Steven Lin, 24, USA
The afternoon on Day 1 featured three powerhouse performances. All three will be hard to beat in the evening, if not the rest of the competition.
Steven Lin comes into the competition a favorite, with much previous acclaim and rave reviews from concerts with the New York Philharmonic to the Tulsa Symphony. He is a prize student at Juilliard while continuing to concertize around the world. Much was expected of him as he walked out wearing a tux and a black shirt with a Henley collar that was open at the neck. He did not disappoint and he turned in a highly individualistic and technically brilliant performance.
He sits close to the keyboard and bends low over his hands. His nose practically touches the top of them. It is as if he needs to keep tight control over them or they will run away. In some ways, this is true because you always feel that he would like the fast parts to go faster but he is trying to keep from rushing. He never does—but you can sense that he wants to.
He started out with Bach, his Overture in the French Style, BWV 831. His approach is as romantic as we heard earlier in Sangiovanni’s hands, but even more so. He started out forcefully, but not necessarily loud. His performance was filled with dynamic shifts, swells and retreats, rubato at the ends of phrases and even some subito piano phrases. On the other hand, his playing was crisp and clean. He hardly ever used the sustaining pedal; in fact, his right foot was mostly flat on the floor. You may not agree with his interpretation but you cannot argue with his execution. He has obviously thought about every note and phrase and everything he does is consistent with his concept. It may not be Baroque in the way that early music groups conceive it these days, but it works.
He followed this with a piece more to his style, Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, op. 28 ("Scottish Sonata"). He took his usual long preparation before starting. The opening was a little on the overwrought side, but once into the piece, his nimble fingers and clean technique brought the piece to life. In fact, the mastery of musical mood changes is one of Lin’s great strengths. His other advantage is his supreme confidence that he will be able to play the notes effortlessly and that he can forget about that part of the performance and just make music. You can see it in his face. He is really having a wonderful time performing for us.
He closed with a humdinger of a virtuoso piece, Australian composer Carl Vine’s amazingly difficult Sonata No. 1, which dates from 1990. This is a perfect piece for Lin in that it has lots of very fast notes but requires great musicianship to pull it off. The second movement moves at a blindingly fast tempo but it is also very soft, requiring complete control. Lin took it as fast as possible and reveled in how fast he could play it. It ends in a whisper and Lin played the drama of the moment perfectly. The audience leapt to their feet, and there were many cheers as well.
Marcin Koziak, 24, Poland
Marcin Koziak was born into a musical family in Krakow, and made his debut at the age of 11 with the Krakow Philharmonic. He is currently a student of Tamás Ungár at TCU and resides in Fort Worth. He was exactly the opposite of the showy Lin and the two excellent pianists made for a stark contrast. Koziak was in a more traditional tux with a white tie. He sat ramrod-straight at the keyboard, with the bench back enough so that his arms had little bend at the elbow. Koziak only moved his head, with little body movement, but his blond hair had just enough length in the front to have some dramatic movement here and there. His face was more serious than Lin’s, although a hint of a smile appeared when something went particularly well.
He started out with two contrasting works by Chopin, his virtuoso Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, op. 31, and his moody and lyrical Nocturne in F-sharp Major, op. 15, no. 2. Both were played with a fine sense of the composer’s eclectic style. The Nocturne was especially lovely. It was as if he was accompanying the haunting melody in his right hand as though it belonged to someone else. It was a stunning performance and the audience found itself holding their collective breath at the end.
Szymanowski’s Mazurkas, op. 50, nos. 1-4, followed. These are not mazurkas in the way you think of them in Chopin. They still have the rhythm, but they wander into other realms in the process. Here, the difficulties are not as obvious as in other works, but they exist in matters of style. Koziak gave them a sympathetic performance and it was one of the more enjoyable performances of the work in recent memory.
Alex McDonald, 30, USA
Alex McDonald is another local competitor. He is currently on the faculty of Texas Women’s University and continues to concertize throughout the country. His performance in the screening auditions was so very impressive that there was little doubt that he would be here again. His performance tonight of the Liszt sonata was definitive and brought what is a creaky piece gloriously to life.
He was simply dressed in a dark business suit, white shirt and red tie. He walked out to cheers since many of his friends and students were in attendance. He is another pianist who sits straight up without a lot of body movement except in the most taxing parts. Yet, his body motion is expressive while being minimal.
As he did before, he opened with Haydn, his Sonata in B Minor, Hob. XVI:32. Also as he did before, he started out with too much sound for the ever elegant Haydn. However, that moderated as he got into the piece. The second movement, which is not really slow (just contrasting) was played with simplicity and was impressive in its plainess. McDonald didn’t overplay the contrasting middle section, so the entire movement was kept in proportion. The last movement, with its characteristic repeated notes, was as clean as a showroom car and purred like a finely tuned engine. It was fast, but never rushed, and he let the phrases relax as they came to rest.
All this was well and good, but McDonald was at his best in the Liszt sonata. This is a piece that many of us have to endure. It is usually played with bang-bang ham-handed overzealousness trying to make as much sound as possible (as if that is laudable). The melodic parts usually become saccharine indulgences. McDonald turned it into a great piece of music right before our eyes, like a magician making a dove out of a handkerchief.
It took him a few measures to get the feel of the piano and the size of the octaves and he wisely took it easy until he felt comfortable. Liszt is all about flashing octaves, and by the end of the sonata, his hands were a blur and his accuracy was at 100 percent. Actually, he threw caution to the wind in this performance, taking chances at every turn, but he didn’t ever overplay the instrument. There is a moment near the end where there are signature chords low in the range of the keyboard, marked triple forte. This is usually played in such a manner as to be in danger of breaking a string. McDonald played it with maximum force, but the sound he elicited was full and rich without a hint of overplayed twang. Even more impressive was the next appearance of this motive, just a few measures later. Here, they are marked only double forte and usually played much the same.
McDonald pulled them back just enough to make the contrast without losing the drama. He also carefully parsed the tempo at the end, because it starts but then gets constantly faster. Start it too fast and you end up in trouble. McDonald hit it exactly right.
I do have one quibble, however. The big climax chord near the end is meant to be hit and released quickly. Perhaps this is a performance transition of which I am unaware, but I think the drama of hitting the chord as a “stinger” is more effective. He paced the end, which fades away rather than ends, so well that the audience had a clear understanding of when it actually ends (which usually doesn’t happen).
This was a magnificent performance of the Liszt. After the performance, I got a phone message from a famous piano teacher who resides on the west coast and had watched the live stream. She said it was the single best performance of the sonata she has ever heard. High praise indeed.