FORT WORTH, Tex. — It was Wednesday night, June 15,and my blissful ignorance of the previous rounds of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition remained largely untouched as the final round continued with concert two. One heard rumors here and there, and some competitors were more warmly welcomed onstage than others, indicating the audience already had favorites. Except for having heard three of the six finalists play their concertos the previous night, my tabula remained rasa.
Wednesday night belonged to the other three, and by the end of it, latecomers like me would have heard one concerto each from the last runners in the race for Cliburn medals, performing with the alert partnership of conductor Marin Alsop and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
First out of the wings was Belarus’ Uladzislau Khandohi, 20, to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. There were no surprises in the opening pages as the violins sawed out the sturdy theme over surging piano figurations. But Khandohi stretched out the reflective second theme with luxuriant rubato, displaying his fine chord voicing and singing tone. Throughout the movement, he never passed up a chance to slow down and bask in the music, just avoiding overdoing it and breaking the piece’s structure.
The pianist set the same leisurely mood for the Adagio sostenuto, starting very slow and quiet (with lovely solos from flute and clarinet) while keeping the tempo “sustained” as instructed. The expressive surges projected clearly across the footlights while staying proportional to the overall mood.
In the fast parts of the finale, Khandohi used expert pedaling to produce an interplay of “wet” and “dry” effects in the best Rachmaninoff manner. The famous second theme — moony, urgent, and grand in its three appearances — was a feast of Khandohian ritardando and allargando. Conductor Alsop bent so close to stay with him, she looked about to fall into the piano. The movement’s sprightly close brought warm applause and a greeting from conductor to soloist that rated a solid 7 on the hug scale.
Russia’s Anna Geniushene came with many distinctions: oldest competitor at 31, only female finalist, and only pregnant competitor. Her approach to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major was light on its feet and sparkling with wit. Her well-shaped runs flowed like oil, as Mozart liked to say, and her soft wrist action produced smooth lines of weightless legato chords. Apparently, Geniushene never met a diminuendo she didn’t like; Alsop and the orchestra mirrored not only her sparky playing but also her tapering of phrases to the vanishing point.
This concerto’s Largo, unfortunately, seemed to lose its way often. Perhaps this score wasn’t Beethoven’s finest hour to begin with, but the pianist’s surprisingly bland, mezzo-forte responses didn’t help. In the finale, her speedy, light, and even technique was an asset, but she tended to rush the lively rondo theme, and the piece generally needed more of the wit and sense of direction she had brought to the first movement. Warm applause followed; the conductor’s level-8 hug was perhaps prolonged by fellow-feeling for the loneliness of the woman runner, in this final round and in music generally.
After intermission, a whirlwind named Dmytro Choni, 28 and from Ukraine, made Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major leap off the page in a stunning display of musical intelligence and keyboard athleticism. Sitting poised and upright, Choni executed feats of gnarly passagework, leaps, and interlocking hands, all the time with the neoclassical Prokofiev of the First Symphony looking over his shoulder, demanding transparent textures and articulation that projected to the back of the hall. And whatever the pianistic hijinks, an unerring sense of direction and line animated every bar.
This is the kind of pianist one wants to hear play variations, and Prokofiev thoughtfully provided a set as the concerto’s second movement. Choni vividly characterized them all, from dreamy to speedy to a sharp-edged (not banged) marcato. In the finale, he flung out chords on a musical line, traced fantastic shapes in a soft interlude, glowed under high-flying strings in the lyrical theme, and finished with a furious crescendo of scales that brought the audience instantly to its feet.
It turns out there are conductor hugs and conductor hugs. How does one put a number on those seconds of eye contact between Alsop and Choni before she took his hand, then gently put her arms around him? It was a mark of respect that may, in the long run, be worth more than any judge’s vote.