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Hello there. I’m back covering the Van Cliburn Competition for the sixth time. I will be covering most of the early rounds from home, because between inflation and what the Weekly is paying me, I can’t afford the cost of meals and transportation for these early days. Lucky for me, there are more options than ever to take in the Cliburn without having to put on shoes or start the car. I’m watching the first performances while eating my Indian-inspired dinner of green beans, shredded coconut, and peanuts. (Is it my Chinese ancestry talking, or would this recipe work with sugar peas or snow peas?) This year’s competition also has a number of other changes from previous years, which I’ll have plenty of time to get to. Here we go with 30 first-round recitals.

The first contestant is Georgijs Osokins, a long-haired Latvian who plays Scriabin’s “Black Mass” Sonata without much feel for the music. The same goes for Stephen Hough’s Fanfare Toccata, a piece written for the competition by the British composer and pianist who is now officially Sir Stephen Hough. We’ll be hearing a great deal of this, with all 30 contestants playing it. Osokins doesn’t have much of a grip on it, either, though I fault him less because this work is new. He ends with Chopin’s Third Piano Sonata, which he has a better grasp of, though his rendition remains stubbornly unexciting.

He’s followed by Elizaveta Kliuchereva, a Russian who has really long hair, as her ponytail reaches all the way down her back. She gives the Hough piece more zest, an approach that carries through Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue (a typically Russian reading of the piece) and Liszt’s Rapsodie espagnole, which she plays with great aplomb. Rounding out the morning session on Day 1 is Ziyu Liu, a Chinese pianist who holds together Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke pretty well, playing the first and third pieces with rhythmic verve. That latter quality serves him well when he plays Bartók’s Piano Sonata, though he loses a bit of momentum in the second movement. Seems to me like his version of the Hough piece flows better than the previous two.

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Not much of interest happens in Jonathan Mak’s and Anna Geniushene’s recitals, so I’m skipping over them. Andrew Li plays Haydn’s Sonata in D minor (Hob. XVI: 42) and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka with great precision, and without squeezing the life out of the music. He brings some swing to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, too, and I have an early favorite. Denis Linnik of Belarus plays Alemdar Karamanov’s Piano Variations, a work by a Ukrainian composer. Even if that’s just a cynical political move, it at least shows some awareness of the situation we’re in, and I’ll take it. Linnik makes a case for the music, too, as the set displays some attractive piano writing. Unfortunately, that’s offset by a strangely indifferent performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata.

An Tianxu plays Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, a dissonant and somewhat insane modern take on a stately Baroque form. The Chinese pianist has a good sense of structure that works well here and in Mendelssohn’s Variations serieuses, but his version of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz is dry and lacks the Satanic spark. Arseniy Gusev delivers a more esoteric program, with Orlando Gibbons’ Pavan and Johann Jakob Froberger’s Aria in D minor leading into Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue. It’s a nice strategy, even if his moody Franck is a bit wayward, and I like hearing Gibbons and Froberger at this competition instead of Haydn, who has started to be overexposed. His rendition of Scriabin’s “White Mass” Sonata (that’s right, we had both the “Black Mass” and the “White Mass” on the first day) is unfocused. This 23-year-old needs seasoning. The same goes for 20-year-old Masaya Kamei, who bites off more than he can chew trying to tackle Alban Berg’s complex Piano Sonata and Liszt’s shapeless Réminiscences de Norma. He’s better with Chopin’s Étude in A minor, where his articulation of the notes in the last three fingers of the right hand is intimidating.

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