Seong-Hyeon Leem
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OKIPC: Semifinals

Reviews of the 11 pianists in the semifinals at the first Olga Kern International Piano Competition in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

published Friday, November 18, 2016

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 11 pianists in the semifinal round on Thursday, Nov. 17. We'll keep adding to this list throughout the day. Four of these pianists will advance to the final round on Saturday, Nov. 19. You can read our reviews of all the pianists in the preliminary round here (day 1) and here (day 2).

In the names below, the countries listed for each contestant are birth nation first, current residence second.

In order of performance on Thursday:



Photo: Courtesy OKIPC
Junhui Chen

Junhui Chen

22, China/USA

It’s important to begin discussion of the semifinal round with the new piece commissioned for this competition, Rory Boyle’s Six T(OK)ENS. It is a dissonant piece that contains many different pianistic challenges, making it perfect for the occasion. It will be interesting to see how many of the semifinalists will observe the composer’s markings. He asks the performer to hold a low note with the sostenuto pedal, the one in the middle. The effect is to hold that one note sustained but allows the other notes to be played and not be sustained. Other places in the introduction, he asks for the sustaining pedal, which creates a completely different effect. It’s an important difference.

The Chinese pianist Junhui Chen now lives in the United States. Right off, he didn’t follow the composer’s instruction at the beginning of Six T(OK)ENS. However, he played all the notes accurately, and it is quite difficult.

He gave a good accounting of Chopin’s Sonata No. 3, Op. 58, which many consider to be his most difficult composition for the piano

He was certainly off to a good start with the big chords and passagework that starts the sonata. The second theme was a little too loud but he played it with sensitive nuances. In general, his dynamics were accurate. The sforzandi were excellently placed and executed, adding an accent without making them stick out. However, in general, there was not much difference between forte and fortissimo in his playing.

In the Scherzo, you couldn’t get a good feel for the time signature right away but that settled down as he went along. He made the small error that many of the players make in ignoring a rest in the center of a note pattern: such as a dotted eighth and sixteenth as opposed to an eighth note, a sixteenth rest and a sixteenth note. The rest creates negative space that gives a completely different effect. The use of the sustaining pedal automatically glosses over the difference. In the third movement, he impressed by making the fast scales to be incidental decoration to the melodic material, rather than an end in themselves.

Schubert’s rarely heard Drei Klavierstücke D. 946, also went well.

One fascinating aspect of Schubert’s music is the way he uses just one chord to make a major transition and even a modulation. This happens here and Chen wisely gave it some time to settle.

In the third movement, he had some fun with the off beats. He also played up Schubert’s ending, which wouldn’t be out of place in an Italian comic opera.

Next came some Liszt.

Liszt loved to write elaborate virtuoso show pieces based on the work of other composers, the more popular the better. Wikipedia, not the most reliable source, lists 102 composers whose work Liszt fancied up. Here, Schubert’s Originaltänze (original dances) for piano became Caprice No. 6 in Liszt’s Soirées de Vienne Valse. Junhui Chen wonderfully caught the waltz feel and kept all the virtuoso stuff as filigree.


Photo: Courtesy OKIPC
Francisco Montero

Francisco Montero

25, Spain

The Spanish pianist Francisco Montero played a varied program that works for a competition but would be odd in a recital.

He opened with Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, Op. 53. This is a piece that doesn’t contain a single consonant chord or a perfect cadence, yet it is one of his more popular works and is frequently recorded. The technical demands are mind-boggling.

Montero did a terrific job and made some real music with this complex and strange piece. He had a great feel for the off-beat rhythms but he used too much pedal, which muddied the texture. He brought out interesting counter-melodies that you don’t usually hear. He was terrific with his dynamics and delivered an excellent performance. He raised his hands at end, as if he was releasing the piece.

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 9, came next.

(Big noise backstage, but it didn’t seem to distract him.) In general, the theme sailed over all the business. In the seventh variation, there was some nice answering back and forth. In the eighth, it was remarkable how he brought out the melody because so much else was going on. There were many lovely touches in this sensitive performance.

Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole, S. 254, was next. Montero established a good march feel and did a fine job with the parallel octaves. In the Allegro, his accent on the grace notes made the passage sound like a whistle. He demonstrated a fast trill and the big climax featured some spectacular octave arpeggios. He made some music with this piece, even though Liszt didn’t give him much to work with.

He failed the test of the pedals in the beginning of Rory Boyle’s Six T(OK)ENS, but gave the piece a fine performance otherwise.



Photo: Courtesy OKIPC
Joshua-Allen Rupley

Joshua-Allen Rupley

23, USA/Germany

Joshua-Allen Rupley is from Albuquerque and his spectacular performance today will make the hometown proud. He opened with Debussy’s Estampes, a series of three expressionistic, or impressionistic, pieces. They are not meant to paint a literal picture but to convey the atmosphere of the subject matter.

The first one, Pagodes, is reminiscent of the Balinese Gamelon orchestra that Debussy heard at the Paris Exposition (World Fair) in 1889. It was very influential on his work from then on, with their different scales and instruments as well as the style of playing.

Rupley captured this mood right from the first notes. His performance hung as if it was an object suspended in place, like something hanging from a tree that rotates with the wind to show us its different sides.

La soirée dans Grenade uses another exotic scale and strives to imitate a guitar. Considering Debussy had only very limited exposure to Spain, he does a fine job evoking its atmosphere. As does Rupley in his highly charismatic performance.

The last movement, Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the rain), is a more literal depiction than the others. Rupley captured Debussy’s tone painting of rain falling and even a thunderstorm in this technically challenging piece. All three were excellently played.

Bartók’s Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20, Sz. 74, is more of a study in harmony and rhythm than in folk music. First of all, Rupley showed a remarkable mastery of an extremely difficult piece, both technically and musically—no small achievement. He paid close attention to the opening statement of the folk tune that Bartók used for his variations, so that we would recognize it in its various guises. This is a very dissonant and rough-hewn work. Much of the dissonance comes form a clash of modalities, but these technicalities are not really heard by an audience member. Perhaps in the sixth movement you will notice that one hand plays only the white keys and the other plays only the black ones.

Rupley did a fine job of clarifying the harmonic structure, as much as is possible, and the result is that the work didn’t sound as dissonant as usual.

But the Bartók was only a harmonic warmup for what followed: Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus. This is a suite of 20 movements that are a series of regards (contemplations) on the infant Jesus. It was composed in 1944 and the entire piece takes about two hours to perform. It is one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire; some say it is almost impossible to play, let alone memorize. However, there are a handful of pianists who specialize in playing this piece—just as there are people who run double marathons. This is the first time I have ever seen it show up in a competition recital.

Fortunately, Rupley only played two movements: VIII. Regard des hauteurs (comtempation of the heights) and XIII. Noël (Chrstmas). Not only did he play these two pieces from memory, he made some music with them. At least for me, who has studied this cycle (without much success) for some time, he brought them into focus.

As you might guess, since his program is all music from the 20th century or later, he did an exceptional job on the commissioned piece, Rory Boyle’s Six T(OK)ENS. But, like all of the others, he didn’t observe the markings at the beginning to use the sostenuto pedal.

He closed with Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. He enjoyed the harmonic movement and hand-jumping at the end, before the quiet, spectacular ending. It was overall an amazing performance that will be hard to beat.



Photo: Courtesy OKIPC
Anna Dmytrenko

Anna Dmytrenko

24, Ukraine/USA/Germany

Anna Dmytrenko is from the Ukraine but currently living in Germany. Once again, she failed at my “pedal test” but otherwise gave a fine account of R. Boyle’s Six T(OK)ENS.

Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5, is not a great choice for a competition. First, it is too long, clocking in at 40 minutes. In general, her performance was disappointing in its details. It was much too loud most everywhere. Brahms rarely writes a fortissimo. So when he does it has to be noticeably louder than what ever came before it. That is not possible if that level is reached frequently. In the Andante espressivo movement, at the a poco piu lento, it didn’t sound like she used the una corda (the one on the left). This shifts the hammer so it only hits one of the three strings. There are other details in other movements that were lacking. I realize that these are tiny things in a performance that is so technically brilliant, but it is just such little touches that makes for a superior performance. (Maybe I am the only one who notices such things.)

Dmytrenko gets a gold star and extra credit for programming Barber’s Sonata in E-flat minor, Op. 26, even though it is still too long for the occasion, clocking in at around 20 minutes.

This is a remarkable piece in that poor Samuel Barber was trying to be “current” with all the serial and dissonant writing that was absolutely required of composers at the time, who would risk shunning to do otherwise. Barber was not writing in a language that was native to his soul, but he produced a masterpiece nonetheless. It is a remarkable work and Dmytrenko gave it a fine performance.

An aside: while Barber’s sonata was contemporary music to a couple of generations of musicians, something written in 1949 is old stuff to Dmytrenko’s generation. They are used to the musical language and syntax and can give these works a much better performance than we did when it was all new and bewildering.



Chen Guang

22, China/Italy

Photo: Courtesy OKIPC
Chen Guang

Chen Guang is from China, but currently living in Italy, and was the first to play on a squeaking piano bench that they left there for the remainder of the day. That had to be irritating.

He opened with Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No.4, Op. 30, in F-Sharp Major. He used music, which is allowed. This is a very complex piece but it is still in his post-romantic style, as opposed to the more dissonant music he wrote later. It is also short. A performance of the two movements is under ten minutes.

Chen Guang gave the piece an excellent performance. It was a good choice in that it showed his technical mastery and musical sensitivity.

He excelled on Chopin’s Polonaise Fantasie Op. 61 in A-Flat Major. One nice touch was the way he let the music in the left hand rise and fall when melody in the right hand paused after each phrase and also at the end of the section. It was a beautifully done handoff. But the repeated chords in passage that followed were overplayed. He let the piece fade away subtly so the last chord was a surprise, as intended.

Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor is probably one of his best works. It is a great challenge to play, which is why it usually finds its way on to competition recitals. Chen Guang started off quietly and almost in a free tempo, even when the Allegro energico started. But, soon thereafter, he set a tempo and it was a fast one. But the brisk pace let us admire his flashing double octaves, which were impressive indeed. He played a graceful ritard into the Grandioso main theme. (How like Liszt to call his theme “Grandioso.”)

He also played a lovely rubato leading to the second theme. The cadenza runs were amazingly fast as were all the subsequent. Unfortunately, he didn’t save anything for the triple forte chord when they arrived. He had already been there for a while. The Piu Mosso Presto double octaves were amazing, but the stretto was even more so, but the double octaves at the presto aren’t all there is. The octaves at the prestissimo were out of sight. Too bad he squandered his loudest playing earlier, because it was required for the triple forte statement of the Grandioso theme before the ending. His performance garnered him some generous applause.



Photo: Courtesy OKIPC
Yevgeny Yontov

Yevgeny Yontov

27, Israel

The Israeli pianist Yevgeny Yontov was next.

Since the contestants used music for Rory Boyle’s Six T(OK)ENS, it was surprising that Yontov was the only one to use an iPad instead of printed music. I expected all of them to use one. He didn’t use the pedals as the composer requested, but he made the piece sound like music—the first pianist of the day to do so. Even the tone clusters made sense, instead of being visual tricks.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C-minor, Op. 111, is a very late work and quite experimental. For one thing, there are only two movements and a performance only lasts about nine minutes. Yontov launched with a forthright start but soon set quite a clip. His octave runs were very clean and he indulged in a slight ritard at the end of the first movement.

