Albuquerque, N.M. — TheaterJones, which is based in Dallas-Fort Worth, is covering the entire Olga Kern International Piano Competition, Nov. 14-20 in Albuquerque, because we feel it has the makings of an important national event in a discipline we cover, and that sadly, other media are caring less and less about. We're also interested because of Kern's connection to Fort Worth, where she was the co-Gold Medalist at the 11th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001. Look for timely reviews of every performance, and more features and interviews.
First, here are Chief Music and Opera Critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' thoughts on the 12 pianists heard on Monday, Nov. 14. We'll keep adding to this list throughout the day; and start a new file for the second day of prelims on Tuesday, and in each round following that.
In order of performance:
18, Czech Republic
There’s always some debate about placement in a piano competition. Is it good to be first or last or in the middle? At the drawing for the order on the night before the competition started, Maria Šumníková from the Czech Republic picked the lead-off spot.
All contestants have to play a Bach Prelude and Fugue from either book of The Well-Tempered Klavier. Šumníková chose the Prelude and Fugue No. 16 in g minor from Book I, BWV 861. The fugue is well-known because the composer reused it in a cantata. Šumníková did a good job and connected the prelude and fugue in a smooth manner. It was on the loud side, but not overly so considering that she is playing on a modern piano.
She followed this with one of Beethoven’s most famous sonatas, even though he was only 27 and there were lots more to come: The Sonata No. 8 in c minor, Op. 13, named the "Pathétique."
She opened with all the proper gravitas, strong chords that the piece requires, strong chords in dotted rhythms, reminiscent of the first part of many Baroque overtures. The pauses between the musical statements were on the long side, which made it hard to hook them together.
Like almost all young players with nimble fingers, she tended to rush the descending fast passages creating a minor finger pile-up at the bottom. Her aggressive approach made for some exciting listening, so you can forgive the occasional, but inevitable, note splat. The slow movement was quite lovely. Tempo was good and she was able to sustain the lines. Beethoven writes one hand to accompany the other and this could be clearer in her performance. That comment applies to her next selection as well, Rachmaninoff’s Elegy, Op. 3.
She caught the contrasting spirit of that piece, as well as on Scriabin’s more playful Étude No. 3 in F-sharp Major, Op. 42.
She put her nimble fingers to work with Chopin’s Étude No. 12 in c minor, Op. 10, subtitled “Revolution.” This is a workout for the left hand and she set a fast tempo. Some of it was a blur, but it was an impressive technical achievement.
Junhui Chen, of the United States, got the second spot. He took his time getting settled at the keyboard and eventually started off with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in e-flat minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 853. The prelude was quite nice with a solemn tempo and he let the fugue grow out of the prelude. He kept the independence of the lines and retained the mood of prelude. He brought forward the fugal entrances and then let them fade back into the texture to make room for the next entrance.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 6 in F Major, Op. 10, No. 2, was next. The first movement is marked Allegro but he was faster than that and made a good case for his tempo. In the Menuetto, he took the sforzini to be a fortissimo, so we lost the sudden accent. The final movement, marked presto, lived up to its tempo marking, even if it was occasionally rushed. It didn’t use much sustaining pedal so his performance was clear and sparkling.
The same can be said for his performance of Chopin’s Étude No. 8 in F Major, Op. 10. Debussy’s Étude No. 11 was quite nicely played. He built the big crescendo from a very soft level and didn’t rush getting to the loudest moment.
Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 10 in b minor, Op. 32, was beautifully played as well.
Liszt’s arrangement of the Valse de l’opéra Faust de Gounod (Waltz from the opera Faust) actually felt like a waltz and he minimized all of the Lisztian folderol.
Shino Hidaka, from Japan, gave a very precise performance, displaying her nimble fingers and musical sensibility. She started with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 21 in B-flat Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 890. Her performance was clear and technically proficient. She was more in her element with Chopin’s Étude No. 6 in G-sharp minor, Op. 25. This is a very difficult étude in thirds, and it moves like the wind. It is also a famous for wrist injuries, but Hidaka gave it a blazing performance.
She was equally at home in Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau No. 5 in E-flat minor, Op. 39, showing some great and nimble fingerwork.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, called “Les Adieux,” Op. 81a, is one of his most heartfelt and thus difficult to play. Much more than technique is needed. Supposedly, it concerns Napoleon Bonaparte’s attack on Vienna in 1809, which forced Beethoven's patron, Archduke Rudolph, to relocate temporarily.
