Recital: Saturday, June 1, 3:40 p.m.
Nikita Mndoyants played a very well-paced program with lighter works in the first half, Scarlatti and Debussy, leaving him lots of surplus energy for the second half, which contained a big work.
From Scarlatti, he played three contrasting sonatas: Sonata in G Minor, K. 476; Sonata in B Minor, K. 87; and ended the set with the Sonata in G Major, K. 125 (making a nice bookend of the two aspects of the key of G). He played the first without the use of the pedal, or so little that it wasn’t noticeable. It was as clean as you could imagine. He also added some nice details, such as a slight drop in dynamics in the appoggiatura when it ended the phrase on the downbeat.
In the second, he kept the top line prominent, but he should have kept everything else quieter, even in places where there was more going on in the right hand. That single note melody was occasionally merged into other elements.
The last movement was very quick and fleet footed. His staccato, from the elbow, was short and accented without being too loud. He also had a great feel for the rhythm and the placements of the accents, which were sometimes unexpected. One odd thing was that he dropped his wrists occasionally. It is only because of his usually excellent hand position that this was even noticeable.
With the commissioned piece, Theofanidis’ Birichino, he set a fast pace and had some fun with it. At one place, he elicited a chuckle from the audience. However, there is a lot more fun in this piece than the first two competitors demonstrated. I eagerly await the pianist who really clowns around. On the downside, he took an unwritten ritard into the contrasting section and took this slightly slower, even though there is nothing to indicate this in the score.
Mndoyants chose three Debussy preludes, from books I and II, which made a pleasing set. La cathédrale englouitie (No. 10 in Book 1) is one of the composer’s most evocative works and he played it with great control to achieve the soft chords. This is difficult on the piano because there are so many notes in the chord that it is difficult to make them all speak evenly with so little pressure. He allowed it to get too loud at one point, which was out of scale for the rest of the prelude.
La puerta del vino (“The door to the wine,” as in cellar, we suppose) is No. 3 in Book 2 and Debussy further writes that it is in Mouvement de Habanera (Habanera tempo), a Habanera being a seductive dance rhythm made famous in Bizet’s Carmen. Mndoyants captured both the rhythm and the sultry feel of the dance and his rolled chords brought the strumming of a guitar to mind.
Mndoyants ended the set with Feux d’artifice (“Fireworks”), which ends Book 2. He played it with lots of contrast and flashing colors. However, in hearing it so soon after the Theofanidis work, it was hard not to make some comparisons and hear some parallels. Both works are completely different, of course, but there were certainly echoes of Debussy’s fireworks display in Theofanidis’ mischievous child.
He ended with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This is a major work and even though it is not beyond the reach of pianists who are on a competitive level, it is a great challenge because of the variety of styles needed to make it work and the endurance required to get to the big finish. Another challenge is to save the biggest sound for the end, and it is here where Mndoyants was less unsuccessful than in the rest of it. He arrived at maximum volume a number of times before it was required.
Many of the promenade sections, as the composer intended, depict walking from one picture (at the exhibition) to the next. Many of these were too fast, as if the museum was about to close and we needed to make haste. There were some other interpretations that were open to question, such as lack of childlike shenanigans at the gardens of the “Tuileries” in Paris (which Mussorgsky further describes as “Children quarrelling after play”). No one said “I know what I am, but what are you?”
Others were excellent in their descriptions of the paintings. “The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells” was quick and played for fun. The picture of the “Two Polish Jews” was clever without becoming a stereotype. “Hut on Fowl’s Legs” was particularly grotesque and the “Great Gate of Kiev” rose to all its magnificence.
Chamber: Monday, June 3, 3:40 p.m.
Nikita Mndoyants has uniformly impressed in his previous appearances. To his credit, he is one of the few who has had some fun with the commissioned piece, Theofanidis' Birichino, although he only scratched the surface of the possible shenanigans.
As for his performance with the Brentano String Quartet of Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34, a spoiler alert: This review might be a string of superlatives.
He was always in touch with the quartet and the ensemble was so good that you'd have thought that they had been playing chamber music together for years. But, of paramount importance was his ability to always be at the exactly correct dynamic level. When volume was required of him, he played with strength and with a full sound, but it never once covered the strings. Actually, it was better than simply “not covering”; he rose to the perfect level to support the sound and not overtake the texture.
There were many astonishing moments. For example, in the second ending of the first movement, he only has three notes to play, but he played them with such finesse that the transition to the development was magical. There was another occasion where he was playing an accompaniment figure but would bring out a counter melody—just a short phrase—which greatly enhanced the music and then dropped back immediately.
In the fugue, he played his statement of the subject whenever he had it, but then immediately scaled back down to allow the others to play theirs. Thus, Mndoyants avoided a common fugue error. Too often, once a player enters with the subject, they fail to get out of the way, leading to an unwanted crescendo.
Another example is the way he treated the trio of the scherzo. He played the initial statement at a firm forte, then dropped to the marked mezzo forte when the strings entered. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it rarely happens.
Mndoyants clearly understands that the role of the piano part, whether accompanist or soloist, is the key to a successful chamber music performance. These roles can change quickly, even in the midst of a single phrase. He also knows that musical material is frequently handed back and forth and therefore it must match, in volume and character, in order for the phrases to connect.
We have had some similar performances in the competition and some that were exactly the opposite. This clearly demonstrates why a chamber music performance is such an important part of the competition. In a world where there are a plethora of pianists who have technical mastery, this is a clear differentiator, and Mndoyants’ performance was the best so far.
Further superlatives would be superfluous.
◊ Our profile of Nikita Mndoyants, 24, Russia
◊ You can see quick links to the reviews of the other semifinalists here