One of the most interesting aspects of competitions is that you never know what to expect when you take your seat for a session.
Thursday afternoon, we heard contestants 23 through 27 out of 33, and there were surprises.
To our ears, Korean pianist Sangyoung Kim’s performance of the Choral et Variations from the Dutilleux Sonata may have been the afternoon’s surprising highlight. The most substantial work in the required ‘Written after 1950’ category, Kim expressively negotiated its opening theme, explored interesting color changes and was quite accurately all over the keyboard in the final toccata-like section. She began the set with Haydn’s Sonata in c (Hob. VXI:20), paying good attention to detail, noticing important harmonic events and producing clear and expressive runs. Too bad that the slow movement and parts of the finale got muddled over by over use of pedal. Not surprisingly, the audience forgot to applaud. That’s Haydn’s fault for writing an ambiguous ending! Kim’s second piece was Chopin’s g-sharp Etude, a well-rendered rivulet of thirds.
Anna Bulkina (Russia) surprised us in another way by producing a formidable amount of piano sound in Brahm’s Paganini Variations. Her specialty seems to be the big gesture, but she sounded much more musical in quieter variations where full-hands virtuosity wasn’t required and she was free to express more of her inner self. Not that she wasn’t capable of Brahms’ technical demands — there were plenty of moments to admire in the less boisterous variations. Bulkina launched her set with two Scarlatti sonatas.
Venezuela’s Kristhyan Benitez went for the big gesture this afternoon rather than bothering too much with detail. As a result, counterpoint in his Bach Toccata (e minor) sounded a bit scattery, his right hand skipped over notes in the Chopin (Etude op. 10, no. 1), and his Beethoven (Sonata in E-flat, Les Adieux) totted up a surprising number of inaccuracies, but the Beethoven sounded appropriately valedictory.
Martin Labazevitch (USA) brought his big piano style (and his big hands) to Haydn (Sonata in C, Hob. XVI:50), producing nicely shaped runs but rebounding off the keys to create motives with surprising accents. His second piece, the Radzynski Mazurka (written for a piano competition), brought forth some smiles with its brooding, chromatic roulades over the kind of harmonies you hear when the orchestra strings are tuning up. Chopin’s Etude in b, op. 25, no. 10 ended Labazevitch’s half hour on stage, treating us to a stormy opening and closing separated by a beautifully lyric interlude.
Edward Neenan (USA/Australia) began with Beethoven’s Sonata in C, op. 2, no.3, surprising us with a pumped up version that sounded like something much later than Beethoven’s opus 2. He had everything under his fingers, but the concept seemed out of scale with the material. Neenan surprised us with the choice of his second piece, Milton Babbitt’s atonal ‘It Takes Twelve to Tango’ (twelve tones, get it?) Not particularly ingratiating (Babbitt never cared about being liked), the piece served as an refreshing entremets in the afternoon. Like Labazevitch, Neenan ended his set with op. 25, no. 10, literally launching an attack on the piece, then playing with so much rubato that a friend asked me if it was another version of the work. Additionally surprising: a huge pause before the slow section, then even more rubato!
Interestingly (surprisingly?) audience reactions this afternoon were varied. We heard admiring remarks about performances we found dubious or wrong-headed, and others seemed to discount performances we really liked. What did you think, listeners, whether live, on the radio or on the web? Please take a moment to comment below.
We’ll see what further surprises are in store this evening, when the final five competitors in the first round show off their stuff.