Four years ago, the Cliburn found me in the midst of a crash diet and doing my best to eat abstemiously. Now I’ve lost weight and kept it off, and yet I’m coping with the Cliburn by scarfing down doughnuts for breakfast. I am availing myself of the downtown restaurants that serve salad, but I need to do a major cleanse when this thing is over.
Strangely, no pianists yet have changed their program at the last minute. Usually, somebody does. I’m not keeping track of phones going off in the hall or which pianists are getting standing ovations, because both instances are happening way too often. If a pianist pulls the whole house to its feet, I’ll let you know, but so far each of the pianists have had holdouts during the standing O’s, and they’re not just us critics, either.
I spent the break between the afternoon and evening sessions taking part in a critics’ roundtable for the documentary film to be made about this competition, along with Scott Cantrell, Olin Chism, and Gregory Isaacs. If you see it, you’ll pick me out easily; I’m the only Asian guy at the table, and I’m the one who has trouble coming up with the word “cluster.” (This was in reference to certain works that randomly get played by different pianists in quick succession.) Chalk up my failure to mental stress and lack of food. I think I made a few good points despite that.
After utterly failing to find any distinctive properties in Alessandro Taverna the first time around, I was able to discern some qualities of his during his second recital. Sporting a skinny tie, the Italian made an appealing sound in Mendelssohn’s Third Sonata, with a particularly pleasing light touch in the third movement. His next piece was Nikolai Medtner’s Sonata Minacciosa (“Menacing Sonata”), a one-movement piece that a YouTube poster described as “bewildering.” It sounded neither bewildering nor menacing in Taverna’s hands. There’s no shadows and no mysteries in this guy’s music-making. His performance of Ligeti’s grim Étude No. 13 (L’escalier du diable, or “The devil’s staircase”) couldn’t distinguish the buildup from the release, and he brought exactly the same sound to the exalting “Regard de l’esprit de joie” from Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. (That title translates as “Twenty contemplations of the infant Jesus,” and not “Give my regards to Baby Jesus.” I’m sorry, but I can’t think of that title without thinking of Ricky Bobby praying to Baby Jesus in Talladega Nights.) I don’t feel anything when Taverna plays. That shouldn’t be.
Khozyainov (that last name pronounced “khoz-YAI-nov” and not “khoz-ya-EE-nov” as I thought) threatened to elbow his way into my mental list of deserving semifinalists with his performances of Chopin’s Étude in A minor, which he turned into a puff of magic dust, and the Berceuse, with a miraculous touch on the piece’s light, soft notes. He did a terrific job of holding together the Liszt Sonata in B minor at first, but he wound up losing the thread in the piece’s back half. I’ve uncovered a conceptual flaw with the Van Cliburn Competition and all other major piano competitions: The tournament isn’t set up to reward pianists like this, who do their best work in pieces that last three to five minutes. That’s too bad, because great miniaturists can be great pianists, too.
Deljavan revived my memories of the pianist I liked at this competition four years ago. He started with a respectable account of Mozart’s Variations on Gluck’s “Unser dummer Pobel meint,” but it was his performance of Schumann’s Fantasy that reminded me of his passion and the great waves of sound that he can produce from the piano, without losing a sense of the architecture of the piece. He didn’t stop to acknowledge applause before launching into Schubert’s Diabelli Variations, perhaps because he was concerned about running over time. Maybe he’s simply not good at Chopin as he is with the German repertorire? If so, he blundered in Phase I by choosing the études. Or maybe the talent level is higher this year, and it’s making this pianist look less special. I’m not sure.
Jayson Gillham’s second effort wasn’t as good as his first. He started out slowly in Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, even though the piece picked up midway through the second movement. He followed that with Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca, which I always want to call the “Petrarch Sonata,” except that “sonetto” means “sonnet,” since the piece was inspired by Liszt’s reading of the courtly 14th-century Italian poet. Gillham’s performance of this melancholy piece meandered too much, but he improved when he went straight into Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody without stopping. It was an attractive rendering, with a feel for both the lyrical and the virtuoso sides of the work. Nevertheless, he regressed a bit with this performance.
Eric Zuber came out much sharper in his second recital than his first. He delivered a magisterial Beethoven Sonata No. 32, especially in an arresting opening movement. He finished with four Rachmaninov preludes, where he did some pleasing filigree work in the G-sharp minor and G major ones. The B-flat major Prelude was an excellent choice for an end piece. Yet I still heard a pianist pulling back when he should have been charging forward, especially in an overly fussy performance of the howl-at-the-sky B minor Prelude. Even so, this was a much stronger outing than he had in Phase I.
Chernov’s Beethoven Sonata No. 32 made an effective contrast with Zuber’s, sacrificing incisiveness in favor of a plush sound. Unfortunately, he also wound up giving away the piece’s structure, and though there were some beautiful moments, he didn’t have Zuber’s grasp of Beethoven’s late-career mysticism. On the other hand, his performance of Ligeti’s Étude No. 6 (“Autumn in Warsaw”) was better and more picturesque than Gillham’s. He also had an easy feel for the waltz rhythms in three pieces by Edvard Grieg, infusing the Valse-impromptu in E minor with the pearly sound of a Chopin nocturne. On the other hand, there were too many dramatic pauses and changes of tempo for effect in Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz.
Ye-kwon Sunwoo looks like a natural fit for the German repertoire, but he started out with the first Scarlatti we’ve heard in this tournament. (Yes, it took us this long.) He played the D minor Sonata (L. 108) a tad too deliberately, but led straight into an easy, vigorous account of Schumann’s Fasschingsschwank aus Wien (“Carnival Scenes from Vienna”). He then performed a fair Interlude II by the late American composer Leon Kirchner. For his finale, he rendered Ravel’s La Valse with a defiantly pianistic sound, not trying to sound like an orchestra despite the piece’s origins as an orchestral work. That wasn’t a mistake, but Sunwoo didn’t have the ruthlessness and hysteria required of this piece, depicting a Viennese waltz overtaken by the destructive forces of 20th-century warfare. I still like him, though.
You have big brass balls, Sean Chen! You took a ginormous gamble programming Beethoven’s ginormous “Hammerklavier” Sonata as the one and only piece in your second recital. Your gamble went sideways on you in a totally predictable way that everyone could easily foresee, but you still have brass balls. See, here’s the thing: A great performance would have been an unfathomable feat for a 24-year-old. An acceptable performance was the best you could have hoped for. That would have been a prodigious achievement, but it still would have been just an acceptable performance. That’s why more pianists don’t take such chances with their recitals. As it happened, you had the piece together for the first two movements before losing the plot in the third. Your defeat in this tournament now appears likely, yet it is not without glory. For your valor, your willingness to go for broke on the big stage, and your oversize testes composed of copper-zinc alloy, I salute you.
Earlier I said I liked Dong Fei-Fei, but not enough to recommend her. Well, I can recommend her now. She took the stage in a wine-colored dress and played two Scarlatti sonatas (L. 118 and L. 465) with a more natural feel for the idiom than Sunwoo had. Five days without Scarlatti, and now two pianists play his sonatas in a cluster. (You see! I do know the word!) Her Debussy Tarantelle Styrienne was sprightly, but the real glory was her Liszt Sonata, the best of the three we’ve heard so far. Her concise, economical account had a minimum of bombast, yet her no-frills approach didn’t prevent her from playing some beautiful passages in the piece’s lyrical stretches. She took three curtain calls after that performance, and they were not undeserved.