Even with the appearance of Clayton Stephenson at the start of this morning, I can still count the number of Black pianists I’ve seen at this competition on one hand. The young New Yorker is sharp, giving a crisp reading of the Hough piece and Haydn’s Sonata in D major (Hob. XVI: 37). He’s best in Guido Agosti’s transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, a piece that offers the virtuoso opportunities of Three Movements from Petrouchka without being Three Movements from Petrouchka. He’s the second American who’s made a good initial impression. Cai Yangrui follows him with a sleep-inducing version of Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude. He brings more energy in Brahms’ Paganini Variations, but that peters out before the end. Every Cliburn seems to have a filigree specialist — someone who does the delicate, fiddly bits around the edges really well — and this year’s appears to be Sergey Tanin. His Liszt entries, Sposalizio and Les jeux d’eaux, showcase his talent for this. He delivers an idiomatic performance of Messiaen’s Regard de l’Esprit de Joie, too, though I’m less impressed by his C.P.E. Bach Sonata in F-sharp minor.
The downpour outside my house in the evening threatened to drown out Albert Cano Smit’s recital from a few hours before, but it couldn’t obscure the Spanish-Dutch pianist’s vitality and beautiful control of the seven selections he played from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. After that, he went to his Spanish roots with “Evocación” and “El Puerto” from Albéniz’ Iberia, and while he drew some fine colors from the pieces, I found them oddly lacking energy. He did play the Hough piece from memory instead of using a score, so there’s that. Yuki Yoshimi hung his entire first-round performance on Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, so it’s well that he was so good with it, delivering a fine, legible performance of this sprawling work. Zang Xiaolu did less well with another sprawling work, Schumann’s Humoreske, though I’m better pleased with his precipitous account of Scriabin’s Fourth Piano Sonata. In between them, Vasily Starikov plays Debussy’s Estampes, and I think about how appropriate it is to listen to “Jardins sous la pluie” while it’s raining outside. The set is just fine, really. He gives an admirably restrained interpretation of Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, at least before Liszt finally breaks out the pianistic fireworks as he so often does, whether it’s appropriate or not.
Belarus’ Uladzislau Khandohi opens the evening session with solidly average performances of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes and a Scriabin mazurka. His program only explodes into life with the final item, the four Op. 2 études by Prokofiev. The endlessly inventive Soviet composer who treated the piano like the percussion instrument that it is seems up this pianist’s alley. Wonder if that late burst will be enough to see him into the next round. Our first Italian, Francesco Granata, can’t quite keep Schubert’s Fourteenth Piano Sonata from falling apart, but he plays the second version of Agosti’s transcription of The Firebird Suite, and his is less splashy and more controlled than Stephenson’s. Sun Yutong, one of three holdovers from the 2017 Cliburn, begins with a sparkling Handel’s Chaconne in G major. His articulation comes in handy when he plays Ligeti’s L’escalier du diable and caps things off with a worthy performance of Beethoven’s 31st Piano Sonata. Tomorrow I actually go to TCU and report from the scene.