Stephen Wigler

2017 Cliburn Competition winners announced

12:24, 12th June 2017

Yekwon Sunwoo, a 28-year-old pianist from South Korea, has won the Gold Medal in the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. The Silver and Bronze Medals went respectively to Kenneth Broberg (23) and Daniel Hsu (19) of the United States.

The performances of the six finalists were so inconsistent that it had been difficult for the competition mavens in the Cliburn press room to predict who would win. For example, Sunwoo played a fine Dvořák Piano Quintet as well as a brilliant (if slightly generic-sounding) performance of Rachmaninov’s Concerto No 3 in the final round, preceded by a superb Mozart Concerto No 21 in the semis. Yet he also gave an uninspiring semifinal recital, which featured a Prokofiev Sonata No 6 that did not approach the stature of Rachel Cheung’s performance of this piece in the same round.

Indeed, I thought the failure of Cheung (25) from Hong Kong, to win a medal after the final round, in which she gave a sensitive and poetic performance of Beethoven’s Concerto No 4, was most peculiar. (It’s worth noting that in all three of the world’s most prestigious competitions in the last two years – Moscow’s Tchaikovsky, Warsaw’s Chopin and the just-completed Cliburn – there have been only two women among 18 finalists.) Cheung herself had a few erratic moments: a memory slip in the otherwise wonderful Prokofiev Sonata and a somewhat dull Brahms Piano Quintet. However, her brilliant performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, which preceded the Prokofiev, and her sparkling rendition of Mozart’s Concerto No 20, in addition to her Beethoven Concerto, should have earnt her a medal.

Certainly, I don’t see how she was less deserving than Broberg. His solo recital and Mozart Concerto No 25 were splendid, but results in the final round were not as consistent. His Dvořák Piano Quintet was (along with finalist Yuri Favorin’s lifeless Franck Quintet) the weakest of the six. And his reading of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, while full of personality, was marred by idiosyncrasies such a soft passagework that occasionally became almost inaudible.

Then there was Bronze Medalist Daniel Hsu, who studies with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Hsu is a superbly equipped virtuoso, but I found his otherwise fine semifinal performance of Mozart’s Concerto No 21 to be marred by his choice of overlong and elaborate cadenzas. In the finals he gave an intense performance of Franck’a superheated Piano Quintet that was the best chamber music performance in the competition. Hsu’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 was – except for a sluggish opening – terrific.

Each of the medalists earned cash prizes worth $50,000 (Gold), $25,000 (Silver) and $15,000 (Bronze). In addition, the medalists also receive three years of professional management, concert dates and contracts to record for the Gold Decca label. The other three finalists – Rachel Cheung, Yuri Favorin (30) and Georgy Tchaidze (29) – each receive a cash award of $10,000.

Hsu also won a $6,000 prize for Best Performance of Chamber Music and $5,000 for Best Performance of a New Work. Winner of the $4,000 Jury Chairman Discretionary Award was Dasol Kim (28) of South Korea. Winners of $4,000 Jury Discretionary Awards were the Italian Leonardo Pierdomenico (24) and Tony Yike Yang (18) from Canada. Cheung won the $2,500 Audience Award.

The performances I will remember best include Hsu’s Franck Quintet and almost everything I heard Cheung play. Just as memorable were the Scarlatti, Chopin B-flat minor and Liszt B minor sonatas by semifinalist Yang, and the Schubert Sonata in B-flat of semifinalist Kim. I also look forward to hearing at least three other pianists who were eliminated in earlier rounds: 30-year-old American Rachel Kudo (a terrific Mozart Sonata in D Major K576); 22-year-old Russian Ilya Shmuchler (a Prokofiev Sonata No 8 as good as Cheung’s No 6); and 23-year-old Russian Ilya Belyavskiy (a thrilling, thunderous reading of Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan). There were others, too: there’s always a lot of gold in Fort Worth’s Cliburn.

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