Albuquerque, N.M. — The second Olga Kern International Piano Competition is happening at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As we did for the inaugural event 2016, TheaterJones is covering it. The main reason is that Olga Kern, who was the co-Gold Medalist at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, is quite the North Texas star. She's had the biggest career of any Cliburn finalist of the past 25 years, at least, and plays Fort Worth frequently, as in her recent concert at the Kimbell Art Museum. Another reason is that we're one of the few media outlets still covering an entire piano competition. Because the arts matter.
Below are reviews of the 10 semifinalists, in the order of performance. This file will be updated as more reviews come in.
Programming Note: One fascinating element of this semifinal round is the introduction of a newly commissioned piece that the player only gets a short while before the competition begins. This happens in mostly all such competitions so that the judges can see what they do with a new work without the benefit of previous recordings to give them interpretive hints. Since they must learn it so quickly, they are allowed to use the music if they wish. The work is Metta Bhavana by San Francisco-based composer David Earl.
Simon Karakulidi, Russia
Drei Klavierstücke, D. 946
These three pieces come from Schubert’s Miracle Year, the last year of life, in which he wrote an astronomical amount of music. He was racing against time to get it all out of his head before he died. They are amazingly inventive and each one has a reference to a country hidden inside.
I Allegro assai
He opened this set in a no-nonsense manner adding some carefree flair to the end of the first subject. The center section is in the form of a lyrical French Mélodie (song) and his transition between such divergent was sections was deftly handled. He played the flashy scales as if they were extended ornamentations, like a turn on steroids, rather than a technical display.
This one opens with the rocking rhythm of a Venetian barcarolle (boat song) and this performance brings the whole romantic experience of a crepuscular gondolier ride vividly to mind. His exceptional independence of the hands lets the lovely melody sing over the self-created accountment
Here, he delivers a colorful reading with accents enhancing the Hungarian style of syncopated rhythms and adds a dose of the Roma influence that flavors most all of Hungarian music.
There was a short pause while the stage crew brought out the piano’s music stand so he could use the music to play this newly commissioned piece. In his hands, the slow introduction sounds like he is gathering his thoughts before sitting down to play an improvisation and what comes out is off-the-cuff Rachmaninoff-influenced neo-romantic. It also sounds like he is looking in vain for a stopping place,
Prélude, Choral et Fugue, FWV 21
Supposedly, the composer set out to write a prelude and fugue such as those formalized by Bach. What he ended up with was a major piece that uses the Baroque-era form titles more as a suggestion than a form and Karakulidi’s interpretation played it more like a fantasy. It recalls Franck’s background as an organist and relies on the finger legato that is a necessity on that non-sustaining instrument. He also brings a spiritual intensity to the central Chorale. Since the rolled chords that Franck uses here are not characteristic of the organ, Karakulidi rolls them quickly like they would be played on a harp. He also made the transition to the fugue practically unnoticeable. Although this is not really a genuine fugue, Karakulidi tries to keep the fugal implications of the title alive by prominently bringing out the main subject wherever he can find it. occurs
Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S. 514
Since he probably thought that while his program has been musically challenging up to this point, he needed to set off some fireworks as a closer and this Liszt showpiece certainly does that. (I love the irony of following Franck’s touch of the divine with an appearance by the devil.) Liszt wrote three versions of the first of his first Mephisto Waltz, one for orchestra, one for piano duet and this one, a bravura work for solo piano. Karakulidi took full advantage of Liszt’s trademark technical extravaganzas that upped for this showpiece. This piece is a challenge technically for even the most advanced pianists but musically, it is pretty thin gruel. However, he brought out a surprising large amount musically. He did this more than many other purveyors of this piece via cleverly conceived and slightly exaggerated ritards and dynamics enhanced by his ability to create a line.
This was a balanced program that demonstrated the full range of his considerable abilities: intelligent and sensitive musical finesse, clean technical mastery that enables him to play anything out there, and the requisite dash of showmanship that has always been de rigueur to reach the top ranks.
