Let me start by saying that I find the jury's selection of the six prizewinners absolutely spot on. I think these six have some very special qualities, and I wish all of them all the best on their thorny musical path ahead but, now, let's turn to business.
Having to rank such wonderful players is no easy task. I ordered the CD set of the competition a a week or so ago and so, being quite unhappy with the final results, I began by thinking what I would like to have on those CD's.
Starting with the finals, I would be sad if, first and foremost, Tatsuki Narita's Paganini would not be there. I would also like to have and be use for my future university students Yu-Chien's Brahms' concerto as well as Hyun Su Shin"s Brahms.
Baranov's Shostakovitch I would not want. While the first movement had some great moments, it also had out of tune notes which multiplied exponentially during the subsequent movements. His sound quality in the second and fourth movement was unacceptable, and his tempo choices not supported by a good enough command of the instrument's technique. There were moments when the music was quite unintelligible. The other concertos all were struggles of over-tired players.
For the sonatas, I liked very much Esther Yoo's choice of Mendelssohn, and the youthful way she delivered it. Again, Baranov's Prokofiev was great, except the second movement where he once again proved he cannot play off string music with good quality sound.Shishkov's Brahms had some amazing moments like the beginning of the third movement, but sometimes he seemed to not penetrate the music beyond slavish adherence to the score. Some choices of keeping the tempo steady in the second movement where rubato would have been appropriate and quite accurate stylistically (whether we think of either today's performance practices of nineteenth century performance practices) managed to effectively kill the mood. The same, in my opinion, was the result of his choice to use the mute for the second movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto. It is in the score, but it did not work for him, and he could have done much better without feeling he has to struggle for a big sound to surface above the orchestra.
For the compulsory pieces, Yu-Chien Tseng was by far the best in Kissine (oh, I hope it is going to be on the CD!) and he, together with Tatsuki Narita and Hyun Su Shin, delivered maybe the only good versions of the Kenji concerto.
As for the semi finals: I would love to have Artiom Shishkov and Yu-Chien's Mozart concertos, Tatsuki Narita's whole recital and Hyun Su Shin's Chausson. I would also love to have Kristi Gjezi. whole recital.
I would spend money to either buy the CDs or go to listen live to Tatsuki Narita who was a real revelation and showed to be an outstanding musician, to Yu-Chien who delivered a most wonderful Brahms concerto and a semi finals round to be remembered, to Artiom Shishkov who is such a wonderful musician, so versatile, so sensitive: a real artist and, maybe, to Hyun Su Shin if she learns to control and diversify her monotonous and overpowering vibrato. I would never pay to listen to Baranov who didn't think it important enough to perfect his intonation and sound for such a competition and relied only on his talent, experience and politics to send him to the top. I saw in Baranov's playing neither the serious, respectful and insightful focus I saw in Yu-Chien Tseng's playing, nor the happyness of making beautiful, solar and meaningful music and sharing it with the audience, as it was the case with Tatsuki Narita (did you see his smile as he was playing?).
My ranking would be:
1) Tatsuki Narita for his joy of making music, for his oustanding performance, for his very special sound and all the colors he could produce, for not getting tired at the end of the concerto,
2) Yu-Chien Tseng for his amazing semi final round as well as for his wonderful Brahms concerto
3) Hyun Su Shin for her Chasson and Sibelius, but less for trying to make music with un undifferentiated vibrato instead of using her bow to create more shades.
4) Andrey Baranov because he is, after all, an accomplished musician, but less for a one color Russian program in both the semifinals and the finals, for a bad Mozart, messy Ysaye sonata, bad taste in Kissine, bad second movement in Prokofiev's sonata and sub par second and fourth movements in the concerto.
5) Artiom Shishkov for and outstanding semi final including one of the best Mozart concertos, for a great Brahms sonata, but less for being a victim of fatigue in the finals
6) Esther Yoo for her Mendelssohn sonata, for being a very accomplished musician at such an early age, but less for a bad choice of playing Beethoven's concerto in the finals. Suyoen Kim, the one who was bumped down to the fourth place in 2009 and whom, in my opinion, should have won the competition, played a Beethoven concerto many classes higher than Yoo's, and she was still bumped down to fourth place due to an unfortunate mistake.
