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< Yikes, I'm a pianist, not a blogger! | Main | Day Two - The Liszt Goes On >

Cliburn Day One: We're Off and Running!

Posted at 11:43 AM on May 23, 2009 by Greg Allen

The Cliburn marathon has begun - with a memorable first image: Ukrainian Natacha Kudritskaya, appearing on stage dressed in a black tee, baggy brown pants and striped Adidas. Well, if that offends, just close your eyes and listen: this is an artist with superbly developed technique in the service of beautifully imaginative, overarching musical thought. Highlights of her program: the Trio section of the Chopin Bb minor Funeral March, vocalized with gorgeous melted-butter sound; the Sonata's finale, all chilling gesture completely transcending notes; Ravel's Ondine, with spectacular control of texture and line; and Scriabin's seldom-played Valse Op. 38, in which the potentially choppy, overwritten textures were finessed with an agile, old-school virtuosity. Throughout, Ms. Kudritskaya defined her dynamic palette precisely and tastefully; never once did I feel that she was asking for a sound that neither she nor the instrument could produce.

Stephen Beus, who impressed me modestly in the 2005 competition, took a risk in starting with Bach's G minor English Suite, and although I could appreciate his stylish ornamentation and clean articulation, it soon became apparent that his imagination is limited: contrast in repeats was achieved by putting the soft pedal down; local events were marked by little dynamic bulges, and tempos in general were just fast - the Gigue in particular was a featureless tarantella-etude. The Barber Sonata suffered from garbled priorities and a lack of organic structuring - although he did have the audience completely mesmerized at the end of the slow movement. Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody began well but broke down into disjunct fragments; the devil-may-care showmanship did not disguise a sloppy attitude about chordal balance, pedaling and phrasing. He played an alternate ending that Liszt didn't write, but I rather liked it...

Israeli pianist Ran Dank presented an unusual program that went from strength to strength. Boulez' Douze Notations (1945) were cleanly characterized and convincingly portrayed; Beethoven's Sonata Op. 27 #1, which followed rather startlingly without a break for applause, was stylistically and pianistically accurate, tonally beautiful, and consistently interesting. (The last movement was perhaps a bit too fast for optimal clarity.) Mr. Dank's Scriabin 9th grew inexorably from the opening moody ruminations; I've never heard a more organic conception of this work. Liszt's take on Bellini's Norma is one of those trashy potboilers that's much more difficult than it's worth; but in this performance the bel canto priorities remained firmly focused, the virtuosity was casual and unforced, and the musical intentions were honest. I wish Mr. Dank would not feel the need to demonstrate his abilities in this genre - or at least let us enjoy the wacky, over-the-top mayhem of the Don Juan Fantasy!

The evening session of Day One began with American pianist Chetan Tierra in the Liszt 2nd Ballade. I sensed nervousness in his playing: timings seemed off, the pedaling was questionable, and phrases didn't develop naturally. Schumann's Widmung was tonally beautiful but ganz zu innig - it didn't convey the song's fervent ardor. Brahms' Paganini Variations (Book I) were ragged and unrefined, and the Ginastera Sonata was mostly just generic thrashing. I judged the New Orleans Competition in 2006, when Mr. Tierra won the 2nd prize; I expected more from him here...

I liked Spencer Myer's performance a lot; I'll admit that the fact that he has studied with Peter Takacs and Julian Martin, both of whom were "litter-mates" of mine in Leon Fleisher's class at Peabody, may have something to do with it... Everything he played was tasteful, intelligent, colorful and supremely confident (I don't think he missed more than a handful of notes). Impeccable pedaling, delicate shadings, perfectly clear textures and a vivid imagination were apparent throughout, most especially in his group of five Debussy Preludes. In time I would expect he'll develop a grander overview of the Chopin Barcarolle, and a more open and free improvisational sense in parts of Carl Vine's Sonata. (I'm thinking Keith Jarrett...)

A highly unconventional program ended this first evening: Russian Eduard Kunz stayed pretty firmly in the 18th century, with only a peripheral nod to the 19th (Bach transcriptions by Busoni and Siloti). His Scarlatti Sonatas were exquisite miniatures, seemingly made up on the spot for his own private pleasure. His interpretive approach owes much to Horowitz, showing a masterful ability to enliven the simplest musical material - what I would call a Haiku sensibility. The early (1767) Haydn Sonata was more of the same...a redundancy in this context, though still quite charming in its slight eccentricity. The Chaconne was another matter entirely; here Mr. Kunz clearly intended to strip away the overwrought sturm und drang that normally comes with this Busoni arrangement. Tempos were strictly regimented, with no allowances even for the agogics that are inevitable in the violin original, and the sound was edgy and sometimes harsh. This was a post-modern, formalist viewpoint that I found intriguing but ultimately rather unfriendly. The little Bach/Siloti B minor Prelude ended the day with a whimper.

It's time to go to the Bass Hall for Day Two - Oh Joy, we get to hear two versions of the Liszt B minor Sonata!


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