His discography details an intentional identity. Two volumes of Scarlatti Sonatas, a volume of Haydn, collections of Scriabin and Chopin, along with concertos by Tchaikovsky, Medtner, Scriabin, and Rachmaninov (choosing the rarely heard original version of the 4th concerto, itself already obscure). Even in a solo volume of Rachmaninov, Sudbin plays the less famous Chopin Variations, instead of the better known Corelli Variations to couple with the 2nd Sonata. Sudbin (with the exception of Medtner) plays the most standard composers, yet he tends to champion their lesson known works with equal vigor as the masterworks. In the famous pieces such as Tchaikovsky’s first concerto he manages to find his own voice.
There is something to be said for forging your own path. Sudbin said that he not only began playing, but also improvising at the age of 4. He still does his own arrangements, often song transcriptions for solo piano.
Beyond that, Sudbin is an active writer on music. All of his recordings that I’ve perused have been accompanied by his own liner notes which provide historical context and clues to his interpretations. In all ways, Sudbin takes an active part in the creative process.
I decided to focus on Sudbin’s Scarlatti recordings, in particular the C Major Sonata K. 159 from the second Scarlatti volume in 2016.
In the liner notes to the original Scarlatti recording, Sudbin describes the draw to Scarlatti’s oeuvre (he also reveals-unbeknownst to me, that Scarlatti’s 555 brilliant sonatas were only begun when the composer was 50 years old!). He says that Scarlatti’s compositional voice stands alone in music history: there is no distinct, singular origin or contemporary parallel. Of course, to come to this conclusion, one need only compare Domenico’s keyboard works to the vocal works of his father to see that little musical genetics were shared across generations.
Furthermore, Scarlatti wrote these Sonatas protected and perhaps isolated by royal patronage, which in my mind elicits comparisons to the future works of Haydn: “Probably because he (Scarlatti) composed all of his sonatas for the Queen, who by all accounts was a brilliant performer, and because he wasn't seeking popularity or commercial profit, he could allow his imagination free flow.”
Sudbin does not see these works as necessarily fixed by the limits of technique, instrument or musical creativity known to Scarlatti: “Both the Queen and Scarlatti were extraordinary harpsichordists and had great improvisational skills. It is very plausible that for each of the notated sonatas, there were 50 or so other versions.”
He later speculates that due to the diversity of the sonatas, their immense creativity, that Scarlatti had an inkling that a better instrument (the modern piano) would exist in the future, and that musical styles would continue to evolve. The last two points are a defense to suggest that Scarlatti would not have been surprised to hear his works played differently as time moved on.
So Sudbin allows himself certain luxuries in his interpretations. He utilizes the binary form that Scarlatti composed in to play the material once through largely as one would expect. The A section in K. 159 is unoffending the first time through but with an immense and joyful character: brassy fanfare in the right hand and a dancing lilt in the left.
But listen to what he does in the repeat! The opening is played softly and with the pedal for the first 4 measures, before contrasting with the fanfare texture the next 4 measures. The next two phrases continue this trade off. No student could get away with this muddy texture because it’s not traditional. “Scarlatti didn’t have the damper pedal!”
But it makes sense. Sudbin still has clarity, he’s just opening up the strings of the piano to vibrate more openly as the strings on a harpsichord (which doesn’t have dampening at all) would. It’s a color, not an obfuscation of the texture.
He also allows himself all kinds of ornamentation upon the repetition (as he does in his Haydn recordings). Improvisation, afterall, was an essential part of one’s musicianship during the time that Scarlatti wrote, and one can easily argue that for any composer from the 18th, even 19th centuries, what is on the page need not be a limit to what one does in performance (you could even hear his liberal use of the damper pedal as simply an ornamentation).
In the fourth system of the first page (I’m looking at this score), a leaping motive is enlarged to over an octave. For the last one, jumping up to D, he ornaments the approach with a glissando, adding to the spritely spirit.
On the second page, in the second system, he holds the low Gs, perhaps with the sostenuto pedal, then reorchestrates the parts. Both parts as written are taken in his left hand, and the right hand doubles the melody an octave higher. He treats the piano momentarily like an organ as pedal stops, different manuals and octave coupling create a variety of color.
He adds simple ornaments, trills, appoggiaturas and doubling octaves. But he goes as far as to add notes. He fills out the bare octaves at the very end of the pieces with an ornamented third. Not a big deal, except ending on open octaves is a common thread in Scarlatti’s music.
All of these changes are just a gateway into understanding the beautiful artistry Sudbin brings to Scarlatti’s music. Each one sounds like the work of a different composer, and each individual sonata is full of variety. Listen for his ever evolving variety of articulation, ornamentation, or sudden surprises in the left hand voicing, etc. While K. 159 is a fanfare, K. 208 is a dramatic operatic aria and K. 213 in d minor is a dark lament. Sudbin plays both the famous and the obscure sonatas with an equal admiration and careful crafting to show the ingenuity, virtuosity and artistry of Scarlatti.
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Looking at a score as a text will always produce an aural text. Looking at music is always an act will always produce music.
I keep coming back to comparisons between the 2 approaches suggested in my first blog post in this series. Glenn Gould searched for the structure in everything, others search for the sound. Both can be beautiful.
I have the hunch that Simone Dinnerstein focuses on the sound. First of all, her sound is beautiful and a lot of that has to do with tempo. “I find it easier to hear when I play slower and when I hear others play slower…” she said in Caroline Benser’s At the Piano. I myself have always loved slow tempos, it helps make more sense out of music by helping our ears and brains sort through and interpret the music we’re hearing in real time without being overbearing.
