Javor Bračić, Pianist in Review

New York Concert Artists and Associates presents: Javor Bračić, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 22, 2013

Recital debuts can be a dicey proposition in New York, depending on what other concerts and events are scheduled. Learning that a young Croatian pianist would be giving his New York debut in Weill Hall the same night as the much-heralded and fashionable Yuja Wang would play next door at Stern Auditorium, I imagined that a half-empty hall might await him. How wrong I was! Mr. Bračić’s sold-out house left a virtual mob swarming around the box office, hoping for tickets from last-minute cancellations. As the evening progressed, it became clear why: Javor Bračić is a pianist who possesses a deep, genuine musicianship and an outstanding technique that serves the great music he chooses. He honors both listener and composer with his intelligent, committed interpretations, and he offers a thoughtfully constructed program with elegance and humility. It was heartening to be reminded that such an artist is still a draw and that the “competition” for listeners is not always a zero-sum game.

Mr. Bračić began with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major, WTC II (BWV 870), which was at once noble and sensitive, with not a note out of place. Moving on to Haydn’s Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI: 42, he sustained musical tension and interest through its rather long Andante con espressione, right through to the last note of the Vivace assai. Occasionally I wanted ornaments to be more singing in the first movement, and less subservient to the meter, but that was about the only quibble one could have – and a very personal one at that. The delicacy and precision were outstanding.

Moving to later style periods, Mr. Bračić tied his first half together to the Bach and Haydn by performing Debussy’s underplayed Hommage à Haydn (1909) and the even less well known Hommage à Bach (2001) by Croatian composer Davorin Kempf (b. 1947). In between old masters and homages came a World premiere of a work entitled Entwined, Disquiet  (2013) by Rosalie Burrell (b. 1988). At times searching and at others explosive, the two movements explored a tonal world that verged on orchestral, bearing hints of Messiaen and even Scriabin, though without being derivative. Ms. Burrell is still quite young, but already emerging as quite a colorist. I would have enjoyed some information on the piece, but Mr. Bračić, playing from score, appeared to meet this new work’s challenges beautifully, with considerable expressiveness.

As far as the homages go, I’ve never completely grasped the Haydn connection in the ever so brief Debussy work, apart from some tenuous structural likenesses and passing elements of humor and surprise, but it is immediately appealing and was played convincingly by Mr. Bračić. The Bach tribute by Mr. Kempf is far less elusive. Crisp mordents, preceding impassioned scalar writing, hearkened back to Bach’s Toccatas (notable the BWV 565 Organ Toccata in D minor), while quieter counterpoint and sequential episodes were set ingeniously amid some highly adventurous, clearly twentieth-and-twenty-first-century composition. Virtuosity abounded, and Mr. Bračić was on top of it all with dash and drama. Hints of the B -A-C-H theme by Bach himself (based on the tones B-flat, A, C, and B-natural) emerged amid dissonant writing that at times resembled a Bach festival recalled through a dream, all brought to an end with a nod to Bach’s characteristic Picardy close. It is a work I’d like to hear again, especially thanks to Mr. Bračić’s superb performance.

The program’s second half consisted of the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, a feast of some of the noblest, warmest, richest piano writing in history, and Mr. Bračić was well suited to it all. Some minor glitches arose – as happen to almost all pianists – but most seemed here to stem from over-straining for power against the piano’s somewhat resistant treble register at climaxes. If those moments can be conquered with the majesty shown elsewhere, Mr. Bračić will have one of the best Brahms F Minor Sonata performances around. As it is, I would hear him again in a heartbeat. His audience seemed to agree, earning an encore of a small Ravel work – you guessed it!- Hommage à Haydn.

Sarah Chan, Pianist in Review

Sarah Chan, piano
Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Music Center, New York, NY
October 17, 2013

Having reviewed pianist Sarah Chan in Schumann’s A Minor Concerto just this May (hers being just one of several concerti in a packed program), I wondered how the same pianist would fare in a calmer setting; five months later, Ms. Chan’s own intimate solo recital this week gave this listener (and the pianist herself) just that opportunity. Holding the reins firmly, she emerged as a confident young soloist, with solidity, strong projection, and a winning stage presence.

In a program of essentially Spanish and French music (if France is allowed to claim the Polish-born Chopin for the occasion), Ms. Chan chose mostly short works, the longest lasting from seven to nine minutes. It was an appealing array seemingly designed not to tax the layperson’s attention, so to this veteran listener it seemed to be over in a flash. I liked, though, that Ms. Chan resisted the gargantuan programming that so many young pianists’ recitals display. I also liked that Chan followed her preferences and did not feel compelled to offer a survey course on each style of the piano literature from Bach onward. There was still plenty of contrast.

Enjoying the sheer variety among works, one almost missed the fact that there was sometimes not quite as much variety within a work as one might want. The opening work, Claude Debussy’s “Bruyères” (Prélude No. 5 from Book II), was louder throughout than what I’ve usually heard, and I missed the nuance that makes small dynamic ranges colorful (the composer’s own markings for this piece ranging only from pianissimo up to mezzo-forte, aside from effects of timbre, register, and pedaling).

In Debussy’s “La Soirée dans Grenade” from Estampes, the range was greater, but I still wanted more nuance in the melodic inflection, without which the singing Spanish lines sound stiff. More rhythmic bending could also have helped to convey the feeling marked as nonchalamment gracieux. While Debussy was known as a pianist who avoided histrionics, he would still enjoy pushing and pulling a phrase, as demonstrated in his 1913 piano roll recording of this very work.

Maurice Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso” from Miroirs, made a great pairing with the Debussy, and served as a virtuosic backdrop for the Spanish music to come. Ms. Chan expertly handled Ravel’s many challenges, among them her admirably rapid repeated notes. More of a final burst would have capped the piece off perfectly (and perhaps planning the earlier dynamic pacing accordingly), but maximizing each thrill seemed a lower priority than momentum throughout the evening.

Closing the first half were Joaquín Turina’s “Seguiriya” from Danzas Gitanas, Op. 84, Isaac Albéniz’s “Asturias” (“Leyenda”) from Suite Española, Op. 47, and Albeniz’s “El Albaicin” from Iberia, Book III. All three showed Ms. Chan to be a pianist of ample technique and solid command. She also has the resources to achieve a large palette of colors, which I hope she will exploit more and more. Her Iberia selection has markings ranging from ppppp through fff, so moderation can be checked at the door. For some reason the middle register of the concert grand seemed unusually heavy, eclipsing important chords in the outer registers, but Ms. Chan was unruffled.

The entire second half of the concert consisted of the music of Frédéric Chopin.  Opening with his Barcarolle, Op. 60, the pianist seemed much more comfortable than in the first half. Clearly this pianist knew the repertoire inside and out.  There was also more of the savoring of harmonic resolutions that I had been craving earlier.  A string of six Études (from both the twelve op. 25 and the twelve Op. 10) followed. The Étude in A-flat major, Op. 25 No. 1 (“Harp”) opened the group, a gentle choice, though still too fast for my taste and again at the mercy of a dominant middle register. The best was yet to come in the Étude in G-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 6 (“Thirds”): it sparkled brilliantly as one of the gems of the recital. There ought to be a special award for a performer who can make this devilishly difficult Étude a highlight, as it is the nemesis of so many pianists! Also quite well executed was the Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7 (sometimes called the “Cello” Étude). Though it is a slower, more melodic Étude, it should not be considered any sort of “breather” – it is tremendously difficult to pull off the pacing and balance, and Ms. Chan did extremely well. In the Étude in B minor, Op. 25, No. 10 (“Octaves”), the pianist surprised us with a ferocity that had been largely hidden up to this point. At moments where many pianists grab a chance to relax, she stormed ahead, and her fearless finale was refreshing. She should keep playing these pieces to the hilt.

The Étude in C minor Op. 10, No. 12 (“Revolutionary” – mistakenly listed on the program as C-sharp minor), came off as a bit glib for this listener. Heroic gesture became efficiency and dispatch, as if the end of the recital loomed too closely to resist racing. Also, by following it (without pause) with the buoyant Étude in G-flat major, Op. 10, No. 5 (“Black Keys”), its dramatic impact was further undercut. These pieces cease being mere “Études” the minute they are played in concert, so they need to be treated as any delicate works of art.

All ended with the much-loved Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47. Despite a not-quite-ready left hand at the start, it closed the program overall with warmth and triumph, boding very well for things to come for Ms. Chan. She already holds an impressive list of accomplishments, academically and musically, and one expects similar achievements in her continued career. A good-sized audience gave warm ovations and received Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum as a parting lagniappe.

Jeff Lankov, piano, in “Music of Robert Xavier Rodríguez” in Review

Jeff Lankov, piano, in “Music of Robert Xavier Rodríguez”
Presented by The University of Texas at Dallas
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
October 6, 2013
Robert Xavier Rodríguez and Jeff Lankov

Robert Xavier Rodríguez and Jeff Lankov

The name Robert Xavier Rodriguez (b. 1946) is hardly unknown in the music world, with an imposing list of worldwide commissions, performances, and other successes filling his biography, but a recent recital of his piano works had this listener convinced that his musical reach is destined to grow far greater still. Currently Professor at The University of Texas at Dallas (among other career demands), he has amassed commissions and residencies with many of the world’s most renowned symphonies and opera organizations, awards galore (Guggenheim, ASCAP, NEA, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, etc.), a long string of record labels and artists presenting his music, and exclusive publication by G. Schirmer. Such biographical information generally serves to “sell” an artist, but in Mr. Rodriguez’s case his music speaks for itself; moreover, the organizations mentioned among his credits may be the ones basking in reflected glory. Listening to this gifted composer, who has been outstanding in his field for decades now, one even begins wondering why certain accolades are missing – Pulitzer committee, where are you?

