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< Cliburn Day One: We're Off and Running! | Main | Day Three - In the Backstretch >

Day Two - The Liszt Goes On

Posted at 11:19 AM on May 25, 2009 by Greg Allen (3 Comments)

I'm afraid Day Two began inauspiciously for me. Soyeon Lee, a returnee from the 2005 Competition, began with a lush, dark A-flat minor and finished an hour later with a blazing A-flat major. Presumably she played a whole lotta notes in between, but it wasn't enough to trump my need for a postprandial snooze! So sorry! (Hey, do you think the jurors are paying attention 100% of the time??)

Also a 2005 entrant, Di Wu woke me up with some appealingly stylish Haydn. The first movement of this Sonata is a quirky start-and-stop affair that goes out of its way to avoid symmetrical 4-bar phrases; Ms. Wu perhaps tried too hard to keep traffic moving, running a few stoplights along the way. Ravel's Miroirs elicited a splendid array of evocative effects - I thought the Oiseaux Tristes and Barque sur l'ocean were really outstanding, and she showed an exceptional ability to spin out a very long melodic line in the Vallée des cloches. On the down side, she fell into a glib show-off-the-chops mode in Alborada - too fast, a bit sloppy, and surprisingly short on Spanish flavor. The concluding Faust Waltz was also disappointing, never surmounting the gravitational pull of oom-pah-pah 4-bar phrasing; she clearly overshot the mark toward the end, resulting in some pretty desperate flailing.

Vassilis Varvaresos of Greece took the bold step of starting with the "Moonlight" Sonata. Normally one would expect that the rationale for doing so would be to exhibit a ravishingly hypnotic exploration of the first movement's dark sound-world - not so in this case, however: this was a drab, Philip-Glass-style exercise in mindless noodling. No, his apparent reason for playing the work was to show how the last movement can sound when played really really fast (not bad, actually). Catènaires, a work from 2006 by then-98-year-old Elliott Carter, was also really really fast (a good bit faster than Pierre-Laurent Aimard's performance on YouTube). (As startling as it was to see Mr. Varvaresos toss pages of the score across the stage, I'm sure he chose that as a better option than relying on a terrified page-turner.) Then came the Liszt Sonata, a great deal of which was - guess what? - really really REALLY fast... is this guy on steroids?? (In all fairness it should be noted that when it wasn't fast, it was really really slow!) I suppose if you have superhuman reflexes, and it costs you so little to flaunt them, then go for it! Just realize that you may be forfeiting your artistic soul in that Faustian bargain...

Nobuyuki Tsujii is 20 years old. He's teddy-bear cute. He's a formidable pianist. And he's blind. How can you beat that combination? I had to try very hard to, well, listen blind... and concluded that, yes, his musical gifts are indeed pretty awesome. At the very least, he has a phenomenal ability to channel the spirit of his mentors - the great artists he listens to - and if his playing isn't the last word in originality, it's honest and deeply felt. When students ask me about the perceived dangers of mimicking recordings, I say, if you can come out sounding like Rubinstein I'm not going to complain... Well, as one example, the lustrous melodic sound Mr. Tsujii produced in the E major Chopin Etude reminded me of - Rubinstein! (Whoever has been guiding him is unquestionably a person with discriminating good taste.) As to his chops, he's every bit as adept as any other competitor here; I haven't heard a cleaner, more incisive Campanella at this competition since Valery Kuleshov in 1993.

Naomi Kudo showed oodles of talent, but to my mind she hasn't graduated with her Artist Diploma yet. She didn't quite get under the skin of the Carl Vine Sonata - somehow it seemed obvious that the piece really isn't as hard as it sounds. Triana was dressed up in superbly delicate finery, but its essential earthy vigor got smoothed over in the process. (I can testify that it most assuredly is not as EASY as she made it sound!) Her Chopin B minor Sonata fell just a bit short of being Very Good: in time she'll achieve a more beautiful melodic sound, better definition of textures, longer phrasing, firmer rhythmic structuring, more awareness of underlying energy levels...OK, I'm in my professorial nit-picky mode - but hey, I like her, and hope she'll be back next time.

I wasn't looking forward to Zhang Zuo's program (especially at 10 p.m.!): a pretty little Haydn Sonata, Schumann's Opus 1, three unrelated etudes, and, OMG, another Liszt B minor! This particular Haydn received a memorably zany performance here in 1997 by Yakov Kasman; Ms. Zuo's was just - well, pretty. (By coincidence, she chose the same Stravinsky Etude that Jon Nakamatsu played the same year.) It seems to me that if you're going to present Feux Follets in a competition it better be knock-out awesome; hers wasn't. Stifling yawns, I was trying to be charitable, thinking how good this would sound in the context of an undergraduate piano jury... But just a couple of pages into the Liszt, everything changed: here was a remarkably focused and communicative view of this oft-maligned masterwork (cf Mr. My-Octaves-Are-Faster-Than-Yours above). It would be an overstatement to say that it was fully mature, but it had a freshness, a sense of newly-discovered wonders, that captivated these tired, jaded ears. Again, I hope to hear her again in a few years.

By now it should be clear that I'm not a professional journalist working under an absolute deadline. I'm an Artist, dangit, and my Creations need time reach their full maturity. (Didn't Brahms take something like 35 years to write a symphony?) So all you ADD types, look elsewhere for your daily quick-fix - they're all over the web!


Comments ( 3 )

I briefly browsed the blogs at the Van Cliburn website and was left totally flat...those bloggers seemed to be in "I'm writing to impress everyone with my incredible knowledge and incisive prose" mode, and I could barely concentrate long enough to even skim them.

This blog is readable, entertaining, and gives the reader a true feel for the performances. Kudos to Mr. Allen--keep it up, and I'll keep reading!

Posted by Cindy | May 25, 2009 4:13 PM

We kind of like your writing a lot! Thanks for the 'live at the scene' flavor and the piano pedagog is entirely appropriate. Sometimes the prose seems punchy but what are you gonna do? This is competition. And only every four years.

Go at it and we'll pretend we're cheering from the aisles. And get Fred out of St Paul, the poor man has hardly a life what with shuttling off to Great Performances and battling with Alex Baldwin for his birthright!

Sorry - that crept out: a Fred Fanatic?? No! Just cheering for the former Oregonian. He's our only Beaver on the national scene.

Thank you Greg Allen. Sometimes we hear the later syndication on the local station. Is there a net feed where the concerts are scheduled?

Now I'll shut up. Bye.

Posted by Paul Mack | May 26, 2009 1:43 AM

The finals will be audio streamed at wrr101.com
Video of the finals (and more interestingly, rehersals with the orchestra) can be seen at www.cliburn.tv . That site also has archived video of all prelim and semi performances.

Posted by Al | June 2, 2009 10:06 AM

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