Dallas — 16-year-old Chun Lam U of Hong Kong brightened Saturday afternoon’s session of the preliminary round of the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition with a beautifully plotted, well-thought program that enabled him to demonstrate an impressively broad intellectual and technical range.
All competitors are required to perform a Prelude and Fugue from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and U chose the pair in A from Book II. In the Prelude, U uncovered the gentle humanity lurking within Bach’s intricate counterpoint, while neglecting neither element; the pace quickened in the rapidly winding theme of the Fugue, which made a natural transition emotionally to Chopin’s Etude in A minor (Op. 10, No. 2) and the stormier emotions of the romantic era. U wisely moved without pause from Chopin to Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, allowing the Chopin to function as a sort of natural Prelude to the Mendelssohn.
As in the Bach and the Chopin works, U played with impeccable technique in the Mendelssohn, using the work’s majestic structure as the foundation of an epic musical pilgrimage. Altogether, U’s program to prove that a 20-minute program, even with the stricture of a required Prelude and Fugue of Bach and a virtuoso Etude, can be a meaningful musical and intellectual experience.
Likewise, 14-year-old Canadian J J Jun Li Bui came on stage with a remarkably mature gravitas in his succinct program. He opened with the Prelude and Fugue in D from Volume II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, with its vigorous, trumpet-like fanfares; a carefully managed hint of pedal provided an intriguing added color to the Fugue. Chopin’s Etude in C-sharp (Op. 10, No. 4), with its busy chromatic scale patterns, provided the bridge to the same composer’s Barcarolle, in which he employed a bold rubato and wide, well-controlled dynamic range to create an extravagant and engaging emotional effect.
The afternoon’s session had opened with 15-year-old Naomi Yamaguchi, who is representing both Japan and the United States. An unexpected traffic snarl kept me from witnessing Yamaguchi’s opening performance of the Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; in her performances of Chopin’s “Black Key” Etude in G-flat (Op. 10, No. 5), Debussy’s Prelude “Feux d’artifice” (“Fireworks”), and Schumann’s Variations on the name “Abegg,” she applied steel-fingered technique as well as an ability to uncover the music in all the notes in those works.
Chung Yue Tien of Hong Kong, at 13 the second-youngest competitor in the field, opted for a program clearly focused on technical prowess, with his Bach Prelude and Fugue (the set in G minor from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier) serving as an opening item for a subsequent set of four virtuoso Etudes: Chopin’s “Black Key” Etude in G-flat (Op. 10, No. 5), Chopin’s Etude in G-sharp minor (Op. 25, No. 6), Liszt’s “Chasse-Neige” (“Snow Plow”) from the Transcendental Etudes, and Liszt’s “La campanella” (“The Little Bell”). Tien clearly understood the academic complexities of the Bach set, and possesses an amazing technical command of the piano; hopefully, he will continue to develop some cultural awareness and emotional insight to match these skills.
Russian-Armenian Eva Gevorgyan, 15, took a deeply romantic approach to Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, with an admirable sense of the lyricism of these works somewhat marred by a heavy foot on the pedal. She followed up with the day’s second performance of Liszt’s “Chasse-Neige” Etude followed by the same composer’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, revealing a strong dramatic sensibility and a still-developing command of musical structure.
Chinese pianist Xingyu Zhou, 14, brought striking fluidity to a rapid-fire delivery of the Prelude and Fugue in G from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, adding some engaging light ornamentation to the Fugue. He managed the murderous trills of Chopin’s Etude in G-sharp minor (Op. 25, No. 6), and his ambitious attempt at Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 proved to be note-perfect but, in terms of convincing momentum, a work still in progress.
» You can watch a live stream of the competition at Cliburn.org.
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