Monday, August 12, 2013


Severance Hall
August 9 & 10

Finalists Khristenko, Tarasevich-Nikolaev, Dumont and Sun.

It’s all about the Russians these days, from the Snowden affair to Putin’s crackdown on gays. So it seemed perfectly in keeping with the zeitgeist to have two Russians in the final four of the Cleveland International Piano Competition. And written in the stars when Stanislav Khristenko, 29, won the competition on Saturday night, with his fellow countryman, Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev, 20, placing second.

In fact, five of the original 28 contestants were Russian. One should perhaps not read too much into this – there were also five Chinese, and four Americans (with names like Ben Kim and Kwan Yi). And the head count is arguably more a measure of each country’s resources and devotion to musical training than a measure of its young talent.

Still, the Russians have a proud tradition of great pianists; names like Sergei Rachmaninov, Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter come immediately to mind. This critic is also a fan of contemporary Russian players, in particular the amazing Nikolai Lugansky. But for what it's worth, neither of the Russians in the finalist competition earned his vote.

After a week and a half of solo performances, the two concerts featuring the four finalists opened on Friday night with François Dumont, 28, bringing a distinctly French touch to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1, Op. 23. Dumont plays with a fluid, lyrical quality that took the sharp edge off the high-volume demands made of the soloist, especially in the first movement. He has a well-developed voice that was most evident in his refined handling of the second movement, though his playing was uneven, almost coy at times. Like an athlete, Dumont reached deep for a colorful blaze of fireworks at the finish.

He was followed by Tarasevich-Nikolaev playing Rachmaninovs Concerto No. 2, Op. 18. The Russian was more of a technician, superbly skilled but lacking Dumonts dynamics. His sound was mechanical at times, though in his best moments, Tarasevich-Nikolaev gave the music a lush, painterly quality. He has soft hands that seemed to glide through the cascades of the famous melody in the third movement, a fluency not yet matched by a clear voice. Though he didnt show the command of the other finalists, given his age, Tarasevich-Nikolaev might have been the purest raw talent among them.

Scintillating Sun.
Jiayan Sun, 23, also chose Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 to open Saturday night. His may have been the most polished performance of the weekend, with more bite than Dumont had, superb control and dazzling dexterity. Sun was also noticeably more connected to the orchestra, playing a dialogue and expertly echoing the sound of solo instruments. In his phrasing he seemed to be exploring the music rather than just covering it, though he knows how to work a crowd well enough, cranking up an exhilarating finish. Particularly for a person of his diminutive size, it was a big, impressive performance.

The finalists had a choice of 20 pieces to play, and Khristenko picked Brahms Concerto No. 1, Op. 15, which at first blush seems an unlikely selection. There is a long introduction that does not include the soloist, nor are his hands on the keyboard at the finish. But Khristenko is a dramatic, moody player, and the deliberate quality of the piece fit his style well, giving him an opportunity to work breathtaking phrases, particularly in the second movement. There is not a single note in Khristenkos playing that seems out of place. Still, long stretches sounded uninspired, almost too considered. Deep, yes; brilliant, perhaps another time.
All the right moves.

But the judges liked what they heard from Khristenko best. In retrospect, he seemed the favorite going in. A former Cleveland Institute of Music student, Khristenko placed third in the 2005 competition. He was the last of the finalists to perform this year, a placement that automatically affords an edge over the earlier players. And the Brahms offered the maximum posturing potential: Khristenko spent his time either hunched over the keyboard like a diamond cutter, or staring off into space, as if he were receiving divine instruction.

This critic cast his vote for Sun, who was not the flashiest player but seemed to have the best balance of ability, insight, technique and a voice with something to say. He finished last in the jurys voting, and no argument with that – they are an international group of well-regarded pianists who know their business. But Sun won the Audience Prize, so he apparently did the best job of connecting with his listeners.

And the best job of connecting with the Cleveland Orchestra. Very few finalists in any competition get to play with an orchestra of that caliber, and this one performed with the energy and passion of a regular-season concert, providing powerful, elegant support. Its the kind of class act both audiences and contestants have come to expect from this gracious, well-appointed, refreshingly cosmopolitan festival.

For more on the winners and this year's other contestants:

Photos of finalists and Stanislav Khristenko by Roger Mastroianni

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