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.
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!