Semifinals Round 1, Friday, May 27, 2011
Pablo Eizayaga started off with a simple and lovely rendition of Mendelssohn’s Song without Words in G minor Op. 19, No. 6. This is subtitled the "Venetian Boat Song" and Eizayaga caught the mood precisely. It was a very nice way to start a long day of piano playing. But he didn’t stay peaceful for long. His second selection was Ginastera’s famously difficult Sonata No. 1, Op. 22. This is a piece that turns up in competitions regularly because of the many challenges it presents, both musically and technically. Eizayaga played it as if it were no more difficult than the Mendelssohn. I don’t think I have ever heard this piece played with such relaxed ease. This is not to say that he didn’t play it with passion and the ferocity it requires, because he did. It was just that he made it look so easy, which it definitely is not. He set a very high bar for all of those that will follow him.
Andres De Tomas decided to play all Beethoven for this round. He opened with his 12 Variations on the Russian Dance from Wranitsky’s now-forgotten ballet Das Waldmädchen. He followed that with Beethoven’s Fantasy in G major, Op. 77. De Tomas followed this with Beethoven’s Fantasy in G minor, Op. 77. In general, he has a clear understanding of Beethoven’s style but there was a sameness to playing that made the variations seem longer than they really are. A few missed notes didn’t help.
Martha Chestnut Hartman gave a more varied program. She opened with Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s song Widmung (Dedication). As usual, Liszt covers a simple and lovely song with virtuosic glitter so that it becomes something else entirely. Hartman negotiated all of the notes but the tune was buried. She was more at home with Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in E-flat major Op. 23, No. 6, although there were some problems here and there. She closed with the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata 23 in F minor, Op. 57. Called the appassionata, it is passion all the way. Hartman caught it many changing moods but she overplayed it from the beginning, giving her no place to go dynamically as the movement progressed.
Daniel Bertram chose to play all Stravinsky in this round and all music from his ballet Pétrouchka. He started out with his own arrangement of "The Shrovetide Fair," which seemed superfluous. He played it superbly and it was a good arrangement, but with better Stravinsky to come, it would have been welcome to hear him play something else as an opener. Things changed radically when he played Stravinsky’s own piano version of music from the score entitled Trois mouvements de Petrouchka. From the opening "Danse russe" ("Russian Dance"), it was clear that Bertram owned this music. He gave it a nearly flawless performance, full of passion and a great range of dynamics and phrasing.
Dominic Piers Smith opened with the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major, Op. 7, No. 4. He took a firm approach and played the piece with musicality, although perhaps a little heavy handedly. He followed that with a beautiful rendition of Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4. But he saved his big fireworks for Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 4. Like all of these etudes, this one is difficult and can only be approached by players with complete technical mastery, which Smith possesses. He gave it an assured performance with only an occasional mishap, which is practically unavoidable in a piece like this. The audience loved it.
Jorge Zamora chose to just play one work, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109. This is one of the last sonatas the composer wrote and is, in many ways, a more intimate piece than some of his other sonatas. Zamora scaled it with assurance. He ended it quietly and with elegance. Once again, it was regrettable that he didn’t present more musical variety (his first round was also a single work as is his last round selection). Some occasional errors stuck out here and there, but it was, overall, a fine performance.
Angela Lee Tien stood out in the first round because of her obvious joy in playing the piano and modest programming (although she ended this round with one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire and has Liszt’s monster sonata scheduled should she make the final round). She wisely chose one of Beethoven’s lighter works, the first movement of his Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat major, Op. 31, No. 3. Of course, it is still full of stormy moments and serious goings-on, but it allowed Tien’s charming side to shine though. She set a quick pace, but her passage work was clean and brilliant and not smeared up with a lot of pedal. She followed this with Liszt’s overblown transcription of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel). She played it with technical assurance but the melody could have been more prominent throughout. She closed with Prokofiev’s showy Toccata Op. 11. Here, she let her virtuosity take center stage. She took full advantage of the percussive nature of the music as she threw caution to the wind and attacked the piece wholeheartedly. To these ears, she didn’t miss a note in the blizzard of sound and she brought the audience to its feet when she finished.
