Van Cliburn

Review: Cliburn’s first day ends with three strong performances

Ilya Shmukler, of Russia, performs during the first day of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competitiion at the Bass Performance Hall, Thursday May 25, 2017.
Ilya Shmukler, of Russia, performs during the first day of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competitiion at the Bass Performance Hall, Thursday May 25, 2017.

The 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is off to a good start, if not a truly spectacular one.

The opening session in Bass Hall on Thursday afternoon featured an international cast, none of whom committed any obvious disqualifying gaffes and all of whom contributed something of value.

Playing first was Julia Kociuban of Poland. She began her 45-minute recital with an outgoing and often cheerful performance of an outgoing work, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13 — not a staple competition piece.

She then gave the world premiere of Marc-André Hamelin’s Toccata on “L’homme armé,” the commissioned work that all 30 of this year’s contestants must play. This proved to be a swift-moving work that tests the player’s technical skill, is rather dissonant in the beginning, but — as the following performances confirmed — is distinctly hummable on repeated hearings.

Considering Kociuban’s nationality, one might have expected some Chopin on her program. Instead, she gave a lovely performance of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Etude in B-flat minor, Opus 4, No. 3.

Her session ended with a work that is a competition staple: Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7. She gave it a skillful performance that produced some high drama in the propulsive final movement.

Kociuban’s performance confirmed once again what has been obvious throughout the history of the Cliburn: No one wants to be the first to play. She drew the position because her name was the last to be pulled at the draw party and the opening slot was the only one still vacant. Maybe someone should do a study: Is No. 1 really unlucky or is that a contestant’s myth? At least the position didn’t hurt Kociuban’s performance, which went quite well.

My favorite of the opening session was Madoka Fukami of Japan, who played music of Ginastera, Beethoven, Hamelin, Ravel and Chopin. Her performance of the Hamelin had a little more clarity than Kociuban’s, and her interpretations overall projected an appealing sense of personality. Ravel’s “Ondine” from “Gaspard de la nuit” was magnificent.

Su Yeon Kim of South Korea scored points with her performances of music by Scriabin, Hamelin, Beethoven (a fine “Waldstein”) and Fritz Kreisler by way of Rachmaninoff.

Evening performances

Thursday evening’s session spotlighted three strong contestants who proved to be real crowd-pleasers.

Leonardo Pierdomenico of Italy began his recital with an offbeat work that generated sheer joy: Clementi’s Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp minor. It was cleanly and subtly played. Then came a virtuosic performance of Hamelin’s toccata that seemed somehow kind of menacing. Pierdomenico’s final work, Brahms’ "Variations on a Theme by Paganini," was a little too blurry for my taste, but the audience loved it, awarding Pierdomenico the first extended ovation of the competition.

Alina Bercu of Romania scored points with a Bach partita, Hamelin’s toccata and Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7. The Prokofiev, which seems custom-made for competition purposes, was an exceptional thriller.

Ilya Shmukler of Russia generated the evening’s third big ovation with a beautifully played program of music by Hamelin, Haydn, Bach-Siloti and Ravel’s "Gaspard de la nuit." Shmukler is a real class act; it would be shocking if he didn’t advance in the competition.

Today’s competitors

Preliminary round, Phase 2

10 a.m.

Dasol Kim, 28, South Korea

Haydn - Sonata in E Major, Hob. XVI:3

Albeniz - “Triana” from Iberia, Book II

Hamelin - Toccata on “L’homme armé”

Ravel - Gaspard de la nuit

10:50 a.m.

Tristan Teo, 20, Canada

Hamelin - Toccata on “L’homme armé”

Beethoven - Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, op. 110

Liszt - Totentanz for Solo Piano

11:55 a.m.

Caterina Grew, Germany

Haydn - Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI.33

Hamelin - Toccata on “L’homme armé”

Scriabin - Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp Minor

Liszt - Trube Walken (Nuages gris)

Liszt - Transcendental Etude No. 8 “Wilde Jagd”

2:30 p.m.

Philipp Scheucher, 24, Austria

Beethoven - Fantasia in G Minor, Op. 77

Hamelin - Toccata on “L’homme armé”

Auerbach - Prelude in D Minor, Op. 41, No. 24

Liszt - Consolation No. 3

Liszt - Rhapsodie espagnole

3:20 p.m.

Martin James Bartlett, 20, United Kingdom

Bach - Toccata in C Minor, BVW 911

Hamelin - Toccata on “L’homme armé”

Schubert - Impromptu in G-flat Major, D. 899 Op. 90, No. 3

Barber - Sonata for Piano, Op. 26

4:25 p.m.

Ilya Maximov, 30, Russia

Franck-Bauer Prélude, Fugue et Variations, Op. 18

Hamelin Toccata on “L’homme armé”

Rachmaninoff Prelude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 32, No. 12

Rachmaninoff Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36 (1931)

7:30 p.m.

Daniel Hsu, 19, United States

Beethoven Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, op. 110

Hamelin Toccata on “L’homme armé”

Liszt Réminiscences de Don Juan

8:20 p.m.

Yury Favorin, 30, Russia

Prokofiev Four Etudes, Op. 2

Tchaikovsky Two Pieces, Op. 10

Hamelin Toccata on “L’homme armé”

Liszt Réminiscences de Puritains de Bellini

9:25 p.m.

Yutong Sun, 21, China

Hamelin Toccata on “L’homme armé”

Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, Op. 87, No. 24

Chopin Nocturne in C Minor, op. 48, No. 1

Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83