Here I am in Shanghai, attending for my first time its international piano competition, organised by the Centre for China Shanghai International Arts Festival and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. When I first scanned the names of the 42 pianists taking part, there was hardly a name I knew. I learnt that some pianists had won competition prizes elsewhere, but what was their playing really like? 

The competition judges gather: Gary Graffman has some words with Peter Frankl (left), while  Oxana Yablonskaya  gives a television interview (right).

The list of judges was a reassuringly familiar one, headed by Gary Graffman, and flanked by no less than Peter Frankl, Dimitri Bashkirov, Anton Kuerti, Oxana Yablonskaya, Idil Biret and a coterie of Chinese judges who are well known locally. But is that a guarantee that the playing will be good?

By this afternoon, 30 pianists had already been sent home, leaving 12 quarter-finalists, six of whom will feature at each session. Each had to perform a 45 minute programme including a Beethoven sonata. Fair enough, Beethoven has always been epicentre of all piano repertoire requirements, so you aren’t a real pianist unless you play Beethoven. But why exclude the three “easy” sonatas – Op.49 and Op.79? Does not mastery in those miniatures also say something of the pianist?

Tickets to these sessions were free, but one had to apply for them in advance. Fortunately I had earlier written to the organisers, and an envelope of tickets was gratefully received just minutes before the doors opened. The audience soon filled up He Luting Concert Hall at the Conservatory to the brim, occupied overwhelmingly by women of all ages. Where were the men, don’t they care for music too?

The pianist to perform was KONG JIANING (China), who won 6thprize at the Leeds Competition 2009, behind the likes of Sofya Gulyak and Rachel Cheung. A sensitive player, he brought out the contrasts in the first movement of Beethoven’s E minor Sonata(Op.90) very well, the declamatory opening and its fawning reply. In the Schubertian second movement, the singing qualities came out to the fore with warmth and much seamlessness. Only a short lapse of concentration towards the end blotted his copybook.

What was annoying was the presence of one burly cameraman attired in army fatigues who at first partially obstructed the view, and then sat down in front to fiddle with his handphone, the constant illumination from the screen being a tiresome distraction. Thankfully when Kong’s Liszt B minor Sonata began, he had been lulled to a dreamy repose. That’s not to say that the performance was boring. Far from it, Kong opened strongly with a grand statement of the themes and his octave technique was exemplary. While he was an excellent guide through its emotional ups and downs, there were those small slips here and down which might pass in a recital, but in a competition these may be less forgiving.

Next up was TUOMAS KYYHKYNEN (Finland), who had the appearance of a burly Baltic or Russian (a younger version of Volodos, perhaps?). Another sensitive player, but he is one who also had the chops for big moments. Beethoven’s A major Sonata(Op.101) was such a piece, with its retiring first movement theme which unfolded nicely within his hands, contrasted with the second movement’s emphatic march. When the former re-emerged from the depths of the slow movement, it did so with a nice sense of déjà vu, before closing with a heroic fugue, one feature of Beethoven’ s late sonatas.

Next, I was re-acquainted with Howard Blake’s Speech After Long Silence, that marvellous piece of post-Romanticism last heard at the Hong Kong International Piano Competition in 2011 as its “commissioned work”. Kyyhkynen had been one of the participants there, but he did not get far enough to perform it at the finals. But bless him for deeming it worthy to be included here in Shanghai. He did a good job, equal or better than some of the Hong Kong finalists, bringing out its Rachmaninov-like melancholy and tolling bells with much plangent fervour. (A little scandal was that Speech had its world premiere in Shanghai and not Hong Kong, as Blake had originally written it for the 2010 Shanghai Expo and later recycled it verbatim for the Hong Kongcompetition.) Nevertheless, it is still good music, worth listening to over again. He then finished off spectacularly with Liszt’s Vallee d’Obermann, a work that shares similar qualities with Speech, brooding lament followed by extreme ecstasy.

HAO YILEI (China) is a bespectacled young man would normally not stand out in a crowd of Chinese faces, but his playing did. Beginning with Beethoven’s Sonatain A flat major (Op.110), one was struck by his lack of affectation in the simple opening theme, one which he built up beautifully. Even the contrasting country dance of its second movement was taken in the right spirit of Beethoven letting down his hair. The air of seriousness in the slow movement just gave way to the fugue, which he played with much clarity, building arch-like to the arietta’s return and the fugal subject’s inversion. His sense of architecture was faultless as he worked to a brilliant close.

