The first day of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition may be a little early to spot any trends, but at least by the final notes Friday, high competence seemed assured, and several competitors went beyond that.
Two of them were Italians: Beatrice Rana, who mesmerized with a program of pieces slightly off the Cliburn mainline, and Giuseppe Greco, a masterful interpreter of varied repertoire.
Another standout was Marcin Koziak of Poland, a student at Texas Christian University, who impressed with the elegance and beauty of his interpretation of music from his homeland.
Others were impressive as well, and none seemed an obvious reject. Even for those who have played, however, there’s still room for a misstep: Everybody has to play two preliminary programs before the semifinalists are named Thursday night.
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Taking the dreaded leadoff position as the preliminaries began Friday morning in Bass Hall was Claire Huangci of the United States. She walked confidently onstage and quickly got down to business.
Huangci gave Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28, Opus 101, an often serene performance, moving in the quiet passages and not heavily punched out in the more dramatic ones. Quite effective was her handling of the finale, with some momentum-generating contrapuntal propulsion characteristic of late Beethoven.
Effective performances of Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F-sharp minor and three preludes by Rachmaninoff rounded out her recital. A flashy performance of Kapustin’s Prelude, Opus 40, No. 1 brought it to a close.
Scipione Sangiovanni of Italy played a program that was heavily loaded with Bach.
Bach’s Partita No. 6 was cleanly and elegantly played, and three Bach-Busoni arrangements achieved quite a bit of grandeur as well as serenity.
A piece entirely by Busoni, the Italianisches Tagebuch, was a nice and often exhilarating change of pace.
Rana’s opening Clementi Sonata in B minor was full of personality in her hands, with some lovely, lyrical playing balancing a few stormy passages. Schumann’s Etudes en forme de variations were given an equally winning performance.
Friday afternoon’s session opened with a high-spirited recital by Steven Lin of the United States. He seemed to be aiming for the title of “fastest fingers in the West,” blitzing through passages at phenomenal speed with phenomenal accuracy.
Most impressive was his account of the Sonata No. 1 of Carl Vine. There were prestissimos aplenty but some real music-making as well, and he made what could be a difficult work for listeners seem more than acceptable. Music of Bach and Mendelssohn (the Fantasy in F-sharp minor again) rounded out his program.
Lin is certainly interesting, though sometimes he seems to be letting sheer exultation at his gift for virtuosity overpower other aspects of his performances.
That problem — if it’s a problem — is not true of Koziak. He gave lovely, haunting performances of music by Polish composers Chopin and Szymanowski and followed that up with a superb performance of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 that proved it can be a work of art as well as a vehicle for virtuosity.
Alex McDonald of Dallas gave a performance that was impressive for its virtuosity — he even gave Lin a run for the money — but was not always convincing artistically. The Liszt Sonata in B minor never seemed to rise above the status of a technical exercise.
Greco dominated Friday night’s session with a remarkable account of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18, with fluid dynamics and pacing, a lot of excitement and above all, a playful personality perfectly in tune with the work.
His performance of Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse was in sharp contrast in atmosphere, but also magnificently done.
Greco even managed to take a vulgar work such as Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 and make all the roaring, rumbling and chord-hopping kind of fun.
Rounding out the session decently were Nikita Mndoyants of Russia, who risked Beethoven’s awesome Opus 111 and gave a pretty good account of it, and Luca Buratto of Italy, who gave a playful account of a Haydn sonata and would have helped himself with some abridgement in a Schumann fantasy that rambled on too long.