Elizaveta Kliuchereva, Russia
Nine Variations on a Minuet by Duport, K. 573
She did a fine job with these brief and clever variations. She played them cleanly with expertly applied pedaling and a terrific rapid staccato touch. Musically, variations are all about change and she changed the mood to reflect the music exactly when Mozart intended.
Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61
This work is all about harmonic exploration as she ably demonstrated immediately with her treatment of the opening chords as sperate and self-contained units. He also brought out the influence of the polonaise, which donated the meter and its tum-ta-rah character. Best yet, she kept the freedom that the term “fantaisie” implies throughout her performance.
Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36
I. Allegro agitato
With her explosive entrance, she immediately established that she intended to feature the technical aspects of this piece without sacrificing any of the music to show. She also made much of the unexpected and unusual chromatic tonal shifts. This was a strong muscular performance and her main misjudgment is that she reached maximum dynamic levels too soon and too frequently. After all, this is only the first movement.
II. Non allegro
One challenge this work presents is that while the tempo listings imply that this is a three-movement sonata, which it is, Rachmaninoff’s use of interludes and motivic unity connects them up, so the divisions are not distinct
III. Allegro molto
But there was no doubt where this last movement started when she launched it with a fortissimo and dramatically descending arpeggio followed by a series of stentorian chords.
Her performance of this new work was completely different from its first outing. In her hands, it was soft, reflective and musing until she let it loose and created quite a climax. She firmly planted this work in the burgeoning neo-romantic movement to such an extent that is sounded derivative with hints of familiar bits of music floating through it. All of the dissonances we heard before were incorporated to the point of oblivion.
Scherzo from Symphony No. 6, “Pathetique”
Her performance of this whizzbang arrangement of the only movement from Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony that isn’t deeply depressing. Au contraire, it is an energetic and joyous that worked well in Samuil Feinberg’s splashy arrangement for solo piano. But however well this arrangement usually works, it is hard to imagine a better performance than the spectacular one she delivered to bring her program to a triumphal ending.
Federico Gad Crema, Italy
Images, Book 1, L. 110
I. Reflets dans l'eau (Reflections in the water)
II. Hommage à Rameau (Tribute to Rameau)
III. Mouvement (Movement)
Crema certainly has a valid grasp on Debussy’s style, which he employed to deliver an evocative performance of the first book of these programmatic preludes. The first of these pieces is the epitome of the niche in the impressionism movement that Debussy created for composers to occupy next to the visual artists. Crema perfectly captured Debussy’s intentions all the way. His rendition of the second movement was especially insightful as he separated this sarabande from the two other movements, like pausing before the tomb for a brief mediation. The last section takes the word “movement” for its title and Crema takes Debussy at his word. He filled the air with a hurricane of notes that swarmed all around us.
This piece was different again. It appears to be a musical chameleon.
24 Preludes, Op. 28
These preludes, like similar sets, cover all of the major and minor keys. Right from their premiere there has been a controversy about playing these preludes as a set or in small groupings or even by themselves. Chopin limited himself to four on any one concert program. Recently, pianists have leaned towards playing the entire set as one entity. The argument for this is a harmonic one. The model, Bach’s The Well-Tempered Klavier, is organized chromatically but Chopin’s use of the circle of fifths is purely a musical invention created by tonal relationships.
Cristian Sandrin, Romania
[ review to come ]
Sergey Belyavskiy, Russia
Now this sounds almost like a reverential piece. All the dissonances have been tamed, as opposed to exaggerated, and it sounds like inspirational movie music and it reaches for tonal heaven at the climax with a nostalgic retreat. Almost sappy. Just amazing how different a piece can sound in the hands of different people none of whom have ever heard it before without previous recordings to consult. It even got some forbidden applause.
