Our Woman at the Cliburn: Brahms Triumphant

Rachel Cheung098

June 8, 2017

There’s good, and there’s Brahms. The Franck F-Minor Quintet and the Dvořák Op. 81 in A Major allow pianists to display their chops, but, baby, when Brahms enters the room, other composers might as well step aside.

It takes intellect as well as musicality to play the Brahms Op. 34 Quintet in F-Minor, and Cliburn finalist Rachel Cheung possesses both. She plays the work with the confidence and the richness of tone that Brahms deserves. In fact, if the jury based its decision strictly on quality of sound, Cheung would easily walk away with First Prize.

Thursday evening’s concert marked the end of the chamber portion of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and this year’s contest shifted the chamber performances from the semifinals to the final rounds. Georgy Tchaidze, Daniel Hsu, and Cheung joined the Brentano Quartet in Fort Worth’s Bass Hall. Hsu did a good job with the Franck, and Tchaidze turned in an intense performance of the Dvořák. (Yes! Again!) All three played the Hamburg Steinway, but, of the six finalists heard in the chamber finals, Cheung alone discovered the harmonic depths and myriad voicings the German instrument can produce.

Further, her performance reinforced the idea that, when choosing repertoire, taste matters. Many can play with volume and speed, but a pianist with aesthetic heart and refined taste can remind listeners why the great nineteenth-century German conductor Hans von Bülow considered Bach the Father, Beethoven the Son, and Brahms the Holy Ghost of music. Brahms is a composer able to reach across the centuries and grab listeners by their hearts and minds. What a delight to hear his quintet played well.

Cliburn concerto finals begin Friday evening, with Yuri Favorin playing the second Prokofiev concerto, Kenneth Broberg playing Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Yekwon Sunwoo playing more Rachmaninoff, the third concerto. (Surely you didn’t think you would escape the Rach 3.)

So why are you still reading this piece? Grab a laptop and watch Cheung’s performance at cliburn.org  

This and that:

  • Pity the Cliburn audience. The recital program lists only the title of each quintet, leaving many listeners to wonder how many movements should go by before they applaud. Since the finalists have a choice of only four quintets, certainly the Cliburn could prepare a program listing the movements of each chamber work.
  • Dvořák’s use of folklike melodies in his 1877 quintet precedes the beginning of Bartók’s ethnomusicological research by only about thirty years.

How lovely it would be if the 2021 Cliburn allowed a maximum of two performances of the same quartet. A pipe dream (or perhaps a string dream?), but one can hope.