The first movement is titled Das Lebewohl (“Les Adieux – The Farewell). Reportedly, Beethoven didn’t think that adieux had the same heartbreak of the German word lebewohl. She started with an Adagio introduction, changing to a brisk Allegro. The performance was very clean, using only minimal sustaining pedal. Her dynamics were excellent, especially the nice effect she created with the sforzandi.
In the other movements, there are also French and German titles. The second movement is called Abwesenheit (L'Absence – The Absence) and is marked Andante espressivo. Hidaka displayed an exceptional legato and brought out melody even when it was the top note in a chord. The final movement, Das Wiedersehen (Le Retour – The Return), is marked Vivacissimamente (super-fast). Once again Hidaka’s judicious use of the sustaining pedal delivered a very clean performance. This was her best effort.
The program closed with Rachmaninoff’s Polka de W.R. in A-flat Major, which was fast and light on its feet.
Fahrettin Eren Yahsi
Fahrettin Eren Yahsi, from Turkey, delivered one of the cleanest performances thus far. Bach’s Prelude Fugue No. 2 in c minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 847, was deliberately clean, using almost staccato playing and virtually no sustaining pedal. He sits hunched over the keyboard with his nose barely six inches away. It’s as if he has to keep a close watch on his fingers so they don’t run away.
Chopin’s Étude No. 4 in c-sharp minor, Op. 10, got almost the same treatment as the Bach. He played it with almost no sustaining pedal and in a brisk manner. However, he perfectly captures Chopin’s style but views it through his own lens.
He showed us another side of his playing with Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau No. 9 in c-sharp minor, Op. 33—a big virtuoso piece.
Next was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 in C Major, subtitled "Waldstein," Op. 53. The sonata's name comes from Beethoven's dedication to his patron, Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein of Vienna (whose name is forever more enshrined).
In the first movement, Allegro con brio, Yahsi’s dynamics were different than we are used to hearing. He played a lot at fortissimo but his very clean delivery and minimal use of the sustaining pedal made it all work. The opening repeated chords weren’t exaggerated. In the slow movement, Adagio molto, he carefully observed the quarter rests in introduction that Beethoven puts there as negative space.
The last movement, a rondo marked Allegretto moderato - Prestissimo, felt slower at first but he gradually brought it up to tempo. In fact, he started out each repeat of the rondo theme the same way—beginning slowly and then accelerating. One well-known, difficult passage was remarkable—a long trill in the right hand with others above it that have to be played as well. It takes long and nimble fingers to really pull it off and Yahsi played it as well as you might ever hear. He put the sustaining pedal to work in a section where there is passagework in the right hand over simple chords in the left. Because he is so cautious about its use, the effect here was terrific.
His long fingers also came in handy in Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 5 in g minor, Op. 23. His octave runs were remarkably clean, and at a very quick tempo. This was his most romantic performance. He used lots of vibrato and milked all of the ritards. He let the piece gather steam on its own, as if from gravity, and made the most out of the peekaboo ending.
Canadian pianist Steven Massicotte was up next. Like most of the contestants, he opened with the required Bach, his Prelude and Fugue in F minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 857. Both the prelude and fugue felt a little slow, but Bach left us little to go on as far as tempo, so however you want to play it is acceptable. Massicotte’s voice-leading and independence of the lines was excellent.
Chopin’s Étude No. 10 in b minor, Op. 25 and Scriabin’s Étude No. 5 in f-sharp minor, Op. 42, received the same careful treatment, although the technical requirements are primary in both. However, he always made music and nothing was just for show.
He gave Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 10 in b minor, Op. 32, a dreamy performance with little dynamic range until the middle. Then, he held back the marked fortissimo at the tempo marking.
Liana Paniyeva now lives in the United States but her early training was at the Donetsk Music Academy in her native Ukraine. She moved here to earn her Professional Studies Certificate from the Manhattan School of Music in 2011.
She opened with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 20 in A minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 889. She gave the prelude much feeling, mostly by her use of the sustaining pedal. It hardly sounded like Bach, but it was effective. By contrast, she started the fugue in a stentorian voice and used practically no pedal throughout.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, “Appassionata,” Op. 57, is one of his best known, and for good reason. In general, she delivered a fine performance, technically proficient and mostly musically accurate. In the first movement, my only complaint was the blurring of Beethoven’s dynamic markings. Beethoven writes forte and fortissimo in close proximity, wanting that difference in the degree of loudness. Besides, it is impossible to make a szfortsando, which Beethoven used extensively in this movement, when you are already at top volume.
