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South Korea makes it two gold-medal wins in a row at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition.

One of these years, the Cliburn judges are going to pick the pianists I like as winners. The law of averages says it’s going to happen, right? Let’s rewind the clock: Clayton Stephenson opens Friday night playing Rachmaninov’s Third, and instead of treating it like a virtuoso showcase, he approaches it like a piece of music. It works, too — he draws out a “singing” vocal line from the music in numerous places, and it’s ethereally beautiful near the end of the first movement. He still has power, enough to play the solo passages like he could drown out the orchestra by himself. It’s the most memorable rendition of this warhorse that I’ve heard at the Cliburn, and I’ve heard lots of those.

Ilya Shmukler comes up like he got 20 hours of sleep and a big bowl of chicken soup since his anemic first concerto, and it’s just in time to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. It’s not a great performance, since the Russian still delivers some contrived phrasing and seems lost with the composer’s Nordic charm, but at least he is back to sounding like himself. I’m not going to speculate on how that affects his chances of winning, because I suck at that.

Am I burned out now on Rachmaninov’s Third like I was on Mozart’s 20th? The fourth attempt at the work comes from Lim Yun-chan, and it can’t help but sound dim after Stephenson’s bold conception of this chestnut. The native of Siheung (a city that’s home to a disproportionate number of K-pop singers, BTW) still enjoys some great stretches here, but that climactic melody in the third movement doesn’t soar in his hands the way it did before.

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Dmytro Choni sounds the freshest of the finalists as the competition winds down, which helps him play Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with a great deal of precision. He still has passages where he gets lost, but overall it’s a sturdy conception of the piece. On the other hand, Uladzislau Khandohi can’t bring enough variety to Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. The Polish master who knew how to cut prettiness and polish with roughness and grotesquerie in his large-scale piano works does none of that in this concerto, and while that’s a fault of the work and not the pianist, the pianist, having chosen the repertoire, doesn’t do enough to prevent the concerto from turning into earwash.

What a thrill it is to hear Marin Alsop conduct the opening fanfare of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto to conclude the competition. I expressed reservations before about whether Anna Geniushene could adapt to the demands of this showpiece, but she does it better than I would have expected. Maybe she’s just a better concerto player than recitalist? I still don’t care much for the way she plays that second movement, but she raises her stock here.

Before the awards ceremony, the Cliburn finally acknowledges the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the stage by having Vadym Kholodenko, the Ukrainian winner of the 2013 competition, come out to play his country’s national anthem. The screen above the stage provides the audience with text and a translation. I started taking Duolingo’s Ukrainian course when the invasion happened, and I regret that I haven’t progressed far enough to sing along. I can say “Мій кіт вдома,” and not much more. I do have the presence of mind to shout “Slava Ukraini!” when Kholodenko takes his bows. I’ll be further along by the next Cliburn.

The awards, presented by emcee Fred Child and jury chair Marin Alsop, are as follows:

Best Performance of a Mozart Concerto: Ilya Shmukler

Best Performance of a New Work: Lim Yun-chan

Jury discretionary awards: Marcel Tadokoro, Andrew Li, Shin Chang-yong

Audience Award: Lim Yun-chan

Bronze Medal: Dmytro Choni

Silver Medal: Anna Geniushene

Gold Medal: Lim Yun-chan

This is the second straight gold medal win for South Korea in this competition. I’ll say a great many more things in my wrap-up of the Van Cliburn, which will be published in print and online this Wednesday. The next competition is only three years away, so hope to see you there.

1 COMMENT

  1. Appreciate your comments, but Stephenson didn’t do himself any favors with his TGIF performance of the “monumental” Rach 3. Lim Yun-chan seemed to have an affection for every note combined with a glittering technical performance. Lacking a little soul? Yes, but he is still a teenager.

    BTW Ms Anna from Russia is six months pregnant, hence the billowing modest clothes. She was great in her repertoire. Good luck to her and her pianist husband.

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