Sangyoung Kim, Kristhyan Benitez, Martin Labazevitch, Anna Bulkina & Edward Neeman returned to the Bolton Theatre stage on Sunday afternoon for a second hearing. Although we can’t say that we learned anything radically new about these five highly competent pianists, many of our first impressions were confirmed by hearing them in fresh repertory.
Sangyoung Kim (Korea) impressed us on Thursday afternoon with her Dutilleaux Sonata. She presented only two works on Sunday: a Prelude & Fugue from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (f-sharp, Book II) and Schumann’s Carnaval. Her Bach was nicely shaped, building to its harmonic climax with a long crescendo and announcing harmonic arrivals. As in the Dutilleaux, Kim brought fine colors out of the Hamburg Steinway, taming its bright treble register and producing a performance of stylish beauty, reactive to quick changes of mood and bright with humor. She caught the grandeur of Schumann’s piano writing in a way that has eluded previous contestants and brought the first set of the afternoon to a highly agreeable conclusion. Never mind a few klinkers.
Kristhyan Benitez (Venezuela) followed with passionately visceral and self-indulgent playthroughs of Schumann’s Kreisleriana and Ruiz’s Merengue. Despite his tendency to muscle his way through technically difficult passages and leave lots of notes on the floor at the end of his performances, he exudes personality and charms audiences. Today’s crowd responded warmly to his dramatic vision of Schumann, which included histrionic reboundings off the keyboard. Benitez gains most of his contrasts through dynamics rather than changes of color and uses too much pedal. But he’s very entertaining. The bouncy, bright and rhythmically jangly Merengue, which dates from 1994, was the perfect Latin bravura ending to his Sunday set.
Martin Labazevitch (USA) began with rather serious performances of three Scarlatti sonatas (K. 162, 87 & 125). He doesn’t let his hair down easily even in the presence of sunny, Italian music and in fact wagged a warning finger at the first sign of between-the-sonatas applause. His Chopin (Nocturne op. 55, no. 2 and Ballade (op. 52, no. 4) further advanced the idea that serious business was going on here. His playing was healthy, with a strong and nicely controlled tone which rarely changes color, but still sounds rich in climaxes. The Ballade had a fine sweep and grandeur to it. A little chuckle arose from the house when the video screen focused in tight on the Steinway logo during the last Scarlatti (a little message from our sponsor). And speaking of that screen, which offers the audience closeups of performers’ faces, whatever is Labazevitch murmuring to himself as he plays? Inquiring minds want to know.
Gubaydulina’s Chaconne made its second appearance in the Competition in the capable hands of Anna Bulkina (Russia), who made it sound like a bravura chaconne and discovered the lyricism in this striking Soviet-era piece, somehow making it sound less angry. At times, her spirited and well-thought out reading of Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata seemed a bit pressed rather than spacious. She seemed to be struggling a bit with the latest iteration of Chopin’s ‘Winter Wind’ Etude, allowing the left hand tune to vanish from time to time. But all in all, this was an enjoyable opportunity to hear her again. Idea for the Competition: How about a special ‘Winter Wind’ award for the best performance of this much-played Etude?
Edward Neeman (USA/Australia) brought the afternoon to its conclusion with a very pianistic version of Bach’s f-sharp Prelude & Fugue (WTC II) and a full-steam ahead reading of Brahms’ C Major Sonata. The Bach prelude was introverted, with lots of expressive rubato (especially when a Neapolitan chord was in sight). His similarly lyrical conception of the fugue was more melodic than contrapuntal. Neeman’s Brahms began big and continued on a grand scale. He put so much into this performance that he seemed to grow weary in the last movement, which presents the performer with flying chords and treacherous runs. Things got a bit sloppy as the finish line approached, but the audience sensed that something quite athletic had just taken place and gave Neeman a big round of applause.