Head and heart


Session 20

Tuesday July 13, 2021

Yangrui Cai

This musician was the only member from a phalanx of six Chinese pianists to reach the semi-final round. I can’t speak for the others but Cai is a mightily gifted player, with an interpretative flair that is proving elusive to find as this week’s nights wear on. He worked on a Steinway in the 1900 Building, Mission Woods in Kansas City on March 28. As far as I could tell, his theme was ethereal, not coming down to anything approaching solidity. Indeed, it would be hard to find any common thread between the two works that Cai performed: Schubert’s Four Impromptus D. 899, and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka. That lack didn’t stop the artist from introducing each work with small addresses that revealed some personality but laboured to find any common ground between the pieces he was presenting.

Despite that, Cai showed an individuality when he came into the core of the C minor Allegro con moderato impromptu. He has a varied approach to underlining Schubert’s modulations – sometimes applying a cosmetic touch, at others sailing straight ahead without adding any colour. The G minor section revealed a clear application to the task, which brought back memories of the finale to the final B flat sonata with its off-the-beat individual notes and, throughout all four impromptus, the never-suppressed penchant for triplets. Added to this, Cai avoided muddiness in the repeated notes and chords – the ostinati – that are often given a prominence well beyond their significance.

Cai’s light touch with pedalling came to the fore in a lucid reading of the E flat Major No. 2, his right hand triplets admirably even. It was all as regular as you’d want, the player reserving flexibility of approach to the central B minor episode where the tempo jockeying was applied with care. As far as I could tell, this – like its predecessor – was note-perfect. As, I suspect, was the G flat Major work where I noticed an old-fashioned oddity in Cai’s style whereby he lets his left hand have a split-second first say at the start of a bar; it doesn’t happen all the time but the effect can be helpful in setting up a harmonic status and also giving the melody an added primacy. His alto sextuplets murmured placidly and, from my seat, they were all properly filled in.

In Cai’s handling of the last piece in A minor, you noticed some details that hadn’t struck you much in all those interpretations from previous years, like his insistence on the right-hand quaver rest that concludes so many of those digested versions of the initial arpeggio figure. As well, he showed a chain of insights in phrasing this repetitious score and ferreting out the right notes to air, regardless of their position in the texture. At the end of the set you were left with two memorable facets to Cai’s performance: one, these impromptus were sincerely felt, the performer very involved in their emotional content; two, he is always on the grimace, the face never at rest. Stravinsky, speaking of Rachmaninov, praised his great compatriot above all else for never pulling faces; he wouldn’t have been happy here.

With the Stravinsky interpretation, you missed the ferocious excitement of Calvin Abdiel’s preliminary round execution but Cai gave a more considered interpretation, his Russian Dance ideal in its transparency, even with those consecutive rich block-chords in rapid succession. Rather than pounding the pages into submission, this time round the piece had the quality of a dance achievable by humans, not giants. Also, Cai added his own foot stamps at certain points, as involved in this music as he was in his Schubert.

After the rhythmic vitality of the opening, Cai retreated to Petrushka’s Room with a much more lithe approach, setting his own pace, particularly in a slower-than-usual Adagio, which turned out to be finely pitched to contrast with the upcoming Andantino. Loaded with abrupt shifts from loitering to mechanical, these pages made an intriguing study in mobile texture as the underlying choreography ran its course with excellent delineation of character and action. And, again, the clarity of this player’s output impressed mightily.

Even in The Shrovetide Fair conglomerate, you were given the precious gift of hearing everything in a movement that is packed with massive blasts. Cai kept the levels clear, improbably so in those three-stave very loud passages, especially the final instance of this where the obsessive chord sequence almost tips into mania. But Cai kept them startlingly detached, just as some interpreters of The Firebird do with that ballet’s final peroration.

I’m not given to predictions, having fallen flat too many times. But I’d be very surprised if this performer didn’t wind up somewhere near the top of the prize list, if not at its apex.

