Nikita Mndoyants, 24, Russia
Nikita Mndoyants played a much more intriguing program for his second round, yet there were still a couple of unusual selections. However, his sensitive performance of two familiar works shed new light on them that inspired a reconsideration of both.
Bach’s Toccata in F-sharp Minor, BWV 910, is a wide-ranging piece made up of four movements encompassing two big fugues. Mndoyants sent the sustaining pedal on vacation while he played most of this piece using only finger legato and holding the longer notes down with his fingers until the exact proper moment to release them. You could easily assume that he has some organ training, or maybe harpsichord experience, because his abilities went far beyond the usual pianist’s training. Additionally, he brought out all of the inner voices without making them louder—a feat that sounds easier than it is. His take on the first movement, Prelude and Adagio, as well as the Adagio that occupies the third movement slot, was leaning towards the romantic interpretation. However, once he got to the fugues, his style was pure Baroque with clean notes and transparent textures.
Haydn’s Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI:6 received the same careful attention, with minimal pedal and a clear, but not overly short, staccato. He set a cheerful tempo for the first movement and it offered an opportunity for him to show us his fast and even trill. The second movement offered a bigger challenge in that there is a staccato bass line over which Mndoyants floated a legato melody. He was able to keep the bass line metronomically marching along while giving the melody over it some expressive freedom. The same skill served him well in the third movement, only this time it was chords in the left hand keeping a regular beat. He didn’t over-sentimentalize the melody in either movement, which is a trap that catches many pianists as they get lost in Haydn’s beauty, forgetting his simplicity. The last movement was quick without being fast and had a nice lilt.
Overall, both the Bach and Haydn were played with modern sensibilities but well within the confines of historical performance practices, without the usual stuffiness. The best word to describe his performance is “classy.”
Taneyev is a composer who is widely performed in Russia but only beginning to be heard here. He is a natural for American tastes in that he is a stepping stone from Tchaikovsky to Rachmaninoff, but he ranged from ultra-romantic music to the influences of the modernist movement that was swirling around before he died in 1915 (Strasvinsky’s The Rite of Spring was written in 1913). His Prelude and Fugue in G-sharp Minor, op. 29, written in 1910, is a perfect example. It is full of dissonant harmonies but still retains lots of romantic feeling and sweep. Babadjanian’s Six Pictures, from 1965, is another example of contemporary music that absorbed the influences around it, from jazz to the experimental.
All this background is offered to bring some perspective to Mndoyants’ playing of both pieces. While both are modernist in nature, he played the Taneyev with a 19th-century perspective and the Babadjanian with a 20th-century feel. It was quite remarkable to hear him revel in both of these pieces and to play them with the same historical relevance that he used on Bach and Haydn. These were well-researched performances and played in such a way that they all four generated the same level of excitement.
Luca Buratto, 20, Italy
Luca Buratto shattered protocol, if there is any, by being the first male pianist to come on stage without a jacket. He wore a white shirt with an open collar. He sits so far back from the piano that his arm are almost completely outstretched, unless he leans forward for effect.
He opened with Bach’s Toccata in C Minor, BWV 911, and played with a decidedly romantic influence and too much sustaining pedal. This made for some blurry sounds where some crisp transparency is wanted. He started the fugue in a forthright manner, but failed to drop the level to give some sonic room for the other voices as they came in. The effect was a cumulative crescendo that took this to a higher dynamic that he wanted (at least that he should have wanted). The second fugue in the work is lighter on its feet and Buratto did a better job of controlling the dynamics and letting the entering voices sound out.
He continued with two of Schumann’s Op. 21 Novelettes, one in D Major, no. 2, and the one in F-sharp Minor, no. 8. The composer had a literary background and the title may have come from there—a novelette being a short novel or long story. These are narratives, and Buratto was much better in these pieces. It was obvious that the music came from somewhere inside and was flowing out to the keyboard The big climax was perfectly paced because he had not overused the loudest dynamics. He also was able to bring out many details in the music that are usually passed over or buried in the performance.
He closed with Bartók’s Sonata from 1926. Here, he completely changed his style and attacked the piano in the requisite rough-hewn manner to get the composer’s harsh and percussive effects right from the start. This is a completely dissonant work, without a single triad or consonant interval to be found. Buratto had the requisite strength to keep up the combative nature of the music. He seemed to tire near the end, but he had plenty of energy left to master the repeated octaves at the end.
Giuseppe Greco, 23, Italy
Giuseppe Greco is an anomaly. He is a fine pianist with remarkable skills who played an excellent program, yet he doesn’t command the kind of attention that some of the other, equally talented, pianists seem to attract. It is hard to understand why this happens. However, in listening to him play his second round program, we were constantly reminded of what a fine pianist he is.
His program was limited to two large works that couldn’t have been more different: Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major, op. 61 and Prokofiev’s massive Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, op. 84.
The Chopin opened in a promising manner with the soft chords melded by the use of the pedal. However, the pedal intruded into the polonaise itself, which made it fuzzy, and not clear and crisp. The melodic materials were played with finesse and the multi-note trill was impressive.
The Prokofiev is a big work that is difficult to follow in a performance. Part of this is the length and the fact that so much of it is unrelentingly loud to the point of distortion for extended periods. However, there are definitely lyric passages and sections of repose.
Greco gave it a highly diverse performance and definitely caught the style of the composer’s work during the war years (this dates from 1944). The architecture of the sonata was not all that apparent in his performance and therefore, without having an intimate knowledge of the score, it was hard to tell exactly where he was in the movements.
Perhaps this is not the best piece for a competition since it takes a long time to play and repeats the same skills, no matter how formidable the challenges may be.
◊ Click here to see reviews of the Prelminary Recital/Phase I for Nikita Mndoyants, Luca Buratto and Giuseppe Greco