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From the 2011 ARD Competition, Day 10

September 8th. Piano, Semifinals with the Munich Chamber Orchestra (MKO) at the Herkulessaal

For a Mozart concerto to be played so well, by orchestra and soloist, that hearing it six times in a row wouldn’t be a dulling, cruel experience, it would have to be played… well… astonishingly well. I doubt I have heard it. Maybe Clifford Curzon or Ivan Moravec, with someone like Ferenc Fricsay or Karel Ančerl or Rafael Kubelik—to list the names that pop into my mind trying to come with the most musical, satisfying artists—would be able to pull in a hypothetical musical universe. It’s quite bad enough even just to hear three in a row, and that’s not because the MKO isn’t up to snuff or because Roope Gröndahl (Finnland), Eun Ae Lee (South Korea), or Tori Huang (US) are rubbish. They’re all in the semi final and fine pianists, the first-named with a no-nonsense, mature, unaffected approach. Subtle and perfectly pleasant, with elegance-through-simplicity in the slow movement, which seemed most notable in his performance of the Concerto No. 18 in B-flat, K.456. Yet the Finn with a Swedish name left something, that intangible ‘something’, missing from the concerto … a minor-yet-important fault he shared to some degree with all three renditions before the break.

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W.G.Mozart, Piano Concertos 17 & 18,
M.Perahia / ECO

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J.Reubke, F.LisztSonata in c-minor, Ad nos,
Sir Simon Preston, Westminster Abbey Organ

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M.Reger, Chorale Fantasias, op.52/2 et al.,
H.Feller, Reger Memorial Organ, St.Michael, Weiden
The second performance came from Eun Ae Lee, one of two South Koreans left from the 18 (!) that started out in round one. Performing the rather lovelier G-major concerto, K.453, she took a more mannered but also a more nuanced approach which made for some very charming passages early on and the finest impression of these three overall, even if the slow movement was a wee bit overwrought. The third movement, much like the third, was unambiguously lovely.

Tori Huang, a wafer-thin Chinese-American and although of the complexion of rare porcelain, didn’t treat the Mozart (also the B-flat concerto) in the Dresden-China style either. (Thankgoodness!) More energetic than either of her predecessors, with a hint of flamboyancy, she came up with a notably compelling first movement—especially when compared to the other K.456 performance. There was pretty stuff in the third movement, too, but arguably more heat than light.

The main draw for attending the piano semi-finals (as any ARD semi final and in fact one of the best aspects of the whole undertaking) is, and was, the commissioned composition. The one written for the pianists came from Lera Auerbach this year. “Milking Darkness” sounds, no matter how different the interpretation, like Messiaen-meets-Silvestrov; it’s a pianistic, musical, playable composition that starts with an Adagio misterioso that also insists on being ‘ritmico’, like a little music box, perhaps. Eun Ae Lee took “ritmico” more seriously than “misterioso”, which was particularly notable after Mr. Gröndahl had done it the other way around… to considerably greater success. Tori Huang nearly achieved the perfect third way between steady-steady and ominously meandering, but was less concerned with the low and lowest dynamic markings of the work than her Finnish colleague. Her more robust approach offered yields of its own, but couldn’t, to these ears, surpass Gröndal’s way of milking “Milking Darkness”.

Organ, Finals Part 1, Grand Hall of the Academy of Music

With three more Mozart concertos threatening, the decision to bike over to the Academy of Music for the first—solo—part of the Organ finals, was easy enough. All the easier, since Jamie Bergin, for my ears the bright spot of the second round, had sadly not even made it into the semis. (Music’s loss, methinks, but surely no obstacle for his ensuing career.) The 140 minutes spent at the Herkulessaal with the pianos meant missing the first two candidates (German Lukas Stollhof in the Reger Fantasie & Fugue in d-minor and Austrian Michael Schöch in Julius Reubke’s Sonata, the “94th Psalm for solo organ”*), but catching the two candidates heard previously, Johannes Lang and Anna-Victoria Baltrusch. That constellation meant another personal favorite missing: Mlle. Metzger, particularly convincing in the first part of the semi final (which in the case of organ was already the second round), had not advanced.

Johannes Lang performed Max Reger’s Chorale Fantasia & Fugue op.52/2 (“Wachet auf! Ruft uns die Stimme”), Anna-Victoria Baltrusch the next one in line, the Choral Fantasia op.52/3 (“Hallelijah! Gott zu loben, bleibe meine Seelenfreud”). If anyone found himself sleeping at the Grand Hall, they certainly woke up to Lang’s Reger, given the full-out organ assault he unleashed between deceiving stretches of lull and whisper. The lowest pedal points struck literally rattled the cage and got assorted construction bits of the venue to hum. Anyone but an card-carrying organ-aficionado won’t often hear even the more popular Reger pieces, which makes judging a performance for lay ears so difficult. Did Lang brush parts of the music under the heavily registered carpet? Was there something that ‘isn’t done’? I like the occasional Reger and, perversely, have two complete sets of just the organ music, and could access a good dozen versions of op.52/2 via the Naxos Music Library. But still I felt at a professional loss, admiring ‘in private’, as it were, the gorgeously gentle register change and choice for the faint end of the Fantasia, and the very Bachian Fugue, played fresh, lively, not without mistakes but nice and—never to be underestimated as far as organ-appeal goes—loud. Mlle. Baltrusch’s Reger Fantasy has the more striking opening, distinct and distinctly registered. The erratic muting with the swell annoyed me more than anything else, otherwise the work, especially the Fugue, struck as well judged. All four participants would go on performing the Hindemith Concerto for Organ and Small Orchestra (a.k.a. “Kammermusik 7”) the next day at the large organ of the Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig.

* A work Simon Preston much cherishes and one of his recordings he takes particular pride in, even if the affable, almost deferential but witty seventy-three year old probably wouldn’t use the word “pride” referring to anything regarding himself.