By Daniel Hathaway

Cleveland, OH — July 27, 2011

Four more pianists gave us first examples of their playing this evening — two of whom actually updated our impressions from when we first heard them in 2009.

Mr. Shinnosuke Inugai (29, Japan) immediately seized our attention with a dramatic and highly profiled performance of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, op. 57. Violent contrasts, explosive gestures and unrelenting — well, passion — marked the first movement and inspired applause from an audience that knew they shouldn’t clap then but wanted to anyway. In the second movement, Mr. Inugai relieved the tension with playful dotted rhythms that sounded almost frivolous after what had gone before. His fleet fingerwork and skillful layering of material brought the finale to a resounding conclusion. Perhaps his reading of Chopin’s Etude in A-flat, op. 10, no. 10 was more articulate than dreamy and poetic, but the Beethoven was still in our ears and the second piece seemed almost unnecessary.

Mr. Yunjie Chen (30, China) began with a strangely conceived reading of Bach’s Partita No. 5 in G. The Prelude was merely fast. Slower movements fared better: the Allemande was light and graceful, the Aria, played staccato and softly, was quite effective. The Minuet began promisingly but suddenly became overly intense for no apparent reason. The Gigue was muscular and its theme heavily accented. We were glad to turn the page into Chopin’s Scherzo in E, op. 54, no. 4, but that performance didn’t quite jell. Mr. Chen began it playfully and expressively, but the piece never quite found its groove.

The third contestant this evening, Mr. Jae-Weon Huh (25, Korea), also appeared in the CIPC draw in 2009. This time he made a distinct impression through understatement. He began with Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in b, K. 87, elegantly spinning its introspective counterpoint as though he had written it himself and knew where every line was tending. As a refreshing contrast, he followed the b minor with a sprightly and well-articulated version of the Sonata in F, K. 17. His Haydn Sonata (No. 58 in C) was full of elegant details and fine contrasts of mood within a small structure. He skillfully set up an important false cadence as though he didn’t know it was around the corner, and played the second movement Rondo with strong articulations and marked its sudden contrasts with humor and grace. Then for something completely different, Mr. Huh closed out his set with Gubaldulina’s striking Chaconne (1962), proving that though he had spent the first part of his program exploring subtleties, he has the chops to tackle complicated, extroverted music like this challenging score. (Its beautiful, calm, mid-section still gave him the opportunity to contrast power and dissonance with sheer loveliness).

We also remembered Sean Chen (22, USA) from 2009, but he made a stronger impression this time around, beginning with an energetic, completely accurate and finely articulated performance of Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G. He made nice expressive stretches in the Prelude, brought out cross rhythms in the second movement, beautifully voiced and paced the Sarabande and set up a charming, swaggering rhythm in the Gavotte. The final Gigue was impressive, steady and clear. He brought similar reserves of energy to Mozart’s Sonata No. 8 in a, K. 310, in a performance which might have been a bit aggressive for the material, but his runs in the first movement were superb, his crescendos had a clear goal, and he elegantly articulated and shaped the sinuous melody in the slow movement.

Eighteen pianists remain to be heard for the first time. Thursday afternoon’s 1:00 pm session brings Mr. Scipione Sangiovanni (23, Italy), Mr. Andrew Tyson (24, USA) and Ms. EunAe Lee (23, Korea) to the Bolton Theater stage. We’ll be there with our ears open.

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