Hello, everyone, and welcome to my coverage of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Unlike four years ago, we’ll be keeping this blog on the Weekly‘s website instead of a different site. Also unlike four years ago, there won’t be time between performances for me to devote a blog post to each individual pianist, so I’ll be tackling several performances in each post. As mentioned in our pages this week, this year we’ve got all the pianists performing two recitals in the first round instead of one. What’s going to be different this year? Who will drop from exhaustion first: me, a fellow critic, an audience member, an administrator, or a contestant? These are things I’ll be keeping an eye on, but I’ll be reporting on everything else I see and (especially) hear. Gird your loins, people.
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Claire Huangci (pronounced “huang-see”) got off to an undistinguished start with Beethoven’s 28th Piano Sonata. Beethoven’s mystical late sonatas can be tough nuts to crack. This pianist couldn’t seem to find a way in. Her Beethoven wasn’t unpleasant, just boring. Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Sonata” was more up her alley, and she played it with nice colors and worked herself into a good lather. I couldn’t figure out what she was doing with the three Rachmaninov preludes, though. She noodled with them, treating the climaxes like buildup and vice versa. All in all, this recital didn’t come together.
Italy’s Scipione Sangiovanni did much better, commanding attention from the first phrase of Bach’s Sixth Partita. His recital was well-planned, proceeding from the Bach to a majestic rendition of Busoni’s Indianisches Tagebuch (“Indian diary”) and then to Busoni’s transcriptions of three Bach selections. This pianist is quite comfortable with Busoni’s bigness and late-Romantic medium, not to mention the Italian composer’s feel for the piano. I also noticed Sangiovanni gesturing with his left hand during passages when his right hand was playing alone. I remember Davide Cabassi doing the same thing when he competed here in 2005. I wondered if this was an Italian thing, but I got my answer later in the day.
His compatriot Beatrice Rana (whose last name means “frog” in Italian) went with Muzio Clementi’s Sonata in B minor as her opener. Clementi is regarded in some quarters as a lightweight contemporary of Mozart, but she made his piece sound like really good non-Beethoven Beethoven, with all the attendant Sturm und Drang. She followed that with a careful reading of Schumann’s Symphonic Études. Too careful, in fact, though her interpretation was accomplished, and she did well with Schumann’s more roiling selections. I’d like to hear her open up the throttle at some point. I’m looking forward to her second go-around, in any event.
I ate lunch at Salata, which was not equipped to handle the competition crowds. Still, it was great to hear the people around me discussing the pianists. I had a nice conversation with a man named Dinesh, who was eating standing up next to my table, and who had traveled in from Albuquerque for the day for the Cliburn. That was nice.
Let’s get this out of the way. Steven Lin is no relation to me. Neither is Lin Kuan-Ting, the pianist who plays his first recital here tomorrow. Nor is Jeremy Lin, nor is Justin Lin, the director of the Fast & Furious movies. The American pianist looks like he weighs about 100 pounds with his pockets full of quarters, but he can seriously play. He started with Bach’s French Overture, and offered up a Bach that was cleaner and more crystalline than Sangiovanni’s. They were both good, but I tend to prefer Bach played Lin’s way. He followed that with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Sonata”. Was his version of the piece more focused than Huangci’s, or is that just my impression? I have a sneaking suspicion it might be the former. He ended with Carl Vine’s First Piano Sonata and even though he lost a bit of momentum in the middle, he brought plenty of fury to it.
Next came two guys who played here back in February for the screening recitals. I didn’t care for Marcin Koziak (pronounced mar-cheen koh-zhyak) back then, and his performance today didn’t change my impression, though as a TCU student, he does have the locals behind him. I found him missing the humor and perversity in Chopin’s Second Scherzo, the elegance and sensuality of Chopin’s Nocturne in F-sharp major (Op. 15, No. 2), and the tragic power of Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata. I did like the rhythm he brought to the four mazurkas by Szymanowski. The mazurka’s peculiar rhythm seems to be difficult for non-Poles to imitate, but Polish pianists just seem to get it. I hope he shows me more in his second recital.
Dallas product Alex McDonald got a big ovation from the crowd before he even walked on stage. I can’t remember if his hair was piled as high back in February as it was today. Whatever, his resemblance to Van Cliburn is more unmistakable than ever. The adrenaline seemed to get the better of him as he opened with Haydn’s Sonata in B minor (Hob. XVI: 32), but he did calm down as the piece went on. I was less enamored with his rendition of Liszt’s B minor Sonata than most of my fellow critics. McDonald apparently has a doctorate from research on editions of that piece, but I found his performance fuzzy. He fluffed an octave during the piece’s big, explosive opening (where it’s really noticeable), and though he played at breakneck speed during the fast passages and with great lyricism during the slow ones, they never seemed to gel. He ended with a pretty rendition of Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II. Maybe I was just disappointed because I went in expecting him to bring the house down, but I do still believe in him, and since his second recital contains the same pieces that he played at the screening recital, I have every reason to think he can do better.
For me, the real marker of the first day was thrown down by Russia’s Nikita Mndoyants, whose name will not cause any spelling or pronunciation problems in the days ahead. He began with Beethoven’s Op. 111 Sonata, and a popping first movement gave way to a great, hushed second movement, with the pianist doing breathtaking work on the sustained chords at the beginning and the extended trills near the end. The pianissimo passages were just magical. He then segued into Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie, a canny piece of programming. As opposed to Chopin’s more martial polonaises, this piece is stranger and more ethereal, and along with the Beethoven, it seemed to exist apart from our world, touched by divine grace. The Russian ended with a more traditional showpiece, Prokofiev’s Scherzo in A minor. The highest praise I can give this is that I found myself grinning like an idiot while he played. The crowd ate it up, and so did I.
The most flamboyant pianist we’ve seen so far, Luca Buratto looked like a hipster: thick, curly hair, black-rimmed glasses, and sideburns that are too thin to be called mutton-chop, but are headed in that direction. He lifted his hands significantly higher than he needed to and audibly stamped his left foot on the floor during some of his exertions. Most notably, he made the same hand gesture as Sangiovanni! Since not all the Italian pianists are doing this, I wondered if it was a regional affectation, but Buratto is from Milan (in the northern part of the country) and Sangiovanni hails from near Lecce (in the heel of Italy’s boot). In running all this down, I didn’t forget that Buratto also played some music. He played Haydn’s Sonata in C major (Hob XVI: 50), and while the opening was sunny and good-humored, the later movements reminded me of a Rococo china doll behind a glass case. Great thing about being a Rococo china doll is, you’re pretty. Bad thing is, you’re cold and lifeless. Fortunately, that didn’t describe the other item on his program, Schumann’s Fantasy in C major. He gave an impassioned, refulgent reading of the piece, with great torrents of sound issuing from the piano. It was too much at times, but much of it was good.
Giuseppe Greco played in what I call “the death slot.” That last entry on Friday night is the worst spot, because audiences are tired from the workweek and from the two performances earlier in the evening. With this new format, maybe that won’t be the case. Then again, Greco had plenty to overcome the bad spot in any case. The fatigue I felt at that point in a long day may have been the reason why his Beethoven Sonata in E-flat major (Op. 31, No. 3) didn’t register with me, but either I was able to refocus or he was able to find his swagger when he launched into Liszt’s B minor Ballade. His attractive playing in the lyrical parts was allied with great aplomb and volcanic intensity in the dramatic passages toward the end. The energy propelled him into a terrific performance of Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse, a lively and mischievous capper that roused a tired audience from their seats. It’s been an eventful first day.
Five Six more to go in this first round.