The first session of the 13th Van Cliburn Competition went off without a hitch — unless you count a cellphone ring in the middle of a quiet passage as a hitch — but artistically the three recitals of Friday afternoon were a little uneven.
Ran Dank of Israel was impressive in his technical skill, creativity and willingness to explore rarely trodden paths. But then he descended into competition cliché with a rip-roaring technical exercise that was like dumping a big spoonful of red-hot salsa on top of a chocolate sundae.
Most of his recital was certainly appealing. He began with Boulez’ Douze Notations, an austere work of stark contrasts that is sometimes stormy and sometimes impressionistic. Dank brought art to the work and managed the remarkable feat of turning it into something an audience might like.
It’s hard to know where the Boulez composition ends, and Dank tricked the audience by keeping his hands at the keyboard and after a brief silence segueing into Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat, Opus 27, No. 1 — minus any audience response to the Boulez.
He played the Beethoven sensitively and well, and was impressive in the following Black Mass sonata of Scriabin, though the quiet final passage was marred by the ringing of a cellphone (the audience had been asked to turn them off, but of course someone always doesn’t).
The real spoiler (worse than the cellphone) was Liszt’s Reminiscences de Norma, whose brief glimpses of some great Bellini melodies don’t really compensate for its overall vulgarity. Dank dealt with it efficiently, but this is the sort of thing you play in competitions, not real programs.
The recital of Natacha Kudritskaya of Ukraine was consistently appealing. Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata was full of contrasts and expressiveness and avoided the sense of cliché. Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit flowed beautifully and Kudritskaya managed the impressive feat of making its formidable difficulties seem to flow smoothly. Scriabin’s Valse was a pleasant closer.
Stephen Beus of the United States obviously has his fans in Fort Worth (he played in the 2005 Cliburn). He was greeted with unusual enthusiasm which didn’t wane during his recital or at its conclusion.
He’s a clean-cut young man who gave a clean-cut performance of Bach’s English Suite No. 3, making no apologies for transforming it from a harpsichord piece into something for a Steinway grand. He was most impressive in Barber’s muscular Sonata for Piano, and less so in Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody (he had no problem with the notes; it was just not terribly interesting).
As polished as Beus is, he doesn’t project the kind of distinctive personality that Dank and Kudritskaya do. (This is obviously a minority view; the audience loved him.)
Bass Performance Hall had a good-sized audience for the session. It wasn’t full, but there were more people than you would expect for a weekday afternoon. The first note was played at 1:10 p.m. and the last at 4:17 p.m., so the event didn’t run much more than a quarter-hour behind schedule, which is pretty good for the Cliburn.