The 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition Ends

The Kapell Competition Ends With An Evening of Concertos

After a concert last night in which the three Finalists played concertos with the Baltimore Symphony at the Clarice Smith Center’s Dekelboum Hall, the results of the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition are in, and they are as follows:

1st Prize – $25,000 to Yekwon Sunwoo, 23, of South Korea 2nd Prize – $15,000 to Jin Uk Kim, 28, of South Korea 3rd Prize – $10,000 to Steven Lin, 23, of the US The Chamber Music Award also went to Mr. Sunwoo.  A list of the other awards given can be found at:

Well, it was a very exciting Final Round at the Kapell Competition, and there were some surprises.  Anyone who has been reading my postings will know that I expected — from the first ten seconds of his first performance — that Steven Lin would win the First Prize.  Based on his performances throughout the 2 weeks of the event, I still feel that way.  This opinion, however, should take nothing away from the actual First Prize winner, Yekwon Sunwoo, who played spectacularly well — particularly the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, which he played in the Semi-Finals (with a really superb accompaniment by pianist Colette Valentine, an ideal collaborator and a wonderful pianist in her own right), as well as in last night’s Final Round with the Baltimore Symphony and conductor David Lockington.  On both occasions he let the beast loose with daring tempos, plenty of sonority and an especially ringing top.  He cut mightily through what was often a pretty heavy handed orchestral accompaniment and, I think, therein lay his victory.

Mr. Lin, who had in every performance up to the Finals demonstrated a truly breathtaking technique as well as an imaginative and attention-compelling musicianship that was well beyond what I was hearing from his colleagues, was simply swamped by the orchestra throughout his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  Mr. Lockington and the BSO should take a share of the blame for this, there were passages, especially from the low brass, that were seriously, almost ridiculously, overplayed.  (Was it Richard Strauss who said, “Never look at the brass, it only encourages them”?)  But Mr. Lin, who at 23 is tall but still slight of frame, is going to have to find a much more robust tone when he next sits down in front of an orchestra, or risk another annihilation.

Jin Uk Kim, the Second Prize laureate, took a broad, encompassing view of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with its wide landscape of sun and shade.  The first movement was leisurely and reflective in tone; the second, which Brahms referred to jokingly as “a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo,” was suitably growly and threatening.  The Andante third movement was a glass of fine brandy and a cigar, an interlude of near stillness heightened by Chang Woo Lee’s plangent cello solo.  The final Allegretto grazioso was subjected to a rather speedy interpretation of that tempo marking, but it sparkled and danced and the notorious runs of double thirds in both hands seemed to cause Mr. Kim no distress — in fact he strode through all the really thorny pianistics with no problems at all but cracked a fair number of notes in less difficult spots.

As I said at the beginning of my coverage of the Kapell, an event like this reminds us all of how many terrific pianists there are seeking careers.  Not all of them will succeed, of course, but a number of competitors who didn’t make it to the Final Round still gave wonderful, memorable performances.  To wrap this up, here (in no particular order) are a few of my happier memories from the past two weeks:  Diyi Tang in Gaspard de la nuit, Guilliaume Masson’s Canope by Debussy, Jeewon Lee’s Tchaikowsky Concerto and Kreutzer Sonata (with Melissa White), both Misha Namirovisky and Alexandre Moutouzkine’s Scriabin performances, Younggun Kim’s Poulenc Novelettes and Prokofiev 7th Sonata, Julia Siciliano in the Waldstein Sonata, Chien-Lin Lu’s Chopin Bacarolle…, so many.  Congratulations to all who participated.

Anton Kuerti in Review

Anton Kuerti in an all-Beethoven recital

You overhear these conversations all the time at concerts:  “Well, he/she didn’t put enough emotion into it.”  Or:  “He/she put a lot of emotion into it.”  Non-musicians can be forgiven for being confused by this issue, but the fact is (in my opinion, anyway) that “putting emotion in” is about 95% of the time the result of following the written directions of the composer, laid out in the score.  These guys (and gals) knew what they were doing, especially Beethoven who was positively obsessive about putting the most minute instructions in his manuscripts, occasionally on nearly every note.  It’s when performers don’t really take the trouble to learn the music in depth, when they take the once-over-lightly approach, or worse, when they decide that they know better than Mr. van B, that they end up sounding cold, or unemotional, and generally run aground on a lousy performance.  They’re not cold, they’re just lazy.  You don’t add emotion, you allow it to emerge by really knowing the musical score in the deepest possible way.  A good musician has to master it all — to internalize every detail of the composer’s instructions — and only then begin to decide how to best reproduce the work.

Anton Kuerti is not lazy.

