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< Last of the Semis | Main | Coming down the home stretch - The Finals, Day One >

The Quintets at the Cliburn Semifinals

Posted at 8:55 PM on June 2, 2009 by Greg Allen (2 Comments)

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

As promised, some thoughts on the chamber music portion of the competition...

Schumann's Piano Quintet is really the first great work in the genre, written in 1842. It has always had multiple performances in the Cliburn Semis, and this time around we heard it four times (which is plenty - one year there were seven of them!). Michail Lifits brought his inquiring mind to it, with variable results: along with some beautifully balanced sonorities, there were also some tempo problems, overpedaling, and an unsettled quality of interaction with the quartet. I got the feeling the piece was new to him and hadn't had his full attention. On the other hand, Mariangela Vacatello's performance seemed seasoned and comfortable - maybe a bit too much so, for the quartet didn't seem particularly engaged. A solidly professional effort, then, but unfortunately a bit ho-hum. Then of course there was the unprecedented excitement that came with Nobuyuki Tsujii's appearance - how could he possibly interact with the quartet without eye contact? Well, just fine, thank you... not surprisingly, there weren't any interpretive quirks that would confound the ensemble, but as a middle-of-the-road reading it was perfectly acceptable. Last came Haochen Zhang, and here the question was, how much chamber-music experience could he have, being so young? Well, my guess would be, quite enough to put across a sharply defined, freshly conceived interpretation that made the quartet come alive and play with even more precision than they normally do. (This was especially apparent in the absolutely steady march tempo in the second movement.)

The Brahms Quintet is one that can take a rather wide range of stylistic viewpoints, but of the four performances, I thought only one was really successful in combining the idea with the reality. Ran Dank's was a patently ego-driven approach: too fast in all four movements, it had the feel of an aggressive dare both to the quartet and the audience, as if to say "This is MY TEMPO, take it or leave it." He did, however, judge tonal balances astutely. It seemed to me that Alessandro Deljavan showed more of his Italian heritage here than elsewhere. Tempos flowed, phrases were smoothly linear and the ensemble rapport was good... but I think one can go too far in trying to avoid Teutonic heaviness: this was a bel canto Brahms that lacked gravitas. Kyu Yeon Kim's version was efficient, with firm rhythmic control and good architecture; it was also tonally drab, with uninflected dynamics and little sense of blend between piano and strings. That left Yeol Eum Son, whose strong performance provided a satisfying conclusion to the semifinals; although I found the first movement just a tad routine, the slow movement was lovingly shaped, and the last two gained terrific power by virtue of rock-solid, not-too-fast tempos and inexorable forward momentum.

Dvorak's Quintet has the reputation of being the easiest of these four works (which it is, at least in terms of strictly pianistic challenges), but there's a huge difference between a so-so walk-through and a thoroughly captivating experience; among longtime Cliburn observers like myself, Jeffrey Kahane's performance in 1981 (!!) is still legendary. The piece wasn't so lucky this time around. The three competitors who chose it all seem to have taken its congeniality for granted, although Di Wu did manage to provide a little something more than cheery superficiality. There are those who preferred Andrea Lam's version and that's fine - I found it proficient but glib. And there was Eduard Kunz, who hadn't learned it, didn't demonstrate much in the way of collaborative skills, and delivered more heart-attack moments than any unsuspecting public or string quartet should ever have to endure...

The Franck Quintet is always the odd-man-out among this immutable tetralogy of the Cliburn Semis. It's massive in scope, extremely difficult technically, and requires a quartet with more tonal cohesion and a bigger cumulative sound than the others; and let's face it, its musical language and message are just not so user-friendly. Having said that, I'll happily volunteer to play it if you don't want to! Without actually researching the matter, I think Cliburn history might show some correlation between the eventual winners and those who chose the Franck - I know that was the case with Ioudenitch in 2001. Evgeni Bozhanov gave it his by-now-familiar polished, personal stamp; this man simply commands attention. I would have preferred a richer, more pedaled sonority, better pacing in some sections, and in particular, a more brooding, hypnotic quality in the slow movement - but hey, he's on track to win this competition, so he can do what he likes!

And what about the Takacs Quartet? I was more impressed with them than in the past; in general they seemed to show an interest in making music, rather than just taking up space onstage. OK, I confess I have never found their collective sound very alluring; they tend to use a one-size-fits-all vibrato; and I'm often exasperated by their inelegant phrasing. But they were adaptable and supportive, and displayed real chamber-music camaraderie much of the time. They do a tough job very well, and my hat's off to them!

That's enough for today. I have some further thoughts about the chamber music experience that I'd like to share, but they'll have to wait. Hasta maƱana...

Comments ( 2 )

I heard the finale of the Franck Quintet on Tuesday's "PT" and was staggered. It's a piece I've heard before, but not until Evgeni Bozhanov and the Takacs Quartet combined virtuosity with unflagging unanimity did it come clear that this is an absolutely terrifying piece of music. The slancio with which they sailed into it, and capped it off, with just enough give in between to make each fresh assault pimple your skin---well, what are the judges waiting for?

Posted by Warren Keith Wright | June 3, 2009 8:03 AM

Thanks for the comments Greg! Your insight and commentary is always dead-on. Bravo!

Posted by Alex | June 4, 2009 7:59 AM

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