Cliburn Competition Recap: Finals
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.
"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