The second movement is a set of variations, which was a favorite form of the composer’s. He wrote lots of sets of variations. Yontov took the second movement very slowly but his playing was quite nicely sustained. Some of the inner voices were left wanting but it was excellent overall.

This is the sonata with the so-called “Boogie Woogie” variation and the rhythm is very close to that.

An aside: You can find the proto of almost everything musical in Beethoven. For example, there is a lot of what would become minimalism in his sixth symphony. Why not some Boogie Woogie in this sonata?

Yontov displayed an excellent, fast and even trill in addition to his other technical abilities. He did a fine job of keeping the trill going for a long time while his other fingers are busy elsewhere—a famous difficulty.

He turned in a very fine performance of the piece overall.

Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58, is another big sonata that is popular on competition recitals. Yontov took the main theme of the first movement a bit fast, my estimate of the metronome mark was 100 or even more, but it worked better for me than the usual lingering. He used lots of rubato to hurry it along here and slow it down slightly over there. He certainly has the fingers for such a tempo.

The scherzo was also fast; I’d guess about a metronome marking of 116. The speed didn’t work as well here. That fast a tempo made it sound trivial, because it is so short. Besides, it makes the longer, usually shorter, trio feel out of scale.

The finale galloped along at a fast tempo as well. It made the scales sound like a glissando. But, hey, if you have the fingers for it, why not?



Photo: Courtesy OKIPC
Nino Bakradze

Nino Bakradze

32, Georgia/USA

Nino Bakradze was born in Georgia but now resides in the United States.

Rory Boyle’s Six T(OK)ENS still didn’t get the requested use of the pedals, but it did get a fine performance otherwise. Bakradze used the tone clusters as a launching pad for the music that followed; very nice. She used lots of good ’ol romantic-era rubato and even revealed a hidden hint of Wagner’s famous Tristan chord. She did a fine job of retiring the slow section before ending. This was a very good performance of the commissioned work.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 12 in A Flat Major, Op. 26, is an early work, dating from the same time as his first symphony. Thus, it requires classical sensibilities, but with a hint of the rebel to come.

The first movement is marked Andante con variazioni (Beethoven loved to write variations). Bakradze started off very modestly, and even quieted the sforzandi. The first variation still sounds like a statement of the theme, so we are into the meat of the movement before we know it. The, scherzo, Allegro molto, grew out of first movement.

The slow movement, Marcia funebre, is a genre that Beethoven loved to write. He loved funeral marches and this one looks forward to the masterful one in his groundbreaking “Eroica” Symphony. Marcia funebre was the only sonata movement that he later orchestrated and, in a strange twist of fate, it was played at his own funeral (which is a little creepy).

Bakradze took the Allegro at a very fast pace, about the metronome mark of 150, and while it felt a little rushed at times, she observed the senza ritard at the end.

Chopin’s Variations brillantes in B-Flat Major, Op. 12, followed. Bakradze did a very nice job with the introduction and made a very simple statement of the theme. Unfortunately, in the scherzo the sustaining pedal erased the sixteenth rests, which put some daylight in the middle of the rhythmic motives, some with runs, which prevents the last note to be separated to act as a pick-up to the next phrase rather then the end of a run. The whole passage felt rushed rather than fast and controlled.

An aside: Bakradze made little audible difference between forte and fortissimo, but this is hardly the first time it has been mentioned. Many of my comments involve the blurring of dynamic levels. But this criticism is hardly limited to the fine pianists gathered here; it applies to top professionals as well. Few artists have a dynamics plan for what they play. Only a few identify the softest and loudest moment in a piece and then scale all the other dynamics within those benchmarks. Thus, all the various grades of dynamics that most composers carefully play end up as little more than soft or loud.

Debussy’s evocative suite of three piece, Estampes, followed. This is a very subtle work and it received a fine performance.

