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< The Semifinal Recitals - Day Two | Main | IMHO, The Finalists >

Day Three - Monosyllabic Pianists...

Posted at 12:06 PM on May 31, 2009 by Greg Allen

This Cliburn Festival entry written by Gregory Allen, Professor of Piano, University of Texas at Austin, exclusively for Performance Today's Fredlines.

Today's performers all have monosyllabic names. Dank and Kunz both have a "k", Kunz and Wu have a "u". Is this cosmic coincidence or what??

Expectations are insidious little devils. When it comes to music that I play, I try to set aside personal bias and experience another viewpoint on its own terms. In the case of Ran Dank's semifinal recital, though, I got sabotaged big time. Since I liked his first recital so much - not least because he did a fine job with the very same Beethoven Sonata that I played in the 1977 Cliburn - I was looking forward to hearing him in the Bach D Major Partita and the Prokofiev 6th, both of which are MY pieces... Well, I obviously set myself up for a rude awakening. I thought his Bach was disfigured by all kinds of phony dynamic effects: he bulged and dipped and prodded and poked - and latched onto the soft pedal at the slightest provocation. In the Prokofiev he took a slash and burn, take-no-prisoners approach that was, to me, simply anti-musical. I don't think the composer was trying to create the equivalent of Picasso's Guernica in this piece; yes, there's violence in it (as there is in the Moonlight Sonata!), but there's also lyricism, humor, serenity, nostalgia, etc., etc. (Not to mention structural logic and discipline.) I remember being mildly dissatisfied with Maxim Philippov's performance of this in the 2001 competition, but not like I was here. (Oh, and I thought that Dank just phoned in his take on White Lies.) I know mine is a minority view among his many fans, and I won't be surprised if he makes the finals... I'm also willing to admit the possibility that I simply didn't manage to listen objectively to this recital. Maybe I'll change my mind if and when I revisit it from the archives.

Quite the opposite happened with Eduard Kunz's program: I expected a mannered, eccentric reading of the Waldstein, but what I heard was mostly well-behaved, tasteful, interesting and exciting. He structured his musical energy levels to match the work's architecture, and characterized thematic elements distinctly. There were a few smudged passages and flaws in tempo integration, and I wish he would revise his chordal voicing in the first movement's second theme, but overall I enjoyed the performance. The Rachmaninoff Moments Musicaux didn't have the natural ease that Mayumi Sakamoto projected in the prelims, and I thought he seemed kind of bored with the whole thing. Still, it came across as solid and professional. Now, as to Bates' White Lies: after six hearings, I think the stylistic spectrum has been established, ranging from Bozhanov's spiky, neo-classic approach at one end to Son's dreamy nostalgia at the other. Kunz has now defined the dead center; I'd be surprised if this interpretation wasn't the closest to the composer's intention. Breezy and nonchalant at first, it got down and dirty in just the right way - and the finger snaps at the end were perfect!

Still on the topic of expectations: Di Wu's program looked like it might turn out to be an indigestible hodgepodge like Andrea Lam's was. Not so. The succession of pieces had an internal logic that really worked. I could cite chapter and verse regarding the many attractive moments in the Davidsb├╝ndler; the Medtner was colorful and fiery; the Hagen filled up its slot innocuously; and the Moszkowski finished with the proverbial burst of fireworks. If my assessment of this recital seems uncharacteristically glib, it's probably reflecting the nagging sense I have that, despite the many felicities of her playing, Di Wu is not an innately deep, insightful musician. Is it because in both programs she so prominently featured dance pieces, and seems most comfortable working in little four-bar phraselets? Or is it due to a perception that her various modes of concentration - every performer needs them - are not yet sufficiently disciplined or integrated? Whatever... At the end of the day (which it was, Thank God!), what matters is communication, and that is something she does very naturally.

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