Do you have a classical music fan on your Christmas list? If so, several of the pianists from the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition have released CDs this year that will make excellent gifts, especially for friends and family who attended the 2013 competition at Bass Hall — or anyone who appreciates exceptional keyboard artistry.
To help you make your choice, we have put together a short list of some of the 2015 releases from competitors who won over patrons, judges and critics when they visited Fort Worth to vie for the gold two years ago.
Note that most are available as MP3 downloads, as well as CDs (prices vary and most are available now on Amazon.com).
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The pianist: Few Cliburn gold medalists have been as dazzling as Kholodenko, who has remained a regular guest to concert stages in North Texas since his grand victory. The Ukrainian pianist pulled off an amazing trifecta at the 2013 competition, taking the awards for the best chamber music and new work performances, in addition to his overall gold medal.
We will have to wait until next year for the first of a series of recordings of the Prokofiev piano concertos with Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. But, in the meantime, he has a 2015 release that left critics breathless and is likely to do the same for the piano lover on your gift list.
The recording: Grieg and Saint-Saens: Piano Concertos (Harmonia Mundi)
This disc offers one of the great warhorses of the romantic era with the Grieg piano concerto (is there a more dramatic opening in all of classical music?) and a less frequently heard but certainly deserving work from French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Performed with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra under the baton of FWSO music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, both works provide worthy showcases for Kholodenko’s astonishing talents.
Gramophone magazine calls the disc “a truly outstanding recording,” and praises Kholodenko as “a pianist who allows the big tunes to breathe, knows exactly how to shape each movement and yet injects the urgency of a live performance into the proceedings.”
The Guardian UK says the pianist “plays with intelligent virtuosity and youthful fire,” and lauds the French work in particular by noting that “the first movement of the Saint-Saëns jumps off the page, while his deliciously delicate handling of the central allegro scherzando is irresistible.”
The pianist: This Italian pianist took the silver medal at the 2013 competition by impressing with her blend of elegance and power — attributes that are brought to bear in a recording released just a couple of weeks ago, which means your Cliburn-loving friend or relative may not have it yet.
The recording: Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (Warner Classics)
Rana takes on two towering Russian masterpieces in her 2015 release: Tchaikovsky’s iconic signature work so often performed by the competition’s namesake and a less commonly heard Prokofiev concerto. It is an inspired pairing that brings together one of the defining works of Russian romanticism and a significant work from the Soviet Era, allowing Rana to show the range of her interpretive abilities.
It makes a fine gift for a relative newcomer to classical music who may not know the Tchaikovsky as well as most dedicated Cliburn fans. Or for the more seasoned listener who relishes the modernity of the Prokofiev and the opportunity to compare Rana’s take on the Tchaikovsky (which she performed at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s Russian Festival at Bass Hall in 2013) to those of so many other great pianists.
The pianist: This Japanese pianist was only 19 years old when he was named one of the finalists at the 2013 competition.
The recording: Tomoki Sakata Debut! (Triton)
This disc offers a selection of pieces from favorites of the romantic repertoire (Chopin, Liszt and Scriabin) and Debussy’s Images II. The works may not be new to Cliburn regulars on your gift list but, because of the artist’s age, some piano lovers will want to own this disc as a benchmark for a pianist who is likely to record a great deal more.
The pianist: While most Cliburn stars lean toward showy, bombastic Romantic works, this Rochester, N.Y., native, who was among the 12 semifinalists at the 2013 competition, takes the road less traveled with a two-disc set of sonatas by Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti.
The recording: Domenico Scarlatti: Piano Sonatas (Berlin Classics)
The pair of discs in this set are exceptional not only for Huangci’s delicate playing, but also in how she organizes the works. Disc 1 groups selected Scarlatti keyboard sonatas (he wrote 555 of them) in sets she calls Baroque suites, while the second disc collects them in such a way as to reflect classical-era forms popular with Haydn and Mozart.
It is a clever and effective way to present these lacy works, which led Gramophone to honor the set as an Editor’s Choice selection, calling Huangci “a pianist to follow,” for her “carefully chosen Scarlatti full of impressive technical command, control and musicality.”
This release also makes an exceptionally good gift package because it contains two discs and has an excellent CD booklet in which Huangci explains the rationale behind her choices. And the color scheme of its cover is a brilliant Christmas red, so all you have to do is stick a bow on it and you are good to go.
The pianist: This 2013 semifinalist did not leave the competition with any medals, but he did take the jury discretionary award — as he did when he was a semifinalist at the 2009 Cliburn — and won the hearts of many enthusiastic fans at both competitions.
He has returned to North Texas a few times since the competition, notably as one of the soloists in the FWSO’s Russian Festival in 2013, and as a guest artist of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth in 2014.
The outgoing Italian released a staggering number of recordings in 2015 that covered a range of composers and styles, both as solo works and as part of chamber ensembles.
The recordings: Chopin: Complete Waltzes (Brilliant Classics); Chopin: Complete Etudes (Brilliant Classics); Johann Nepomuk Hummel: Complete Piano Trios (Brilliant Classics); Grieg: Complete Violin Sonatas, Op. 18, 13 & 45 (Aevea); Reynaldo Hahn: Complete Piano Works (Aevea); Clementi & Beethoven: Piano Sonatinas (OnClassical); Bach: Alternative Versions of the Little Preludes, Well-Tempered Clavier & French Suites (OnClassical); Schumann: Fantasie, Op. 17, Papillons, Op. 2 & Gesänge der Frühe, Op. 133 (Academy Productions); Taneyev: Piano Quartet, Op. 20 - Piano Trio, Op. 22 - Violin Sonata - Piano Quintet, Op. 30 (Aevea); Bach: Toccatas (Piano Classics)
Among the choices of discs from Deljavan are some that offer complete surveys of particular forms. Those who remember the Chopin etudes he performed in the first round in 2013 will welcome this complete collection of those works and his complete Chopin waltzes.
Also of note is a nice assortment of works by German composer Robert Schumann (Deljavan also performed his Fantasie at the 2013 Cliburn). Critic Michael Johnson wrote on the website Facts & Arts of this recording, “Deljavan’s keyboard control leaves the listener marvelously afloat as he executes virtuoso passages with apparent ease, then pauses in silence between his well-shaped phrases.”
But the one that might slip by you is a two-disc set of chamber works by Hummel, an Austrian composer of the late-classical, early-romantic eras, which allows listeners to enjoy Deljavan weaving his flowing lines in between the efforts of two string players. For this one and the Grieg disc, he partners with Italian violinist Daniela Cammarano; the two have played and recorded as Duo Cammarano Deljavan for many years.
Virtuosity chronicles the 2013 Cliburn competition as a whole. This documentary, available in Blu-ray and standard formats, is a gorgeously shot survey of the players and performances at the event that focuses on the aforementioned pianists in this gift guide and many of the other 30 competitors.
The bonus sections on the DVD include short segments about some of the competitors, compiled six months after the event, and additional performances by the top three finishers: Kholodenko, Rana and the Crystal Award winner, American pianist Sean Chen.