10 observations from the Royal Over-Seas League Keyboard Final

I hate the idea of writing a list of thoughts. It feels like cheating. So, you know, sorry for being a bit shit in that respect.

That said, last night’s Royal Over-Seas League Keyboard Final was a such a fulfilling recital experience (because really, aside from the competition element these events offer the opportunity to hear multiple performers present a range of repertoire), that the only way to do it justice was to write a list of stuff.

I’ll do better next time. Promise.

1. It amazes me how five musicians can create five distinct voices at the piano

Maybe this isn’t necessarily such a surprise. A keyboard competition is going bring a variety of playing styles – different pressures, different attack, different pianissimos, and differing personalities. The last time I appreciated how different classical music can sound when you change one key individual on stage was during the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition a few years back. You don’t so much compare styles with a view to determining who has the ‘best’ style, as end up appreciating the complexities of the instrument and musician.

2. Beethoven Sonata in A-flat Major, No.31 Op.110 is packed full of drama

I fear Beethoven a bit. That is, I fear him when I’m not getting irritated by the way he ends some of his symphonic movements (listen to the end of the first movement of the first symphony if you don’t know what I mean – there is such a thing as over-egging the pudding).

But, where a bit of a listener determination really pays off is in his late string quartets and, this piano sonata. New Zealander Bradley Wood conveyed a work packed full of riveting drama. Unlike the others competing, Wood performed only the Beethoven. Audacious.

3. Liebermann’s Nocturne No.8 Op.85 is this week’s favourite thing

Can’t find it anywhere but on YouTube. Not many people have heard it. Thanks Ashok. Nice work. Someone needs to record it.

4. Jonathan Ferrucci is a stunning presence on the platform – a great storyteller

In a podcast recorded earlier this week me and the contributors – Hugo Ticciati and Ariane Todes – talked about the impact stage presence can have on an audience’s engagement with the concert. Ferrucci achieves this (like seemingly all elements of his competition performance) with great aplomb without resorting to flourishes. I found his playing captivating too. Tightly controlled, energy deployed in vary degrees as and when emotion so demanded. I adored his performance.

5. Fluidity is the way to my heart

As a kid I remember friends of a contemporary of mine at school crowding around the piano marvelling at his ability to conjur up Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s The Way It Is without so much as a piece of sheet music in front of him. It’s the same effect when I hear a fluid melodic line at the piano keyboard. Benjamin Grosvenor is a master at it (I think it might even be his trademark). The fluidity emerges from fast repeated motifs – the equivalent of watching mercury crawl across a surface. There is a clingy, supple quality to the sound. It’s quite addictive. Kausikan Rajeshkumar displayed it in Liszt’s Waldesrauschen, so too Florian Mitrea in Debussy’s Feux d’artifice, and Jonathan Ferrucci throughout the Bach and Ravel.

6. Being on first is the short straw

I shudder to think what it feels like. It’s a tough call. Ashok consolidated the gains he made in the Scarlatti D Major sonata with the Liebermann that followed it (see number 3).

7. More and more I’m drawn to the piano – it provides everything

I said to my sort-of-plus-one last night whilst the judges deliberated that I used to fear the piano. The stark white keys with those perilous black ones promised punishment if perfection wasn’t achieved. Piano music wasn’t something I could derive satisfaction from playing and didn’t have the power that the symphonic sound guaranteed. Over the past 18 months (in part down to numerous Verbier Festival experiences) I find I’m attracted more and more to the resourcefulness and versatility of the piano as an all-in-one kind of instrument. It’s robust, grand, and resilient. A sort of musical work horse that consistently delivers emotionally.

8. Florian Mitrea tamed the instrument

As the evening progressed, so the instrument was tamed. It was as though the first three instrumentalists deployed a tentative, combative, and egalitarian approach. Florian was the first musician who made the instrument an extension of his own emotional expression. Ferrucci (who followed) capitalised on that. Don’t get me wrong – that’s not me saying the first three pianists failed in any way. Their approach created a different and equally valid experience in what ended up feeling like a gratifyingly tumultuous story.

9. Kausikan Rajeshkumar’s Perpetuem from Mirage is a glorious self-contained showstopper

He needs to record it. I want to be able to share it. I can’t find it anywhere. Kausikan. Get on the case please sir. Tar.

10. Hearing two hours of piano music with a 5 minute interval is an epic experience

(I’ve used the word epic. Please. Send help.)

Recital programmers, po this: programme a two-hour concert with as short an interval as you dare. Have the performers join the audience at the end for a glass of wine and a natter. It’s a lovely format. In-depth rewarding listening. Post-concert peer-to-peer analysis. Glorious.

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