Daniel Hsu happened to be about an hour away this past Sunday afternoon, at a concert hall I'd never seen before, in Findlay, Ohio. Beautiful hall and beautiful Bosendorfer piano. Daniel Hsu was my favorite Cliburn competitor last spring so I had to make the trip.
I still loved his playing these many months later, probably more than before. I was rereading some of my comments about him (see the rest of the Cliburn Competition Reports categories) and during the finals, I commented that it was as if he was playing the premiere of the Tchaikovsky concerto. His playing just has so much freshness but also naturalness.
My favorite had to be the Chaconne. It sounded more like a set of variations than I'm used to hearing, and that's a very good thing. Every single variation felt like an original composition with it's own unique voicing, subtleties of rubato. But it still held together and was clearly a single narrative. I've rarely ever heard the piano sound so much like an organ: layers of sound all emanating from the same source (I say this to differentiate from sounding 'orchestral' at the piano), but beautiful layers that were phrased individually and as a whole.
He had some beautiful things elsewhere, of course. I was particularly drawn to lyrical melodies in the opening of the Chopin Fantasy. Where Chopin added a countermelodic harmony in the right hand, Hsu voiced them so subtly as just a tinge of color, instead of a full fledged second voice. I've been teaching about spectral music in both my piano repertoire class and with a private student, and specifically how these composers seek to alter our perception of the piano's timbre by specifically voicing complex, dissonant chords. It is a remarkable affect that does work, and Hsu seemed to capture an element of that: not letting the countermelody compete with the principle one.
I found him focusing a little too much on the "dance" side of Chopin's famous 'concert-dance': his agogic accents were a little redundant for me. But overall his playing is imaginative, clean and energetic. Pictures sounded nowhere near its 30-minute length, and everything from the most bombastic to the most simple was given a thorough, thoughtful musical treatment.
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.
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.
I’m wondering about the strategy behind the programming.: many of the quarterfinalists that we hear today are playing unabashedly all-romantic programs: Schumann and LIszt, Liszt and Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Chopin. The ones that don’t match this trend are largely playing virtuosic staples. It seems there was generally a lot of variety in the Preliminary round repertoire to give a rounded overview of one’s playing and now they dig into what one does best.
Both Su Yeon Kim and Leonardo Pierdomenico paired nearly 15-minute long Liszt works with a nearly 30 minute romantic work of virtuosity. Both of their Liszt (Kim’s Vallee d’Obermann and Pierdomenico’s Ballade No. 2) can very easily succumb to ugly, unmusical playing. Both have incredibly lyrical sections but each hand is always split between melody and rhythmic/harmonic filigree of one kind or another. If you’re not listening so intently on the balance between the parts, and the resonance of the melody, you’re going to get bad Liszt playing that the Liszt haters always chide us LIszt lovers for. I thought both managed this task extremely well.
Shmukler had a very orchestral Bach/Busoni Chaconne, and a very pianistic Petrushka. While I probably liked other performances of the latter better so far, his control was incredible. He was able to sustain extremely loud texture that was still well thought out and balanced. Then, he could contrast that with the softest, most delicate sounds. A rollercoaster for our ears!
I must admit that I’ve never really listened to Scriabin’s 4th Sonata and after Dasol Kim’s performance, I’m eager to pull out the score and give it a closer study. In his playing, you clearer hear the delineation between the old Chopin elements and the new, truly Scriabin-esque elements.
His Chopin Preludes were flawless technical events, and a lot of his musical decisions stood out too. In the C major prelude he drew out all the juicy appoggiaturas. He made a lot out of the easily cliched e minor, with an unrelenting through-line phrasing to the climax. In the Db major, he utilized some great left hand voicing in the B-section to make us forget that Chopin was just repeating himself over and over again.
Tristan Teo played Bach with quite a lot of harpsichord-esque detachment that I said earlier I was no fan of...But he really convinced me otherwise, given his polyphonic balance in the fugal sections. Not only was each voice simultaneously heard at any given time (vertically), each voice had a beautiful, sensitive shaping (horizontally).
