by Daniel Hathaway

Cleveland, OH — July 29, 2011

By the end of Friday evening’s session, all twenty-six competitors had been heard for the first time. Here’s our impression of the final four.

Ms. Soo-Yeon Ham (25, Korea) competed in Cleveland in 2009, when she won the Chopin Prize. Tonight, she began with two Scarlatti Sonatas, both in A major, went on to Haydn’s C Major Sonata No. 60 and finished off with Shostakovich’s Prelude & Fugue in d, no. 24. The first Scarlatti was a slow aria, the second a bouncy, fun piece based on a theme that played with octaves. Both these and the Haydn Sonata seemed to suit her proclivity for light, elegant textures. The Haydn was full of persistent motives and surprising harmonic turns, all of which she pointed up nicely, though she allowed herself some liberties with rhythm. The Shostakovich seemed an odd choice for the first round. It’s a bleak piece that wears many shades of grey, but eventually ends triumphantly. Ms. Ham found appropriate metallic sonorities for the beginning of the prelude and dialed up her digital intensity as the fugue gained momentum. But she really seemed most at home in the first three pieces.

Mr. Lu Shen (25, China) chose Chopin’s Etude in A-flat, op. 10, no. 10 and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23 in f, op. 57 for his competition debut. The Chopin was fine, though its phrases could usefully have been molded into more of an arc. His Beethoven was remarkable for its brutality. When the emotional temperature cooled down, he produced sounds that were pleasant to listen to, but there was too much relentless intensity to take away a positive impression of tonight’s performance.

Nerves seemed to bother Mr. Daniele Rinaldo (27, Italy), who had designed a program of five pieces by Beethoven, Chopin and Scarlatti. He rushed through Beethoven’s Sonata No. 6 in F, op. 10, no. 2 in a performance that was exciting but edgy, with enough tempo flucuations to make the listener a bit nervous as well. He played with a good sense of color, a quality that extended to his reading of Chopin’s Etude in A-flat, op. 10, no. 10 (the second time we heard this piece during the session). His two Scarlatti Sonatas (G, K. 105 and f, K. 239) and the Chopin Scherzo in c-sharp, op. 39, no. 3 (also heard this afternoon) seemed also to be hurried along. He certainly has the technique to play all of these works; we hope he’ll take a deep breath and relax during the second round.

The winner of position no. 26 in the draw was Ms. Rina Sudo (23, Japan), who gave the audience two Fantasies: a strong and healthy performance of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue, followed by Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat, op. 61, using only 23 minutes of her allotted 35. These were interesting choices of repertory for the first round. Ms. Sudo seemed to have a bit of difficulty molding the improvisatory-sounding Chopin into a coherent entity. Textures got a bit muddy, and her tone tended to harshness when she pushed things forward.

On Saturday afternoon, the second round begins with contestants appearing in the same order as the first. On that occasion, we’ll hear Anna Fedorova, Kyu Yeon Kim, Arta Arnicicane and Jun Sun build on their first round performances with new selections of pieces.