Alex McDonald in Phase II of the Preliminary Round
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Cliburn Preliminaries: Monday, May 27, Session 3

Reviews of the Phase II preliminary recitals by Steven Lin, Marcin Koziak and Alex McDonald

published Monday, May 27, 2013

Steven Lin, 24, USA

Steven Lin is certainly a favorite with the audience, partly because of his internationally spreading reputation, and partly because of his spectacular performance early in the round.

In his last appearance, he started with Bach. This time, he started with Haydn, another composer who requires great precision and eschews sensationalism on the part of the performer. As before, Lin kept his head low over the keyboard with his nose just above his hands. It’s an odd mannerism and it is impossible to imagine what advantage it gives him to keep so close a watch on his fingers, as if they would run away the minute they had the chance.

That is exactly the feeling we get in a fast tempo with Lin. He rarely starts a tempo that can be criticized as “too fast” although he comes right up to that limit. What you sense is that he really wants to go faster and is only restraining himself by supreme self control. Frequently, there are little hints of rushing, like in the three chords that appear in the first movement of Haydn’s  Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50, which opened his program,  as well as in  some of the runs. But it never really happens and he always manages to hold a tempo once it is set.

On the plus side of the ledger—and there is much in this columnhe plays with amazing clarity. Further, he is a master at nuance: no phrase goes unadorned. And this is not some learned interpretation; it comes directly from inside and you can see the conviction and the opinions forming on his face about how the music should play out. The biggest plus in the Haydn (at least for me) was his exploration of Haydn’s love of being mischievous in his fast movements. Lin had a great time with the sudden changes and surprising turns of events. 

The slow movement was another story. Lin perfectly captured Haydn at his most operatic and let the music sing a beautiful line, which he also ably accompanied. On the down side, he used too much sustaining pedal, which blurred some of the textures and the overall impression was that his performance was somewhat mannered.

He followed this with a set of three Chopin Impromptus: No. 1 in A-flat Major, op. 29; No. 2 in F-sharp Major, op. 36; and No. 3 in G-flat Major, op. 51. Although obviously not conceived as a set, the three worked quite nicely and let Lin show different aspects of his musicality. The first (A-flat Major) received a very insightful and masterful performance. He kept all of the virtuoso adornments in perspective as elaborations of a single note, much like an extendedvery extended—turn or mordant. The second (F-sharp Major) was a study in how beautifully he can play a legato melody. The transitions were also expertly handled as were his changes between very different elements. The third got off to a passionate start and demonstrated his attention to the smallest detail.

In the pantheon of terrible Liszt pieces, Réminiscences de Don Juan has an honored spot. It is a mangling of tunes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and it is a work that is rarely heard outside of piano competitions. It shows up there because of all of the technical spectaculars that are included and the fact that it always brings the audience to their feet. Whether or not it impresses the judges is another matter since they are not judging gymnastics or figure skating, where there is a list of required tricks that must be performed (scales in double octaves: check; chromatic third in running patterns: check). In this particular potpourri, Mozart’s divine operatic arias are subjected to these machinations. Lin played all of the technical aspects with bravura and élan. He didn’t have much of a feel for the original arias, but then neither did Liszt.

However, Réminiscences de Don Juan did it usual magic and brought the audience to their feet, cheering.


Marcin Koziak, 24, Poland

Marcin Koziak played two large-scale works for his second round. This is always a risky choice because it doesn’t let you show much range. On the other hand, it allows you to exhibit your understanding of big multi-movement works and how they are unified into an entire piece. Thus, it was with some curiosity in this regard that this particular recital was anticipated. Not only that, Koziak picked two works that came from the same genetic pool, just a generation apart:  Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, op. 13 "Pathetique" (1798); and Brahms’  Sonata No. 1 in C Major, op. 1 (1853).  

Koziak started out the Beethoven with a stately take on the famous opening. However, there was a little too much brio in the Allegro di molto e con brio of the main movement. The only problem with such a fast tempo came with the subordinate theme, which sounded trivial at this pace. The second movement tempo was exactly correct and Koziak brought out the gorgeous melody. He hit the tempo of the final rondo right on; it is usually taken too fast to be enjoyed. Overall, he played the sonata cleanly and didn’t try to fit it with his own fretful and “Pathetique” overlay. 