Part of what sets Mr. Rodriguez’s musical voice apart from others is its directness of expression, vibrant, unpretentious, lyrical, and often humorous, without sacrificing substance or craft. Though there was a liberal sprinkling of modern ragtime throughout the recital, that style predilection did not limit the emotional range (any more than with William Bolcom and others drawn to the genre) – and certainly all was not based on rags. The balance between accessibility and exploration was just right. In darker inspirations, such as the closing work “Caprichos” (2012), based on some rather unsettling Goya artworks, the tonal language was uniquely chilling and nightmarish, yet always with a life-affirming joy in the storytelling itself. Given its World Premiere here, it is a fascinating, thorny, and demanding work, which I look forward to hearing again. Drawing from a variety of musical resources (including fitting references to Scarlatti and Mozart), it is unquestionably fresh and new, a valuable addition to the piano literature (and for pianists, a natural to pair with “Goyescas” of Granados as a bonus).

Bringing the musical storytelling and imagery to life was pianist Jeff Lankov, who sustained musical interest from the recital’s first notes to its last in performances of brilliance and dedication. To open, he teamed up with the composer in Semi-Suite (1980) for piano, four-hands, an appealing work as full of fun as its punning title. Its four movements (the first one repeated as a fifth) include “The All-Purpose Rag” and “Limerick” (ingenious pieces after which the audience had to laugh out loud), plus a delightful Jig and Tango.  The players projected the tongue-in-cheek references and musical “punch lines” with wonderful deadpan delivery, as Lankov continued to do in “Estampie” (1981), which also contained several ragtime-inspired movements. Lest one underestimate the substance of the latter (with titles including “The Slow Sleazy Rag”, “The Couple Action Rag”, and “Reversible Rag”), the seven-movement work is actually a wide ranging set of variations with considerable lyrical beauty as well as stimulating formal challenges. As the Program Notes for one movement state: “In a complex Scherzo, the regular rhythm of the estampie is sharply juxtaposed with disjunct atonal writing. Ragtime rhythms appear, treated with Ars Nova discant and isorhythm techniques in a synthesis of widely disparate styles, after which the estampie reappears.” All of this intricacy made for challenging listening as well as playing, and Mr. Lankov was the man for the job. A veteran of new music performance whose repertoire includes the complete works of John Adams, plus Michael Finnissy, Messiaen, Piazzolla, Radiohead, and more, he embraces it all. There seems to be nothing that eludes his grasp.  His performance of Rodriguez’s tour de force “Fantasia Lussuriosa” (1989) was particularly compelling, with its seductive lines, decadent melodic embroidery, and all-encompassing virtuosity. It is hard to believe there are not more young pianists pouncing on this piece as a “vehicle.” Mr. Lankov played it to the hilt, yet there seems to be enough flexibility in it to elicit many additional interpretations.

In another note of levity, the second half opened with a selection entitled “Hot Buttered Rumba” from Aspen Sketches (1992).  The title as well as the infectious rhythms had many smiling. Despite prodigious skill, Mr. Rodriguez’s sense of humility and humor are never far. We may credit some of Rodriguez’s humor to the encouragement of his great teachers, Nadia Boulanger. In his words, “Boulanger told me that I would only be half a composer until I also learned to express in my music the same love of laughter that she knew I enjoyed as a person.” She would be proud.

In a possible nod to another of Rodriguez’s teachers, Jacob Druckman, the recital also included Rodriguez’s “Seven Deadly Sequences” (1990), an imaginative and highly pianistic set, which should keep pianists enthralled for years to come. Though not mentioned in the program notes on the piece, Druckman’s own piano set entitled “The Seven Deadly Sins” is similarly vivid and evocative. They would make an interesting pairing, perhaps on disc.

On the subject of discs, one reads in Jeff Lankov’s biographical notes that a recording of this recital’s music is in the works. One can only rejoice. Look out for it.

Hyojung Huh CD in Review

Hyojung Huh, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
March 13, 2013
Hyojung Huh ,Pianist

Hyojung Huh ,Pianist


Korean pianist Hyojung Huh gave a debut in New York this Spring that introduced not only herself as a performer, but also, in the second half, the ten-movement, forty-five-minute Chorale Fantasy of contemporary Korean composer, Shinuh Lee, entitled “Comfort, comfort my people.”  While I missed the concert itself, I was assigned to review an unedited CD of it and found much to admire. While CD recordings almost inevitably miss the energy of a live performance itself, they do enable the multiple hearings one usually needs with new works. Ms. Huh holds an impressive array of degrees as a pianist, including B.M. and M.M. from Seoul National University, M.M. from Westminster Choir College, and P.D. (Performer Diploma) from Indiana University-Bloomington, in addition to an imminent D.M.A. from the University of Wisconsin where she is a doctoral candidate; in addition, though, Ms. Huh has earned degrees in aesthetics, sacred music, and choral conducting, all of which seem to make her a natural fit for the New York Premiere of Ms. Lee’s imposing,  Biblically-inspired Chorale Fantasy.  Drawn by musical and theological interests (having already done Masters studies on Messiaen in relation to Catholic ontology, liturgy and Biblical language), Ms. Huh is currently working on a dissertation offering a metaphysical and theological perspective on the Shinuh Lee composition performed in this recital, a work which does bear some kinship with works of Messiaen himself.  So, rarely will one see a confluence of such well-matched forces – the pianist, the composer, and the central inspiration of the work all in perfect synch.

Hyojung Huh ,Pianist

Hyojung Huh ,Pianist

In laic terms, the work is an intensely dramatic one, alternating evocations of fire and brimstone with those of ethereal peace, created brilliantly by Ms. Lee and conveyed sympathetically and passionately by Ms. Huh. The first movement is entitled “A brimful living chalice of despair and horror and astonishment.” The movement lived up to its title. Vivid in its thunderous and dissonant virtuoso writing, it alternated bass chants against smoldering trills and tremolos with nightmarishly unrelenting rhythms that were sometimes reminiscent of Ligeti’s “L’escalier du diable” to this listener. Comparisons are for expedience – not to suggest that the work is derivative – so I’ll also be forgiven for comparing some of Ms. Lee’s stomping martial accompaniments to Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets” in their savagery. The overall effect was harrowing. Sheer terror yielded wonderfully in the second movement to a feeling of post-apocalyptic quiet. Entitled “Lord Have Mercy”, this prayerfully simple A-flat major Chorale (towards the end reappearing in A major) developed over a pulsating pedal point into a Brahmsian meditation that might make a jaded listener flinch at such sweetness, were it not in juxtaposition to the ferocious first movement.  Ms. Huh also gave it a pacing which prevented any feeling of glibness. Limitless emotional range, here and in the rest of the work, was matched by an arsenal of several centuries of musical techniques and styles, from early chant, to Bach, through the moderns (even hints of Einojuhani Rautavaara), all integrated organically. The work is quite a journey, and Ms. Huh was up to the task of guiding us through it – performing from memory, no less! Undoubtedly she will bring this work to many venues. Some choices in text will be challenging and controversial to many – and they frankly could prevent widespread acceptance of it – but the music itself could be imagined to depict numerous stirring but more widely applicable Bible verses, should changes be made at some point. Universal acceptance, however, does not appear to be the goal here. Remaining open-minded about new music can be one of the big challenges in reviewing, but the same applies to new interpretations of “old” music, which one also encountered in this recital. Ms. Huh’s first half, consisting of the oft-heard “Jeux D’eau” of Ravel and ubiquitous Symphonic Etudes of Schumann, was unconventionally played. Jeux d’eau (translated sometimes as “Fountains” or “Playings of Water”) was not the sort of sweeping, watery interpretation to which I’m accustomed.  My first reaction was that it needed more flow, flexibility, and the qualities that one associates with water; instead, this performance struck one as a bit stolid, on the slow side, and rather careful; on rethinking it, however, Ms. Huh’s was an interpretation that may have simply been focused more on the individual droplets, each in imagined crystalline perfection. Having not heard the concert live, but catching the tonal beauty of individual notes nonetheless, I’m inclined to give the performer the benefit of the doubt! Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes similarly seemed overly cautious.  In this case, due to some weak spots where tempi fluctuated and some messiness ensued, one imagines that there is simply a need to live with the piece longer. The additional Posthumous Etudes (Nos. II and V) were much appreciated, as they are often omitted, but suffice it to say that the Shinuh Lee work will be what is best remembered of this recital.  That is no small achievement.

The Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Review

May 24-June 8, 2013
Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn

In the spirit of Independence Day, as Americans turn thoughts towards some of the great sources of American pride and achievement, it is hard in the piano world to find a better, more obvious source of pride in the past century than the late pianist Van Cliburn, who died just February 27th of this year. The quadrennial piano competition he inspired, The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, just took place in Fort Worth and keeps that pride going. If Van Cliburn’s explosive victory at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow was like a skyrocket that had him dubbed the “American Sputnik” at the height of the cold war, what we’ve seen roughly every four years since then have been the streaks of firework colors shooting from that initial burst. Exceptional pianists from all over the globe have come to public attention through “the Cliburn” as it has come to be known, and this year’s edition was no different.

