The 10th Honens International Piano Competition: Semifinals VII-VIII

Pianist Angie Zhang performs during the Honens International Competition semifinals (Photo: Honens)

Semis VII-VIII

Calgary — It was a strong afternoon at the 7th semifinal concert. Angie Zhang started with the same Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 7 that we’d heard last night, but this time there was no competition with violinist Martin Beaver — you’d think they were playing together for years. Attentively crafted throughout, the Adagio was particularly fine, like fingertips on your back, and when they took their bows there was not just eye contact but a hug.

The gem in her program was Scriabin’s Fantasie in B minor Op. 28, a fiendishly difficult thing that tries to eat itself — the left hand like a monster digging under the floor. She deftly avoided its traps and collisions, but it was not effortless. It was unkind to Mozart to have his Sonata No. 2 follow while our ears were still stunned, but her performance of Rachmaninov’s Liebesfreud blasted through with conviction. This work unravels Kreisler’s theme, throws all the threads in the air and snarls at the pianist: catch! It is mostly something to survive.

Rachel Breen’s selections for her final concert of the semis showed the same unconventional braininess as her first. I overheard a conversation about how the program was confusing, but I admired it. All 16 parts. With Martin Beaver, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 2 was endless spacious textural contrasts between the two instruments, and a heartbreakingly lovely second movement. Her solo program was played straight through; a weird menu, no doubt, but I wish more competitors had the guts to try this kind of thing. Like starting with two of the “games” György Kurtág has been writing since the 1970s. These vary wildly, like extracts of musical expression boiled for different amounts of time, but in her hands they transcended intellectual curiosity.

Two Chopin Impromptus were like a greyhound released after a long day in a box, and they sandwiched an icy piece by Luciano Berio — who programs like this? Amazing! Then a rocket barrage: Medtner, Rachmaninov — No. 4 from Études tableaux Op. 39, creepy crawling — before another, yes another, living composer: Leonid Desyatnikov and the Prelude No. 4 in E minor from his Songs of Bukovina, originally a ballet commission.

Pianist Rachel Breen performs during the Honens International Competition semifinals (Photo: Honens)
Pianist Rachel Breen performs during the Honens International Competition semifinals (Photo: Honens)

He calls his music “minimalism with a human face” but the Bukovina songs are straight up folksy — with an edge, I pictured a knife flashing in a delicate hand. Then music started flying past in a less meaningful way: Mendelssohn’s “Frühlingslied”, a rushed BWV 850, Debussy’s Minstrels Prélude, and finally the same Rachmaninov/Kreisler that Zhang played, but faster and with more humour. Breen didn’t even come out for a second bow, but I enjoyed myself immensely. Musicians like her are the future.

Sae Yoon Chon’s evening performance was less convincing: an energetic Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.1 with an exquisite 4th variation in the second movement, but stepping on Martin Beaver’s toes elsewhere. He finished his semifinals with a heroic but uneven performance of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, displaying great sensitivity in parts — bringing out an irony in the Allegro energetico that was new to me — but not quite mastering the whole.

The self-assured Philipp Scheucher concluded Sunday night. I wonder if Martin Beaver has a clause in his contract limiting how many competitors can pick the Kreutzer sonata? Or perhaps decency intervened. Whatever, we’ll only hear it once more, tomorrow afternoon. And, that’s fine both for Beaver’s health and for our ears, because it doesn’t get much better than this; a thrilling performance, huge dynamic range and ninja precision, and with a minimal amount of spotlight theft.

Forcing pianists to ride in the backseat is a test of character, and Scheucher — who does not exactly lack confidence — passes. The rest of his program was clever, though not as brave as Breen’s; he is the only semifinalist to pick the third of Kreisler’s Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen. None are particularly difficult (or very good) but the variety is greatly appreciated. More interesting was the short and deceptively simple piece that followed. Liszt’s Nuages gris S. 199 is all anticipation, you think any moment it will explode in Lisztian thunderclaps, but it never does. Scheucher made his own thunder by pairing it with three movements from Petrushka by Stravinsky, a confetti storm with percussive blasts of folksong quotations and virtuosic glee that he shrugged off like it was nothing. Still one of the strongest competitors.

Livestream the 10th Honens International Piano Competition [HERE].

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