Chamber: Sunday, June 2, 9:40 p.m.
with Brentano String Quartet
The first semifinals rotation came to an end with Fei-Fei Dong’s performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet Op. 24, one of the masterpieces of the repertoire. Tomorrow, the 12 semifinalists begin playing their alternate programs (those who played a recital will play the chamber music selection, and vice versa).
The Brahms is a moody piece. The harmony is adventurous, as is the scoring. The last movement opens with music that can only be described as eerie. Part of its mystery is that it had a difficult birth. Brahms first wrote it for string quintet with an additional cello, but later destroyed the score. Then, he reconceived it for two pianos and published that version as Opus 24a. This is one of the reasons why the final version gives the piano such an important role to play.
concert with Brentano String Quartet
Dong was too loud for most of the performance, although not objectionably so for most of the time. She was just one small level louder, but that caused the entire performance to rise well above a fortissimo in a number of places. There are 16-note accompaniment passages that are not so important that we need to hear them so clearly. They are only arpeggios, after all, and the melodic interest is elsewhere. The ending is only marked forte, and agitato (agitated), but that mark was exceeded long before the final chords and the agitated feeling Brahms wanted was lost in the din.
Other than the dynamic levels being too high, she played the piece with some lovely phrasing and sensitivity. Many passages were quite beautiful and she kept in close contact with the quartet. Many critical entrances were perfectly coordinated. Perhaps Dong was not able to hear the balance in the hall and was unaware that she was slightly overpowering; not much, but just enough.
Recital: Tuesday, June 4, 9:40 p.m.
Fei-Fei Dong started out with Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 576. It was a bold choice to trust for half of your last impression in a virtuoso competition. But it was refreshing for those of us in the audience that had been fed on a diet of virtuoso showpieces for weeks.
Her approach was refined and low key. She valued elegance over a more cheerful approach. Personally, I feel that Mozart would have played this sonata with a little more spirit, but her approach brought great clarity.
Her performance of Theofanidis’ Birichino was the least characteristic of the competition. She didn’t have any fun at all, in fact at one point it looked like she was about to cry. Her birichino (mischievous child) was in therapy. The “playful” section sounded more like one scrap of a happy memory in a miserable childhood. This was the last chance for anyone to cut up while playing this piece, so Theofanidis’ theory that a serious competition such as the Cliburn could use a dose of humor didn’t pan out. Too bad. Someone should have put a whoopee cushion on the piano bench.
Chopin’s 24 Preludes, op. 28, are a tour de force for a pianist and not just technically. There are 24 moods as well. For the most part, Dong captured all of these changes while still keeping it all within Chopin’s style and range. Some of them were too loud, like No. 3 which should have been less distinct ripples than passage work. Her best attribute is in letting the melody sing out while accompanying herself with sensitivity as though her left hand belonged to someone else. Her use of the sustaining pedal was excellent. Only in No. 22 did she let it blur the music. She brought it to a dramatic close, with some of the best runs up the keyboard of the competition. They really flashed. Her chromatic descending thirds, along with her first triple forte at the very end, gave her one last chance to impress. That she did.
◊ Our profile of Fei-Fei Dong, 22, China
◊ You can see quick links to the reviews of the other semifinalists here