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Van Cliburn Piano Competition

Critic: Deljavan sets the bar high in Cliburn semifinals Day 2

Posted Sunday, Jun. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The afternoon session of Day 2 of the Cliburn semifinals may have won some more fans for Alessandro Deljavan of Italy. He’s probably the most talked-about contestant because of his expressive (some would say overexpressive) face.

Musically, he’s a fine artist. It’s just that his mobile face tends to draw attention away from the fine music his fingers are producing.

At least that was true until about 2:45 p.m. Sunday. That’s when he and the Brentano Quartet walked onstage to perform what has always been the most popular work of the Cliburn’s chamber-music phase: Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A.

This is a great and beautiful work and a fabulous trove of melody. Deljavan and the Brentano were in tune with it immediately and gave a performance brimming with lyrical sounds.

What about the visuals? Deljavan seemed subdued (though certainly not musically). I’m guessing that that’s a function of onstage camera work. With five people present there are more opportunities to focus elsewhere, and besides, they get in each others’ way visually.

Nikolay Khozyainov of Russia opened the afternoon session with a program including Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 (Glenn Gould’s influence may have been at work here), Prokofiev’s blazing Sonata No. 7, Christopher Theofanidis’ Birichino — the semifinal’s required composition — and something called Liszt-Busoni’s Fantasy on Two Themes From Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.

That last was a real hoot. It was so over-the-top with technical high jinks that it had to have been a joke. The audience seemed to have caught on to that.

Jayson Gillham of Australia/United Kingdom, who had been quite impressive in the preliminaries, came back with a decent program of Theofanidis, Chopin and Debussy. Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel tested patience with a performance that was probably shorter than it seemed.

The strangest performance of the evening session was Fei-Fei Dong’s account of Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor. This was downright eccentric, with fast tempos pulled back to slow and loud dynamics scaled down to soft. There were eccentricities throughout the piece. The Brentano Quartet went along with this; it must have come out of a highly unusual rehearsal.

There was a certain fascination in seeing what was going to happen next; it certainly couldn’t be labeled predictable. Who knows; maybe this is the wave of the future in approaching Brahms.

The other chamber-music performance of the evening session was devoted to Dvorak’s quintet, with Alexey Chernov as the pianist. Alas, it wasn’t in the same league as Deljavan’s earlier in the day. He has set the bar high.

The final solo recital of the day was played by Sean Chen. This was a fairly decent performance, begun with Ligeti’s Etude No. 8 (Ligeti is clearly an up-and-coming figure with the young conservatory set) and ending with yet another Stravinsky Three Movements From Petroushka.

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