On Memorial Day, we pause to remember the men and women who died defending our nation. I also pause to reflect that cultural discussion of any kind is impossible without peace and stability, and insofar as our nation’s military helps maintain that, I pay my respects.

The lone Frenchman in the competition, François Dumont wowed us at the start of Monday’s go-round. He began with Mozart’s Sonata in A minor (K. 310), doing well with a piece that finds Mozart in a stormy mood. Interestingly, he didn’t get up from the piano for the applause after the piece, acknowledging the audience with a nod. Then he played Gaspard de la Nuit, and though it was too pretty in spots (especially “Le gibet,” an item based on a description of a dead man’s corpse hanging at a crossroads on a hot sunny day), it was still spellbinding, and the best Gaspard I’ve heard so far. This time the audience responded with cheers as well as clapping, and the pianist reluctantly got up and took a bow. Better still came in his fantastic rendition of Chopin’s Third Scherzo, executed with beauty and power, and deeply moving in the chorale-like middle section with chords interspersed with gently falling arpeggios. This was a highlight of Phase I.

Dumont gave Huang Ruoyu a tough act to follow, but the Chinese pianist was up to the challenge, starting out with a smart Haydn Sonata in E major (Hob. XVI: 31). He wasn’t afraid to play up the grotesquerie of Chopin’s Étude in E minor (Op. 25, No. 5). He wound up with Chopin’s Preludes, and turned out to be one of those pianists who responds more to the dark, tumultuous minor-key preludes, doing particularly well with Nos. 14, 16, 18, 22, and the middle section of the “Raindrop” Prelude. He did take Nos. 3 and 4 too fast, but he proved he could do more than just dark and tumultuous when he played the songlike No. 17, and I liked how he didn’t shy away from the dissonance in No. 2.


Then Yury Favorin came out. He’s wearing glasses in every picture I’ve seen of him, but he played this recital without the specs. With his tall frame and curly hair, he reminded me of Australian basketball star Luc Longley. (Here’s a picture of Longley with glasses, so you can compare him to Favorin with glasses.) The Russian played Schubert’s Sonata in E-flat major (D. 568) and was particularly good in the humorous minuet, though he lost his way during the finale. He played Liszt’s transcription of his son-in-law Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and while it nicely showed off the facets of his technique, it didn’t give him a chance to do much else. He played it seriously instead of embracing the ridiculousness in the piece’s embellishments. I’m not sure why he picked it, though the audience ate it up. He was better in Orion 3, a work by the late Bulgarian-French composer Andre Boucourechliev. A frenetic and discordant piece, it gave Favorin a chance to impress, especially in a hair-raising tremolando passage in the middle.

We’re now at the halfway point, and each pianist has played one recital. If the first round ended now, I’d pick Rana, Steven Lin, Mndoyants, Buratto, Greco, Sakata, Garritson, Gillham, Sunwoo, Daneshpour, Dumont, and Huang as my 12 semifinalists. Of course, everyone has to go again, and the above list is so subject to change as to be meaningless. I’m just putting that down to keep track of where my mind is.

Everyone seemed higher on Huangci than me the first time around, so I was ready to give her another shot. Whether she played better or I listened better this time, her program seemed far more focused to me. She came out in a striking blue dress with one strap, and she played Schubert’s Klavierstücke (D. 946). These were well-done, but she really shone on Mikhail Pletnev’s transcriptions of selections from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. She played these with a sense of humor and depths of Romantic emotion without ever treating this as kitsch. She seems to genuinely like this music, and I wish more pianists would play stuff here just because they like it. Okay, I’m sold on this pianist.

On the other hand, Sangiovanni came out flat. He didn’t have the requisite sparkle in Beethoven’s early Third Piano Sonata, and his take on Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue was low in color and tragic despair. He was nearer the mark in the Chorale, but he seemed to miss any sense of dramatic buildup in the piece.

I said earlier that I was waiting for Rana to open up the throttle, and it finally happened, though I had to wait some more for it. She came out in a gold dress that shimmered under the stage lights, though on the big TV screen above the stage it looked much less brilliant. She played a bubbly version of Schumann’s “Abegg” Variations. I guess it’s just a naturally bubbly piece, although she and Garritson did it noticeably better than Yuan Jie. On Gaspard de la Nuit, she turned in a gently spooky version of “Le gibet.” I tend to prefer renditions of this piece that put me right next to the corpse, with the stench and the flies and the oppressive heat. Nevertheless, I found her gently spooky take on the piece to be convincing. It would have worked really well if she’d pulled out all the stops on “Scarbo,” but she held back, making for a Gaspard that wasn’t scary enough. However, it turned out she was saving up her power for Bartók’s Out of Doors. She finally cut loose, showing an ease with the Hungarian composer’s driving rhythm on the opening (“With Drums and Pipes”), the third number (“Musettes”), and the finale (“The Chase”). She also didn’t stint on the strangeness of the fourth item (“The Night’s Music”). It made for a terrific capper for her first round.

Steven Lin seemed to have picked up some fans here, judging by the reaction of the crowd to his introduction. They were not disappointed by his second recital, nor was I. His Haydn Sonata in C (Hob. XVI: 50) was the cleverest Haydn I’ve heard so far in this event, with precisely calculated effects that didn’t detract from the piece’s overall spontaneity. A similar spirit infused his performance of three of Chopin’s impromptus, as he drew out extraordinary colors from No. 1 and played No. 3 in a carefree style. The refined sadness of No. 2 didn’t escape him, either. The big showpiece was Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan, a paraphrase of themes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He clearly enjoyed himself with Liszt’s many pyrotechnics, but he played it as a piece of music, too, with a gracefully swinging run-through of “La ci darem la mano.” He was able to maintain tension and suspense through the piece without becoming wearying. The crowd loved it, giving him an extra curtain call.

My third time hearing him, I finally found stuff to like about Koziak’s playing. His second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata was perfectly lovely. Of course, it would have had more impact if the two outer movements had had more anguish and gravitas, but it was beautiful in itself. He did even better with the other item on his program, Brahms’ First Sonata, producing power and a polished-oak sound in the more extroverted parts. He still didn’t have a handle on the more lyrical second movement, though. He certainly saved his best for last, but this 24-year-old native of Krakow still sounds like he needs a bit more seasoning.

Alex McDonald flashed an ingratiating smile in response to the cheers that greeted him as he took the stage. Not hard to see why he has so many supporters. They got the McDonald who was supposed to show up at this competition tonight. He opened with two entries from Ravel’s Miroirs, with “Oiseaux tristes” (“Sad birds”) sounding sparse and disturbingly modern, like a forerunner of Messiaen that it is. He then played a rollicking, Spanish-flavored version of “Alborada del gracioso” (“Morning song of the jester”). I was impressed with his take on Liszt’s Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este (“The play of the waters at Villa d’Este”) when I heard it last February, but it was the least distinguished item on his recital. He did much better in Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor (Op. 48, No. 1), an aristocratic reading without too much syrup, and with a proper amount of angst introduced in the middle. Funny, you don’t think of Chopin’s nocturnes as angst-ridden, but McDonald did well with this one. For the second straight evening, the session ended with Stravinsky’s Trois mouvements de Petrouchka, and this version was both the most musical and the most viscerally thrilling one we’ve had so far. (Fair warning: Others are coming.) Final note: McDonald buttoned his coat when he stood up to take applause, and when he came onstage to take his second curtain call from a wildly appreciate audience, he set down a towel and a glass of water on the floor of the stage to deliver a proper bow to the crowd. Fastidious young man.