Francois Dumont, 27, France
The final round of the preliminaries opened with François Dumont. He began with Debussy’s Estampes, a suite of three descriptive pieces for piano that is the essence of the school of impressionism that Debussy founded and is almost the only member. Others tried, like the American Charles Griffes and some of Ravel, but his style was so distinctive that he all sounded like Debussy.
The first piece is Pagodes (“Pagodas”) which is evocative of the Far East. Dumont made extensive use of all three pedals on the piano. There were times when he let the open fifths ring with the sostenuto pedal while other things were going on and other times that he let it all meld with the sustaining pedal held down the whole way. He held the last note until the ring completely vanished—and a while afterwards. The next piece, La soirée dans Grenade (“The Evening in Granada”) switches to a more exotic scale and the rocking octaves are supposed to sound like a guitar. There isn’t much that is Spanish about it, but Dumont used the rocking octaves to sound guitarish and he brought out the jazz, or pop, influence to help create the mood that Debussy wanted. The last of the set, Jardins sous la pluie (“Gardens under the Rain”), returns Debussy to his native France and is meant to sound like a rain storm. He also utilizes some folk tunes. Dumont brought out all these elements and kept the virtuoso elements, describing the elements in a secondary position. This was a terrific performance that was stylistically accurate and technically brilliant.
Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, op. 58, consists of four contrasting movements and allowed Dumont to display his considerable technique and musicianship. The Allegro maestoso got him off to a firm start. The Scherzo: Molto vivace went at a fast pace, but it never outran him. The Largo was a simple and plain melody and elicited some of Dumont’s most beautiful playing. The Finale: Presto non tanto and Agitato started with an introduction that Dumont played as a cliff-hanger and he fulfilled our expectations with a very fast tempo and lots of virtuoso runs and arpeggios. However, he kept the dynamics at a workable level so that he could raise the melodic material from the din on numerous occasions.
In general, his playing was sensitive as well as impressive. He has a sure sense of melody and is able to let them sing out and keep the accompanying material in a supportive role. His melodies also have shape and know where they are going and, more importantly, know when they arrive. There were times in the last movement of the Chopin when the dynamic level remains constant for too a long a time, lacking enough variety to allow for some expression within a forte. However, his soft playing, and his dynamics in general, were excellent in both of his appearances.
Ruoyu Huang, 24, China
Ruoyu Huang played a varied program that ranged from the subtle to a big splashy showpiece. He opened with the Schumann Fantasie in C Major, op. 17, which we have heard a number of times. He then played two of Debussy’s Preludes from Book I and ended with Balakirev’s Islamey. One of the big surprises of the competition is that Islamey only made this one appearance so far. It is usually one of the staples because of its extreme difficulties and festive feel.
The Schumann got off to an impressive start. He played the second movement in a bright fashion with a little pride tossed in. He brought out some inner voices and highlighted some notes that are not usually heard as clearly. It is an open question if this was an improvement or not, but it shows one very important thing about Huang—he thinks about the music he is playing and makes his own decisions about how he will play it. The last movement was plagued with some excessive ritards that dragged it down, making it difficult for him to regain the momentum.
The two Debussy preludes got a sympathetic performance. The first, Ce qu'a vu le vent d'Ouest (“What the west wind saw”) was played with aggression. While it was too loud for the modest nature of the prelude, he made a good use of the sustaining pedal. The second, Minstrels, got a better performance, mostly because Huang allowed himself to enjoy what he was playing.
Balakirev’s Islamey impresses every time you hear it. It is amazingly difficult and requires a monster technique to play. Huang did a fine job with it and took it at a very fast tempo.
The main problem with Huang’s playing is that he is consistently too loud. For example, the beginning of Islamey is only marked forte but he exceeded that in short order. This leaves him nowhere to go when the level is supposed to be very loud or at the big moments. As a result, he is forced to overplay the instrument and make some harsh, occasionally ugly, sounds. If he can learn to pull back, he will be able to make some more enjoyable music.
Yury Favorin, 26, Russia
Yury Favorin was the last to play in the preliminary round. He chose an odd program in that it was all works by Liszt. That in itself is not all that surprising, but the most amazing part is that these were not the big showpieces, like the Mephisto Waltz, which you would expect a contestant to choose for their final impression. The four selections come from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a cycle of ten piano pieces that the composer wrote in 1847. The last one had some fireworks but the general mood of all of the selections was quiet, with beautiful melodies and unusual harmonic progressions.
He didn’t play them in the original order. Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (“The Blessing of God in Solitude”) is the third of the Cycle. Pensées des morts (“In Memory of the Dead”) is the fourth. Funérailles (“Funerals”) comes seventh and Cantique d'amour (“Song of Love”) closes out the cycle and closed out Favorin’s recital.
Favorin played all of these selections with an exquisite feel for melody. Each of the selections had a beautiful tune somewhere and he was able to play each of them differently, according to their character, but kept them all spinning and shaped. This is a rare gift and it made this recital a pleasure. Another aspect of his playing, which was a problem for many others, is his ability to properly keep the dynamics scaled so that the big moments didn’t have to be overplayed to have some effect. His climaxes were all approached carefully, making sure that he didn’t get too loud too soon, leaving him some room to really take the music to a higher level without overplaying. After hearing the opposite too many times, it was marvelous to hear dynamics planned and executed in such a thought manner. This makes a difference.
◊ Click here to see reviews of the Prelminary Recital/Phase I for Francois Dumont, Ruoyu Huang and Yury Favorin.