Rachel Cheung

Cliburn Preliminary Round 8

Reviews of the eighth preliminary round at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Rachel Cheung, EunAe Lee, and Sergey Belyavskiy.

published Saturday, May 27, 2017

Reviews of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Preliminary Round 8 (7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 27). You can see bios and complete repertoire of all pianists here.

See links to all of our reviews that have posted here.



Hong Kong, 25


SCHUBERT Drei Klavierstücke, D. 946
DEBUSSY Voiles from Preludes, Book I
DEBUSSY Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest from Preludes, Book I
LISZT Mephisto Waltz No. 1
HAMELIN Toccata on “L’homme armé”


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Rachel Cheung


A glance at her program made me wonder why she didn’t end with the Liszt rather than the Hamelin. It turned out for the best because she brought a low-key attitude to everything she played. Thus, the Liszt was not the barnburner it is in flashier hands.

The Schubert received a spirited performance. It was quite jolly. Schubert’s one-chord modulation brought a more somber mood. She brought out the lines so we could clearly hear Schubert’s concept. She also caught the moods of the three pieces, from joy to melancholy to triumph. She made a total change of interpretation for the two Debussy selections—even her approach to the instrument was different.

In the Liszt she displayed a formidable technique. Some runs flew up and down the keyboard so that it sounded like a harp glissando. She took the slow section a little too slow. Perhaps she lost energy rather than speed. Hard to tell. The audience loved it and gave an extended ovation.

The Hamelin proved to be a wise selection to end her recital. Her low-key approach served her well and we could feel the building excitement she would let loose later. She ended it with more splash than she ended the Liszt, which is saying something.




South Korea, 29


HAYDN Sonata in B-flat Major, Hob. XVI:41
DEBUSSY Étude pour les arpèges composés
CHOPIN Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, op. 58
HAMELIN Toccata on “L’homme armé”


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
EunAe Lee


Overall, her performance was technically perfect and musically astute. The only odd thing was that she was slightly muted. Hard to explain, but evident throughout. Maybe it is just that by this point in the competition, our senses have already been dulled by a series of showboats.

The Haydn was a good opener with its energy and even a skip in the main subject. She turned a joyful performance that energized the audience. Her approach was too romantic for me, but Haydn could only dream about an instrument like this Steinway so maybe she channeled what he would have done with it. The Debussy was beautifully played. The Chopin brought a complete change in her playing. Perhaps the stylistic change allowed however to unleash her inner monster.

The Debussy is one of a series of 12 études he wrote in 1915 and they are all monsters to play. The story says that he composed them as a warning to stay away from the piano unless you have the chops to play these. (Sounds like my first piano teacher.) They were his final masterpieces. Each one addresses a technical difficulty to be mastered. It doesn’t take long to realize that is all about arpeggios. Lee gave it a very beautiful performance.

The Chopin always presents a problem in that his best work is in smaller forms. You always get the impression that he cobbled these larger works out of scraps. This is not to cast aspersions on the pieces—they are magnificent—but stitching them together can be a challenge (this does not apply to the superb concerti).  Playing the Chopin brought a complete change in her playing. Perhaps the stylistic change allowed her to unleash her inner monster.

Right off, we learned that she can spin a legato melody. The slow movement was lugubrious but beautiful in its own way. The last movement took on a nobility that worked even in all the virtuosic runs. The audience loved it.

When she returned to play the Hamelin, she brought out the music but never looked it (and didn’t have a page turner). This was her most assertive playing so far, even though it was still reserved (we have heard it played softly before). She savored it with lots of nuance but didn’t give it an identity. It was reminiscent of the Chopin.




Russia, 23


SCHUBERT Fantasie in C Major, D. 760, op. 15 (“Der Wanderer”)
HAMELIN Toccata on “L’homme armé”
TANEEV Prelude and Fugue in G-sharp Minor, op. 29
LISZT Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp Minor


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Sergey Belyavskiy


When he made his modest entrance, we heard the evidence of his fans in the audience. Maybe they were from the concurrently running PianoTexas Festival at Texas Christian University. The energy behind that is the superb pianist Tamás Ungár and he told me that they have four students, former and current, in the competition. Speaks well for his summer program.

He gave the Schubert a no-nonsense start and he immediately captured the audience. By the way, this is the piece that interrupted his work on what we know as the “unfinished” symphony. It is a challenge musically because it is really a sonata with three movements that run together and it is all based on one theme. Belyavskiy gave a sterling performance full of nuance and bravura, such as the big fugue played in octaves.

How wonderful to have a piece by Taneev on the program. He is very popular in Russia, part Tchaikovsky and looking forward to Rachmaninoff, but rarely heard here. Belyavskiy opened by giving it a mysterious air before he let it burst free. His upward sweeps were so fast that they sounded like a glissando. The magnificently crafted fugue was really fast but he played it almost perfectly. We couldn’t exactly hear all the detail at that tempo, but it was thrilling nonetheless.

The Liszt exists in both this original piano form and in a splashy orchestral version.  The tunes from this have come into the shared ether. Almost anyone can recognize some part of it. Belyavskiy should try to get in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! for the fastest performance on record. He astounded with his ability to play it at this extreme tempo and as clean and pristine as anyone playing it at a more reasonable speed. It sounded like it was sped up for a Keystone Cops movie. By the explosive end I was half-laughing and half-astounded.






See links to all of our reviews that have posted here.

See the schedule of preliminary performances here.


  • Thursday, May 25: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, May 26: 10 a.m., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, May 27: 10 a.m., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, May 28: 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.



  • Monday, May 29: 10 a.m., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday, May 30: 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.



  • Thursday, June 1: 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, June 2: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. 
  • Saturday, June 3: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. 
  • Sunday, June 4: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. 
  • Monday, June 5: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.  



  • Wednesday, June 7: 7:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 8: 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, June 9: 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, June 10: 3 p.m.


  • Saturday, June 10: 7 p.m.
 Thanks For Reading

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Cliburn Preliminary Round 8
Reviews of the eighth preliminary round at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Rachel Cheung, EunAe Lee, and Sergey Belyavskiy.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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