Cliburn Finals: Round 3

Fri Jun 09, 2017 at 11:14 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Yekwon Sunwoo performed Rachmainoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Fort Worth Symphony Friday night at the Cliburn Piano Competition. Photo: Ralph Lauer

Russian Yury Favorin opened the final phase of the 2017 Cliburn Competition Friday night as he joined the Fort Worth Symphony and conductor (and jury chairman) Leonard Slatkin  for Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, a dark hurricane of notes that promised to be an ideal showcase for Favorin’s muscular virtuosity.

But Favorin’s march toward a medal surprisingly faltered. Dark and lighter elements compete here, and the pianist must find a balance between the two; Favorin never quite found the brightness and urbanity lurking in the cascades of notes. At times, indeed, he reduced the motoric passagework, which should storm and thunder, into a series of technical exercises. The sense of intellect that had pervaded Favorin’s recent readings of Beethoven and Shostakovich in the semifinal round, and Franck in the chamber music phase, here abandoned him. Likewise, he appeared to have his first case of nerves since the beginning of the semifinal round, with slight hints of insecurity and a few dropped and brushed notes in the first movement. For their part, conductor Slatkin and the orchestra turned in a less-than- perfect performance, particularly telling in the writhing accompaniment of the first full phrase.

The sole American competitor of the evening, Kenneth Broberg, turned to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for his final concerto performance. (His current teacher, 2001 Cliburn co-gold medalist Stanislav Ioudenitch, slipped into the hall just before the performance, fresh from completing service on the jury of the Beethoven Competition in Vienna, which ended Thursday.) Broberg’s performances have grown progressively weaker during the two final phases: here, his tempos were often unsteady, and his reading ranged from bombastic to understated—the latter most tellingly in a pale, unnecessarily restrained rendition of that famous Variation XVIII.

The absolutely essential razor-sharp coordination of orchestra and piano was often amiss here, largely because of Broberg’s unsteady tempos; conductor Slatkin lapsed into a roughshod interpretation of some of Rachmaninoff’s most delicate and humorous moments.

The one nearly unqualified triumph of the evening arrived when South Korean competitor Yekwon Sunwoo tackled Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Sunwoo clearly moved into the final laps of his competition run with a fresh shot of adrenalin for this monstrously difficult work, displaying a mature, calm presence, with nearly perfect control of this pianistic earthquake. He took no easy paths here, consistently choosing maximum reasonable tempos and opting for the more difficult of the cadenza options in the first and third movements.

Equally impressive, Sunwoo clearly understood how to make the most of the series of thrilling moments Rachmaninoff provides; and, best of all, he knows how to pace them so that, from beginning to end of this 45-minute-long concerto, each high point is a little more breathtaking than the previous.

One Response to “Cliburn Finals: Round 3”

  1. Posted Jun 10, 2017 at 1:27 am by Merlene

    Sadly I would have to agree with this critique of Yuri Favorin’s Prokofiev this evening. I was hoping that he would triumph.

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