The Cliburn Festival’s Chopin marathon neared the finish line with programs on Saturday afternoon and evening. One more dash, on Sunday afternoon, will bring the 2015 edition to a close.
The featured performers on Saturday were Fei-Fei Dong and Ko-Eun Yi. A small group of string players offered assistance to both pianists.
Fei-Fei Dong went first, on Saturday afternoon. The audience in the Renzo Piano Pavilion obviously remembered her from 2013, when she was a finalist in the Van Cliburn Competition. She received the most enthusiastic introduction so far in the marathon and charmed her listeners with a few introductory remarks. Chopin is her favorite composer, she said, and his small-scaled works (the bulk of his compositions) are “microcosms of life.”
She began her recital with three examples of a form strongly associated with Chopin: the mazurka. This was originally a Polish folk dance, though in Chopin’s hands it became a sophisticated art form.
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The Mazurka in G Major, Opus 50, No. 1 is a jaunty work, notable in Dong’s interpretation for the subtlety of its dynamics.
Her account of No. 2 of the same opus created a melancholy atmosphere that one could imagine reflected Chopin’s nostalgia for his home country. No. 3 was more heroic, though there were lovely passages.
Perhaps the most striking of all the short pieces of the afternoon was the Nocturne in D-flat Major, Opus 27, No. 2, a beautiful work beautifully played by Dong. There was subtlety in all elements of her performance.
The Grande Valse in A-flat Major, Opus 42 was a virtuosic exercise far from the Viennese ballrooms that were probably its inspiration.
The Scherzo No. 4 in E Major, Opus 54 was a sprightly work full of personality, with lovely episodes and a power ending that created quite an impression in Dong’s account.
The Polonaise No. 6 in A-flat, Opus 53 was a grandly dramatic conclusion to the solo part of Dong’s program.
Violinist Michael Shih and cellist Allan Steele joined the pianist for one of the rarer works in the festival: the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in G minor, Opus 8.
Though strongly played, this seemed less mature a work than Thursday night’s Sonata for Piano and Cello. The first movement of the trio is dominated by the piano, with the violin and cello merely assisting. The second and third movements give the two stringed instruments some music of substance, while the finale comes closest to a well-balanced example of the form.
There is some lovely music here, but it’s easy to see why the work is not often played.
Saturday night was Ko-Eun Yi’s turn. She was playing under a handicap that she easily surmounted. The originally scheduled performer, Di Wu, had to cancel because of a wrist injury. Yi substituted on very short notice and even agreed to play the exact program that Wu had planned: the 24 preludes and the Piano Concerto No. 1.
Yi proved to be less subtle a player than Dong had been, though a very powerful one. She seemed confident through the wide-ranging moods of the preludes, which contain some very popular music. Playing on short notice seemed to be no problem for her.
She was joined by the Amphion String Quartet (violinists David Southorn and Katie Hyun, violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin and cellist Mihai Marica) and bassist Brian Perry for an arrangement of the Concerto No. 1, which is usually for a full orchestra.
This was OK as an experiment, but the piano proved strongly dominant and the strings (who played quite well) lacked the heft for a truly balanced performance.
The final concert of the festival features pianist Adam Golka at 2 p.m. Sunday. For more information and tickets, visit www.cliburn.org.