Jed Distler’s Cliburn Blog No 14: Down the stretch

So far all Yuchan LimCliburn’s performances revealed his extraordinary technical control, musical perception, gift for characterization and cultivated style, whether it was the best comprehensive transcendental studies of Liszt I have ever heard, or one of the most viral and lively Mozart K482 from recent memory.

He worked similar miracles throughout Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, making expressive points through careful inflections, well-made projection, scrupulous but never rigid attention to Beethoven’s dynamic guidelines, articulations and varied phrases. He launched attacca from a bewitching sustained Largo to a Rondo Finale whose fast tempo never got out of control. I kept noticing conductor Marin Alsop’s broad smiles; she clearly appreciated the collaboration. The first soloists of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra also stood out.

Almost anything after such a breathtaking third by Beethoven would be an anticlimax, except for Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, whose ambitious range and millions of notes by definition dominate its surroundings. But not in Ilya Chmoukleris an effective but not very special performance. While this pianist unquestionably navigates piano writing like a breeze, his relatively limited dynamic range and tendency to express everything on the same level doesn’t quite hit the rafters. His straightforward pace is certainly preferable to emotional self-indulgence, but the lack of nervous tension and harmonic awareness never elevated his solo work beyond mere professionalism. Indeed, Alsop’s alert and very detailed projection of the orchestral part was more interesting.

If Shmukler plays Rachmaninoff to compete, Clayton Stephenson plays Gershwin’s Concerto to share, give and communicate the jazzy idiom and unfettered creative spark of music. Moreover, Stephenson is that rare bird who brings to this work both a complete classical technique and an innate sense of jazz rhythm. The embellishments and ‘blue note’ syncopations couldn’t have been more idiomatic, and for all the exuberance Stephenson brought to his unaccompanied passages, he also proved to be an excellent ensemble player, sensitively locking on all third movement tempo changes and rubatos. And let’s not forget to credit the solo trumpet’s muted bluesy slides in the second movement, or the tangy-tinged English horn solo.

In a way, the positive energy of Gershwin’s Concerto helps burst The Cliburn’s high-pressure bubble, albeit temporarily. In the meantime, the big stakes loom large as the piano community awaits the return of Stephenson and Lim on Friday night, playing…Rach 3!

To watch more videos of the performances described above, visit the Cliburn International Piano Competition website: cliburn.org

Gramophone is media partner of the Cliburn International Piano Competition


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