Tony Yike Yang, 16, Canada
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 24
Bach, Prelude and Fugue in G-sharp Minor, BWV 887, Book II
Chopin, Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1
Liszt, Après une lecture de Dante (Fantasia Quasi Sonata)
Before he began his chosen Bach prelude and fugue, he sat at the piano for what seemed like quite a long time. When he started, however, he sprung into action, setting a very quick tempo and made use of the rhythmic motive: a crushed pickup to a downward resolving non-harmonic tone. His quick snap of the motif allowed us to hear every entrance. By contrast, his performance of fugue was slow and deliberate. The dynamic level remained on the low side and the tempo remained relatively constant, with only a small ritard at the end. This is a very complex piece and his relatively slow tempo allowed us to hear its fascinating intricacies.
In the Chopin, he paid close attention to the dynamics in the score without slavishly following them. He added in small and graceful ritards at the end of phrases. He always let the melody sing out and agree or not, he didn’t allow the offbeat section to offer much disturbance. Once again, he chose a strange piece. This time, he played it as though in a dream sequence: real and unreal at the same time.
He waited a long time before the Liszt as well. Unlike in the previous performance, he incorporated the introduction into the body of the piece by connecting up the phrases instead of leaving them as discrete musical events. He made liberal use of the sustaining pedal and, in that case, he soaked it for maximum effect. This is a very big virtuoso showpiece, so he can be forgiven for getting to his loudest paying way to early and way too frequently, but he didn’t allow himself much room to maneuver when tutta forza was required.
» Read a review of Yang's preliminary round performance here
Youlan Ji, 16, China
8:05 p.m. Wednesday, June 24
Bach, Prelude and Fugue in D Major, Book II, BWV 874
Chopin, Nocturne in E-flat Major, op. 55, No. 2
Barber, Sonata for Piano, Op. 26
First off, Ji’s performance of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata has been eagerly awaited by fans of the piano, American music of our time, and the Greek tragedy that was his life. We were not disappointed. In fact, if she progresses to the next round [editor’s note: she did], it will almost completely be because of her stunning performance of this hugely difficult sonata.
One interesting aspect of her performance of the Bach prelude was how she spit the theme into two parts: a trumpet call with a more modest and genteel close. The same thing occurred in the fugue. Because of the similarity in her approach, the two parts of this piece fit together better and in the other performances. She also did an exceptional job of keeping the subject always above the general dynamic level (a skill that served her well in the last movement of the Barber).
She also did a fine job with the Chopin, bringing out its chromatic structures. But enough of that.
Barber’s sonata is a landmark in contemporary music and piano music in particular. There is practically nothing in its class; maybe the Copland Variations or the Ives sonatas. Barber is writing against type here. Severely criticized for his out-of-style brand of neo-romanticism that made his name, with pieces such as the string quartet with its second movement, Adagio for Strings, his operas and Schirmer’s most frequently rented set of orchestra parts, the violin concerto.
None of that is here. The second movement is more tonal, but the entire piece is dissonant, atonal and even uses the dreaded 12-tone technique (especially in the fugal sections). He also absorbed lots of influences that were percolating at the time (completed in 1949). He takes Bartók’s rough-hewn percussive and barbaric music and melds it with some Copland. However, he failed to add in ay of the so-called Americanism, remaining an American composer who wrote more in line with the Europeans. Barber wrote the piece for Vladimir Horowitz and set out to make it as difficult as the other landmarks in the repertoire (such as Balakirev’s Islamey and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit).
Originally, it was supposed to end with the third movement, but Horowitz insisted on a flashy ending. Well, he got one, that is for sure. It is a complex fugue that sometimes has as many as eight voices. A handbook on piano music makes the comment that it can only be undertaken by a “complete pianist” and that is certainly good advice.
All this is necessary to fully appreciate Ji’s achievement. Few pianists even attempt it and to see it on a program for the Junior Cliburn is mindboggling. I expected her performance to be technically secure but was completely unprepared for the intelligence and understanding she brought to this very complex work. Perusing recordings of great artists (such as John Browning) who recorded it early on and then much later, you can easily see that it requires living with this work to finally come to grips with it. There is no need to go into all of the details that made her performance memorable, which would add way too many words for the purpose of these short reviews. However, if she has a start on the piece like she demonstrated tonight—and at the age of 16—her hoped-for recordings of this seminal sonata in 20 years or so will surely be definitive.
» Read a review of Ji's preliminary round performance here
Evelyn Mo, 16, United States
8:55 p.m. Wednesday, June 24
Bach, Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Major, Book I, BWV 848
Mozart, Sonata in D Major, K. 576: I. Allegro
Chopin, Nocturne in E-flat Major, op. 55, no. 2
Chopin, Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, op. 23
Ravel, "Ondine" from Gaspard de la nuit
Fortunately for Mo, there was a 20-minute break before she started. Following the Barber any sooner would have been difficult. However, she established herself right from the start as confident and prepared.
The Bach went at quite a clip and the Baroque style felt like a natural fit for her (unlike some of the other competitors, who struggled with it). The fugue bounced along at a jolly pace. Even though the subject had to enter more forthrightly than may have been ideal, she always brought it out over the other voices.
There has been a dearth of Mozart in this competition, so it was a nice change of pace to hear this sonata movement. She barely touched the sustaining pedal so the performance was clean and crisp. Her Chopin, recently heard, benefited from keeping the piece moving: eschewing slurpy ritards. Even though her accompaniment figures were frequently too loud and connected with the tune, her dynamic levels were excellent. Further, she showed that she is as good with Chopin as with Mozart.
“Ondine" is the opening movement of the aforementioned pianistic Mt. Everest, from Gaspard de la nuit. This is the first appearance of this landmark piece and it is a surprise to see it at all in the junior competition. Pianists spend their life on this work and, hopefully, so will Mo, but she gave it an unexpectedly mature performance. Even the first measure in challenging, but her mastery of its technical challenges was apparent. She has a firm based to make this a signature piece as her career advances. On quibble: she took a big ritard as she climbed to the big moment but once she got there, she didn’t take any time for us to enjoy the summit. She hurried on, pulling us away from such a sublime musical climax. Also the last recitative was too slow. We forgot where we were in the piece. But these are small things and did not mar her superb performance—astonishing for one so young.
» Read a review of Mo's preliminary round performance here
» The competition runs through June 28, 2015. Folllow our complete coverage in our special section, which includes:
- Competition schedule
- Bios and repertoire for all contestants
- A feature on the first Cliburn Jr.
- And more