Wellington entrants shape up for the National Junior Piano Competition Finals

Te Koki New Zealand School of Music presents

Otis Prescott-Mason (St.Patrick’s College Town, Wellington)
LISZT – Sonetto 104 del Petrarcha / JACK BODY – No.5 from Five Melodies / BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.28 in A Major Op.101 (Ist.Mvt.) / PROKOFIEV – Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Minor

Ning Chin (Wellington College)
JENNY McLEOD – Tone Clock Piece No. 1 / JS BACH – Prelude from Partita No. 5 in G major / SHOSTAKOVICH – Preludes Op.34 Nos 2, 3 / MOZART – Piano Sonata in B flat Major K.333 (Ist Mvt.) / Schumann – “Abegg” Variations Op.1

William Berry (Hutt Valley High School)
CHOPIN – Scherzo in C-sharp Minor Op.39 / BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor Op.78 (2nd Mvt.) / WILLIAM BERRY – Spring Prelude / CARL VINE – Piano Sonata No.1 (2nd Mvt.)

Adam Concert Room,
Te Koki New Zealand School of Music,
Victoria University of Wellington

Thursday, 17th September, 2020

New Zealand School of Music Head of Piano Studies in Wellington Dr. Jian Liu organised this recital for the above three Wellington pianists, all of whom are finalists in next month’s 2020 NZ Junior Piano Competition in Auckland, as a means of giving them a little extra “fine-tuning” concert performance experience. All three replicated a 20-minute recital programme of their own choice, including examples from at least three musical periods, as stipulated by the competition for performance in the final.

Music competitions come in for a lot of criticism for a number of reasons –  it’s undeniable that, at the end of the “process” through which each of these performers are going to pass , there is going to emerge a “winner”, an essential by-product of competitions, as are the numbers of competitors left who don’t “win”! There’s therefore pressure  to “perform” at these events in an out-of-the-ordinary way, which can adversely affect the quality of music-making in some instances. The subjectivity of a judge’s or several judges’ decision can also seem a cruel and random way of evaluating music performance (as, of course, can reviews written by critics!). However, many successful performers in such events are those who are able to forget about the competitive aspect and “be themselves” and seek to communicate the music’s power and beauty rather than consciously “impress” listeners and judges.

I was impressed on the latter count by the playing I heard tonight from all three pianists, all of whom at different times seemed to immerse themselves totally in their music. Subjective a reaction though it is to an extent, I feel there’s a kind of “force” at work which is generated of itself at moments when composer, music and performer seem to the listener to “meet” in a transcendental fusion of vision, impulse and effect. They’re moments which a late and much-lamented music-lover friend of mine would say “one lives for” – and thanks to the sensibilities and skills of each of these young players this evening, I experienced a number of treasurable moments such as these.

Indeed, from the first rising impulses of intent at the beginning of Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, as played by Otis Prescott-Mason, I felt transported by the sounds to the world of the composer’s poetic inspiration, the music beginning life as a song, a setting of one of Francesco Petrarch’s sonnets to a beloved, conceived as such by Liszt when holidaying in Italy with Marie, Countess d’Agoult, but transcribed later as a piano solo as part of the Second Book of the composer’s Annees de Pelerinage. After the initial upward flourish, the music was bardic at the song’s outset, but became more and more impassioned, with mood-swings alternating between tenderness and anguish, as per the words of the poem. These moments were all, by turns, poetically and impulsively shaped by Prescott-Mason – though I wanted him to hold his breath for the merest milli-second around the delivery of the highest of the pairs of notes during the epilogue – the poet (and composer) identifying in that moment of frisson just who it was that had caused so much delight and grief!

Jack Body’s piece (No.5 from “Five melodies”) exerted its accustomed hypnotic spell, the notes seeming to “happen” rather than being played,  the pianist enabling and then going with the music’s spontaneous flow. After this, Prescott-Mason brought the opening of Beethoven’s A Major Op.101 Sonata into being as if it were an enthralling “ritual of early morning” the textures delicate and freshly-awakened, with each phrase nicely engendering the next one, and the dreamy syncopations magically floated all about us. As with the other items he played, the music’s dynamism unfolded from within itself so that nothing sounded forced or over-modulated. Only the opening of the Prokofiev Third Sonata’s performance lacked that last bit of surety for me, the opening needing to be crisper, the rhythms a bit less clouded – however, the rest was vividly characterised, a lovely wistfulness in the second section. a Janus-faced eeriness/grotesquerie in the third “episode”, and the impishness brilliance of the finale, all glowed and sparkled under Prescott-Mason’s fingers.

