by Daniel Hathaway

Cleveland, OH — July 30, 2011

We went into this evening’s session eager to hear four pianists build on their achievements in the first round. We came away wondering what on earth had possessed them to attack their repertory so heavy-handedly.

Mr. Shinnosuke Inugai (29, Japan) led off with a promising and energetic A-Flat Prelude and Fugue (WTC I) with good cadential gestures in the prelude and clear counterpoint in the fugue. The two Chopin Scherzos (op. 39 and 54) that followed were curiously muscular rather than humorous and poetic. There were some nice touches (clear textures, poignant middle sections in the second and fine right hand passage work) but erratic tempos and aggressive drives toward climaxes obscured the architecture of the pieces. Atsuhiko Gondai’s Transient Bell (2009) was full of metallic effects and crystalline meanderings in the extreme treble as well as gratuitous piano tricks (too many full keyboard glissandi). Mr. Inugai played it enthusiastically, but the sonic effect was numbing.

Offering Beethoven’s D Major Sonata as his first piece, Mr. Yunjie Chen (30, China) waded in seemingly without a clear concept, rushing into cadences and inconsistently articulating motives. The second movement began with a promising tempo and featured some beautiful soft playing, but then the right hand melody lost its metrical way, as did the final destination of many nuances in the third. His finale, Chopin’s Etude in G-flat, op. 10, no. 5, sounded brash, but his two Ligeti Etudes (Arc-en-ciel and L’escalier du diable) were in turn introspective and playful.

Mr. Jae-Weon Huh (25, Korea) raised the curtain on his set with a strong and resonant performance of Chopin’s “Waterfall” Etude (op. 10, no. 1), then turned to Schumann’s Carnival, op. 9. The latter was big, fast and furious — and rhythmically erratic. Mr. Huh has an amazing technique which, when reined in, can make beautiful music. When not, his tone can become harsh (the interruptions in the second movement) and his sense of pace frenetic. Most importantly, there was a story to be told here and we didn’t hear it.

Sean Chen (22, USA) began with an assured performance of the Ligeti “Devil’s Stairway” Etude featuring fine dynamic changes and exciting chatterings in the piano’s extreme upper range. His cross-handing was spectacular, at one point suggesting that a second piano had suddenly entered the mix. Then, in his restless and impatient reading of Schumann’s Grand Sonata No. 3, op. 14, he seemed to want to wow us sheerly with technique and volume, turning a nice romantic piece into a self-indulgent spectacle.

What plagued tonight’s session? A sudden surge of testosterone? A virulent strain of arhythmia? A lot of what we heard coming from the Bolton Theater stage Saturday night wasn’t very pretty, and that’s a shame because these four pianists are smart, talented and capable of making great music, as they already proved in Round One.

Sunday afternoon, we’ll hear from Mr. Scipione Sangiovanni, Mr. Andrew Tyson, Ms. EunAe Lee, Ms. Anna Volovitch and Mr. Eric Zuber.

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