Very excited that he played the Kapustin Variations, such an entertaining piece, full of notes but well worth it. Teo let loose here after a more conservative Bach and Ravel.
The argument about facial expressions and hand gestures is inevitable in every competition. In 2013 it was Alessandro Deljavan. Today it will be over Martin James Bartlett. I always come down on musical decisions based on sound alone: does it matter if it's in the score, does it matter how you redistribute a passage if you can’t tell how it was written just from listening. But this is different because visuals can alter our interpretation of sound. Bartlett plays with plenty of hand and arm motions inherent in his physical approach to make the sounds, but plenty are added for dramatic flair. His facial expressions are quite over the top. I understand that they help performers, I do some, but isn’t there a reasonable limit? I hope I limit my facial expressions to what I do in normal day life and conversation; I can’t imagine that Bartlett ever naturally makes the facial expression he made as (or even before) he started Widmung. He’s someone I need to go back and listen to audio only (as I listened to his first recital) to see what I truly think; it was hard for me to take this one seriously.
It occurred to me that Daniel Hsu’s Chaconne sounded more like an organ. In the organ, you can change the color and sonority, but only at an appropriate time where you can shift the stops, not just by touch on the keys. Hsu had plenty of beautiful consistent and varied sound, and a variety of articulation, but it's his sense of time that precedes everything else. The most coveted thing an organist can change at any given moment is the manipulation of time for expressive purposes. I thought Hsu understands Bach (or Bach-like music, taking this Busoni arrangement, plus the Beethoven from the Prelims together) in this way.
Yutong Sun’s program wins as my favorite so far, even in only that he programmed the Eb/D# minor Prelude and Fugue. The Well-Tempered Clavier is my favorite Bach by far and I believe he’s the first one to play a selection in the competition. This is one of my favorites of the 48. And he played it right up my alley in terms of style: slow, restrained, very legato and a slightly romantic approach to rubato.
His Bartok Sonata, a piece that easily falls into the trap of constant pesante playing, was an interesting take. It wandered a lot more than I’m used to hearing, and it made me wonder if there are more folk influences than I’d previously attributed to the piece.
More interesting programming to close the night, from Luigi Carroccia. He got his traditional fare in with some solid Chopin, then played two obscure works, both from composers not known for their concert music.
Czerny, obviously is best known for his mindless exercises and slightly more musical etudes, if not known solely for being a student of Beethoven. But he also wrote plenty of concert works. I thought this was a really gutsy move as most people are going to listen to such a work with the predisposition that they are hearing music empty of substance, but only fluffed up on virtuosity. Meanwhile, Kabalevsky is known for his children’s piano music, and yet at least one Sonata was championed by Horowitz. I was especially excited by the Kabalevsky, it was not at all the kind of work I expected to hear.
Tchaidze opened the day with some Schubert. The Ab Impromptu can sound so monotonous, given that so many measures have the same rhythm: pick-up 8th note, followed by a quarter note and a dotted quarter note. If you play the same rhythmic nuance again and again the piece sounds so choppy. Tchaidze did not fall into this trap, every phrase sang through beautifully. His choice of Prokofiev’s 8th Sonata to close the program was satisfying. It doesn’t have the immediate appeal of the two before it, but has plenty of beautiful lyricism as well as requiring substantial chops.
I followed along in the score with Kenneth Broberg’s Scriabin 4th Sonata just to get a sense of the writing. Scriabin falls in line with several composers where the look of the music in the score does not belie how it actually sounds (consider Schumann where seemingly monotonous rhythmic patterns hide beautiful phrases and harmonic patterns). In Scriabin’s case, this music looks stuttered; so many rests and broken phrases that in performance, with pedal, have to sound like full sentences. I have extra respect for Broberg and Dasol Kim yesterday for pulling this off.
