Some of you may recall that I produced a report in August 2005 of
my first trip to the Cleveland International Piano Competition. Two
years having passed, the chamber/recital presenter I'm involved with in
Livermore, California, Del Valle Fine Arts, was again invited to engage
the competition winner in advance (at an attractive fee) for a concert
in the next two years. The 2005 winner, Chu-Fang Huang, played a superb
recital for us in May of this year, so we opted to sign up for the '07
winner. Free tickets to the competition were offered, and I again took
advantage of the chance to revisit my home town, and attend seven piano
concerts in six days.
About 200 pianists applied this year, of which 100 or so were asked to
submit DVD audition discs, from which a preliminary 3-judge panel selected
36 contestants for the event. Five of those chose not to come to Cleveland
for whatever reason, leaving 31 players at the start, each of whom played
two recitals in the preliminary rounds. The jury of nine pianist-pedagogues
then made the big cut-down to eight semifinalists. This was where I
came in on Tuesday July 31, the first of two days of semis, each contestant
performing a one-hour recital consisting of a piece of the pianist's
choice, a Romantic era piece or group, and a French Impressionist piece
or group. All performances were broadcast and webcast on WCLV (from
whose website one may obtain CDs and DVDs of all performances).
Brief Comments on the Eight Semi-Final Performances:
Ran Dank (Israel) - A high-power start to the semis. Sporting a
near-Rattle-esque mop, this young Israeli began with a strong, and ---
given his free dynamics and pedaling -- very non-HIP performance of
Bach's French Overture. He then dispatched the first six of Debussy's
etudes with crispness and panache and finished with an absolute blockbuster
performance of Liszt's Reminiscences de Norma.
Helene Tysman (France) - The only woman (of seven) to make it to the
semis this year. Very strong player. I thought her Mozart C Minor was
very clean, but perhaps a bit studied. She did as good a job of selling
Schumann's Carnaval as anyone I've ever heard (it's one of those Schumann's
mixed bag pieces that I'm not particularly fond of). She finished with
La Valse, a piece I love, and one I've heard in very bad (various Russians)
and very good (Ruth Laredo, Chu-Fang Huang, the '05 winner) performances.
She almost delivered a gem, she clearly understands how the piece should
go, but, in gymnastics parlance, she failed to "stick the landing". I
don't know whether she simply wimped out or she just ran out of steam,
but the weak last minute or so marred an otherwise fine performance.
Alexander Ghindin (Russia) - A mind-boggling program of Gaspard de la
Nuit and the Liszt B Minor Sonata (and following Three Movements from
Petrouchka in the prelims!). How anyone can get through these monsters
without terminal cramping is beyond me. Ghindin, however, made it through
unscathed, though lathered like a racehorse at the finish. The Liszt
was as powerful and convincing as any I've heard. The Ravel, while
technically impressive, was a mixed success: evocative in Ondine, but
Le Gibet slowed to a near-crawl and Scarbo seemed dry and lacking in
fantasy. He concluded with a brief "encore" bonbon, the delightful
Czerny Variations on the Schubert waltz, D365.
Dmitri Levkovitch (Canada/Ukraine) - Less thoroughly Russian in schooling
(and performing style) than Ghindin, Levkovitch presented an rather
assorted program of Rachmaninoff (5 Preludes, and the 2nd Sonata), Chopin
(Scherzo 2, the 3 Nouvelle Etudes), and Ravel's Oiseaux Triste to meet
the French requirement [Ravel's stock seems to be up. Last time it was
7 Debussy, 1 Ravel in the semis; this time it's 4-4.] Levkovitch is a
relaxed, controlled player, never seeming to push tempo or overplay
dynamic contrasts. I thought everything sounded well in his hands and
the Rach 2 sonata concluded the recital on a high note.
Andrius Zlabys (Lithuania) - Zlabys' third go at the competition: he
placed 4th in '03, made the semis but not finals last time. With the
age limitation, this is his last shot at the prize. Very precise playing
throughout (Suite Bergamasque, Franck's Prelude, Chorale & Fugue, Prokofiev
7). He took the Prokofiev at a significantly slower tempo than is usually
selected for maximum wow factor in the final movement. I know extra-musical
aspects of the performance shouldn't matter, but I haven't seen so much
bobbing and weaving since Jersey Joe Walcott took Sugar Ray Robinson to
Wei-Jen Yuan (USA/Taiwan) - The only Asian/Asian-American (of 12
contestants) to make the semis, something of a surprise given the rising
tide of Asian success in the piano world. Ethnicity issues aside, Yuan
definitely belongs in the top rank. His Ondine seemed to be something
like 30% shorter than Ghindin's (probably in fact only 10%, if that).
Where the Russian went for shimmering surface effects, Yuan opted for
preserving the line, an approach I suspect Ravel would have endorsed.
Beethoven's Eroica Variations, Op. 35 followed -- not something one
encounters often in competitions, I suspect. Obviously Yuan's party
piece, it was the delightful, grin-inducing hit of the semis by my
reckoning. He concluded with an impressive Argerich-ish performance
of Chopin's 3rd Sonata.
