Sean Chen in his semifinal
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Cliburn Semifinals: Sean Chen

Reviews of the semifinal performances by the 24-year-old American in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

published Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Recital: Sunday, June 2, 8:25 p.m.

Photo: Carolyn Cruz/The Cliburn
Sean Chen backstage before his semifinal recital


Sean Chen took the stage to some significant audience support. He is obviously a favorite with his boyish mop of hair and winning smile. He played a widely varied program in an attempt to show the full range of his abilities. He succeeded for the most part but fell into the trap of overplaying the Stravinsky (Trois mouvements du Pétrouchka as his final selection) when he didn’t need to do so.

Ligeti’s Étude XIII: L’escalier du diable (“the devil’s staircase”) has been heard before; it is a terrific piece on its own and a wise selection for a competition. Chen played it with amazing velocity and clarity. Everything at the front end of the piece is played staccato and he brought his steely fingers to the task. When he added the sustaining pedal later on, he created a gauze of chromaticism that he built to extraordinary levels and then abruptly stopped with a thundering silence. Further, he accented the jazz influence. It was all very dramatic.

Brahms’ Variations on an Original Theme, op. 21, no. 1, is a very undramatic piece and offered as big a contrast as you could imagine to Ligeti’s devilish excursions. Chen followed Brahms’ directions to play the opening molto expressive e legato and the simplicity of this initial statement was striking. He also played it in a slightly different manner when he observed the repeat. All the way through, he was careful to observe the dynamics and the composer’s directions. Only in variation 10 did he allow the left hand to rise beyond its rightful dynamic level. In variation 11, the trill low in the keyboard was also too loud, but there is not much to do about this considering how hard it is to control volume on these loose strings. It was better when the trill moved upwards. The approach to the ending was too loud and there is no real excuse for that; Brahms only writes forte there. However, Chen redeemed himself by bringing the actual ending down to a soft level. It may not have been the triple piano that is marked in the score, but it was close enough.

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Sean Chen in his semifinal recital

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales (“Noble and Sentimental Waltzes”) was Chen’s best playing of the recital. His playing was elegant and very much in the style that Ravel intended. He made some dramatic uses of silence as well. One example is the fermata on the rest in the second ending of No. 4. He took a long time here and it worked brilliantly to clear the air before continuing. He did the same thing before No. 8. His tempi were also right on. The tempo of No. 3 was especially breezy, reminiscent of a sunny Sunday afternoon in Paris in a croissant-and-café au lait kind of way. A marvelous performance of a subtle piece.

Theofanidis’ Birichino (“mischievous child”) received another decidedly unmischievous performance. It is hard to understand why pianist after pianist (except Jayson Gillham, maybe) has missed the point of this piece. All they had to do was perform a simple Google search to come up with the following translations from the Italian to English (and you can assume into all of the other languages represented): mischievous, impish, little rascal, scamp. None of them so far have channeled their inner child and had fun smacking all of the tone clusters. Chen played it like a Bartók étude.

Stravinsky’s Trois mouvements du Pétrouchka has been the pièce de jour of the competition. Chen played it with astonishing technical brilliance. However, like Birichino, he missed the point of this music. His performance was too loud in many places, but that is not really what was wrong. Chen lacked perspective on the music. It is from a charming and bittersweet ballet that’s based on a Russian folktale of a puppet that comes to life and then has to deal with all of the complications that “life” means. Perhaps Chen knows exactly what is going on in the plot for each note he plays, but if so, he didn’t communicate that. Without this overlay, the piece becomes a series of pieces of “piano music.”


Chamber: Tuesday, June 4, 8:25 p.m.

Sean Chen’s performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet was baffling. Up until now, he has been one of the more exciting players in the competition. Here, he seemed to back off from that style for a much less colorful personality. Perhaps he was worried about playing too loudly in the chamber music part of the competition. The critics have certainly mentioned it when the piano overpowered and this may have made him back off some.

On the positive side, there was much that impressed. One outstanding example came in the second movement. The melody was in the right hand and the left hand doubled the pizzicati in the cello. He perfectly matched her so that it created a new sound rather than hearing them both separately.

It feels odd to write that he could have played out more. It was more than volume, however; it was energy that was lacking. His sense of balance with the quartet was always excellent, so he didn’t need to worry about it. He needed to trust his instincts and let it fly every once in a while. 

◊ Our profile of Sean Chen, 24, USA

◊ Review of Preliminary Recital Phase I

◊ Review of Preliminary Recital Phase II

◊ You can see quick links to the reviews of the other semifinalists here Thanks For Reading

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Cliburn Semifinals: Sean Chen
Reviews of the semifinal performances by the 24-year-old American in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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