She must spend a lot of brain power listening. It’s so hard to control slow tempos. Given the piano’s natural decay, long lines can be lost, counterpoint obscured, harmonic structures fading into sound blobs. But Dinnerstein avoids these pitfalls. Her music sings, is at once full of direction but perfectly still, and is layered in a myriad of beautiful ways.
All of this of course lends itself well to playing Bach, a composer she is well known for playing and recording. Instead of choosing her famous Goldberg Variations (I’m trying to stay away from the expected recordings associated with most performers in this series!), I wanted to look at her “Something almost being said” album of Bach and Schubert. I had a lot of trouble deciding whether to consider her Schubert Op. 90 Impromptus, or the Bach 1st Partita, both being dream pieces of mine. Ultimately, her approach to Bach is so unique that the Partita won out.
I thought her explanation of the title of the album, and the connection between these two seemingly dissimilar composers is revealing: “Bach and Schubert, to my ears, share a distinctive quality. Their non-vocal music has a powerful narrative, a vocal element. The effect is that of wordless voices singing textless melodies. Bach and Schubert's melodic lines are so fluent, so expressive, and so minutely inflected that they sound as though they might at any moment burst suddenly into speech. They sound like something almost being said.”
It all connects, of course. Bach and Schubert both wrote extraordinary amounts of vocal music. Naturally we approach Schubert’s piano music in a vocal way, but often Bach’s keyboard music is played in a very dry way, or instrumental, or at least non-vocal. Again, you listen to someone like Gould (whose Bach I love): if structure is key, the playing is dry, it’s all about the articulation and the polyphony. Never mind those who fetishize the historical sound.
But Bach can sing in his piano music. To me it’s dying to sing. Is it logical to infuse such an intellectual composer with such expressive devices?
Dinnerstein clearly has thought through her playing. In one interview, she argues that Bach isn’t as metrical as people think. “I think musical notation is a very crude way of transcribing a musical thought.” And Bach, being so abstract, the barline can’t be rigid, one shouldn’t hear the meter.
In another interview, she compares her recording of the Bach Inventions directly to Gould’s: “I think about it as being much more legato. When I’m playing, I’m thinking a lot about breath and shape and contour.”
We hear the unique expressiveness of her playing in Bach’s first Partita. In the same interview I just mentioned above, she describes the Bb Invention, and the key in Bach’s hands in general, as warm, open and like a hug. This fit my interpretation of the Partita long before I heard her recording. I’ve always had a nostalgic love for this suite, perhaps because a good friend of mine once played it, but perhaps just because it’s the Partita most able to sing.
One thing that struck me about Dinnerstein’s performance is that it rarely sounds like a dance suite. This isn’t a bad thing, and after all, did Bach actually intend to write music to accompany a dance, or music for enjoyment (if not performance) inspired by dance? Considering her statement about meter above, it’s hardly surprising that dance would not be the first thing that comes to mind in her playing.
Consider the Prelude. The tempo is quite a bit slower than any performance I’ve heard. But she inflects the opening with so much vocal expression, stretching intervals, hesitating before the resolutions of phrases, prolonging the dissonances. The Allemande doesn’t run away from you, but it isn’t in a slow tempo either. In the Minuets, the left hand is beautiful and legato, a bona fide counter-melody, rather than an accompanimental bass broken up by articulation.
Dinnerstein plays Bach with so much beauty and vocal expression, some might dispute her interpretation as “Romantic” instead of “Baroque”. The problem here is one of historical hindsight. These labels, are always placed after the fact. And they are most often used as huge generalizations. Bach really has nothing to do with the early Baroque of Caccini, and not really anything to do with a more or less contemporary like Rameau. There are classical elements to Beethoven’s music throughout his career, but he really has little in common with early Haydn. What about the vastly different approaches of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms, all apparently ‘romantic’ composers.
If modern ears hear Bach more ‘romantically’, so what? The question shouldn’t be ‘is it Baroque’ or ‘is it authentic’, but is it expressive? I could listen to Dinnerstein’s playing again and again and will always answer in the affirmative.
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But this follow-up I disagree with: “he somehow obliterates his own enormous musical personality by his occupation of the territory of the author he plays.” I’ve never done a blind test, but I would wager that I could tell Sokolov apart from other pianists if I did. It’s precisely because his musical personality shines through the notes left by the composer that I enjoy his artistry so much. He has a unique gift to reconcile a composer’s voice with his own.
And then one more statement I do agree with: “Sokolov’s first concern is always his relationship with his instrument.” He is first and foremost a pianist, in the best sense possible. He knows how to express music through the piano.
It’s well known that Sokolov doesn’t collaborate, whether in chamber music or concertos, at least not anymore. He’s often said that it’s too difficult to find a musical partner with similar musical sounds, not to mention, the economics of rehearsing an orchestra long enough to have a unified musical message.
So he plays solo piano, exclusively touring Europe with one program each year. Clearly he gets to know his program so well that once he’s performing publicly, he knows exactly how to make his music heard perfectly.
But that requires the perfect instrument. Sokolov is also known for working as his own piano technician. Spending hours alone in the concert hall before a recital, he will adjust the piano so that it responds exactly as he would like it to.
That might sound like ‘cheating’, manipulating the playing field so that he’s always playing with home-field advantage. But if you make that much effort not just to understand the technical work of adjusting piano mechanisms, but to know exactly what you want out of an instrument, why not utilize it?
