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Surprises Continue at the Cliburn Competition


by Olin Chism 5 Jun 2009

Just when you think that things have neatly arranged themselves at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, some shuffling of rankings seems in order. Or at least some reassessments of individual art. I had thought that Mariangela Vacatello of Italy (above) had slipped a bit from her early positive showing, but on Friday night she […]

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Van Cliburn Foundation/Altre Media

Just when you think that things have neatly arranged themselves at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, some shuffling of rankings seems in order. Or at least some reassessments of individual art.

I had thought that Mariangela Vacatello of Italy (above) had slipped a bit from her early positive showing, but on Friday night she gave a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s great Piano Concerto No. 4, with polished, unpretentious but noble playing that captured the predominant lyricism of the work and was an effective foil to the orchestra in the striking combat that Beethoven conjured up between the soloist and the orchestra in the unique slow movement. The ring of a cellphone in one of the quietest moments of the concerto set the teeth on edge without completely destroying the magic of the moment. Conductor James Conlon and the Fort Worth Symphony provided solid and sensitive collaboration throughout.

It was a night for great concerto work. The consistent Yeol Eum Son of South Korea gave a graceful but strong performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (none of the finalists has oversentimentalized Chopin’s concertos, of which this was the third performed). There was a lovely slow movement and a brilliant, flowing finale.

The evening’s solo recital was by Evgeni Bozhanov, who has seemed one of the competition’s leaders throughout. This time, though, he faded a bit. His performance of Takemitsu’s Raintree Sketch I was subtle and suitably impressionistic, and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze were professionally played, though they failed to sustain interest. Maybe I’m just reaching the saturation point on solo piano pieces by Schumann, of which this competition has had plenty.

The pianist from Vulgaria — excuse me, I mean Bulgaria — ended his program with Liszt’s grotesque commentary on the famous waltz from Gounod’s Faust. Bozhanov played the devil out of it, eliciting the kind of amazement and admiration you feel when 20 clowns emerge from a Volkswagen Beetle at the circus or a stack of bicyclists six high pedals along a high wire without falling. The audience loved it, of course.

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