Mr. Kuerti’s extraordinary all-Beethoven program last night — two Sonatas: the Op. 26 in A-Flat, and the Op. 57 in F minor “Appassionata” plus the massive 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120 — was overflowing with carefully observed details, and, as a result, it had the kind of effect on the emotions that most performers think they are achieving but never do.  Kuerti has studied these works for a lifetime, and knows every jot in these scores.  So, one could ask, is there no room for individuality?  For a more personal interpretation?  Of course there is, and Mr. Kuerti’s playing was full of freedom and fantasy — individual touches like the tiny delays which served to intensify cadences and provide breathing room in phrases — it’s just that he started from a place where every mark Beethoven put on the page was accounted for in full, and embedded in his playing.

Anton Kuerti

Audiences don’t get the opportunity to hear a performance like the one Kuerti gave last night very often.  This audience clearly knew it and erupted in a standing ovation as soon as the Diabellis, which closed the program, ended.  This enormous set of 33 magical variations on perhaps the most banal tune ever written, something like 55 minutes in length (I glanced at my watch as  it began intending to time it, but became so engrossed in the playing that I forgot to look again), is not the sort of piece that usually calls forth that kind of reaction.  It is of great length, relentlessly repetitive, and worst of all it ends slowly and quietly.  Nevertheless the audience, with more than a few of the worlds best pianists sprinkled in, was on its feet at the end — a well earned tribute to the fantastic journey it had just taken with Mr. Kuerti leading the way.   The pianist is 74 now, and his fingers occasionally slip.  It matters not at all.  For a couple of hours last night, he showed us what a good musician is, and what a good musician does.

Review of Jeremy Denk at The 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival

Jeremy Denk in Recital

Pianist Jeremy Denk is carving out a major career as an advocate, and a very persuasive one, for the music of Charles Ives and Gyorgy Ligeti.  In addition to his work as accompanist to megastar violinist Joshua Bell, the last couple of years have seen him record both Ives Sonatas as well as two books of Ligeti Études.  His recital at the Kapell Competition Wednesday night provided a look at both his superbly worked out  and deeply understood Ligeti Études, and a sample of his way with more standard repertoire in the form of Brahms’ Klavierstücke, Op. 118 and Book 1 of his Paganini Variations, Op. 35.  Playing all of the Études and the Paganini Variations on the same program would be considered by many pianists to be a suicide mission.  Both sets are incredibly technically demanding and physically taxing in the extreme.  I think by the end of the evening, even Mr. Denk may have had second thoughts about the wisdom of undertaking it.

Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk

He opened his recital with books one and two of Ligeti’s Études (there is a third book which remained unfinished at the composer’s death in 2006).  The first two books contain fourteen études and, as Mr. Denk explained, the last of these was considered, even by Ligeti himself, to be unplayable by an unaided human.  Denk’s traversal of the other thirteen was rhythmically and tonally alive, secure, and tossed off with a  remarkable sense of freedom from technical struggle.  Mr. Denk has internalized these unremittingly complex pieces to an amazing degree.  He still plays them from the score — more of a security blanket than a necessity, I suspect, since they are for all practical purposes unreadable from the page — but he’s clearly not bound to the printed notes.

After all that paradoxical ease in the Études — the result, to be sure, of a staggering amount of work — the six pieces of Brahms’ Op. 118 could have used more struggle.  Not in the technical sense, but in mining their depths for the intensely emotional content they hold.  It was all a bit charming and gemütlich, even the Paganini Variations which were also taken at tempos that occasionally flirted with pandemonium.  The enthusiastic response brought out two encores, and Denk took the term literally.  He repeated one of the Ligeti Etudes and the Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2 of Brahms.  You have to admire all that hard work, but really — he never heard of the Spinning Song?

Leon Fleisher in concert

Leon Fleisher

Leon Fleisher

Legendary pianist Leon Fleisher appeared in a rare recital Thursday evening at the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival at the University of Maryland campus in College Park.  It was an emotional event for the many pianists present as Mr. Fleisher, now approaching his 84th birthday, entered the stage moving slowly and looking a bit frail.  Fleisher’s meteoric career began as a child prodigy, becoming at 9 a student of the great Artur Schnabel, followed by a First Prize at the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium Competition in 1952 and continuing upward throughout the 1950s and early 60s with ecstatic notices and a series of concerto recordings with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra that are still unsurpassed.  It all fell to earth in 1965 when a problem with the nerves in his right arm, diagnosed many years later as focal dystonia, rendered his fourth and fifth fingers useless.  Decades of often painful search for a cure followed while Mr. Fleisher ventured into conducting, and became a much beloved teacher at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, a position he took up in 1959 and still holds today.   There were flashes of hope along the way — I remember being glued to the television, practically holding my breath, while he played the Franck Symphonic Variations about 30 years ago.  Again about fifteen years later there were some performances, and then most encouragingly, in 2004, the release of his CD Leon Fleisher: Two Hands.  I heard him then, in a concert in a friend’s living room in New York, play Egon Petri’s transcription of J. S. Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze so beautifully that I had to wipe the tears from my eyes.  Whatever success in treatment there has been, however, doesn’t seem to last and the artist who appeared before a full auditorium to warm and appreciative applause last evening, did so with the fingers of his right hand visibly clenched.  He played, except for duets with his wife Katherine Jacobson, only left-hand repertoire.  Still, it was not so much how Mr. Fleisher played, though there was a craggily beautiful account of the Bach Chaconne transcribed for the left hand by Johnannes Brahms that began in spare black and white and then blossomed like a flower into warm hues at it went, but the fact that he did play, and in doing so gave us the opportunity to honor both the great achievements of his career, and the long struggle, never given up, to regain what he lost.  He seems to have made peace with his ordeal though, dispensing witty comments about the repertoire and speaking movingly about his long ago friendship with William Kapell.  If there was ever a bittersweet tinge to these memories — it was Fleisher’s emulation of his older friend’s fanatic practice regimen that probably led to his eventual disability — time has erased it so that only love and admiration remain.