Rondeau fantastique sur un thème espagnol, “El Contrabandista,” S. 252
He took a light approach to this piece and the entire opening section sparkled and splashed like a huge and elaborate fountain in an old Spanish city’s town square. Liszt wrote it as he grand finale for his own recital concert tours so he could show off his world-famous technical brilliance. Belyavsky delivered on all the bravura Liszt intended and then some. The difficulty it presents is mindboggling and it is obvious why no one attempts it — not even Liszt did after a while
Liebestraum No. 3, S. 541
While this starts out innocuous enough, with its lovely but slightly sad tune being simply played, it soon breaks out into Lisztian hives. After which, it retreats to the quiet opening as though it had a scherzo break
Prelude and Fugue in G-sharp minor, Op. 29
Presumably, this is a misprint and they mean Sergei Taneyev. He was a Russian composer who is very popular in Russia but virtually unknown here. You can instantly guess that the composer is also a virtuoso pianist, and this is a piece worthy of the best of them. It is Belyavsky’s meat and potatoes and he let go on it. While it is not quite as difficult as the nearly unplayable Liszt he played beforehand, it still presents major challenges
Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82
I. Allegro moderato
This sonata is another one perfectly suited the Belyavsky’s bloodsport-approach to pianism. It is little wonder that it is one of the composer’s so-called War Sonatas. Not only is it gruff and roughhewn, the composer’s use of both A major and A minor simultaneously makes it unstable in a scary way.
He caught the bouncy attitude of this movement that definitely has a chip on its shoulder and is out looking for trouble.
III. Tempo di valzer lentissimo
This is a waltz, but it is as uncomfortable trying to be one as is a tough guy stuffed in a tight suit on a visit grandma. Maybe Belyavsky has missed the point because he made a valiant attempt to stuff Prokofiev’s canted waltz into Viennese garb. But now that I think about it, maybe this is exactly what the composer intended.
This quicksilver movement ties the entire work together by the use of preceding materials, an effort that is a perfect fit for the rondo form that is always returning to the opening material after constant diversions into other musical areas.
In general, Belyavsky delivered an astounding performance of incredible intensity. He is ill-fitted for more genteel music but given the correct repertoire — the Prokofiev being a prime example — his concerts should be the kind of sell out.
Connie Kim-Sheng, United States
[ review to come ]
HwaYoung An, South Korea
She played the vacant introduction freely and as a series of independent notes, unrelated to each other as well as to what was to come. Once again, this work has changed since we last heard it. She played it in the a manner similar to a nocturne, never letting it loose until the more expansive middle section. But, even there she kept it to a more respectable fortissimo as opposed to the big romantic “slurp” we heard in previous outings. Also, the dissonances were more evident, but sounded like they were added later to contemporize the harmonies.
Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI: 50
She immediately established a bright and cheerful mood by the way she played the first notes, using a slightly more substantial staccato attack as opposed to a shorter one. There was also an impressive drop to pianissimo, but other equally sudden mood changes were deftly handled.
She took a gentle and song-like approach with a lot of nuance. The overall impression was that she made a decision about how to play every note.
III. Allegro molto
Although she took a cheerful tempo, and gave an impressive performance, she missed some of the fun offered by this sarcastic movement. One example is a place where the music dithers and appears to be stuck like a toy electric car constantly bumping up against a wall.
Sonata in b minor, S. 178
Overall, she has the technical chops to play this challenging monster, and we heard some impressive playing and astute interpretations. However, she didn’t adjust the balance between her hands consistently. Almost always, both hands were playing the same volume. This made the performance sound muddy, mostly because Liszt always has so much going on at the same time. Thus, we missed some of the composer’s intricate inner voice writing and thus the results came it as homogenized. This, in turn, made it sound noisy.
Tetiana Shafran, Ukraine
This always-changing work got an excellent reading n her hands. I would call her take 21st century neo-romantic. All of the dissonances were still there but in balance with the overall texture so it didn’t sound purposely dissonant or overworking to sound au courant.
Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Chopin’s gifts were best suited to smaller forms, but there is a lot to admire in his sonatas. This one, the last composed of the three, is considered to be the most technically difficult to play. Shafran’s performance brought that assessment into question as she delivered a performance that was technically masterful.