Having Baranov as the winner quite depresses me. Even beyond the intonation mistakes, it was his choice of tempi in the fast movements of the concerto, his bad sound quality in these movements as well as in the second movement of the Prokofiev sonata, his old fashioned Mozart, his only-Russian program, which should not have led him to be the winner over much more interesting, more cultivated, more musically and technically accomplished candidates.
What was Bouchkov doing in the finals? Someone, please, help me understand! He has nothing going for him: no intonation, no consistently good sound, no sense of rhythm or phrasing. Was being Belgian enough to get him so far? I was absolutely not impressed with his semifinal performance either. In 2009, Lorenzo Gato was rightfully on the podium. He showed he was an artist. Bouchkov on the other hand... blah!
Marc's Beethoven brought nothing we did not hear before. Visually, he seemed to suffer a lot, but the musical effect was sub-mediocre. He seems to know where the pitches are on the violin most of the time, but his dynamic range and expressive powers are at least limited if not altogether absent. The overall impression of his Beethoven was of a casual outdoor barbecue performance for friends without any musical training.
I gave Nikki Chooi the benefit of the doubt for the Ravel sonata because it is - I believe - impossible to play with the pianist Thomas Hoppe whom, an undiscovered Lang Lang (please, excuse my sarcasm), did never adjust his playing to accommodate a string player and kept plowing ahead fast and unconcerned without allowing the violinist any extra time to reach or linger on expressive notes.
On the other hand, Nikki did not show much anything during the two subsequent works. Another disappointing evening.
Artiom was so tired today! I tried really hard to erase from my mind the mundane beginning of his Brahms sonata as he was playing through the first movement. Every time he played his bariolages in the first movement he sounded just like a student playing Sevcik. The eighth notes did not have direction; they were played clearly but there was no meaning associated with them. The printed material was perfectly rendered during the second movement without any tempo change. That was quite unusual and unsatisfying. The third movement had some magical moments and would be the reason for me to buy tickets to listen to Artiom live (the only other finalist I would buy tickets to listen to is Tatsuki Narita). The last movement was dragging a little. Brahms might have been a large man but his music is never obese!
The Kenji was a forced jumble and the Tchaikovsky, while full of very musical moments, was also full of little blemishes (especially in the first movement) which seemed to annoy even Artiom himself. He also seemed annoyed with the coughing audience during the Brahms.
Artiom's playing was uncomfortable during the second movement (which he chose to play muted). The orchestra tried its best not to cover him but he still had to apply quite a bit of extra bow pressure with negative effect on his sound quality. His third movement was a bit too fast to be musical. It sounded like a race, not like an exciting dance. Such a pity!
Nancy Zhou delivered the second great Kenji in the finals. I could understand the rhythm, the structure of the music and I could even make out some of its formal features. Her sound had no problem soaring over the orchestra and the ensemble felt comfortable playing with her.
Nancy's Prokofiev shined the most in the second and last movements. Her huge sound and relentless energy were quite suited for these two movements and Mr. Vitaud, the pianist, was a fantastic partner! The first and third movement showed that Nancy still has some growing up to do. She lacked the subtlety and sound color palette needed for these two musical jewels.
What a pity that maestro Varga was not more in control of the winds in the coda of the first movement of Sibelius! Nancy caught up with the rushing clarinets and flutes like a well seasoned soloist though. As in Prokofiev, in Sibelius she shined most on very energetic passages but her playing fell short on anything that required soulful musicianship.
Nancy is a great competitor. She is solid, mentally strong and hard to beat. Is she an artist yet? Does she have in her that something that will attract audiences outside of the competition world? I think it is too early to know this. How does one judge her playing? How to decide to start her on a career ahead of other competitors without knowing whether she will grow to be a true artist or not? Right now, I see her as a great technician with huge potential, but not as an artist.
Andrey Baranov made some real music today. His Prokofiev was mostly solid (less some bow control issues in the second movement) and he seemed in command during the Kenji piece.
His first movement of the Shostakovitch was also very musical. I liked the way he listened and played with and from the sound of the orchestra. Something I heard for the first time in these finals. On the other hand I would have liked better tuning for the double stops.
Unfortunately, the second movement was a disaster waiting to happen at every corner. Andrey pushed the tempo in the first measures but it was obvious the initial tempo chosen by maestro Varga was the correct one when Andrey started struggling with the theme a few measures later. At times, it was quite hard to recognize what was going on.