The William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival; Solo Semi-Finals in Review

Solo Semi-Finals Are Over – Nine Pianists Played

On Thursday, July 12th, the Jury of the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival selected nine semi-finalists from a field of twenty four.  These nine pianists were heard in three solo semi-final rounds on Friday, Saturday and Sunday performing recitals of an hour each including both the required American piece — Leon Kirchner’s Interlude II proving to be wildly popular, at least among the competitors — and a portion of one concerto of the performer’s choice, plus standard repertoire solo works.  At the risk of being a bit crass, here is my racing form so far:

Jin Uk Kim, 28 from South Korea but residing in Boston these days is a DMA student at the New England Conservatory.  Mr. Kim played two of the Brahms Klavierstucke, Op. 76 in middle of the road mode, without much heat or light.  He chose Interlude II (the choice of 5 of the other nine players as well), a piece from Kirchner’s last years, as his American work.  It’s an evocative piece which lends itself to a touch of romanticism in tone and Mr. Kim’s satisfying approach was appropriately juicy.  Sparks flew from the Six Paganini Etudes of Franz Liszt but the requisite virtuosity turned his sound toward the hard side.  The Brahms Second Piano Concerto is the 32oz porterhouse of piano concerti, and for me, Mr. Kim left a good deal of meat on his plate.  It was a speedy reading of the first movement, without much breathing room, but the second movement was warmer.

Jin Uk Kim

Jeewon Lee, 30, is also from South Korea and pursuing her DMA at Rice University in Texas.  She began with her American work, Michael Torke’s Laetus and followed it with the Chopin Piano Sonata No. 3.  This, as all the piano playing world knows, is a towering work of great difficulty, both technically and musically.  Ms. Lee handled the technical demands without batting an eyelash, but the music itself was more problematic.  She tends to back away from the climaxes of phrases in a coy, cutesy way —  coquettish rather than ardent, and I think probably not what Chopin was aiming at.  Her Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1, however, was fullblooded and very well played.

Diyi Tang was the competitor I missed hearing in the Preliminaries due to that unfortunate combination of confusion about the start time and traffic.  He is 32, from China, and working towards a DMA at Rutgers University.  He made something of a fashion statement, entering the stage dressed in a sharp and shiny brown sharkskin suit.  Fortunately, his Gaspard de la nuit shimmered as well.  Ondine irridesced, Le gibet twisted ever so slowly in a non existent wind, the endlessly repeating B-flats sounding like they were played by some other pianist in some other room far away, and Scarbo terrorized, leaping and whirling and generally throwing the furniture around.  Mr. Tang chose George Walker’s Sonata No 2 as his American piece and gave it a thoughtful reading.  Less so Chopin’s Scherzo in C-sharp minor, Op. 39 which was strangely uninvolved given the opportunities it presents.  Mainly it was very, very fast with little give, even in the chorale sections.

Saturday’s Round Two began with Yue Chu, 28, from China and currently studying in Philadelphia, who started his program with Interlude II.  To my ears Mr. Chu exhibited tonal problems throughout his recital.  He produced a duller sound than his predecessors which didn’t flatter him by comparison, particularly in the Liszt Sonata which suffered from a few too many cracked notes as well as insufficient bass, leaving otherwise lush harmonies under-supported.  The Rachmaninoff Third Concerto (first and second movements) was better but still on the cool side.

Masafumi Nakatani

Masafumi Nakatani

Masafumi Nakatani, 28 and from Japan, is in the Doctoral Program at University of Miami.  He also opened his program with the Kirchner — a mesmerizing reading with warm sound and pinging high notes.  Things slid downhill from there, however.  Schumann’s Carnaval was overpedaled and sloppy with missed notes and memory slips.  That’s forgivable in this pressure cooker situation, but in an effort to do something “deep” Mr. Nakatani often twisted the music out of proportion, a propensity that afflicted the Beethoven Emperor Concerto too, and that I am less inclined to brush off.

