Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 2009: Semifinals

The semi-finals of VC 2009 brought no less pleasure, even if it meant keeping awake between 3 and 4 in the morning, catching the afternoon session at Fort Worth with hour-long recitals alternated with piano quintets. Has the classical canon become so impoverished that all we have are four regularly played piano quintets – by Brahms, Schumann, Dvorak (Op.81) and Franck? Logistics may be an issue – VC has only one quartet in residence – the excellent Takacs Quartet. Thrown in a double-bassist, and Schubert’s Trout Quintet becomes an option. Throw the net a little wider, and one gets wonderful quintets by Fauré, Dohnanyi and Elgar. Give one violinist a rest, and the three marvellous Brahms piano quartets become become options. These deserve to be heard too!

Nevertheless, I seem to be able to catch the Schumann Op.44, which is fine. After learning the piano part for the finale (which I had intended to play with Seah Huan Yuh’s quartet for a medical event – but later aborted), this is a work I feel a connection to. Mariangela Vacatello, Haochen Zhang (left) and the blind Nobuyuki Tsujii give wonderfully warm performances – and there is little or nothing to separate them. Tsujii’s communication with the Takacs seems almost telepathic, or were they taking his lead as he head-shook his way to more glory? Evgeni Bozhanov plays the only Franck, which is gripping and dramatic, but I thought it could have been even darker.

Of the recitals, some pianists repaid the faith bestowed upon them. The most shining example was Tsujii (left) in Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata. I cannot imagine a more touching and heart-rending performance. Its sheer sincerity and lack of ostentation stood out; this was music from the heart of a stone-deaf German, interpreted from the heart by a blind-as-a-bat Japanese. There cannot be more poignancy than this. There were a few missed notes, but who really cares in the face of this level of artistry? His reading of John Musto’s Improvisation and Fugue (the only performance of the work) came across sui generis, as if Tsujii had written it himself; another absolutely compelling performance. The other pianists might just fold their stools and go home.

Wait! Tsujii did not have the share of serious programmes. Evgeni Bozhanov’s (left) Schubert D.960, coupled with Beethoven Op.31 No.3 had valid claims for greatness of interpretation. Di Wu’s coupling of Clara and Robert Schumann (both Op.6) was totally inspired. Both works opened with the same G major notes and merged seamlessly, with a kaleidoscopic array of emotions pouring forth. Add the two Skazki Op.20 by Medtner (a refreshing change from Rachmaninov and Scriabin) – the second of which is the fearsome Campanella tolling for doom and disaster – and Moszkowski’s Caprice Espagnol, hers was the most joyous recital programme.

Andrea Lam attempted a similar coup, however her selection of Brahms (Op.118), Stravinsky and Ginastera – with no piece longer that 5 minutes - sounded too itsy bitsy to be taken seriously, despite the inherent virtuosity. The sum seemed less than its parts. Mariangela Vacatello (left) followed a solid Liszt Sonata with Scriabin’s volcanic and rather substantial Sonata No.3 and that lovely left hand Nocturne, in a very strong showing. Haochen Zhang’s reading of Chopin’s 24 Préludes (Op.28) was not perfect, but had an arching sense of sweep and inexorability and the showhorse Liszt Rapsodie Espagnole was at the same hallowed level as his Petrushka from the prelims. I missed Yeol Eum Son’s variegated recital of Debussy, Godowsky and Barber and will have to catch it in the archives.

Some pianists had off days; Eduard Kunz (left) had a series of lapses in Rachmaninov’s Moment Musicaux No.1 (Op.16), rendering it almost interminable. Michail Lifits had careless moments in the Liszt Sonata, which may have put paid to his chances. Kyu Yeon Kim’s hard driven Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition fell apart in the Marketplace of Limoges while Alessandro Deljavan’s tandem of Schubert and Scriabin Sonatas just sounded too cavalier for this competition.

My picks for the finals (of those whom I heard, alphabetically):


Dark Horse: LAM or DANK

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