The afternoon session of Day 6 of the Cliburn Competition presented three strong candidates in a row: Jayson Gillham of the United Kingdom and Australia, Eric Zuber of the United States and Alexey Chernov of Russia. Amazingly, Zuber and Chernov presented back-to-back performances of Beethoven’s final sonata, one of his greatest works but a rarity at the Cliburn.
Gillham started the session. He had been quite impressive on Day 3 and he kept up the pace on Wednesday. His performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata had a movingly songful slow movement surrounded by two examples of high musical drama. This is a much-played work, but Gillham avoided any sense of triteness.
He continued with Liszt’s Sonetta 123 del Petrarca, one of the composer’s more restrained and pleasant works, and made it a poetic and likable experience. Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody — not so restrained — gave Gillham a chance to show off an impressive technique.
It seemed to me that Zuber was slightly more moving than Chernov in the great arietta of Beethoven’s Opus 111 sonata, but that’s very subjective and both were superb. Zuber closed his recital with four Rachmaninoff preludes, and Chernov chose Ligeti, Grieg (!) and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1. When’s the last time Grieg has been played at the Cliburn? Ever?
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It seemed to me that Opus 111 should have gone at the end of each recital, but at least Zuber and Chernov chose after-pieces that made an effective transition.
Opening the morning session, Alessandro Taverna of Italy chanced an offbeat program with none of the big crowd-pleasers that are common fare in a competitive environment.
This could pay dividends if the jury is longing for a break from repertoire routine. It was also a welcome change for many of the regulars in the audience.
The opening number, Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 3, is not so offbeat stylistically, but it’s not necessarily something you’d expect at the Cliburn. Taverna gave it a vivid performance, with a noteworthy lyrical slow movement and some of the fleet playfulness so characteristic of Mendelssohn.
Medtner’s Sonata in F minor was an opportunity for some fireworks, which Taverna supplied. Artistically, the sonata is not among the greatest. As a display piece, you might say it’s not as good as Rachmaninoff but it’s better than Liszt.
More offbeat were Ligeti’s Etude No. 13 and Messiaen’s Regard de l’espirit de joie from Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus.
The Ligeti played around with extremes at the top and bottom of the keyboard but seemed to me to be lacking the wit that often makes Ligeti so pleasing. Well, he had a right to be serious at times.
The Messiaen was given an atmospheric performance that seemed fully representative of the religious mysticism so prominent in the composer.
Nikolay Khozyainov’s recital was full of pleasing Chopin, of which the Berceuse in D-flat was a lovely high point. Liszt’s Sonata in B minor was impressive, with Khozyainov finding plenty of poetry to soothe the nerves amid the dramatic thunderings.
Alessandro Deljavan continued his eccentric expressions in his recital of Mozart, Schumann and Schubert, but it was easy to forgive him considering the musical pleasure his playing produced.
There was a little bit of audience confusion in Schumann’s Fantasy in C when there were two premature outbursts of applause, then none at the end.
Deljavan may have been attempting to respond to this by going straight into Schubert. The fact that this was a Variation (that’s singular) on a Waltz by Diabelli may have tricked everyone into thinking it was going to be a longer piece.
In the evening session, Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea repeated his Day 3 triumph, opening this time with a pensive Scarlatti sonata in D minor, a vivid and picturesque “ Faschingsschwank aus Wien by Schumann and Kirchner’s Interlude II.
The real highlight, though, was his brilliant performance of Ravel’s La Valse, a test of both technique and atmosphere. You could almost see ghostly figures dancing a long-ago waltz in Vienna.
Sean Chen of the United States presented an ambitious recital consisting entirely of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. This is a very large work, of course — a masterpiece from late in the composer’s career. For the most part Chen did it justice, though I felt he didn’t fully explore the depths of the great slow movement, and he took the finale at such a fast pace there wasn’t time to build tension. The final notes should be a real catharsis.
Fei-Fei Dong of China closed the day with a recital containing two contrasting Scarlatti sonatas — one chipper, the other slow and lyrical — a Debussy Danse and Liszt’s B minor sonata.
It was a pleasing finale, and the Liszt left me wondering how such powerful sounds could be produced by someone with such a petite stature.