Fortunately, critics are not expected to exercise neutrality.  I have pointed out what I perceive to be some of the problems of these competitors, but I’d like to say here and now that they are all at a minimum very very good pianists.  Remember that, please, as you read what comes next:

Steven Lin is a whole other order of being.  In this competition, he is a leopard in a room full of house cats.  (Mr. Lin may also prove to be a cure for triskaidecaphobics since he is Competitor No. 13).  There is little to say except to marvel at his level of technical accomplishment, well above most of the professional pianists who inhabit the world’s concert halls these days.  The ease of this young man’s playing (he’s 23, and of Taiwanese descent but born in the US), his poise and his absolute mastery enable him to really let his imagination loose.  He can do pretty much anything he wants to do.  This is not necessarily always a good thing, but even when Mr. Lin does something slightly cringeworthy, he does it with such astonishing skill and freedom that it’s pointless to argue.  He exists in a blissful zone of his own.

Steven Lin

Steven Lin

Yekwon Sunwoo is also 23, from South Korea and enrolled in the Masters program at Juilliard.  He seems to me a strong contender for a place in the Kapell finals.  He’s a technical whiz and a good musician.  My one complaint would be that he uses very soft dynamics too much (this has been something of a trend at this competition).  The Chopin Ballade No. 1 left me feeling cheated at many beautiful moments.  The slow movement of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was much the same — projection above all, please,  even at low volume.   His Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, however, practically lifted the roof off the auditorium (and broke a string in the piano as well).

Yekwon Sunwoo

Yekwon Sunwoo

Misha Namirovsky, 31, from Russia by way of Israel is another newly minted Bostonian, now in the DMA program at New England Conservatory.  I’m about 95% sure Mr. Nemirovsky intended to play the German Steinway he used in the preliminary rounds, however, since the string broken during Mr. Sunwoo’s Rachmaninonff Concerto couldn’t be properly replaced in the 15 minutes allotted between performances, I think Namirovsky must have agreed to use the American Steinway he ended up playing at the last minute.  If that’s the way it happened, it’s a pretty undesirable position to be put in and I suspect it rattled him, subtly at first and then more overtly as the Schumann Symphonic Etudes proceeded.  By the time the Beethoven Fourth Concerto came along he was back in control and he gave a beautiful if slightly oddball performance of it — the second movement played first, followed by the first movement.

Jun Sun, 23 from China and currently a student at Juilliard, gave an appealingly haunting and reflective performance of (once again) the Kirshner Interlude II, and a carefully articulated performance of Brahms’ Handel Variations that was also athletic and fearless at the right moments.  Brahms First Piano Concerto was a little reticent for my taste but it roared occasionally too.

Chamber music is on the program for the next two days followed by the announcement of the finalists.

A Correction:

There are of course inherent problems in publishing same day pieces, and sometimes mistakes are made.  Let me rephrase that:  Sometimes I make mistakes — and I made a lulu the other day when I wrote that Misha Namirovsky had, at the last minute before his performance on Sunday, been forced by circumstances beyond his control to play the American Steinway.  He was, in fact, scheduled to play the American Steinway, has used it from the beginning of the competition and he played it again today in the Chamber Music Round.  My apologies to all concerned.

The Kapell Competition in Review

The Preliminary Round is Over

The Kapell Competition’s preliminary rounds were spread over three days – the only way to hear 24 pianists play 30 minutes of repertoire each without fatalities on the jury and perhaps the audience as well.  One fact becomes immediately apparent from such an undertaking:  there are a lot of excellent young pianists around.  This should give folks like Norman Lebrecht and other predictors of the demise of classical music something to think about.  These young artists are enthusiastic champions of the art form and in terms of audience, I think people have always come to classical music later in life when they go looking for real meaning as opposed to just entertainment.  In any case, we’ll see.  Personally, I’m not too worried.

William Kapell; Photo Credit: Clarice Smith Center

Among the performers here there are several with genuine star potential, and many more with the ability to inspire others to become interested in concert music.  Some time around 4pm today the jury will announce nine semi-finalists.  It’s 2:45 now so I’m going to go out on a limb and list my choices (in the order in which they played) to advance to the next round.  Once caveat:  due to the notorious Washington Beltway traffic, as well as a certain confusion of mind as to the actual start time of Round Three, I missed Diyi Tang’s performance entirely, and I only heard Maria Sumareva’s via closed circuit TV in the lobby since I arrived after she began — clearly not the best way to make a judgement, so if either or both of them deserved to be mentioned here, I can only apologize and look forward to hearing them in the next round.

