Sunday, 26 May 2013

Direct from THE CLIBURN / Preliminary Rounds 25 May 2013 Recital 1

Preliminary Rounds
Day Two Recital One (11 am)
Saturday, 25 May 2013

OLEKSANDR POLIYKOV (Ukraine) who opens the second day of the Cliburn is a bear-like presence, and his programme has a strong whiff of Lazar Berman, whom he superficially resembles. Normally, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.9, also known as the Carnival of Pest (after one of the old cities in today’s Budapest, rather than a reference to vermin), would close a recital. Instead he opens with it, bringing an outsized sonority that is wholly appropriate. There is also a Magyar elan about it, improvisatory in feel for the slow introduction and outright abandon in the rumbustious ending. The cadenzas are whipped off with consummate ease.

His main work was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and he put a very personal stamp on it. Never a bland run through, he lingers on almost every long-held note, enjoying its echoes and resonances. Has the troubadour’s song in The Old Castle ever sounded this mournful? The Catacombs and In The Voice of the Dead had truly eerie vibes, while Baba Yaga, the witch would inhabits The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, sounded more mysterious than truly malevolent. He wasn’t always accurate but then who is?  His Great Gate of Kiev had great heft, and the audience agreed whole-heartedly. Audience standing ovation meter: ***

My view: A viscerally exciting rather than accurate performer. Competitions tend to leave them by the wayside.

KUAN-TING LIN (Taiwan) appears diffident, even painfully shy, and half his programme seems to echo that sentiment. Haydn’s final Sonata in E flat major (Hob.XVI: 52) sounds pristine, very pretty and carefully manicured in his hands. He is incapable of an ugly sound, but does not seem to raise the temperature of the work. He applies a Mozartean touch when some Beethovenian brio and vigour is called for. The Schubert-Liszt transcription of Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel is equally smooth; there is hardly any tension and the drama flags after a brief crescendo. The selections from Liszt’s Swiss volume of the Annees de pelerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) are however something else. The limpid transparency he applies to Un bord d’un source makes me want to hear his Feux follets (if he has it within him), and suddenly as if the recipient of a stiff shot of Ecstacy, he raises lightning and thunder for Orage, which was memorable to say the least. His Vallee d’Obermann dragged on for a bit, smelling the Alpine flowers before the final tumultuous onslaught, eliciting a premature ejaculation of applause before the final bars. Audience standometer: **

My view: Brilliant in fits and starts, might benefit from some musical equivalent of Viagra.

NIKITA ABROSIMOV (Russia) is the first of two substitute pianists who came in from the cold when two of the original 30 dropped out for unspecified reasons. His inclusion is a definitely a boon. Beginning with Mozart’s lesser known Fantasy in C minor (K.396), he brought out some of the usually cheerful Salzburg native’s grimmest contemplative moments. With no applause to interrupt the flow of thought, this was the launching pad for Brahms’s underrated First Sonata in C major (Op.1), a work which could be accused of youthful exuberance, Romantic excess and needless note-spinning.

However he made every note sound vital, from the loud opening chords (echoes of the Hammerklavier here) to the Schubertian tragic slow movement, which sang like some forlorn lover. Then the Scherzo burst out from the blue, a highly dramatic moment contrasted with its flowingly lyrical Trio. When one thought that there could be no more room for barnstorming, the finale went for broke by sweeping away all speed bumps and closing with absolute panache. For me, this seemed like the perfect conception of the angry young Turk in Brahms, soon to be hailed as the next Beethoven. When a performer makes me listen to a work with new ears, he has my vote. Standometer: **

My view: A dark horse, and a new favourite. Let us see what he does for his second recital.

Some words about the Fort Worth audience:

Like most audiences for classical music in the West, its demographic is rapidly greying and ageing. I am almost tired to repeat that I appeared one of its youngest members, other than the row of Asian students seated in the ring wing of the hall. The audience is demonstrative, and is very well behaved apart from one or two errant cell-phones. As this competition allows for applause between pieces rather than only at the end of the recital, they applaud appropriately, but never between movements of sonatas. This is unlike audiences in Singapore, whose members can hardly wait to demonstrate their ignorance of etiquette. This allows for the pianist to steady or recompose himself, take a short walk to the wings for a breather and then continue.

The audience also has its favourites, and almost everybody gets a standing ovation, which can be pretty deceptive. When a recital ends with fortissimo, it is almost guaranteed of a standing ovation (which I will now refer to as a “stando”). The only exception was in the case of Alex McDonald who closed his recital in sublime silence, but let us not forget that he is a proud homegrown Texan. Each capsule review of mine from now includes a standing ovation meter (or standometer for short), and here are the ratings:

(o) Oops. When Simon Cowell says you lack the “likeability factor”.
(*) Enthusiastic applause with fewer than a dozen standees.
(**) Spontaneous standing by a small but committed segment of the audience.
(***)  My view of the pianist gets obstructed by the many people standing in front.
(****) An Alex McDonald. Almost everybody stands, including those who want to get a better view.

(*****) The second coming of Van Cliburn, so don’t hold your breath. 

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