Virtuoso – An Eloquence review

The year 2021 has drawn to a close. Many artists, even those at the pinnacle of their respective professions, have had to throw in the towel. All but a few pianists at the top of their game have been able to sustain themselves out of the pandemic. Even as I write, concert halls and opera houses across the world are limping back into a semblance of a normal season. The year 2021 however has seen a bonanza of international music competitions. With the shutting of conservatories around the world, one-to-one teaching has come to a grinding halt. Teachers are supporting themselves and training young musicians in the art of learning for themselves. Young musicians are beavering away in their homes or practice studios with a new emphasis of performing for the microphone and video. The zeal and mastery required for success in musical careers these days seems to be via the route of winning prizes. 

The Sydney International Piano Competition (The Sydney) made headlines in its 2020 edition by going entirely online in the year 2021. 

Released in time for the July 2021 edition is a magnificent 11 CD boxed set. It is a veritable labour of love by the engineers and gifted young producer – Senior Vice President, Classics & Jazz / Arts & Entertainment at Universal Music Group (Australia and New Zealand) – Cyrus Meher-Homji. Anybody familiar with the mid-price label Eloquence from Decca will know the name is synonymous with excellence of the highest order. Given carte-blanche with the vast back catalogues available to Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Phillips, married to superior recording quality and programme notes, Meher-Homji makes every issue from Eloquence eminently worth exploring.

Who is this boxed set aimed at? At each of the 11th CDs – worth of approximately 70 minutes – there is something for every taste. If you consider yourself a connoisseur of piano music, you can think again. I can assure you, you will come across gems which you would do well to familiarise yourself with. Composers like Sibelius not normally associated with piano music and such war-horses from the regular piano repertoire by Beethoven, Liszt and Chopin may seem like strange bedfellows. Yet the playlists are curated expertly and make listening to each individual CD a unique journey. This voyage of discovery is what makes this set completely unique in the catalogue. Slide any of the first nine CDs into your player and you will find a compendium of pieces extremely well chosen for colour, variety, tone, and of course, key. 

In short, the 11 CD box consists of a hundred performances by 77 pianists across the years 1992 to 2016. The 2020 edition of this quadrennial competition was held in 2021 and is not included in this box. The whole 2021 edition is available elsewhere online for purchase and viewing. I came to this competition only rather recently when I wrote a piece covering it as it were ‘live’. 

The competition brought Australia into the limelight as a piano-lovers hub. This piano competition, the only one of international standing and quality in the Southern Hemisphere, has been in existence since 1977. The competition was founded by Hungarian actress Claire Dan and the first Artistic Director Rex Hobcroft. Entirely financed by her legacy, the competition continues to support the best travel and accommodation facilities for participants from around the world. 

1977 was the inaugural year of this relatively young competition. One of the prize winners was the world renowned Brisbane-born Australian-British pianist Piers Lane. In that year he was named best Australian pianist and since 2016 has taken over as Artistic Director of The Sydney. 

As originally conceived, the demands of this competition have now been pared down. Originally attracting hundreds of applicants from around the world, live auditions were narrowed down to 32-40 participants in the auditions over several days in the Sydney Conservatorium’s Verbrugghen Hall. Then followed two preliminary round recitals, a semi-final recital married to a chamber work and preparation of 12 lieder before the finals which included two concertos, one by Mozart and one more recent. The finals took place in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. The vocal element has since largely disappeared.

Since the beginning of the competition’s life, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has broadcast the entire proceedings live across the continent. In addition, since 2016, it has been live streamed across the world. Although the master tapes are held by ABC, this unique boxed set will probably never be repeated in the future. In Piers Lane’s own words, it is a treasurable historical document. There is nothing dated in the use of the term historical. Recording quality is universally of a high standard and what is more important is the consistency from track to track. Also it must be stressed that the running order of the tracks makes for positive listening. An appropriate running order – that is tonally colouristically has been given the smallest thought. The discs run through the whole gamut of piano music from 17th century to the contemporary and is subdivided according to chronology.