Julia Siciliano

The first name on this list is bound to be controversial.  Julia Siciliano is a consummate musician who played very beautifully… except when she didn’t.  Nemesis stalked her through the Chopin Fourth Scherzo.  Its skittering leaping chords, which appear in I don’t know how many transpositions in the course of the piece, are a memorization death trap and Ms. Siciliano fell in.  Twice.  She climbed out, however, with elegance and grace and not the slightest effect on the rest of her performance of the piece or the remainder of her program — an absolutely engrossing and flawlessly played Waldstein Sonata, the equal of any I’ve heard.  I hope the jury will cut her enough slack to continue.

Younggun Kim

Younggun Kim is indeed, as his name implies, a young gun.  He has blazing technical capacity and a lush sound supported by a natural phrasing sense and an appreciation of the differences in approach required to project the music of Haydn – a little dry for my taste, but more about that in a later post about the pianos.  Kim’s Poulenc Novelettes shimmered with beautifully balanced voicings, and Prokofiev’s war horse Seventh Sonata was spiky and rhythmically driven but still played with full, beautiful tone.

Gonzalo Paredes

Gonzalo Paredes

Chilean pianist Gonzalo Paredes began with a sprightly performance of the first movement of Haydn’s big C Major sonata (Hob. XVI:50).  When I say sprightly I really mean fast, perhaps a little too fast, but perfectly controlled and bravely pedaled according to Haydn’s long markings.  Two pieces from Bartók’s Out of Doors Suite followed.  The Night’s Music was appropriately buggy, The Chase quite spectacular.  Liszt’s Variations on a Theme of J. S. Bach had the rapt audience eating out of Paredes’ extremely capable hands.  He has more than a little of his great countryman Claudio Arrau’s depth of sound and he uses it to great effect.

Steven Lin

Steven Lin

Steven Lin  is a phenomenon.  He seems effortlessly to do things which might reasonably be assumed to be impossible.  He is surely one of the most gifted technicians around, and that includes most of the professional pianists performing today.  This is not hyperbole; you have to hear him to believe it.  His Haydn Sonata, the same C Major as Mr. Paredes’, was playful and sparkling, and Mr. Lin milked it for every opportunity to do something remarkable.  He sometimes skated close to the outer bounds of good taste, but he never really crossed it, and, it has it be said again, it really was remarkable.  He followed this with a jaw-dropping account of Liszt’s very ungrateful Don Juan Fantasy — a piece I will readily admit that I detest.  In 40 years I never heard a performance of it that sounded like anything but a confused noise from without, that is until yesterday just before 11am when Mr. Lin set everything right.  Indescribable.  And I can’t wait to hear more.

Yekwon Sunwoo

Yekwon Sunwoo

Yekwon Sunwoo gave us a clear and well proportioned version of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 27, No. 1, the companion piece to the more famous “Moonlight” Sonata, and one of Beethoven’s loveliest.  One thing puzzles me — and I’ll admit it’s a nit-pick, but the other pianist who played this work did the same thing — and that is the unauthorized (at least by Beethoven) appearance of staccato notes in the left hand in measure 4.  OK, ok, it’s a minor thing, but it spoils the surprise when they do appear in the next measure.  Somebody should kill this before it spreads.  Ravel’s La Valse stretches anyone’s technical abilities to the limit, but it didn’t seem to disturb Mr. Sunwoo in any way.  He gave a whirling, kaleidoscopic account that never lost sight of the basic waltz rhythm.

Jee In Hwang

Jee In Hwang

Jee In Hwang produced a massive Rachmaninoff Corelli Variations, a glittlering Jeux d’eau and a solid Les Adieux Sonata, although the first movement was not improved by a tempo which strained the upper limits of musicianship.  Misha Namirovsky’s Schubert suffered from too much una corda pedal — it seems to be the fashion these days to show how softly you can play and a number of competitors are overusing it — but his Rachmaninoff, Debussy and particularly his Scriabin Fourth Sonata with its devilish Prestissimo volando were awfully good.  Jun Sun played a rather uninterested account of Haydn’s Sonata No. 33 but Godowsky’s fabulous elaboration of the Strauss waltz Wine, Women and Song had a technical command you couldn’t argue with.  The problem with the Godowsky transcriptions is that pianists nowadays take them too seriously.  There was a lot of mooning over the opening riffs and other inconsequentials.  Sometimes it is just noodling.   Guilliaume Masson is another of the una corda addicts, but his takes on Mozart, K. 330 and Liszt’s Après un lecture de Dante were highly original and, well, pretty convincing.  Canope, Debussy’s evocation of an Egyptian burial jar, was magically still and mysterious. And now, time to await the real jury’s decision.