Van Cliburn’s story is well known, but, for a brief background, the “gentle giant” Texan was just 23 when his performances at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition moved audiences in a way that no space race or diplomacy could, hence, the comparisons to the satellite Sputnik (launched the year before by the USSR). Mr. Cliburn, previously a Leventritt Award winner, was a piano student of the renowned Russian pianist and teacher, Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School. Known for playing with a mastery and spirit that many considered distinctly Russian, Mr. Cliburn roused the Russian people, who chanted “First Prize!” from the audience. His music affected world politics, compelling Khrushchev to “approve” the American’s victory, and he inspired a ticker-tape parade that flooded New York streets with over 100,000 cheering fans. Van Cliburn’s victory and legacy, including legendary recordings, have been an inspiration for generations of pianists ever since, directly and indirectly.

In 1962, Fort Worth arts patrons and teachers started the International Van Cliburn Competition in tribute, when Mr. Cliburn was only age 27 (close to the age of many current contestants). Since then it has grown exponentially. Mr. Cliburn was a generous and nurturing presence at these events until his death at 78 this winter, and it is clear from the footage that everyone at the 14th Cliburn was feeling his absence profoundly. Contestants said in interviews that they had looked forward to being able finally to shake their idol’s hand – or in some cases, to meet him once more. The Cliburn now carries on in the wake of its great loss, still sure to grow and redefine itself.

The Winners:  Beatrice Rana, Vadym Kholodenko, Sean Chen

The Winners: Beatrice Rana, Vadym Kholodenko, Sean Chen

If Texas is associated with all things larger than life, the seventeen days of performances by 30 contestants and more than 70 hours of music and speeches certainly fit the bill. So did the prizes. After selecting twelve semifinalists and then six finalists, judges chose Vadym Kholodenko (26, Ukraine) as the recipient of the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Gold Medal, the Van Cliburn Winner’s Cup, and a cash award of $50,000. He will also receive career management and international and U.S. concert tours for the three concert seasons following the Competition, studio and live recordings produced by Harmonia Mundi, USA, and performance attire provided by Neiman Marcus.

The Silver medalist Beatrice Rana (20, Italy) and Crystal award winner Sean Chen (24, USA) each receive a cash award of $20,000, career management and U.S. concert tours for the three concert seasons following the Competition, and a live recording produced by Harmonia Mundi, USA, of Competition performances. The remaining three finalists will receive cash awards of $10,000 each, and concert tours and management for three concert seasons. They are Fei-Fei Dong (22, China); Nikita Mndoyants (24, Russia); and Tomoki Sakata (19, Japan).

For the sake of thoroughness, there were numerous other awards too. The Steven de Groote Memorial Award for the Best Performance of Chamber Music, with a cash prize of $6,000, was awarded also to Vadym Kholodenko, as was the Beverley Taylor Smith Award for the Best Performance of a New Work (the commissioned test piece “Birichino” by Christopher Theofanidis), accompanied by a cash prize of $5,000. The winner of the John Giordano Jury Discretionary Award, with a cash prize of $4,000, was Steven Lin, 24, USA. The winner of the Raymond E. Buck Jury Discretionary Award, with a cash prize of $4,000, was Alessandro Deljavan (26, Italy). The winner of the Jury Discretionary Award, with a cash prize of $4,000, was Claire Huangci (23, USA), while the Audience Award, voted on by nearly 24,000 visitors to Cliburn.org, was Beatrice Rana, who will receive an additional cash award of $2,500. Semifinalists receive cash awards of $5,000 each, and Preliminary Round competitors receive cash awards of $1,000 each. No one leaves empty-handed, and each contestant receives invaluable exposure (live streamed over the Internet) along with the prestige of being part of an elite group selected from screening auditions.

Thirty competitors, ranging in age from 19 to 30, were chosen to come to Fort Worth from all over the world. They represented 13 nations: the United States (7), Italy (6), Russia (5), China (3), Ukraine (2), Australia/UK, Chile, France, Japan, South Korea, Poland, and Taiwan. Distinctions of nationality, however, seem irrelevant, given the effects of globalization. The sole Polish contestant currently studies in the USA, two of the Italians currently study in Germany, and the list goes on. Sure, the Russian influence has left a strong mark on nearly all today’s great pianists through the legacies of its leading teachers scattered across the globe, but those who maintain that the US is somehow the pianistic “little brother” to Russia are needing to reevaluate that idea.  A Cold War it is not. Incidentally, the Tchaikovsky Competition was just in its premiere edition in 1958, the year Van Cliburn won, so it is preparing just now, like the Cliburn, for its 15th edition. To add to the fun, Richard Rodzinski, the former Executive Director of the Van Cliburn Foundation for 23 years and the one who initiated live webcasts of it, left his job at the Cliburn in 2009 to help clean things up as General Manager of Russia’s Tchaikovsky Competition! Who is leading whom? To those prone to hate mail: that is not thrown out as a challenge, just a question – allow me, please, my momentary Fourth of July indulgence.

As for any heated political controversies at this year’s Cliburn, they centered on more individual issues, such as the presence of several jurors whose students were competing (though ostensibly even this controversy had been addressed with special voting regulations – hmm). Aside from those matters, the debate was largely artistic, as it should be. Consequently the differences over “who should have won” are largely irreconcilable. While the very existence of the word “competition” seems to suggest there is a possible Victory with a capital “V”, the piano world has moved farther and farther away from that notion since 1958, despite the appeal of awarding prizes. Would a non-competitive showcase be better, as some have suggested this year (given the pseudo-scientific nature of arts judging with “apples and oranges” repertoire)? It is an interesting question to toss around, but as anyone who has watched or played in an international piano competition knows, it is an experience that combines the excitement of a sports event with the poetry of the arts, plus the drama that reality TV can only attempt to convey. How better to draw in the world of listeners?

About “apples and oranges”: in the days of stricter repertoire requirements, where one Bach work might be compared with another of a similar genre, eliminations were easier, though there were always still many elements of subjectivity. Performers may have been eliminated for messiness, memory trouble, harsh tone, uneven finger technique, lack of contrast, or the like, all within the same pieces, so winners were sometimes chosen for the absence of negatives rather than for anything particularly positive. The last one standing after such eliminations might “win,” though only time would tell whether he could creatively put a program together or stir audiences. Like the defensive playing one hears in conservatory jury exams, a generation of generic playing ensued. That emphasis on execution brings to mind the famous joke about the young prodigy, “What do you think of his execution?” to which the reply is, “I’m all for it.” Such contests were frequently dry and dull, and many would have trouble making the leap into the Internet video age. Your reviewer herself came from that period where such rules often prevailed, and challenges such as “jump to the Fugue” or “coda, please” were routinely thrown mid-performance at unsuspecting victims – I mean pianists. Bartók’s famous phrase, “competitions are for horses, not artists” said it well.

By contrast, with more contests such as the Cliburn now allowing freedom of choice in repertoire, things are much more interesting, though even more subjective. Aside from quintets of Dvorak, Franck, Schumann or Brahms – played with the much admired Brentano String Quartet – plus one test piece by Christopher Theofanidis, and a required Beethoven or Mozart Concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Leonard Slatkin, a contestant had complete freedom. In 45 hours of free recital in the Preliminaries (30 contestants) and 12 hours of free recital in the Semi-finals (12 contestants), there is bound to be some variety, and that is a good thing for turning the public on more to classical music; with that artistic liberty, however, come new dilemmas. One is that such contests are not just pitting pianist against pianist, but composer against composer, Bach and Chopin, Scarlatti and Alkan, Fine and d’Indy (OK, I couldn’t resist that last one). How does one separate the musician from the music? Or to quote W. B. Yeats: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
 How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

A contestant is assessed for his repertoire choices as much as for his playing, so the old Independence Day lesson is once more learned: Freedom is not free.  The stakes grow higher as bloggers and reviewers and the public slam the contestants on a daily basis via Twitter and Facebook. The faint-hearted may view the whole process as barbaric or gladiatorial, something akin to “The Hunger Games,” so it was no coincidence that contestant Claire Huangci cited that film’s Katniss Everdeen as her hero; fortunately, though, alternate routes for musical careers are flourishing, so these are voluntary gladiators, soldiers of music, if you will (and even if you won’t!). They will emerge with their own individual followings, and some are among the most passionately devoted (not to mention mentally tough) performers you will find.

Starting with Katniss herself, Claire Huangci (23, USA) drew “Number One” in the playing order at the competition’s draw party (yet another aspect where luck cannot be removed from the equation). Her Beethoven Sonata Op. 101 betrayed no opening jitters whatsoever, but was warm with a glow that said she was there to love each note, whatever the result. She lived up to the maxim that one should perform at competitions as if they were simply recitals. In the seven-minute Theofanidis test piece, she winningly captured the humor suggested by its title, “Birichino” (translated as “prankster”).  Ms. Huangci also earned bonus points from me for some of her fresh programming, including the underplayed Mendelssohn Fantasy, Op. 28 (also on the program of Steven Lin, USA), the first Kapustin Étude of Op. 40  (bringing in a jazz influence), and, in her second preliminary recital, Mikhail Pletnev’s transcriptions from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, which she played wonderfully. Several commentators thought that choosing such a frothy transcription would undermine her credibility and mean the end for her, but it didn’t, at least initially, as she pulled it off well. Sadly, though, she was not advanced to the finals.