So he’s truly someone engaged with what a piano is capable of musically, chooses a program which engages the piano best, and masters the small repertoire to create incredibly moving performances. To go a step further, all of his commercial recordings are live, unedited recordings. I don’t know if he’s ever stepped foot into a studio or had an audience hear a recording of his playing that was spliced together from multiple takes.
It was difficult to decide what recording to focus on, but I decided to look at Chopin’s 2nd Sonata, Op. 35. Chopin, being a pianist’s composer, and Sokolov, being a pianist’s pianist, sounds like the perfect combination.
Chopin of course took ample inspiration from the world of Italian bel canto opera, and wrote in such a way to best approximate the singing style on the least-singing instrument. The best Chopin singers surpass the piano’s percussive nature to create the impression of singing legato with the requisite balance of phrasing, dynamics and rubato. I’d like to suggest that Grigory Sokolov is uniquely qualified to find this balance because of his total engagement in the piano as an instrument.
Of course he sings throughout the first movement. The left hand is not overwhelming in the opening agitato theme and his nocturne impulses shine in the secondary theme. The second movement is as playful as the music allows, making the most of the changes of register, and the motivic repeated notes are never hammered. In the famous third movement he acquires the necessary bleak character, and even manages to make the piano sob at the sforzandos, or the left hand trills in the march section. He makes sense of the strange finale by adding color with the pedal and draws our ears closer by alluding to motives in his voicing.
I’d like to look most specifically at one spot in the Development section of the first movement, M. 137-153, heard at 5:24 of his recording. Here the agitato theme in the right hand is combined with the opening descending sixth octaves in the left hand. If you listen closely, there’s a slight hesitation in the right hand to give a moment longer to listen to the left hand. In that way, the left hand sounds full in tone because the sound has a moment to bloom, and we get to listen to the combination of the two themes.
Without that regular hesitation, the piano would sound completely homogenous, instead of heterogenous. Sokolov understands and hears how the sounds he makes at the piano will be perceived at his attack, and exactly how it will decay, and he manages every other musical decision around those basic realities. And because he works so closely with his instrument at each performance, he is able to guarantee the response that he wants. In this way, Sokolov ismuch unlike Glenn Gould who prized structure over the sound.
I decided not to comment on the Chamber Music portion of the finals. A busy few days meant I couldn’t focus a lot of time, and I don’t have a ton of chamber music experience. I don’t know the repertoire, nor does my performing experience really give me the tools to be analytical about what makes a truly masterful chamber music pianist. But I listened to all the performers and thought it was a strong round.
I decided for the final concertos that I would be a little more upfront on my opinions, but only comment upon generalities after listening to the entire concerto performance, instead of as ideas and thoughts came to me!
Favorin played about how I expected him to. Taking the modern Prokofiev inspired, not Rachmaninoff inspired, Russian approach. Color is limited but the playing is brash, in your face. It's not bangy, and there's plenty of virtuosity to spare. Lots of excitement, and careful attention to the melodic lines. But I find it hard to care about this playing. It's like good narrative writing, you want to show the reader something about a character quality or emotional meaning, you don't want to tell them directly. In Favorin’s playing I can hear that I'm supposed to be blown away by it, and because he's telling me, I don't care to listen. I'd rather there be a little mystery, that I have to work as a listener to connect at an emotional level, to bring myself into the performance.
I become more enthusiastic about Kenneth Broberg the further on this competition got. His programming showed off a very romantic virtuosity, but still managed to demonstrate a variety of compositional styles. I thought his Mozart was one of the top two or three, and he had chosen something other than Rach/Prok 2/3 or Tchaikovsky.
And his final performance was not a disappointment. I was consistently drawn to his orchestration at the piano. He constantly varied his voicing so that he created a new tonal color than one typically hears in this piece. He had all the variety from delicate, down to incessant banging, but even that is acceptable as long as it’s in an appropriate place, and not overused. This constant attention to a very clear, direct sound made me trust him, that he’s studied this music and he believes in his own performance, so I’m willing to go along with him and love every choice that he makes.
The 18th Variation was not just heart-on-your-sleeve, but handing your heart over to someone else, exquisitely beautiful. The final rush of variations built into a frenzy, and he handled the cascades of notes very well. Fantastic playing.
Yekwon Sunwoo was largely an enigma for me until I heard his Mozart concerto. Not that it made all of his other playing make sense, but it made the jury’s appreciation of him make sense. Here was one composer where his style of playing resonated with my ears. The Rach 3 performance was back to the enigma. I understand the attraction; he plays Rachmaninoff in a very in-your-face way; loud means turn the dial up high, fortissimo means accent every note. Always playing with bright tone, full chords. It gets tiresome for me, the amount of shape within a phrase falls within a negligible range. That kind of musicality hits me but never goes more than skin-deep.
If the jury chose winners based in the concerto final alone (besides the quintet, Cliburn juries are meant to consider the entirety of the competitors program), Rachel Cheung is suddenly a top contender in my book. First of all, of course I admire her for choosing Beethoven 4 in the “grand” concerto category against the warhorses. I've long considered this concerto as so musically perfect that it really is technically impossible. You need so much physical control to actually play this piece well. And she had that. So much control, so much variety.
Interestingly in her Mozart, I loved her left hand musicality, not her variety of phrasing. Here it was the opposite. I felt like the piece was constantly involving even when the notes and rhythm we're repetitive. Sometimes her left hand sat in the background, but certainly others it was involved in the musical narrative and so I can appreciate the times it was held to the background for variety. Like Broberg, even in the musical choices that I questioned, I trusted her commitment so much that I was drawn into what she did. You get gut feeling with artists, would I pay money to see them again? For Cheung, I would pay for sure.
