Semifinals Round 3, Saturday, May 28
Jun Fujimoto greatly impressed in the preliminary round and he was just as terrific as he led off the afternoon session of the semifinals. He started with an oft played Scarlatti sonata (in E major). He played it with such elegance that it sounded fresh and new. He next played a very stylish and evocative version of Debussy’s Prelude La puerta del Vino (The Wine Gate), which the composer also calls a Mouvement de Habanera. Fujimoto perfectly caught the swagger of that seductive dance. At this point, the audience would have been sorely disappointed if he didn’t pull out one of the big pieces. He obliged. Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody is a contest favorite because it offers the pianist ample opportunity to show off a formidable technique. It is a continuous set of variations on La Folia, a folk tune with a melancholy feel, which has attracted composers other than Liszt. Fujimoto showed that he probably has the nimblest of fingers in the competition. His performance was absolutely clean, as well as exciting, and it was obvious that Liszt’s challenges were simple stuff for him. He gave it a first class and electrifying performance.
The afternoon continued with another contender. Vincent Schmithorst played a terrific version of Brahms’ Rhapsody in B minor Op. 79, No. 1, but that was just a warm up for the much anticipated Islamey by Balakirev. This spectacular show piece is a staple of competitions (for those few able to play it). Many consider it to be one of the most difficult piece in the repertoire. In fact, the composer includes some less challenging alternates right in the score and freely admitted that there were passages that he couldn’t quite play, even though he wrote it for himself. Schmithorst had no such problems and he gave an exhilarating performance. He demonstrated a complete technical command of the work and the audience agreed, giving him a well deserved ovation.
What an afternoon! Next up was another contender, Christopher Shih. Shih took a fascinating approach his selections for this round of the program. He played four pieces that were connected by the fact that there were all arrangements of other composer’s work and done by pianists for their own performances. He started out with Durand’s arrangement of Debussy’s En bateau from his Petite Suite, originally for piano four hands. (Durand was the second pianist when the work was premiered). Next was Rachmaninoff’s stylish arrangement of a Lullaby by Tchaikovsky. This was Rachmaninoff’s last composition and there is a melancholy overcast that Shih brought out in an understated and elegant manner. Unfortunately, he misfired with his playing of the Liszt transcription of the Liebestod from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Although he played it technically perfect, he lost track the piece itself with too much rubato. Wagner’s inevitable drive to Isolde’s final transformative ecstasy, which Liszt was careful to preserve, was completely lost. He finished with more opera, Horowitz’s Variations on a Theme from Carmen. This dazzler was written for Horowitz’s own use and thus presents lots of virtuoso flash, including a breathtaking chromatic ride up the keyboard with interlocking octaves at the end. Shih played it flawlessly.
Eberhard Zagrosek just played one piece, Schumann’s Grand Sonata No. 2 in G minor. It was a bold choice when he knew it would be surrounded by the biggest showpieces in the repertoire. (Not that this is an easy piece.) He played it thoughtfully and with a keen understanding of Schumann’s style. He set really quick tempi in the first and last movements, which left him little room to follow the instructions schneller (faster). There was an occasional misstep here and there, but it was wonderful to hear this piece, which is not preformed all that often, and he gave it an insightful performance.
Barry Coutinho started out with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 12 in F major from Book Two of the “Well Tempered Clavier.” He gave it a fine performance with great attention to all of the details. Ravel’s splashy Jeux d’eau followed. This is another piece that gets programmed frequently because it requires technical brilliance and musical subtly. Coutinho has both of these qualities and he gave a near-perfect performance. Anyone with great technique usually plays some Liszt and Coutinho chose the well-worn Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor. However, as has happened a number of times at the competition, Coutinho approached the piece fresh and reminded us why we loved it in the first place. He didn’t just show off, although he has much to show; he made music with it. He set a dangerous tempo in the fast section, but his repeated notes were amazingly clear and distinct. Even his trill was blindingly fast. Scales sounded like glissandi, they were so fast. And the precise ending was jaw-droppingly amazing and it brought the audience to their feet.
Jane Gibson King was another semifinalist who only played one piece, even though it was a multi-movement work. She presented Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, one of the composer’s first major works for piano. Bergamasque is the language spoken in Bergamo, which is a province in the Lombardy region of Italy, but the reference is more about the poetry of Paul Verlaine. These are evocative and poetic pieces and King took a highly impressionistic and appropriately poetic approach. The “Menuet” movement was especially delightful as she made the most of Debussy’s marking, et tres délicatement (and very delicately). “Clair de lune” is the most famous movement of the suite (and maybe the most famous piano piece in existence). She lingered over it too much for my taste but her version of the “Passepied” that ends the suite perfectly caught the mood of the baroque dance form.
