High drama and precise playing from rising pianists



Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall/Tuesday

The prizes awarded to the successful competitors of the 2014 Geneva International Music Competition, sponsored by the Swiss watch manufacturer Breguet, included a series of international concert engagements. This week saw the three top prize winners - all pianists - perform in Singapore. Two are from South Korea and one is an Indian girl from the United States.

Third prize winner Honggi Kim has, according to his biography, devoted much of his life to competitions, and it showed.

In his fluent and note-perfect delivery of the 12 Chopin Etudes, Op. 25, he did everything by the book. Every detail in the score was precisely realised; the dynamics, phrasing and technical elements were faultlessly executed; and he supported it all with some exceptionally agile and articulate fingerwork.

It would be wrong to describe this playing as safe, but emotion was kept in check to avoid challenging anyone's sensitivities. While this may make for a good recording that bears listening to over and over again, it failed to make any real impact in the concert hall, other than impress with its clinical cleanliness.

Pallavi Mahidhara took a very different approach with the four Schubert Impromptus, Op. 90, imposing her interpretation on the very familiar music. While her playing had nothing like the neat precision of Kim's, it was every bit as technically self-assured.

Her intention was clearly to communicate what she saw as the true spirit behind Schubert's music, through elegant gesture and a thoroughly committed approach to the expressive elements. The result was perhaps a little scruffy around the edges and certainly rather smudgy in the centre, but full of soul and character.

Ji-Yeong Mun was the top prize winner in 2014 and she chose to flex her musical muscles in Schumann's massive First Sonata.

She certainly produced a truly mighty sound from the piano. From the start, she stamped her authority on the music by thumping out the drama in a gloriously robust, nononsense fashion.

As with Mahidhara, this was no neat, restrained or safe performance. Rather, it took Schumann's music by the scruff of the neck and gave it a thorough shaking.

On a purely technical level, there was much which did not work here. In particular, her inability to create a really singing tone marred the second movement's aria-like character, while a little heaviness took the edge off the delicate passagework of the third-movement Scherzo.

But overall, this was a performance driven by a desire to communicate and express the high drama of the work. And in that, it was a great success.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline 'High drama and precise playing from rising pianists'. Subscribe