Transcriptions and paraphrases are steadily gaining popularity, and I for one love them, though I admit they can make the judging harder than it is with standard repertoire (begging questions such as how much tempo liberty is too much, etc. – often impossible to answer in these cases). Their resurgence has even spawned rumors of returning to some repertoire restrictions as opposed to the current carte blanche. Others who brought out transcriptions included Tomoki Sakata (19, Japan), who offered an exuberant account of the rarely played Pabst Concert Paraphrase from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in his second preliminary round. He in fact made it to the finals, remarkable for the youngest contestant, but a rough Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 seemed to pull him from medal consideration. His Pabst will be remembered as a highlight – along with a highly intense performance of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5. His passion seemed even to surprise himself at one point, as I saw for the first time ever what seemed to be a pianist cupping his mouth with shock mid-passage. Lindsay Garritson (25, USA), a very strong player, also programmed her Semifinal round to include two transcriptions, the Kreisler- Rachmaninoff Liebesleid and Liebesfreud, choices that struck one on the page as too mellow for such a high-stakes competition, though she didn’t make it to the Semifinals to test that theory. A little lightness is fine, of course, but every minute counts, so there is little room for music that one might call diffuse. I would have enjoyed hearing her again, though, as she is an extremely gifted pianist. Don’t let the ” all-American girl next door” look fool you – this woman can play! Her Liszt Ballade in B Minor was exceptionally good, with dazzling left hand passagework, and her Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 was powerful and exciting.

On the topic of making every minute count, Yekwon Sunwoo (24, South Korea), was an alternate until a few weeks before the competition, and pulled a rabbit out of a hat with his beautifully polished programs. He joined the transcription fun with Grünfeld’s Soirée de Vienne paraphrase on Strauss Waltzes, Op. 56. Mr. Sunwoo played the piece brilliantly, but perhaps was too keenly aware that he needed to make every minute count; it seemed to take on a taut intensity that ran counter to the cavalier spirit that engendered so many of these. These are all pieces that hearken back to the so-called “Golden Age” of pianism, which seems to hold increasing fascination for young pianists (the Tchaikovsky-Pletnev being a newer set, but in the same vein). They offer ample room for displaying scintillating technique while emphasizing the “entertaining” aspect of music, not just the educational or artistic (not that these are mutually exclusive!). As they are primarily salon showpieces, I would hate to see them constantly cropping up in contests in lieu of études.

On a side note, composers who re-worked their own original works for piano (such as Ravel, whose La Valse we heard from Mr. Sunwoo) seem to fall in a less controversial category. The same in general goes for transcriptions by 19th-century greats such as Liszt, whose transcriptional styles were not always distinguishable from their mainstream compositional styles. Stravinsky was also ever-present with his Pétrouchka (which, by the way, Stravinsky did not even call a transcription): it was on programs of no fewer than eight pianists, if I counted correctly, though not played in each case: Nikita Abrosimov, Sean Chen, Vadym Kholodenko, Stephen Lin, Kuang-Tin Lin, Alex McDonald, Alessandro Taverna, and Jie Yuan. My favorite happened to be that of Gold medalist Kholodenko who lent just the right primitive character to the folk ballet music. His ending was so explosive that it seemed to startle even himself – one of the more endearing moments of the competition, as he slowly made his way off the bench with a stunned look.

Why so very many Pétrouchkas though? Yes, it is a terrific piece. I love it and could hear it over and over again, but isn’t it rather interesting in view of the “free choice” aspect of the contest? Aren’t there other equally powerful closers? Composers, get to work!  Ravel’s “Gaspard de La Nuit” was also heard frequently, often enough in my opinion to be dubbed Gaspard de “l’ennui” especially when including “Le Gibet.” Forgive me if this reflects incipient Attention Deficit Disorder, but there are only so many hangings one can take in a day. The repeated offerings of most other works I enjoyed, Prokofiev Seventh Sonata, the Chopin Preludes Op. 28, various Liszt, Haydn, Ligeti, and more.

Scipione Sangiovanni (25, Italy) followed Ms. Huangci with a strong reading of Bach’s Partita in E Minor. Starting with a work of such transparent counterpoint in a competition is one of the ultimate tests of focus. One cannot simply rely on muscle memory, power through octaves, slam down the pedal, and hope for the best, so, my hat goes off to those who open with Bach in such a pressure situation. Mr. Sangiovanni combined amazing control with much spirit and musicality. After a second Preliminary Round starting with Beethoven’s wonderful (and long) Sonata Op. 2, No. 3, I began to think Mr. Sangiovanni was seriously overestimating his audience’s attention span. All needed to catch fire more, and he may have sensed this by the time he got to Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, which went the other direction. I like this young pianist, so I was sad to see him eliminated, but I think he needs to rethink his strategy in choosing contest repertoire. I felt the same way about Yury Favorin (26, Russia) whose choices were refreshingly different, but probably too much for the audience, including the cacophonous Boucourechliev’s “Orion 3” right alongside the Wagner-Liszt Tannhauser Overture and following a much less beloved Schubert Sonata (the E-flat, D. 568). Mr. Favorin’s second Preliminary round featured Liszt’s Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses, which I love, but which may have been too much for the Lisztophobes. If he had made the Semifinals, there would have been Alkan (Symphony, Op. 39, nos 4-7). He is an explorer, indeed, one who may possibly do better in recording and specialization, rather than mainstream competitions.

A similar reaction arose from the rounds of Alessandro Taverna (29, Italy). He is wonderfully adventurous in programming, with some highly individual urges to explore less trodden turf, but I see his gifts as more of the specialized variety than what is usually fully appreciated at most competitions. If he faced a choice between playing to educate, express, ennoble, or entertain, I believe he would seek to educate. He clearly has a brilliant grasp of thorny music that is inaccessible to many, so one can imagine him producing extremely interesting recitals and recordings. His programs, which included Mendelssohn Sonata No. 3 in B-flat, Messaien’s “Regard de l’esprit de joie” (from Vingt Regards), and Medtner’s Sonata Minacciosa (Op. 53, No. 2) – plus ones we didn’t get to hear, Scriabin Sonata No. 10, Ligeti, and Kapustin Variations – all could be a good antidote to eight Pétrouchkas. Without even knowing the pianist, I would be drawn in to attend such recitals, but these are problematic selections for contests. Mr. Taverna is a pianist of intelligence, technique, and maturity. He commands my admiration for continuing to meld his concert work with the rigors of contests – but it must feel like wearing a sweater several sizes too small for an entire year or more.

So, what exactly is “contest repertoire?” One must express oneself, yes, but also one must earn the trust of his listener, including the jury.  It is an irritating fact, but until one proves one can do absolutely anything, critics and jurors often misconstrue certain expressive choices as failings, rather than intentions. Contestants who fare the best usually jump through a few pianistic hoops as well as musical ones. Some presented complete sets of études, as if to say “satisfied? Now you know I can do what I mean to do.” The complete Chopin Études Op. 25 were played beautifully by Alessandro Deljavan (26, Italy), while Eric Zuber (28, USA) made an excellent traversal of Chopin’s Études, Op. 10. Both Deljavan and Zuber faced other criticisms in the press, though, ranging from objections to facial expressions to repertoire issues (one critic disliking Zuber’s choice of the Mozart A Minor Rondo, K. 511 – yet labeling it the “C Major” Rondo. *Sigh*). In any case, whatever the grievances were, few could dispute that these gentlemen handled the keyboard with mastery and sensitivity. Other groups of études included Bartok, Ligeti, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Liszt. Another champion of études at this event was Vadym Kholodenko (yes, again, the Gold Medalist), who clobbered us with 11 of Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Études (all but La Ricordanza). At first the choice struck me as unmusicianly, but he did them with such ease and power that he was hard to fault. I don’t so much enjoy hearing all of these Études in a row, but they did make a statement about Kholodenko’s prodigious abilities. While it is good to treat a contest as just a recital, it is a recital with someone playing right after you, possibly more dazzlingly, so repertoire needs to be planned accordingly. One also needs to be a bit hungry to win.

On the idea of hunger to win, Beatrice Rana (20, Italy) said she knew since visiting Fort Worth at age 16 that she wanted to return as a contestant. Naturally talented and from a musical family that had her touching the piano when most children are playing with rattles, she unsurprisingly displays a solidity and ease that is reflected in every fistful of notes. Undemonstrative and even-tempered, it seems that all she probably needed to do at 16 was to take aim and hit the bull’s-eye. She chose repertoire that she could confidently play beyond criticism. Her Clementi Sonata in B Minor had some truly beautiful phrasing right from the start. Schumann’s Symphonic Études and Abegg Variations, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, Bartók’s “Out of Doors” Suite, Chopin’s 24 Preludes, and Scriabin’s Second Sonata were among her chosen works, and they were all excellent. Many musicians viewed her second place ranking as an outright affront. I was not so swept up in the Rana-mania, I must admit. At the risk of sounding like the spoiled diner fussing between Ossetra and Beluga caviar, I sometimes overdosed on the element of ease. While it is staggering to be so masterful at 20, sometimes the audience needs to feel the climb, the surprise, even the element of struggle in order to reach the highest highs that music can offer. A colleague described it well, that while Kholodenko seemed ready for a huge career, Rana seemed ready for this contest. The huge career is starting for her now, though, and hopefully its large demands will not hinder further growth. As Ms. Rana herself was quoted as having said to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “When you win a competition, the real competition starts.” With wisdom like that, she’ll do well.

Undoubtedly there were many of the contestants from musical families like that of Beatrice Rana, but one of the most notable ones was Nikita Mndoyants (24, Russia), whose father Alexander Mndoyants placed Fifth in the 1977 Cliburn Competition. Young Mr. Mndoyants performed beautifully in all rounds and is clearly “to the manor born.” 
His choice of Taneyev Prelude and Fugue, Op. 29, felt a bit like a tribute to earlier Russian pianism, but it was an interesting addition, as something less often heard today. It built to tremendous excitement. I also enjoyed Mndoyant’s Polonaise-Fantaisie of Chopin, a difficult piece to pull off with both reverie and energy. He succeeded. Six Sketches of Babadjanian were another welcome addition, excitingly played. Mndoyants is a rather undemonstrative player: his expressiveness was completely focused through the fingers, with a minimum of wasted motion, yet he was still magnetic to the viewer.

