Oleksandr Poliykov, 25, Ukraine
So far, many of these second-round performances have two major works instead of a collection of shorter works designed to show different skills. Oleksandr Poliykov followed suit with two selections that showcased different skills and also different musical approaches: Liszt’s arrangement of Isoldens Liebestod and Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, op. 5.
The Liebestod (“Love Death”) from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is the ecstatic end of the opera, when Isolde stands over the dead body of Tristan and sees a vision of him in all his glory. There is no room in the music for Liszt to do much harm, so this is one of the least objectionable of his transcriptions. However, it rarely works because of the need for the piano to tremolo in order to sustain the harmony. This adds a nervous undercurrent to the music that is at odds with Wagner’s original.
Poliykov did a better job than usual at making this work because of the rapid and soft tremolo that he was able to produce. Also, he took lots of time with it, which allowed the ear to get accustomed to the change in instrumentation. He also managed to keep the fullness of the orchestration without overplaying. There were two moments when the music usually has a tenuto before continuing, that he exaggerated into a fermata, but his interpretation was effective. Unfortunately, the audience began to applaud before he released his hands.
Brahms’ third sonata is a very big work, in five movements rather than the traditional three (sometimes four). It was written when the composer was only 20 years old, but his future compositional voice is evident throughout. Also echoing throughout is a reminder of the fate motive from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.
Poliykov opened playing the big chords, which cover the entire keyboard, in a big way; he created a sound that was full and majestic rather than just loud. Later in the movement, he created just the opposite: a pianissimo that sounded like it was still full and resonate, but far away. Another remarkable aspect of this performance was his ability to play these massive chords and have all of the notes sound at exactly the same level. Although this may sound like it is easy to do, it definitely is not—most times one or more notes sound out more prominently.
There was a big noise in the hall just as he was about to start the second movement. He paused for a moment but it didn’t appear to break his concentration. He started the gentle opening with the lovely theme singing out and he kept both of the musical subjects sounding like they were being sung. He also kept the dynamics in context. The fortissimo in this movement was not the same as he played the same marking in the outer ones. Here it was more an expression of grandeur than volume.
The third movement, a scherzo, was taken at a reasonable tempo rather than too fast. Poliykov obviously felt no need to show how quickly he can play, especially to the detriment of the music. He played the choral-inspired trio with that same soft-yet-full sound that he demonstrated earlier. The transition back was seamless. The waltz of the fourth movement and the rondo that brings the sonata to a triumphant close were both played with the same combination of intelligence and inspiration. This was an exceptionally thoughtful performance.
Kuan-Ting Lin, 21, Taiwan
Kuan-Ting Lin followed in the same manner as some of the other second-round programs by offering two large works that are as contrasting as you could imagine: Schumann’s Humoresque (Humoreske in German) in B-flat Major, op. 20, and Stravinsky’s Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka, a piano piece crafted out of his delightful ballet.
Schumann’s piece is really a suite of seven pieces meant to be played without pause. Lin played the piece with charm, and even a touch of humor, although the overriding impression was that it is too long for the occasion. However, it offered opportunities for Lin to demonstrate his considerable technical and musical skills. For example, some of the parts allowed him to float a melody over an accompaniment and at one point the accompaniment echoed the tune. Alternate sections showed his incredibly facile fingers and ability to bring excitement that involves the audience in the music.
The Stravinsky, which we have heard a number of times and will hear again, is a work replete with technical challenges that tax even the best virtuoso players. Unfortunately, none of the pianists so far, Lin included, appear to know what is actually going on in the ballet. As a result, none of the humor and joie de vivre comes through and it becomes another virtuoso showpiece.
Lin took the opening so fast that his hands, but not the repeated notes, were a blur. The remainder of the score was played with the same astounding technical abilities on display. There were some points where he lacked the requisite power but he mastered all of the challenges with ease. However, it just seemed like an elaborate étude—completely mastered—instead of Stravinsky’s delightful bit of tomfoolery.
Nikita Abrosimov, 24, Russia
Nikita Abrosimov played a program of 20th century Russian music, but there was a huge contrast between them. He played three Rachmaninov Preludes from Op. 23: D Minor, no. 3; D Major, no. 4; and C Minor, no. 7. He followed this with Prokofiev’s complex Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major, op. 84, which we heard earlier in this session.
The Rachmaninov preludes were delightful to hear after so much heavy-duty pianism all week. Abrosimov gave all three a musical reading that emphasized their melodic beauties as well as bringing in his virtuoso demands to bring the set to a thrilling close.
Of special note was his performance of the D Major, No. 4. Here, the melody stays in the middle range and an accompaniment part is placed above and below. Both hands share in both duties, but Abrosimov made it sound like he had three hands with one dedicated to keeping the melody singing throughout. This was probably the most beautiful single performance of the competition to date. The rest of the preludes were also excellent and he saved the full force of his playing for the very end.
The Prokofiev sonata sounded completely different in Abrosimov’s hands than in the earlier performance. This showed, in no uncertain terms, what a difference a pianist can make in how a piece is perceived. It was hard to believe it was the same piece.
Abrosimov battered the piano when the composer called for force. He purposely hit the keys so hard that you heard the string distort and the twang as it vibrated violently in protest. It was sonata as bloodsport, and just as exciting. The second movement created a feeling of nostalgia as he played it like some old song only partially remembered. The third movement was blindingly fast and he landed on the staccato chords with maximum force launched from over a foot above the keyboard. He managed the transition so deftly that he brought the texture down to the level of a memory, then went right back bringing us with him all the way.
His performance was a remarkable feat of endurance as a performer, not to mention what it took to memorize this massive work. But the real difference here was his intelligent pacing; he always brought the listener with him in his journey through this problematic score. We may not have wanted to go, but we were glad we did when we came out on the other side.
◊ Click here to see reviews of the Prelminary Recital/Phase I for Oleksandr Poliykov, Kuan-Ting Lin and Nikita Abrosimov.