Bakradze soaked the first movement, Pagodes, with the sustaining pedal. This is a matter of personal taste because Debussy carefully marks where to engage it but not where to release it. Maybe Bakradze’s solution—to just keep it down most of the time—is what he the composer wanted. It worked for me. Some places in the performance got a little loud. Admittedly, it is marked fortissimo but such a marking is not absolute in every occasion. It must be kept it in perspective. A fortissimo in Liszt is not the same as one in Debussy.

The next selection, Valse de l’opéra Faust de Gounod, is Liszt’s version of the famous waltz from Gounod’s well-known opera. Bakradze did a nice job of squeezing the actual waltz out of Liszt’s virtuosic junk pile.

Speaking of: Isn’t it about time that we retire Liszt’s parodies of opera arias? They are nothing more than technical firework designed to show off. Some, like his treatment of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and the aforementioned waltz, are worse than others, but most of them are way too long for what they are: Liszt at his self-indulgent worst. There is a plethora of pieces by Liszt that are masterpieces, and still have more than enough virtuosic passages. Let’s hear them instead.



Photo: Courtesy OKIPC
Anastasiya Naplekova

Anastasiya Naplekova

32, Ukraine/USA

Anastasiya Naplekov was born in the Ukraine but now lives in the United States.

She took a novel approach in her programming, playing portions of several different pieces by a variety of composers. She gets one gold star for choosing a piece of contemporary music and another for programming something by a Hispanic composer: Manuel de Falla’s Cuatro piezas españolas.

She played three of the Cuatro (four) piezas (pieces). The first was Aragonesa, a name that means a specific language as well as a type of dance for couples. Naplekova accented the rhythmic drive and did a fine job of letting the piece wind down on its own at the end. The second movement, Cubana, refers to the country of Cuba. Naplekova relaxed into the natural rhythmic flow and all the tempo changes. In her hands they sounded instinctive, rather that dictated by the composer.

Naplekova omitted the third movement and went to the fourth, Andaluza, which received a very exciting reading. Her octave passages were very fast and clean and the ending faded away rather than stopping with a flourish.

Next she played the first movement, "Ondine," from Ravel’s magnificent masterpiece for piano, Gaspard de la Nuit. Usually, performances of this work populate most recital programs in such competitions because of its combination of incredible technical demands and wonderful music. Amazingly, this one movement is all that appeared here.

It is highly unusual to just play one movement, but why not? The story of the goddess Ondine is much like the Little Mermaid, a magical being that gives it all up for love.

The piece opens with Ravel’s impression of the sun glinting on the water. Naplekova’s performance of the opening shimmering pattern in the right hand was a little too loud, but it is very hard to play it any softer and make it speak on the instrument. The high point of the movement is a long crescendo leading to an incredible climax. She did an exceptional job of building up to that moment, but the arrival and descent didn’t quite work.

Rory Boyle’s Six T(OK)ENS didn’t get the requested pedaling, but it did receive an intelligent performance.

Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the song "Daisies" is a delightful treat, even more so because it is so rarely heard.

Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from his incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream received a marvelous performance: very light on its feet and scampering.

Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the cradle song from Tchaikovsky’s suite of Lullaby, Op. 16, No. 1, was a welcome diversion. But we soon were back to very serious music: Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36.

This sonata exists in three versions. The original was written in 1913. The composer revised it in 1937, both simplifying and shortening the piece. Later, the famous Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz made another version that was a combination of the two. Naplekova played the 1937 version and it is impossible to think of what the 1923 version was like if this one is “simplified.”

Naplekova completely absorbed this piece; she played it like she was the one who wrote it. She took all kinds of small liberties that are usually the prerogative of a composer/performer. The listener definitively had the feeling that this performance would be different tomorrow. Her Rachmaninoff was so instinctively wonderful that you have to hope she makes it to the final round, just to hear her play Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43.



