the two Italians Stefano Guarascio and Giulio Biddau and sole Japanese Yoshida have a say about that. There are more Chinese pianists in Stage IV than in 2008 (there were none) but no one seems to stand out from the pack. I cannot really understand the fuss about 17-year-old Jin-Hong Li, who sounded hesitant and unsteady even in his Scriabin Third Sonata in the quarter-finals. Perhaps the jury was more impressed by his potential rather than the actual performances. 

Finally, any listener should be spared the ordeal of hearing another performance as disastrous as one pianist's Rachmaninov Chopin Variations. An acute loss of confidence had led to a series of memory lapses, with each ensuing variation being worse than the last. This train-wreck could have been averted if pianists were allowed to play from a score. This ensures a better performance all round. However such a practice would be considered taboo in a competition, posing an unfair advantage over the others who take the risk of relying completely from memory. Sviatoslav Richter did rather fine with a score, so why this obsession with total and complete memory? Is this a hallowed tradition with pianists that refuses to die?
In the live situation of a concert,  a pianist playing from memory is more aesthetically pleasing (like a tightrope walker without a safety net), but that makes no difference whatsoever when listening to a radio or audio-only Internet. Something to think about. In the meantime, enjoy the semi-finals.