François Dumont, 27, France
French-born François Dumont is already well-known to a larger audience because of his award-winning recording of the complete Mozart sonatas for Anima Records. He has also made highly regarded solo recordings of works by Chopin and the complete piano works of Ravel. So, his performance of a Mozart sonata and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit was eagerly anticipated. He did not disappoint.
He was wearing a dark suit with a white shirt open at the collar. He sat straight up and stayed that way for most of his performance. He would occasionally tilt his head, but there was not a lot of body movement. His ability to switch musical styles was remarkable, from an understated Mozart to an explosive Chopin with a highly colored Gaspard in between.
The Mozart Sonata in A Minor, K. 310, is one of his masterpieces because of its use of form (the slow movement is in full-blown sonata form) and its economy of materials (the last movement is fast throughout and based on patterns). Dumont played it completely in classical scale, with the loud parts never, well hardly ever, reaching to romantic levels. This sense of scale, combined with impeccably clean technique, lends the overriding impression.
Mozart often wrote contrasting loud and soft music in very close proximity. You can guess he got this from the harpsichord, which cannot do a crescendo but, if it has two manuals, can contrast loud and soft practically by the note. Too often, we don’t hear this contrast in his music. Dumont brought this contrast out and the effect was amazing. He also brought different feelings to closely juxtaposed music. For example, the first phrase of the sonata was firm but he relaxed the second. The second movement allowed us to hear his excellent trill. The scampering last movement was set at just the right tempo—not too fast (as we often hear). He added to the rhythmic interest by grouping the measures into super measures of four, though sometimes of only one or two measures.
Gaspard de la nuit has been played several times in the competition and will surely be played again. Dumont played a highly colored version that took full advantage of Ravel’s effects. Somehow, most pianists start “Ondine" too loudly and this was also the case with Dumont. Perhaps, because of something physical, this is as quiet as it can start. He brought the singing melody out and connected it up so that it sailed over the rippling waters. In “Le Gibet,” he created a realistic bell sound by clever use of the sustaining pedal. However, because of its volume, that bell was very close instead of distant. The tempo was slow and sometimes the chords were reduced to sonorities instead of part of a line, but he never let it drag. "Scarbo" was lighting fast, so much so that the repeated notes hardly had time to sound. Here, his use of negative space (silence) was masterful. Many times, we were left hanging from the musical cliff. This was a terrific performance overall. In an earlier rendition, Ravel’s subtlety was the takeaway. Here, it was his virtuosity and ability to create visuals with music.
Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, op. 39, felt like an encore after the Ravel, which created such a universal mood and maybe should have traded places with it on the program. It wasn’t like we needed any further proof that he has a monster technique and the bang-bang of this particular selection felt like an intrusion. He took it at as fast a clip as it can go. My colleague thought that he might have played it as a tribute to Van Cliburn, since he was closely identified with the piece.
Ruoyu Huang, 24, China
Ruoyu Huang was born in China and now resides in New York to attend Juilliard. He also has major awards, including prizes from the Asian Chopin International Concerto Competition, China International Piano Competition and Oberlin International Piano Competition. He wore a full tux and walked briskly to the piano. He sat upright, only leaning forward occasionally.
His program was limited to two composers: Haydn and Chopin. However, since he played all 24 of the Chopin preludes, and they are so different, we saw many sides of his playing. He has a sure technique and his playing is bright and clean. He has a fine sense of the music and is able to carry a phrase from start to finish. The one concern was that he was too liberal with the sustaining pedal and, while not as noticeable in the Haydn, he really soaked some of the Chopin.
He opened with Haydn’s Sonata in E Major, Hob. XVI:3. The first movement was full of energy and sparkle. The second movement was remarkable in that we heard him play a legato melody with a staccato left-hand accompaniment. The last movement was a bit on the fast side, but he made a good case for it and no one could deny that it was effective.
Chopin’s Étude in E Minor, op. 25, no. 5, was taken at a reasonable tempo that some might feel was on the slow side, but it worked for me. He added in some accelerando and ritard pairs and brought out the melody in the slower section expansively. He didn’t slow down all that much either; of course, he was already going slower that usual. It was a personal interpretation and he gave it a fine performance.
Chopin’s 24 Preludes, op. 28, are a widely varied collection of pieces, some longer and others very short. Some are impossibly difficult while others are among the most simple pieces in the repertoire. They are not really preludes, as in an operatic setting, but are short character pieces.
It would take too long to go into each of them, but Huang gave each one the requisite coloring and mood. For example, the famous No. 4, which was played at the composer’s funeral and included in the movie Five Easy Pieces, was played with solemnity, but Huang kept the slow-march feeling throughout. The final one, which depicts a storm, brought the work to a rousing close.
Yury Favorin, 26, Russia
Yury Favorin played the last recital of the first round of the preliminaries. He entered in a tux and moved directly to the piano. He sat high at the keyboard and kept his body straight, only occasionally looking down. Mostly, his eyes were closed with his head slightly looking up and left, as if there was something at the top of the raised lid.
Schubert’s Sonata in E-flat Major, D. 568, received a sympathetic performance and he played it with classical sensibilities, which was refreshing. The first movement was bright and not overly labored. In the second movement, he played one of Schubert’s lovely melodies with a singer’s understanding and never overplayed any of the bigger moments. He played the third movement to bring out its folklike qualities. The last movement brought it to a fine close.
Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s Overture from Tannhaüser is one of his finer transcriptions. Of course, there is so much going on in the overture that there was little room for Liszt to add anything. In fact, the figure in the strings for the ending is unplayable on the piano so Liszt had to make up something else.
Favorin took an excellent tempo and played the overture in full-blown Wagnerian romantic style. He bravely managed the blizzard of notes at the end, even though another hand or three would have been helpful, and created quite a thrilling moment.
His final selection was Boucourechliev’s Orion 3, a contemporary piece that is, in its own way, as exciting as the Wagner. Of course, they are completely different. Orion 3 is short but intense, full of dissonance and musical cataclysmic events. This allowed Favorin to display another aspect of his playing and his ability to make music with something contemporary, which requires a completely different kind of technique from Wagner and Schubert.