On the other end of the spectrum visually was Alessandro Deljavan (26 of Italy), the subject of much discussion because of his extremely noticeable (to many, distracting) facial expressions. He also had a connection to the Cliburn, having previously entered in 2009 – the only returnee this year. One would think that his mastery of enormous monuments of the piano literature (from Bach Partita No. 5 to Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 57, to Schumann’s sprawling Fantasy in C Major and a dozen other challenges) would eclipse other topics- he played extremely well, after all. Unfortunately some objected to the fact that he made everything interesting – a problem in itself, underscored by the facial mannerisms that changed by the nanosecond. The fact that we are in an age of Internet videos raises visual concerns that no one had to bother much with back in 1958. If one had worried about such things, how would André Watts, Glenn Gould, and numerous others with physical idiosyncrasies have fared (even Horowitz in some less than aesthetically thrilling moments)? On a side note how would any of yesterday’s greats have coped with the “human interest” profile videos made this year? Questions thrown at contestants ranged from, “what is your favorite color?” to “what is your favorite body part?” (Really, Cliburn?) These were icebreakers, indeed, but I can’t help laughing to think of, say, the great Sviatoslav Richter having to field such silliness.

Given the fact that a Cliburn winner will be in the public eye constantly for at least three years of engagements, extra-musical concerns are growing larger. It won’t be easy for all pianists to address them. Physical or facial idiosyncrasies creep into one’s practicing easily from strain to feel the emotions of each note or phrase. Many claim they are not necessary, but Deljavan says he has tried unsuccessfully to get rid of them. In truth many of the contestants face the same issues.  The resultant looks ranged from that of a crying baby in tender passages to that of the player holding something unpleasant-smelling at arm’s length – and perhaps the most popular of all this year in stentorian passages, the “here comes the judge” frown. Given the opposite playing style, could a contestant expressing beautifully through the fingers alone but with the demeanor of an undertaker ever be chosen as a winner? I, myself, prefer the least possible visual distraction, whether excess contortion or excess pageantry, but I can’t deny that in some cases some physical involvement can enhance the experience. It all seems like an unpleasantly commercial topic within the arts, but musicians can’t justifiably complain about flagging public interest or market without some slight consideration of the same.

Fifty-one years ago, no one would have foreseen the world of classical music as it is now, both hyped and numbed by the Internet, with the instant “reviews” of live streaming and YouTube performances on social networks and blogs; these developments have drawn and will draw an ever wider audience for the competition and for young artists in general, but they have also changed the nature of the Cliburn. How much will it need to reinvent itself? Will there one day need to be a Botox award (thinking of all those wrinkling foreheads) to go with the wardrobe award? Or will the audience be what bends and grows? In an age where everything is filmed in unforgiving detail, including childbirth, bearers of life have a certain exemption from visually oriented criticism. Perhaps the bearers of some of the finest music in the world might be afforded the same. Some of the most wonderful musical experiences do happen with the eyes closed.

This seems a good time to return to the pianists themselves, namely Luca Buratto (20, Italy), a young and unselfconscious player who seemed hardly to have given a thought to dress or image – or else simply chose not to wear a jacket. Whatever the reason was, he seemed comfortable and immersed himself completely in the task at hand. He played with engaging intensity, though occasionally with some eccentric exaggerations of articulation. His Bach Toccata in C Minor was bold and uncompromising. His first rounds’ Haydn, Schumann (notably the Fantasy in C Major), and Bartók (the Sonata) bode well for an impassioned life in music. When all is said and done, the contest ends but the music remains.

When one is tired of saying, “Wow, what a pianist” one can always sigh, “Ah, music…”  Schubert is one composer who has that effect on me (as does Brahms), and perhaps for that reason, one does not hear his music so much in piano competitions. When it is done perfectly, one notices it much more than the performer.  Gustavo Miranda-Bernales (22, Chile),
who received a fair amount of criticism for not fitting in with the firebrands, gets big points from me for eliciting the “ah, Schubert” sigh. Offering up the Four Impromptus, Op. 142, he gave them simple interpretations that had no self-conscious nuancing but simply their own intrinsic shadings – something that requires a good deal of natural responsiveness and musicality. One felt the changes in color and even temperature in them, as each moved from harmony to harmony. He took the leap of faith that the music would hit the listeners in the heart: in some cases it worked. Nonetheless, he needs to carefully consider future competitions. He still needs some work on the “Wow, Gustavo!” part.

Sean Chen (24, USA), who played a strong first round of Bach, Chopin, and Bartok, made one of the the biggest impressions of the contest in choosing Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 106 (The “Hammerklavier”) for his entire second Preliminary recital. A brave move, it bespoke a serious, thinking artist, not merely a contest horse. As I felt also regarding the Liszt B Minor Sonata, I’m not so keen on parading these enormous masterworks as vehicles in a venue of so much self-promotion, but these rounds were called recitals, so one had to suspend disbelief. Plus, if one avoids all the mammoth masterworks and all the fluff, what is there but middle-of-the-road repertoire? In any case, the risk paid off for Mr. Chen. He played well, and after Finals that included Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto, he won the Crystal award. I was only sad to miss his Brahms Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21 (from the Semifinals) – a slice of pure heaven that is often overlooked in favor of that composer’s other variations (on Handel and Paganini themes). His Semifinal round is nowhere to be found, but perhaps it is being prepared for commercial release.

Nikita Abrosimov (24, Russia) was a late replacement for an absentee contestant. With only a few weeks to prepare, he offered Brahms C Major Sonata, Prokofiev Eighth Sonata, the Rachmaninoff-Corelli Variations, Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka and more – quite a feat! His Brahms struck me as a bit stolid initially but it grew on me. His was thoughtful, measured, and very committed playing. He made the Semifinals, but sadly we did not get to hear his Concerti. I look forward to hearing more from him.

Sara Daneshpour (26, United States) is a pianist who has impressed me in prior concerts as both brilliant and highly expressive. It was heartening to see that her kind of genuine artistry captured audiences at Fort Worth as well to the point where her early elimination was widely viewed as a shock. Her pearling passagework and clarity in Schumann’s Abegg Variations opened her first program beautifully, but Chopin’s Scherzo in E Major matched its beauty with warmth of tone and graceful phrasing. It was theorized that the jury may have pounced on some glitches at the opening of the latter, since no other reason seems plausible. Her Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 was just as ferocious and rhythmic as one would want and almost seemed not to have come from the same player as that of the Chopin. A highlight was also her “El Amor y la Muerte” of Albeniz. The lucky thing, despite sadness over not hearing her in the Semifinals (or her Chopin E Minor Concerto!), is that we will continue to hear from her without a doubt.

Ruoyu Huang (24, China)
was one of the pianists who offered the complete Chopin Preludes, Op. 28 (along with Beatrice Rana, Jie Yuan, and Fei-Fei Dong). He performed the set quite well, despite some minor mishaps (as often happens, especially with the B-flat minor). He pointed up some subsidiary melodies that won my heart forever in the E-flat Major Prelude and gave a good strong D-Minor close to the set. Schumann’s Fantasy in the other Preliminary round seemed a bit raced, going beyond Schumannesque impulsiveness and verging on jagged-edged, with some tonal harshness (and messiness in large leaps). Overall, though, Mr. Huang did quite well.

Steven Lin (24, USA) is another intense and dramatic performer, one who always seemed to give one hundred percent. I liked this quality, even if I didn’t always like his repertoire choices.  I did like his choice of Carl Vine’s Sonata No. 1, and he played it extremely well. His Bach Overture in the French Style was also refreshingly off the beaten path, but I wasn’t keen on his Liszt choice, Réminiscences de Don Juan (after Mozart). Even as a lover of Liszt in general, I’ve had this piece bring on a few too many headaches. Mr. Lin’s was not one of those performances but was about the best I’ve heard recently – still, those initial reactions can persist. He almost made me a believer. The virtuosic displays were dazzling with the electricity of Horowitz, and the tongue-in-cheek wit was handled with elegance. All in all, Mr. Lin possesses the technique, the personality and the probing intelligence to make me want to hear him again, so I regretted that he was not in the Semifinals.  As an aside, Mr. Lin made quite an impression last year at another competition (in Japan) when he performed right through a 6.5 earthquake. If you want to see it, it is currently viewable on YouTube. All young pianists are advised to be able to concentrate through such an earthquake, but few actually have to!

On the subject of Liszt, more than half the contestants offered Liszt works in their programs. Memorable ones included the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 played by Alexei Chernov (30, Russia), who also played Ravel’s Gaspard de La Nuit with brilliance (but no histrionics – hurray!) and the less frequently heard Scriabin Études Op. 65. I was very much hoping to hear more from him.

 Kuan-Ting Lin (21, Taiwan) was slated to play a Mephisto Waltz as well, but we didn’t hear from him in the Semifinals. We did hear from him some other Liszt and Schubert-Liszt, which showed him as a player of considerable potential.

Giuseppe Greco (23, Italy) played the Liszt B Minor Ballade (as had Garritson) but it was his Beethoven Op. 31, No 3 that impressed most as mellow and musically mature for his age. Some of these young players are mature so far beyond their years that I actually wanted more of that youthful ecstatic feeling – Greco’s L’Isle Joyeuse (Debussy) was a case in point, as I wanted more feeling of the surges building (ironically something that involves taking more time, rather than less). All in all, though, he showed tremendous potential.