Mark Cannon played two works by Chopin, the Barcarolle Op. 60 and the Ballade No. 4 in E minor, Op. 52. Perhaps he would have been better served by playing pieces that had a greater contrast, either in era or composer. However, he has a firm grasp of Chopin’s style, so why not? Both of these are difficult pieces that the top virtuosi regularly program on recitals. While there were no real errors, there were some places where his aim was off and some unintended notes snuck in, but he has a fine technique and should be pleased with his performance.
Semifinals Round 4, Saturday, May 28
Thomas A. Maurice opened with Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, one his more relative compositions. Maurice played it with empathy, giving careful attention to the independence of the lines. He made a complete change has he launched into Liszt’s Après une Lecture de Dante (Fantasia quasi Sonata), better known as the Dante Sonata. This is another one of those works at the top of the difficult list. It is long and exhausting to play, as well as keeping up its pervasive dark and threatening mood. Maurice did a fine job meeting its demands. Technically, he met all of the considerable challenges; an occasional note splat is unavoidable in this piece if you play it with the abandon that it requires (which he did). Musically, he did a remarkable job with all of the many mood changes and, while he was able to get quite a lot of sound out of the piano, some of his most impressive moments were the solemn quite ones.
Joseph Mercuri opened with Ravel’s Sonatine. While the word “sonatine” is a diminutive, meaning little sonata, this is certainly not a reference to its level of difficulty, only its length. Mercuri gave it an elegant performance. He took a reflective approach to the opening Modéré (“moderate”) movement. The Mouvement de menuet (“Minuet movement”) had class and charm. The final movement, Animé ("animated"), showed that Mercuri has as good a technical foundation as any of the other contestants, yet he didn’t use it in an obvious or flashy way, but only in service to the music. One of his strength is the transparency of his playing. All of Ravel’s complexities, both harmonic and contrapuntal, sounded out. Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, followed. This is his famous “moonlight” sonata, but Mercuri didn’t play the dreamy first movement. Instead, he played the extremely difficult last movement. It is marked Presto and Mercuri took it very fast indeed. Here, he was a much more explosive pianist, and willing to take risks. But, this is exactly what the music requires. He gave it a sense of urgency as opposed to just playing it quickly. His change of musical personality was striking.
Christopher Sarzynski played two big and contrasting works. He opened with Liszt’s Sonetto104 “del Petrarca” (after Petrarch). It is based on a poem titled “Pace non trovo,” which is about romantic love’s distress. “I fear, and hope, and burn, and I am become ice,” bemoans the poet. Liszt gives the pianist plenty to moan about technically and lots to sigh over musically. Even if there was some concern early on, Sarzynski caught the mood and played all of the flourishes with aplomb. Sarzynski was musically at his best in Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52, which followed. He lingered over this equally romantic piece. Even though he occasionally drove the piano too hard in the loudest parts, he rose to the technical challenges and delivered an exciting performance.
Iona Luke played Ravel’s “Oiseaux tristes” ("sad birds"), which is the second movement of his suite of piano pieces entitled Miroirs (mirrors). It is unique to his output in that each movement is dedicated to someone he knew. This one was dedicated to Ricardo Viñes, who was a Spanish pianist who premiered many important works by the impressionists, including Ravel. It is a highly atmospheric piece and Luke did a fine job of creating the mood. Ravel rarely writes for everything to be at the same dynamic level and Luke layered all of the complexities to bring out the composer’s many intricacies. It was just lovely. Chopin’s Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49, followed. She started it out at a stately tempo, paying close attention to the dotted rhythms. In the fast part, Luke was not as strong. She overused the pedal for my taste and so some rests were missing and the texture was muddy. An occasional note splat marred the overall performance, but it was still musically exciting and it was warmly received by the audience.
Clark Griffith bravely opened with some of Bach’s Goldberg variations Nos. 20-30. This is a sophisticated set of 30 variations of a highly contrapuntal texture based on an aria and its difficulties are legendary. Griffith set an impressively fast tempo in some (like No. 23) and slowed others to underline the reflective and melancholy aspects (No. 25). He also brought out the distinctive canonic writing (as in No. 27) with clarity. He finished out the set by playing the Aria da capo, the repeat of the aria that started the work. To these ears, his performance was flawless. Of course, these variations were originally written for harpsichord, so all of the dynamics Griffith added would not have occurred. But, playing them on a modern piano allows the pianist to shape Bach’s music and Griffith took full advantage of this. Afterwards, he played his own improvisation on the aria, which added an interesting postscript to what was already a highly individualistic performance. It was a surprise that a pianist of Griffith’s skill and technical prowess didn’t end with something flashy. Instead, he offered Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in E-flat major. This is a beautiful work that is exactly the opposite of what was expected for a semifinal round, but it turned out to be an inspired choice, coming at the end of a very long day of bombastic pianism. Griffith played it magnificently and created a hush in the audience, followed by as big an ovation as any showpiece would have elicited.
◊ To read all of Isaacs' 70 reviews from the preliminary rounds, go here.
◊ To read about the first day of semifinals, go here.
◊ To see the list of semifinalists, go here.