I couldn't help but compare my memories of Vadym Kholodenko playing Prokofiev. My impression 4 years later are still of carnival like characters mixed together, unrelenting contrasts. I just didn't sense all of that from Tchaidze’s performance. While he had a lot of intensity and drive, it was all of a narrowly focused variety. It paid off well in the finale as the last two minutes do need to go and go, and I thought he ended on a good note. I'd pay to hear him again, but only every few years and I'd take a hard look at his repertoire first.
I've adored Daniel Hsu’s playing from the very beginning. There's something in his interpretations that make me lean in and listen. It's especially noteworthy if the pianist does that with your own favorite pieces, pieces you've played and know well. Throughout Daniel has played probably the most consistent programs if music that I know and love and yet I love everything he does with them.
The Tchaikovsky concerto continued that trend. He played it as if he was doing the world premiere, perhaps having a brother who is a great composer helps with that mindset. He didn't sound ever like he was playing with someone else’s performance in mind. Honestly, that's the biggest compliment that I can give a pianist, and Hsu has consistently earned it.
My predictions: Gold: Daniel Hsu. Silver: Rachel Cheung. Bronze: Kenneth Broberg. My personal choice among the finals would flip Cheung and Broberg but I wouldn't be upset now if she placed higher.
For me, her Mozart—like many other pianist’s—is too neutered: the left hand too insubordinate and dull, the slurs smoothed over. Uchida said in an interview that she would love to express what’s ‘inherent in the score’, but says ‘it’s not possible’. We are too influenced by our culture, our upbringing and our listening to other artists. I couldn’t agree more on the latter point. It just seems that she focuses too much on the score in Mozart. (I wonder if that was a younger Uchida.)
Her unique upbringing will inevitably would have led her to hear music differently. She often states that growing up in Vienna influences her connection to the music of great Viennese composers.
She describes her ideal approach to musicality another wayin a more recent interview. Uchida says that she tries to approach each composer and each piece, with a blank slate. Her work, whether privately in practice or publicly while in performance, is an attempt to discover the music without outside interference, or even from yourself and the way you did it the day before. Approaching music this way we will inevitably strike a balance between performance traditions and our own honest musical selves.
Schubert is of course best known for his composition of lieder, revolutionizing the art song with piano accompaniment. Whether it be for allowing the text to guide the composition, or for including the piano as a collaborative element, more than accompaniment, his vocal works are rightly celebrated to this day.
I think the reason I love Uchida’s Schubert so much is that she sounds like she’s playing lieder. Coupled with the blank slate approach, and her playing begins to take on qualities of storytelling: always fresh, always vibrant. Schubert in her hands sounds like long narrative songs without the words.
I’d like to focus on her performance of Schubert’s second-to-last Piano Sonata, the one in A major, D. 959, although her complete Schubert set is worth listening to extensively.
The first movement begins full of majesty. Each new harmonization of the As in the right hand have a color and direction of their own. Her left hand continues its active role in measures 10-13. Try isolating your listening to only hear her left hand. There is so much shaping there, an entire phrase, even though it is the background texture. The transition from measures 28-39 has so much drive, it sounds like she’s accelerating, but check a metronome and she’s staying unusually steady. I think this phenomenon has something to do with the crispness of her right-hand articulation.
She slows down the tempo for the second theme, even though it’s unmarked. I discussed the need for this in the previous entry in this series.
Uchida herself has an interesting discussion about tempo in the Steinway interview linked above. She says that a metronome marking could be perfect in one performer’s hands, horrible in another’s, depending on what else they do with the piece. There is no right tempo. This seems intuitive of course, but why shouldn’t we intentionally apply this concept to individual musical themes? Especially in a single Sonata movement, where the form often pits two contrasting themes against each other.
This choral is where we first hear a truly song-like melody. She plays it very simply at first, from measures 55-63. When that melody is developed starting in 65, her tempo is again largely the same, but he addition of the left-hand accompaniment creates a greater sense of motion. Not only that, but the left hand is shaped such that the eighth notes on beats 2, 3, and 4 are voiced as a countermelody to the soprano voice. If the whole pianist is a collaborator in lieder, the left hand must be the collaborator in the piano sonatas!
To hear a great lieder-like collaboration between her left and right hands, look no further than the beginning of the finale. The right-hand sings impeccably while the round shapes of each half note space in the left hand follows the rise and fall of the melody’s phrasing.
Even though I like her shifts in tempo, I am most amazed with how steady she is between tempo changes. Yet it doesn’t sound steady in a perpetual motion sense. Her control of her sound to make a phrase is something to behold, study and be inspired by. Sound influences time so much in her hands, and as someone who allows time to control everything in my own playing, I am enamored with this skill when played with Uchida’s perfection.
A final interesting thing to note, since I criticized her neutralization of slurs in Mozart, is her voicing in measures 90-105 of the finale. Since no slurs are present in the urtext edition, most people would likely play the right hand as one steady voice throughout this section. Uchida turns the right hand into a duet. A lower voice in 90-93 begins, then is interrupted by a higher voice, the upper octave that measure and the next. Then the two voices trade off beats 3 and 4 of one measure and 1 and 2 of the next. It’s a minor detail, not brilliant save for the fact that, by making a choice of voicing the right hand slightly differently, a textural dialogue that is absent in the score, is discovered, magnifying our listening to the piece.