His choice of two contrasting Debussy Preludes from Book Two was also excellent, the utter simplicity of Bruyeres interjected with the clown-like swagger of General Lavine… eccentrique. Then came the final showdown with Liszt’s Dante Sonata and its parade of tritones, piling dissonance and crashing chords. Yet there was no empty bluster in Hao’s conception of the work, which he narrated like an expert story-teller. The journey through the inferno was a harrowing one, with tongues of fire and the screams of the damned portrayed with great immediacy. His technique held up winningly and nary a slip or stumble to be heard. In the tremolo episode, one began to see the light and sense the dawn of hope. It was such a reading that would send a house in raptures. But this being Asia and not Texas, the audience was quietly respectful and undemonstrative in applause. Here is a potential finalist, and to my surprise, he is only sixteen!

The first woman to perform in the quarter-finals was MAKI WIEDERKEHR (Switzerland), possibly of mixed-Japanese descent, who offered Beethoven’s E major Sonata (Op.109). Her androgynous appearance in long pants, instead of the customary dress gown, was a first! Fortunately her playing was not workmanlike, with the sonata’s first movement coming across wistfully and quite beautifully, contrasted with the Prestissimo’s passionate outburst. The Theme and Variations that followed had a feel of stateliness in the theme, and the variations wonderfully crafted. The staccato lightness and busy counterpoint in the first and third variations showed her musicality, before closing with quite sublime thrills.

The choice of Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue to close made her programme a rather austere one when it should not have been the case. The Prelude sounded dead serious in B minor but not without some luminous moments, and the Chorale that followed seemed to drag on for a while. Through the broken chords, the chant-like melody was never lost, and equally well-defined was the final Fugue, where she spun a sonorous web of counterpoint, rock steady to the very end. It was exhausting listening, but satisfying nonetheless. One wonders if it had been better if she started with the Franck and ended with Beethoven.

If there were a prize for ingenious programming, that would go to ZHU WANCHEN(China), who opened his recital with Nikolai Medtner’s Canzona Matinata and Sonata Tragica from the Forgotten MelodiesOp.39.  These companion pieces could not be more different, lyrical with a fantasy of filigree followed by extreme vehemence and violence. His delicate finger-work in the Canzona should only be heard to be believed, while the shockwave of sonorities in the Sonata impressed not because of the sheer volume but by the intelligent way in which he builds up the drama before dealing a final head-blow which the likes of Demidenko and Hamelin might have been proud of.

The tragic key of C minor continued into Beethoven’s Op.10 No.1 Sonata, with its dramatic opening in dotted rhythm, which was delivered with much crispness and incisiveness. The A flat major slow movement provided some respite before closing with a scherzo-like finale which had a playful sense of mischief about it. Speaking of mischief-making, Zhu’s choice of Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles was also an excellent one. Popularised by Stephen Hough, these four character pieces from the 20thcentury pitted the diabolical and grotesque with the dreamy and ghostly, before closing with swashbuckling bravura. Zhu is one pianist I can safely recommend for the next round.     

It was past six in the evening when LIU YILIN (China) took to the platform, and one could be forgiven for satiety and exhaustion by this time. Even Des Abends, the first piece from Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces Op.12, sounded appropriate as its nocturnal theme began to sink in. It was the sheer variety of these characteristic pieces which prevented boredom from setting in. Aufschwung soared, while Warum? probed, and you know the rest. The young lady’s technique held up well for the more difficult numbers such as In Der Nacht, and the vertiginous Traumes Wirren, before the valedictory closing piece. Thankfully, her Beethoven Sonatawas a short one, the same E minor Op.90 that opened the afternoon’s session. If there were some basis for comparison, I would say hers had more colour and contrasts, and coming from tired ears, that’s saying a bit. 

As if tagged on as an encore, Ravel’s Un barque sur l’ocean from Miroirs, provided a most joyous rush of sound. The ripples built up into waves that lapped and tossed the little boat, and never had this piece sounded so freshly spun. The audience had to endure another asinine intrusion as one old lady fiddled endlessly with a polythene bag and binoculars (May I uncharitably add that that bag would have found a perfect fit over her face), but that did little to dampen the beauty that was issuing from the piano.