She gave a lovely performance of the second movement, Andante con moto. Especially noteworthy was her use of the short chords to punctuate the sustained bass line underneath. The last movement starts out at Allegro ma non troppo, but soon turns Presto, which is very fast. She didn’t punch the tempo, as many young players tend to do.
Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau No. 6 in A minor, Op. 39, is one of the most difficult in the set. There are times when she intended it to sound like it is running off the rails. No such thing happened in this performance. Paniyeva had the technical challenges well in hand.
Her performance of Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from his incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was very light on its feet but on the loud side for such ephemeral music.
She ended with Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 10 in F minor, called “Appassionata.” It is of note that she picked two pieces named “Appassionata.” She showed remarkable technique and lots of passion for playing passionate music. You can tell why she picked two pieces in the appassionata vein. A little closer attention to the layers of dynamics in everything she plays would allow her to give a more detailed performance.
Willem de Beer
24, South Africa
Willem de Beer of South Africa is already a polished artist. His performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 20 in A minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 889, was an interesting contrast because we had recently heard this played. De Beer was more in the Baroque for the prelude, but delivered the same assertive opening to the fugue. He always brought the subject out above the fray.
In Beethoven’s Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 2, he took an appropriately classical approach to this early sonata. In the first movement he played some excellent subito piano phrases and offered some sudden fortissimo moments. He also made a lot out of the triplet sweeps up the scale and contrasted that with the four-note descending scale motive. He didn’t indulge in a ritard at the end—very elegant.
In the second movement, marked Largo appassionato, he did an excellent job of holding notes in the right hand contrasted to the staccato passage in left. He joined them up to answer each other as they moved from hand to hand, which kept the intensity. In the Scherzo Allegretto, he let the scherzo sparkle and offered good contrast with the trio. The final movement, a Rondo, is marked Grazioso. He honored Beethoven’s marking by not taking the movement too fast, as sometimes happens. It was a very clean very unassuming performance.
Chopin’s Étude in No. 10 in B minor, Op. 25, and Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau No. 9 in D Major, Op. 39, displayed his formidable technique. He delivered “rach” style thunderbolts and kept a good tempo, but not showoffish.
Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 4 in D major, Op. 23, was just lovely. I stopped taking notes and simply enjoyed his performance. A slight hesitation before last measure was a nice touch.
A first class performance!
When he is playing, Spanish pianist Francisco Montero, watches his hands closely. So closely—from about six inches above them—that he appears hunched over. It is as if he doesn’t trust them to work properly without proper supervision. He needn’t worry: his fingers put in quite a display of fleetness and accuracy. He started with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 22 in B-flat minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 891. His performance was crystal clear, by ringing out all of Bach’s intricate counterpoint. Of particular note was how he brought out each of the complex lines in the fugue that Bach interweaves so skillfully.
Next came the showpiece: Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 12 in B-flat minor, known as “Chasse-Neige,” which today means a snow plough. Back then, it referred to a strong wind that sets snow whirling. It certainly sets a pianist’s hands whirling and appears on many of the contestant’s selections. Montero captured the spirit of the piece with his blindingly fast technique and sweeping chromatics.
Another showpiece, Scriabin’s Étude No. 5 in C-sharp minor, Op. 42, followed.
Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI:52 was a relief from all the technical flights of fancy. His opening forte was a little overstated for Haydn, even for this late and harmonically revolutionary sonata. His minimal use of the sustaining pedal helped bring his performance closer to Haydn’s wishes.
He repeated the exposition of the first movement, but didn’t present any new thoughts about it. The runs were very clean and swept up impressively. Haydn was often light-heareted in his music and Montero could have had more fun with the two 16th note patterns, which offers a humorous contrast to the French Overture opening. The second movement, marked adagio, was sensitively played all the virtuoso runs were very clean.
One challenge in this piece is the double-dotted 8th with a 32nd pickup, but there is a grace note written—which would effectively repeat that not—but he didn’t play it. This is often the case because it is awkward. The finale is marked Presto (very fast). He didn’t make the pickup note to the opening measure sound like what it is, thus we had five even notes, thus the meter wasn’t clear until a few measures later. Intentional or not, it was an interesting effect.