July 12, 2012 — 2:45pm

The XIV International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, Moscow June 14 – June 30, 2011

The XIV International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, Moscow June 14 – June 30, 2011

Finding myself with some time and a decent internet connection on my hands while packing up a house in the Caribbean for the approaching hurricane season, I discovered to my delight that the Tchaikovsky Competition was being webcast this year.  It’s of such monumental proportions now, with the piano, violin, cello and voice events being run simultaneously from Moscow and St. Petersburg, and with more than 100 participants, that it’s impossible to hear it all. So, being a pianist myself, I chose to listen to as much of the piano competition as I could.

First prize winner pianist Daniil Trifonov

First prize winner pianist Daniil Trifonov

Delight often turned to frustration with the Tchaikovsky’s website. It is a bit of a hash – a mass of counterintuitive menus – for instance, you cannot go directly from the performers listing to his or her performances.  And the page giving the results of each round has no links to the players at all, so you are constantly trying to remember which menu has the navigation you want.  They’ve also been rather slack about posting videos in the Archives section which, so far anyway, still does not contain all the finalists’ concerto performances.

Second Prize Winner Pianist Yeol Eum Son

Second Prize Winner Pianist Yeol Eum Son

The streaming video is of variable but generally poor quality, often grainy and pixilated and the audio (which, incidentally, is excellent) is almost always about a second ahead of the video.  Regrettably, the camera work is more suited to a hip-hop music video, particularly in the concerto rounds, with fast cuts (often 3 seconds or less) from a crotch shot of the tympani player to a close up of the concertmaster’s ear to the annoying up-the-right-nostril camera angle which has been used far too often with the soloists.  Whoever is cueing the cameras also seems to be fairly ignorant of the content of the repertoire, and either can’t read music or is just winging it because at nearly every interesting spot in the performances I’ve seen so far, the camera is anywhere but on the players’ hands.  Far below standard for an event of this importance and prestige – still, it’s wonderful to be able to view the competition in its entirety because these pianists really are the creme de la creme.  Commenting on it all for the webcast were Irina Tushintseva in Russian and John Rubinstein, the son of legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein, in English.  A tough job considering they had to ad lib through sometimes extended delays, but they chatted away gracefully, if not always informatively.

Third Prize Winner Pianist Seong-Jin Cho

Third Prize Winner Pianist Seong-Jin Cho

As I began to watch the opening round concerts – there were 29, and I have to admit I did not see them all – I was really astonished by the depth of talent at this event.  For the statistically minded, only 8 of the 29 competitors were women, including the youngest, 16 year old  Ekaterina Rybova.  This surprised me since in most other competitions the sexes are about equally divided, with numbers often tilting slightly to the female side.  Also interesting is that Steinway seems to be maintaining its dominance on the concert platform, chosen as it was by 19 of the 29 pianists.  The remaining performers went about half for Yamaha and the rest to Fazioli and Shigeru Kawai.  There was also a wide breadth of personalities apparent in these competitors – some comfortable and engaging on stage, some visibly nervous, or unhappy, or fretful.  Some smiling, some not, some handsomely dressed, some verging on shabbiness.  One excellent but possibly hard pressed player appeared to have borrowed his concert clothes from someone several sizes larger, a poignant sight.  One of the all male, mostly jacket and tie wearing jury members persisted in showing up dressed as if he’d been transported there direct from an aisle at K-Mart, not poignant at all, just objectionable.  In any case, in order to keep this account of the competition to a manageable length, let’s talk about the 12 pianists who made it through to Round II:

Sara Daneshpour
, the only American in the competition and one of only two women to emerge from the First Round, is an elegant player, prone to a sweetness of gesture that was an asset in Haydn’s F Major Sonata and Schumann’s Abegg Variations but didn’t work as well in other repertoire – notably the darkly brooding Corelli Variations of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev’s demonic Toccata, Op. 11.  In the Mozart Concerto round, her D minor, K. 466 was lithe and dramatic but went momentarily off the rails in the second movement – only an instant really, but probably enough to get her eliminated.

At 30, Eduard Kunz has been around the competition circuit for a number of years.  He’s a tremendously communicative and intelligent musician, and one of the most interesting and satisfying pianists to be heard at this Tchaikovsky Competition.  At crucial moments though, he’s prone to crack a note or have a slip of the finger and it damages his playing just enough to knock him out of contention.  It’s a problem because absolute technical perfection has become the norm, often superseding excellent musicianship  – a real case of the perfect becoming the enemy of the good.  Among his performances, a startlingly colorful and imaginative Gaspard de la Nuit was a particular gem.

Twenty year old Swiss pianist François-Xavier Poizat is another deeply fascinating musician.  I had hopes he might make the finals as well – he gave a Mozart Sonata in C Major (K. 330) of pure crystalline beauty, and an interesting and finely detailed performance of the rarely played Prokofiev Fourth Sonata.  There was also a stunningly beautiful Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel, ending with a luminous and finally blazing account of its perilous Toccata.

