Han Chen

Cliburn Quarterfinal Round 5

Reviews of the fifth quarterfinal session at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Sergey Belyavskiy, Tony Yike Yang, Yekwon Sunwoo, and Han Chen.

published Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Reviews of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Quarterfinal Round, session 5 (2:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 30). You can see bios and complete repertoire of all pianists here.

For quick links to all our Cliburn reviews, click here.



Russia, 23


BEETHOVEN Variations and Fugue in E-flat Major, op. 35 (“Eroica”)
LISZT Faribolo Pasteur in G Minor
PROKOFIEV Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, op. 14


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Sergey Belyavskiy


The theme that Beethoven used for this set of variations was a favorite of his. It is reported that he used it frequently in recital when he was improvising. It originated in one of the 12 Contredanses (No. 7) and again in his ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus. Most famously, he wrote an important set of variations for the last movement of his “Eroica” Symphony. The theme is odd in that a pattern of three repeated notes, like a knocking on a door, sticks out by being louder that everything else and then echoed softer. I mention all this because Belyavskiy enjoyed playing these variations, especially with these three note patterns. He also brought out this theme throughout its journey in the piece, including in the fugue at the end of the set.

Liszt is a frequent visitor to compactions including this one. Belyavskiy did an excellent job with it in all the virtuoso parts. In his hands, it sounds more like Medtner or even Rachmaninoff than Liszt.

Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, op. 14 is a stylish mishmash that looks forward to his mature work. It is a challenging piece, as are the other piano sonatas. Belyavskiy delivered a fine performance, especially in the last movement, which presents the most difficultly. He set a fast tempo, which can get a pianist in trouble as the movement progresses, but he made it to the end unscathed.




Canada, 18


SCRIABIN Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, op. 19
LISZT Sonata in B Minor


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Tony Yike Yang



Here is another contestant who chose to play two large contrasting works instead of shorter ones. There is some wisdom in that decision, especially in a later round, because it demonstrates his ability to tie multiple movements together into a successful whole.

Scriabin’s second sonata took many years for him to complete, but that struggle is not evident in the final product. His influences are more readily noticeable than in his later works. Yang brought this out in the way he played stylistically. Scriabin’s music always has an otherworldly feel but Yang let some other composers peek in, such as Rachmaninoff as well as Taneyev, and even a touch of Chopin.

Liszt’s piano sonata is one of his most successful works for the instrument and never fails to impress. At Yang’s very fast tempo, it was an exciting ride. The entire sonata was played at quite a clip and while he as the technique to support that tempo, the big question is: Why? The audience could not help but be amazed at his nimble fingers, and it was a spectacular performance, but the sonata is more effective as music at a less frantic tempo.

But he certainly wowed the audience.




South Korea, 28


SCHUBERT Sonata in C Minor, D. 958
RAVEL La Valse


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Yekwon Sunwoo


Sunwoo delivered a perfect recital. If he missed anything, I didn’t hear it. 

He started the sonata with dignity. He combined his ability to play a legato line with a crisp staccato when required by the composer. While the fast chromatic scales and octave runs were astounding, it was his ability to sing Schubert’s melodies as if they were a song. He even breathed with the phrases.

But it was in La Valse when he stole the show. He played the foggy opening section as if he were gathering bits of melody to use later. He used a light touch in places and thundered in others, launching the loud parts by hitting the first note in the left hand with a hammer blow. He reached fortissimo long before the piece asked for it, leaving him with little dynamic ammunition remaining except to overplay the piano with some wicked banging and showmanship. On the positive side, he changed his touch to match Ravel’s many moods. Sometimes he would grow into the new section and other times it was sudden, like a cut with a sharp knife. Overall, it was an extravagant performance that displayed almost unbelievable technical whizzbang, and the audience loved it.




Taiwan, 25


SHOSTAKOVICH Prelude and Fugue in D-flat Major, op. 87, no. 15
ADÈS Three Mazurkas, op. 27
LISZT Sonata in B Minor


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Han Chen


Shostakovich was one of the myriad composers who took up Bach’s challenge of writing preludes and fugues in all the keys. Chen took us on a wild ride with this piece. He played with authority and made much of the composer’s rhythmic variety. In one section, he brought out its lopsided gait. The subject of the fugue is almost in twelve-tone, but not quite. The composer only uses 11. 

The Adès piece is one of the few works on any of the programs by a living composer (except for the commissioned work by Hamelin, of course). Chen gave it a brittle feel, sounding like a tinkling glass wind chime. It is a stretch to call this a mazurka, which should be in a strong three meters. Not only is this not in three, but it sounds like it is in nothing. Kudos to him for programming it and he gets extra credit for playing it with such accuracy. He made a decent case for the piece.

Liszt’s sonata made an encore appearance. His time, it was played at a more reasonable tempo and the music shined through the virtuosic jungle. This is not to say that the technical stuff was downplayed (silly thought there). Chen showed us his ability to deliver some incredibly fast playing. Musically, he had a plan for his trip through the sonata and thus, he was able to bring us along from start to finish.

Chen gave a masterful recital. It was intelligently played and formally clearly delimitated. 






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.
 Thanks For Reading

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Cliburn Quarterfinal Round 5
Reviews of the fifth quarterfinal session at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Sergey Belyavskiy, Tony Yike Yang, Yekwon Sunwoo, and Han Chen.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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