by Daniel Hathaway

Cleveland, OH — July 31, 2011

Two Russian pianists simply ran away with Sunday evening’s session at the Cleveland Play House. Mr. Alexey Chernov (28) and Mr. Denis Evstuhin (30), third and fourth in the evening’s lineup, pulled off stunning back-to-back performances which inspired multiple “bravos” from the audience.

Mr. Chernov, who crafted a memorable Mozart Sonata on Thursday evening, wowed us with his interpretation of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes tonight. The piece has a complicated history and can provide pianists with a real storytelling challenge, but Mr. Chernov made it seem like Schumann’s own Pictures at an Exhibition, so neatly did he frame each of its movements, infusing them with individual character and giving us a moment to admire each of them before moving on to the next. He miraculously achieved dark colors and clear textures at once, expertly layered voices, suspended time now and again, voiced chords dryly but still gave them weight and hue, treated multiple repetitions of chords with individual inflections and spun delicate poetry that Schumann would surely have admired. His sense of pacing was infallable, and when he elasticized the tempo, it was done for expressive purposes. He began with Ligeti’s Automne à Varsovie in a performance so intense he nearly fell off the piano bench at the end.

Mr. Evstuhin received his “bravos” for a whole set of Chopin pieces, an Impromptu sandwich, in fact, with the Fantasie-Impromptu, op. 66 and the three Impromptus of op. 29, op. 36 and op. 51 as filler and the “Octave” Etude, op. 25, no. 10 and the Scherzo No. 1, op. 20 to begin and end. He played all of these with a sonorous, dark sound, clear textures, a fine sense of balance and an elegance of line that drew the listener unfailingly to a musical destination. Like Mr. Chernov, Mr. Evstuhin is very comfortable with massaging tempos, but he does it subtly and always for a reason. In his hands, Chopin’s elaborate compositions sound purposeful, healthy and completely musical.

Mr. Pavel Gintov (27, Ukraine), who led off the evening, had four works on his playlist. He brought romantic values to Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in f from WTC I, including a rich tone, legato touch and plenty of pedal, but the style suits him and did little damage to Bach. Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude, op. 10, no. 12, was full of color and passion and showed off the pianist’s fine left hand control. His third selection was Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk’s rowdily impressive 1963 work, Burlesque, in which Mr. Gintov thundered in the bass regions then enthusiastically hammered away at the extremes of the keyboard as if posessed. By way of a complete contrast, Mr. Gintov ended his set with Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat, op. 110, in which he gave us a taste of his ability to play more delicate and introverted music. He also had the opportunity to play full out, and indulged himself in one of his apparent specialties: big, resonant bass lines.

Ms. Jeewon Lee (30, Korea), who played second tonight, gave us what appeared at first to be a rather dreamy and ruminative reading of Bach’s Toccata in e, BWV 914, with frequent but subtle use of the pedal. The ensuing fugue was fast, clear and energetic. Her second piece, today’s second performance of Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in b, could have used a surer sense of architecture and a bit more breathing room between ideas, but her playing was fluent — quite exquisite in soft spots and her right hand superb in fancy filigree.

Monday’s fifth session brings Ms. Marina Baranova, Ms. Naomi Kudo, Ms. Fei Fei Dong, Mr. Alexander Schimpf and Mr. Mateusz Borowiak back for a second hearing.