Van Cliburn

May 26, 2013

Critic: Day 3 offered variety, muscle and at times the unexpected.

Session starters offered strong leadoff morning, afternoon and evening.

Maybe it’s time to start a new superstition about the Cliburn Competition — that playing first each day enhances your chances.

On Sunday, for the third day in a row, the leadoff position was occupied by a competitor who was distinctly above the average.

The name this time was Jayson Gillham; he was born in Australia but resides in the United Kingdom.

His opener, a Bach toccata, had great clarity and high spirits complemented by some lovely playing at more moderate tempos. Very welcome was his selection of three etudes by Ligeti, one serene, another slightly ominous and the third playful — a characteristic of the Hungarian composer.

This was rounded off with a fine performance of Chopin’s Sonata No. 3, which included a deeply moving slow movement and a spectacular finale.

Also remarkable was the playing of Alexey Chernov of Russia, who essayed Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, which rivals Stravinsky’s Three Movements From “Petroushka” as the muscle music of this Cliburn. Playing it, especially the final “Scarbo” movement, is like standing up, flexing your muscles, and inviting admirers to feel your biceps.

Extending that metaphor, Chernov is in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s league.

He also played another Bach toccata, characterized again by great clarity and wide gradations of dynamics. Three Scriabin etudes were OK but not mesmerizing (maybe Scriabin fatigue is setting in).

The morning session was rounded out by another competitor worthy of respect: Eric Zuber of the United States. I liked his serene Mozart Rondo in A minor, and Chopin’s 12 etudes from Opus 10 gave distinctive voice to some of the composer’s most famous music.

The afternoon session began with a spectacular series of performances by Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea. He opened with an unusual period piece, a “concert paraphrase” on Strauss waltzes by Alfred Grunfeld. This may seem a little hokey today, but it has its share of familiar tunes dressed up in virtuosic pianistic garb, and it obviously won over a responsive audience as Sunwoo blitzed through it.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13 was definitely not hokey, and neither was Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. Sunwoo gave them confident, grand, vivid performances that probably made him one of the more prominent candidates for Cliburn honors.

Overall, Sunday was a good day in Bass Hall. Sean Chen of the United States had to follow Sunwoo’s potent showing but held up pretty well, with a strong Bach French suite, three Bartok etudes and three Chopin mazurkas. In a competition overloaded with the likes of Liszt and Scriabin, Bartok was a welcome entry, and even the Chopin was not among the most played of his work.

Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5 was given an impressive run-through by Chen, but it was hardly captivating.

Fei-Fei Dong of China won friends with a non-trite program that started with the competition’s second Clementi sonata. Like the first, which was played by Beatrice Rana on Friday, it was a pleasant work given a pleasant performance (here’s to more Clementi). Even the Schumann novelette and the Chopin rondo were not among the composers’ most well-known work, so the program remained non-trite.

Dong concluded with Gargoyles by Lowell Liebermann, who’s a rare living composer on the Cliburn’s rep list. Only the last part seemed truly “gargoyley“ to me, but Dong won quite an ovation at the conclusion.

The night session was certainly interesting, not always for the right reasons.

On the positive side was the performance of Sara Daneshpour of the United States, who presented a superb program of Schumann, Chopin and Rachmaninoff that must have placed her among the strong contenders. Schumann’s Variations on the Name “Abegg” (his Opus 1) was charmingly done, Chopin’s Scherzo No. 4 combined lovely playing with some steel, and five Rachmaninoff Etudes tableau were stylistically admirable.

I felt sorry for poor Gustavo Miranda-Bernales of Chile, whose session was spooked. The first thing was that between each of the four Schubert impromptus there was a raucous outburst of coughing. It’s true that the coughing stopped when the music started, but still it ruined the spell cast by Schubert’s great music.

Even worse, just as Miranda-Bernales was starting Chopin’s barcarolle, there was a huge crash in the hall (backstage, maybe?). The pianist kept going without missing a beat, but later in the piece I felt that he had a delayed reaction to the incident.

The Schubert had gone pretty well, though I felt that he pushed the tempo a bit in the first and fourth impromptus, robbing them of some grace inherent in this great set.

Jie Yuan of China was very impressive in Schumann (the “Abegg” variations again), a polished and sparkling Haydn sonata, and in a spectacular Three Movements From “Petroushka” by Stravinsky.

He did have one distracting mannerism: He makes mouth movements as he plays. It’s not as egregious as Alessandro Deljavan’s were on Saturday night, but still one wished the video people would avoid close-ups. Let’s hope this doesn’t become a common Cliburn practice.

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