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.
Here are Chief Music and Opera Critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' thoughts on the nine pianists heard on Tuesday, Nov. 15. We'll keep adding to this list throughout the day, and will have reviews of the semifinals and finals.
In order of performance:
Albuquerque, N.M. — The Israeli pianist Yevgeny Yontov confused everything by playing a completely different recital than was listed in the printed program. This required me to make some guesses, but fortunately, everything he played was standard repertoire.
His Bach selection turned out to be Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B-flat minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 867. He gave it a very romantic interpretation, with lots of pedal and rubato. The Fugue started quietly but he played a big crescendo and held the last chord for a long time.
Chopin’s Étude in F major, Op. 10, No. 8, allowed him to display his formidable technical prowess. It asks mostly the right hand to run up and down the keyboard at a very fast tempo. As in other études with high velocity, the challenge (in addition to endurance) is to find and bring out the tune that is buried in the flurry of notes. More often than not, Yontov was successful at this.
Haydn’s Sonata in A-flat major, Hob.XVI:46, is often labeled as a Divertimento, although its form is clearly that of a sonata. Yontov captured the sonata’s “gallant” style that became very popular because of its simplification after the complexities of the Baroque era. He gave the slow movement a sensitive and thoughtful performance. He took the final movement, marked Presto, very presto indeed. It showed off his steely technical abilities, but the highlight of the sonata was the lovely care he gave the slow movement.
Yontov did something that is rarely done in competition: play four pieces by the same composer. In this case, four of Debussy’s Études from Book I. Anytime you see the word “Étude” you know that the work is very hard to play and usually concentrates on just one difficulty. So it is with Debussy.
Yontov started with Étude one, Pour les 'cinq doigts'-d'apres Monsieur Czerny (For Five Fingers-after Mr. Czerny). All piano students cringe at the mention of Czerny’s books of exercises. Of course, we didn’t then know that he was Beethoven’s star pupil and acolyte. This étude is inspired by Czerny’s infamous five-finger (cinq doigt) exercises. Yontov could have had more fun with Debussy’s satire of Czerny’s pedantic creation.
Pour les Tierces (For Thirds) deals with the same technical issues as Chopin’s étude in thirds. Pour les Quartes (For Fourths) addresses an issue that is not so common: parallel fourths. Pour les Sixtes (For Sixths) deals with a far more common technical issue—parallel sixths, a slow and meditative work with two fast interludes, and one forte interruption.
The last, Pour les Octaves (For Octaves) is handy when paying Liszt, who loves parallel octaves. But Debussy’s are harmonically quite adventurous, adding another layer of difficulty.
In Yontov’s hands, these so-called exercises came alive as real music. You can hear Debussy using them as a harmonic laboratory to explore new realms of tonality and beyond.
Yontov ended with Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, No. 10, which is a very smart competition selection. There is a lovely opening section and a big climatic buildup with repeated big chords in each hand, like in the concerti. Yontov might have bought himself a ticket to the next round with this performance.
The Georgian pianist Nino Bakradze took a confident approach to the instrument and immediately impressed wth a superior performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 18 in G-sharp minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 887. It was as true to the Baroque era as you can get on a modern piano.
Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50, also got careful attention to historical norms of playing and was accurate to a fault. She could have had more fun, especially in the first movement.
It is full of “Papa” Haydn’s tricks, like sudden fortissimo bass notes, music-box statement in the upper register, a trill that unexpectedly moves to new music instead of resolving, sudden loud chords or surprising C#-only six bars into the slow movement, or the surprising resolution in the last movement. However, she caught its improvisatory concept. (This movement was written before the sonata, so it is somewhat earlier in style.)
Nodar Gabunia (1933-2000) was a Georgian composer and pianist. He was a pupil of Aram Khachaturian and was active as both a composer and concert pianist. He was very interested in trying to establish a Georgian style of classical music, much like Bartók’s work. He wrote a set of children’s pieces, but also wrote Bakradze’s selection Children’s Pieces for Grown-Ups.
