The level of accomplishment was high as three very different pianists took to the Bass Hall stage Friday night for the second round of finals performances in the Cliburn Competition. Each shone in his own way.
Tomoki Sakata of Japan has seemed self-effacing throughout the competition. He’s no shrinking violet at the piano, but he hasn’t been an attention-grabber, preferring to quietly and professionally go about the business of making fine music.
On Friday he opened the evening by sticking to this pattern in a performance of Mozart’s great Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. The minor mode assures that there’ll be some drama in this, and Sakata brought that out, yet it remained overall an elegant performance, cleanly played and tasteful throughout.
There was elegant playing by the somewhat cut-back Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin’s direction, as well.
Sean Chen of the United States followed Sakata with a cute little trifle, Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (you know it’s a piece of chamber music, don’t you?).
This is another masterpiece, but different. Whereas Sakata’s playing was elegant, Chen’s was bold and majestic in the opening movement. Beethoven’s lovely and serene slow movement, with the orchestra backing some pleasant commentary by the piano, was finely brought off by Chen and the orchestra. The playfulness of the final movement was finely captured by the American.
The biggest crowd-pleaser of the evening was Vadym Kholodenko’s performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, an old standby in Cliburn finals.
Kholodenko’s playing was swift and agile, with power to spare but without a sense of banginess. This is a multifaceted work, and there was plenty of beauty to complement the muscularity. The crowd roared its approval.
Incidentally, the choice of concertos by each finalist may be a little puzzling to anyone who has read the rules. The key paragraph is this: “Each pianist will perform two concerti of their choice, the first will be a chamber concerto chosen from works by Beethoven and Mozart, the second will be any concerto scored for full symphony orchestra and piano.”
But is Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (Chen), or Concerto No. 3 (Beatrice Rana), or 4 (Fei-Fei Dong) really a “chamber concerto?” Only by twisting the definition out of shape. Nobody seems to be complaining, and as the old saying goes: “Rules are made to be broken.”
This competition narrowly missed being the first (ever?) with no Tchaikovsky’s First. Now that would be a shock. Sakata saved the day. He’ll play it Sunday afternoon.