Carl.czerny called Beethoven’s Op. 7, the composer’s Appassionata, not op. 57. My sense was that Pierdomenico never heard this advice and approached this in a typical classical style. Not without reason; Beethoven was not far removed from his lessons with Haydn when this piece was written. And not without success: Pierdomenico doesn't shy away from the explosive moments of the second movement and there is a certain gracefulness even to the energetic first movement.
Program wise I really like Pierdomenico’s whole solo recital repertoire choices. He showcases all the major sides of 19th-century pianism: Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, now Chopin (yes, Rachmaninoff’s pianism is essentially borne in the 20th century!). These Chopin Ballads are like narrative fantasies, and Pierdomenico achieves a believable balance between wandering and drive. Sometimes the tempo spins out of control in such a convincing way (haven't we all been so emotional we don't think straight for a moment), the next moment-and it could be a repeated phrase-it’s virtually steady again.
I was also happy to see the audience applaud after Nos. 1 and 3. I once attended a performance of all 4 Chopin Ballades by a pianist where no one clapped in between; it’s so anticlimactic. Now the pianist was a grouch who shot dirty looks at anyone who coughed during his masterclass the day before, so it was probably just as well. I don’t think Pierdomenico had to stand up and bow necessarily, he could have turned and nodded, but it’s also fine that he did.
I appreciated Broberg’s attention to inner voices in the Schubert. He brought harmonies, counter-melodies, variations out. The latter especially in the c-minor impromptu, when the melody can get so repetitive, he always found something new to bring out of the texture. In the Eb, he paid careful attention to voice the left-hand chords on beat two, bringing out the top note, which didn’t necessarily yield a counter-melody all the time, but created more interesting texture than the bass and right-hand alone can fill.
My former teacher, Paul Barnes, does a lecture-recital on Liszt’s religious connections to the Sonata, and I believe the section at M. 297 (start listening at about 38:50) iis what he refers to as the crucifixion scene. Broberg may or may not know of that interpretation, but he brings it to life nonetheless. The octaves that precede take off in a storm, and a pregnant pause signals an important moment is ahead. The chords at 297 are aggressive and full, dark and painful.
My favorite moment of this Sonata is the climax at 393-397 Broberg played it majestically with plenty of fortissimo and pulling back of the tempo. Throughout, he managed the difficult passage work with ease, still being musical, and without relying on the pedal so that he could use it for color, or revert to a dryer sound to get a lot of variety in one phrase. This was a virtuoso and poetic performance.
Listen to those cellos and violas in the Romanza of Tony Yike Yang’s Mozart concert. Such beautiful interaction with the melody. No wait, it was the pianist’s left hand! Mozart was proficient on the string instruments and no doubt intended his homophonic textures in piano music to be imbued with rhythmic and articulation nuance that the lower string instruments provide in an orchestral or chamber music setting. I also loved his nuances on the climbing 3 eighth note motives that permeates the theme. Not just varying them with ‘here’s a loud one, here’s a soft one’, he created vastly different colors and directions to continue the narrative.
I loved his phrasing of the finale theme. He ‘helped’ the natural call and answer of the opening phrase, to show the drive upward by really going for the sforzando high note, and allowing the harmony to relax on the descent. Consider his sensitive accompaniment color in the D-major coda. His piano playing bubbled along with the orchestral, never hidden, but never taking over, just adding to the excitement.
This would have to be my favorite performance of Yekwon Sunwoo’s in the competition. I think he is thinking of Mozart much more romantically, and I don’t mind. The energetic passages have some bite, he phrases repeated passages in very different ways, (consider the second theme in the first movement) as if in the midst of a great speech, emphasizing a point for greater interest. And he utilizes rubato in his solo passages. Usually just slight agogic delays but it’s very effective. I can’t believe I didn’t hear this kind of playing in his Beethoven Op. 109 this round!
He also took the risk in the second movement of not being the prominent voice even when he had the melody, at least upon the return of the theme. After all, we’ve heard him do it, plus the orchestra, why not hear how the long pedal tones from the orchestra interact with the melody in the piano. He joined the trend of ornamenting the melody line too, very smart. Mozart was never about just what’s on the page!
Overall I don’t have much to say about Hans Chen’s Mozart...His codas were brilliant and showed his intentionality as an artist in the places he went compositionally, and the way he played them musically. I just think you can play Mozart’s writtens notes the same way you improvise upon his written notes.
My two main points in Mozart are 1) involve the left hand and 2) shape repetitions differently, whether or not the notes change and the rhythm stays the same. Rachel Cheung is magnificent on point number one. Point number two as a test detracts from her overall impression. Consider the sequential left hand octaves towards the end of the first movement development. Each stop in the harmonic progression is shaped the same as it was the previous stop, and will be shaped the same way again. Especially in the development, especially in Mozart whose material is so beautiful, sequential development is often all he can do to it, each of these harmonies should be one stop on a journey, instead of running around in a circle. Even if you change your shoes each lap, you’re running in the same spot.
But, I get the enthusiasm I’ve seen online for Rachel Cheung. She does have a lot of honesty in her approach and I do not think there is any impediment to her ability to project her musical intentions.
My Top 6 Predictions:
Tony Yike Yang
The Real Finalists:
I'm 2/6 this time! At this point there are 2 of the semi-finalists who I deeply regret not seeing; and only 1 of the finalists I am not looking forward to. But-luckily there will be lots of variety between the concertos which is awesome for us, a little more work for the Fort Worth Symphony.
