Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Cliburn Report 14: 40 Great Unclaimed Melodies

[Thanks to The Firesign Theatre for the title of this post. If you haven’t heard the hilarious 1970 sketch in question, you owe it to your sense of humor to check it out. Some of you may even be old enough to remember the commercial—featuring Jack Benny’s long-time announcer Don Wilson—that inspired it.]

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[Note: this has been corrected based on information obtained from; viz. the anonymous comment]

"Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes. - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze”
“I would while away the hours / Conversin’ with the flowers,” but instead I chose to devote the time spent in transit to the finals of the Cliburn International Piano Competition noting the musical canines that were silent, or very nearly so—that is, composers whose work was poorly represented or entirely absent during the three rounds of preliminary and semi-final recitals.

Let’s start with the dogs that didn’t bark at all.

One of only two known
photos of Alkan
Charles Valentin Alkan – Not a household name but certainly known among pianists. Granted, most of his stuff is fiercely difficult, but somebody could have taken on (say) Aesop’s Feast, the Sonatine, or the Barcarolle (with its prescient “blue” notes)—any of which would have been well within the capabilities of these technically proficient pianists. Besides, none of them appeared to shy away from technical challenges; Stravinsky’s thorny Trois mouvements de Pétrouchka was heard often as were works by Liszt (including 11 of the Transcendental Études by Vadym Kholodenko).

And, speaking of Stravinsky, the Pétrouchka suite was the only work of his on the bill.

François Couperin – Yes, he wrote for the harpsichord and organ rather than the piano, but so did Bach and that didn’t keep him off the program (although he didn’t appear that often either; three performances including a Siloti transcription).

John Field – Nothing from the inventor of the nocturne. In fact, no nocturnes at all. Maybe everyone was afraid of putting the audience to sleep?

George Gershwin – He's marginal in this context, perhaps, but surely his Preludes would have made an interesting addition.

Charles Ives
Charles Ives – Ives only wrote two piano sonatas, but they’re amazing pieces—and would surely have been appropriate for a competition held in America. Indeed, American composers were poorly represented in general.

Dimitri Shostakovich – Granted, Shostakovich might not be as well known for his piano works as Prokofiev (see below), but his Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues are real gems. It would have been nice to see a few performed.

These dogs, meanwhile, barked so little you could easily have missed them.

Albèniz – A prolific and popular composer for the piano, he’s represented only by Book 2 of Iberia (Tomoki Sakata)

Bartok – Again, a composer well known for his piano works, but represented by only three performances: the 1926 Sonata (Luca Burrato), the Étude, op. 18, no. 3 (Alexy Chernov), and Out of Doors (Beatrice Rana).

Grieg – Another prolific and popular composer of piano miniatures and one massively popular concerto, Grieg is represented by a whopping total of three pieces (two waltzes and a valse-impromptu, Alexey Chernov). I find this odd, to say the least. Is it because most of his work doesn’t offer the kinds of opportunities for flash that one finds in the work of (say) Liszt (who is very well represented)? Or has he simply fallen out of fashion?

Mendelssohn – Only three works: the Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, op. 28 (Scottish Sonata), the Sonata no. 3 in B-flat Major, op. 106, and Variations serieuses, op. 54.

Schubert – Only two Schubert works (if you count the Drei Klavierstücke as one piece, which I am)? Seriously? And not even major works at that: Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, D. 718 (Alessandro Deljavan) and Drei Klavierstücke, D. 946 (Claire Huangci). Truly a head scratcher.

Liszt by Lehmann
So who is well represented? Well, after Liszt, the biggies were Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven (including the challenging “Hammerklavier” sonata), Brahms, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev.

Ravel looks to be well represented—sixteen performances—but those performances covered only five works including the multiples of Gaspard de la nuit. Still, they’re major works, so maybe that’s not a big deal.

What, if anything, does this mean? The Cliburn and other competitions have been criticized for encouraging safe repertoire and performance choices—a kind of reversion to the mean, in which idiosyncrasies are weeded out. I didn’t see enough of the preliminary and semi-final rounds to comment on the performance side, but it certainly does appear that, given the ability to choose their own music, contestants tend to go with the tried and true. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Need to check your rep lists again. Alkan was scheduled by a preliminary round pianist who didn't advance...There were a few more Bach performances than you've recounted... Alex McDonald and a Chinese pianist played Chopin nocturnes. There were atleast 2 more Mendelssohn performances in the first round: Claire Huangci and Steven Lin. And someone (Favorin?) played a Schubert sonata, albeit an obscure one. And I feel someone played the op 142 set of impromptu. These are just off the top of my head

Besides this, I was very impressed by a number of programming choices: a good deal of Ligeti,some Messiaen,a Medtner sonata. Not to mention some less heard Beethoven sonatas, and some of the Liszt pieces we rarely hear on these programs. I don't know, there is a ton of piano music, what more can you really expect?

Chuck Lavazzi said...

I got my list from the Cliburn web site, but it looks like it wasn't complete. Now I need to check and see whether they didn't list everything or I somehow missed a day in there. Thanks for the information.