I. Allegro Maestoso
Shafran delivered a forthright opening of the sonata with the descending arpeggio patterns leading to solid chords. She also delivered a sensitive playing of the lovely second subject that fit in with her concept of the main theme’s character. This set-up of the two main factors remained a consistent element of her performance, right up to their finish at the end of the movement. Her use of dynamic contrast was also striking, especially her ability to produce a beautiful soft sound that contrasted with the fortissimo markings without changing the scale set by Chopin.
II. Scherzo: molto vivace
Her playing in the scherzo portion was indeed vivace, but she kept it light on its feet. The lovely trio received a more relaxed performance.
The introduction to this movement is quite different than what follows. It is almost like a kind of fanfare. Her playing of this opening gesture was excellent. It felt like she tried to mitigate this difference, at least that is how it came off in her performance. After that, her performance of the movement progressed in a thoughtful and quiet manner. The quasi-recitative passage was especially nicely realized without being separated from the flow of the melody.
IV. Finale: Presto non troppo
Her excellent pianism brought this overall excellent performance of the sonata to an exciting close. The velocity she achieved in the many running right-hands passages was amazing, but they were part of the music and not show off end it themselves.
Gaspard de la Nuit
Even the opening measures of the first movement are a challenge to play. It is not a tremolo, as it may appear, but is a carefully measured rhythm that goes on for a considerable amount of time, making endurance a problem before we get to any of the substantial technical demands, Shafran’s interpretation of Ravel’s magnificent and nearly unplayable masterpiece was impressive from the start to the astounding difficulties to be found in the last movement.
The opening shimmered like the surface of a placid pond with a light zephyr just barely ruffling the surface, highlighted with glints of sunlight. She started the huge build-up, that is the centerpiece of this movement, from a position of retreat which made it all the more dramatic.
II. Le Gibet
This movement paints a grisly picture of a hanged man, who may still be alive. The main difficulty of movement is keeping the ringing of a distant bell separate from the rest of the movement. It is softer and on a different rhythmic pattern. To add to that challenge, the bell is in the middle of the keyboard while the other music is played at the ends of it. Perhaps it was her performance that gave me the creeps, but it also could have been because of the coincidental fact that this performance was taking place on Halloween.
This final movement ups the technical challenge with a passage that is at the top of the list of the most difficult piano music ever written because of the fast scampering runs made up of the interval of seconds. Throwing caution to the wind, she took a blindingly fast tempo. At this speed, the chords and their grace note antecedents sounded like crushed grace notes.
The famously devilish scale in seconds started out quietly but proceeded to excite as it progressed. Finally, it exploded in a flurry of notes.
Baron Fenwick, United States
Once again, this piece completely changed. This time, it sounded like an improvisation played in a spiky progressive jazz approach. Amazing.
Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI: 37
I. Allegro con brio
Fenwick set a moto perpetuo styled fast and spritely tempo punctuated by a stray interval of a second that leaped over the texture to give us a musical pinch. He ended with a cute “that’s all, folks” flair.
II. Largo e sostenuto
Here, he took an operatic approach to this movement which allowed us to sit down to catch our breath after that quicksilver romp through the first movement.
III. Finale. Presto ma non troppo
While this finale is marked Pesto and the first movement a mere Allegro, he reversed those markings and took a slightly more calmed down approach to the finale.
Kreisleriana, Op. 16
This series of eight pieces is a favorite of pianists because of the challenges both technically and, more importantly, musically. These are very dramatic works. The title refers to Johannes Kreisler, a bizarre character that sprang out of the overheated imagination of author E. T. A. Hoffman. Each of the movements describes some manic episodes that the imaginary character experienced.
An interesting sidelight is that Schumann himself probably suffered from a similar affliction. So, he created the two opposing characters that he used to represent his own opposite personalities. One was the wild and impulsive Florestan and the other was the reserved and thoughtful Eusebius.
