Our Woman at the Cliburn: Judgment is Nigh

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June 9, 2017

“Dies Irae.” Judgment Day. In Fort Worth, that day is tomorrow, June 10, when, at the end of the three-week Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, final judgment will be passed on the six finalists.

How apt, then, that, in Friday’s night concerto round, American Kenneth Broberg performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. Rachmaninoff quotes the “Dies Irae” plainchant melody throughout the 1934 composition; indeed, he uses it as the skeleton of the seventh of the work’s twenty-four variations.

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Of course, any Rachmaninoff work makes great demands on the performer, and Rhapsody is no exception. Broberg, however, never seemed to break a sweat as he expertly coordinated with Leonard Slatkin and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. His tone production on the Hamburg Steinway was among the best of the week, rich and colorful. Further, Broberg’s thoughtful voicing and consistently precise rhythmic execution are much appreciated: The Rachmaninoff swings when it needs to swing, and sings when it needs to sing. Broberg made the piece sound new, and the audience had a wonderful time.

But—sigh—the Cliburn would not be the Cliburn without at least one performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3. South Korea’s Yekwon Sunwoo did the honors, and the audience seemed to like him. Certainly he has the chops for the piece. On Friday night, however, brusque tone marred much of the performance and diminished Sunwoo’s lyricism.

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The night’s third concerto was the Prokofiev No. 2, Op. 16. Russian finalist Yuri Favorin knows the piece—without doubt—and he has the stamina for it. The concerto rarely allows the pianist to breathe, and Favorin barreled through diligently. Interestingly, the program notes emphasize Favorin’s interest in improvisation and contemporary composition, and his own performance group is cleverly named ERROR 404. It would be interesting to hear him in a different musical setting.

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Saturday afternoon’s concerto finals feature Rachel Cheung playing the Beethoven No. 4, Daniel Hsu playing the Tchaikovsky No. 1 (someone had to), and Georgy Tchaidze playing the Prokofiev No. 3. The concert begins at 3 p.m. and will be live streaming at cliburn.org.

This and that:

  • “Dies Irae” shows up in numerous classical works. Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, a 1909 symphonic poem written in 5/8, makes particularly eerie use of the melody.
  • Did anyone else think the orchestra sometimes had a hard time keeping up with the soloists?
  • Let’s stipulate that all the finalists are skilled pianists. Now we’ll see what the jury thinks.

After the finals, the blog will return with a summary of the proceedings. Stay tuned!