And more Liszt:  Lindsay Garritson added an excellent Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’este, and Wilde Jagd.  Jayson Gillham (26, of Australia/UK) contributed the Spanish Rhapsody, though he also seemed most at home in his Beethoven (“Waldstein” Sonata, Op. 53) and other works. He is a player of lucid intelligence and precision.

Nikolay Khozyainov (20, Russia) played one of the standout études of the competition, Liszt’s Feux Follets, but he needs a bit more time (and I do) before I can enjoy his performance of the same composer’s B minor Sonata. Also, though I love the Sonata and play it, it is easy to develop something of an emotional immunity to it over the course of competitions. There is something about such a dramatic juggernaut being trotted out as a vehicle to further the careers of contestants which gets one’s emotional guard up – like hearing the famous Hamlet soliloquy over and over in acting auditions. One starts to wonder whether the grimaces are from the cosmic struggle inherent in the piece or from the inner pleading with the heavens to win. Fei-Fei Dong (22, China) played a very praiseworthy rendition of it, but the same reservations persisted. These are absolutely wonderful pianists – let there be no mistake – but after a while the gnashing of teeth and tearing passion to tatters becomes unbearable. Where Fei-Fei Dong really impressed in her solo work was in Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles, a set that should be played much more often but was given a brilliant reading in Ms. Dong’s hands. She was on top of her game throughout, with immaculate Clementi and Chopin. Many considered her a contender for the Gold, and sure enough she was one of the final six.

And more Liszt: Alex McDonald (30, USA) offered a persuasive (and physically restrained) version of the B Minor Sonata – hallelujah! – but I still would rather hear him do it in a real recital (yes, after a relentless procession of pianists, even the suspension of disbelief that I’m at a recital wears out). Mr. McDonald followed with Takemitsu’s Raintree Sketch II – an ingenious touch  – and it seemed to wash the blood, sweat, and tears from the stage. Ravel’s “Oiseaux tristes” in his other round was also beautiful. When he spoke he was philosophical, almost professorial – all very good, but there did not seem to be any particular hunger to win. He is an artist with a mature perspective and much to offer.

And more Liszt: Oleksandr Poliykov (25, Ukraine – what a great month for Ukrainians!) gave a brilliant performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 and the Wagner-Liszt Liebestod; nothing, however, touched the magnificence of spirit in his Brahms F Minor Sonata, Op. 5. Some annoying smudges aside (only annoying because all else was so good), his was a conception I could embrace. Some of the younger neatniks would have staked their lives on fixing those smudges in practice, but I’ll take each one, if in such an expressive pursuit.

And more Liszt; Tomoki Sakata, whose Scriabin had impressed, also gave a good stormy workout to Liszt’s Dante Sonata and an earlier version of the better-known La Campanella. Unfortunately I found his tone too similar in Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 54, but the jury chose him as one of six Finalists regardless.  Jie Yuan (27, China), a pianist of large technique, offered more Liszt, with a Semifinal Spanish Rhapsody, but we never got to hear it, nor Zuber‘s Liszt Sonata in B minor. I have probably forgotten several other Liszt performances.

Not too surprisingly some listeners “overdosed” on Liszt. Reviewer Scott Cantrell stated that, “The competition could do itself a great favor by forbidding Liszt — even the substantive Sonata, which young pianists usually distort grotesquely.” While I would agree that some moments of excessively bangy Liszt had me rethinking whether I liked certain pieces, I would find a piano competition excluding only Liszt as plausible as a French cuisine competition without butter.  Liszt’s oeuvre gives players enough leeway to express an endless range – the pianist determines what emerges as epic versus cornball. It may puzzle some that in a competition offering such freedom of repertoire, so many contestants still choose the same works, but Liszt has always been synonymous with piano virtuosity, so it is here to stay.

Francois Dumont (27, France) programmed still more Liszt pieces – selections from Liszt’s Années de Pelerinage – but again we were never allowed to hear them. Anyway, it was his Chopin that “had me at hello.” Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 put him on my list for ones to watch and marked him as a real musician, not to mention his Debussy, Ravel (Gaspard) and Mozart (the Sonata K.310). It was a mystery how he did not get through to the Semifinals at least, but I have a feeling we missed something special in his Beethoven Op. 111. Oh, well.

Other notable Chopin came from Marcin Koziak (24, Poland). He played Chopin’s Scherzo in B-flat minor sensitively, but it was the Nocturne in F-sharp Major that showed real tenderness. His Szymanowski Mazurkas Op. 50 were also a good addition – they are much too seldom played. His Rachmaninoff Second Sonata suffered in my opinion from too much bringing out of inner voices in the slow movement (though his first movement was good). It seems as if some players feel that we have heard this piece enough and must find new and different angles. I love the occasional flash of light into a neglected corner, but we are not so bored with it (and I personally will never be) that we need the flashlight aimed so far below the horizon.

If one is at all tired of hearing the immensely lovable Sonata No. 2 of Rachmaninov, there is always Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, if one can hold it together! This less popular sibling found life in the hands of none other than this year’s Gold Medalist Vadym Kholodenko. Many criticized it as a lesser, even unworthy work, but it certainly was a breath of fresh air and needs a champion, aside from those recording it to complete a recorded set with its popular “better half.” It is long, but with Mr. Kholodenko’s sense of pacing, it mostly held together – and that is saying a lot! Preceding it with China Gates by John Adams was a stroke of brilliance – as the minimalist work set up the perfect backdrop for romantic outpourings. His Beethoven Sonata Op. 109 showed an admirably mature grasp as well.

All in all, I am at very much at peace with the choice of Vadym Kholodenko as the top winner of this Cliburn. While this article focused on free choice repertoire, Kholodenko’s Quintet and Concerto rounds were winning as well. His Mozart Concerto K. 467 (with original cadenzas supposedly written on the flight to the US) was delicately expressive, and Prokofiev Third Concerto provided enough fireworks for a Fourth of July celebration. In a way, this pianist’s career didn’t need the jumpstart, but it is often the case that those who don’t need it are the ones who win.

The Jury of the 2013 Van Cliburn International Competition included: Maestro John Giordano (United States) – chairman of the jury for his eleventh competition since he assumed the post in 1973. Other jury members included: Dmitri Alexeev (Russia), Michel Beroff (France), Andrea Bonatta (Italy), Richard Dyer (United States), Joseph Kalichstein (Israel), Yoheved Kaplinsky (Israel), Liu Shih Kun (China), Minoru Nojima (Japan), Menahem Pressler (United States), Blanca Uribe (Colombia), Arie Vardi (Israel), and Xian Zhang (China).

The reader can hear nearly all of these rounds online via the archived video recordings at Cliburn.org (though some may have already been removed). Catch them while you can. I already look forward to 2017!

Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists in Review

3rd Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists: Gala Winners Concert
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York, N.Y.
June 9, 2013

Music competitions, amid all the flak they receive, offer some undeniable boosts to young performers needing experience and exposure; beyond that, though, they expand musical audiences to include listeners drawn by the more sporting aspects of musical performance. There may be no better example than the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which has just concluded amid passionate Tweeting and arguing over favorites. On the heels of this spectacular event is a specialized contest in New York for the junior circuit (up to age nineteen) that may be a similar launching pad (albeit on a smaller scale) for some future stars. The Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition for Young Pianists honors the late great Bach interpreter by encouraging talented young pianists to explore the many different categories of Bach’s works (from the contest’s Category One’s Short Preludes and Fugues through Category Eight’s Goldberg Variations), and also those of contemporary composers, as Rosalyn Tureck was known to promote. Interestingly enough, this time it counted on its illustrious jury two prior Van Cliburn First Prize winners, Alexander Kobrin and André-Michel Schub – as well as Jeffrey Swann, Michael Charry, Sharon Isbin, John McCarthy, Zelma Bodzin, Max Wilcox, and Golda Vainberg-Tatz (the competition’s Director and Founder). Enjoying in addition the patronage of one of the world’s finest pianists, Evgeny Kissin, the Tureck International Bach Competition seems destined to gain prestige and continue drawing superb talents from far and wide.

Performers with the highest honors received “The Rosalyn Tureck Award” for their category, but there were also many Honorable Mention recipients who performed. One of the youngest winners, Neng Leong (age seven), kicked off the recital with Bach’s Fantasy in C minor, BWV 906 (all works in this review henceforth assumed to be by J. S. Bach unless otherwise specified). Young Ms. Leong’s mature and self-assured rendition was in stark contrast with her small stature and the sight of small feet dangling, unable to reach the floor.  Similarly Mingzi Yan (age eight) played the Fugue in C minor, BWV 961 with remarkable solidity and polish; she will undoubtedly find increased tonal variety with time. Connor Ki-Hyun Sung (another seven-year-old) contributed a commendable performance of the Invention in G minor, No. 11, BWV 782, followed by Liam Kaplan (age fifteen) playing the Invention in A Major, No. 12, BWV 783, with musical fluency and ease. The complexity of works generally increased, and the Prelude and Fugue in F minor, WTC I, BWV 857, was programmed next, played by Li Mengyuan (age thirteen). It was well polished, with thorough attention to imitative entries. One was reminded at this point how much good teaching undoubtedly went into each performance.

