Last day of the first round! I’m not a fan of Les Misérables (I think I’ve mentioned this before), but I feel like singing this song. I am looking forward to eating meals at home, doing my laundry, and re-connect with what’s going on in the wider world. I’ve barely had time to look up and notice Michele Bachmann packing it in, Robbie Rogers making his debut for the L.A. Galaxy, and a lesbian romance winning the Cannes Film Festival‘s top prize. Sounds like it was a big week for the gays.
When you watch the performances in the screening room, you get to see the short films the Cliburn made interviewing the various contestants. For some reason, they’re filmed against a white background and lit with a harsh white light so you that the outlines of the pianists’ faces are barely visible. In the film with Ye-kwon Sunwoo, it was basically his hair, his glasses, and his shirt giving the interview. Why did they film it that way?
Somehow, you knew Daneshpour would be a good Haydn player. The fizz she brought to her earlier Schumann performance turned up again in Haydn’s Sonata in F major (Hob. XVI: 23), giving way to a memorably moonlit second movement. Her performance of “El amor y la muerte” from Granados’ Goyescas was missing some tragic force, but she made up for it with her rendition of Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata. Her unorthodox approach started with the first few notes, which she played softly before a quick crescendo. Like Garritson, she emphasized the more lyrical parts of this sonata that typically isn’t played lyrically. I give her the edge because of her finale. I’ve long believed that most pianists play that last movement too fast. (It’s not about speed, it’s about gathering momentum.) Daneshpour played it at a slower tempo that gave power to the destructive ending. Between Daneshpour and Garritson, these two pianists have greatly enriched my understanding of this sonata that I’ve been familiar with for 20 years.
The flaws that were hinted at Miranda-Bernales’ first recital came to the fore in his second. He draws a glorious sound from the piano, but his interpretation of Chopin’s Mazurka in G major (Op. 50, No. 1) was too brash by half. The same went for Fauré’s Valse-caprice No. 2, even though the pianist calmed down to produce a lovely middle section. His version of Schumann’s Fantasy was nowhere near as cohesive as Buratto’s or Deljavan’s. The 22-year-old Chilean is simply too full of youthful enthusiasm, which is an easy flaw to forgive. I see why people like him. Listening to him, I can hear the great pianist that he might one day become. He’s not there yet, though.
Yuan Jie’s strong finish during his first recital gave me hope for his second. That hope seemed fulfilled during his playfully prickly readings of three selections from Ligeti’s Musica ricercata (“Researched music”), but it all leached away during his Chopin Preludes, where he used entirely too much rubato. Varying the tempo within the meter of the piece can be an expressive device when it’s used judiciously, and Yuan did use it well in No. 17. Unfortunately, this TCU alumnus (one of two in this competition, along with Koziak) also used it when he should have been getting on with the work, turning Nos. 4 and 6 into glacially slow exercises in mannerism. He even used it in the tiny No. 10, which takes barely 30 seconds to play. I did appreciate his leisurely take on No. 23; most pianists hurry through it because it’s situated between two dark, dramatic preludes. Yet the only thing consistent about this pianist has been his inconsistency.
Dumont proved that he was born to play the French repertoire with his rendition of Debussy’s Estampes. “La soirée dans Grenade” could have used a bit more structure, but his dewy, limpid sound perfectly fit “Pagodes” and “Jardins sous la pluie.” This pianist has brought a distinct sound to each of the composers he has played, and he switched to a jeweled sound for a glorious performance of Chopin’s B minor Sonata. The flow of this piece was so natural. Besides Steven Lin, this balding native of Lyon was the only contestant to completely nail both his recitals.
Huang’s version of Schumann’s Fantasy wasn’t as pretty as either of the Italians’. If he had traded that in for power or precision or structure, it would have been a trade worth making. Sadly, the piece fell apart. I suspect that, like Khozyainov, he’s better in small-scale pieces than bigger works. He made a better impression with the two Debussy preludes that followed, a ringing “What the West Wind Saw” and “Minstrels,” taken at a fast tempo that I’m conflicted about. He ended up with a note-perfect but uninspired performance of Balakirev’s Islamey, with the melody indistinct.
Favorin sank himself pretty good with his choice of four selections from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. He did great with the technical passages, including some blindingly fast left-hand octaves in the “Cantique d’amour.” Yet the mystical parts of this suite were just so much Greek to him. His “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude” wasn’t holy enough.
Since children under age 10 have to watch the competition from the screening room in McDavid Studio, the Cliburn installed a floor mat keyboard outside the room for children to play on. After all the recitals were done, Alex McDonald, Sean Chen, and Tomoki Sakata tried to play Rachmaninov’s C-sharp minor Prelude and Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the keyboard, to the delight of the gathered press corps. Not too bad, though McDonald and Sakata crashed into each other at one point, and someone’s shoes left a big streak on the keys.
The two-recital format has affected the way I evaluate these pianists. In previous years, if somebody turned in a subpar performance, I’d merrily move on to the next competitor. Now, pianists who started out strong and then faded or started out slow and came back are forcing me to think harder. Yoheved Kaplinsky of the jury said the judges were instructed to evaluate both recitals as if they were one. That would seem to favor consistency. Yet some of the judges will undoubtedly choose inspiration. When a pianist has one good recital and one not-so-good one, the contestants’ youth, human nature, and the Cliburn’s reputation for choosing talented contestants push us in the direction of thinking that a great pianist had an off day, rather than a mediocre pianist got into the zone. It’s interesting to ponder whether you’d choose consistency or inspiration if you were judging this competition. Also, I can’t help but think that the jury members might be swayed by reading ahead to the contestants’ semifinal programs. They’re probably not supposed to, but you can’t tell me that someone isn’t thinking, “Gee, I’d really love to hear Pianist X play Sonata Y in the next round.”
I’m not issuing any predictions at this point. I gave up a long time ago trying to predict how the jury will choose. I have more than 12 pianists I’d like to hear more from, which is great because it increases the odds that I’ll like all the semifinalists, but also ensures that I’ll be sad over some of the eliminated contestants. As I mentioned before, Steven Lin and Dumont are the ones who hit home runs both times out. My second tier of contestants, whom I’d strongly recommend, would include Dong, Mndoyants, Rana, and Sakata. My third tier, people I’d like to see advance, would include Buratto, Daneshpour, Garritson, Greco, Huangci, McDonald, and Sunwoo. That’s 13. The judges are poised to overlook at least one of them, but I have the luxury of sticking with my baker’s dozen. I’ll be back with the results of the first round.