Yaron Kohlberg (Israel) - About halfway through Schumann's
Davidsbundlertanze I was convinced that this is The Guy to Beat.
My amateur pianist friend David concurred. In this piece, which covers
the gamut of moods, tempos, dynamics and rhythmic devices, Kohlberg
exhibited control, touch, and tone that would be the envy of any pianist.
His playing of two Debussy preludes and l'Isle Joyeuse was no less
impressive. He concluded with a properly hallucinatory account of
Scriabin's Black Mass Sonata -- an odd choice for a closer.
Alexandre Moutouzkine (Russia) - After a tasty Haydn warmup, Mouseketeer
[I'm sorry, the name's difficult and he's got a baby face, so he's "Alex
Mouseketeer" to me], launched the second performance of Liszt's B Minor
Sonata in as many days (I knew the job was dangerous when I took it).
Wednesday morning the Plain Dealer's critic all but proclaimed Ghindin
the winner on the strength of Ghindin's Liszt; imagine his discomfiture
(if he has ears at all), when this young Russian turned in a superior
reading. His playing of La Valse had me re-evaluating my take on that
piece. It was technically the finest performance I've ever heard, he
avoided the usual Russian traps of too fast/too loud. And yet, and yet,
there were more than a few moments when his phrasing and rhythmic pointing
at least temporarily snuffed out the Viennese pulse that should underly
every bar of the piece. Still, for bravura alone, a triumph. Moutouzkine
was the only one of the 8 performers to get a second curtain call.
My choices for the Final Four - the one's I'd pick were I a judge, not
the ones I thought the jury would pick - were Dank, Yuan, Kohlberg and
Moutouzkine. As was the case last time, I was 3 for 4. I felt sure the
jury would pick Ghindin and I was right. He took the slot I would have
given to Yuan. So it's Israel vs. Russia in a tag team match to the
The Final round has the four performing concertos with the Cleveland
Orchestra in Severance Hall, Ling conducting. From the standpoint
of the Finals the selection couldn't have worked out better from the
standpoint of audience appeal. As happened last time, no duplication.
In a worst-case scenario, the finals could have been three Rach 2s and
a Rach 3! As it is, Dank plays Rach 2, Moutouzkine Tchaikovsky 1,
Kohlberg Beethoven 5 and Ghindin Rach 3.
Friday night was Pops night in Severance: "Full Moon and Empty Arms"
followed by "Tonight We Love". Ran Dank got off to a somewhat messy
start with the Rachmaninoff 2nd, and he seemed surprisingly diffident
in his projection of the piece throughout (in contract to the thunder
he generated with Norma). Moutouzkine, on the other hand, opened up
with guns blazing and turned in an exciting, fiery performance of the
Saturday night the hall was full (only 2/3 on Friday night), as they
had a big black tie event that evening as a fund-raiser. The audience
was primed for bravura pianism and they weren't disappointed. Yaron
Kohlberg's playing of the Beethoven "Emperor" was clean, characterful
and more than satisfactory. Still, I wondered about the tactical choice
of this piece. The first two movements are mainly trills, arpeggios and
such behind the orchestra and it isn't until the final movement that the
piano takes center stage and drives the music. Tough to compete against
Russian fireworks from Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff -- certainly with
the audience and possibly on some secondary level with the jurors.
Alexander Ghindin's programs were clearly the most taxing of any,
so it was hardly a surprise that he chose the Rachmaninoff 3. This
heavyweight concerto seemed physically suited to him as well; the
other three finalists are slim and slightly built, Ghindin is a tall
and burly Russian bear, in the Volodos mold, looking fit to eat Steinways
for breakfast. And he delivered an exciting performance, powerful and
evocative, as the music dictates. Like the Plain Dealer critic earlier,
the Saturday night audience was ready to hand him the prize on the spot.
Last time, I thought the jury's selection of Chu-Fang Huang was something
of a surprise -- she was up against a couple of strong Russian players
offering Rach & Prok concertos versus her Beethoven. This time, the
jury (all different jurors) went with the audience sentiment and selected
Ghindin as the winner. Not that his exceptional pianistic skill is
undeserving, but it was very much a case this time of bravura trumping
subtlety. Kohlberg placed 2nd, Moutouzkine 3rd, Dank 4th. Ghindin gets
$50,000, two years of engagements, and a Naxos recording deal. Interestingly,
a "Junior Jury" of six local high school piano students picked Moutouzkine
as their winner.
Sunday afternoon the proceedings wound up with award ceremonies and
brief recitals by the four finalists. Dank reprised Reminiscences de
Norma and Kohlberg the Scriabin. Moutouzkine played the last half of the
Beethoven Waldstein (he won a special Beethoven prize) and Ghindin, still
taking no prisoners, dispatched Three Movements for Petrouchka in as
clean a reading of this fearsome piece as I've ever heard.
All in all, quite a week. I'm looking forward to 2009.
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