3 Cliburn Gamers Roll The Ivories Once More, And Fortunes Change

Yunchan Lim, an 18-year-old from South Korea with active hair, played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 during his final round. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez)

FORT WORTH, Tex. — The official judges at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition are instructed to take into account all the performances by each pianist including the preliminary, quarterfinal, semifinal, and the final round now in progress. This reviewer arrived in town only in time for the four concerts that constitute the final.

However, despite being in Texas, the writer has his own private Idaho of a competition going, in which he pits the six finalists against each other for their performances of two concertos each. 

Concert Three of this round on Friday night, June 17, in Bass Performance Hall was a reunion of sorts for Marin Alsop, leading the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and the three pianists who performed in Concert One on June 14.

On that night, the two standouts were Clayton Stephenson, a 23-year-old American, who charmed the audience with a suave, Ellington-esque take on Gershwin’s Concerto in F; and Yunchan Lim, an 18-year-old from South Korea, who delivered Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 with rare elegance and wit. [All rounds are available for viewing via YouTube.]

Clayton Stephenson, a 23-year-old American, gave an intimate account of Rach Three.

For Friday’s concert, these two happened to choose the same piece: the enormously challenging Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3. In his performance, Stephenson proved he could paint on this much larger canvas with technical assurance and a rich tonal palette. Lim, on the other hand, remained stuck in miniature mode, and compensated by playing as fast as he could and shaking his locks a lot.

The third pianist from that earlier program, Russia’s Ilya Shmukler, 27, followed that night’s muscular but monochromatic Rachmaninoff Third (yes, another one) with an equally bland Grieg Concerto in A minor that left one wondering how he got this far in the tournament.

Shmukler deserved credit for a fine, sonorous opening to the concerto and for stepping lively in the finale’s up-tempo coda. A good beginning and ending will take you a long way; however, this performance’s first and second movements suffered from draggy tempos and a lack of singing tone, while rushing spoiled the strutting rhythm of the finale.

Is it possible for Rachmaninoff’s mighty Third to sound like an intimate dialogue? Alsop and Stephenson proved it can. Addressing his instrument calmly and with superbly supple technique, Stephenson lifted all orchestral boats with his rising tide. Wind solos and string phrases seemed to grow out of the finely voiced piano sound itself. Even the enormous “ossia” (alternate) cadenza sprouted so organically that one was in the fortissimo before one realized it. Although his touch was often uncommonly light for this work, his singing tone always reached the back row. To look at him, one could imagine he was playing Schumann’s lyrical concerto instead of Rachmaninoff’s massive one.

Russia’s Ilya Shmukler, 27, was bland in the Grieg concerto.

Some may prefer the conquering-hero approach to this piece, or the poetic visionary à la Cliburn. Stephenson modestly proposed a different route to Rachmaninoffian bliss, and this listener at least was happy to go there.

Closing the concert with the same piece, pianist Lim found himself playing another, less satisfying brand of small ball. A long note on one bassoon was all it took to cover up the pianist’s feeble statement of the opening theme, and thereafter singing tone proved hard to come by. He got around very well technically, but to what end? The master of nuance in a Beethoven concerto didn’t have an overall plan for this piece. The fleet-fingered original cadenza and the Prestissimo episode in the second movement spun by like etudes, and the quieter moments arrived on schedule, but not for any apparent reason.

In the finale, Lim tended to push the themes out of shape with rushing and to speed up whenever his part got a little less complicated.  What could be a rhythmically compelling piece got lost in a jumble of unsteady tempos. At least the big tune at the end was ripe and gorgeous, thanks as much to Alsop and her players as to the soloist, and the final dash to the tape was, well, fast.

Doing its part, the audience scored the night’s Rachmaninoff contest in calls back to the stage for bows: Lim 4, Stephenson 2. But three able challengers await these two on Saturday afternoon, including Wednesday’s Prokofiev wizard, Dmytro Choni. As we used to say back in Van Cliburn days, don’t touch that dial.

Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, shown during the finals June 17, is the host venue for the Cliburn competition. (Photo by Ralph Lauer)