He was solid on Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 23, another popular selection.
Montero delivered and excellent performance that was clean and stylish.
Joshua-Allen Rupley opened with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 14 in F-sharp minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 883. From the start, he took a very easy-going approach but also brought out the offbeats. He did the same with the fugue, bringing out the voices as they stated the subject. He even tossed in a trill voices on the last note of the subject.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7 in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3 was up next. In the first movement, he repeated the exposition. When he replayed the exposition, it wasn’t quite as clean as the first time through. He engaged in some risky high-flying hand-crossing, but hit the correct note every time.
In the second movement, marked Largo e mesto, he was very largo, with the eight note somewhere around 90 on the metronome. However, he did a nice job of sustaining the melody in an operatic manner. He also knew when his left hand was accompanying his right hand. He conveyed the tragic mood of this movement. Its thick chords in the lower middle of instrument were clear and not muddied.
In the Menuetto, marked Allegro, he was way too serious playing Beethoven’s jolly tune. In the final movement, Rondo - Allegro, he did a fine job of always approaching the returning tune differently each time.
In Scriabin’s Étude No. 5 in C-sharp minor, Op. 42, a virtuoso piece, he showed that he has the strength to play very loud chords that didn’t overplay the instrument. The same can be said for Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau No. 3 in E-flat minor, Op. 33.
With another piece by Rachmaninoff, his Prelude No. 10 in B minor, Op. 32, he delivered a nice build-up and wisely saved the fortissimo for the dramatic resolution and even added in a slight broadening on the beat before it. This Rachmaninoff performance was a very nice job all the way around; if a little self-indulgent in the final ritards.
The Ukrainian pianist Anna Dmytrenko chose Bach’s Prelude No. 4 in C-sharp minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 849. She added some mordants and gave them a slight accent, which brought out the scale motive. The fugue is deceptive. It starts out with whole and half notes so it sounds like it is in a slow tempo. Dmytrenko played it exactly right. She held it steady until the 8th notes appear to pick up the tempo, but the tempo remains the same. She built the dynamics level by level and used a healthy amount of nuance.
Next was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101. The first movement is marked Allegretto ma non troppo, but the title is also etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung (somewhat lively and with innermost sensibility). In light of that, her tempo was a little too slow to be considered lively, but she did a very effective—sensible you might say—slight ritard at the end of each phrase.
An aside: When Beethoven wrote his sonata 28, his deafness was almost total. He rarely named his sonatas, let alone naming the movements, but that is exactly what happened with this sonata. He described it as "a series of impressions and reveries." Deafness defined a trait that was one of the unpleasant parts of his personality anyway: it completely isolated him from the world. This puts an added burden on the pianist, who doesn’t just have to worry about the notes and expression—now the player has to figure out what Beethoven meant with the titles and then try to convey those complex emotions to the audience through the music.
On a happier note, when writing his Op. 101 sonatas, he was exploring the posibilities of a new kind of piano, the hammerklavier. It used hammers to hit the strings so it was capable of much more expression and volume. It also went lower than previous instruments. In fact, Beethoven wrote the sonata after this one specifically for the instrument with what he learned from No. 28.
Back to the review. The second movement is marked Vivace alla marcia and Dmytrenko followed those instructions by giving a nice kick to all the dotted rhythms. However, not all of those patterns are the same. Sometimes there is a 16th rest in between them, creating some negative space. Other times, the first note is extended to fill the gap with sound. At least to my ears, she didn’t do that. Admittedly this is a small thing, but it these kinds of tiny details that can make a performance stand out.
Dmytrenko lavished some romantic weltschmerz (an untranslatable German word that refers to sorrow at the state of the world) on the second movement. It is marked with these two phrases: Adagio ma non troppo, con affetto and Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (slow and longingly). Sehnsucht is another one of those untranslatable German words, meaning an unquenchable longing or yearning for someone or some place that has gone.
Dmytrenko used a very fast trill to transition to the last movement, marked Allegro Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr und mit Entschlossenheit (swiftly, but not overly and with determination). Beethoven was using the new low notes on the new hammerklavier, but probably couldn't hear them as he was mostly deaf at the time.