Broberg’s Dante Sonata succeeded in the same way that So Yeon Kim and Pierdomenico did yesterday. Beautiful attention to shaping, rather than the virtuosity by itself. Furthermore, he added so much drama to this piece, the narrative elements were on display: the demonic sections extra aggressive, the spiritual sections extra romanticized.
I don’t recall Tony Yike Yang making as many faces in the first round as I noticed in the first movement of his Scriabin; but they seemed less frequent in the finale, and in his Liszt, so perhaps the more difficult, the more still his face is! I find his hand gestures largely uncontrived. I particularly loved his Liszt, more than most performances this round. It isn’t easy to capture the ebbs and flows of this piece, and he was able to engage the listener from beginning to end. I especially loved how much the second theme drove forward, while still capturing its majestic nature.
I was born to love Hans Chen’s second program: a thorny Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue, 3 short works by a living composer, and the Liszt Sonata. The Ades I was most excited about. I don’t know these particular works but other pieces by the composer (check out Darkness Visible) have been mind blowing. He’s got a very special style, and writes very difficult music (being a great pianist himself), that is usually written in an obscure metric system. Hans Chen of course had these Mazurkas memorized and played them with so much sparkle. It’s hard to hear the Mazurka dance on first listen, but they danced in some way!
It would take me another listen or two to describe exactly why I liked Chen’s Liszt so much, even more than Yang’s. There was something unsafe about it, perhaps
Yekwon Sunwoo played Schubert’s c-minor Sonata like Beethoven, or maybe that’s partly because I’ve been listening to some of today’s competitors out of order and previous to this, had heard Rachel Kudo playing Beethoven Op. 31/3. The finales of each are not dissimilar in that each is a driving 6/8 meter with plenty of dance and drama, and they are in related keys of Eb/c. I think this Schubert is very appropriate to play like Beethoven, and I imagine the choice of c-minor was not unintentional for Franz, who was dying, having just experienced Beethoven die in the past year. The incessant rhythm of the finale can easily become monotonous, and by not shying away from intense climaxes, Sunwoo avoided the worst of it.
If you think about Sonata form being all about the structural dissonance resulting from the modulation away from the home key, and ultimating rectifying that musical material back to the tonic (as some theorists do), Rachmaninoff’s music fits into that box with much difficulty. I find it especially obvious in this first sonata: it’s not enough to have two themes, each in a different key to begin with, the modulation is an essential part of the drama. His second sonata is more popular I think, specifically because it doesn’t try to be a grant sonata in the way the first movement does. Brevity was Rachmaninoff’s friend when writing for solo piano!
The first movement tends to wander aimlessly in the exposition. The development affords lots of excitement, though, given that section's ability to adapt to any number of composer’s styles, such as Rachmaninoff’s own. Honggi Kim is in fine form in this section, putting Rachmaninoff’s orchestration of the piano into beautiful sound. I wish the rest of the piece could hold my attention, but the pianist is always fighting an uphill battle in this piece.
I wonder how strict the Cliburn is on their time limits? Rachel Kudo began Carnaval, a half hour work, nearly 20 minutes into her 45 minute recital and without going off in between pieces, her recital ran to 50 minutes. There’s no way that program was going to fit into the time slot. Yesterday, Daniel Hsu’s program ran a couple minutes over (but he went off in between pieces), but Yuri Favorin’s program was over 50 minutes long too.
Jurinic chose what for me would be the most daunting composer to begin a recital with-Debussy. When you’re so exposed in terms of color and control, I’d rather have had a chance to sink into the piano first. There were a couple moments I questioned the consistency of his texture, but it might have been my imagination. His Images were beautifully crafted, voiced and shaped. I think Debussy’s music responds well to a subtle rubato, and he had it perfectly timed to complement his pianistic colors.