Movements from the suites brought more elements of Baroque dance into the mix, starting with Yali Levy Schwartz (age nine) playing the Allemande, Gavotte, and Gigue from the French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 817. She showed extraordinary poise and control for one so young.  Next, Fiona Wu (age nineteen) brought complete mastery of contrapuntal detail to movements from the Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830. Her unassuming, almost self-effacing entry onto the stage belied her intense immersion in its Toccata, Sarabande, and Gigue. Another lively Toccata, the D Major, BWV 912, came to life in the hands of Victoria Young (age thirteen). Refreshingly dancelike in feeling, it swept up both listener and performer (with only tiny glitches, which were masterfully overcome). Huan Li (age fifteen) was impressive in the Sinfonia, Allemande, Rondeau, and Capriccio from the Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826. Here were subtleties of articulation and dynamics, accomplished with fleet-fingered precision even in the Capriccio’s notorious leaps.

Moving on to the Italian Concerto in F Major, BWV 971, Anson Hui (age fourteen) acquitted himself well, especially in the livelier movements. The gem of a central movement was sensitively played and with continued development will be sure to gain in sustained intensity through its long-breathed phrases. Derek Wang (also fourteen) was declamatory and bold in his Toccata in C minor, BWV 911. One might argue that he tended to overplay in the forte passages, but it certainly was good to hear a robust interpretation (without any kid gloves in the name of historic fidelity); thankfully, he reveled in all the extremes, so his softer passages were equally engaging.

All contests have their big surprises, and Allison To (age twelve) was one. She proved to be one of the most refined and artistic for her age (or perhaps any age) in her performance of the Aria Variatta alla maniera Italiana, BWV 989. Not only did she win the Rosalyn Tureck Prize in her category (“various works”) but she was also the winner of the Evgeny Kissin Grand Prize Award, in recognition of the performer deemed most promising. This is a young player to watch!

Also outstanding was Athena Georgia Tsianos (age sixteen). While closing the evening with Bach’s English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811 (Prelude, Sarabande, and Gigue), she also played David McIntyre’s “Butterflies and Bobcats” for which she had won the Prize for the Best Performance of a Contemporary Work. She offered arguably the most exciting performance of the evening in this vibrant composition, and one will eagerly await many further performances from her.

There was no Category 8 winner (for the Goldberg Variations), and the Category 7 winners (Concerti) did not perform. What was programmed, though, was more than enough. Congratulations to all these young artists!

Wael Farouk, pianist in Review

Wael Farouk, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
June 1, 2012 
Wael Farouk, pianist

Wael Farouk, pianist

Just a year ago, I had the pleasure of hearing (and reviewing) Wael Farouk in one of the best renditions of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto I’d ever heard, and I could hardly wait to hear him again. The focus in that first hearing had not been his adverse situation as a pianist or, as his biography states, “small stature and an unusual hand condition that prevents him from making a fist or straightening his fingers” (though it was indeed striking to behold his hands’ miraculous maneuvers); what struck one most that evening was his tremendous music making, the kind that defies and transcends any and all challenges. His playing shows a commitment that is profound, and so does his repertoire, which according to his biography includes more than 50 concertos and 60 solo programs (of which he has given Egyptian premieres of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, and Prokofiev Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2, and 3).

Mr. Farouk had been scheduled to give his New York recital debut in Weill Hall in November, 2012, but he was forced to reschedule the concert because of Hurricane Sandy. The debut finally materialized seven months later  – an annoying amount of time to keep a program on the “back burner” while scheduled also for a 140th Anniversary complete Rachmaninoff cycle – but his devoted following was handsomely rewarded for the wait. There were, as will increasingly be expected, numerous pianists clustered near the stage, gesturing towards their own hands, speaking about sizes and stretches, and watching intently. As one may guess, Mr. Farouk’s magic is not so much about hands as about the inner musician.

Mr. Farouk’s imagination was readily apparent from the very first notes of the Prelude in B-flat Minor, Op. 37, No. 1, by Alexander Scriabin. The gentle, almost glassily rendered melody of his opening announced the presence of a sensitive artist and set the tonal palette well for future building into the next work in the same key, Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2, Op. 36 (the revised version).  Here Mr. Farouk shaped his phrases with elegance and an almost cerebral quality that is unusual among the many heart-on-sleeve versions. I must admit I lean towards the heart-on-sleeve interpretations, but it was fascinating to hear so many inner voices featured and such a sense of priority in the architecture. For me, there needed to be more building along the way (especially in top melodic registers) from the very first accelerando of the first movement to the clangorous almost bell-like resonances later on, but disagreements are inevitable, and Mr. Farouk always showed persuasive commitment. Vive la difference – Mr. Farouk will not be without controversy!

To close the half (surprisingly, as one usually sees the Rachmaninoff Op. 36 closing a half), Mr. Farouk gave the U.S. premiere of “To Our Revolution’s Martyrs” by leading twentieth-century Egyptian composer Gamal Abdel-Rahiem (1924-1988). In two well-crafted movements, “Elegy” and “Clash” the music spoke of national struggles through a hybrid language of Arab and Western modalities (and outlines of diminished fourths never far). In light of 2011 events, it has an updated political resonance, perhaps the intent in Mr. Farouk’s programming; at any rate, it was particularly interesting simply to hear music of a composer who taught virtually an entire generation of Egyptian composers.

To open the second half, Mr. Farouk gave the World Premiere of “I Colored a Wanted Music I Can Always Hear”-  a tonally mild and quasi-impressionistic haiku-inspired composition by Scott Robbins (b. 1964). It was sensitively delivered, and the composer, present to take a bow, beamed with pleasure.

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 32, No. 5 in G Major made a skillful transition back to the Russian world, specifically to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Here was the absolutely masterful playing of the evening. Mr. Farouk distilled the essence of each feeling and image in Mussorgsky’s phrases and gestures. Each highly contrasting movement was a gem of color and spirit, overflowing with energy and life right up through the final powerful chords. The audience leapt to its feet and was rewarded with three encores, the Gluck-Sgambati Melodie, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12 and the brilliantly played Liszt Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto. Bravo – and encore! While, nothing has eclipsed the memory of that Rachmaninoff Third Concerto of a year ago, I would still say:  run – don’t walk – to hear Wael Farouk!

New York Concert Artists and Associates: Evenings of Piano Concerti, Season V in Review

New York Concert Artists and Associates: Evenings of Piano Concerti, Season V
Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church, New York, N.Y.
May 24, 2013

New York Concert Artists and Associates continued its fifth season of concerto evenings with four staples of the piano concerto repertoire – the Schumann Concerto, the Saint-Saëns No. 2, and the 3rd and 5th by Beethoven. Combining forces with the NYCA Symphony Orchestra under excellent conductor, Eduard Zilberkant, were four young female pianists, all with impressive lists of accolades and all pursuing a doctorate or having earned one. If one needed an evidence of the difficulty of distinguishing oneself in classical music these days, one would need to look no further than the collective biographies of these young pianists. The proliferation of credentials and increased need for opportunities today underscore the value of NYCA’s mission to promote the next generation’s performers. While this evening was not one of the best in memory by this organization, one did come away thinking that the valuable orchestral experience was bound to enrich and refine the playing of each of the soloists.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous review, there are hazards in presenting so many concerti in one evening, not the least of which is a sense of haste that can beset even the most seasoned performers. There was just such a sense of haste, on this occasion, which seemed to affect all of the performances in some way or other.

Yu Jung Park, began the evening with Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C minor.  A work requiring a dark intensity and drama, it also requires a fierce impetus in the opening scales of the first movement; it is easy, though, to go overboard into the realm of rushing, and this seemed to be what happened. What at first was a minor discrepancy of tempo between soloist and orchestra escalated into a generally unsettled feeling that eventually took the movement off the rails. All was recovered expertly, but it is hard to recover completely from the general skittishness that results from such an occurrence. In and out of it all, one appreciated the pianist’s excellent finger work, and where she was alone, for example in the cadenza of the first movement, she seemed to find her comfort zone. It will be a joy to hear this pianist again, because she has much to offer. Her slow movement displayed beautiful sensitivity to harmonic changes, and she finished the work in fine form. She is currently working toward a DMA at Temple University, having already attended Peabody and the Korean National University of Arts. Her wide-ranging musical interests currently include Dutilleux and Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven.

The next performer, Sarah Chan, also has run the gamut credential-wise. She has earned Music degrees from the Manhattan School of Music, Peabody, and Eastman (where she obtained her doctorate), with additional studies at Le Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris and at the University of Michigan. She has pursued and extra-musical education at the Sorbonne, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan, and she currently teaches music and French courses at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. Her Schumann Concerto had much to admire but also did not seem impervious to the spirit of dispatch that pervaded the evening. Some minor glitches, which appeared in an otherwise exciting performance, could have been avoided with just a bit more breathing room, and some climaxes could have been more potent if achieved through dynamic building rather than acceleration. Inevitably with more performance of this work there will emerge a bit more dovetailing as the lead role is passed from piano to orchestra and back, but it showed plenty of spirit and pianism, ending the first half well.

Perhaps the strongest contribution of the evening in terms of neatness and technical reliability was from Hyojung Huh, in the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor. Again, listing myriad credentials, including degrees from Seoul National University, Westminster Choir College, Indiana University, and the University of Wisconsin (in subjects including choral conducting and sacred music), she demonstrated a thoroughness and seriousness of approach that carried her from start to brilliant finish. One might have wanted a bit more power to balance the orchestra, less understatement in the first movement’s effusive melodies, and a bit more joie de vivre in the work’s jaunty scherzando movement, but all in all one received the “bang for the buck” that one hopes for in this delightful piece.

