The Cleveland International Piano Competition has done much to turn its home city into an international destination for pianists. In addition to the main competition (to be held next in summer 2020), the organization also hosts a Young Artists competition, with this performance presenting last year’s winners in a return engagement. Held at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s very fine Gartner Auditorium – a hall which has served as one of the competition’s primary venues – both pianists offered 20-minute mini-recitals, and following their solo programs, joined forces in music for two pianos. Despite the evening’s brevity, both pianists made a formidable impact in selections showcasing both dazzling technique and thoughtful musicality.

Winner of the senior division, 17-year-old Chinese native Xiaoxuan Li is currently a student at the Curtis Institute of Music. Li began his program with one of the evening’s few subdued pieces, Chopin’s Barcarolle in F sharp major. A gently rocking gesture opened the work, with the music’s hypnotic beauty encouraged by Li’s delicate touch. In lesser hands, the trills can be mushy and the harmonies a muddled wash of chromaticism, yet Li deftly avoided such pitfalls. Rachmaninov’s Étude-Tableaux in E-flat minor was of resonant chordal intensity, surging to passionate climaxes. The legato octaves in Liszt’s Transcendental Étude no. 10 contrasted its tempestuousness: a more lyrical central section offered only brief respite with rapid-fire repeated octaves building to great tension. Sweeping arpeggios ushered in a relentless stretta to close this impressive performance.

At age 14, Russian Eva Gevorgyan counts her first place finish in the junior division as one of no less than 40 prizes she has garnered at competitions around the world. Her first selection was Grigory Ginzburg’s transcription of “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. This pianistic patter song was replete with rapid hand-crossings – witty and tongue-in-cheek, a glittering showpiece in the tradition of the 19th-century keyboard barnstormers. Saint-SaënsCaprice d'après l'étude en forme de valse was lilting and meticulously decorated with pearly filigree. Gevorgyan’s playing was featherlight but not without appropriate weight as needed, not in the least during the passages of thundering octaves. “La Campanella”, the perennial favorite from Liszt’s Grandes Études de Paganini, saw Gevorgyan deliver the rapid leaps across the keyboard with pinpoint accuracy. Elegance and élan were sustained only to give way to a powerhouse conclusion. Gevorgyan closed her segment with another transcription in Arcadi Volodos’ rendering of Rachmaninov’s Polka Italienne, a work which makes technical demands that are positively absurd. The irresistible polka melody was countered by big-boned playing sounding as if surely more than ten fingers were at work.

A second piano was brought on stage to close the evening in a quartet of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, with Li and Gevorgyan just as alluring collaboratively as they were as soloists. The “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” was striking in its glass-like approximation of the celesta while the vigorous “Russian Dance” showed the pair in seamless synchronization. The “Chinese Dance” emanated an elegant exoticism, and the “Waltz of the Flowers” concluded the suite with textures richly flowing. An enjoyable evening from two highly gifted artists playing with a maturity beyond their years, and I look forward to hearing more from both.

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