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Van Cliburn Piano Competition

Critic: After strong start, Cliburn Day 4 ends on puzzling notes

Posted Monday, May. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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As of Monday afternoon, 30 of the Cliburn Competition contestants had been heard. Yuri Favorin of Russia played the last note of the first round of the preliminaries in Bass Hall.

Then everybody had to start doing it all over again. The second round of the preliminaries began with Monday afternoon’s session (Claire Huangci playing) and continues through Thursday afternoon before the announcement of the semifinalists. Everybody plays a recital in the same order as the first time but with different music.

Favorin’s final notes were certainly bizarre. He was essaying a very 20th-century work by Andre Boucourechliev, a Frenchman of Bulgarian origins. It is titled Orion 3 and because it followed a raucous Liszt take on Wagner, it’s tempting to call it a Liszt work written 200 years late. It was a tornado of sound, none of it pleasant. I’m assuming Favorin played it well; the audience certainly responded with enthusiasm.

The Liszt version of Wagner’s Tannhauser overture thundered with the best of them. It would be fascinating to know what Wagner thought of this exercise in vulgarity.

Strangely, Favorin began with a quite decent and lovely performance of Schubert’s Sonata in E-flat, D. 568. It’s hard to imagine a more drastic range of styles in this recital.

Francois Dumont of France began with a likable Mozart Sonata in a minor that seemed just a bit on the heavy side for Mozart. Yet another performance of Ravel’s Gaspard de le Nuit followed. This was dazzling in its atmosphere and technical mastery.

A potent, muscular account of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3 brought Dumont’s recital to a strong conclusion.

Ruoyu Huang of China rounded out the morning session pleasantly with a joyous Haydn Sonata in G major and some decently done Chopin.

Round 2 of the preliminaries gives everybody a chance to see whether their favorites can confirm Round 1 impressions.

Claire Huangci of the United States, who opened Round 2 as she had the first round, certainly did so. She gave a classy performance of music by two great masters of the lyric art, Schubert and Tchaikovsky. I found Schubert’s three piano pieces, D. 946, to be exceptionally appealing, and Mikhail Pletnev’s arrangement of music from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty was a vivid presentation of short pieces.

Beatrice Rana of Italy, who was highly impressive her first time around, remained so Monday afternoon. She played yet another set of “ Abegg” Variations by Schumann (which is having an unusual run in this competition), combining subtlety and drama without hammer blows.

Her account of Gaspard de la Nuit started with atmospheric flowing sounds in the opening and a haunting sense of desolation in the spooky Le Gibet section (which imagines a hanged man twisting slowly in the wind). Scarbo was given a virtuoso performance that rivaled any other in this competition.

She spiced up her recital by closing with Bartok’s Out of Doors, which offered an opportunity for brusque power and some haunting night sounds.

The other performer of the afternoon session was Scipione Sangiovanni of Italy, whose chipper Beethoven Sonata No. 3 lifted spirits and who gave an impressive account of Franck’s Prelude, Choral and Fugue that never quite convinced that this work can be numbered among the great masterpieces.

The evening’s performances were a bit of a puzzlement. It’s hard to divorce your feelings about the inherent worth of a composition from your feelings about the way it’s played. Steven Lin’s performance of Liszt’s Reminiscences de Don Juan was a case in point. For me, the work is Liszt at his trashiest, full of audience-seducing tricks but devoid of taste or any inherent worth.

Yet Lin had the notes, for sure, and got a massive ovation at the end. I didn’t like the performance simply because I didn’t like the music. I don’t begrudge the enjoyment others got out of it, and I do admire Lin’s technique and flair.

And it must the said that the remainder of his program, including a Haydn sonata filled with playfulness and good cheer, and some poetic Chopin, was thoroughly enjoyable both as music and as a performance.

Dallasite Alex McDonald’s program of Ravel, Liszt (kind of restrained this time) and Chopin scored points — I especially liked Alborada del Gracioso. However, Stravinsky’s Three Movements From “Petroushka” seemed a little tedious by the end.

Maybe I’m OD’ing on the composition, which is getting heavy play in this Cliburn. It needs to be added that McDonald’s Stravinsky received a Lin-like ovation.

Marcin Koziak had two powerful pieces, Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata and Brahms’ Sonata No. 1, but a little puzzling were the pauses between movements and especially between works, which became so long as to be eccentric.

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