He chose another long romantic sonata, whose composer doesn’t necessarily fit sonata form well. Maybe there’s a way for me to shift my listening to understand this music better, but I haven’t figured out how to reconcile classical form with romantic composition. I love them both, just rarely together. It seems these pieces work well moment-by-moment, rather than in the long term. I was waiting for Jurinic to have a truly Schumann-esque moment of fantasy, and I never really heard it. The primary theme of the first movement could use a lot of impetuous drive, but I heard it stay rather ‘in the pocket’. Or his shaping of lyrical phrases seemed overly-planned, rather than spontaneous.
I decided to give my hand at predictions today, as I won't check the results until the morning. My favorite recital of this round goes to Yutong Song. Top 12 is: Su Yeon Kim, Pierdomenico, Dasol Kim, Bartlett, Hsu, Sun, Tchaidze, Broberg, Cheung, Yang, Sunwoo, Chen.
And I was 10 for 12. I included Su Yeon Kim and Bartlett, the jury did not, instead choosing Favorin and Honggi Kim. It appears Bartlett has become the audience favorite in the competition, a lot of social media commentary is most upset about his exclusion. I admired his first recital especially, and can see why many would gravitate to him.
Luigi Carroccia was the first competitor to close his recital with the Hamelin. I’m glad someone had the guts to do so. That’s your last impression you leave the jury with and most people opt to leave that impression as something standard that everyone in the jury is likely to appreciate. It probably worked out well for Carroccia that he came later in the Preliminaries, as most of the jury had likely developed their own thoughts on the Hamelin by this time.
Also that Gluck arrangement with which he began his recital was magical!
Ambrosimov was an alternate in 2013 and this year again. I’m impressed he had the motivation to get the Hamelin memorized just in case.
I was surprised to enjoy his Petrushka. It’s not that I dislike the piece, but I usually tire of how it’s played in the competition. Maybe I like Petrushka when it's played purely like an orchestral piece, with none of the agogic accents you can get away with as a soloist, but can't get away with in an ensemble (say after first three notes of the first movement). This music seems to make sense to me when it’s alll about driving rhythm and color.
Tchaidze played the third performance of Beethoven Op. 110. Perhaps it’s popular this time as virtuosity for performing the fugues without memory lapses. When I learned this piece, several people told stories of famous pianists they heard whose memory on the fugues faltered in live performance. It didn’t make me feel better, and I doubt it would make these competitors; young artists have a lot more at stake for a memory lapse than an established artist.
Speaking of feats of memory, there are 3 fugal pieces in Broberg's program: Franck, Bach and Barber. I’ve always had problems playing fugues from memory in performance, and I admire these people so much. One slight dip in concentration can change everything. In general there are so many different fugues in this competition, a record, I wonder?
EunA Lee’s Chopin sonata, first movement, second theme sat on the back end of the beat a lot, I really liked that restraint. It’s so easy in these slow expressive moments to surge forward and I think there’s a lot of artistry in making the audience wait. Also-this is different than keeping the tempo steady, she’s still doing a very subtle rubato.
Sergey Belyavskiy took a similar approach with Schubert, but I’d have preferred more drive in the first movement. The wandering aspect of the piece has to do with almost spinning out of control. Even when his rubato made the tempo faster, it’s like he contracted the beats, rather than arriving at the next beat a tad sooner than expected. I have no scientific proof, but I think it’s possible to hear these differences between these two kinds of rubato, the first is a more predictable “turn the dial” sort, the latter a more organic one.
There’s an element of fantasy in Op. 109, and Tony Yike Yang balanced that really well, paying close attention to slurs to give a variety of rhetorical gestures to his first movement. He also found some interesting polyphony in the second movement that I don’t believe I’ve ever heard.
For someone to be the youngest medallist in the Chopin history (just in 2015), he’s only playing Chopin once, in the semi-final recital, the 2nd Sonata. Amazing to have such breadth of repertoire already at the age of 18. In an interview after the Chopin finals, he indicated that he was caught off guard that he made it to the finals and didn’t have his concerto prepared completely. I’d imagine given that experience, and despite a few missed notes, he’s more than ready for Cliburn.
