Reviews of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Quarterfinal Round, session 2 (2:30 p.m. Monday, May 29). You can see bios and complete repertoire of all pianists here.
For quick links to all our Cliburn reviews, click here.
South Korea, 28
SCRIABIN Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, op. 30
CHOPIN 24 Preludes, op. 28
Scriabin’s fourth sonata comes off as a last movement of the third sonata, because they are closely linked to the end of the third. Even though it is in two movements, they are played without a pause.
Kim snuck into the sonata so quietly that we barely noticed (of course, we could see his hands, so that is not exactly true—but you get the point). He unleashed the music in short order and let it find its own way forward. Scriabin’s music is mystical and ecstatic and it tells you how to play it. Too slow or two fast and it falls apart. He gave it a strong performance, combining both sides of the composer’s musical identity.
At first, I wondered why he decided to play all 24 of Chopin’s preludes. Reportedly, Chopin never played more than four of five in any concert. But the short nature of many of them and their orderly march through all the major and minor keys makes you wonder what his intent really was. He didn’t name them, although some have acquired nicknames as time marched on.
This time, hearing them in Kim’s capable hands, I was sold on playing them all. It felt as natural as if they were in a suite like Schumann’s Kreisleriana. This is because of Kim’s pondering about how to hook them by coordinating tempi, and the way he played them. He had great balance between his hands so the line we need to hear was always the alpha dog. Even when the melodic material was the top note in a chord, he brought it out. That dynamic plan also included specific preludes; some short ones brought a quick crescendo and a pared decrescendo that brought mayflies to mind. They fly free for only a few hours before their glorious but short life ends.
In the ones that contain rippling accompaniments, he kept that passagework noodling well under the melodic material. As it turns out, it was an inspired selection and the audience responded as if he had played a Liszt showoff piece.
BACH Toccata in D Minor, BWV 913
RAVEL Gaspard de la nuit
KAPUSTIN Variations, op. 41
Teo opened with Bach, which requires nimble fingers, careful layering of voices and a sensitive choice of tempi. He started off on the slow side but soon got up to tempo—a very clever idea. His playing was exact and clean, even in the fastest parts. There were places when he took a breath between phrases to give them an identity. He ended it with a very fast tempo that brought it home in a spectacular manner.
His Gaspard was immaculately played but it differed with his interpretation. He played it in a straight-forward manner, adding on a little rubato here and there. This is a very romantic piece and it needs to be soaked in rubato so that the phrases can rise and fall, even internally.
Nikolai Girshevich Kapustin is a great example of the recent freedom that composers have to write in any style they feel is natural to their voice. As we heard in this selection, he writes in a mixture of jazz and piano bar (no tip jar however). Teo knocked it out the park with his easy style and serious intent. The audience gave him a rousing ovation.
MARTIN JAMES BARTLETT
United Kingdom, 20
SCARLATTI Sonata in E Major, K. 380
SCARLATTI Sonata in B Minor, K. 27
GRANADOS “El amor y la muerta” from Goyescas, op. 11
PROKOFIEV Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, op. 83
These two Scarlatti sonatas, like most of his others, are short but require great clarity and precise fingers and Bartlett has both attributes. Thus, they made an excellent introduction to his quarterfinal round. They were slightly romanticized, but that is common these days. The first one is well known and the second one was very fast. In both, he kept the lines separate so we had no trouble following both.
When he is playing, he is so at ease that he could be in his own living room with no one listening.
Scanning his selections, one can assume that he wanted to display his ability to realize a performance in several different styles. And so it was. In the Granados, he started with a haunted haze and then took off with some Spanish passion. Not only was this his style of playing—even the piano sounded different. This was very lush playing and he breathed with the singing line—very rare in a pianist who doesn’t have to do so. In this competition we've previously heard Liszt’s bowdlerization of Schumann’s lovely song and it sounded more like Liszt than Schumann. Bartlett’s version was the opposite. The song came first to him.
Prokofiev’s seventh sonata appears to be a popular choice this year. Bartlett launched a preemptive strike and, except for a respite in the second movement, had the sonata on the run, with guns blazing, the rest of the way. A quote from Tina Turner’s intro to her version of CCR’s “Proud Mary” came to mind: “We never, ever do nothin’ nice and easy. We always do it nice and rough.” This performance was a wild ride and the audience went wild when it finally screeched to a stop.
United States, 19
BACH-BUSONI Chaconne in D Minor, BWV 1004
MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition
Programming Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a risky move in a competition because it requires the barely playable to be mastered. Another drawback is that the eleven different pieces are musical depictions of paintings. (They connect with a promenade as you move from one to another.) Thus, the pianist needs to musically paint a vision of the painting for the audience.
Hsu overcame both problems with his superb musicianship, creative imagination and impeccable technique. It was a perfect choice for his unique combination of talents and he wowed the audience. Not all was perfect, however. Some movements were on the fast side, such as “The Old Castle,” which wasn’t as creepy and mildewed at Hsu’s pace. He even used different ways of playing, such as pounding the keyboard from about a foot over it and landing hard. This was terrific, and 99 percent of the audience didn’t even hear the few note splats that inevitably occur when aiming at the note from that distance. His performance was involving and whipped up a frenzy in the crowd.
He opened with another piece that has been showing up with some regularity, Busoni’s piano arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne, originally for unaccompanied violin. His performance came off better than others because of the way he played it—with more Bach and less Busoni.
An aside: This is a notoriously difficult piece for the violinist and is a watermark in their career. If you can play it successfully, you have arrived. It was the first piece that Joshua Bell played when he posed as a busker in a Washington, D.C., subway station and everyone walked by. It was an experiment to see if anyone would notice that the guy playing was a great violinist. They didn’t.
CLIBURN COMPETITION SCHEDULE
See links to all of our reviews that have posted here.
See the schedule of quarterfinal performances here.
- Monday, May 29: 10 a.m., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
- Tuesday, May 30: 10 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 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.