Born near Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, 22 year old Alexander Sinchuk is a sort of Byronic ideal of a concert pianist.  Handsome, elegantly dressed, ramrod straight at the instrument and with his David face tilted heavenward, it became obvious he has an affinity for the darkly romantic corners of the repertoire.  He gave forceful accounts of the Schubert A minor Sonata Op. 143, the Franck Prelude Chorale and Fugue and Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Sonata.  At the end of the first day, he hurled himself at the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata “Stalingrad” as if he could see the carnage and smoking ruins in his mind’s eye.  He was absolutely excellent, and on another day he might have finished in the top five.  That he didn’t this time is just additional proof of the stratospheric standards on display here.

Twenty-four year old St. Petersburg native Alexander Lubyantsev had some serious partisans at the event, to the point that when he was eliminated there was some vocal dissatisfaction with the judges’ decision.  For me, the judges were on the money this time.  At this level, everybody is good, but I found Lubyantsev’s performances rather square, particularly his Mozart K. 467, which seemed an endless series of groups of four sixteenth notes without enough grace or context.


Filipp Kopachevskiy

Filipp Kopachevskiy

Filipp Kopachevskiy, on the other hand, gave devastating readings of the Schumann Kreisleriana and Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Sonata, and an impassioned performance (from the score, but several of the competitors exercised this option) of the commissioned work, Tchaikovsky Etude by Rodion Shchedrin.  This 21 year old Muscovite with the Beatles style mop-top made a huge impression with his first round performances as well – particularly with Tchaikovsky’s Danse Characteristique, the Chopin Grand Polonaise in A-Flat and a whirling, stomping, blindingly incandescent performance of Ravel’s La Valse that took the Shigeru Kawai piano he chose to its outer limits without for a second tipping over into ugly sound.  Three very different dances, and he brought to each one its own characteristic rhythmic impetus, but they were unmistakably his performances, in his own immediately identifiable voice.  This is a trait only the greatest players have, and it’s what makes for really compelling listening.  In this competition, at least to my ears, Mr. Kopachevskiy and First Prize winner Daniil Trifonov were the only pianists who had it.

So what happened?  As I think about his elimination I am, well – frankly rather disgusted.  His kaleidoscopic playing was so obviously superior to at least three of the four others who were promoted to the final round, that I simply can’t understand it.  And I’m not the only one.  I speak Russian – well, perhaps more accurate to say that I understand it reasonably well.  So I can tell you that when Irina Tushintseva, the Russian anchor, in her commentary introducing him in Round II referred to Kopachevsky as “number one,” John Rubinstein, laughing, replied, “Irina, you’re not allowed to say that!”

There are two possible explanations, and probably some combination of both was at work here – one is that his final performance, a Mozart Concerto (the sober K. 491 in C minor, which, having changed from Kawai he played on a Steinway, and using Mikhail Pletnev’s slightly strange cadenzas), was not his best piece.  There were no problems, not a note out of place, but somehow it didn’t seem as deeply committed as his previous work.  The other is his demeanor on stage.  Kopachevskiy displays a Rachmaninovian unwillingness to smile, and he gives little indication to the audience that he appreciates or even accepts their attention and applause.  It shouldn’t matter in one so hugely talented, but perhaps it chipped off just enough appeal to make a difference with the judges.  It’s something they should never have considered, but I can think of no other explanation.  He should easily have placed first or second.  As it was, he didn’t even get the jury’s Discretionary Prize (which went to Pavel Kolesnikov, an excellent but not really distinctive performer) – anyhow, a real blot on the entire event.

No competition at this level ever goes off entirely without controversy, and while the piano division was relatively free of scandal – apart from my own grave dissatisfaction with the elimination of Kopachevsky – a real lulu of a storm broke over the cello contest.  Apparently, in the concerto round, conductor Mark Gorenstein made a racist remark during rehearsals with Armenian finalist, Narek Hakhnazaryan, calling him something like a “redneck.”  Tchaikovsky Competition officials put out a fairly hot statement disavowing Gorenstein’s comment in surprisingly strong terms, and Gorenstein scuttled out and was quickly replaced.  Hakhnazaryan, bless him, went on to win First Prize – the ultimate revenge.  I suspect that Mr. Gorenstein’s career has suffered, in E. F. Benson’s elegant phrase, “an irretrievable eclipse.”