Semifinals Round 2, Friday, May 27, 2011
Mark Fuller started out with some Bach, but not even the Baroque master would have recognized Busoni’s steroidal version of the Chaconne in D minor. This famous piece for solo violin from the Partita No. 2 has been arranged for almost everything except oompah band and still amazes in all of its incarnations. This is a particularly big one, designed to show off superb technical skills, which Fuller certainly has. A few note splats notwithstanding, Fuller gave it a grand and impressive reading. He followed that up with some Rachminoff, the slim but charming Prelude in B major, Op. 32, No. 11, which served as a refreshing break before he launched into the massive Études tableau, Op. 39, No. 1, a piece that really gives the pianist a workout, especially the right hand. This is Fuller’s forte and he tossed it off nearly perfectly with all of the requisite flash.
Madalyn Bingham Taylor offered a program that was more like the ones we heard in the preliminaries rather than the big show pieces that preceded her. She opened with two Scarlatti sonatas, one in A major and the other in E major. She missed an occasional note, but gave them both a characteristic reading. She switched gears completely with Debussy’s Feux d'artifice (Fireworks) from the second book of preludes. She did a much better job here. She was technically secure and musically right on. She got a lot of sound out of the piano without overdriving the instrument, especially with the booming notes at the bottom of the range. Next was Chopin’s lovely Nocturne in C-sharp minor, which has made appearances in movies such as The Pianist. She played it beautifully and it was a delight to hear. She ended with the Liszt arrangement of Schumann song Widmung (Dedication) from his song cycle Myrthen, Op. 25, which we heard earlier. There were a few mishaps but mostly what was missing was the legato line of the song over all of the Lisztian goings-on.
Valentina Rodov opened with some Bach, and some real Bach as opposed to some elaborate transcription─a bold move. She played the Prelude and Fugue No. 12 in F minor from Book Two of the “Well Tempered Clavier.” She lost concentration and her place in the music momentarily, but picked up and kept going. She then played one of Chopin’s virtuoso pieces, The Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49. She took a lot of liberties with it, tempo-wise, and dropped some notes, but her playing ably caught Chopin’s intentions. The slow middle section was sensitively played as was the cadenza at the very end.
J. Michael Brounoff played an interesting juxtaposition, in a historical sense, when he programmed Gershwin and Ravel. Gershwin wanted to study with the French master, who declined citing how much more lucrative Gershwin’s side of the business was. Gershwin’s “Jasbo Brown Blues” is based on music from the opening scene of the first act of his opera Porgy and Bess and is actually played on a piano in the opera. Brounoff caught the bluesy nature of the music. It was great fun to hear it. Ravel was also represented by some dance music, the Valses nobles et sentimentales, a series of eight waltzes that the composer later orchestrated. Brounoff gave it a very orchestral reading. This music predated Gershwin’s opera by decades but, hearing these two pieces together, you can certainly see why Gershwin admired Ravel and absorbed his influence. Brounoff did a nice job of giving each of the waltzes their own individual character.
Darlene Cusick chose to present four contrasting shorter pieces in this round. Bach Prelude and Fugue No. 9 in E major from Book Two of the “Well Tempered Clavier” greatly benefitted from her experience as an organist. All of thel ines were clear and she was able to use finger legato rather than rely on the sustaining pedal. She also did well with the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata in D major K. 576. Jardins sous la Pluie from Estampes by Debussy showed off her nimble fingers and her understanding of how to pull off a big virtuoso piece. Schumann’s Romance in F-sharp Major Op. 28 was just beautiful, as she once again used her organ legato skills rather than drenching this lovely piece with the sustaining pedal. All four pieces made a min-recital that presented her most successfully as a well-rounded musician─and an excellent pianist.
Ken Iisaka, an audience favorite, picked two big works from the same era, one well-known and the other much more obscure. Medtner’s music is rarely heard these days, even though he was a cotemporary of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff and every bit as talented a composer. His output is wide, covering songs and chamber music, but the odd part is that it is all for piano in one way or the other. His Tenth Sonata-reminiscenza (“Forgotten Melodies”) in A minor, Op. 38, No. 1, is a set of eight pieces of a melancholy nature. Iisaka gave it such an evocative performance that it wouldn’t surprise me to see it popping up on programs like this in the future. Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4 in F sharp major, Op. 30, followed, and while it was also very well played, it would have been nice to hear something in a different style from the pianist. It consists of two movements, Andante and Prestissimo volando, although they are played without a pause. Iisaka made an equally good case for this piece and his impressive technique and natural approach to the piano makes him a formidable, and lovable, competitor.
◊ To read all of Isaacs' 70 reviews from the preliminary rounds, go here.
◊ To see the list of semifinalists, go here.