Like all music that virtuosi wrote to perform themselves, these pieces are both challenging and a bit showy—and therefore perfect for a competition. Bakradze made a good case for them to become part of the standard repertoire. The movement entitled “Crooning to the Handbell” didn’t have any discernible ringing but sure did have some virtuoso fireworks. As you would expect, the movement entitled “Catch Me If You Can” was very fast and full of technical challenges. The last movement, “Valse,” didn’t really have the expected swing in there but it offered a charmingly quiet ending.
Chopin’s Étude No. 6 in G-sharp minor, Op. 25, is a study—some might say nightmare—in very fast thirds that trill and move rapidly up and down the keyboard. We are not used to using fingers 2 and 4 alternating with 3 and 5, let alone at this tempo. But you wouldn’t know it from Bakradze’s effortless performance.
Bakradze’s blazing performance of Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau No. 9 in D Major, Op. 39, was quite amazing and earned her lots of applause, even bringing her back for a second bow (something that rarely happens in competition). She took the Tempo di Marcha marking seriously and the trumpet call (2 sixteenths and an eighth tata DAH) rang throughout the piece. This, like off of his études, is very difficult. She not only played it, but was able to make some music out of what it usually just a collection of loud, technical flourishes. Best yet, at the end she observed the composer’s markings (imagine that) and played the trumpet call near the end of the triple forte—but only forte at the end (it expands to five notes there). Instinctively, you would want to play the last measure the loudest, but that was not what the composer wanted. Brava!
You couldn’t mistake the Ukrainian pianist Anastasiya Naplekova, with her waist-length blonde hair. But the memory of her is not about hair, but rather her excellent performance.
Her Bach selection was the Prelude and Fugue No. 22 in B-flat minor, from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 867. She used finger legato on the moving Prelude, much as an organist would do. The Fugue was completely different with its strong two- note introduction. Even though it starts distinctly, it is not easy to always identify the rest of the subject as the Fugue progresses. Naplekova did a fine job with this.
Her performance of Haydn’s Sonata in B minor No. 22 added to the impression of her as a pianist. She was very expressive all the way and relished all of Haydn’s surprises and mood changes. In the first movement she gave the distinctive mordant on the first and third notes of the main subject an accent that said “listen for this as we progress.” The slight minuet also has a signature: a four-note descending scale as a pickup. Once again, she called attention to it as the movement progressed. She played the trio, a march of accented eighth notes, with forceful energy. The finale, marked presto (very fast), went very fast indeed. This movement also has a signature motive: five eighth notes with one being a pickup. He used a staccato stroke all the way.
Chopin’s Étude No. 12, Op. 25, is an endurance test as it flashes up and down the keyboard in arpeggios. The challenge, which Naplekova met, is that there is a melody hidden in all the fingerwork that has to be brought out.
Rachmaninoff’s Étude Tableau No. 2, Op. 39, has a little of everything we love about the composer’s music. There is a beautiful and peaceful melodic section that rises to some thrilling climaxes. Naplekova brought out this contrast without overplaying the big moment, which would have taken it out of context.
She ended her recital with a musical bon-bon: Rachmaninoff’s arrangement— elaboration, really—of Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of a Viennese popular song, Liebesfreude (“love’s joy”). He also arranged Kreisler’s Liebesleid (“love’s sorrow”). Both of them are meant to sound improvisatory, and probably started out that way. Naplekova went for joy rather than sorrow and she played this slightly over-the-top encore-esque piece in a lighthearted music hall style that has been lacking in such a serious competition.
Richard Octaviano Kogima
Richard Octaviano Kogima, born in Brazil and studying in Switzerland, chose a relatively long sonata, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, “Tempest,” Op. 31, which clocks in at just under 30 minutes. This barely left him time for the required Bach and some Rachmaninoff.
