Suppose you have something around half an hour’s time to show yourself off to an audience and jury in the best possible light. Perhaps you really have only five minutes to grab people’s attention at the beginning, then you can spend the rest of your allotment making good on that first impression. How would you organize your time?
So far, there’s been a clear demarcation between contestants who strategically managed their slots (mostly the older pianists) and those who just seemed to be filling the requirements with no particular plan. The first group treated the opportunity as though it were actually a mini-recital; the second as though they were playing for a jury in a conservatory.
Canadian pianist Dmitri Levkovich, who is 30, planned his two sessions down to the last detail. In Round 1, he warmed up both himself and the audience with two Scarlatti sonatas (a la Horowitz), played a substantial Beethoven sonata (op. 31, no. 2) and tied the whole package up with Chopin’s ‘Black Key’ Etude. His Round 2 session (think of the intervening days as a long intermission) continued the program trajectory with Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp and Scherzo in b-flat and ended with the day’s second thrilling performance of Vine’s first Sonata.
Once again, Levkovich took the stage purposefully, went through the bare minimum of bench adjusting and pre-game meditation (this ritual drags on with some players), and took us along into The Levkovich Zone for a riveting 35-minute ride. We found ourselves forgetting to take notes. Everything was played with total control, but with a variety of color and flexibility. Levkovich drew attractive sounds out of the New York Steinway even when the music got edgy in the Vine piece. The latter was, if we can say this in 2009, a masculine approach, more sinewy than Kyoko Soejima’s elegant reading this afternoon. Both were performances to treasure.
Now, about that repertory. Part of the process of good impression-making is choosing works that suit your personality. Every player who followed this evening had one (a personality), but did they show themselves off most effectively by what they chose to play (or by what their teachers put them up to?)
István Lajkó (Hungary) seemed oddly hedged in once again by the Classical repertory (this evening, Chopin’s Fantasy in f and Waltz in A-flat, and in Round 1, Bach’s Toccata in e, Beethoven’s Sonata op. 109 and Chopin’s Etude op. 10, no. 11). On the other hand, his opening selections showed him to be a master of more modern music. He opened with seven extracts from Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata, finding wit and humor in the composer’s musings on tiny pieces of musical DNA and in the Etude No. 10 (Der Zauberlehrling, aka The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). He presented all of these pieces winningly and in some cases demonstrated an astonishing ability to keep minimalist patterns going for hundreds of repetitions without glitches. This seems to be his native musical language and he’s terrific at executing it.
Maria Masycheva (Russia) began with a hefty performance of Haydn’s little Sonata in E (Hob. XVI:31) and then turned to Brahms’ Seven Fantasies op. 116, a choice which eventually made her 35 minutes more tedious than enjoyable. This is uninspired Brahms (unlike op. 119) and we doubt that anyone could do much to make it palatable. Masycheva put her whole body into the task (often rising up off the bench), but to no avail.
Sean Chen (USA) brought us out of our late-evening stupor on Tuesday with some thrilling performances of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. Whoever chose Schumann’s Kreisleriana for him tonight did him no favors. Chen is probably too young to make complete sense out of Schumann’s lengthy, eight-movement evocation of Kreisler, the fictional manic-depressive. This performance was the apotheosis of rubato, of ebbing and flowing, starting and stopping, and the piano spoke with a harshness we hadn’t heard from Chen earlier. The final work was Elliott Carter’s ‘Caténaires’, a four-minute outburst commissioned by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, described by the composer as ‘a fast one line piece with no chords’. Chen pulled it off effectively.
Schumann’s Fantasy in C proved to be another infelicitous choice, this time for China’s Chun Wang. On Tuesday night, we admired Wang’s unassuming approach to Bach, Mozart and Chopin, which beguiled us through its subtle musicality. The Schumann Fantasy was another example of a big, rangy piece which hasn’t yet been assimilated by a young performer. The pacing was strange, too many precious details were pointed up to give its multiple sections direction and flow, and big pauses interrupted the progress of a work that needs all the cohesion that can be imposed on it by outside forces. At one point, the performer took so long between movements that the audience applauded (thinking, perhaps hoping that the piece was over). Wang seemed uncomfortable throughout and began merely pounding his way through passages that needed long, controlled crescendos to give shape to Schumann’s odd fascination with repetitive rhythmic motives.
Wang’s valedictory piece was ‘Le Loriot’ (Oriole) from Messiaen’s Bird Catalog, Book I. Soft chords led to avian outbursts of somewhat terrifying intensity (Daphne Du Maurier came to mind).