Claire Huangci, 23, USA
Now, we start over. This year, unlike in the past, each of the contestants gets a second chance to impress the judges. Javques Marquis, the new President and CEO of The Van Cliburn Foundation, said that he thought that they all deserved another opportunity, especially considering how long they have prepared and the distances traveled. “What if you had a bad day?” he asked, rhetorically.
There has been a lot of piano music going on since Claire Huangci opened the first rounds of recitals. She was much more confident this time as she took the stage in a beautiful blue chiffon dress that was off one shoulder, with a trailing scarf. An aside: The problem with off-the-shoulder dresses in concert-wear for pianists is that it is always the bare shoulder towards the audience with the beautiful dress part upstage.
She opened in much the same manner as her first round, with something from the standard piano repertory: Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke, D. 946. Her performance demonstrated the same care and attention to detail. She started off loudly, but it was Schubertian loud. Her attention to the style of the composer continued on the second movement as she took full advantage of Schubert’s talent for writing a song. She did a sensitive job of accompanying herself on one of the composer’s lovely melodies. However, she didn’t over-sentimentalize it, but played it with a lilt and let it sing on its own without further comment from her. The last movement was fast and intense and played with force and bravura. She tried to pull it back for the middle section, but she pulled too far and it began to drag. The transition back had too far to go but the piece came to a satisfactory close once she arrived at the big ending.
Her performance of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty, in a virtuoso arrangement by the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev, has surely caused the judges to reconsider her. Marquis said that the second recital might make up for an off day in the first round. In this case, it allowed Huangci to have a spectacular day after a good one. Also, it helped to make up for her falling, by luck of the draw, into the dreaded first position in the competition.
The selections were some of the most well-known music in the ballet and it was enjoyable to hear it in this new guise. Of special note was the version of the duet between the two cats, Le chat botté et la chatte blanche. The same sly, slinky music worked just as well here. The Vision d’aurore brought a rustle of appreciation in the audience and the big Adagio was every bit as thrilling as with the orchestra. The Finale was amazing and had all of the same devices that Liszt uses to show transcendental technical powers, but with much better music.
Huangci gave a truly wonderful performance.
Scipione Sangiovanni, 25, Italy
Scipione Sangiovanni selected two major works for his second appearance. He opened with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in C Major, op. 2, no. 3, and followed that with Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue.
His problem in both of these selections was the same. Sangiovanni overplayed right from the start. The Beethoven moved to a harsh fortissimo in short order. This is an early work, and even though it is the most substantial of the other Opus 3 sonatas, it is still a classically conceived work and is dedicated to Haydn. The kind of heavy-handed playing that Sangiovanni brought to his performance wouldn’t be required in Beethoven until much later.
He took the first movement at quite a clip, giving more weight to the “con Brio” part of the allegro con brio marking. His use of the sustaining pedal obscured some of the staccato notes. Sangiovanni was at his best in the Adagio movement. The Scherzo lacked charm and a too-fast-and-loud finale brought the work to a conclusion.
Sangiovanni didn’t fare better in the Franck. This is a thickly scored work that is fat with chromatic harmonies. It requires a lean touch to clarify all of the lines and massive chords so that it doesn’t overwhelm with its complexity. This was exactly what Sangiovanni lacked and he overplayed and over-pedaled it from start to finish.
He is a very talented pianist who is blessed with great technical abilities. He is an innate musician with a sense of the dramatic. What he needs to do is to pull it all back a step or two and reconsider his approach to music in general. Every work has one loudest moment and one softest moment and everything else has to fit somewhere in between. When you start out with volume at the top level, there is nowhere to go. This was Sangiovanni’s problem as he tried to top himself as the concert progressed.
Beatrice Rana, 20, Italy
In my earlier review of Beatrice Rana, I commented that I heard remarks in the audience such as “here is a real artist.” After today, we heard “she might be a winner.”
What caused the rise in opinion was a combination of another exposure to her artistry and abilities and the remarkable program that she played in Phase II, which showed her in three completely different aspects: classicist, technical master and modernist. Most pianists are lucky to excel at one or two of these areas, but she astonished with each incarnation.
She swept onto the stage in a buttery gold silk dress that covered the shoulders but left her arms bare. It was full at the knees which allowed it to look great when she sat at the keyboard. Her hair was pulled back, but it wasn’t until the video gave us a close-up that we realized it was held back with a braid of her own hair from the temples.
Rana started with Schumann’s Variations on the Name "Abegg," op. 1, which we have heard a number of times already. She started out simply and brought the statement of the theme down to a barely audible pianissimo. She hooked up the variations in such a manner as to minimize the sectional nature inherent in the form. She had the same simple approach to the entire piece, playing all of the virtuoso passages in such a manner that they were part of the texture instead of something added for effect. In her concept, they were not the point of the piece—and she would be right in that assumption.
Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit is another work that has appeared before and will surely appear again. It is a masterpiece that no one minds hearing multiple times, and it allows for myriad interpretations. Rana started it too loudly for my taste, but I may have to stop saying that because if that was as soft as she could start it, then it just can’t be played any softer. Her “Ondine” was a pool of water that shimmered in the moonlight rather than a stream that rippled from movement. However, she gave us a big splash at the end.
Her interpretation of the “Gibet” movement took us to a place where the air was thick and unnaturally still. Her bell tolled somewhere in the distance yet sometimes seemed closer. She played the other material in such a way as to bring out the melody that overrides it, which we sometimes don’t hear at all. However, she played it all in such a fragmented and indistinct way that the listener had the strange impression that the only real sound was the tolling of the bell and that the other music was a figment of a feverish imagination.
“Scarbo” had the same effect. You had the feeling that this is a story being told, with all appropriate enhancements, rather than experienced firsthand. The imp was even scarier in the retelling. Musically, there were many surprises in her performance. As often as I have sat through this piece, there were things she brought out that I had never heard before. I can hardly wait to pull out my score and find her discoveries for myself.
If you thought that you had experienced all of the treats she had in store, then you would have been unprepared for the way she plowed into Bartók’s Out of Doors suite. She attacked the piano and it was a cage match between her and the instrument from the opening bell, as if to say “no more Ms. Nice Guy!” This is not to say that she didn’t pull it back when needed, but even the quiet moments were filled with the suspense that something was going to happen—maybe something terrible or wonderful or…who knows?
It was a remarkable performance and could be a game-changer for her.
◊ Click here to see reviews of the Prelminary Recital/Phase I for Claire Huangci, Scipione Sangiovanni and Beatrice Rana.