Dallas — The Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition opened at Caruth Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University Friday afternoon with performances by six of the competition’s 23 teenaged competitors presenting intense 20-minute preliminary programs.
Besides the challenge of making a memorable impression in just 20 minutes, this preliminary round has two additional built-in challenges: the requirement of a virtuoso Etude by Chopin or Liszt, and, even more daunting, a Prelude and Fugue from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Virtually every serious pianist, amateur or professional, studies Bach’s Preludes and Fugues; but the interpretive aspects as well as the wide array of differing opinions on how to play Bach’s keyboard music—originally written for the harpsichord—on the modern piano can provide a steady supply of anxiety for a competitor of any age. And, even with these basic hurdles already in place, all of these young pianists suppled copious additional challenges for themselves in works designed to fill out the allotted twenty minutes.
By far the most striking impression of the afternoon came from the session’s final performer, 14-year-old Hao-Wei Lin from Taiwan. Lin presented a program perfectly suited to his impressive technical command and youthful temperament, beginning with 18th-century French composer François Couperin’s Le Tic-Toc-Choc (the meaning of which title is uncertain), a flashy but relentlessly showy perpetual motion piece. For his Bach requirement, Lin delivered the thick-textured Prelude and Fugue in G-sharp minor from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier with an ear for the shifts from darkness to light implied in the thick harmonies. A quartet of short works by Scriabin (Etude in B, Op. 8, No. 4), Rachmaninoff (Prelude in G, Op. 32, no. 5), Debussy (Etude “For Eight Fingers”), and Liszt (Etude “La leggierezza,” or “Lightness”), all focused on Lin’s uncanny command of rhythmic complexity, extraordinary control of volume, and sometimes breathtaking phrasing and rubato of the sort that keeps the listener of the edge of the chair.
The session opened with Canadian Ryan Zhu,15, who started with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor from Book I, followed by Liszt’s “La leggierezza”; in Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, Zhu demonstrated a strong instinct for the dramatic impetus of the work and the special tempo sensitivities required in the music of Mendelssohn.
After opening with a fluid but solid rendition of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G from Book II, American Kasey Shao, 15, launched into varied technical challenges, beginning with Chopin’s Etude in F (Op. 10, No. 8), followed by a fine exposition of the subtle counterpoint and softly intertwined voices of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D-flat. The “Triana” movement from Albéniz’s Iberia presented a sort of Spanish counterpart to the Rachmaninoff, after which Shao moved onto the relentless technical challenges of Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in D-flat, with its broad octave passages and constant shifts of meter.
Japanese pianist Shunta Morimoto, 14, delivered a straightforward take on Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E from Book I before navigating the arpeggios and scales of Chopin’s Etude in C-sharp minor (Op. 10, No 4); he then provided a contrasting pair from Scriabin, with the mondernist atonalism of the Etude in F-sharp (Op. 42, No. 3) and the moody, dreaminess of the Waltz in A-flat. Morimoto’s finest moment came in the relentless repeated octave figures of Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song “Der Erlkönig” (“The Demon King”) in which he showed off control of a wide dynamic range.
Austrian Johann Zhao, 15, brought a vigorous, toccata-like aura to Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G from Book I, followed by a skillfully voiced performance of Liszt’s Etude “La campanella” (“The Little Bell”), with its repeated-note figurations and the afternoon’s second performance of Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in D-flat; Zhao closed his program with nicely momentous, ultimately thunderous rendition of Prokoviev’s Toccata.
Hao Rao, 15, from China, opened with a subtly sculpted performance of two lyrical “Songs Without Words” of Mendelssohn (Op. 67, Nos. 1 and 5); he followed with a resonant version of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C from Book II, after which he successfully took on the twin challenge of scales in parallel thirds in the right hand and large leaps in the left in Chopin’s Etude in G-sharp minor. But Rao’s most impressive and successful moment came with Liszt’s Waltz on themes from Gounod’s Faust, capturing the wit and sophistication Liszt applied here while managing roaring octaves at appropriate moments.
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