Van Cliburn

June 1, 2013

Critic: First afternoon of Cliburn semifinals more pleasing than evening session

Beatrice Rana, Nikita Mdoyants and Claire Huangci give strong performances.

After 61 solo piano recitals, they finally brought on the violins Saturday afternoon at the Cliburn Competition. The Brentano String Quartet (OK, that includes a viola and a cello, too) joined semifinalist Beatrice Rana of Italy for the competition’s first chamber-music performance.

No matter how much you may love the piano, that many recitals brings on a certain weariness, and the change of soundscape was mightily welcome. The fact that everyone onstage was in top form certainly didn’t hurt.

The Brentano’s personnel are violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee. They’ll be with the semifinalists for four days before yielding to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and conductor Leonard Slatkin for the finals.

The first quintet of the competition was Schumann’s, in E-flat. It’s been played many, many times at the Cliburn but, miraculously, it seemed fresh Saturday afternoon. Partly that was due to the quartet’s skill and sense of style, but a great part of it was due to Rana, who has been impressive from the beginning and whose choice of high-quality competition repertoire denotes an inborn sense of taste.

She moved smoothly and confidently through the quintet’s dramatic movements and handled beautifully the slow movement, which contains some of Schumann’s most gracious writing.

Incidentally, in a competition in which many of the contenders use grimaces as an expressive device, Rana will have none of that. Her expression comes from her fingers, not her face, and it was a relief not to be distracted by extraneous factors.

Also, the Brentano’s stance is straightforward. Why do many pianists feel the urge and string players generally do not?

The solo recitals aren’t over yet. In the semifinals, recitals are alternating with chamber-music performances, and everyone has to play one of each.

Claire Huangci of the United States opened the semifinals with the first recital Saturday afternoon. She also has been impressive from the beginning, and she maintained her trajectory with music of Christopher Theofanidis, Beethoven, Schumann and Prokofiev.

Theofanidis’ Birichino is the commissioned work required of all the semifinalists. It’s hard to get a grip on it, but after 12 times some of its points should become clear. There are a lot of thorny harmonies, obsessive repetition of some ideas, and fast runs without a clear melodic intent. However, there are at least a couple of well defined melodies, and the piece may wear well. We’ll see (or hear).

Huangci gave classy performances of Beethoven’s Les adieux Sonata and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, applying power without ever becoming bangy and maintaining a strong lyric pulse.

Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Before Parting was gentle music gently played.

Nikita Mndoyants of Russia is a player who seems to get better with each round. Saturday’s recital was his best so far. Like Huangci and Rana, he is a classy artist with a well developed sense of taste.

In addition to Birichino, he played three Scarlatti sonatas, three preludes by Debussy and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The Scarlatti was charming and joyous (except for the lovely melancholy of the middle sonata in B minor), and the preludes were full of atmosphere.

It’s easy to think of Pictures at an Exhibition as a display piece (the grand “Great Gate of Kiev” at the end encourages that), but Mndoyants’ magnificent performance showed once again that it’s a wonderful work of art.

It got quite a reception at the end.

Saturday evening’s session was a little less satisfactory.

Nikita Abrosimov of Russia joined the Brentano Quartet for the competition’s first Dvorak Piano Quintet in A, which is practically the signature chamber-music work of the Cliburn Competition.

This was pushed a little hard by the pianist, losing some of the mellowness of this very lyrical work. The pianist and quartet also didn’t seem to function as smoothly as a team as Rana and the Brentano earlier in afternoon.

Tomoki Sakata of Japan presented the session’s solo recital. This was a quite decent performance, highlighted by Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2. There also were three Debussy Etudes, Theofanidis’ Birichino and a rarity by Liszt: his take on the “Sacred Danse and Final Duet From Aida. “

Liszt was getting on in years when he wrote this, which may explain why it’s really quite pleasant, with Liszt reverting to his old ways only near the end.

The best part of the evening was Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor, with Vadym Kholodenko of Ukraine joining the Brentano Quartet. The five gave a superb performance of this lovely work, which for some reason is relatively rare at the Cliburn. There was subtlety and lyric beauty and a bit of gentle drama, as well.

I’d like to hear it again.

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