Conservative Dublin piano competition sees slight change of pace

International competition has hardly changed in 30 years but has seen increased Asian participation

The world of piano competitions is a conservative one. In many ways the Dublin International Piano Competition has hardly changed in the 30 years since it first took place in 1988.

It has contracted slightly due to straitened circumstances. Just four players get into the finals now, to play concertos with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, as opposed to the original six. But the procedures and rules — four rounds, free repertoire save for an obligatory test piece by an Irish composer — stand pretty much as they did when Philippe Cassard took the top prize back in 1988. And the pupils of teachers on the jury are still allowed to enter. This year's printed programme lists 21 such overlaps for the 55 competitors.

The conservativeness applies to the competitors, too. In 1988 just two living composers were listed in the first round repertoire, Olivier Messiaen for his Neumes rythmiques of 1949 and Akira Miyoshi for his En vers of 1980. The four days of this year's first round also featured just two works by composers still living, John Corigliano's Etude Fantasy of 1976 and Lowell Liebermann's Gargoyles of 1989.

Corigliano and Liebermann are both American, but their music was programmed by players from China (Qilin Sun, 22) and South Korea (So Hyang In, 26) respectively. The competitive profile of those two Asian countries actually encapsulates the biggest changes that have taken place over three decades. Only one player from China performed in 1988 and two from South Korea. This year China has five, and South Korea is streets ahead of everywhere else with nine. The improvement in pianistic skill of the Asian players has been every bit as spectacular as the rise in sheer numbers.


Music and noise

There has been an across the board change in musical approach, too. Youthful inclinations towards speed and volume remain unchecked in many performances. And the improvements in performing technique have meant a proliferation of playing that is faster and louder than before. The big red line that was regularly crossed in round one of this year’s competition is the dividing line between music and noise.

The great English conductor Thomas Beecham had a witticism about it, poking fun at his fellow countrymen. "The English may not like music," he said, "but they absolutely love the noise it makes."

When you play the piano loud enough the instrument’s sound spectrum actually changes. The patterns become those of noise rather than music and the effect is akin to being blinded by a bright light or having to eat something so heavily salted that the original flavour gets thoroughly masked.

There is of course music which points in the direction of speed and volume. Qilin Sun delivered on Corigliano's stipulation for a "stark, fierce" opening with a vengeance, and she took to the angular violence of the writing with the unfettered enthusiasm of a street fighter.     So Hyang In was uber-confident and uber-competent in the neo-Lisztian world of the Liebermann; she showed a lighter side of her personality in Haydn's Sonata in C, Hob XVI: 48, and a real command of poetry and shape in Chopin's Fourth Ballade.

Deftness, sound judgement, skill

Japan's Yukine Koroki (19), made up for some rather mechanical Haydn with a deft account of Liszt's Feux Follets and a staggering account of the teenage Shostakovich's brutalist Sonata No. 1. Her fellow countrywoman Arisa Onoda (22), played Busoni's Variations on a theme of Chopin with skill and fantasy and took an almost disorientingly fantastical approach to Ravel's Noctuelles.      Russia's Elizaveta Ukrainskaia (21), was rewarded for her chalk and cheese coupling of Hummel's perky Rondo in E flat with a selection of Debussy études and a burly, megaphone-style account of Prokofiev's Third Sonata.      Germany's Aris Alexander Blettenberg (23), also took a high-contrast route, eliding the gap between Haydn and Ligeti, and pitting them both against an over-the top account of Franck's Prelude, Chorale and Fugue that somehow held itself impressively together.

Shaun Choo (27), from Singapore showed sound judgement and wonderful skills of balance in works by Bach, Chopin and Debussy. Anna Geniushene (27), from Russia coupled light-fingered Clementi with roaring Rachmaninov. And Tomer Gewirtzman (28), from Israel placed delicacy of touch at the heart of his approach to Schubert and Chopin before bringing in the heavy guns for Bartók.

All of these players were rewarded with a place in the second round, along with Alim Beiembayev, Sae Yoon Chon, Dmytry Choni, Aaron Chow, Kyubin Chung, Eoin Fleming, Junhyung Kim, Hyuk Lee, Cahal Masterson, Florian Mitrea, Evren Ozel, Colton Peltier, Aristo Sham, Alexey Sychev and Yuchong Wu. Their second-round performances can be heard at the RDS today and tomorrow or via live streaming from

I was sorry that Russian pianist Elizaveta Kliuchereva's brilliant and witty handling of Alkan's dry, wry Le Festin d'Esope and her effortless traversal of Rachmaninov's Polka de WR were not rewarded. Neither was the sophisticated soundworld that Japan's Sako Kotakejima conjured up in Armenian composer Arno Babadjanian's Pictures.

Among the other names that have not made it through, I would like to have had a chance to hear Poland’s Kamil Pacholec again, and I was disappointed that Irishman Peter Regan’s soundly focused and carefully paced combination of Messiaen and Rachmaninov did not get him through.