The Passacaille showed again Andrey's musicality but also the results of fatigue. Again, playing at, or even beyond his own tempo limits in the Burlesque, while it did bring the standing ovations of the audience, I am not sure scored him high points with the jury. At least I hope not.
Dami Kim's Bartok sonata didn't do anything for me. Her well practiced, extremely exact way of playing did not go together with Bartok's passionate music. There was none of the emotion, earthiness and relentless passion one would expect to hear in such a piece.
In Kenji's concerto, Kim's only concern seemed to be to play all the notes and the signs. I could hear none of Baranov's colors or Narita's drive, clarity and sense of articulation. Quite a bland performance in which the orchestra almost ate her alive.
With Narita's brilliant Paganini from Tuesday on one side, and Andrey's passionate playing earlier today on the other side, Kim's Paganini had the flavor of a school performance: a brilliant school mind you, but a school level performance nevertheless.Well rehearsed, her performance lacked originality and the few attempts she made to bring a musical aspect to the music seemed pasted on and unconvincing. She, as others before her, fell victim to fatigue. Being such a victim while playing Paganini did not help at all. I felt quite sorry for her tonight.
This was Tatsuki Narita's evening! When he started his Brahms I thought it would be a painful experience - and I still resent the fact that he played it so safe - but it turned out to be quite the contrary.
His interpretation of the Kenji concerto was the first one that made any kind of sense. I think even the orchestra members sensed that and played more with Narita as opposed to playing against the other finalists as was the case yesterday and today with Shin Hyun Su. Narita managed to project his sound, unforced, over the clumsily orchestrated piece, and his very exact, wonderfully articulated playing inspired the orchestra.
Narita's Paganini was absolutely brilliant! From the first notes his sound reminded me of Zino Francescatti: warm, sweet and full of solar light. Not only did he zoom with nonchalance and ease through the most fiendishly difficult parts, but he managed to make music and to have fun while doing it. A superb performance.
Shin Hyun Su really needs to learn how to use her vibrato. Her Brahms sonata was destroyed by an undifferentiated, excessive vibrato which blended phrases together like in a badly executed watercolor in the first movement, and segmented the lines in the second. I liked her energy in the third movement but here the vibrato made the sound quality suffer. The last movement of the sonata was an abuse to Brahms and the music. This music is not a virtuosity showcase and playing it as fast, loud and "in your face" as Su did showed only her lack of artistic maturity.
Su redeemed herself in Sibelius which was far more balanced and musical than the one we heard yesterday from Spacek. Maybe the beginning of the first movement was a bit fast, but she kept a steady tempo throughout the first page, which created the impression of strength and secure playing. It seemed it was also easier for the orchestra to follow her throughout the concerto. Su's choice of playing the last D of the second movement as a harmonic convinced me to never play it this way. It simply does not belong there: empty, metallic and cold, against the warm tone of the orchestra (but this is a different matter :D).
All in all, an interesting evening.
After waiting with much anticipation the Queen Elisabeth finals, the two performances of this first evening were quite disappointing for me.
While Josef Spacek has a big, warm tone, his performance tonight was not memorable in any way: from his Prokofiev sonata in F minor which lacked in color and atmosphere, to his Sibelius concerto which sounded opaque and had some innovative rhythms introduced by Spacek in the leaping octaves passage on the last page.
Emir Abeshi did not give the impression that he really understands what Prokofiev's second violin sonata is all about. The first movement was bland, with none of the flute-like lightness and wittiness that should have been there; the second movement was fast to the point that it seemed to surpass Emir's technical abilities; the third lacked its magic and its ending seemed rather like a mistake than a conclusion while the finale was just loud and forced.
Emir really seemed to come apart in Tchaikovsky's concerto. His first solo intervention was painfully insincere and then intonation, quality of sound, sense of rhythm, all started to collapse all around. I am sure fatigue and stage fright do not help but throughout so many editions, many other competitors struggled with the same vicissitudes with more success.
I am still to understand - maybe helped by other competitors - why Sakai Kenji's concerto won the composition competition. It just seems a struggle between the solo violin and the full blast of the brass section aided by the rest of the orchestra. What's the point?
I hope for a better day tomorrow.
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