Richard Octaviano Kogima

25, Brazil/Switzerland

Photo: Courtesy OKIPC
Richard Octaviano Kogima

Kogima began with the commissioned piece R. Boyle’s Six T(OK)ENS. He didn’t observe the pedal markings. However, he did the best job so far of making music with the piece. He certainly sold it to me. He built up the piece out of what felt like isolated musical elements in other performances. He brought out melodic fragments which were, up to now, hidden in plain sight but proved to be important as musical glue to hold the piece together. Even the bizarre ending lost its oddity and became the only ending that the piece could have. It was an absolutely brilliant performance.

J. S. Bach’s Aria Variata a la Maniera Italiana, BWV 989, is rarely heard, although it has a lot in common with his frequently performed Goldberg Variations. Right from the start, Kogima impressed with the ease with which he handled the fistfuls of mordents. Further, when he took a repeat, he played the music in a slightly different manner, such as more softly). He brought out important inner voices that are not readily apparent.

The variations proceeded without a pause, so it sounded like one piece. It may have started out skimpily, but its difficulties, both technically and musically, did not give Kogima any trouble whatsoever and he delivered a memorable performance.

Chopin’s Scherzo Op. 31, No. 2 in B-flat Minor, followed. In Kogima’s hands, it shed its identity as a virtuoso showpiece and became a stunningly beautiful piece of music. Kogima lingered over the slow and lyric middle section and made the bravura parts a natural outgrowth of the musical materials, wanting to run free.

M. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a popular work in both its original piano version and in the many orchestral versions (mostly the one by Ravel). This is not one of the virtuoso pieces that usually populates competition programs. In fact, even average pianists can make a respectable trip through it. The challenge, since the piece describes a stroll through an exposition of paintings by Viktor Hartmann, is to create visuals with the music.

Please excuse the first person, but Kogima’s performance was revelatory. First I tried to block the Hartman paintings—with which I am very familiar—out of my mind to see if Kogima could convey his visuals. He certainly did. In fact, I made a list of my new concepts of the various paintings, but I won’t bore you with them here. What is important is that Kogima’s performance had such immediacy and influence. It was a risky choice for a semifinal round, but it was the best performance of this well-known work that I have ever heard.



Photo: Courtesy OKIPC
Seong-Hyeon Leem

Seong-Hyeon Leem

24, South Korea

Seong-Hyeon Leem from South Korea started out with Rory Boyle’s Six T(OK)ENS and gave it the best performance so far (even topping Kogima’s, see above). First of all, she played from memory. Secondly, she used the pedaling as marked for the first time, as far as I could hear. She took it fast, but she made it work.

Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, Hob.  XVI:50, was a complete change of gears from Boyle, but she obviously has a feel for these early classical works.

She played the first movement, marked Allegro, with great charm and vivaciousness. The opening three notes became a positive declaration that she used to drive the entire movement. We don’t know what she thought it said, but we know it was positive. In the Adagio, she let the melody sing out like an opera aria. (Haydn wrote lots of opera, but none are known today). Haydn composed this movement earlier and found a home for it here. The final Allegro molto is Haydn at his humorous best; it’s outright funny. His melody is like a geographically challenged person who is always lost and constantly finding themselves in a corner—or even in the wrong key.

In 1795, Haydn, at a young 63, was completing his second trip to London (the first was four years earlier). During this last visit to the English capital, he became acquainted with Therese Jansen, a brilliant pianist for whom he wrote three sonatas—the final three of his prodigious output in the form. The sonatas were composed not just for an English performer, but for the newly developed English piano. These instruments, with their extended keyboards that gave the piano “extra” notes and increased dynamic abilities, were worlds better than the limited harpsichord. Haydn’s liked is so much that in addition to writing this sonata for it, he took one back to Vienna with him.

In Haydn’s time, piano sonatas abounded. In the very year of the aforementioned Haydn sonata, Beethoven composed his first three piano sonatas (Op. 2), which he dedicated to Haydn. Mozart had written his 18th and last sonata in 1789; Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) produced 35 sonatas; and Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) wrote 35 of an eventual output that amounted to nearly double that number. It is not surprising that the two greatest of these sonata-writing composers, Mozart and C.P.E. Bach, eventually had the most influence upon Haydn, just as it was inevitable that his own first so-called sonatas, from the period of about 1750 to 1767, were closely related to the Baroque suite.

