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< IMHO, The Finalists | Main | The Quintets at the Cliburn Semifinals >

Last of the Semis

Posted at 12:03 AM on June 2, 2009 by Greg Allen (1 Comments)

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

It's hard to watch Nobuyuki Tsujii play without considering the miraculous gift he has, being blind... and yes, I mean that the way it reads: his handicap is the springboard of his creativity, in much the same way that a deaf composer managed to produce the Hammerklavier Sonata. Whether or not you respond positively to his artistic intention (or Beethoven's, for that matter), the fact remains that this young man has phenomenal abilities that the rest of us can only dimly comprehend. He CAN play the Chopin Etudes, the Hammerklavier, the Rachmaninoff 2nd Concerto (I'm listening to his rehearsal with conductor James Conlon as I write this) with the sensitivity, confidence and flair of a seasoned professional. And he's all of 20 years old. And stands about five-two. And did I mention he's blind? OK, let's try to assess his semifinal performance with some degree of objectivity. Being the only pianist to offer John Musto's Improvisation and Fugue, he had the field to himself; without any point of reference, I heard - well, sensitivity, confidence and flair. The first two movements of the Beethoven had finely controlled rhythmic energy and clean, unadorned sonorities. In the magnificent slow movement, he didn't quite blow me away; other pianists have plumbed its depths more meaningfully, though probably few of them are only 20. During the Fugue I confess I had in my head the image of the proverbial roomful of monkeys tapping out the complete works of Shakespeare - but come on, doesn't it always sound rather like that, even in the best performance?... No, Mr. Tsujii is an inspiring artist, and rather than cynically disparaging him as little more than a sideshow attraction (as some have), I for one am grateful that, with the Cliburn Foundation backing him, he's now positioned to become a valued cultural ambassador and role-model. (I do hope he'll learn some English!)

Michail Lifits got off to an unfortunately rocky start in the Liszt Sonata; I wasn't sure just when he recovered from it, if in fact he ever did. His very special ear for sound was evident (it's really extraordinary at low dynamic levels), and the sense of architecture was seemingly pretty solid - too bad it all suffered from nerves, exhaustion, indigestion, whatever... There was good news though: his version of the Hagen Suite was full of character, imagination and sincerity; the lyrical lines in the middle movements were beautifully delineated. This was easily the best performance we heard, and I'm willing to admit that there's more to it than I had thought. Strangely, it would seem that Prokofiev just isn't the thing this year (although we'll hear the 2nd and 3rd Concertos in the Finals). In the 7th Sonata, Lifits had some original ideas here and there, but on the whole it seemed half-baked and dispirited. I felt truly sorry for him, because I do think he has demonstrated a respectable integrity as a musician.

A different sort of problem afflicted the Schubert D Major Sonata that opened Alessandro Deljavan's program: put very simply, he just hadn't fully learned it. To my ears, there was plenty of evidence: conspicuous memory slips, poorly defined textures and articulations, pallid melodic tone, bangy climaxes, etc. - none of this was noticeable in his previous outings (well, maybe the lackluster sonority). Things didn't improve much thereafter; even with the score, he didn't seem to have much of a clue about White Lies, and the Scriabin 5th Sonata was desperate. I had Deljavan on my list of possible finalists, but after this undistinguished showing, I'm sorry, there was just no chance...

And so concludes this series on the semifinal solo recitals. This seems a good time for a quick review of these blogs... I've tried to be honest in my critiques, but I'm not claiming to be right all the time. My sometimes sharp criticism is not, repeat not, a personal attack on the player, any more than the jury's decision is. Believe me, I empathize totally with these contestants - I've been there, done that, I feel their pain! When I was cut in the first round at the 1977 Cliburn, there weren't any bloggers to clue me in on the reason(s) why; I had to realize on my own that I made some poor repertoire choices, I played the wrong piano, I had a bad head cold and couldn't hear normally... Oh, and there was also that inconvenient truth that my playing was proper, academic, stolid - in a word, BORING. So if I point out that this one's Liszt isn't quite performance-ready, or that one's Brahms isn't a very good competition piece, or that he needs to pay more attention to pedaling, or she is clearly having an off day, or whatever - it's all about our shared goal of doing the best we can, of keeping our eye on the prize, artistically.

I promised a report on the quintet performances, which should post tomorrow. Of course by now we know the six finalists - and have probably placed our bets on the winners. Tune in to the concerto performances (and the last solo recitals) on the webcast: Weds. through Fri. at 7:30 CDT, Sat. at 1:30 and 7:30, and Sun. at 1:30. The awards ceremony will be at 5:00 Sunday.

Comments ( 1 )

Thanks for the giggle -- I thought I heard Fred Child say that Nobuyuki Tsujii was the only blond entrant in the Cliburn competition, and therefore there might be some doubt about his ability to navigate the large leaps required in his piece. Glad it wasn't a blond joke, after all!

Posted by Nancy Johnson | June 2, 2009 12:05 PM

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