There’s an old folk belief that the level of playing in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition drops off in the semifinals. If Thursday afternoon’s session didn’t completely disprove that proposition, it certainly demonstrated that there are exceptions. If anything Mariangela Vacatello of Italy and Evgeni Bozhanov of Bulgaria (shown at left) improved on their first-round showings, which were already impressive. And Ran Dank of Israel did himself no harm.
For me, the high point of the afternoon was Bozhanov’s performance of Schubert’s greatest sonata, in B-flat, D. 960. This was music-making of a high order, flowing freely and beautifully projecting the drama, pathos and lyric beauty of this haunting work. This was the first Schubert of the competition, and it more than made up for those times in the preliminaries when art took second place to technical wizardry.
The remainder of Bozhanov’s program was also impressive. Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat, Opus 31, No. 3, was full of personality, with Bozhanov particularly bringing out the wit and high spirits of this appealing work. He gave the premiere of Mason Bates’ White Lies for Lomax, which will be much heard later in the semifinals (it’s one of the required new pieces). This proved to be a charming work, kind of jazzy at times and giving the sense of improvisation. Bozhanov made a winning case for it.
Vacatello made the best case so far for Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, with sensitive, lovely playing in the work’s many lyrical passages and stormy episodes that were dramatic without her tone turning ugly.
Her premiere of Daron Hagen’s Suite for Piano (another of the required new pieces) introduced a pleasant work of varied character, at times playful, lyrical and stormy. She played it from memory and made an impressive advocate.
Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand, Opus 9, No. 2, was a wonderfully played, somewhat Chopinesque work that might easily have tricked the ear into thinking that both hands were involved. Scriabin’s Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp minor was well played, though slightly less appealing to me.
Dank joined the Takács Quartet for the first of the competition’s chamber-music performances, Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor. This seemed to go well, with no obvious negatives, but I found it hard to get involved. Maybe it was just me.