Sara Daneshpour, 26, USA
In her first appearance in the competition, Sara Daneshpour was the very definition of elegance—in appearance, composure and playing style. When she finished, we were amazed at what we had just heard. The question “where did she come from?” echoed throughout Bass Hall. The answer: first from Curtis and now from Juilliard, and soon to belong to the world. She is already a much-lauded prize winner. She took the first prize at the XII Concours International de Musique du Maroc in 2012, second prize at the 2007 William Kapell International Piano Competition, and first prize at the 2007 International Russian Music Piano Competition.
Nothing on her program was unusual nor did it hold any of the big showpieces, such as Ravel’s Gaspard or Balakirev’s Islamey (which is yet to be played). She chose a modest program of Schumann, Chopin and some of Rachminov’s Étude-tableaux. While all of these presents significant technical challenges, one thing that all have in common is that they require superior musicianship and an unfailing sense of style. In short, they are perfect for Daneshpour and she first amazed the audience and then brought them to their feet in a spontaneous ovation.
She started Schumann’s Variations on the Name "Abegg," op. 1, simply and so quietly that the last note was inaudible where I was seated near the back of the hall. (There is no doubt that it was sounded.) She launched into the variations with confidence and delivered a full sound without being loud. She connected the variations in a seamless manner and was obviously enjoying the experience and that relaxed mindset communicated to the audience as much as the music. It was an elegant performance from the modest start to the modest ending.
Chopin’s Scherzo No. 4 in E Major, op. 54, is a major work requiring great technical abilities. Daneshpour played the two opening chords with strength but her fortissimo was more burnished than harshly loud, as we hear so often. From there, the piece is filled with runs and virtuosic passages that she negotiated with an ease that was quite remarkable. In her hands, these flourishes returned to their rightful place as part of the musical texture, instead of being an end unto themselves. Yet she was able to muster considerable bravura when the music called for it.
In fact, if there was any doubt about the strength of her playing, it didn’t take long into the first of the Rachminov pieces to put that canard to rest. She soon thundered into Rachmaninov’s Étude-tableau in C Minor, op. 39, no. 1. His Étude-tableau in A Minor, op. 39, no. 2, was more introspective and evocative. She used just the right amount of pedal to make it sound sustained and to impart a feeling of playing in a great space, yet no harmony intruded on any of its neighbors nor overstayed its welcome. Next came the Étude-tableau in F-sharp Minor, op. 39, no. 3. Here, Daneshpour gave an exciting and powerful performance, yet she brought it to a serene finish rather than let it expire or run out of steam. The Étude-tableau in E-flat Minor, op. 33, no. 6, is fast and stormy, requiring muscular power. Daneshpour carefully monitored it so that the quieter sections could be kept in context. Her final selection, the Étude-tableau in A Minor, op. 39, no. 6, required more consistent energy than the others and cannot come down, even when it is softer and slower. Here, she was a loaded spring, ready to unload.
Daneshpour plays with great intelligence and always seems to know the architecture of the piece and how each note fits into the whole. She gives phrases time to develop but the music never slows by threatening to stop before it crosses the finish line. Some tempi are slower than usual while others are faster, however they all seemed exactly right in her context.
There is an informality in her playing that is both deceptive and disarming; deceptive in that we feel like we are in her living room instead of a concert hall and context is everything. But, when she was finished we realized that we were in a concert hall and had been transported to her private space where she shared some music with us. The standing ovation was universal and spontaneous—once the spell was broken.
Gustavo Miranda-Bernales, 22, Chile
Gustavo Miranda-Bernales looked sharp in his tux with a shawl collar and spiffy four-in-hand tie. He took a deep bow and then sat quite a distance away from the piano, so much so that he legs were stretched out to reach the pedals. Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 935, op. 142, and Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, op. 60, are both concert staples and both will reappear in competitors’ programs. However, neither is on the extremely difficult list. His performance was marred by a huge boom from somewhere in the hall. It was loud enough to make me and those around me jump. Although Miranda-Bernales didn’t appear to notice, it had to have affected his concentration.
He started the first Schubert in an aggressive manner and made a nice transition to the theme, which he played with great musicality. He kept the song-like nature of the melody and its echo singing above the accompaniment figure. The second was played simply, without any overlay of comment from Miranda-Bernales. At the big moment, he almost lost his concentration but easily pulled himself back without a pause. The third was a complete change of mood and Miranda-Bernales communicated with his face and portraying a feeling that all is right with the world. The fourth changed mood again and he took obvious pleasure in running his scales in such a facile manner for us.
The Chopin was the piece in progress at the moment of the big disturbance. While he played with great bravura, he suffered a couple of times when his finger caught a neighboring note by accident. Still, he built to the big climax of the piece with sure determination and the brief breath he took before landing on the next chord was quite thrilling.
Jie Yuan, 27, China
Last to play in the evening’s line-up was Chinese pianist Jie Yuan. Already a prize-winner in other competitions, his appearance was eagerly anticipated. He won major prizes at both the 2009 Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition and the 2007 Shanghai International Piano Competition. He looked handsome in a standard tux with a white shirt and black bow tie as he took some time to get settled at the keyboard. Since we were returning from a long break, the audience had some trouble settling as well.
In an unfortunate accident of positioning, he started out with the same piece that had opened Daneshpour’s program, Schumann’s Variations on the Name "Abegg," op. 1. He started out quietly but lingered too much over the theme so that we lost context. He also took too much time between the variations. Thus, it made the piece seem more sectional than it is by the nature of the form. However, his performance was impressive because of his clean technique and very nimble fingers. He also delivered a very musical performance.
Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50, received a very stylish performance. The first movement was bright and his staccato, which came more from his arm than wrist, was excellent. Visually, his release was sharp as well. In fact, it looked like the keys were electrified and delivered a shock when he touched them. The second movement was too slow and labored, and the final ritard separated into single notes as opposed to a phrase. The third movement was his best as he played up Haydn’s wit and unpredictability.
Stravinsky’s Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka ended his program. This is one of the showpieces of the repertoire and has already been played a number of times in the competition, and will be played again. Fortunately, no one ever tires of hearing it and it can sound completely different in other hands.
Yuan started at a very fast tempo but he had the technique to sustain it. He caught the style and the roughness of the mood and had the impressive chops to make the piece really take off and fly. As in the Haydn, his slow is too slow and he practically stopped. But the entire performance was exciting and Yuan gave a blistering reading of the piece. The audience was impressed and gave him a rousing ovation.