By Daniel Hathaway

Cleveland, OH — August 2, 2011

HuhMr. Jae-Weon Huh (25, Korea), a tall, lanky pianist with long fingers, took the stage first on Tuesday evening for his Semifinal round of pieces by Schumann, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. Schumann’s Kreisleriana began promisingly, well-paced and logical, then veered out of control soon after. Mr. Huh found his balance again, producing lovely, dreamy, poetic colors in soft, slow episodes but often went over the top in fast and furious movement, where he tended toward harshness of touch. Ravel’s Ondine from Gaspard de la nuit had fine moments of nervous tremolos and big climaxes which contrasted with diaphanous timbres and more bursts of energy. But what was up with his Rachmaninoff (the second Sonata, op. 36, revised version)? After big, splashy opening gestures, the piece ballooned into a superscaled essay in sheer pianism that its composer might not have conceived even in his most extroverted moments. Sure, there were colorful, poetic moments, adroit layerings of lines and some brilliant ringing climaxes, but what we’ll take away from this performance is the huge, noisy finale during which the Steinway seemed to cry out in pain, so thoroughly did Mr. Huh pummel its keys. Like Ms. Kim who preceded him in the afternoon, he did some heavy breathing of his own during his set.

Ms. EunAe Lee (23, Korea) brought an entirely different voice to her Bach, Ravel and Liszt — something calm and almost soothing. Bach’s French Suite No. 4 in E-flat was nicely paced and structured, though her continuously detached articulation became much of a muchness after several movements. Ravel’s Sonatina (mistakenly announced as Ondine from Gaspard de la Nuit in the video titles) sounded like a smaller piece than it really is in Ms. Lee’s hands, almost as though she were conceiving the work for a miniature piano. She brought the same lightness of touch to Liszt’s rambling Sonata in b. Though there were moments of fire and passion, she generally went for clarity and transparency of texture — almost a baroque approach to Liszt, which resulted in something quite different from what one usually hears. Sonorities were curious: in her hands, the piano had distinct and unrelated timbres in treble, midrange and bass. Ms. Lee produced one elegant running line that inspired gasps from the row behind me, and she played very fast indeed in the episode leading up to the fugue. Happily, Ms. Lee was entirely silent except for what was coming from her fingers, but her ritual of leaning in and out in a circular motion was regular enough to provide its own distraction.

On Wednesday, we’ll hear from an American (Eric Zuber), and a Russian (Alexey Chernov) in the afternoon, then a German (Alexander Schimpf) and a British/Polish pianist (Mateusz Borowiak) in the evening.