Classical Music


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There were ten semi-finalists and then three finalists at the Honens Piano Competition in Calgary. Last night, in the Bella Concert Hall at the Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts, Mount Royal University, the three surviving contestants played Mozart and Schubert in the first of two evenings to decide the winner. Each pianist was required to play one of the lesser Mozart concertos with a string quintet, then accompany a singer in a set of three Schubert Lieder. Tonight, in the concluding concert they will each play a big Romantic concerto with the Calgary Philharmonic.

American pianist Rachel Breen led off the evening playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major K. 414 with the Viano String Quartet and bassist Sam Loeck. But before a note was played Breen had annoyed the audience by endlessly fussing with her piano bench. First she lowered it then she raised it. Then she had the bench removed and replaced with another one. But it was found wanting too and required more raising and lowering. Finally, we heard some music. And it wasn’t very good. This was faceless Mozart playing. Then came more Glenn Gouldian histrionics with Breen conducting with her left hand when it was not required on the keyboard.

The finalists had to choose one or other of a set of three Schubert songs. Breen choose a group which included Gretchen am Spinnrade, Nacht und Träume, and Die junge Nonne. Again, we heard more routine piano accompaniments. Unfortunately, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó did not sound at all comfortable with her assignment.

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After a short intermission, another American pianist, Sasha Kasman Laude, took the stage to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 in E flat major K. 449. Almost immediately it became clear that Laude had a far better grasp of what is required in Mozart. There was more energy in the playing and much more rubato in the phrasing. Laude chose the same Schubert group as Breen and again brought much more character to her accompaniments.

But the best playing of the evening was without a doubt by the Ukrainian Illia Ovcharenko. Like Breen Ovcharenko played Mozart’s K. 414 but in his hands it was like a different piece. There was joy in the playing, sparkle in the runs, and brilliance in the cadenzas. Ovcharenko also caught the playfulness of the last movement far better than Breen.

Then came the Schubert. Ovcharenko chose a different set of songs: Die Forelle, Du Bist die Ruh and Der Erkönig. In each of these songs one marvelled at what Ovcharenko was doing. One hardly needed a text to imagine trout leaping out of the water in Die Forelle, and a more thrilling Erlkönig one could hardly imagine. And Krisztina Szabó had not sounded this good all night. Apparently, the chemistry between Szabó and Ovcharenko brought out the best in her. Ovcharenko is already an exceptional artist and clearly has the inside track heading into the final phase of the competition.

Throughout the evening the Viano String Quartet, co-winners at the 2019 Banff International String Quartet Competition, and bass Sam Loeck were exemplary partners for the three finalists in the Mozart concertos. And a special shout-out for bassist Sam Loeck, principal bassist of the Calgary Philharmonic. This was world-class bass playing. I have not heard anything like it for years. This young man produces just about the most beautiful sound I have ever heard from a string bass, he has remarkable technique, and his phrasing is pure magic. I am afraid that Calgary is going to have a tough time hanging on to Sam Loeck.


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