The Brahms also benefited from Koziak’s sure sense of tempo. He aim was a little off but his way with a phrase made for an enjoyable performance. The second movement is a song, and Brahms prints the words under the first statement of the tune. They are really immaterial because the melody speaks for itself. The text is below if you are interested. Both the scherzo and the last movement were exactly right as far as tempo and phrasing. Koziak also has a sure grip of Brahms’ style.  

The big problem with both of these selections is the same: They are just too loud throughout. This condensed performance and eventually tired both the pianist and the ears of the audience. Dialed back about three levels, you could have heard all of the fine detail in the performance. As it was, it was covered in a carpet of overtones.


Alex McDonald, 30, USA

As the hometown native, Alex McDonald had his support group in attendance and they gave him a rousing ovation as he walked on the stage for Phase II of the prelims. His earlier appearance was quite good and his name is on many short lists to advance (no one knows who is on the judges' list). He played an exhausting program that ended with the most taxing piece of all. Still, he turned in a wonderful performance, with some truly remarkable moments, that validated the trust many have in him. 

He opened with two contrasting pieces from Ravel’s Miroirs, a suite from solo piano that also has a robust life as an orchestral work. The first is Oiseaux tristes (Sad birds). Actually, it is only one bird, but he (maybe she) is indeed very sad as you can tell by the mournful tune. This selection allowed McDonald to hush the audience because of the single note that opens the work—it was very effective. The big cadenza was equally impressive, as was McDonald’s ability to return to the mood of the opening. 

The next selection was Alborada del gracioso, a Spanish dance with complicated rhythms and great technical demands. McDonald resisted the temptation to take this movement lickity-split and possibly lose the dance qualities of the music. He wisely avoided the overuse of the sustaining pedal so that all of the staccato playing clicked like castanets. In the pseudo-recitative passage, McDonald played it with such understanding that you couldn’t help but wonder if he made up his own words to the passage. (If so, wouldn’t you love to know what they were?) He used a great deal of sustaining pedal here, which allowed him to meld the harmonic colors. Otherwise, his technical playing was very clean, as we have come to expect from this artist, and full of power when needed. 

That power was needed, and then some, in his final selection; but in the meanwhile, he took a detour to Les jeux d'eau de la Villa d'Este (The Fountains of the Villa d'Este)—a villa built for the clergy, of course. Over the music, Liszt placed the inscription “Sed aqua quam ego dabo ei, fiet in eo fons aquae salientis in vitam aeternam” (“But the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into eternal life," from the Gospel of John). The music is more practical in that there are fountain sprays and bubbles and McDonald depicts this with a very fast tremolo.

McDonald never forgets that we are next to a very noisy fountain and that this makes it hard to hear anything over the din in his opening dynamic. However, his bass notes were too heavy. But he gave the melody its head. The fast octaves should not be on the same level as the melodic material or it creates the same problem. Through the end it may all be marked to be played very loudly, but the big bottom layers still have to be separated.

Chopin’s Nocturne in C Minor, op. 48, no. 1, was a pleasant respite before the Stravinsky Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka. In the Chopin, McDonald gave the melody some freedom and, for the most part, kept it prominent. Only when it was accompanied by double octaves did it struggle to be heard. Admittedly, this is a passage where everything is loud, but it is still in dynamic layers and the melody has to be on top. 

The Stravinsky is a show-stopper whenever it is played and it is a signature piece for McDonald. He played it in the screening auditions in Fort Worth and you can safely assume that it was responsible for putting him there. While he could have had more fun with it, it is hard work to play and the tension must have been high with so much riding on one performance. 

His dynamic level was correcthe was noisy rather than just loud. His texture changes also worked. Even though this is one of the most technically challenging works in the competition, and others have played it already, the real challenge is to attempt to recreate the orchestration as well as the character of a preexisting composition: a ballet with a storyline. In many areas, McDonald succeeded in both of these endeavors. Another problem with this piece is endurance. You are playing full-out the entire time. McDonald appeared to tire near the end, but you could see determination in his face as he mustered a second wind from some deep reserve and finished in a blaze of glory. 


◊ Click here to see reviews of the Prelminary Recital/Phase I for Steven Lin, Marcin Koziak and Alex McDonald Thanks For Reading

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Cliburn Preliminaries: Monday, May 27, Session 3
Reviews of the Phase II preliminary recitals by Steven Lin, Marcin Koziak and Alex McDonald
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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