Honggi Kim from South Korea with conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Sunday evening during his concerto in the Cliburn semifinal round. Ralph Lauer Ralph Lauer/Cliburn Foundation
Honggi Kim from South Korea with conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Sunday evening during his concerto in the Cliburn semifinal round. Ralph Lauer Ralph Lauer/Cliburn Foundation

Van Cliburn

Updated review: Last remaining female Cliburn pianist plays powerful Sunday recital

By Olin Chism

Special to the Star-Telegram

June 04, 2017 06:16 PM

Sunday afternoon’s semifinal round of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was dominated by the only woman left in the competition: Rachel Cheung of Hong Kong. She gave two excellent performances that probably had many guessing that she’d be heard again in the finals.

Cheung has been impressive in a variety of pieces throughout the competition, but Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” the first work on her semifinal recital, has not been particularly noteworthy in other hands, so some doubts seemed in order.

Cheung erased those doubts with a masterful performance full of subtle detail and musical grace. For once, Schumann’s work seemed to end too soon rather than linger too long.

Even better was to come. Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6 (no, not the nearly inevitable No. 7) was given a powerful performance full of high drama and interesting details. Cheung is a small woman; it’s amazing that a person her size can produce such powerful sounds. It almost seems to defy the laws of physics.

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She clearly had the audience on her side. She received the biggest ovation heard in Bass Hall so far in the competition.

Han Chen of Taiwan was Sunday afternoon’s other contestant. He has made a mostly favorable impression — his unusual programming is a point in his favor — but he seemed a cut below the level achieved by Cheung.

His program included the Busoni arrangement of Bach’s “Chaconne” in D minor, Scriabin’s “Fantasie” in B minor, Janacek’s piano sonata “From the Street,” and Schubert’s “Wanderer” fantasy.

Evening performances

Sunday evening brought Round 2 of the Mozart concerto marathon (each session brings four pianists in a row onstage to play a Mozart concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan; they are preceded by two pianists playing solo recitals to round out their semifinal requirement).

Sunday evening’s four were Yutong Sun of China, playing Mozart’s Concerto No. 20 in D minor; Honggi Kim of South Korea, playing Concerto No. 23 in A major; Yuri Favorin of Russia, playing Concerto No. 21 in C major; and Georgy Tchaidze, also of Russia, playing the D minor concerto.

All four are excellent pianists (I would be glad to hear any of them again), but my favorite was Sun, a master of lyrical style who gave a cleanly played, subtle performance, as he has throughout the competition.

There’ll be another twosome-foursome session in Bass Hall on Monday before six finalists are named in the evening.

Monday’s competitors

Semifinal round, Phase 5

2:30 p.m. (Solo recital)

Leonardo Pierdomenico, 24, Italy

Beethoven Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, Op. 7

Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23

Chopin Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38

Chopin Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 47

Chopin Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52

3:50 p.m. (Solo recital)

Kenneth Broberg, 23, United States

Schubert Four Impromptus, D. 899, Op. 90

Liszt Sonata in B Minor

7:30 p.m. (Concerto)

Tony Yike Yang, 18, Canada

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466

8 p.m. (Concerto)

Yekwon Sunwoo, 28, South Korea

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467

8:50 p.m. (Concerto)

Han Chen, 25, Taiwan

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467

9:20 p.m. (Concerto)

Rachel Cheung, 25, Hong Kong

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466