Tony came out guns blazing with a rowdy Scarlatti Sonata, that I don’t know I’ve ever heard. Good on him from staying away from the select group of Sonatas popularized by, say, Horowitz. I loved his approach to this toccata like style, bright but with an awareness of implied voices. He had so much contrasts of character, if he plays Mozart this way, I will be won over entirely. The second Sonata (marked wrong in the Medici program, it’s K 9) was played very unusually. I played this when I was just a couple years younger than Tony now and never would have gotten away with the rubato he utilized. But I liked it! Maintaining a Baroque approach to articulation, he brought out natural lamentation qualities in the melody line.
One thing that stood out in his performance of the 2nd Chopin Sonata was the 2nd movement. Usually, given that this is a Scherzo movement, performers stay on the lighter side, taking a cue from traditional classical sonata scherzos. Yang does not-it’s very heavy and agitated, and he inserts several noteworthy agogic accents.
It’s hard to keep writing about Pictures at an Exhibition after a while! Overall I was very happy with Tony’s performance, expressive in its varied nuances. Perhaps not the most original performance of the piece, even in this competition year, but still, he aptly captured the characters of different paintings very well.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when you have the same rhythmic device repeated over and over again, you can’t phrase it the same way with rubato and dynamics. The first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 109 is full of this; you’ve played the opening once, you’re a different person, we’re a different audience for having heard it, that has to affect how we hear that rhythm the second time, and that third, and the fourth; the fact that it’s played on different notes isn’t enough! I wish Sunwoo thought the same as I do. Often times, especially in the finale, he sounded like he was headed towards the climax of a phrase, only to level off and never really reach any destination.
As surprised as I have been by enjoying Prokofiev’s 7th Sonata, it was fun to hear the 6th Sonata for the first time. Here, Sunwoo had all of the demonic energy necessary, especially for that spinning-out-of-control ending.
First thing to say about the concertos is how it looks amazing to play for Nicholas McGegan (http://nicholasmcgegan.com/). I’ve always preferred conductors not to use a baton, likely because I’ve played for substantially more choral conductors than instrumental conductors. Furthermore, he seems to have the perfectly, friendly approach to the orchestra before he begins-check out the ‘quiet’ finger on lips reminder before the very first concerto, not to mention the clear joy he derives from the music, or the real-time reaction to one orchestra member with the slight smile near 31:20 of Broberg’s performance. Finally, he has some new sounds coming from the orchestra-I’ve never really heard the orchestral exposition of K. 466 with that much attention paid to articulations before.
As I aim to be analytical, but not critical in these reports, I may have to bite my tongue amongst these Mozart concertos. In general, I find Mozart is played in far too neutered a fashion nowadays. I get it-Mozart is most synonymous with opera, we must sing at the piano! But Mozart’s opera is different than bel canto opera. Pianists try to sing in Mozart at the expense of the plethora of slurs, and interesting left hand accompaniments in the score. As a great singing teacher once said in a lesson that I accompanied: singing is just glorified speech. So more than anything, Mozart at the piano ought to resemble great rhetoric first and foremost.
Leonardo Pierdomenico-I didn’t dislike anything he did, and this isn’t me biting my tongue. He sounded like a speaker you learn a lot from but who doesn't drive you to action.
Kenneth Broberg was more successful in this front. He’s already ahead by the luck of programming the only non-top popularity concertos. There was a little more bite and clarity to his articulation and drive in the direction of his phrases which came to a head, rather than sounding like a smooth, rounded line. Evidently he wrote his own cadenzas. Some commentators on social media were trying to make something political out of the appearance of La Marseillaise in the cadenza. If it was intended that way, it's a weak effort as clearly it's melody and that in the development are closely related and including the French anthem is the natural conclusion of any improvised cadenza since the song’s popularization.
I wish I liked Daniel Hsu’s concerto better. It probably doesn’t help that this is the one Mozart concerto that I’ve actually played. I thought he had beautiful right hand phrasing, but in the long bel canto fashion which doesn’t give Mozart his due. Plus his left hand was nearly non-existent. However, the cadenzas by his composer older-brother (https://andrew.hsumusic.com/) were fantastic. Perfectly taking us in and out of Mozart’s harmonic world; these really increased my enjoyment of the performance as a whole.
Two things stood out immediately in Dasol Kim’s Mozart. One-no tuxedo! He still dressed formally, but I loved that he broke with tradition. Secondly, upon the first entrance he makes, his left hand was brought to the fore to create a BEAUTIFUL duet with the right hand. Throughout, his left hand can be heard supporting the right as the bass line, and its filigree rises to prominence if the character requires it. The opening theme of the second movement can be dull if the two groups of two eighth notes in M. 1 are played exactly the same. Kim let them swell a tiny bit, this is a Romanza. I would have preferred that the two parallel statements of the finale theme were treated in a similar way, but I can’t get everything I want.
Han Chen gave the Bach-Busoni Chaconne as much Baroque as he could. He played with very measured articulations, with purposeful timed releases in slightly detached sections, and was careful to avoid over-pedalling. The spacing between the notes became very expressive as a result. I’m not saying you need to play it in such a way, but it’s a very interesting take that with consistent dedication, turned out a kind of performance of this piece that I’m not used to hearing.
I can’t say that I’ve ever heard the Scriabin Fantasie all the way through and I’m better for hearing it today. I followed along part of it with the score to get a sense of style. The piece requires the pianist to balance the transitory elements of the composer’s evolving style. A lot of the textures and melodies are from Chopin, but some colorful harmonies are creeping in from later Scriabin. More than anything, he keeps a lot of color and ambiguity present from rhythm: quintuplets against duples, quintuplets against triplets, etc. This was a very convincing performance, I thought Chen followed Scriabin’s wanderings very well.
