This Cliburn Festival entry written by Gregory Allen, Professor of Piano, University of Texas at Austin, exclusively for Performance Today's Fredlines.
The Finals began with Mariangela Vacatello's third solo recital, and she didn't exactly disappoint - but neither did she knock it out of the park. The outer movements of the Italian Concerto (NB: this was an Italian playing in the Concerto round...) were brisk and jolly, while the central Andante sang out with beautifully modulated tone. She portrayed Chopin's seldom-played E-flat Rondo as the very model of a 19th-century parlor piece: showy but decorous, good-humored and never vulgar. Whenever I hear playing like this (both the Bach and Chopin), I'm always struck by the scarcity of performers who manage to simply Get It Right. Now, some day I hope to hear Ms. Vacatello's Gaspard and have that reaction, but I have to say that this time out, she showed signs of mental and physical fatigue. Which is not to say it didn't demonstrate superior intelligence and vivid imagination - her Scarbo was decidedly more harrowing than most, and some of her technical feats were jaw-dropping. It was clever programming to add the Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue as an 'encore'; droll humor and robotic dementia (is that an oxymoron?) provided an effective exclamation-point to the recital. (And in case you were vexed by her lack of dynamic variety in the fugue: the score indicates ff marcato from beginning to end.)
Did Evgeni Bozhanov just have an off night? Or did he decide he hadn't yet sufficiently flaunted his nimble fingers? Or was he out to just totally dominate the conductor? What I'll remember most about his Chopin E minor Concerto is the arrogance he showed in attempting Argerich-like tempos in the outer movements - without in any way matching her uncanny precision - and the way he kept banging out bass lines like a bumptious time-beater. I found a lot of it undignified and self-serving... But the piece is not all about virtuosity, and it's true there was much to admire in the lyrical passages. In particular, the second movement was phrased in long arches, with ornamental melismas treated as integral parts of the melody. (At times I felt his dynamic range was a couple of sizes too large for the piece - rather like Joan Sutherland in Lucia.) I still think Bozhanov is the front-runner in this competition, but after this performance he'll need to seek some degree of redemption.
Di Wu played Beethoven's B-flat Concerto nicely, with sincerity, respect, and good spirit. Yes, she fluffed some passages, but no more or less than anyone would under the circumstances. (Her performance began at 10 p.m. - she's tired, the audience is tired, geez, I think even the piano sounds tired!) I would just point out two things, though: one, although she played the slow movement with beautiful sound, I found myself wondering whether she has a clear overview of it. Is it an intimate soliloquy? An ardent romanza? A simple serenade? There seemed to be an uneasy blend of all three characteristics. And in the last movement, I know it's all too easy to dive in at an exuberant tempo that sounds fine on the piano, but you have to realize that the orchestra's larger mass of sound just doesn't want to move at that speed, even under an experienced and supportive conductor like James Conlon. So, once the tempo disparity has been exposed in the tutti statement, the soloist really should back off and try to get along. (This MO is especially relevant in this Classical-style dialogue.) Ms. Wu apparently thought the orchestra was just being intransigent - she tried to pull them along every chance she got, with the result that the whole movement sounded scrappy and - dare I say? - unprofessional on both sides of the podium.
As we arrive at the final weekend of the Cliburn Competition, I just wanted to thank you for your entertaining and informative blog. After a few days of trying to keep up with ALL of the web casts I realized that it would be much more enjoyable and relaxing to rely on your expert opinion to direct me to the more interesting performances, and access them through the archives. Thanks again for saving my ears from the terrible fate of ‘piano overload!’
Posted by Gregg Warren | June 5, 2009 12:36 PM
Do you think Bozhanov's facial expressions will hurt his career? I find them extremely off-putting. I wonder why a teacher hasn't nipped them in the bud.
On the other hand, Vacatello is a joy to watch up close.
Thanks for your comments, I've found the webcasts to be spellbinding, and I appreciate your comments. What a treat to have the webcast available to us -- I was even moved to donate to the site. I've more than gotten my money's worth!
Posted by C S Mackey | June 5, 2009 3:13 PM