Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 2009: Preliminary Round Impressions


Preliminary Round Impressions

The VC has come and truly kicked off, and my season of lost sleep and drowsy mornings has begun. By the time this note gets published, 12 semi-finalists will have been named. 29 pianists from around the globe have given their all, and what an enthralling feast of music this has become.

Firstly, here are 5 reasons why the VC is the top piano concours on our planet:

1. Every pianist selected has been excellent. Other competitions have left me wondering how this or that pianist ever got selected in the first place, with performance riddled with errors, memory lapses or plain incompetence. No such problems with VC.

2. This is without doubt every pianist’s dream showcase of their talents. Anyone who has made it thus far will be known by the world’s pianophile community instantly.

3. Every minute of each performance may be viewed “live” via the Internet (, with audio and visual choices. These have also been archived for repeated viewing. All free of charge, and no pre-registration needed!

4. The publicity machinery of the VC has been all encompassing. As early as January, regular updates via e-mail have kept me close to the happenings at Fort Worth, from the worldwide auditions to the final selection and now the competition itself.

5. The blog on the VC website ( is updated every few minutes by a dedicated community of music lovers and pianists, and one immediately gets the buzz of what’s happening despite not being in Bass Hall.

Enough of pimping (while I think of 5 more), here are my impressions of the first five days:

Tuning in
It is a labour of love to set the alarm clock for 1.50 am every morning to catch the live broadcast which begins at 1 pm (Central US time) at Forth Worth, TX. It is another to try and keep awake for the next three and a half hours, knowing full well that a full working day fighting H1N1 awaits. Microsoft’s Silverlight has fairly good resolution but doesn’t always work perfectly – full of stops and starts – and I also rely on an audio-only broadcast on KTCU FM. The computer at work is equally erratic but I get to hear and see some (but not all) of the pianists. The archived performances are wonderful, and I can catch them again at my own leisure.

Amazing Asians

Almost half of the pianists are of East Asian ethnicity and origin, many of whom are studying in USA and Europe. The youngest is 19-year-old Haozhen Zhang (China, left), a student of Gary Graffman at Curtis, who gave the most stupendous performance of Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka this side of Pollini. He has a modest stage demeanor, and with self-assured and immaculate accounts of Beethoven Op.110 and Chopin Op.61, a semi-final place is assured.

I also liked Feng Zhang (China, left) whose programme was a delicious smorgasbord of styles – a Haydn sonata, Mendelssohn’s most famous Prelude and Fugue (Op.35 No.1), Liszt’s St Francis of Assisi Sermon to the Birds and the earlier (and longer) 1913 version of Rachmaninov’s Sonata No.2 (Op.36). He is a self-effacing artist who is much underrated.

The most amazing show of courage came from the blind-from-birth Nobuyuki Tsujii (Japan) who made Chopin’s Twelve Études Op.10 and Liszt’s La Campanella sound like child’s play. Because vision was no longer an issue, he could play with his head swaying to and fro like a shaken rag doll’s. No fear of being politically incorrect here, his blindness puts the rest of us to shame. He would still have qualified had he two or four functioning eyes.

Fantastic Females

The women were more than a match for the men. Ironically, only two were non-Asian, Natacha Kudritskaya (Ukraine) who opened in poll position (unlike Formula One, No.1 is the dreaded number!) and Mariangela Vacatello (Italy, left) who reprised her superb Sydney showings of Busoni’s Chopin Variations and Liszt’s Trancendental Etude No.10 (The latter better this time). Of the two, I favour Vacatello to proceed.

Among the Asian women, 20-year-old Zhang Zuo (China) whose repertoire was uncannily similar to Sa Chen’s in 2005, was a standout with her Liszt Sonata in B minor – solid and unusually mature – a flurry of Études (Liszt, Chopin & Stravinsky) and Haydn’s Sonata No.40 in G major. Joyce Yang’s girlish smile and almost carefree demeanour was relived by Andrea Lam (Australia, left) who gave a perfectly conceived account of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op.12, two colourful selections from Granados’ Goyescas and a most unusual encore – Aaron Jay Kernis’ Superstar Etude No.2, based on Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight. Fighting to keep awake, I catch enough of Kyu Yeon Kim (Korea) in her Schumann Kreisleriana and Bartok Études to decide that she is worth catching again.

Ang Li (Canada) and Di Wu (China) are returnees from VC 2005, and despite improved showings this time, I fear they may not make the cut. If I were to pick one of these two, it would be Wu.

Slavs to rule again?

There are fewer Russians this time around, and I’m afraid there will be no Kobrin to fly their flag this year. Eduard Kunz (Russia, left), also known as Kunts in other competitions, divided the pundits, but was unanimously praised for his sensitive string of five Scarlatti Sonatas. Ilya Rashkovskiy (Russia) did his chances no harm in Beethoven Op.110, Chopin Op.23 and Rachmaninov’s Op.36 (the shorter 1931 version), but is mere accuracy and sheer competence enough to see him through?

Gimmicks like facial grimacing, head-shakes, near swoons and an ultra-low custom-made stool might help Evgeni Bozhanov (Bulgaria), whom despite the above handicaps, gave totally convincing accounts of Mozart’s K.311 and Chopin’s Op.58.

The Slav that got everyone talking / blogging was Lukas Vondracek (Czech Republic, left), whose playing seemed on an exulted plane altogether. Who would dare programme Chopin’s Nocturnes Op.9 No.2 and Op.48 No.1 in a competition without having anything special to say? His vision of these over-familiar works was gorgeous to say the least, and brought new insights into Bach’s Italian Concerto and Liszt’s Harmonies du soir. His encores of Smetana’s Czech Dances were mere icing on the cake.

Old World Values

Not to be under-estimated, the Old World brought new wine. Alessandro Deljavan (Italy, left) led the pack with arguably the best performance of Liszt Sonata in B minor, coupled with an equally convincing Haydn Sonata No.52. The gift borne by Vassilis Varvaresos (Greece) was surely Elliot Carter’s Catenaires, one of the more amazing rarities heard. There were two Israelis - Ran Dank who offered Boulez’s Douze Notations (his signature piece again) and Victor Stanislavsky who bravely programmed Schumann’s Humoreske Op.20 and some Ligeti. I see Dank getting through. There were no Brits or French pianists this time, but no great loss.

Stars and Stripes

USA was well represented, with most recent Gina Bachauer winner Stephen Beus being the most fancied. His Barber Sonata Op.26 should be enough to see him through. I also heard Chetan Tierra, who produced a lovely sound but his loss of concentration in Brahms Paganini Variations Book 1 may prove deleterious.

Carl Vine has arrived

Almost every piano competition sees one performance of the Australian Carl Vine’s Sonata No.1 (pictured left), a highly accessible and tonal work with a penchant for digital brilliance. This one had two – played by Spencer Myer (USA) and Naomi Kudo (USA) – which suggests that CV has now become as mainstream as Messiaen, Dutilleux and Ginastera.

I did not get to hear Michail Lifits, Mayumi Sakamoto, Yeo Eum Son or Amy Yang, so will have to be satisfied with their archived performances later.

Of those I heard, my 12 picks for the semi-finals (in alphabetical order):

ZHANG, Haochen

Will the jury concur?

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