Chen put his clean articulation to use in the Janacek. Here especially the melodies are supposed to sound like a spoken language and we heard it from the start. Not that there aren’t explosions of anger and passion too. Chen morphed from one to the next very well.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Kreisleriana is a tough piece to pull off. I heard an amazing lecture recital analyzing all the symbolism and connections between the movements...but subsequently heard none of it in the performance. Maybe this piece is more gratifying for the performer? Nonetheless, Rachel Cheung gave one of the most compelling renditions I’ve heard. Her playing never felt constrained to a beat, her rubato being very organic. She was continuously aware of what was going on in the texture and she made sure she directed our ears to the music that was going on at the time. I still fail to see the value of the piece being so long, but I enjoyed moments here.
I always thought the opening of Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata should be driven by the left hand. I want to hear that incredibly dissonant leap voiced well, plus a little hesitation between each, and Cheung did the marvelously, creating the chaotic, disjunct opening with the right hand, that this piece needs. In that way, the understated section that follows seems far more appropriate. This piece has the hands crossing over a lot for pointillistic melodies or dialogues, and I was very impressed with her consistent voicing here; it wasn’t just acrobatics. This piece can easily sound like a mess and her version made perfect sense.
There was an understated tension in Song’s performance of the d minor concerto that I can't quite diagnosis. I do think part of it is he articulates the ends of phrases more than most. Even though he didn't do a lot of the things I usually listen for in Mozart, I found his playing engaging nonetheless. The first movement concerto took a slow tempo early on which really cranked up the drama more than most.
Honggi Kim played one of two non K 466/467 which certainly helped his cause. But I wasn't too excited by his style. While in the finale, he played orchestral-like outbursts in the appropriate places, it was all too tame for me through the rest of the concerto.
I’m not sure what to say about Yuri Favorin.
Tchaidze had some moments. The stormy middle section of the slow movement was especially effective, picking up the tempo somewhat. You’ve got to wonder what a period specialist such as McCegan thought of that idea. The Finale was a faster tempo than most, going off of my memory of other performances. It is supposed to be Allegro Assai, and some only get the first word. I loved his own cadenza in the finale. It did not let up, carrying the energy through, making the transformation to D Major all the more meaningful.
I'll post recaps of today's performances, plus I'll make my predictions before checking out the results, and then make a couple comments as we move into the Finals. That should all be posted tomorrow morning, if not tonight!
A quick rundown of the Mozart concertos: not a lot of variety here. 6 competitors will play the d-minor. Will any take a big risk and not play the Beethoven cadenza in the first movement? No. 21 in C major is chosen by 4 competitors, and there is no historical favorite cadenza here which could be fun. The 2013 winner, Kholodenko notably composed his own cadenzas for this concerto, allegedly on the plane to Texas. Number 23 in A and No. 25 in C only get heard once.
Looking ahead, the final concertos have broken down quite nicely. Most popular is Prokofiev 2 with three competitors, Tchaikovsky 1, Prokofiev 3 and Rachmaninoff 3 each have 2 competitors. Then if we’re lucky, we might hear as many as 3 amazing, but atypical final concertos: Beethoven 4, Liszt 2, and Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody.
Daniel Hsu begins the Semifinals with two of my absolute favorite pieces of all time: all 4 Schubert Op.90 Impromptus and Brahms’s Handel Variations. You might say these are two of my dream pieces.
I was so struck by his Op. 90/2. Often played as a perpetuum mobile, Hsu found shaping in both parts. In the fast A-section right hand triplets, he made melodic phrases with his dynamics but also with subtle shifts in time to give the sense of breathing. But his left hand chords were integral too; if we could just listen to his left hand alone, we would still hear beautiful music, not the most interesting music for sure, but as musical as any performer could make it. Each chord had its own unique role in the harmonic progression, clearly heard by Hsu’s shaping of the whole phrase. I also loved how much he utilized asynchronization of the hands in the B-section to promote its angsty character.
A little detail in number 3 that I loved was that he treated the first two measures as one phrase, then a second phrase beginning in measure 3. Often we hear one continuous phrase, though the Gb in measure 2 is clearly meant in the score as the end of a sentence; at least a semi-colon if not a period.
One reason I love the Handel Variations is that Brahms takes one element at a time from very blah theme and transforms that element into something ingenious. This is opposed to re-writing the same variation, altering it slightly each time, the more classical approach that Handel himself takes with this theme in the original keyboard suite. Brahms’s genius as a composer is never more clear than in this work but it is also a chance for the pianist to show of different sides of their personality.
A second reason is that there are so many opportunities for the performer to showcase their own intentional creativity by bringing out different elements in each variation. It could be a different voicing, phrasing, rubato. Given this, even on playing the literal repeats in each variation, the theme continues to evolve. In a sense, there are many more than the 25 numbered variations, so long as the pianist seeks them out. I would say Daniel Hsu did just that.
Way for Dasol Kim to make this Mendelssohn NOT all about the dense, active notes Mendelssohn has given him. Fantastic control of the finger work, relegating it all to the background. He has plenty of fantasy to live up to the name, every section comes alive in its own right before something else takes over.
Kapustin looks strange on the page against Mendelssohn and Schubert. But that might be the point-to show his versatility as an artist. This programming is to make a point about Dasol Kim the pianist, not to make a point about any of the music, which I’ll give him props for.
