Cliburn semifinal: Round 6

Sun Jun 04, 2017 at 10:36 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Han Chen. Photo: Ralph Lauer

Taiwanese pianist Han Chen opened Sunday afternoon’s session with an intellectually wide-ranging program, leading off with Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. In terms of raw technique, Chen proved pretty well flawless. Within that razor-sharp delivery, however, Chan played little attention to color and shaping of phrase in a work that must bathe itself in emotion.

The same combination of technical perfection and emotional distance followed Chen throughout his program. Scriabin’s Fantasie in B minor, a fine example of that composer’s passionate chromaticism, was equally cold in spite of the “correctness” of delivery, with little personal commitment to the emotions. Janacek’s Sonata I.X.1905, a highly personal reaction by the composer to political violence and oppression, offered more technical perfection and missed opportunities, while Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasie emerged with impressive precision and very little personal commitment.

That Chen hummed to himself while playing may well be an indication of—and is at least a metaphor for—his approach to performance: he was playing for himself, largely disconnected from audience.

Rachel Cheung. Photo: Ralph Lauer

Rachel Cheung, a citizen of Hong Kong and the only female competitor to reach the semifinal round, pulled herself to the front of the pack with her program of Schumann and Prokofiev. The eight movements of Schumann’s Kreisleriana epitomize that composer’s fascination with mood, personality, and exploration of piano colors; along with those ever-shifting demands, a pianist should also strive to create a sense of unity and momentum within the set.

Cheung commanded all of those elements from the first warm, handsomely shaped phrase. Whether in the magic, fleet lightness demanded in some sections, or the floating, singing tone of other portions, Cheung created the musical mosaic Schumann intended here.

Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata—appearing for the second time in the semifinal round—provided a perfect contrast to Schumann as well as an additional means of displaying Cheung’s artistic breadth. From the clanging percussiveness of the opening section through the moments of mournful lyricism to the grand peroration of themes in the Finale, Cheung proved herself an artist equally at home in the intimacies of Schumann and the storms of Prokofiev.

One Response to “Cliburn semifinal: Round 6”

  1. Posted Jun 05, 2017 at 11:36 am by Tom Sorger

    This review is spot on! Ms. Cheung brought a unique intelligence and sensitivity to both works, which allowed her to make the piano ‘sing’ in a way that we have not heard from the other competitors.

    Tom Sorger

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