Semi Finals
Friday (9 November 2012)

Six pianists have been selected for the semi-finals, which consists of a 45 minute programme to include a newly commissioned work and two Richard Strauss lieder, accompanying a soprano. These specific requirements may be performed in any sequence during the allotted time. 

The Chinese composer Wang Jianzhong (right), whose commissioned work Capriccio was performed by the semi-finalists, speaks with Chinese jury member Wu Ying.

The new work was Capriccio by Wang Jianzhong, the venerated Chinese composer and transcriber of such popular standards like Liu Yang River, Calm River in an Autumn Night and Thousand Birds Pay Homage to the Phoenix. It is a pleasant 7-minute scherzo-like piece in sonata form, with a skittish ballabile contrasted with a more lyrical second theme. It does not sound explicitly Chinese, but its predominance of the whole tone scale and use of arpeggios point clearly to Debussy as an influence. Claude-Achille goes to Shanghai perhaps? All the pianists gave competent and even sympathetic accounts, and I would hazard to say that the Chinese pianists do not have a distinct advantage here. Anyway, they were playing to a mostly Western jury, although the composer himself was in attendance in all the rounds. All performed with the score, with the exception of Bruno Vlahek who had the chutzpahof commiting it to memory.

With both pianist and soprano dressed in stunning  red, is this the :Red Detachment of Women"?  The partially obstructing handbag belongs to Oxana Yablonskaya. Ah,... women!

I really do not see the point of having Lieder accompaniment as an essential part of a competition. What if a pianist does not accompany well although the rest of his playing is excellent? Will that militate against his or her inclusion in the finals? Anyway, it gave us all the pleasure of hearing and seeing the very pretty soprano Li Qian, attired in hong bao red, in the varied delights of Richard Strauss’s Cacilie and Morgen!  


The semi-finals opened with HAO YILEI (China), who had impressed with his prodigiousness in the quarter-finals. In my opinion, it was a mistake of his to build a semi-final programme wholly on short pieces. He started with four varied Scarlatti sonatas, and without playing any repeats, gave only a fleeting impression of the pieces. The same applied to the five Scriabin Etudes from Op.8, despite displaying much proficiency in their thorny technical challenges. The fearsome Study in Thirds (Op.8 No.10) completed an impressive showing. The larger pieces were Une barque sur l’ocean and Alborada del gracioso from Ravel’s Miroirs, which provided a wash of colour and rather smooth glissandi.

ZHU WANCHEN(China) clearly has the fingers for Chopin’s First Ballade in G minor (Op.23), but in his efforts to impress by sheer velocity and going for broke, he missed more than a few notes along the way. His view of Schubert’s late Sonata in C minor (D.958) was a very persuasive one, even if it was that of a young person unburdened by the weariness of the world. The tragi-heroic opening resounded with a declamatory salute, contrasted with lyrical Lieder-like moments that portended drama and tragedy. He seems to revel in those vertiginous runs on the right hand, which held no terrors for this speedster. The under-stated beauty of the slow movement however revealed him at his best, a sensitive soul when he chooses to be. The tarantella finale was repetitious (as Schubert’s finales tend to be), but he kept it interesting with a fleet-fingered approach, some nice touches and the sort of humour that best defines Schubert’s music.

The only woman in the semi-finals was LIU YILIN (China), who wisely chose just two Scarlatti sonatas – in F major (K.518) and F minor (K.481) – and without eschewing the repeats. Clean staccato playing, distinguished by clarity and fluidity in the former contrasted well with the sorrow and desolation evoked in the latter. Advantage Liu over Hao. In Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata in A major (Op.82), she gave a surprisingly nuanced performance, balancing a pulverising brute force in the outer movements with lyricism and droll wit of the middle movements. With her, the pauses and silences between passages meant something special. Even the lacerating finale was gradually built up from a calm sotto voce to the final scorching conflagration. It was not guns blazing from the start, and that worked psychologically to perfection. The re-introduction of the first movement’s motif also became a moment to remember. I was about to hail this performance to be the equal of Yuja Wang’s (at the 2010 Singapore International Piano Festival) when a bad stumble near the finish line threatened to derail her earlier sterling efforts.

BRUNO VLAHEK(Croatia) was the first of two non-Chinese semi-finalists to perform. True to his penchant for offbeat repertoire, he opened with Grieg’s 18-minute long Ballade in G minor. Unlike Chopin’s famous number, this is in the theme and variations form, much akin to Mendelssohn’s spectacular Variations Serieuses. The work does plod on for a while, but his playing was always engaging, making each variation count. And there was always something interesting about, the finery of filigree or the jocularity of a folkdance. Grieg even provides a false ending, in an unresolved E flat major chord, a longish pause before closing in the home key. Vlahek worked these to a fine art. After the set-pieces, he closed with the Liszt-Busoni Fantasia on Two Motifs from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. These motifs were, of course, from Non piu andrai and Voi che sapete. It is an exhausting work for both pianist and listener, and by mid-way, he had lost me. The closing was nothing more than a succession of loud notes and cascades, which by this time, had become a bit of a bore. In the words of Emperor Franz Josef to Mozart on one of his operas, I quote, “Too many notes, my friend.”

HENRY KRAMER(USA) appears to be the most confident pianist of the lot, one who is totally comfortable with himself. This showed in his playing here, as in the quarter-final round. Beginning with Chopin’s Fourth Ballade in F minor (Op.52), his reading came close to the perfect conception of this masterpiece, opening with unadorned simplicity and working his way through the variations to a feverish climax. Even in the terrifying coda, absolute clarity and no over-pedalling concluded this moving and probing account. Only in a piano competition will one get to hear two performances of Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata in the same afternoon. It is a wearying piece but in Kramer’s hands, all the contrasts came out very well. He packed in more savage power than the slender Liu, but had his own moment of insecurity in the first movement. He captured well the paradox that is Prokofiev, brutality and sentimentality to equal degree. The finale was encapsulated not by a binding onslaught of loud notes, but mystery and menace, which in my opinion is a far more potent force. 

The final semi-finalist was JIN WENBIN (China) who began his solos with the eight Fantasiestucke (Op.12) by Schumann. For me he is the pianist who expresses the greatest joy and wonderment in his playing. Everything comes across as fresh and unhackneyed, as he has always something interesting to convey, even in the most familiar of pieces. The full gamut of feelings and expressions were gratefully realised in these pieces, from the gentle lyricism of Des Abends to the dizzying delights of Traumes Wirren. Being devastatingly accurate was just part of the story, the whimsy and intimacy offered were far more valuable qualities. To round off a totally musical outing was Liszt’s rather vulgar transcription of the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust. In his view, it sounds positively joyous as his flying fingers took it into the realm of fantasy. There is a section for ad-libbing, which he reciprocated with the most magical of scales and the most even and gentlest trilling of a nightingale.  

I have two rather obvious standouts for finalist status: HENRY KRAMER and JIN WENBIN. The third final spot ought go to either LIU YILIN or ZHU WANCHEN. The jury must have read my mind as they opted for as their top three:

With no Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky or Brahms concertos figuring in the finals on Sunday, it looks like it is going to be a rather short evening. 

Pianomaniacs unite! The world's greatest piano competition buff Dr Gustav Alink meets with Singapore's most rabid piano competition buff.