By Daniel Hathaway

Cleveland, OH — August 2, 2011

After Monday evening’s jury decision that took eighteen pianists out of the running — among them, perplexingly, at least three superb musicians who had played some of the most shapely, intelligent and coherent performances of anyone in the first two rounds — the Semifinal Round should demand that the eight remaining contestants be held to extremely high standards of interpretation. Everyone who has marched up to the Steinway this week has demonstrated extraordinary and reliable technique, but not everyone has proved that they have the analytical skills to put that technique to use in shaping cogent performances of the repertory they’ve chosen to play.

The strange patterns that can result from intentional randomness lined up four Asian contestants for the two sessions on Tuesday. This afternoon’s session presented Ms. Kyu Yeon Kim (26, Korea) and Mr. Yunjie Chen (30, China) in fresh repertory. In Ms. Kim’s case, it was a set of six Preludes by Debussy, Three Etudes, op. 18, by Bartok, and Schumann’s Humoresque in B-flat, op. 20. Mr. Chen chose Granados’ Los requiebros (Goyescas, Book I, from 1911), Debussy’s four-movement Suite bergamasque, and Prokofiev’s brooding Sonata No. 8 in B-flat, op. 84.

Both pianists, like their colleagues,  have technique to spare and can summon up huge reserves of pianistic power to unleash at climactic moments. Both have some difficulty shaping large structures so they make sense to the ear,

KimMs. Kim played stylishly in the Debussy and lingered over many of the details in the six works. Some movements might have been less angular (Les collines d’Anacapri, Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest) and Puck’s dance more, well Puckish, but she caught their individual flavor well enough. The Bartok Etudes needed more interpretive shape to avoid multiple climaxes, and more attention to the sound that was coming out of the instrument to avoid harsh ringing in inner voices.

Ms. Kim’s Schumann was a study in moods rather than than humor (“Humoresque” carries a double meaning), and the prevailing affect was somber and sometimes ponderous. As in her second round Kreisleriana, Ms. Kim frequently succumbed to arhythmia, massaging the music to the point where the tactus completely disappeared (I imagined trying to conduct one of the more expressive movements, but her beat was too erratic).

ChenMr. Chen began with a metrically flabby version of the Granados, replete with rubato and more harsh than charming due to the metallic sounds he drew from the treble of the piano. His gentle though surprising colorless Debussy moved along nicely until the third movement, Clair de lune, when he set up a tempo so slow and protracted that time seemed to stop. He began the last movement with very dry articulation which nicely contrasted with the legato section that followed. Harsh repeated chords were redeemed by a lovely, soft ending. His somber performance of the Prokofiev Sonata lacked character and personality, but had some graceful moments (the songlike motive over a staccato bass, the celestial reprise of the ostinato theme in the finale).

Both performers contributed some extra-musical sounds to the audio mix. Ms.Kim was given to heavy breathing from time to time, and Mr. Chen made the occasional percussive gesture by stamping his foot, effects which distracted those of us listening in the Bolton Theater (I heard both clearly halfway back), and must have surprised those who were listening via the radio and Internet.

Up tonight: Mr. Jae-Weon Huh and Ms. EunAe Lee.

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