I love new music, but Elliot Carter’s scores scare me, never mind memorizing one and performing it as one of the rare pieces from the last few decades on the Cliburn. Not to mention that this is surely one of the most engaging performances of Carter that I’ve heard. Hans Chen has a lot of great repertoire, including Thomas Ades later on (even harder to memorize)!
Honggi Kim played one of Arcadi Volodos’s Liszt ‘improvements’. I bought Volodos’s Schubert CD when I was first getting into classical music and always quite enjoyed it. Later, when I knew Liszt better, I heard his own Liszt recordings and it’s always thrown me off. I can’t imagine Liszt would disapprove of of the transcriptions, but I’ve never found any of them convincing myself. I suppose it seems that Liszt had left enough room for color and virtuosity that I never saw a need to add more. Plus-so different than (at least my memories of) Volodos’s Schubert.
Rachel Kudo has no Liszt or Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev on her entire Cliburn program. I imagine most competitors have at least 2 of those 3, but I’m not about to check.
I’ve always liked Liszt’s 11th Hungarian Rhapsody. It always seemed to me to be the most evocative of a folksy origin, mainly given the opening instrumental. Glad to see someone giving it the performance, especially for not treating it as a show-piece.
Of the 20 quarter-finalists, there are 6 contestants without the “Big 7” Concertos in the finals (Prok/Rach 2 or 3, or Tchaikovsky 1). But, given my enjoyment of the Prokofiev 7th Sonatas in the Preliminaries, I’m not even worried about hearing 4 Rach 3s or Tchaikovskys in the Finals (there are a lot of Rach 3 and Tchaikovskys among the quarter-finalists). All in all there is some fantastic programming coming up in the Quarter-Finals!
Due to the immense number of performers and the long weekend in the USA, my listening was a little less consistent for the Preliminary round than it will be for the rest of the competition. I wanted to catch parts of almost everyone and I managed that, so I'm very happy. Onward to the Quarter-Finals!
Rarely does a major piano competition go by than we see social criticisms of the results. Check out recent discussions about the 2017 Rubinstein, the 2015 Leeds, and the 2015 Tchaikovsky. In the first and last case, we even had jury member Peter Donohoe wade (with some disdain) into the commentary (see, in particular, his exchanges in the Rubinstein link). Someone is always going to be upset about the winner’s style of playing, will wax poetically about the insufficient jury’s decision to choose a ‘consensus’ candidate instead of another finalist, the individualist, who some loved and others hated.
I’ll admit to having these criticisms myself. I thoroughly loved that the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition discovered Lucas Debargue, and while I was upset he didn’t win, he has clearly won himself an audience and likely a successful career. I wasn’t excited by either of the 2009 Cliburn winners, but I predicted in the first round of the 2013 contest that Vadym Kholodenko would be the winner. I never thought much of Allesandro Deljavan, the competitor many loved and thought it a travesty when he was eliminated. Before the medal announcement, I also rightly predicted the 2nd and 3rd place winners. With the 3 medalists, I thought the jury found the perfect balance between virtuosity, musicianship and unique choice of repertoire that wouldn’t turn off the die-hard or casual classical fan, and an individuality, an intentionality to each performer’s pianism.
This spring appears to be the season of major competitions with the Rubinstein and Montreal just completed, running virtually at the same time, then the Cliburn a few weeks later. Due to professional commitments I didn’t listen to much of either of the former two. But I’ve listened to the winners and at least one medalist at each.
To be candid-I wasn't excited by the winner in the Rubinstein. If we check out his repertoire through the solo rounds, we see Scarlatti, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Rachmaninoff (the standard fare, though at least with underplayed sonatas from the first three, and a diverse batch of Etudes from the latter), and some interesting Szymanowski to go along with the imposed contemporary piece.
