I didn’t notice this until I downloaded the picture of Maestro Nicholas McGegan for this post (because again, the raised piano lid was blocking my view), but he conducts without a baton. That’s true to the period, because batons didn’t start to gain traction until the early 19th century, and Mozart himself never used a baton. This is the sort of thing a true period music specialist would know. Speaking of which, I can’t believe I made jokes about period music two days ago without mentioning that song by Rachel Bloom. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the most brilliant show on TV right now.
Leonardo Pierdomenico (can I just start calling him Leo, Peter, and Dom?) kicks off the afternoon session with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Sonata. Maybe it’s his performance, or maybe I’m impatient to get to the rest of his program, but I have a hard time getting into the sonata. I think I’ll just lay the blame at the feet of Beethoven, since this is quite an early work of his that only gives a few hints of the composer he would become. What was I so eager to get to? It was Chopin’s four ballades, which I figured this pianist would be fantastic in. I come away with only a few of my expectations met. Pierdomenico puts it all together for the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major and burns brightly during the volcanic ending of the Ballade No. 4 in F minor. However, for too much of this performance I’m left wanting more. His whole set is beautiful and well-considered, but I’m missing the pain of No. 1 in G minor and the crushing impact of No. 2 in F major, with its deceptively idyllic opening leading to destruction. With Pierdomenico’s impeccable taste, I’d love to hear him play Chopin’s waltzes and nocturnes, but the ballades don’t quite fit him.
Kenneth Broberg starts the last solo recital of the competition with the same set of Schubert impromptus that his fellow American Daniel Hsu played way back on Thursday, and he’s terrific in a whole other way. Where Hsu had better singing tone and more sparkle, Broberg gives us superior articulation and concision. It’s all quite good, and I would have a hard time choosing between Broberg’s set and Hsu’s. Oh look, I don’t have to. My competing Cliburn bloggers may have the advantage on me when it comes to offering context on Broberg’s performance of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. After all, they heard the two other performances of the piece during the Tuesday quarterfinals that I missed, as well as Broberg’s own previous performance of Liszt’s Dante Sonata. What I do know is that Broberg’s B minor Sonata is a wonder of structural clarity. He presents the music straightforwardly, and though I tend to prefer my Liszt flamboyant and wildly colored, the B minor Sonata would be a good place to use the straight-ahead approach. Broberg doesn’t let the work’s bigness obscure its different textures, and neither lets the piece drag nor sounds like he’s rushing through it (which a lot of pianists are tempted to do with such a long work). This incisive performance leaves me bullish on the prospects of two Americans getting through to the finals.
On our last day of Mozart concertos, this parade of 20s and 21s is getting to me just as I feared yesterday. I’m having trouble hearing these performances without being jaded, but I’m going to power through this. Tony Yike Yang plays No. 20 to start the evening, and he turns in a truculent performance that makes the concerto sound like middle-period Beethoven, not least during those cadenzas by Beethoven (though he uses one in the middle of the third movement by the great Japanese Mozart pianist Mitsuko Uchida). It’s not a prettified interpretation, and it makes no bones about the piano being a metallic instrument. This Mozart might not be your taste, but it is a fully realized spin on the piece that stands out from the other 20s in this competition, and it works particularly well in that final movement.
Sunwoo Ye-kwon does No. 21 in what seems like a weaker performance than either Hsu’s or Favorin’s earlier, although perhaps this is just my unrelieved ears talking, or perhaps it’s Favorin overachieving in his turn. Anyway, the crowd disagrees with my assessment, giving him a loud ovation. Sunwoo includes some nice cadenzas by Seymour Lipkin, his former teacher at the Curtis Institute who died in late 2015. (Lipkin isn’t to be confused with Seymour Bernstein, who was the subject of a documentary by Ethan Hawke.) I can feel myself flagging. I think I can’t possibly sit through another one of these.
And then Han Chen throws me a silk cord and pulls me along into his version of the 21st Piano Concerto. His interpretation is intelligent, with just the right amount of tension and resplendent in its beauty. He writes his own cadenzas, and they’re my favorite of the whole round, bursting with ideas and riotous colors. I feel refreshed by his performance. I don’t know that anybody has had a better semifinal round than this young man.
Rachel Cheung ends the round with the 20th Concerto, and it’s a fine performance in a round that has unfortunately been chockablock with better performances of this piece. (Seriously, six of the 12 semifinalists wound up choosing this particular concerto. No wonder I’m burned out on it.) Particularly in the last movement, she doesn’t break into that opening theme with the same sharpness that most of the other contestants have had. She uses the Beethoven cadenza in the first movement and a dour, off-mood one by Johann Nepomuk Hummel in the finale. I would hate to have an all-male final round, but I would also hate to have her make the final round in the place of someone more deserving. We’ll find out shortly about her fate and the fate of all the other semifinalists.
So approximately one hour after the last note of music was played, the competition finalists are announced. Those six pianists are:
Well, we avoid the first all-male final round since 1993, and we do indeed get both Americans into the final round, but I would have included Chen Han, Kim Da-sol, and Leonardo Pierdomenico over two-thirds of this field. I can console myself, at least, with the idea that Chen and Pierdomenico are young enough that they can come back here in 2021. In the meantime, I look forward to a tomorrow without piano music before we get back into gear for the final round. I’ll see you back here.