Ning Chin, the second pianist, began his recital with a Tone-Clock Piece by Jenny McLeod, the first of the set (and, incidentally, a tribute-piece to fellow-composer David Farquhar, for his sixtieth birthday!) – the music Ravel-like in its crystalline clarity and gentle melancholy, the phrases seeming to pair up to answer, or “round off” any questioning or unfinished statements. A great piece of programming followed, the bracketing of music by JS Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich – Shostakovich, of course, wrote a couple of sets of keyboard preludes, Op.34 and Op.87 (the latter with fugues a la JS Bach), Chin playing Nos 2 and 5 from the Op, 34 set. I couldn’t help feeling how “modern” Bach was made to sound in retrospect once I’d heard the Shostakovich pieces, the first an elaborately decorated waltz-tune, and the second a droll left-hand melody ducking for cover beneath whirling right hand figurations. Chin’s sparkling fingers made for beautifully-wrought passagework in all instances.

Chin’s next piece was the first movement of Mozart’s B-flat Major Sonata K.333, given here in a straightforward manner (“It should flow like oil” said the composer) which gradually “warmed” over time, though the repeat didn’t seem to change its expression very much, the minor-key episode calling, I think, for just a wee bit of “sturm und drang” feeling – a bit more “relishing” of the music and its more palpable features, such as the flourishes and occasional spread chords –  to be fair, I thought more of a sense of the music’s “fun” began to appear towards the movement’s end.

I thought the Schumann “Abegg” Variations teased out the best playing from Chin – dynamics were interestingly and convincingly varied throughout the opening, and the pianist demonstrated a real “ring” in his tone that helped the second piece sparkle. Brilliant playing also marked the running-figure waltz variation, not without the occasional slip, but with such things merely adding to the excitement. I liked the “arch” gesturings, both musical and physical, of the next variation, which contrasted with the following sequence’s deftly nimble fingerwork, and the throwaway impudence of the finale – not a note-perfect performance but a characterful one!

William Berry was the third and final performer, his playing of the terse, uncompromisingly abrupt utterances  opening Chopin’s third (Op.39 in C-sharp Minor) and most enigmatic of his four Scherzi instantly grabbing our attention, before we were plunged into the presto con fuoco agitations of the opening theme, the playing suggesting its wildness and incredibly Lisztian surge before relaxing into the gentle grandeur of the E major chorale, with its accompanying filigree arpeggiations. Interestingly, I felt the pianist “grew” the filigree decorations from out of the chorale more organically when in the minor key, giving them more space in which to “sound” as if resonating in sympathy. Afterwards, he oversaw a most resplendent building up of the big chorale theme before breaking off with some astoundingly-wrought whirlwind-like agitations carrying us to the wild defiance of the final crashing chords.

Next was Beethoven’s richly enigmatic finale to the two-movement Op.78 F-sharp major Sonata, a transition from the Chopin which took our sensibilities a while to adjust to – I wondered whether Berry would-have been better served by the music to have begun his presentation with this work, both playing-in his fingers and “energising” his audience sufficiently for the Chopin piece’s coruscations to then have their full effect…….to my ears, and perhaps in the wake of the Chopin’s high-energy afterglow, he rushed the playful drolleries of Beethoven’s toying with the major/minor sequences and missed some of the humour. Still, enough of the glorious incongruities and resolutions of the dialogues which brought so much delight in this piece was caught, here – and delight, too, was to be had from Berry’s own brief but vividly expressed “Spring Prelude”, which depicted in lush Romantic terms a kind of awakening and a burgeoning of seasonal delight.

Knowing the composer of the final piece’s name but not his music, I was intrigued by Berry’s choice of a movement from a Piano Sonata by Australian Carl Vine to finish his recital – this was the second movement, marked as “Leggiero e legato”, of Vine’s two-movement Piano Sonata No. 1.  Composed in 1990 for the Sydney Dance Company (ballet rehearsal pianists beware!!) the work has since achieved full stand-alone concert-hall status, its dedicatee, Michael Kieran Harvey performing and recording the work to great acclaim, one review of his performance remarking of the work “eighteen minutes of piano dazzlement combined with a profound melodic sense”.

Berry certainly had the requisite energies and pianistic agilities to tackle this torrent-like music – beginning with a molto perpetuo, the racing energies eventually gave way to a chorale-like section, a somewhat plaintive “can we come out, now?” sequence of “eye of a hurricane” tranquilities, a suspended calm which then engendered its own burgeoning detailings to the point where the music sprang into angular declamation, then motoric action once again – one had to admire Berry’s stamina and clear-sightedness amid the plethora of pianistic incident, augmented by portentous bass rumblings, with Herculean upward thrusting gestures giving their all, and then surrendering to silence with a wraith-like final gesture. After Berry’s stunning performance I was reminded of a review I once read of one of pianist Anton Rubinstein’s American recitals given somewhere in the Mid-West, the climax of the evening’s music-making summed up by the reviewer, writing in the vernacular: ‘ “I knowed no more that evening”……..

What more can one say, but to wish these three gifted young pianists all the best in the oncoming competition……..