The 2022 Cliburn wrapped up in Fort Worth on June 18 with the announcement of the three main prizewinners: Yunchan Lim from South Korea took the gold medal; Russian Anna Geniushene won silver, and from Ukraine, Dmytro Choni was awarded the bronze.
The competition, held every four years since 1962, is widely acknowledged as one of the most prestigious such contests. Van Cliburn, a young pianist from Texas, made world headlines in 1958 when he won the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. This was during an era when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were frosty at best. The epitome of a hometown hero – in classical music no less – Cliburn founded the competition that bears his name shortly after his life-changing achievement.
The nearly three-week-long competition took thirty candidates (chosen from 388 applications) through round after round of recitals and Concertos. The nine judges – all internationally renowned pianists – plus hair and conductor Marin Alsop, heard 140 hours of performances, narrowing the field after each round.
Alsop conducted the Fort Worth Symphony in the final rounds, which consisted of twelve Concertos over four days, each finalist performing twice.
Overall, Fort Worth Symphony is in fine form under Alsop (the ensemble’s music director designate is Robert Spano). Well-rounded string sections, excellent intonation, and the winds shone through. Trumpet and horn solos abounded, especially in this repertoire.
The first performer was Yunchan Lim. He took an unhurried approach at the opening of Beethoven’s Concerto No.3. So unhurried, in fact, that his initial entrance bordered on late. That hesitation built a delicious tension, but the ensuing performance was not always as nuanced. Lim’s style throughout was emphatic and purposeful, though he had a tendency to bang. His unhurried pace carried into the second movement, one of the slowest tempos I’ve ever heard at this point. http://www.colinscolumn.com/winner-of-the-2022-cliburn-yunchan-lim-also-played-beethovens-piano-concerto-no-3-in-the-final-marin-alsop-conducting-the-fort-worth-symphony-june-18/. A few days later, Lim returned for Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No.3. Though the orchestra and soloist were not entirely together in the first movement, Lim glanced at the conductor frequently – not a habit of every soloist. He demonstrated his lyrical technique in the second theme, executing forte runs cleanly and fluidly. Although his emphatic forcefulness was sometimes out of place, it served him well in the exciting segue into the Finale. http://www.colinscolumn.com/yunchan-lims-cliburn-winning-performance-of-rachmaninovs-third-piano-concerto-marin-alsop-conducting-now-in-better-sound/.
I was looking forward to Anna Geniushene’s performance of Beethoven’s Concerto No.1, as I had heard quite a lot of buzz about her from the earlier rounds. Her runs rippled beautifully and her approach was quite delicate, except when it came to a passage in which fiercely accented notes were out of place among the refined style she had established. The first movement boasted a flashy cadenza, partly written by the pianist herself (she completed Beethoven’s unfinished third cadenza). The Finale’s furiously fast tempo did not hinder Geniushene in her fluid and graceful runs, and in the expressive passages in which one could practically hear two characters in conversation. Geniushene’s choice of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No.1 was brilliant, a sentimental favorite at this competition because it is so closely associated with Cliburn himself. Her precise note placement and golden tone got the Concerto off to a good start. Jaunty and lively, it was a nuanced and distinctive performance. Her cadenza had a music-box-like quality to it. The performers careened from the second movement into a bat-outta-hell tempo for the Finale. Geniushene’s harp-like approach was graceful and melodic, even in the thunderously emphatic sections. http://www.colinscolumn.com/the-cliburn-2022-anna-geniushenes-semifinal-recital-june-12-beethoven-verdi-liszt-prokofiev/.
From the opening notes of Prokofiev’s Concerto No.3, I took a liking to Dmytro Choni. He turns out lovely phrasing and is in step with the orchestra. In the second movement he unfurled the cabaret-like melody with real character, though I found his playing not quite as compelling in the slower sections. As the Finale drew to a thrilling conclusion, his hands seemed to bounce like rubber balls off the keyboard. Three days later, Choni gave an admiral performance of Beethoven’s Concerto No.3. His confident start was promising, his playing exceptionally smooth with a golden tone, the cadenza bright and full of character, and he gave the Largo the reverent psalm-like treatment it deserves.
Ilya Shmukler from Russia competed in this competition in 2017, though he did not advance to the Final Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto suited him well and his performance was fluid and musical. He is a master of contrasts: dynamics, style, touch, playful in the second movement, almost whimsical in the Finale. Pianist and orchestra got off to a rocky start together (or, should I say, not together), though coordination improved. It was quite refreshing to hear Shmukler play Greig’s Concerto. Shmukler displayed exuberance and joy, and his decrescendos on rising runs had a beautifully ethereal effect, supported by especially rich-sounding cellos introducing the second theme. The cadenza began with a regal statement, both virtuosic and very musical. The Finale opened emphatically but not overly forcefully.
I’m going to tip my hand now: I be lying if I said I wasn’t pulling for Clayton Stephenson, a fellow New Yorker, the only American in the Finals and the only person of color among the thirty competitors. In his performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, he brought high-romance to this twentieth-century American masterpiece. The work includes a lot of scale aerobics, which Stephenson handled fluidly and admirably. The percussive passages were very effective, and the lyrical sections were oh-so light and beautiful. Three days later, Stephenson’s adrenaline must have been pumping as he leapt into Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No.1; a rushed tempo was apparent, and, as a result, he was not in step with the orchestra. The adrenaline, too, may have been the reason for an inordinate number of missed notes. In the second and final movements, his beautiful phrasing shone through, with rippling runs and a playful slant in the staccato sections.
For Uladzislau Khandohi, his “Rach 2” to got off to a rocky start with him and the orchestra in different places in the score. He poured passion into the second movement, with delicate and lyrical passages that were especially effective. He began the Finale confidently, though unremarkably, and was deliberate and meticulous in the slow sections. Three days later, it was invigorating to hear him in Chopin’s E-minor Concerto, which was note perfect. His superior performance lent an intimate sensibility – as if we were at a recital in a cozy salon. This intimacy continued in the second movement, where quiet passages were like tiptoeing into a room. The Finale’s runaway tempo perhaps had too much rubato if exceptionally colorful.
Fortunately, we are living in the digital era, and you don’t have to take my word for it. You can watch every competitor and every round at https://cliburn.org.
The next Cliburn will be held in 2025, but the piano thrills in Fort Worth are nearly continuous: the International Amateur Piano Competition will be held in October, and the next Cliburn Junior Competition will be 2023.