Philipp Lynov

This second Russian semi-finalist chose Sonata as his theme; enough said. He operated from the Central Music School in Moscow, taping his program on March 26. Here was another performer who spoke before each segment, having learned off his addresses; rather stilted and inclined to philosophical/musicological observations that came thick and fast, with no time to absorb (on our part) and left unamplified (on his side). However, Lynov at the keyboard covered a refined wealth of material: two Scarlatti sonatas, Beethoven No. 17 in D minor, and Bartok’s monster. One of the other Russian competitors spoke of the traditional big Russian piano sound, but this artist proved that such an expectation is not necessarily met on all occasions, although his reading of the Hungarian sonata smashed an already-bristling score out of the ball-park.

His approach to the Scarlatti, K. 27 in B minor and K. 113 in A Major, proved to be clean and circumspect, tending towards the neo-Romantic with some sustaining pedal work that many other players eschew. He observed the repeats and showed a keen sensitivity to the imitative entries in the first work. The second piece got off to an unfortunate start with an ‘off’ top A or B in bar 3, standing out like a sore thumb because of this player’s precision of articulation. He inserted some delays in his cross-over work and it took me some time to realize that this wasn’t a flaw in his legerdemain but that he was attempting to mark a difference between crotchets and minims in the bass.

Beethoven’s absurdly named Tempest sonata was preceded by a high-flown talk that flirted with the Shakespeare play, although not going further into parallels – a fruitless exercise – but proposing illumination through aesthetic verbiage. You had to admire Lynov’s mental determination while observing this futile requirement, as well as the effort he put into learning his text in a language that doesn’t quite flow from him convincingly. Nothing to be worried about with the first gambits of the Largo-Allegro, even if the bass E in bar 25 was fumbled and the exposition was not repeated. Still, the development came over with no deficiencies and the brooding final bars finished off a well thought-out interpretation – a real one, and impressively observant of the movement’s inherent drama and plentiful contrasts.

I’d never considered some details that Lynov brought out in Beethoven’s Adagio, like the obviously sensible breath before starting bar 27, because of its change of dynamic and sudden break into a major tonality; ditto at the same situation in bar 69. Here also we were treated to an uplifting interpretation that stuck close to contemporary editors’ dynamics. As with the first movement, the repeat at the start of the Allegretto did not happen. Upping the D minor ante, Lynov’s forte attack moved into the ff spectrum and he made a headlong assault on the bar 107 to bar 150 crisis that seemed almost certain to end in overkill; it came close enough to being a near thing. On the other hand, he was aware enough pick out certain points to lend his progress some finesse, like the left-hand crotchets found between bars 327 to 349. It was possible to find that this pianist was exercising that traditional Russian force and heft during this finale, if nowhere else.

But this was nothing compared to his approach in the Bartok sonata, which also enjoyed an introductory preamble with some distracting pronunciations. At the start of the Allegro moderato, intentions were made clear, gauntlets were slammed down, and we were left in no uncertainty that this ride was going to be a tough one. Even on the first page, the composer’s sforzandi were hammered; as for any double octave – solitary, or in a sequence – it stood no chance of passive handling. In spite of the overworked atmosphere, the pianist remained accurate while moderate expression markings were hyped up by a factor of 2, if not higher. Unlike my previous encounters with this work, this one from Lynov served up a spiky world of temperamental outbursts.

That repeated E across bars 2 to 6 of the Sostenuto e pesante was in danger of being forced out of true by heavy emphasis – and this comes early in the piece. Not much changed as the three pages passed by with unnerving deliberation, although, to be fair, Lynov was scrupulously observant of the sparse pianissimo directions. During an improbably rapid Allegro molto finale, the player took fierce delight in the chord clusters thrown out with growing frequency as the movement gains speed. But the melodic material – and there is a certain indispensable amount – disappeared in the assault, although it has to be admitted that the performer’s handling of those mighty dissonances proved flamboyantly impressive. The whole work showed every sign of expert preparation, but in the outer movements the (metaphorical) pedal was pressed flat for too long.