The final performer of the evening was Do Haeng Jung in Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major (the “Emperor”). One appreciated from the start the fact that this performer took considerable time before and during the opening. This piece requires mature pacing, and it received it. It also received a big, full sound that set the tone for the nobility in this piece. Sure enough, there was again the almost obligatory snag in the first movement, but the pianist recovered to regain complete composure in the two next movements. Glancing through Ms. Jung’s biography, one reads that she has degrees from the Seoul National University and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, the latter where she is also pursuing her doctorate. What catches one’s eye is the mention of awards in collaborative performance, in addition to the usual solo prizes; indeed, Ms. Jung demonstrated a flexibility which helped hold the performance together and will continue to serve her in good stead as a concerto soloist. She ended the evening with a solid and bravura performance, receiving generous applause that undoubtedly was intended to include the cumulative efforts of the night and the close to a fine NYCA season.

Hee-Youn Choue in Review

Hee-Youn Choue, piano 
Merkin Concert Hall, New York, N.Y.
May 21, 2013


As a seven-year music reviewer in New York, I’ve become so spoiled by the bounty of pianistic offerings in the various concert halls that occasionally it is an interesting test to ask myself, “what will I remember of this evening ten years from now?” Occasionally one may remember just the bad weather or the difficult cab ride, but there is no chance of that happening with a recent concert of pianist Hee-Youn Choue, whose final work, Concert Suite from “The Nutcracker” Op.71a  (Tchaikovsky, transcribed by Mikhail Pletnev) was not to be forgotten. The pianist displayed in this work some of the most delightful pianism I’ve heard in recent live recital. I’ll especially remember her hummingbird-fast repeated notes in the March, the wonderfully zesty Trepak, and the witty and all too brief Chinese Dance – pieces I’ve heard often enough to want never to hear them again, though here they refreshed, as if new. I’ll remember with a measure of perplexity the sight of the less than full hall – this pianist deserves so much more. Then, with a bit of annoyance I’ll remember a nearby audience member, who apparently did not know about clapping, but saved all her expressions of appreciation for a bus stop cellphone call afterwards – about what an amazing performance her friend had missed! Amazing it was. We can at least hope that if everyone who was there gabs equally, the next recital will be jam-packed.

Ms. Choue has just about everything – technical brilliance, intelligence, poetry, poise, artful programming, and a beautiful stage presence. In addition, she has caught the attention of New York Concert Artists and Associates, under whose auspices she has performed several times. She is gaining momentum and deserves to go far.

Her opening work, Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob.XVI: 50, impressed with its beautifully differentiated articulations. It was delicate and crisp in touch, though thankfully never becoming too precious. The robust spirit of Haydn emerged especially in some of the bolder bass parts (also well suited to this hall’s piano). The last movement pointed up Haydn’s humorous surprises well, and Ms. Choue seemed quite at home stylistically. Minutest reservations arose in the second movement, where improvisatory adornments seemed a bit too glossy and pedaled to feel truly Haydnesque – to me their almost impressionistic sweep obscured the vocal relationship to the main melodies, but of course that is a matter of personal taste.

Schumann’s Fantasiestucke Op.12 followed. All was well thought through and polished, with special highlights being the hearty “Grillen,” and dazzling “Traumes Wirren.” The opening “Des Abends” was beautiful in tone and phrasing, but for my taste started to show too much of the Romantic tendency of left hand-preceding-right hand. That style is one way of wringing the tenderness from the harmonies, but Ms. Choue’s translucent sound, sensitive dynamic gradations, and pedaling (which was at times very generous) could probably achieve the desired effect without such stretching, which occasionally risks sounding mannered.

After Intermission, Chopin’s Nocturne in B Major, Op. 32, No.1, and Scherzo No. 4 in E Major were a beautiful pairing. Clearly Ms. Choue savored the tonal relationship between the two and, by projecting the connection physically, she successfully prevented applause from separating them. The Scherzo was another highlight of the evening, filled with silken streaming passagework and beautifully fluid melodic lines. The Nocturne I enjoyed less, simply wanting more attention to tonal continuity (or was there a voicing inconsistency issue with the piano?) – an anomaly in an otherwise stellar evening.

The Tchaikovsky which followed – I’ll just repeat myself here – was worth the trip all by itself.  It should become a signature piece by Ms. Choue, though undoubtedly she will find many of those.

An encore of Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in A Major (K. 113, L. 345) brought more of the precise delicacy one heard earlier in the Haydn, capping off the evening perfectly. Brava!

Sergei Kvitko in Review

 Sergei Kvitko, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
May 23, 2013
 Sergei Kvitko, pianist
Sergei Kvitko, pianist

The solo piano debut of Sergei Kvitko at Weill Hall was a heartwarming occasion – even a love-fest – for many reasons that became clear throughout the evening. As a bit of background, the Russian-born resident of Lansing, Michigan is no average pianist. Having come to the U.S. to pursue a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Michigan State University under the tutelage of Ralph Votapek, he has become a highly successful recording engineer and producer, with accolades for his work from numerous musical reviewers and a loyal following of musicians whom he has helped in their career paths. Beyond this, he is a composer and transcriber, as evidenced by several remarkable contributions on the evening’s program. He gives one hundred percent when he performs, and his energy is inspiring. In addition, he has an engaging personality, full of humor, something that showed in his commentary throughout the evening.

Mr. Kvitko opened with his own original transcription of Bach’s Prelude in C Major (from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I). The title was listed on the program as “Prelude in C Major with a Few Added Notes.” A few, indeed! Roughly as Charles Gounod had been inspired by this Bach work to add melody above, Mr. Kvitko took things farther, using the Prelude as a bass (entirely played by his left hand) and adding a florid quasi-improvisatory right hand part which built virtuosically to a large climax. I always appreciate new inspirations coming from this beloved piece, and this was a fresh one.

My first reaction to seeing that Kvitko had also programmed his own transcription of Ysaÿe’s Third Sonata for Violin (also known as “Ballade”) was to ask “why?” – because in my opinion the Ysaÿe still could stand a few more decades of hearings as written before it becomes the foundation for a “fresh perspective” transcription. Well, that question was quickly negated by what emerged as a captivating expansion upon the original. Starting off with a note-for-note statement taken from the violin work, Kvitko continued the original but with fleshed-out and reinforced harmonizations, octave doublings, and in general heightened drama via his own elaborations. Rather than obscuring Ysaÿe’s work, the transcription became an elucidation of it. I must confess to understanding the original better than I had before – and how great it was to hear it without any intonation problems! Just as each of the Ysaÿe Sonatas was dedicated to a great violinist (this one originally to Enescu) Mr. Kvitko dedicated this transcription to “the most important violinist” in his life, his mother. It was a special moment.

Another question “why?” might be elicited by the engagement of dancers for the Escenas Románticas by Granados, because those of us spoiled by the suave elegance of, say, Alicia De Larrocha’s renditions of these solo pieces may feel that the music says more than enough without visual distraction; Mr. Kvitko, however, clearly thinks outside such boxes. It also may even be silly to ask “why” when creative spirits such as he simply DO – a quality for which we may usually be thankful!

Kvitko’s interpretation was an expansive one, even if not as nuanced as I’d like. His playing maximized the drama, as the whole ballet concept encouraged it to do. The dancers, Lucas Segovia and Kara Zimmerman of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, offered what amounted to a half-ballet and half-pantomime creation of various scenes of love, including the first glance, the rebuff, the seduction, the celebration, and finally the settling of passions into lasting love. Some of the earlier pantomiming (including props of newspaper, chairs, and flowers), while charming, seemed to undermine the intimacy that I treasure in this musical set, but the last movement, the heartfelt and Chopinesque Epilogo, was quite moving. It was also interesting to behold dancers at Weill Hall, something I’ve not experienced before.

The second half opened with the pianist’s own transcription of Trepak from Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death” (dedicated to the composer Ricky Ian Gordon, who was present). It was another miniature one would hear nowhere else, to me an asset to any recital. In the story behind the music, the protagonist dies, so the music was that of tragedy – or as Kvitko wryly introduced it, “it’s Russian.” It was well transcribed and performed, and a good introduction to the rest of the program.

The substance of the second half was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (the pictures being a nice parallel to the “Escenas” aspect of the first half). It is a work that Mr. Kvitko has recorded, to very favorable critical response. This evening’s performance was an “over the top” one, with almost unremitting massive and prolonged fortes, a test to the pianist’s staying power. Even the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks was larger than life, raising concerns about how the Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba-Yaga) would top it – but as it turned out, Mr. Kvitko had more than enough stamina to follow the genetically modified chicks with steroidal hens! Where some wonderful piano dynamics did impress was in the end of “Bydlo” where one could imagine cattle carts disappearing into the distance: the fadeout was so well paced in fine gradations that one guessed that such a conception might have been helped by Mr. Kvitko’s experience with the wonders of audio technology. To hear that effect transferred to a perfect extended diminuendo on the piano was a treat. One can be confident that Mr. Kvitko has more of such treats in store, in whatever pursuits he undertakes, whether in producing, composing, or performing.

The end of the Great Gate of Kiev was met with rousing applause, bravos, and a standing ovation. Encores included another ballet performance (to a Piazzollaesque piano work) and a lightning-fast Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum by Debussy.

Piano Transcription of Solo Violin Sonata No. 3 “Ballade”


Pianist Sergei Kvitko with Lucas Segovia & Kara Zimmerman of Joffrey Ballet of Chicago perform last movement of Enrique Granados’ Escenas Románticas – Epílogo.
Filmed live at Cook Recital Hall of College of Music, Michigan State University.