I'm often amazed at competitors' programming choices, particularly in regard to the all-important First Impression; it's highly unlikely that I would ever begin a program with Ravel's Miroirs. The first piece, Noctuelles, is a slippery devil in the best of circumstances; add the intense pressure of International Competition, and you have a disaster waiting to happen. Ning Zhou seemed poised and confident, and he didn't fall off the keys, but I found his performance just adequate; the vivid imagery that Di Wu brought to the set was nowhere evident. Liszt's Vallée d'Obermann fared much better, with lovingly shaped melodic lines and finely judged textures. There was a connection to the work's narrative that one doesn't often hear. The Mephisto Waltz, that good old competition warhorse - remember Sultanov in 1989? - got scrubbed clean, projecting a breezy, whimsical character; only in the last pages did this devil show his grotesque malevolence. For me, this was a revelatory interpretation... Which brings us back to the initial question: did Zhou truly intend his Ravel to be so objective and noncommittal, or did it really take 25 minutes for his concentration to come into focus?
Michael Lifits was next, in a meat-and-potatoes German program (the first such of this competition). Mozart's K. 311 is easy to underestimate - it certainly doesn't approach the originality and depth of its neighbor, the K. 310 A minor - but, as with all Mozart, it's terribly difficult to bring to life while observing good 18th-century manners, playing on a modern 9-foot Steinway, in a major competition. Lifits managed to get it right. If the first movement seemed a bit too polite, it was probably his way of working through the performance nerves; the Andante movement emerged with enchanting poignancy, while the Finale showed commendable attention to structural detail beneath the surface hijinks. The Schumann Fantasy followed: such a vast canvas, such a discursive, intensely personal kind of music! It's inconceivable that any one performance could ever "get it right" (assuming a sufficient technical competence, of course). I admired Mr. Lifits' ability to illuminate little hidden corners that he finds meaningful - e.g., the long blurred pedal at the end of the first movement, and his observation that Schumann indicates no diminuendo at the last cadence of the entire work - but I did eventually lose patience with his tendency to stop at every possible roadside souvenir stand, especially in the last movement. So it wasn't a total success - but I'm sure Mr. Lifits is intelligent enough to know that the next performance will be, should be, must be quite different.
Italy's Alessandro Deljavan gave us what is generally known as Haydn's last Sonata - we usually refer to it as "the E-flat No. 52" - but recent scholarship indicates that distinction belongs to "C Major No. 50". (See Ms. Vacatello, in my next blog.) In any case, this one seems closest to Beethoven in scope and adventurousness. The performance was very fine, in a middle-of-the-road kind of way. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but it's not: as we all know, the particular balance of left- and right-brain activity needed in this repertoire is not easily attained! I appreciated the clarity of characterization in the first movement, the firm rhythmic underpinning of the Adagio, the freewheeling fun in the Finale, and the absence of eccentricity throughout.
The Liszt Sonata showed up yet again, this time with an emphasis on direction and structure; there were many details of timing, timbre and shape that were slightly unconventional, but on the whole Mr. Deljavan seemed committed to on-time arrivals. My only quibble was the anemic quality of his melodic sound...and I wonder, what is the point of taking that last note with the right hand??
To Be Continued...