Cliburn Report #4 (June 1-2)
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