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REPORT | Cliburn Competition: A Frankly Superior Performance

By Arthur Kaptainis on June 9, 2017

June 8, 2017. Daniel Hsu of the United States performs with the Brentano String Quartet on Thursday in the Final Round of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo Ralph Lauer)
Daniel Hsu (US) performs with the Brentano String Quartet on Thursday in the Final Round of The Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo Ralph Lauer)

FORT WORTH, TX – “Where the West begins” is the traditional tagline of this vibrant and friendly city in North Texas, although every four years it becomes “Where you can hear three performances of the Dvorak Piano Quintet Op. 81 in less than 25 hours.” This was the situation that prevailed Wednesday and Thursday in the penultimate trial of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Chamber music has long been an element of the Cliburn, however widely the contest might be equated with romantic jumbo jets like Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (the concertos with which Cliburn himself won in Moscow in 1958, and which, indeed, will be among the works played by the six finalists Friday and Saturday). 

You can hear the Magnificent Six with the Forth Worth Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin streamed here, starting Friday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time, then Saturday at 4. Stay tuned for the awards ceremony Saturday at 8. Heck, use your smartphone. This is the 21st century.

But back to Dvorak. Finalists were required to choose one of five Piano Quintets — by Brahms, Dvorak, Franck, Schumann or Shostakovich — and do what they could to bring it to life with the Brentano String Quartet on the rather empty and voluminous stage of the Bass Performance Hall.

Why was the Dvorak so popular? Because it was the least difficult? Hah! Deceptively so.

First up was the 23-year-old American Kenneth Broberg, who had made a name for himself in the semifinal round by quoting La Marseillaise in his own first-movement cadenza to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 (without, mind you, violating the composer’s harmonic idiom).

Alas, Broberg had no bright ideas in the quintet. A few pleasant phrases could be discerned through the phalanx of four strings, but this was almost entirely an exercise in getting out-of-the-way. Did he misunderstand the acoustical circumstances? One judge opined that there should have been an acoustical scout in the hall providing advice during rehearsals.

Anyway, there was a much better Dvorak performance before the evening was out, from Yekwon Sunwoo, 28, of South Korea. More articulation, from pianists of this calibre, means more lyricism. The birdsong of the Dumka second movement flowed freely. The coda of the finale moved to an exuberant rather than merely speedy conclusion.

As for Dvorak performance No. 3 on Thursday, this gave the 29-year-old Russian Georgy Tchaidze (who had advanced partly on the strength of a zesty Pictures at an Exhibition in the semifinal recital) a chance to plant himself somewhere between the extremes and make a middling impression. High velocity in the finale was of no avail. Advantage Sunwoo.

But there were other quintets. Rachel Cheung, 25, of Hong Kong raised high hopes with her poetic Chopin Preludes in the quarterfinals and assertive Schumann Kreisleriana in the semis. Her playing in the Brahms Piano Quintet was often sonorous but not quite at the expected level of resolution (possibly, again, because of balance considerations). While the players got my toe tapping in the Scherzo and finale, the rhetoric seemed vague in the first two movements.

Which leaves us with two renditions of Franck’s Piano Quintet to consider (Schumann and Shostakovich having been passed over). One was weird and one was wonderful.

Yury Favorin, 30, gave us the weird option. Having already performed the first movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata at a strikingly stately tempo, this Moscow Conservatory grad elected to go slo-mo on us again, creating an effect that was, for better or worse, hypnotic. Did we hear the Piano Quintet of César Franck or Morton Feldman? 

“Awful,” said one of Canada’s leading chamber presenters, who might not wish to be identified. I am not so sure. Slow or no, Favorin (who is involved in a contemporary improv group called Error 404) is a serious artist. Critics were thankful in the semis for his having programmed the manic Shostakovich Piano Sonata No. 1 Op. 12, of which few of the critics present (and perhaps few of the judges) had ever heard.

I can say with confidence, however, that Daniel Hsu, 19-year-old from the San Francisco area, enjoyed more success in Franck on Thursday. Here the massive surges of sound were controlled with a dynamic sense of rhythm and an instinct for integrating melody with harmonic motion. His collaborative ear brought the best out of the quartet (including the first violin, who had his squeaky moments in the Dvorak triathlon). Hsu will win the $6,000 Steven de Groote Memorial Award for Best Performance of Chamber Music. At least if there is justice in the universe.

Whether he can be considered a sure or even likely medalist is not clear. The Cliburn evaluation system is cumulative. The Montreal International Musical Competition is different. Every round is a new competition. The semifinals get you to the finals. You win with the concerto performance alone. 

Cliburn rewards the whole package. “By the time we get to the last six, we know them so well, it is scary,” Joseph Kalichstein, one of the judges, said at a public gathering of the jury Friday morning. “At this point, we probably know who is going to win, unless a catastrophe happens.”

Stay tuned.


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