Jed Distler Cliburn Blog No, 17:  A Tale of Two Rach 3s

Saturday, June 18, 2022

The competition reaches its final weekend

During this evening’s webcast, commentators Buddy Bray and Elizabeth Joy Roe discussed how Cliburn finalists who perform the Rachmaninov Third Concerto usually chose thicker and heavier of the two cadenza options.

Personally, I think the lighter, more transparent cadenza is infinitely more effective and musically superior in every way. So did the composer, evidentially, and also Vladimir Horowitz, whose interpretation popularized the concerto and helped bring it into the repertoire. However, Van Cliburn played the heavier alternative in his 1958 recording, and basically made it stick, for better or worse. I think competitors play the alternate cadenza because it’s more difficult, and it’s what jurors expect to hear. And that’s a pity.

So it was interesting that Yunchan Lim played that lighter cadenza, although he interpreted it in a rhetorical and monumental  fashion. By contrast, Clayton Stephenson’s steady and cannily paced reading of the heavier cadenza minimized the music’s lumbering qualities. As for each pianist’s overall concerto performance, it was a matter of apples and oranges. On one hand, you had Stephenson’s clearer voice leading and articulation in the first movement.  On the other hand, you had Lim’s faster basic tempo and unbridled virtuosity in the Finale. One might say that Lim was more visceral and exciting, while Stephenson’s conception is more thought out.

Stephenson doesn’t quite inhabit the music to Lim’s transcendent degree. The point is that Stephenson and Lim are immensely talented yet vastly different artists. Lim seems to have sprung fully formed, ‘a forty year old in an eighteen-year-old body’ as one YouTube commentator put it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he develops a major international career playing the central repertoire at the highest pianistic level. However, I envision a less predictable, more adventurous career trajectory for Stephenson, where his artistry will evolve and grow over decades.

The bland and undifferentiated impression that Ilya Shmukler made in the Rachmaninov Third a few nights ago carried over into his Grieg Concerto, especially in his bloated first movement cadenza and ponderous slow movement. Shmukler tried to compensate by barnstorming his way through the Finale, as if he wanted to be playing Rachmaninov instead. I sensed a tinge of frustration. If I had to play the Grieg Concerto sandwiched in between two Rach 3s, I’d also feel like a fifth wheel.

To watch videos from this year's competition, visit the Cliburn International Piano Competition website: cliburn.org

Gramophone is a Media Partner of The Cliburn International Piano Competition

 

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