Saturday, 25 May 2013

Direct from THE CLIBURN / Preliminary Rounds 24 May 2013

Preliminary Rounds
Day One Recital Two (3 pm)
Friday, 24 May 2013

The second of two Chinese-American pianists, STEVEN LIN (USA) opened this recital segment. His Bach is striking for its sheer sound and projection. Never should it be said that Bach should only be played on a harpsichord, as his version of the French Overture in B minor attests. The title of this seven-movement work is itself a misnomer, since the term French overture refers only to its first movement, which has a slow introduction in dotted rhythm followed by a fugue. Partita is the more obvious title, but a seventh partita would obviously spoil things since composers then did things in multiples of sixes.

To say that Lin’s contrapuntal playing is superb would be putting it mildly, and the dances which follow (omitting repeats) were the real thing. He certainly has the feel for these movements, and one could feel the enjoyment in his playing (not just because his facial expressions are a magnet for the video recorder). Only in a piano competition does one get to hear two performances of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Sonata (Op.28) in the same day. The advantage he has over Claire Huangci is that he played second, and almost everything sounds better the second time around. His is the more dramatic of the two and yet does not want for poetry and fluency.

The Australian Carl Vine’s First Piano Sonata from the 1990s is no longer a rarity, having featured at least once in the last two Cliburns. Remember that Joyce Yang played it on her way to a Silver Medal in 2005. Lin has it all there in his fingers; the blues opening had an improvisatory feel and those oncoming waves upon waves of riffs simply overwhelm. This is a dance of life not unlike a certain Rite premiered a century ago. The second movement’s prestissimo had an unnerving evenness and its quiet ending seemed almost anti-climactic.    
My view: All smiles so far. Looking good to advance.

It would almost appear a sin if a Polish pianist does not play some Chopin, and so MARCIN KOZIAK (Poland) obliges with the Second Scherzo in B flat minor (Op.31). He is very musical, but the slim bespectacled young man seems to live out Chopin’s fragility to the point that the huge climaxes sound attenuated. How is it that one man’s Chopin sounds underpowered to another man’s Bach? There is a genuine singing quality in the Nocturne in F sharp major (Op.15 No.2) but sans the inner turbulence. He however comes alive in four Mazurkas (Op.50 Nos.1-4) by compatriot Karol Szymanowski. If these sound vaguely familiar, this is because Arthur Rubinstein recorded at least three of them. Koziak sounds totally at home here. Finally, I can’t say I care too much about Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata in B flat minor (Op.36, the shorter 1931 version), which sounds like a bash-fest under most hands, but he is not one of those pianists. He attempts to tamper the music’s thunderous tendencies with a semblance of intellectual contemplation. He brings out an inner melody from the central slow movement which I have never heard before, and the tempestuous Allegro molto finale brings the audience to its feet, as one might expect.

My view: More than competent, but will need more than that for the next recital.    

ALEX MCDONALD (USA) receives a chorus of cheers and applause even before he begins. He is clearly the hometown favourite, and no wonder – he hails from Dallas. He is as all American as apple pie, coupling a lethal combination of chiselled good looks with a heightened sense of propriety, and it certainly helps if you remind people of a certain Van Cliburn. His programme is anything but superficial, beginning with Haydn’s Sonata in B minor (Hob.XVI: 32), which is crisply minted in every way; urgency in the 1st, arch simplicity in the 2nd movement, and with bell-like clarity in the repeated notes of the finale. Here he sets the stage for the tour de force of the afternoon, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor.

This is a no holds barred, no punches pulled and safety last account, playing as if his life depends on it. He brings out its grandeur, its poetry, not to mention its cascades of octaves with apparent ease, but one still senses an element of conflict and struggle which this work needs. This was a voyage that the audience was ever so willingly swept along. Closing quietly, he opted to complete the programme with Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, with its quiet, Zen-like and sublime harmonies that caps a recital to remember.

My view: The one American to watch. If this Cliburn is to be won by an American, he might be that person.      

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