Competition review

World Piano Competition, Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, 26 April 2000

Sampling Stage Three, I heard three of the nine semi-finalists. Two were quickly forgettable, loud, fast and insensitive to what listeners, including the jury, would be hearing so near to the monster Steinway - was there any discussion, or choice, whether to close the curtain behind the piano?

The third of Wednesday's three is a communicating musician from brain to fingertips and feet, and with marvellous ears. He intuitively adapted his tone to the small Purcell Room, in which Steinways can so often sound hectoring and unpleasant. Wen-Yu Shen also made a mark with one of the most imaginative programmes on offer, centred upon Chopin as were others, but the cunning was in the ordering.

Chopin's Op. 35 sonata was poetic and introspective, his playing 'now', not replicating an over-prepared performance on automatic pilot, which can be a risk at competitions. Communing with the music itself, he appeared oblivious of microphone, judges and audience, who hung on his every phrase. The scale was exactly right for the situation, tension was varied, his rubato based on firm underlying pulse, notably in the Funeral March. He made sparing, immaculate and perfectly judged use of the pedal, none through most of the mysterious, swirling ghostly unison finale.

Next a witty, quicksilver Scarlatti sonata, K141, like a lemon sorbet to clear the palate between courses; my only regret was that he omitted the repeats, so soon was it over. The whole programme was played without pause, on again after the briefest bow to acknowledge applause, which was shortened to start the next item. After Scarlatti, Chopin's Barcarolle, relaxed, sonorous, extremely beautiful. Then perhaps the most interesting of all the semi-finalists' choices from the long, and rather peculiar, contemporary list - Nielsen's Chaconne. This is a big, serious structure, very characteristic of mature Nielsen, unlikely to have been known to many in the audience, and an unlikely work to be in the repertoire of a Chinese pianist. It contrasted ideally with Chopin's Barcarolle before, and a replendent G minor Ballade with which Wen-Yu Shen finished his demanding recital, with never a momentary lapse of concentration on his part or ours. Critical comparisons with other interpretations were banished; he made us relax and go with the flow. A moving and memorable hour of music making at a very high level, totally absorbing - its taped record will be treasurable and the programme would make an ideal debut CD.

Should Wen-Yu Shen progress to the concerto final (from which it might be in his better interests to be spared) he has offered Rachmaninov's Concerto No 3! I should mention that this fine pianist, wise beyond his years, is of diminutive stature with small hands, and is just 13½. Nurturing his talent will be an awesome responsibility.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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