The Bach that he chose offered plenty of opportunity to show off his nimble fingers: Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 848. Both sections move at a quick pace and cannot rely on the sustaining pedal for assistance. Kogima did an excellent job. Everything could be heard clearly.
The Beethoven Sonata mentioned above is subtitled the “Tempest.” The title didn’t come from Beethoven, or even appear in his lifetime. The story goes that one of Beethoven’s friends claimed that the sonata was in tribute to the Shakespeare play of the same name. The first movement certainly is alternately stormy and serene enough to fit Shakespeare’s scenario.
Kogima pulled all the drama possible out of the first movement. He took it at a fast tempo and, while it almost came off the rails, it never did. He created a nice and spooky effect with the odd single note recitatives that occur in the middle of the movement. They are like a voice from beyond and he managed to get them to echo, as if coming from a cave. He gave the second movement a little more dignity, bringing out the signature double-dotted eighth note and thrity-second combination.
Kogima set a very fast and energetic tempo for the last movement, a rondo. The entire performance of this musically problematic and technically challenging movement was terrific.
He ended with Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 10 in B minor, Op. 32, which you may remember from another review is the perfect combination of Rachmaninoff’s two great attractions: the beautiful and quiet and the thrilling flurry of big chords. Kogima was very wise to chose this particular piece to close his unusual program. It was a good demonstration of the complete picture of his considerable abilities.
Kyohei Imaizumi from Japan was the only pianist in the preliminary round who had to deal with that modern day curse of concerts—a ringing cell phone. It is a lesson to us all to double and even triple check our phones because, although it happens less and less, it seems to be inevitable that someone will forget to check it. To his credit, it didn’t appear to affect his performance.
His selection from the The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 846, is probably the best known of them all. It is the first one in the first book. The Prelude is a miracle of economy, building a magnificent piece out of arpeggios played one note at a time. But these simple materials contain such amazing depth that Gounod added a super-romantic Ave Maria over it that builds in a late-19th century operatic fashion to the inevitable high note. Gounod’s version uses Bach’s wondrous prelude without changing a note. (That’s as an aside; Imaizumi did not play the Gounod version.)
Imaizumi gave Bach’s famous Prelude a relatively straightforward and Baroque-sensitive performance, only adding a slight crescendo to the high point. The Fugue is not so well known but it is far more complicated than its modest Prelude—a four-voice fugue that he crams into a mere 27 measures. Imaizumi did a good job of bringing out all of Bach’s intricacies.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110, was the major work on his program. This is one of his late sonatas, written just a few years before his death, and after recovery from a serious illness.
The first movement is marked Moderato cantabile molto espressivo, and Imaizumi’s performance was both cantabile (singing) and espressivo (expressive). The second movement is a short, but tightly packed, Scherzo marked Allegro molto. Imaizumi played it accurately but too loudly, and a little observation of the humor in the music would have helped. The third movement, Adagio ma non troppo, was where the phone began to sing along. Imaizumi did a fine job with the simple transition to the last movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo, and is a big fugue. Imaizumi’s performance made the Fugue sound Bachian, sustaining notes with an organist’s style of finger legato rather than relying the sustaining pedal. The big bass entrance sounded like a 32-foot diapason. However, with the operatic arioso Beethoven inserts, he didn’t let the melody soar, but he brought it to a good finish without much ritard.
Imaizumi’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 4 in D Major, Op. 23, took a very romantic view, but the left hand accompaniment needed to be less prominent. He built it to a nice climax. The ending was too slow.
Two Chopin études followed. Étude No. 1 in C Major, Op. 10, has something in common with the Bach prelude that opened the program in that it is only harmony with a melody hidden in it. Imaizumi kept the tempo steady and brought the melody out.
Étude No. 12 in C minor, Op. 10, is quite well known and subtitled “Revolutionary.” Maybe it was nerves, but Imaizumi took it way too fast. It was impressive that he could play it that fast, but the music was lost in a flurry of scales.
