CALGARY — Four concerts into the 2022 Honens International Piano Competition, it’s inevitable to start craving a change in musical diet. The end of the first part of the semifinals means new repertoire, new sounds, and it’s hard not to approach the final competitors of a round as those people standing in your way.
Saturday afternoon started with the oldest semifinalist, the venerable George Fu (31 years). He opened with “Down By the Riverside” from Frederic Rzewski Four North American Ballads of 1978 and it was kind of him to ease us in with a song and its muscular reflections. His whole program was marked by slickness, confident and forthright at its best—as in the inevitable Goodyear — but mostly so lacquered that your ear slides off, as it did with a forgettable Chopin ballade. Ample pedal and overgenerous phrasing smoothed his program down like a fistful of Brylcreem. In the right hands, Schubert’s D.960 can leave me a wobbly wreck, but not this afternoon. It felt bland and contrived.
Impressions of a performance often improve with time. You might need a moment to recover when a musician has just played one of your favourite pieces with entirely opposite interpretive instincts, for instance. But I wasn’t able to have this experience today because Aleksanda Kasman Laude happened.
This is a formidable musician and her hour was easily my favourite of the competition. She plays with such an abundance of intelligence that it can only be described as relentless, and she finds expressive details inside even the most virtuosic passages—like lightning, you only half perceive its intricacies as it flashes past. The eight Rachmaninov Preludes she played were astounding, sparkling and volcanic, and totally unconstrained by their technical weight. Nos. 6 and 10 were breathtaking. Even her Goodyear was so good I almost forgot that I’d heard it nine times before. She finished with Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major Op. 17, calmly steering our incredulous ears through its fickle transformations. It would be a shame not to hear more of her, in the finals.
Her bio also brings up a question that’s in the air this year: why has only one woman won in nine editions and thirty years? That pianist, Katherine Chi, is on this year’s jury.
The first half of the semifinals now over, the competitors transform into accompanists for violinist Martin Beaver. In a different role, another facet of the artist comes out, and the evening’s concert — the sixth semifinal — began with a transformed Simon Karakulidi. The wildness was gone, replaced by modesty so pronounced it seemed like bashfulness. Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10: a gentle conversation, as between lovers; Kreisler’s Liebesfreud: joyful, I wanted to slosh around a cold beer-stein. Then Beaver left and we heard Schubert’s 3 Klavierstücke in an oddly muted, almost hesitant, interpretation. It didn’t feel worth it until the third one, when Karakulidi suddenly emerged with sparkling detail like jewels from the bottom of a bog. His last notes of the semis were Nico Muhly’s Short Stuff (2009), a cold cleverness.
Saturday’s last performer was Łukasz Byrdy. No. 7 is a smart pick from Beethoven’s violin sonatas, the melody trades so often that the pianist has many more opportunities than in No. 10 we’d just heard. Byrdy drove, sometimes using spurs (the lovers have moved on to something more energetic.) With the Polish rocket booster on his back, Beaver had to exert himself, with mostly exciting results. There were a few selfish moments and the piano felt too present in the Adagio, but the Finale fizzed like a play fight. Was it worth it? When they bow, Byrdy gives Beaver a long look. It isn’t returned.
Left alone on stage, Byrdy ended his semifinals with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; the work is a charmer but it beats its theme to a pulp — the composer’s fault, not the pianist’s. He played it with enthusiasm and the indulgent pacing of a horror movie.
Livestream the 10th Honens International Piano Competition [HERE].
Get the daily arts news straight to your inbox.
Sign up for the Ludwig van Daily — classical music and opera in five minutes or less HERE.