This whole competition has lately reminded me of an exchange from Zero Dark Thirty, when the head of the CIA (James Gandolfini) talks to his aide (John Barrowman) after their initial meeting with Jessica Chastain’s heroine. He asks what the aide thinks. “Smart as hell,” says the aide. “We’re all smart, Jeremy,” the head spy reminds him. All these pianists are talented, they all have incredible technique, they all come from prestigious schools, they all tote in prizes in major competitions. So it’s a matter of judging these musicians on their results, not on their potential.
As in previous years, the lobby of Bass Hall is draped with flags representing all the countries that have sent contestants here. A native of Australia who lives in the U.K., Jayson Gillham is the only representative of either country, so he got two flags in the lobby. Not sure how I feel about that. He came out in a red shirt and red tie, a nice look. He played a sprightly Bach Toccata in G major that featured some lovely slow sections. He did three études by György Ligeti, emphasizing the spacy textures and light fingerwork of Der Zauberlehrling (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”). I especially liked his burnished, powerful reading of Chopin’s B minor Sonata, even though I didn’t agree with his voicing of the lightly cascading arpeggios in the third movement. His staccato phrasing of the main theme in the finale was distinctive.
USA’s Eric Zuber started out poorly with Mozart’s Rondo in C major, a poor choice for a competition. He had ample chance to overcome his start, though, with Chopin’s Op. 10 Études. I like what he did with No. 2, a piece that I never found interesting until now. He played those treacherous chromatic scales in a gossamer-light fashion while actually paying attention to the left-hand melody. However, he fluffed the final note of No. 4 and seemed to lose confidence from there, missing the mischief in the “Black Key” Étude and the pathos in No. 6. Can he recover?
A burly, balding Moscow native, Alexey Chernov started well with Bach’s Toccata in G minor, exhibiting a great rhythmic sense in the second movement. Yet his three Scriabin Op. 65 études refused to take flight until near the end, during the third in the series. Up until this point his pianism was admirable rather than moving, but he faltered badly at Gaspard de la Nuit, even though the evocation of the water in “Ondine” was executed in breathtaking fashion. “Scarbo” was where it went pear-shaped, as he lost all momentum and the suite fell apart. He needs to make up some ground, too.
Sporting a rare Korean surname with more than one syllable, Sunwoo Yekwon started his afternoon’s recital with Alfred Grünfeld’s Soirée de Vienne, a paraphrase of Johann Strauss waltzes. He kept losing the melody and rhythm amid the frippery of this pieced. He should have paired it with Ravel’s La Valse, which he’s playing later on in the competition, but he hit his stride with a sturdy and intelligent rendition of Beethoven’s Sonata Quasi una Fantasia. The real glory of his recital came during Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy, infusing the piece with molten emotions without losing the structure of the piece. An excellent beginning for the only South Korean pianist here.
As a man who has never seen the point of neckties, I applaud Sean Chen for coming onstage without a tie. Aiming for an eclectic program, he started off brightly with a crisp Bach’s French Suite No. 5 and some properly bristly Bartok Études. I could have done with a drier and sharper version of Chopin’s Op. 59 Mazurkas, but he did a pretty good approximation of that tricky rhythm. Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata was a bridge too far for him, though, as he played it far too languidly. Sakata’s version of this was much better.
If Beatrice Rana made Clementi sound like Beethoven earlier, petite Dong Fei-Fei made the same composer sound like Mozart, playing his Sonata in F-sharp minor. She displayed power and a nice rhythm in Schumann’s Novelette, playing with bounce and joie de vivre. (Sorry, I don’t know the Chinese equivalent of this phrase.) She gave a creditable account of Chopin’s Rondo, a piece seldom played except by completists, though she couldn’t quite make a case that this piece should be heard more often. I like this pianist, but not enough to recommend her at this point. That may very well change, though.
I was quite taken with Sara Daneshpour when I heard her at the 2009 Van Cliburn screening recitals. She started with a bubbly version of Schumann’s “Abegg” Variations and launched into a pastel-colored version of Chopin’s Fourth Scherzo, a personal favorite of mine. But she made a weird error, skipping about 40 measures at the beginning, forgetting the opening statement of the main theme. Either that or I had a blackout, which given my current mental state, seems somewhat possible. She overcame that with her performances of five Rachmaninov Études-tableaux. Her interpretation of the Russian composer’s music is less about power and more about finesse. I hate to call it a more feminine interpretation, partly because men are fully capable of playing with delicacy, and partly because I’ve heard lots of women play with power. And it’s not as if Daneshpour didn’t have enough power for the music. A small woman, maybe she was simply picking her spots when it came to unleashing her strength. Whatever it was, she certainly knows her way around Rachmaninov’s melancholy. I like her unique take on his music.
The country of Chile has produced a few top-level pianists, most notably the great Claudio Arrau. A slightly built native of Santiago, Gustavo Miranda-Bernales no doubt hopes to follow in his footsteps. He built his recital around Schubert’s Four Impromptus (D. 935). I’m not sure that was the wisest move in terms of winning the competition, but I have to admire his dedication to these pieces. He played them well, too, with a keen sense of the music’s structure while keeping the emotional content in view most of the time. He offset that with Chopin’s Barcarolle at the end of his program, and while his rendition of this piece was too grandiose, the opulent sound he made contrasted effectively with the more astringent sound he brought to the Schubert pieces.
Yuan Jie’s family was sitting in the row behind me for his concert, yelling encouragement as he came onstage. His “Abegg” Variations suffered from proximity to Daneshpour’s, being much less spontaneous. He played Haydn’s Sonata in C major more naturally than Luca Buratto did, but the piece still lacked flair in spots. His Three Movements from Petrouchka started out without surprises, too, but about midway through the piece he suddenly sparked to life and gave the suite the lively bounce that it needed. I’m not sure what prompted that. Maybe it simply took him that long to get comfortable on the big stage. More of this Yuan in the second recital, please.