Van Cliburn

Updated review: Hong Kong pianist’s recital infused with style and beauty

Han Chen, of Taiwan, performs on the second day of the quarterfinal round of the Cliburn competition Tuesday at Bass Hall.
Han Chen, of Taiwan, performs on the second day of the quarterfinal round of the Cliburn competition Tuesday at Bass Hall.

One of the standouts of the preliminary round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was Rachel Cheung of Hong Kong. She was back on the Bass Hall stage on Tuesday morning for her quarterfinal recital, and once again her playing was exceptional.

She began with a rarity — at least in competition terms: Sibelius’ “Valse triste.” This means “Sad Waltz,” and there is more than a touch of melancholy in this lovely work. Cheung gave a moving performance that fit well in mood with what followed on her program.

The Sibelius served as a warmup for a complete performance of the 24 preludes, Opus 28, of Chopin. This set was obviously inspired by Bach’s “Well-Tempered Klavier;” both travel through all the major and minor keys, though in different order. Their style, of course, is totally different.

Chopin himself never played more than a few of his preludes in public, but the complete set has become one of the most popular items on pianists’ programs — certainly including the Cliburn.

Cheung’s journey through the set was full of lyrical beauty and stylish interpretations. It was 45 minutes that made me long for more.

The first two performers of the morning were Georgy Tchaidze of Russia and Kenneth Broberg of the United States. Both had done well in the preliminaries (obviously), but there was not much fire this time, even in a work such as Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8 (Tchaidze) or Liszt’s “Après une lecture de Dante” (Broberg).

I liked Broberg’s account of Chopin’s fourth ballade and Tchaidze’s way with two Schubert intermezzos.

Afternoon performances

Tuesday afternoon’s session brought another magnificent performance by a contestant who, like Cheung, had done well previously. This time it was Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea, whose performance of Schubert’s Sonata in C minor, D. 958, and Ravel’s “La Valse” excelled on both counts.

Sunwoo is a lyrical player, and his Schubert captured both the beauty and the melancholy of this great masterpiece. I would love to hear him do a program including all three of Schubert’s final sonatas.

“La Valse” is strikingly different, of course, but Sunwoo managed the shift in styles easily and gave a convincing account of Ravel’s enigmatic masterpiece.

Also on Tuesday afternoon’s session were Sergey Belyavskiy of Russia, Tony Yike Yang of Canada and Han Chen of Taiwan.

Belyavskiy played music of Beethoven, Liszt and Prokofiev; Yang ventured Scriabin and Liszt; and Chen went a little offbeat with music of Shostakovich, Adés and (again) Liszt. All performed respectably, if not quite on the plane occupied by Sunwoo.

Evening performances

The quarterfinals came to completion Tuesday night with performances by Honggi Kim of South Korea, Rachel Kudo of the United States and Alyosha Jurinic of Croatia.

Kim played two polar-opposite pieces: Haydn’s Sonata No. 31 and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1. The Haydn was full of joy; the Rachmaninoff stormy and not terribly appealing.

Kudo’s performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18 was witty and full of life, but Schumann’s "Carnaval" — a longtime Cliburn standby — was not a strong plus.

Jurinic is an exceptionally lyrical and subtle artist, which served him well in Debussy’s "Images," Book II, but didn’t bring much interest to Schumann’s Sonata No. 1.