Fenwick did a better job representing the pair of fantasy characters than his musical performance. In my opinion, this is what is most important in any performance of this piece, but may be only one aspect among many that will affect the judge’s opinions.
Gargoyles, Op. 29
Before I say anything, let me give Fenwick a hearty “Bravo,” unrelated to his actual performance, for programming a work by a living composer. This is an important, but mostly ignored, duty of every performing musician.
In Gargoyles, Lowell Libermann, a fine pianist himself, created a series of short pieces that resemble etudes more than program music. The title comes from his interest in architecture and thus the gargoyles that adorn many old buildings, especially churches. These scary creations were thought to scare away all evil spirits. However, Liebermann’s composition is not related to any specific statuary monsters, rather inspired by their collective energy.
Fenwick set fast and solid presto that allowed him took full advantage of the technical display the piece offered.
II. Adagio semplice, ma con molto rubato
This movement features a slowing rocking motion in the left hand while floating a canted melody in the right hand that wanders around in the upper range of the keyboard
II. Allegro moderato
Fenwick played this lovely piece with special attention to the romantic melody that floats above the fray. This made the movement sound slower than the indicted allegro. Other, less sensitive performances, that don’t separate that melody as definitely, sound more allegro-ish, but this has to be the composer’s intention.
As with the first Gargoyle, Liebermann offers the performer some fast and technically demanding music to play. Although it may be impossible to interpret “presto” any other way than very fast. Fenwick’s super-quick conception of this tempo marking allowed him to take full advantage of the music to display his technical abilities.
Richard Octaviano Kogima, Brazil
Kogima started off by creating a haze by holding down the pedal while he softly played the sequence of single notes of the introduction. After that, he played the music that follows slower than the previous performances and that deem to make the dissonances fade. This left us with some lovely melodic materials with a variety of accompaniment figures in the left hand. It felt like the piece took an excursion into neo-romantic territory. Soon, there was a return to the previous language. At the end, the composer released the last handful of notes one at a time as if the piece regretted having to stop.
Italian Concerto, BWV 971
Without tempo indication
You gotta to love that tempo un-indication. I suppose that it is more elegant than “your guess is as good as mine?” Actually, some of the surviving manuscripts from the baroque era lack tempo indication, and some don’t have any markings whatsoever. Right from the first few notes, you learned that Kogima’s instincts about tempi are sure.
Sechs Klavierstücke, Op. 118
While uneven overall, parts of his performance of these overwhelmingly beautiful pieces were gorgeously played. But what followed them was unfortunate.
“Epitaph” – Reflections on J. Brahms’s Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 6.
This is a composition by the pianist himself and programming it here was, at least in this critic’s opinion, a misfire. Its language is best described as pseudo-Liszt-meets-modernism. My job here is not to comment of new compositions. I can say that Kogima’s positioning of his work immediately following the Brahms, even though it was a commentary on the last of the Brahms’ pieces, it felt like a jarring intrusion. While I have no idea what the judges thought, in this critic’s opinion the situation adversely affected his recital.
An aside: It is not advisable for a participant in any competition to play their own compositions. These contests exist to judge a series of performances by the participants so as to hand out awards that are carefully decided. They are not supposed to consider the participants ancillary abilities, such as their work as a composer. So, inclusions of such extraneous elements can distract the judges from their already difficult job of trying to make a distinction between an almost equally gifted group of participants.
Après une lecture du Dante: Fanatasia quasi Sonata
This so-called Dante Sonata is another one of Liszt’s overblown showpieces purposely designed to “wow” the audiences of the late 1830’s who attended the sold-out concerts on his recital tours. Thus. Kogima can be forgiven for overplaying it, but this caused some errors. He might have been somewhat unnerved after playing his piece.
The finalists, announced Thursday night, are below, listed in the order they play at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, with the New Mexico Philharmonic.
Elizaveta Kliuchereva, Russia
Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
Federico Gad Crema, Italy
Tchaikovsky - Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23
Simon Karakulidi, Russia
Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
Tetiana Shafran, Ukraine
Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30