by Daniel Hathaway

Cleveland, OH — July 27, 2011

As Round One of the 2011 Cleveland International Piano Competition got underway at the Cleveland Play House’s Bolton Theater this afternoon, it was time to get to know an almost entirely new group of musicians.

Twenty-six pianists will have 25-30 minutes each over the next three days to seize our attention and tell us — through their choice of repertory and its execution — who they are as musicians.

Ms. Anna Fedorova (21, Ukraine) drew the first of this afternoon’s four slots, and began with a big, bravura performance of Beethoven’s early Sonata in A, op. 2, no. 2. She impressed us with her strength and the extreme range of dynamic contrasts she drew from the piano, though apparent nervousness made for some uneven runs and dropped notes. She followed Beethoven with the famous Chopin Etude in a, op. 25, no. 11, “Winter Wind”, a piece that begins with a few bars of introspection and suddenly turns into a maelstrom. Ms. Fedorova’s performance ebbed and flowed like an ocean.

Ms, Kyu Yeon Kim (26, Korea) chose Mozart for her opener, the Sonata in B-flat, K. 281, which she began with a strong, clear sense of purpose, though as the work progressed we wondered if she had completely thought through her game plan. Ms. Kim followed Mozart with three more works: Bach’s B-flat minor Prelude and Fugue from WTC I, Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No. 4 “Torrent”, and Leon Kirchner’s Interlude No. 2 (2003). The harmonic progress of the relatively simple but expressive Bach Prelude was masked with rubato. The perpetual motion material in Chopin’s rainstorm was expertly played. But Ms. Kim seemed to find her most natural voice in the thick, moody and sometimes jazzy textures of the Kirchner (which resembles a mashup of Schoenberg and Debussy).

The third pianist was Ms. Arta Arnicane (28, Latvia). Her opening performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in D (op. 10, no. 3), played without repeats, was both elegant and strong, well paced and beautifully voiced. Every note made sense where she placed them in a piece that needs a clear plan to make sense out of its quirky material. Ms. Arnicane tossed off Ligeti’s daunting Der Zauberlehrling (Sorcerer’s Apprentice) as though it were the Minute Waltz (it’s not much longer!), then followed it with her version of the Chopin “Winter Wind” Etude. Ms. Arnicane’s interpretation was circumspect, and utterly composed. She emerged without a hair out of place at the end.

Mr. Jun Sun (23, China), the last to play this afternoon, chose Haydn to start. His nicely paced reading of Haydn’s Sonata No. 33 was perfectly clean and admirably meticulous, if a bit lacking in emotional warmth. Mr. Sun concluded his set with two Chopin works, the Etude in A-flat, op. 10, no. 10 and the Ballade No. 4 in f, op. 52, both played with a sure sense of touch and fine control of articulation.

All four of this afternoon’s contestants will be back to play slightly longer sets (30-35 minutes) of different repertory in the second round, and it will be interesting to compare those performances with the very first impressions we formed this afternoon.

But before that, twenty-two more players are waiting in the wings to say “hello, here I am” to the juries and the audience in the next two days. Up tonight at 7 pm are Mr. Shinnosuke Inugai (29, Japan), Mr. Yunjie Chen (30, China), Mr. Jae-Weon Huh (25, Korea), and Mr. Sean Chen (22, USA).