Saturday, 25 May 2013

Direct from THE CLIBURN / Preliminary Rounds 24 May 2013

14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
Preliminary Rounds
Day One Recital One (11 am)
Friday 24 May 2013 

So the Cliburn has just begun. The Preliminary Round this year comprises two 45-minute recitals before the first elimination takes place. That means each of the 30 pianists gets an hour and a half to parade his or her wares before the 12 semi-finalists are chosen. This is far preferable to the “one strike and you’re out” format adopted in previous editions.  After all, what basis is there to kick out an artist after just 45-50 minutes of music? It’s even worse in those “cattle call” competitions (Leeds, Hamamatsu and Queen Elisabeth come to mind) which invite 75 to 90 pianists and then cut them after 20-25 minutes of etudes and dismembered movements of sonatas. So much for getting “a little cream from a lot of milk,” so said some Dame. That’s more like mass slaughter at the Stockyards.

I will thus get to hear 60 recitals in total, a pianophile’s paradise considering the wide repertoire chosen. The piano feast begins with the diminutive CLAIRE HUANGCI (USA), and how appropriate it is for an American to open the first competition that the late-lamented Van Cliburn (1934-2013) is not in attendance. This edition is held in his memory, but will there ever be a competition winner that will make the same impact as he did in 1958? I somehow doubt so.

It is not easy to open a recital with Beethoven’s Sonata in A major (Op.101), but that’s exactly Huangci does with a performance of utmost clarity and poetry. She produces a ravishing sound, inviting in the first movement and incisive in the 2nd movement’s march. The slow movement does sound desolate until that magical moment when the first movement theme is recalled. She captures it beautifully, and is all guns ablaze for the fugal finale.

The companion work is Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F sharp major (Op.28), also known as the Scottish Sonata. Here she brings out its opening filigree with much finesse and highlights the contrasts well, melancholy with playfulness, capped with prestidigitation in the finale that is spot on. Four shorter pieces complete the picture: three very well selected and contrasting Rachmaninov Preludes (Op.32 Nos.4-6) revealed a variety of bell-sounds galore and the popular Kapustin Etude Op.40 No.1, coruscating stuff, following the Rach set without a break. She appears comfortable enough but does not take the bows between her pieces, probably a sign of anxiety.

My view: A very promising start that sets the bar pretty high.    

The studious looking SCIPIONE SANGIOVANNI (Italy) is next, with an unusual programme of Bach and Busoni that only an Italian could have dreamed of. There are no repeats in his performance of the Bach Partita No.6 in E minor, and he does not try and romanticise the opening (when it is very tempting to do so) and the fugue is clean and involving. He tries to bring out some hidden voices in the left hand, which is interesting but does not always lead to some major revelation. The movements breeze through effortlessly, centred around a Sarabande of quite astonishing harmonies, before closing with that seemingly modern-sounding Gigue (or what atonal sounds like in the 18th century).  

Kudos are due for picking Busoni’s Indian Diary instead of something popular like the over-played Carmen Fantasy. He makes its four movements come alive but this is a work that does not willingly reveals its secrets even with repeated listening, and so he is somewhat losing me, jetlag and all. The three Bach-Busoni transcriptions are nicely done, sobriety in Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland and the showstopper Nun freut euch, lieben Christen, where its big melody is never lost amid the barnstorming

My view: Intellectually stimulating, but a little too serious.

My preferred pianist of this session is BEATRICE RANA (Italy) who looks and sounds far older than her twenty years. This is meant to be a compliment, as it takes someone special to pick a Muzio Clementi sonata (as an Italian might) and say something vital about it. Beethoven must have been familiar with the B minor sonata (Op.40 No.2), the first movement opening with a “grave” introduction before a galumphing Allegro. Sounds a bit like the Pathetique Sonata? That is no accident, and if there is a more convincing performance of this deceptively interesting work, I have not heard it. To be honest, this is the first time I am hearing it, and thanks to her, hopefully not the last. More importantly, Rana proved that Clementi was not as bad as Mozart claimed.

Her only other work is Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes (Op.13), and she just plays the regular variations, skipping out of the five posthumous ones. It works to her advantage as each successive variation builds upon the last, and there is an arch-like development to her conception. She is devastatingly accurate in the finger-twisters but does not sound clinical or mechanical, and true humanity resides in the G sharp minor penultimate variation, with the two intimately intertwining voices. As for the final variation, did she wrongly repeat a couple of bars before arriving at the right place? Frankly, it really does not matter here.

My view: A magnificent talent. I am really looking forward to her next recital.

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