In her performance of Debussy’s Étude No. 4, pour les sixtes, or a study in sixths, Dmytrenko ignored the marked staccato that singles out the ascending sixths in introduction, but a nice job with all Debussy’s tempo changes. She made it a more unified piece than the usual, impressively not fragmented. The final note, played pianissimo, was a very nice touch.
Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau No. 9 in C-sharp minor, Op. 33, is a virtuoso showpiece. Dmytrenko brought some sensitive (and most welcome) nuance to all the long loud stretches of notes and she easily tossed off all the tough stuff. Her ending was unconvincing, but a remedy for that is not easily determined.
Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 23 is a challenge of endurance for the left hand, which is in constant motion up and down the keyboard. Dmytrenko’s exceptional technical mastery allowed her to easily meet this challenge and make some music at the same time.
Rui Xu is another pianist who hunches over, nose to the keys. She opened with J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in b minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 893. She delivered a very clean but uninspired performance.
She was more at home with Chopin’s Étude No. 4 in c-sharp minor, Op. 10, which was also well-performed but had more of herself in it than the Bach. She saved her best effort for last. Her performance of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 5 in g minor, Op. 23, offered just the right combination of stentorian chords and a sweeping MGM-style melody. She let the ending loose to fly way like a released balloon—very nice touch.
Debussy’s Étude No. 9, pour les notes répétées (for repeated notes) followed. Like all Debussy études, and those of other composers as well, they address a single skill. In this case it is repeated notes. It is also harmonically challenging, being in the composer’s style from later in his life. Rui Xu did a fine job keeping the repeat notes distinct from each other.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, followed. Even though it is an early work it presents significant difficulties. The first movement, Allegro con brio, has some challenging trills that have to speak on a very quick eight note. Rui Xu was good with these, however the signature sixteenth note passage in thirds, on beat three of the opening, which reoccurs frequently, was muddled—but not when the pattern was just single notes. The cadenza that leads to the return was played with bravura.
In the beginning of the second movement, the eight notes on the second beat of the main theme need to be held longer than you would think at such as slow tempo, Adagio. It is a common error, even among major artists. She did a fine job with the ascending sigh of seconds that come after the beat, giving the first offbeat note enough of an accent to drive it upwards to the resolution.
The Scherzo, marked Allegro, is representative of Beethoven in a playful mood, at least the Scherzo theme. The trio turns more serious with arpeggiated chords in the right hand and a slow-moving theme in the left hand. Rui Xu’s performance was accurate and the arpeggios swept nicely up and down. Less pedal would have made them clearer.
The last movement, Allegro assai, is in a sonata allegro form that is mascaraing as a rondo. The mischievous Beethoven is present again. Rui Xu could have had more fun with it.
Chinese pianist Chen Guang was the last contestant of the day to play and he caused some confusion by making a program change. It was a little disorienting at first, but we soon enough recognized his choices.
He opened with J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 13 in F-sharp Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 858. He delivered a crystal-clear performance, eschewing the sustaining pedal throughout. He played the fugue subject staccato to contrast it with the surrounding music.
The two virtuoso works on his program are complete opposites, but both showed us his impeccable technique. Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau No. 5 in e-flat minor, Op. 39, is a challenge for a number of reasons. First, it requires long fingers of steel. Further, the thematic material is passionate and that emotion always roils, even if underneath the other. Things start out quietly but eventually build to a tremendous climax, as is Rachmaninoff’s usual wont.
Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 8 in C minor, “Wilde Jagd,” is frantic from the start. It’s a piece that Chen Guang obviously likes to perform and he plays it with enormous romantic fever. He got more sound out of the piano than anyone else all day and sustained it for a long time. It wasn’t the subtlest of performances, but this is not a subtle piece. After all, it is called “The Wild Hunt.”
He played Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, which we had just heard as played by Rui Xu. For the first movement he used a lot of pedal, which is ununsual for early Beethoven, and it was on the loud side for early Beethoven. However, he set a bracingly brisk tempo. He teased us at the ending by putting an accent on the note before the empty measure.
In the second movement, Adagio, he also used lots of pedal again, but to good effect in the arpeggio section. It helped the sighing nonharmonic notes that rise, rather than fall, to resolution. He also made good use of the contrasting sections marked fortissimo and then immediately a subito piano. He had some fun with the last movement, Allegro assai, and took it at a good clip. He still overused the sustaining pedal, but he let the main theme bounce along unaided. He has a really good trill.
Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 12 in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, is another stream of unending notes and Guang did a fine job with them.