After a day’s break, the final round of the Cliburn is upon us, and with it, the chamber music portion of the contest. Ordinarily, I would take this time to air my quadrennial pet peeve about the Van Cliburn Competition giving its competitors only four piano quintets to choose from. However, this year, the music critics joined me in telling Cliburn president Jacques Marquis to add repertoire when he visited us in the press room. He seemed receptive to the idea, and there’s a good reason why: Moving the chamber music part of the competition to the final round creates a distinct possibility that all six finalists will choose the same work to play. Even five out of six playing the same piece would be too much for us. It would be prudent to offer at least one more quintet to the competitors. Others suggested the ones by Elgar and Taneyev, and I put in my usual request for Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. Let’s see what happens in 2021.
In the meantime, nobody is playing Schumann’s Piano Quintet and two are playing Franck’s. Usually, we’re lucky to have one pianist out of 12 play Franck, but this year we get two out of six.
Kenneth Broberg takes the stage with the illustrious Brentano String Quartet to play Dvořák’s Piano Quintet. I’m looking forward to this, but my expectations meet a crushing blow. Broberg’s instincts, unerring until now, lead him badly astray as he plays the piano part way too loud and threatens to drown out the string players. The Brentanos, for their part, seem to be overcompensating so that they don’t get lost, but that doesn’t explain why their phrasing is so stilted and why so little of the music’s charm comes through. (Could this be lack of rehearsal time? The Brentanos had the same amount of time between the previous round and their performances in 2013, and they came out flying.) The whole performance is a mess, with some very un-Dvořák-like sounds coming from the stage. Previous performances point towards this being an aberration for Broberg and the quartet. Let’s hope so.
The Brentano players step off stage for a few minutes and return with Yury Favorin, and it’s like a whole other ensemble has come on. He plays the Franck Quintet, and you can easily divine that he’s actually listening to his fellow musicians’ dynamics and picking them up so that he doesn’t jar. I read in Favorin’s bio that he has played with improvisational music groups before, including the delightfully named band ERROR 404. His experience serves him well. The quartet is much tighter in this as well, and Favorin seems temperamentally suited to the quintet’s austerity. (Heaven knows it’s not every Russian pianist who responds well to French music.) I find myself missing the hair-raising intensity that I’ve heard this quintet performed with at the Cliburn and elsewhere, but proficiency turns out to be enough to carry today.
I’ve heard a few cell phones go off this competition, but not as many as in previous years. While Fort Worth audiences may have gotten better at that, they seem to have gotten worse at applauding the music between movements. I noticed that at several junctures during the solo recitals, and it happens again today during all the performances. Our host Christina Allen has to remind the audience when we come back from intermission to hold applause until the music ends. It’s embarrassing enough that we need that, but a handful of knuckleheads proceed to ignore her and clap between movements anyway during Sunwoo Ye-kwon’s performance at the end. See, it’s not just smart people who go to classical music concerts.
Sunwoo also plays the Dvořák, and he has trouble with balance too, though he gets his right about half the time, which is more than Broberg can do. Still, the thing starts to unravel in the second movement, with the string players offering up flaccid accounts of the minor-key theme. Sunwoo’s performance proceeds to unwind, and by the end he’s playing as if he’s performing a concerto against a whole orchestra instead of with four players. These musicians seem to have temporarily forgotten that the power of chamber music lies in its small scale. It has all made for a ragged evening.
Moving the chamber-music portion to the final round may have been a canny strategic move, but if you’re a fan of the genre, it means the Cliburn gets fewer shots at the target. Half the quintet performances are now gone without a memorable one yet. We’ll wait for better results tomorrow.