Schubert Sonatas are a tough competition sell: the virtuosity isn’t the easily visible or audible kind you get with Liszt, Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev, But it’s incredibly virtuosic music in its subtleties and pacing and nuances. All the more so in this last Sonata, it’s so long, so exposed, if you aren’t in total control of what you’re doing, you’re sunk. Dasol Kim isn’t sunk. His control over the melody is beautiful, and while I’ve heard more organic rubato, dissolving a sense of time in this first movement, he keeps the piece interesting, the pacing never bored. I especially love the first and second movements when one takes a very slow tempo, just to enjoy every moment, every beautiful harmony, every gorgeous melody. But that’s so hard to do, and he’s on a time limit.
I’d like to make a quick note of his 4th movement, the one that’s always hard to process after the profound first and second. He doesn’t treat this movement too much like a joke. Even though the main theme is very light, and he plays it very laid back with some beautiful rhythmic nuances, Schubert still wrote plenty of drama, especially in transition sections and Kim makes the most of that
I never thought a lot of Dasol Kim after his first recital, but I could not think much more of him after his second and confirmed now with the third.
Beethoven’s 26th Sonata, is another piece I get tired of, since it’s a very popular student piece. There’s little worse than hearing those first 3 right hand octaves of the fast theme in the first movement pounded out equally, without any direction, or same thing with all of the running doubled notes. It’s hard to play and hard to play musically. Even if he didn’t sell me on the first movement, Yutong Sun avoided these student sounds. I was intrigued by his exuberance in the finale. The outbursts of sound represented the joy of ‘the return’ that I hadn’t considered before.
And then there’s Liszt’s Un Sospiro. At one summer festival I attended, at least 5 people played it, 2 faculty and several students. I’m not sure I’ve heard it in 7 years. And I didn’t really mind his performance. He had some nice interaction between the shaping of the melody and shaping of the accompaniment.
Then he went attaca into Pictures at an Exhibition. Later, webcast hosts Anderson & Roe doubted the connection, after all, isn’t Un Sospiro about love, Pictures about friendship? Apparently the Liszt title didn’t originate with the composer, plus the set of etudes are dedicated to his uncle. Perhaps we can agree that both pieces are about a kind of love, perhaps romantic, perhaps familial, perhaps fraternal.
It’s hard to know what to say about a piece such as the Mussorgsky, in Sun’s hands. Easiest to say I loved it throughout. This is not a pianistic, lies awkwardly and doesn’t always utilize the instrument in the best way possible, which is why the Ravel orchestral version is so popular. But I’ve always loved the piano version best, and it’s because of performances like this. Just listen to his Great Gate of Kiev, even with natural piano decay, the gigantic chorale chords never sound like hammer blows, something more like an organ. It takes great artistic listening, total engagement with the sound you’re creating, to make such beautiful music out of something so vertical.
It’s surprisingly that more people don’t play the Vine Sonata that Honggi Kim did...Until it becomes standard, it can help define your credibility with an often ignored segment of the repertoire, and it clearly shows off your chops, and the audience will enjoy it’s irregular meters.
I heard a convincing performance if Kreisleriana earlier this year, but this is a tough piece to pull off. It’s long, and it’s Schumann, meaning you’ve got to do a lot more than play the notes. For me, Kim didn’t do enough to differentiate the monotony making the piece feel longer than it needs to be.
It takes guts to program the Hammerklavier. It worked for Sean Chen in 2013, and you have to assume he serves as the inspiration for someone like Yuri Favorin. I’m less confident it will serve him well. His opening tempo was about 75 BPM and the whole movement had a rather languid moderato rather than a spritely Allegro (to compare: Sean Chen opened at about 100 BPM, still not close to the outrageous Beethoven marking of 138, but a lot closer!). Favorin clearly had control on this Sonata but you’ve got to give audiences a reason to care about this piece, and I never really heard it.
I’m very interested to see if Favorin moves on. Of course, I love unique programming, but of the three solo rounds, Favorin played entirely obscure works by well known composers, save for the Rachmaninoff Corelli Variations, not to mention a strong Russian bent. At some point, you look at some members of the jury as performers, thinking about the kind of music they play, deciding who will represent the Cliburn going to forward and have to think they would hold this against him after a while. Especially in light of the many other competitors giving completely masterful, unique, intentional, performances of very standard works.
I do love that he played the Shostakovich Sonata and would say this was his best decision. It’s a very strong work and unconsciously ignored by most performers.
Schumann’s late works rarely get played, especially by pianists, ESPECIALLY in such a venue as the Cliburn competition. I’ve always enjoyed the Forest Scenes, and am so glad Tchaidze chose to program them. Perhaps some of the most romantic works that Schumann wrote, the searching, the painting in these pieces provides the perfect miniature opportunity for a pianist to showcase their artistry.
Medtner is slowly getting his due from performers, although this is the only time in the Cliburn this year. Contrasting programs indicated that Tchaidze would play the actual Sonata, or the throwback piece at the end of Medtner’s Op. 38; the latter, full of sentimental nostalgia, was correct. I love this piece so much, though I love it even more when paired with the Sonata itself. (pro tip: there’s a video on YouTube of Vadym Kholodenko playing this as an encore after a concerto).
His Mussorgsky was equally gratifying. Some interesting pauses in Baba Yaga which allowed sound to travel and the music to breath. The main theme of Great Gate of Kiev was the opposite; full of majesty, it ploughed forward. But the contrasting sections did just that, they were moments of reflection or repose.
This is definitely the first recital of Tchaidze’s that I really took notice of, and I can see why he’s in the Semi-Finals. Perhaps I’m partly biased just based on the repertoire. But he had beautiful sound, and played with such romanticism throughout that I couldn’t help listening more closely than I had before.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act