So, on to the final five pianists:

Fifth Prize Winner Alexei Chernov, 28, from Moscow, was a puzzle to me from the beginning.  This guy should buy a Lotto ticket, because he drew the final performance in every round, an advantageous spot by most calculations since, assuming your performance is one among many decent ones, you are at least fresh in the judges’ minds.  He began his Round II recital by pairing a short Bartok Etude (the Op. 18, No. 3) with the required Shchedrin Tchaikovsky Etude, making an attractive combination particularly with Chernov’s incisive and tangy tone and ultra clear pedaling.  Next up was the Scriabin 5th Sonata, a wild ride under any circumstances, but in this case sounding more hysterical than phantasmagorical, in part due to the lightly applied pedal which served Chernov so well in the previous pieces.  It just wasn’t juicy enough.  A simple suite by Henry Purcell was next – a daringly un-virtuosic choice for a super virtuoso competition.  A Glenn Gould, or these days a David Fray, might have made it fascinating but Mr. Chernov doesn’t have that kind of irresistible declamation in music like this.  His Schumann Symphonic Etudes suffered from attempts to exaggerate the dramatic content – too much rubato, too much stretching of phrases, pauses that went on too long, and this tendency toward questionable taste carried over into his concerto performances (Mozart, K. 595 and Tchaikovsky 1st).  He ran into trouble in the final round with the Brahms 1st Concerto – the only time it was played in this competition – trying to engage with an orchestra that here sounded seriously under-rehearsed.

I expected Fourth Prize Winner, 26 year old Alexander Romanovsky of Ukraine, to finish higher.  I thought he was a more interesting player than the two immediately above him.  His Round I Brahms Paganini Variations, a notoriously demanding work, featured some pretty spectacular playing both technically and musically.  He has a maturity of musicianship and understanding that allows him the seriousness to bring off a piece like the Symphonic Etudes, which he also played, in a natural way – without sounding as Chernov sometimes did, like a youngster wearing a stage beard.  His Tchaikovsky 1st and Rachmaninoff 3rd concertos were full of warm sound and elegant phrasing, as well as the requisite high octane that I thought would have carried him further.  Perhaps his problem was that he had the misfortune to choose the same Mozart Concerto (in A Major, K. 488) as the ultimate winner Trifonov, who played it so beautifully that some of the color seemed to drain from Romanovsky’s performance.

The youngest competitor to make the later rounds, 17 year old South Korean pianist Seong Jin Cho took Third Prize and he certainly has plenty of virtuoso chops.  His playing was uniformly clean and unfazed by any technical challenge no matter how difficult, but I missed the kind of in depth musical approach to pieces like the Schumann Humoreske and the Beethoven Sonata Op. 110, and the color and character needed to do justice to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which he plays well now but will play better in a few years.  The fireworks in the Tchaikovsky and Rachmainoff 3rd Concertos he handles admirably, even astonishingly for such a youngster, but he lacks some of the drama to make them really effective.

Second Prize Winner Yeol Eum Son, 25, also from South Korea, has one overriding characteristic in her playing – a kind of superhuman éclat that can easily remind you of Hofmann or Lhévinne in its supremely clear, neat and even brilliance.  Is it that she deploys it too often that bothers me, or is it just as when someone extraordinarily beautiful walks by – heads turn to look?  In any case, it becomes hard to notice anything but her spectacularly perfect execution and all that flawless pearling has the unfortunate effect of making whatever she plays sound a little bit precious.  It works to her advantage in bon-bons like Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody and Samuel Feinberg’s extraordinary transcription of the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony.  Now there’s a piece that’s seldom heard due to its phenomenal difficulty, and Ms. Son very nearly took the roof off the Bolshoi Zal with it.  Even in Mozart’s effervescent K. 467 Concerto her diamond cut playing is attractive, but in meatier repertoire like the Sonata Op. 111 of Beethoven something essential is missing.  Perhaps she’ll have to resort to the Hollywood actresses’ method for avoiding smitten fans – some kind of pianistic version of big sunglasses, no-makeup and a ratty hairdo.  I wish I got more musical satisfaction from her playing (and clearly the judges disagree with me here), but I have to admit I’d love to hear her in Schulz-Evler’s Blue Danube.

First Prize went to Daniil Trifonov and there is no question that it was richly deserved.  This 20 year old, born in Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky) in the Russian heartland, is a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Ohio, studying with emigré Russian pianist Sergey Babayan who I vividly remember hearing practically turn the piano inside out in competition 20 years ago.  It’s an interesting combination since they are very different sorts of players.  Babayan, the incendiary virtuoso, has somehow had a hand in developing a mellow, rather introverted but angelicly pure musical soul in Trifonov.  Not that Trifonov lacks technical voltage – quite the contrary, he’s up to anything, in fact his complete Chopin Etudes, Op. 25 were one of the highlights of the entire competition, it’s just that he’s more Lipatti than Horowitz.  Every note he touched was pure gold, but I really think his crowning moment came in what must surely have been one of the loveliest performances of Mozart’s K. 488 Piano Concerto ever given.  Compelling, radiant, every gesture in the music lovingly communicated, directly and with perfect naturalness, artfully but without artifice.  It simply could not have been better.

Mr. Trifonov came to Moscow to compete in the Tchaikovsky directly from his First Prize win at the 2011 Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv.  The double first place finishes will doubtless give some impetus to what at his age is a fairly new career.  It’s likely to be a brilliant one.