But I loved the winner of the Montreal competition, Zoltan Fejervari. As one of my friends said, “ …everything he played is standard repertoire but the combined program is so unique and really sets him apart.” His solo repertoire included Bach, Beethoven, Ligeti, Scriabin, Bartok, Janaceck and Schumann. Most of his choices were of lesser heard selections from each composer. It seemed clear to me from his programming and his manner of playing that Fejervari wasn’t competing to fit a ‘winner’s’ mold, instead, he presented his own artistry in a take it or leave it way.
One of the riskiest choices a competitor in a competition makes is choosing their final concerto. How often do we see Rachmaninov’s or Prokofiev’s second or third concerto, or the Tchaikovsky first? The Rubinstein finalists all happened to make the safest choices possible: 3 played Rachmaninov 3rd, 3 Prokofiev’s 3rd. I say safe as in, you have the best chance to show off your mastery of the instrument.
But Fejervari played Bartok’s 3rd in the finals—not an easy piece, but he had the added task of convincing the jury that this piece was worth competing with against the ‘war-horses’. (The last winner of the Montreal Competition won with Beethoven 4, an equally risky choice.)
I’ve been skeptical of the propensity to see many of the same pianists sitting on the juries to multiple major competitions each year. I don’t blame jury members for accepting invitations, but why do competition boards continue to ask from the same pool of artists? If the goal is to find a young artist that stands out among the rest, you don't want the same crowd choosing that winner; inevitably the same jury members will choose the same kind of pianist. The issue of jury member’s students competing is another one, fraught with questions of correlation and causation along with competition rules that I’d prefer not to get into. It’s covered quite well in this article in response to Veda Kaplinsky and previous Cliburn competitions.
The Cliburn has attempted to avoid these issues entirely this year. In the press release first announcing the 2017 jury and rules for application, they made note that only one of the competition jury had ever served before, and that the screening jury competition jury was comprised of entirely different people. They further made a brave attempt to avoid bringing teachers on to judge, focusing on (recently) retired professors and several artists who exclusively perform. From what I can tell, they were largely successful in avoiding student and teacher pairings among competitors and jury. Their focus clearly was on establishing a jury with a wide variety of unique, intentional artists and I expect that the eventual medalists will reflect this.
I think it shows in the competitors chosen for the Cliburn, starting this week. They are from all over the world, and there is very little repetition among their place or professor of study. And their repertoire! Yes, among the concertos, we see the same warhorses: 4 with Prokofiev 2, 5 with Prokofiev 3. 5 with Rachmaninoff 3, and 7 with Tchaikovsky. But, 0 playing Rach 2! Among solo repertoire, only 3 offer Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and 4 Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, two pieces I thought everyone tried to do at the last iteration.
What about what’s novel? A few offer Beethoven’s 4th concerto, or Liszt 2nd, and each of Chopin’s are the ‘grand concerto’ choice of one competitor. There’s a few solo Messiaen offerings, Clementi, C.P.E Bach, a few Schubert Impromptu sets, and a variety of J.S. Bach, and several people offering contemporary composers such as Carter, Ades, Takemitsu, Corigliano, Rzewski and Auerbach, in addition to the imposed piece by Marc-Andre Hamelin. There are many examples of someone playing a less virtuosic or less known piece from a well known composer, say Scriabin (10th Sonata), Brahms (Op. 118), Prokofiev (4 etudes), Shostakovich (1st Sonata), Debussy (Reverie). And the sheer art of programming. So many competitors programs work against your expected programming of romantic repertoire with a nod to something a little more conservative, in the best ways possible. Two examples I’ll point you to are Luigi Carroccia’s entire program, and Dasol Kim’s Semifinal recital.
So-I’m optimistic and excited to be bathed in piano playing. I will be posting reports every two days or so. I hope to not fall into the trap of being a ‘back-seat’ jury. I’m hoping to be so intrigued by all kinds of great piano playing that I can just wax poetically with optimistic fervor. I’m sure I’ll have my favorites and my least favorites, but more than anything, I expect to be intrigued, excited and inspired. Hopefully I can share that with you!
"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