The 2004 Singapore International Piano Festival concluded in spectacular fashion with an appearance by world-renowned interpreter Paul Badura-Skoda. As was the case the previous evening (cross-reference below), the first half excelled while the remainder of the concert struggled to regain the Olympian heights attained in the opening works.
Haydn’s F Minor Variations were a delight from the first bar. Badura-Skoda’s heavenly touch painted a canvas that was awash with confidence and sensitive affectation. Whether delineating the pulsing syncopations or surging through the technical demands, his obvious joy in sharing the Viennese master’s genius was immediately infectious.
The few slight slippages of control were more than compensated for by the reverent atmosphere, which was especially heightened by the pianist’s treatment of the often misunderstood silences. The coda sailed forth with aplomb, bringing an enthusiastic ovation from the attentive crowd.
The highlight of the evening and, in many ways the entire festival, was Badura-Skoda’s riveting performance of Beethoven’s 23rd Piano Sonata. Here, caution was thrown to the wind; the noble Steinway was stretched to its limits as wave after wave of violent contrasts pounded the strings while the classical specialist did heroic battle with the fervour of the music and its underlying demons.
Sandwiched between the deep pools of feelings that pack the outer movements was a serenely calculated “Andante con moto,” which allowed both sides of the footlights to recuperate from the “Allegro assai” and prepare for the second assault. A welcome slight warmth seeped into the variants which anxiously moved forward before finally revelling in a string of diminished sevenths that morphed wondrously into the Finale—as if being played for the very first time.
The personification of “aha!” then flew like a typhoon, coming perilously close to disaster as Badura-Skoda wrestled the notes to the ground. He shamelessly unleashed a lifetime of emotion before our ears and, with the security that only a true master commands, neither offered apologies nor sought permission for this raw and ready exhibition that won’t be forgotten by anyone soon. Merci mille fois!
Returning to the stage after the keyboard had cooled down, Badura-Skoda started off with a fine reading of Martin’s Fantasy. Its near childlike themes effectively balanced the more turgid and sonorous lines in the “Rumba lente.” Then, in a homage à Stravinsky (notably the Dance Suite), seasoned with a dash of Villa-Lobos, the “Rumba rapide” skittered by with an effortless spectrum of colour.
“Soleares” was rendered with deliberate understatement: the arid opening grumbles emerged into a quiet melody, seeking to escape its narrow range before yielding to the courage and strength of a succession of bold octaves.
Those same intervals took the lead in “Petenera,” slipping into a bit of jazz and adding another hint of child’s play before giving way to a strident final statement that finished more than resolved.
Mozart’s sublime Fantasia brought Badura-Skoda back to his roots. It was revealed in a gentle, loving manner. The second subject was especially memorable as the steadiness of the phrasing kept the ancillary ideas moving with a direction that was never penned in by the tyranny of bar lines.
The final “Fantasy” was Schubert’s “Wanderer.” It was here that the late hour and, perhaps, many years of unrelenting concertizing caught up with Badura-Skoda, producing a result that, with much to admire, suffered from more deficiencies than are the norm for this remarkable artist. The attempt to recreate the drama of the earlier Beethoven failed to transform itself into the far less angry declamations of the world’s finest melodist.
The Festival’s organizers must be commended for bringing such an array of dedicated musicians to the Victoria Concert Hall where in four consecutive evenings thousands of avid concert-goers were immersed in extraordinary music making; the magnificent result of more than two hundred years of collective experience. JWR