The Piano Island Festival, founded by local pianist-entrepreneur Wang Congyu and inaugurated in 2018, is now in its third edition. Alternating between Singapore and Reunion (French overseas territory in the Indian Ocean), the festival includes an international competition, lectures, masterclasses and public recitals by an international cast of pianists.
Esplanade Recital Hall was host to four recitals, with evening sessions helmed by Philippe Cassard (France) and Poom Prommachart (Thailand). Cassard will be remembered for performing the complete solo piano works of Claude Debussy in four recitals at this same venue in 2003, providing relief and solace during the SARS epidemic.
On this occasion, he distilled the French composer’s prolific output to just seven works in a single half, all inspired by the watery realm. Exhibiting an enormous range of tonal variety, the musical equivalent of impressionist brush-strokes was applied to pieces like Reflets dans l’eau(Reflections on the Water), Ondine, Poissons d’or(Goldfishes) and La cathedrale engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral).
Cassard showed this was not a matter of just stepping on the sustaining pedal and splashing nebulous globs of sound, but a skilful manipulation of colourings and contrasts. The transition from Brouillards (Mists), with gently shifting wafts to the vigorous pitter-patter of Jardins sous la pluie(Gardens in the Rain) was startling in effect. With no half measures given, the wine-fuelled revelry in L’isle joyeuse (The Happy Island) was one of full-blown intoxication. Likewise, Cassard’s view of Schubert’s penultimate Sonata in A major (D.959) was not one of quaint Biedermeier charm or drawing room naivete. It was the blood and guts view of one living in his final year, with all the requisite angst and vulnerability, and certainly not for the faint of heart.
Still in his late 20s, Poom Prommachart is Thailand’s most accomplished and decorated young pianist. His recital was another study of stark contrasts, now applied to the piano sonata genre. There cannot be more vastly different works than Beethoven’s late Sonata No.30 in E major (Op.109) and contemporary Australian composer Carl Vine’s First Sonata, composed in 1990.
Both works benefited with his variegated touch and laser-like precision, the Beethoven coming into his own as a Romantic, full of fire and fervour. Vine’s violent flailings had the feel of modern ballet, exquisitely choreographed like a new version of The Rite Of Spring. After three short pieces by Khachaturian and Scriabin came the piece de resistance, the rarely heard Sonata-Ballade by Russian composer Nikolai Medtner, a contemporary of Rachmaninov. Conceived as a single extended movement and playing over 20 sprawling minutes, Poom’s excellent elucidation of the themes and its discursive byways represented a glorious treatise of the sonata form itself. Hoping to proselytise on behalf of this almost forgotten Romantic, this imperious reading could not but find him many new friends.