This Cliburn Festival entry written by Gregory Allen, Professor of Piano, University of Texas at Austin, exclusively for Performance Today's Fredlines.
Now that we know who our 12 semifinalists will be, a most welcome day off allows time for reflection, recuperation and redundancy...so let me fill up some more cyberspace with further thoughts on the prelims.
Lukás Vondrácek's Italian Concerto was pretty uneventful. Technical competence in this work is a given even at the intermediate level of piano studies; why present it at this venue unless you have some terrific new insights to share? I found the slow movement devoid of rhythmic interest...this straitjacketed approach is not authentic, just unimaginative. Two Chopin Nocturnes were just cosmetically expressive: his dynamic lines dipped and bulged unnaturally, and left-hand accompaniments often bullied their way into the overall texture. On the plus side, Liszt's Harmonies du Soir was treated with sincerity and respect, and the three Czech dances by Smetana were a refreshing change of pace. (I wondered if the rhythmic stylization of the Furiant - a distended "pouncing " effect in the fourth bar of the pattern - was truly authentic. I must remember to ask DY...)
My musings about repertoire choices came to the fore again in Feng Zhang's recital. Unless you're out to show a dedicated specialization in a certain style (cf Eduard Kunz), why use up a third of your allotted time with a tepid Haydn Sonata? I liked the control of texture and melodic line in the Mendelssohn E minor Prelude, but the Fugue was a lost cause; he got overexcited and rushed the tempo a lot - oh, wait, there IS a long accelerando written! No, the problems were of pedaling and pacing, such that the Lutheran chorale's majestic entrance made little effect. Liszt's prophecy of Messiaen's bird songs is rarely heard: the tweets and chirps are pleasant but not really very showy, and the overall mood is pensive (as befits a sermon) - in short, it's not a very good piece for competition, although I did enjoy Mr. Zhang's performance. Sorry I can't say the same for his Rachmaninoff Second Sonata; I frankly cringed when, in the very first measures, I recognized the more complex accompanying pattern of the first version. My view on this piece is that it's flawed either way, but the composer was right in wanting to trim its pianistic and structural excesses - which were all too apparent in this reading.
Next we heard the Haydn C Major No. 50 (as previously advertised), in a nicely sculpted, detailed performance by Mariangela Vacatello. I'd never heard Busoni's Chopin Variations before. At first I was thinking it was more accessible, less arcane than a lot of Busoni, but it got progressively wilder as it went along; my jaw dropped in awe at some fearsomely difficult passages. Liszt's F minor Transcendental Etude (sometimes called the Appassionata - why didn't the composer give it a name?) was simply seething with rage - the psychological and emotional turmoil of this performance was worthy of Mahler. And no Cliburn Competition would be complete without a stunning version of Petrouchka; Ms. Vacatello stepped adroitly through its technical minefields with terrific aplomb, emphasizing clarity and vivid characterizations over sheer volume. I've always felt that Stravinsky made an odd choice in excising the Russian bear episode from the third tableau, but perhaps there's a message there: the music can happily do without the all-too-familiar bulldozer approach to make its effect. I loved this performance, and felt sorry that it was the last one of the day, which many audience members didn't hear.