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Review: Cliburn winners’ CDs bring back excitement of competition

Cliburn winners CDs

• Harmonia Mundi

• $20 each

• Available through www.cliburn.org.

Posted 11:47pm on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013

The sense of immediacy and the sheer excitement of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition are gone, but this year’s event still has something to offer. The latest offering came Tuesday with the release of albums by the three top prize winners: Vadym Kholodenko (gold medalist), Beatrice Rana (silver medalist) and Sean Chen (crystal award).

Overall, the three Harmonia Mundi discs are clearly recorded, with excellent sound and freedom from ambient noise, though some applause at the end of pieces is recorded for posterity. The works recorded are selections from the three solo-recital phases of the competition, which occurred in May and June: two preliminary recitals and one semifinal recital by each contestant.

For me, the biggest surprise among the releases is the disc of Chen, the only American among the top three. He was certainly impressive during the competition (who wasn’t?), but he wasn’t on my guess list of potential prize-winners.

Listening to his recording in quiet surroundings, it became clear that a reassessment was in order.

The disc begins with Brahms’ Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 21, No. 1, a lesser-known work than the composer’s frequently played Handel and Paganini variations. Chen gives it a beautiful performance, notable for the pianist’s lyrical approach and pleasant tone even in more virtuosic passages.

Even more impressive is Chen’s performance of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, which occupied his entire Phase 2 preliminary recital during the competition (the Brahms was from his semifinals recital). This monumental work is given a mature interpretation notable for its fluid pacing and dramatic drive. The second movement is pixie-ish in character; the long, slow movement is deeply moving; and a sense of inevitability is sustained in the finale.

Three Études by Bartók, taken from Chen’s first preliminary recital, are an impressive conclusion to the disc. By turns virtuosic and impressionistic, the études don’t lose their lyrical sense even in the many muscular passages.

Aside from Christopher Theofanidis’ required Birichino, which is not included on any of the three discs, Liszt’s Transcendental Études were the entirety of Kholodenko’s semifinals recital in the Cliburn. Oddly enough, he left out the ninth of Liszt’s 12 études — La Ricordanza, which means “remembrance.” Maybe he felt he was pushing the time limit.

At any rate, La Ricordanza is included on the Ukrainian Kholodenko’s disc — the only work on the three discs that was not actually played during the competition. Its presence is welcome — La Ricordanza happens to be my favorite of the études, and it’s nice to have the set rounded out.

Kholodenko’s performance of the Transcendental Études is awesome. He deals with the many technical difficulties with apparent ease, but what is most impressive is how he manages to convince the listener that many of the études are works of art — though it’s still easier to take the more lyrical or personable ones such as Paysage ( Scenery) , Feux Follets ( Wills o’ the Wisp) or Harmonies du Soir ( Evening Harmony) .

One point in the CD’s favor is that you don’t have to watch Kholodenko wipe the sweat off his face and the piano keys, as he inevitably had to do during the competition.

A blazing performance of Stravinsky’s Three Movements From Petrouchka (how many times has that been played at the Cliburn?) gets Kholodenko’s disc off to a roaring start.

Italy’s Rana, who probably would have received my vote for the gold, gives appealing performances of Schumann’s Symphonic Études, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Bartók’s Out of Doors, which come from two preliminary recitals.

The ease with which she deals with the more muscular aspects of the Ravel and Bartók tests the idea that women have physical limitations at the piano. There’s also nothing lacking in her haunting accounts of the more impressionistic passages in these works.

All three discs are a tribute to the judges’ acumen, and a pleasure to hear.

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