CD 1 – The Baroque era

The first CD contains music from three great masters all born in the year 1685 i.e. in the latter part of the 17th century more than 300 years ago. Written for predecessors of the modern piano, including the clavichord and harpsichord, it contains even till today the mainstay of modern piano repertoire. These rich and sonorous interpretations do not pay obeisance to period-informed practises. On the contrary they display the full panoply of the modern concert grand in both dynamics and modes of expression. The 18 tracks are ostensibly divided up with three major works book-ending 14 Scarlatti sonatas. Opening with the Toccata and Fugue in C minor BWV 911 by Bach favourably compares with Argerich’s historic version of more than 40 years on DG. Again in the various pianists chosen to represent Scarlatti one may be reminded of personal favourites like Horowitz, Landowska and indeed Kirkpatrick. These youngsters competing at full throttle often set themselves breakneck speeds never however crossing the boundaries of elegance, the ultimate compliment for this composer. After some 8 well-chosen Scarlatti, a Handel Chaconne follows. This, although less familiar, makes for very interesting listening. 6 more contrasting Scarlatti sonatas pave the way to the final piece – the renowned crowd-pleaser, Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne from the second violin Partita in D  minor. One cavil which is really nobody’s fault: the French Baroque school including composers like Rameau and Couperin have been excluded. This is because these composers have only been included in concert repertoire in the last 20 years since Gregory Sokolov’s legendary Salzburg recitals. Also one had to wait as far as I am aware for excerpts from Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecin performed in the online 2021 edition. 

CD 2 – The Classical era 

Included in this CD are the 4 Viennese masters: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The last, surprisingly given short-shrift in spite of a hugely productive solo piano output,  is merely represented here by one single Moment musical. The rest of the CD is well filled with a late sonata, one each by Haydn and Mozart, and two very well-known Beethoven sonatas. Here in the latter two performances, the Waldstein played by Avan Yu and number 28 in A major op. 101 played refreshingly by Michele Bolla. 

CD 3/4 – Romantic era 

These 2 CDs contain some exceptional repertoire and performances. There are many surprises here including some completely unknown music by well-known piano composers. Among the predictable choices of Chopin (Ballade number 4 and the Fantasy) Liszt (Rhapsodie espagnole and Hungarian Rhapsody number 10), some Liszt and Chopin études round off CD number 3 with the rarely played Blumenstück by Schumann. CD 4 has an equally eclectic collection including composers as diverse as Rachmaninov (sonata No 2), Granados (excerpts from Goyescas), Brahms (both books of Paganini variations), and even Taneyev (Prelude and Fugue op. 29); all tantalising and waiting to be discovered or rediscovered. 

CD 5/6/7 – The 20th century

It is salutary and indeed amazing to contemplate three full CDs devoted to the last 150 years or so of classical music. Just as most composer-pianists of earlier eras, the repertoire of the modern competitor is seriously incomplete without the French Anglophone or Russian piano schools of the 20th century. 

From Alban Berg to Kapurstin via the by-lanes of composers both familiar like Poulenc, Scriabin and Sibelius, and the lesser-known but equally seductive Elisenda Fábregas (b. 1955) and Vsevolod Zaderatsky (1891-1953), there is much to discover here. Cornerstones of the modern piano repertoire represented by Berg’s op. 1 sonata, 2 pieces by Copland and Menotti, Ginastera’s challenging 1st sonata as well as that of Shostakovich, and études by Scriabin and Ligeti make these 3 CDs mouth-wateringly desirable. CD 5 contains mainly Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc. CD 6 comprises the Russian school with Prokofiev’s imposing and treacherous Seventh sonata as the centrepiece. 

CD 8 – Transcriptions and Encores

This is a mixed bag of traditional show-pieces from a pianist’s armamentarium. These are designed to amuse and titillate the audience as a reward for the patient listening to the main recital. This constitutes another lip-smacking CD of piano pyrotechnics.

CD 9 – Australian piano music

There is an astonishing variety of mainly 20th century Australian music worth the time, both for study and listening. Ranging from Peter Sculthorpe to Arthur Benjamin, and the contemporary Carl Vine, there is much here to discover. 

CD 10/11 – Piano concertos

Five concertante pieces with different soloists fill the remaining two CDs. Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody and piano concerto number 3 receive scintillating performances fully equal to the task at hand. Similarly Prokofiev’s second and third piano concertos receive gargantuan performances. Liszt’s concerto number 1 seems relatively minor in comparison.

Although ideally timed as a Christmas gift to pianists, piano-lovers or enthusiasts of competitions, this boxed set comes highly recommended for its compactness, wide-audience appeal and more than just reliable or adequate performances. It is indeed a cornucopia of delights with each pianist considered for the quality of the performance given not merely of achieving a prize. However all prize winners between 1992 and 2016 are certainly included in the boxed set. If you missed this at Christmas it is still not too late for a New Year gift as these well filled 11 CDs will provide endless fascination throughout the year. 

One point of departure I may suggest, and which I found very refreshing, was to choose the first prize winner at each edition and follow his or her recordings on Spotify. You can then spot what happened to your favourite in the years down the line of winning the competition. I can assure you much joy in this exercise and spending as I did the last so many months with ‘Virtuoso’. I am today much the wiser.