The Chinese pianist Wenting Shi, who now lives in the United States, presented an intriguing recital and the first time we heard Schumann’s Symphonic Études, Op. 13.
Her Bach selection was the Prelude and Fugue No. 5 in D Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 874. She gave the more expansive Prelude a sprightly performance saving the heavier touch for the forthright Fugue with its knocking-on-the-door subject. The challenge with this Fugue is that it is very compact by the use of stretto techniques (shortening the time between entrances) but she brought them all out, even as they got closer and closer together.
Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50, was written for the London version of the fortepiano, itself already a gigantic leap up from the limited harpsichord. The London fortepiano was capable of a much a greater dynamic range and more keys on its extended keyboard. Haydn took great advantage of its capabilities in this sonata. Knowing this fact is important when listening to Wenting Shi’s performance, with what might otherwise seem to be overly dramatic dynamic contrasts. The slow movement was quite beautifully played.
This piece is full of humorous turns and surprising events, which she did not play up. This was especially noticeable in the brief last movement, which is the most amusing of them all. The rondo theme occasionally runs into a wall, or finds itself in a strange key, and must retreat and try again. She was way too serious the whole way.
Chopin’s Étude No. 1 in C Major, Op. 10, is subtitled “The Waterfall” for good reason. The right hand is in constant rapid movement up and down the keyboard with only an octave bass note in the left hand as an anchor. Wenting Shi showed us that she has the technical ability to play this piece and shaped it nicely. Similarly, Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau No. 6 in E-flat minor, Op.33, also works the right had, but it is full of other technical challenges as well.
Rachmaninoff’s Prelude No. 12 in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, is also demanding. Once again the right hand has most of the work but instead of traversing the keyboard, the ostinato pattern stays in a more limited space. Perhaps pieces with different challenges might have made better use of her time on stage.
Schumann’s Symphonic Études, Op. 13, is a departure from the usual étude, which addresses one particular technical skill. Schumann’s work is really a set of variations. However, each of them does address a different skill. She did a good job with it, accentuating all the many changes of mood. However, no matter which or how many variations are included or how well you can play it, this piece was probably longer that what you would want in include in such a recital.
24, South Korea
As with most contestants, the South Korean pianist Seong-Hyeon Leem opened with Bach, his Prelude and Fugue No. 11 in F Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 880. She gave a good performance but used too much sustaining pedal. You could hear it ring on the last chord. The Fugue was excellent.
Chopin’s Étude No. 8 in F Major, Op. 10, is a finger-buster. It takes the right hand on a very fast journey up and down the keyboard. Many pianists look like they are working to play it, but Seong-Hyeon Leem showed sheer joy in playing it for us.
Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau No. 9 in D Major, Op. 39, is another virtuoso piece that takes endurance, but here it is because of a constant barrage of big and loud chords in every part of the piano’s keyboard. It is marked a la marcia and Seong-Hyeon Leem kept the march rhythm throughout but even better, she brought out the trumpet calls (ta-ta DAH).
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major, Op. 27-1, has a subtitle, "Quasi una fantasia" (sort of a fantasy). Beethoven probably called it this because there is no break between the movements and they are not in the usual order. This is a work from the 30-year-old composer who was trying to take the next step away from the Classicism of Haydn.
Seong-Hyeon Leem’s performance started out promisingly but, rather than play this sonata with classical sensibilities, she let some late romantic piano techniques and volumes sneak in.
She ended with Rachmaninoff’s version of Kreisler’s Liebesfreude. Her performance put the accent on all of the virtuoso stuff, which changed it from a charming parlor improvisation—an encore perhaps—to a serious Lisztian showoff piece. It is odd because she was the one who appeared to be having a great time playing for us. She may have the most easy-flowing technique of all of the contestants, but missed her chance to satirize herself with this last piece. We already knew she was awesome.
