Saturday Cliburn finals performances demonstrate strength and subtlety

06/08/2013 10:49 PM

06/10/2013 1:28 PM

Nikita Mndoyants said goodbye to the 14th Van Cliburn Competition on Saturday night, becoming the first finalist to play his last notes and leave his musical fate up to the judges.

The concerto he played, Mozart’s No. 20 in D minor, was appropriate to his musical personality. He’s a patrician, a musician of strength but also subtlety, a pianist who prefers music as art to the piano as a vehicle for showboating.

His aristocratic performance, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, was full of subtlety, of understated drama in the great opening movement, strikingly dramatic in the abrupt change of atmosphere in the slow movement, and concluding with a joyous final movement.

I’m told that the cadenzas in the first and third movements were by Mndoyants himself. If so, that should score points with the judges. The cadenzas, although generally appropriate to Mozart’s style, wandered into some harmonic territory that the master wouldn’t have. But such displays of individuality are what cadenzas are for.

Mndoyants was exceptional all the way through the competition. His first preliminary recital was striking, with a dramatic and then ethereal performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C minor — not a work often heard in piano competitions but one that’s a sure test of musical skill and taste.

Other highlights were a playful Haydn Sonata in G, a magnificent Pictures at an Exhibition and a potent Brahms Piano Quintet, the competition’s best of that work. At no point did he seem to be slipping.

Fei-Fei Dong made a better impression with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 than she had earlier with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The Beethoven is less a work for muscular showboating, and Dong gave a nicely lyrical performance highlighted by marvelous interplay between the aggressive orchestra and the gentle piano in the slow movement.

Earlier, Dong had been inconsistent. Her programming was generally interesting, with a rare and welcome sonata by Clementi and an also-rare work by living composer Lowell Liebermann ( Gargoyles). She had a lovely transit through the Chopin preludes. But her tepid performance of Brahms’ piano quintet and her cautious approach to the Rach Three didn’t seem competition-worthy.

Beatrice Rana, facing the daunting prospect of following Vadym Kholodenko’s Prokofiev Second, acquitted herself very well Saturday night. She has the chops to deal with this bear of a concerto, and she generated the kind of electricity that brings an audience leaping to its feet — definitely not just a Standing O.

Like Mndoyants, Rana has been a consistent performer and she’s another aristocrat of the piano. There were many highlights in her prelims and semifinals. Among them were a highly atmospheric Gaspard de la Nuit, with a haunting “Le Gibet” section and a virtuosic “Scarbo;” a spiky Out of Doors by Bartok; a beautiful set of Chopin preludes; and one of the finest Schumann quintets of the competition.

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