The final afternoon session of the Van Cliburn Competition semifinals brought some extraordinary music-making on Sunday. Michail Lifits, who has been impressive throughout, gave an engrossing performance of Liszt’s B minor sonata (the fifth of the competition so far) and demonstrated that there is some real art to be found in the piece. Aside from the usual drama, there were many hauntingly lyrical passages, the effect of which was not utterly destroyed by a cascading series of coughs and a phone ring during one of the quietest moments.
Lifits’ performance of a commissioned work, the Suite for Piano by Hagen (a fine Wagnerian name, that) was equally impressive, with lovely and lively music-making giving life to a relatively unfamiliar work. The pianist was an effective advocate for it. An exciting finale capped a strong performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7.
Haochen Zhang, another of the competition’s more impressive candidates, joined the Takács Quartet for an excellent performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet, probably enhancing his chance of going into the finals.
I was a little disappointed in the performance of Nobuyuki Tsujii, who played as his new, commissioned work John Musto’s Improvisation & Fugue and followed with a great mountain of a composition, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, which is very definitely not a typical competition piece.
Musto’s work went well, creating the willingness to hear it some more. As for the Hammerklavier, it has one of Beethoven’s deepest slow movements, and a performance should carry you to mysterious realms. Then the great finale should leave you emotionally drained. Tsujii’s performance was quite strong, but it didn’t plumb the depths or scale the peaks.
This is a tough work to bring off, which may be the reason it’s almost unheard-of in the competition environment.