Stefan Weiler, from Germany, opened with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 871. This is one of the fast preludes with two voices in imitation. Weiler always knew which of the two voices needed to be heard. The Fugue is a slower-moving piece but complicated by multiple voices. He also did a good job with this.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, is one of the last he wrote and, like most late works, full of counterpoint.
The first movement is Maestoso - Allegro con brio et appassionato. C minor was always a stormy key to Beethoven and so it is here. Weiler did a fine job with the dynamic contrasts.
The second movement, the longest, is marked Arietta: Adagio molto semplice cantabile (Little aria, very sincere and singing). Three things stood out about his performance. One was how he brought out the melody, even when it was the top note of a multi-note chord. This is not easy to do and many pianists fail at this technique. As in the first movement, his careful attention to dynamics was a standout. The third thing was his excellent trills, which Beethoven asks the pianist to do.
Rachmaninoff’s Étude-tableau No. 4 in D minor, Op. 33, ends quietly and Weiler used it to launch right into Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006, as arranged by Rachmaninoff. This well-known partita was originally for solo violin but has been arranged for almost every conceivable instrument and combination thereof.
Weiler did a good job with Rachmaninoff’s excesses but took the final gigue a little too fast and lost the swing you associate with a gigue.
Weiler ended with Chopin’s Étude No. 11 in A minor, Op. 25, called “The Winter Wind.” It starts out quietly, even modestly, but it immediately takes off as a finger-buster for the right hand. Weiler certainly has the chops to pull it off and he played with passion.
Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 16 in G minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, BWV 885, opened Yundi Xu’s program and signaled the end of the preliminary round. She is a Chinese pianist who now lives in France. Does going last give the contestant a leg up with the judges? It will be hard to tell in this case, because Yundi Xu certainly turned in one of the better performances of the competition so far—both technically and musically.
Mozart’s Sonata No. 9 in D minor, K. 311, was written when the composer was 21 years old and at the start of maturing powers as a composer and pianist. The thematic development is already way ahead of his earlier works. Yundi Xu gave it a superb performance with an eye towards classical era performance practices.
The first movement is a jolly affair with happy tunes and she gave it a similarly delightful performance. She also played the almost operatic melody of the slow movement, a lovely legato line punctuated by a three-note descending pattern, occasionally with a pick up. Mozart only writes a forte in this movement and Yundi Xu kept it appropriately in scale. The last movement, a rondo, also has some lyric moments and some surprises— even a concerto-like cadenza. One thing Mozart asked for and Yundi Xu provided is passages with contrasting dynamics, soft then louder.
She ended with two études, one by Chopin and the other by Rachmaninoff.
Rachmaninoff’s Étude-Tableau ("study pictures") No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 33, has a march-like quality and Yundi Xu did a fine job of bringing the melodic material out over the instant eighth notes, separated by an eighth note rest, a march through most of the piece. It loses energy and finally just stops, but Yundi Xu made the best of it to create a satisfying ending.
An aside: Rachmaninoff called these Études-Tableaux, or études that are pictures. He was coy about what the pictures actually were that inspired these pieces. He wanted the listeners to come up with their own tableaux, rather than color it with his concept. It would be of interest to hear what Yundi Xu pictures in her mind.
Chopin’s Étude No. 5, Op. 25, was quite a surprise at the time in that it is full of minor seconds, a dissonant interval if there ever was one, created by a series of crushed grace notes. In fact, this étude earned the name of the “Wrong Note” étude. Yundi Xu neither accented nor minimized these intervals. Perhaps Chopin wanted his “wrong notes” to be landed on harder, considering their shock value, but I go with Yundi Xu’s matter-of-fact approach. She also rewarded the listener with a flowing version of the contrasting melody of great beauty with a skittering right hand up and down the keyboard. She made a humorous point of the two high notes that come at the end of the section and, in a more exaggerated manner, at the end of the entire piece.