In Seong-Hyeon Leem’s selection, Haydn balances—with enormous skill—the graces of Mozart with the tensions of C.P.E. Bach, although it all is very much pure Haydn. No slave to formalism, Haydn’s first movement turns its back on the precept of thematic contrast he had come to adopt through the influence of Mozart, and builds an amazing structure essentially on the lean, surprisingly witty, theme that opens the piece. What dazzling inventiveness the composer uses to manipulate this idea. What endless variety he derives from the spare but malleable combination of its notes! Of these elements, the exploration of harmonic color is important. For example, the development section moves through several keys before returning home. Seong-Hyeon Leem brought all this out in a very clean performance.

Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, was, in general, too loud throughout. Many times, she hadn’t decided when the left hand was simply accompanying the right hand and needed to be more subdued. The Finale, marked Presto, was very fast indeed and when it was at the bottom if the piano it was indistinct and sounded more like a rumble.

Stravinsky’s suite from L'Oiseau de feu, or The Firebird, as arranged by Guido Agosti, brings three movements of this wondrous ballet to the piano in a more-or-less successful manner. Much of Seong-Hyeon Leem’s performance was too fast; she needs to remember that this is ballet music. However, the Berceuse was quite lovely and the transition to the finale was excellent. 



Photo: Courtesy OKIPC
Yundi Xu

Yundi Xu

18, China/France

Yundi Xu is a Chinese pianist currently living in France. Her performance of Rory Boyle’s Six T(OK)ENS used the correct pedals and further, made some music with it. However, the piece never came together, rather remained a collection of events—exciting and mysterious ones for sure but ones that could be put in any order.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 11 in B-flat major, Op. 22 followed. The opening Allegro con brio felt rushed and the sixteenth notes in the main theme ran together. Many of the sforzandi didn’t provide enough accent to make them pop out. The development didn’t feel as rushed, but the recapitulation returned to the rushed feeling.

The second movement, marked Adagio con molto espressione, became more operatic as it went on. The third, marked Menuetto forte, was the best of the sonata and was expressive but within classical bounds. The last movement, marked Rondo: Allegretto, was taken at a reasonable tempo. Many young pianists speed it up to show off their technique. It is to Yundi Xu’s credit that she took her time with this movement; not too fast.

Choosing Debussy’s Images, Set 2, was a very risky choice for a competition in that is shows refined musicianship over bravura virtuoso fireworks. Hopefully, it will work out for her.

In 1911, when he was almost 50, with a raft of tradition-breaking compositions to his credit and with many more yet to come, Debussy wrote this to composer Edgar Varèse: “I love pictures almost as much as music.” This is the mantra of the so-called Impressionists, who link the graphic and aural arts. This calls to mind a similar connection with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exposition, heard earlier.

Yundi Xu played Debussy’s impressionistic pieces (in the truest sense of that word) in an exquisite manner. She didn’t pick a piece that offered a show of virtuosic bravura for her last appearance before the judges before the finalists were chosen. Instead, she played something subtle, with considerable difficulties that are not clear. But her mastery as a musician was there for all to see.

An aside: Debussy first heard Javanese musicians at the Paris Universal Exposition and the sounds of the gamelan orchestra stayed with him. He was fascinated by the different scales the used and adopted them to his music. Pagodas is a primary example.

Chopin’s Barcarolle, Op. 60 was another technically natural but musically challenging, selection. Yundi Xu kept the rocking boat and tossed off the ascending runs as punctuation. This was another risky choice, lacking the expected flights of octaves. Maybe the thinking was that we would all be tired and something quiet soothing, requiring outstanding musicianship, would hit the spot. It certainly did for me. Thanks For Reading

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OKIPC: Semifinals
Reviews of the 11 pianists in the semifinals at the first Olga Kern International Piano Competition in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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