Tomoki Sakata, 19, Japan
Tomoki Sakata impressed on his first recital with a bonanza performance of Scriabin’s wonderfully perplexing Sonata No. 5 after a trip through a Beethoven Sonata and a couple of Liszt potboilers. It was a fascinating combination of musical styles, and one he apparently enjoys playing. This program was much the same mixture. This time the empty showpiece was Paul Pabst’s take on Tchaikovsky’s opera with his Concert Paraphrase on Evgeny Onegin. He also played Mozart’s Variations on a Minuet by Duport, K. 573, and Book 2 from Albeniz’s Iberia.
The Mozart is a slight but delightful set of variations on a theme by Jean-Pierre Duport, the director of music for King Wilhelm of Prussia, reportedly hoping to gain some favor at court. Sakata played the theme simply and then started right into the variations without a pause and continued to connect them up. He played with minimal pedal which kept the music clear and transparent. He gave a slight ritard at the cadences, and occasionally when Mozart was in high opera mode, but otherwise kept a relatively strict tempo. Thus, the rubato was all the more effective because of its judicious application. He paused briefly when the contrast between variations was too great to make the leap. He kept the dynamic level under control, saving the biggest moment for the music before the return of the theme.
Iberia is a set of four three-movement works for solo piano, but the different books work well by themselves. Book two opens with musical descriptions of two towers in Andalusia, Rondeña (Ronda) and Almería. The third location in this book is Triana, a gypsy neighborhood in Seville.
Sakata captured the mood and spirit of Albéniz and the dance rhythm he used as a basis for these compositions. For example, Ronda uses the familiar alternation of 6/8 and 3/4 familiar to American audiences from Bernstein’s West Side Story (“I want to be in A-mer-i-ca”). Sakata also lent the piece an improvisatory feel, giving the music space to expand where needed. Most of the time, this was obvious; at others, he surprised with rubato where it wasn’t expected—but it was still a good effect.
The less said about Pabst’s appropriation of Tchaikovsky’s opera the better. It is an interesting sidelight that Pabst and Tchaikovsky actually knew each other and the composer greatly admired the pianist. It is filled with all of the empty virtuoso gestures that Pabst could fit in and still have room for a shred of Tchaikovsky. Sakata gave the piece a fine performance. However, Pabst is that most frightening of all musical horrors: a Liszt wannabe.
Lindsay Garritson, 25, USA
Lindsay Garritson walked on stage wearing what can only be called an eye-popping gown. It was off one shoulder (and so much more), made of satin with a stunning, colorful sequined appliqué covering what there was of the bodice and running down one side of the dress. It was absolutely beautiful and the former swimmer, and equally fine violinist, looked amazing. How sad we are as males in this regard—stuck with the same tuxedo all the time, and even sadder that no one ever says “is that the same tux you wore last time?” Le sigh.
She started with Mozarts’s delightful Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 333. She played the first movement with a clean technique and minimal use of the pedal. However, there was an occasional traffic jam at the end of some of her lightning-fast runs and some of the notes that reached the end first refused to get out of the way. The second movement is Mozart in his operatic mode and Garritson sang it the entire way through. She even breathed where a singer would. Here, she used a judicious amount of pedal to help sustain the accompaniment.
Liszt’s Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este is one of his more picturesque and harmless pieces. It musically describes an actual fountain and all of the musical depictions work quite well, especially when they are in the upper register. In this piece, Garritson’s intelligence might have led her astray. In her effort to bring out the melody, she pulled back on the sprays and spritzes a bit too much and they lost their magical spell when we saw that they were just scales and arpeggios. To work, they need to splash brightly and nearly cover the melody. Fountains are noisy.
Her performance of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, op. 52, was exceptional. This is the most difficult of the bunch and is also the most challenging musically. It is a virtuoso piece of composition in that Chopin combines both the sonata and variation forms with neither being obvious. He also uses more counterpoint than usual.
It was in this piece when the camera pointed out something odd about her technique. She raises her wrists, mostly noticeable in the left, in a manner we used to call double-jointed. The wrist is high, the top of the hand slopes down and her fingers are still curved, as if the wrist was flat. If this is not causing her carpal tunnel-type problems now, it might in the future. Perhaps this is just fine and there is a physical reason, or maybe it is more comfortable for her. Anyway, it is hard to argue with results.
Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 8: Wilde Jagd (Wild Hunt) is, as the title implies, a really difficult piece of music. In fact, when taken at Liszt’s indicated tempo, Presto furioso, it is nearly impossible. Even the lyrical middle section involves some trampoline-worthy left-hand jumps over two octaves and in rapid succession. These études are better than Liszt’s showpieces and are worthy of the concert stage—if anyone can play them and make some music at the same time. Garittson gave it as good a performance as I have ever heard and the audience, who knew what she had accomplished, gave her a wild ovation.
Vadym Kholodenko, 26, Ukraine
Vadym Kholodenko befuddled the audience as much as he impressed them in his first recital. With both of his selections, many of us didn’t know they had ended. The John Adams piece, China Gates, is one of those minimalist compositions that consists of a constantly repeating tone set. He stopped playing but no one knew it was over. So, we expected the unusual from him this time—and he did not disappoint.
He started off with the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B Minor, BWV 855a, followed by one of Beethoven’s oddest sonatas, Sonata No. 30 in E Major, op. 109, and finished with the best reading of Stravinsky’s Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka we have heard so far in the competition.
The Bach arrangement was a gentle thing. Siloti set up an ostinato (repeated pattern) and set the prelude against it. It was simple and absolutely gorgeous.
Some of Beethoven’s sonatas do not fit into any mold, as his No. 30 proves. On the page, it appears to have three movements, but in performance there isn’t a break between the first two, so it comes off as only having two. This is how Kholodenko played it. He approached the first movement as an introduction to the very fast second one, which is a short scherzo. The body of the piece is in the big set of variations that ends the work.
Kholodenko took full advantage of Beethoven’s eccentricities. He observed the sudden dynamic changes with such abruptness that we were surprised on occasion. The scherzo was so fleeting that it zipped by practically unnoticed. Some of the variations, such as No. 2, were played soft and light without any pedal. In others, such as No. 4, he made a heavy use of the pedal to great effect. There is a big accelerando at the end, but the wary Beethoven writes it in by shortening the note values. Kholodenko demonstrated his control over the trill at the end, where Beethoven asks the pianist to trill for a long time while also playing other materials.
All of this was just fine, and we realized that Kholodenko is a fine pianist who likes to explore the lesser-known repertoire. He got extra points with many of us by being one of the few to program a work by a living American composer. However, his performance of the Stravinsky moved him up the spectacular list. Finally, someone played this piece with the original intent of the composer in mind. This is a ballet after all, and a fun one that is filled with fantastical characters. We have heard it played impeccably, note-wise, as did Kholodenko, but this was the first time the music came to life in all its delightful grotesquerie. He made faces, bounced on the bench in rhythm, hunched over, leaned into the instrument and generally had a grand time. He played the music, but he also played the intent, and that is a rare quality. Suddenly, this work stopped being an elaborate étude and became a piece of theater music. The ovation—the largest and longest so far—proved that everyone in Bass Hall agreed.
◊ Click here to see reviews of the Prelminary Recital/Phase I for Tomoki Sakata, Lindsay Garritson and Vadym Kholodenko.