Dallas — The second session of the quarterfinal round of the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition opened Sunday evening at Caruth Auditorium on the Southern Methodist University campus; and 17-year-old Chinese pianist Xiaoxuan Li opened the proceedings by overwhelmingly focusing on Beethoven, with a substantial side dose of Chopin.
And that focus on Beethoven proved a wise strategy for Li. The rules for this round require one movement of a Sonata from Mozart, Haydn, or early and middle period Beethoven (up to Opus 26); Li opted—as the rules allow—to present the entirety of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7 in D (Op. 10, No 3), a fairly lengthy, four-movement work. Though the sonata requirement obviously aims to expose strengths or weaknesses in a competitor’s approach to the music of the late 18th- and early 19th-century classical period, Li pushed out a little by presenting a work that looks forward into the composer’s later, experimental style.
From where this listener was sitting, the strategy worked beautifully, allowing Li to demonstrate his inherently muscular approach to the piano, as well as a firm understanding of classical style and structure. Li brought carefully controlled, ear-grabbing energy to the opening Presto, then introduced a serene balance in the subsequent Largo movement, in which intensity constantly chafes against a calm surface. Beethoven glanced fondly back to Haydn and Mozart in the gently lyrical Minuetto, giving Li the opportunity to show his stylistic range before dashing into the constant Beethovenian surprises of the Allegro finale.
From there, Li made an equally strong impression in the music of Chopin, applying an assertive lyricism to the Nocturne in C minor (Op. 48, No. 1), with its mournful opening theme and central rising storm.
American Benjamin F. Rossen, 17, likewise chose Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7 in D, but performed only the first movement, finding a swirling virtuosity therein. He then answered his own impetuosity in the Beethoven with a gentle pastel quality in the opening passages of Schubert’s Impromptu in B-flat (Op. 142, D. 935, No. 3). But his crowning moment came in a wisely selected set of Deux Poėmes by Scriabin, the first dreamy with characteristic Scriabinesque bursts of nervous momentum and the second rich with darker, sometimes vicious virtuosity. All of this played nicely to Rossen’s clearly adventurous musical intellect and superb technical machinery.
The young American continued in this vein with Chopin’s Polonaise in F-sharp minor (Op. 44), emphasizing the quick mood changes, with moments of pianistic thunder and shocking scale passages alternating with soaring melodies.
17-year-old Korean JiWon Yang closed the evening by opening with the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 11 in B-flat, presented with worthy exuberance, and contrasting nicely with the general sweetness of Chopin’s Nocturne in G (Op. 37, No. 2). Yang clearly has an affinity for big romantic showpieces, and she devoted the larger portion of her performance to Liszt’s Reminscences de Norma, a glitzy compendium of virtuoso technique built around Bellini’s opera. Yang was here at her best in the ocean of scales and arpeggios, and won a resounding ovation from the audience for her voyage through this pianistic cyclone.
» You can watch a live stream of the competition at Cliburn.org.
» Follow our coverage of the 2019 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition in our special section, here.