Blogging the Cliburn (Semifinals Day 4)

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Posted June 4, 2013 by Kristian Lin in Blotch
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I’m glad the weather is heating up. This isn’t because it’s usually hot during the Cliburn and the heat feels like part of the ambience. I’m a guy who spends a lot of time sitting indoors in climate-controlled environments, and I feel better about it when the weather outside is inhospitable. When I see rain, I tend to think, “Movie-watching weather!” The unseasonably mild temperatures we’ve had so far this tournament have made part of me wish I was walking around outside.

A bakery across the street from Bass Hall called the Original Cupcakery trots out new cupcake flavors inspired by theatrical plays and other events going on in downtown Fort Worth. I finally got a chance to taste their “Van Cliburn” cupcake, a chocolate-on-chocolate affair with (if my palette doesn’t deceive me) some rum in the icing. Chocolate lovers will probably want to give it a try.

Khozyainov exceeded my expectations with his performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet. He wasn’t transcendent, but he kept the shape of the piece and blended reasonably well with the string players. (The Brentanos seemed energized this afternoon.) He was too loud in a few spots, but the problem wasn’t too bad. It was a fine performance. You know, I got it wrong earlier when I assessed this pianist’s prospects in the later rounds. I forgot that his problems with larger-scale works could be alleviated by collaborators who could keep him on track. I still wouldn’t vote to advance him to the final round based on his semifinal recital, but I could imagine him doing well in a concerto setting, especially with the right conductor.

Deljavan turned in his best recital of the tournament so far. He started with two sonatas by Antonio Soler, the 18th-century Spanish composer. It’s funny how everybody started playing Haydn sonatas as an alternative because Mozart’s sonatas had been overplayed, so that now Haydn is starting to get overplayed. The native of Giulianova (a coastal town in Abruzzo) has now found an alternative to the alternative, for which I give him credit. The two sonatas were sparkly in that Classical style, but they had bite that you don’t usually find in Haydn or in Mozart’s works for solo piano. I figure we’re about 10 years away from Soler being overplayed and compelling Deljavan to either find another underperformed Classical composer or go back to Mozart. He followed that with Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses. No one has ever managed to convince me that Mendelssohn is a composer worthy of the same attention as his contemporaries Chopin, Liszt, or Schumann, but Deljavan did his level best to get me there, playing the work with a steadily increasing fury that made it sound like a forerunner of Rachmaninov. Weirdly, Deljavan flopped with a piece I expected him to excel in, the Birichino. He seemed uncomfortable with the work, and even though he had the score in front of him, he still either misread or flat-out missed notes in some of the work’s simplest passages. (I recall that he didn’t do well with the newly commissioned work four years ago, either.) He made up for it with Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, taking the opening movement slower than most pianists but building to a controlled explosion in the second and third movements. Sitting 21 rows back from the stage, I could still clearly hear him humming along with the quieter parts of the sonata. This is not unprecedented; Glenn Gould famously did it in some of his performances, and so did the great Beethoven interpreter Rudolf Serkin. Deljavan may not be on that level yet, but he played well enough that I didn’t mind.

Gillham played the last of the Schumann piano quintets that we’re slated to hear, and I almost made a pun along the lines of “the other Schu dropped,” but I decided to spare you readers that. (That probably would have ranked among my five all-time worst puns, but we classical music fans are curiously prone to bad puns.) Maybe I found his rendition dull because this was the third time I was hearing the piece in the last 19 hours, but I suspect it had more to do with the performances. The Australian seemed too deferential, missing his chance when the piece called on the pianist to be more assertive. He dithered a bit too much in the opening movement, too. This wasn’t a bad performance by any means, but I still found it short of the other three that I’ve heard here.

Okay, I’ve given up on Chernov. His recital was bookended by undistinguished performances of the Birichino and Bartok’s Étude (Op. 18, No. 3) at the beginning and Schumann’s Symphonic Études at the end. In the middle were two performances that weren’t boring. His Scriabin Fifth Sonata was just frustrating; every time he seemed about to work himself into the proper lather, he’d go off in pursuit of some pretty effect. The problem plagued him through the whole recital; this pianist has trouble getting to the point in a musical piece. I kept wanting more out of the Scriabin, even if it meant calling up the guy who butchered his chamber music performance on Sunday night. That sonata is supposed to be a hurtling flight into the stratosphere, and Chernov made it sound like an old hippie’s gaseous musings about the universe. The other piece was Henry Purcell’s Suite in C major (Z. 666). This was actually pretty good. Chernov has attended music school in London, and it was nice of him to include an English composer’s work, as well as a piece of Baroque music that wasn’t Bach. It would have been a nifty change of pace in a more interesting program. Unfortunately, it was the best performance he has given in 3 hours and 10 minutes of music. Of all the semifinalists, he’s the only one about whom I have no idea why the jury advanced him this far.

As the Brentano String Quartet took the stage for the last time, Sean Chen turned in an uneven Brahms quintet. Though he showed a few flashes in the opening movement, the first half of the piece was pale and indistinct. However, he found a groove when the third movement started, and the back half of the quintet was played (by both Chen and the quartet) with force and momentum. The American managed to rescue himself after a slow start.

Wearing a stunning salmon-colored dress, Dong Fei-Fei ended the semifinal round with an almighty bang. She started with a twinkly version of Mozart’s Sonata in D minor (K. 576) and a middle-of-the-pack rendition of the Birichino. It was her Chopin Preludes that tore the roof off Bass Hall. (Side note: Most pianists play all 24 in one go, but I wish more pianists would break up the set, since indications are that the composer intended pianists to pick and choose which ones they wanted to play.) She played the happy, carefree preludes like Nos. 3, 5, and 21 quite well, and even her interpretations that I thought too slow (Nos. 6, 8, and 13) she managed to carry along by dint of personality. Yet it’s the dark ones that end the set in memorable fashion, and she killed them, dashing out some fearsome left-hand octaves in No. 22 and a hair-raising No. 24. The crowd in the hall was pulled to its feet. This pianist plays everything well, and quite a bit of it more than well. I’ll be quite upset if she doesn’t make the finals.

Speaking of which, I have her, Sakata, and Huangci as the three pianists whom I definitely want in the finals. I think they’ve been the class of the field to this point. I would include Rana and Mndoyants in that group, too, if their semifinal performances didn’t underwhelm me. I could live with any three of the others in the field making the last round, except for Chernov.

Before I leave, I’d like to give a shout-out to the staff at the Weekly (especially our art director, Bonnie) for helping me square all my business away so that I could attend these concerts on a night when I’m usually busy helping the paper go to press. Thanks, guys.

Be back when the finalists are announced.


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