November 25, 2022

Cliburn Blog No 5 by Jed Distler: Reflections on the quarter-finals

Our daily Van Cliburn contest blog continues to explore the contestants

Looking at the jury’s selection of 18 pianists to advance to the quarter-final stage of the Van Cliburn competition, I find that 13 of them coincide with my own choices. I wouldn’t have picked the other five, and I had hopes for three particular preliminaries who didn’t advance. Yet who am I to argue with the strongest jury The Cliburn has amassed in its 60-year history?

Since I’m flying home from Italy in New York tomorrow, I’m reporting a day late on each of the two quarter-final concert days. By Wednesday, I will be back in “real time” for the semi-finals. Thank you for your patience!

Patience was the key word Anna Geniushene‘s Brahms Ballades, Op 10, where its marble-tinged sound and authoritative projection reminded me of Emil Gilels. His remarkable Bartók Sonata was both grounded and mercurial. It seems paradoxical, but these qualities are better experienced than described. And for all the steely precision of his sweeping octaves in the third movement, Geniushene never struck. In short, it was a distinctive ensemble from a serious pianist.

Andre LiThe Beethoven Variations, Op. 34, did not match the finely honed detail and characterization that Marcel Tadokoro brought to the same work in his preliminary interpretation. Still, it was satisfyingly elegant. Li then walked most of the Brahms Paganini Variations with little dynamic contrast and nuance, blurring that thin line between determination and stress.

Couldn’t fault anything Denis Lennikby Schumann Symphonic studies. Every note, phrase and gesture was firmly in place, with a winged finale that didn’t overstay its welcome as it often does. However, the individual qualities of Lennik’s pianism blossomed throughout his Fifth Scriabin Sonata and a coruscating Ligeti ‘The Devil’s Staircase’.

After hearing Masaya Kameiis deliciously “old-school” Chopin Etude Op 10 No 2 and Liszt norma Fantasy in the Preliminary round, I was surprised by his relatively austere and restrained Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. Yet he’s one of the few pianists I’ve heard who doesn’t get bogged down in the Fugue, slowing down as the music progresses. He freed Liszt’s “Mazeppa” from its rattling shackles, and made the piece both listenable and enjoyable; This is not an easy task ! I expected sabers rather than velvet gloves from Kamei in the opening movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata. It turned out that the pianist retained his ardent reserves for an exultant Finale.

Clayton Stephenson began his quarter-final offering with an unusually relaxed and flexible retelling of Ravel’s Prélude Couperin’s tomb, quite different from the faster, drier versions that dominate the market. The extraordinary narrative and poetic gifts of this pianist, his sense of proportion and his genius for the dynamics of scales characterize his captivating and original conception of Liszt’s Ballade in B minor. For once, you could determine the pitches of those growling bass register ranges, and the agitato passages were carefully sculpted for maximum expressive effect and minimum vulgarity. In Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, the pianist took great risks in his brisk and cheeky first movement, while keeping his spacious slow movement afloat. Stephenson’s cleverly judged tempo for the finale allowed him to fully orchestrate the shimmering surface of the piano writing, lending shape and specificity to the implied countermelodies and inner rhythms. Given that too many competitors are sprinting through this final like an Olympic event, Stephenson’s clever virtuosity should not go unnoticed.

As with his Bach quarter-final, Albert Cano SmitThe drypoint articulation and gaunt transparency of the outer movements of Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata reminded me of Glenn Gould. He channeled his inner Horowitz into Scriabin’s Poem, Op 32 No 1, and the Familiar Etude in C sharp minor, Op 2 No 1, uncovering counter-lines in the left hand that hadn’t occurred to me. spirit or, perhaps, to Scriabin himself. Of Smit’s two concluding Ligeti Etudes, I found ‘The Devil’s Staircase’ more playful and flexible than the strength and intensity of Denis Lennik’s earlier performance.

In itself, Yuki YoshimiMozart’s Sonata in D major, K311, would score high points for its scintillating craftsmanship and grace. Still, he didn’t quite reach Yunchan Lim’s high inspiration in the foreplay. Yoshimi had better luck with Brahms Paganini Variations than Andrew Li earlier, exercising more control and balance (especially in Book I). As such, he really redeemed himself in the wake of his rather generic Liszt Sonata in the preliminary round.

Uladzislau Khandohi dug deeper into the details of Bach Chromatic Fantasy than Masaya Kamei had earlier, though his drier Fugue disappointed with its predictable ritards at structural junctions and overly loud, mechanical trills. However, I hope the jury will take into account the cumulative sweep and crisp freshness of Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata of Khandohi. Imagine Sviatoslav Richter’s seminal story with added humor and caustic bite, and you’ll get the idea.

Every time I’ve blogged on Sun Yutong, I invariably mention his professionalism and imperturbability, and how his pianism consistently satisfies year after year. However, his quarter-final program often rose above these positive attributes. He imparted a unique sonic world to each of Carl Vine’s Five Bagatelles, playing on the music’s stark contrasts in mood and dynamics. Chopin’s fantasia in F minor was concerned with Sun’s rapturous concentration and effective hairpin rubatos in the opening section, while the March episodes emphasized the urgent trajectory of the melodic line on persistent bass. He built his Bach-Busoni Chaconne conclusion from the bottom up, with strong basslines anchoring the virtuoso decorative writing. The performance leaned more into the architectural designs of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli or Hélène Grimaud than the more rhapsodic traversals of Evgeny Kissin or Kun-Woo Paik, leaving me gratified, if not emotionally drained.

To watch more videos of the performances described above, visit the Cliburn International Piano Competition website:

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