Nikolay Khozyainov with the Brentano String Quartet in his semifinal chamber round
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Cliburn Semifinals: Nikolay Khozyainov

Semifinal reviews of the 20-year-old Russian in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Second round added.

published Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Recital: Sunday, June 2, 1:30 p.m.

Photo: Carolyn Cruz/The Cliburn
Nikolay Khozyainov at his semifinal recital


Nikolay Khozyainov greatly improved his stock with his first appearance in the semifinal round—and it was already high. He proved without a shadow of a doubt that observing the markings in the music makes for a better performance. Imagine that!

His performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, op. 110, was definitive. He was on the mark right from the start, where the composer writes molto expressivo (very expressive) and cantabile (singing). He achieved a true pianissimo and his forte was only thatand no more. In the second movement, the forte was a little overblown, but considering Beethoven’s delight in sudden contrasts, he probably would have approved. However, the composer would have complained that Khozyainov didn’t observe the full two measures of silence before the repeat. The third movement started quietly and the Adagio revealed some excellent finger legato.

Khozyainov played it like an Italian opera aria and it was quite involving. He started the Fugue organically from the previous movement and kept it under control throughout. He always brought out the subject and kept the other voices subdued. However, he blurred the chords at the end with the pedal, virtually eliminating the rests that Beethoven took the time and ink to write between them. The second fugue was appropriately quiet and it sounded like he took Beethoven’s advice to use the una corda pedal. But all the sustaining pedal Khozyainov used at the end didn’t work so well, especially after he made such sparingly judicious use of it throughout.

Photo: Carolyn Cruz/The Cliburn
Nikolay Khozyainov at his semifinal recital

Khozyainov delivered a marvelous performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, op. 83the best so far (and it will be hard to beat). Once again, his attention to the smallest detail and strict levels of dynamics showed why this is so important in creating a piece of music, as opposed to a lot of technical tricks. In the first movement, after all the fireworks, Prokofiev writes a melody; it may be angular, but there is great beauty there, and Khozyainov played it with the same attention he paid to the one in the Beethoven. He moved the second movement along at a slightly faster clip than usual and it altered the “old refrain” quality of the melody.

It worked for me, but others might miss it.

In the last movement, he minimized the motto (b-c#-b) while still keeping it present. Some performers tend to blast it out all the way, creating a sense of monotonous repetition that the composer never intended. It is supposed to be there all the time, just not always front and center.

Theofanidis’ Birichino appears doomed to serious performances as if it as an étude instead of a delightful piece about the antics of a birichino (naughty child). In Khozyainov’s hands, it sounded vaguely like Prokoviev and he missed some of the high notes that require marksman-like accuracy. 

The Liszt-Busoni Fantasy on two motives from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro was exactly what was expected. Liszt left this work incomplete and never published it, even though he played it himself a couple of times, perhaps just improvising what was missing. Busoni finished it off for publication and this is the tedious result. There are some other versions, but they probably aren’t much different. The problem with thisand all of Liszt’s operatic paraphrasesis that he takes the tunes and buries it under piles of virtuoso hogwash. In order to enjoy them, you have to completely forget the source of the melodic material and sit back and enjoy hearing the pianist show off.


Chamber: Tuesday, June 4, 1:30 p.m. 

Nikolay Khozyainov has been one of the showiest of the pianists in the competition, partly because of his age and mop of curls and partly because his repertoire trended to the big showy pieces. No matter how musically you play them, showy pieces are still showy. So, his turn with the Schumann Piano Quintet was the subject of much curiosity. As it turns out, it was his most eloquent and sensitive performance.

The Schumann is different from the other allowed piano quintets in that it was one of the seminal works for the medium (Schubert’s Trout quintet used a bass) and thus set the standard for all those to come later, such as the Brahms. So, the pianist can choose from some different approaches. Khozyainov decided that this is a piano-centric piece and that he could play out in a more soloistic fashion whenever Schumann gave the piano the opportunity. 

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Nikolay Khozyainov with the Brentano String Quartet in his semifinal chamber round

This is not to say that he played too loudly—he didn’t. In fact, his balance was excellent all the way. This is also not to say that he acted like a conductor dictating all of the tempi and rubato; his collaboration was exemplary and he was always in contact with the Brentano Quartet. What this does say is that he took full advantage. An example occurred in the development of the first movement. All of this passage work could be played as accompaniment or as a soloist. Khozyainov chose to bring it out, rising above the dynamic level of the strings, and it was very effective.

In the second movement, his eyes were glued on the concertmaster to make sure that all of the separated notes were exactly together. This is a very difficult passage to coordinate, what with the rests and short anacrusis. In the second subject, he joined with the second violin and viola to subtly accompany the soaring violin and cello. Best, he brought out the bass line to offer a suitable foundation since the cello was otherwise occupied. 

In the last movement, Khozyainov was at the top limit of what you could still call a forte, but his marcato playing kept him even with the strings. There were a few things here and there that give hesitation to an all-out rave, but they were all minor and border on picky. For example, in the fugue he failed to get out of the way when his statement of the subject was over, which forced the strings to play louder to cut through the texture. Little things like this do not mar a performance nor do they change the overall impression. Khozyainov pleasantly surprised and noticeably impressed.


◊ Our profile of Nikolay Khozyainov, 20, Russia

◊ 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: Nikolay Khozyainov
Semifinal reviews of the 20-year-old Russian in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Second round added.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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