Heading Into Final Day of the Cliburn, Three Competitors Stand Out From the Pack

Russian Nikita Mndoyants and Italian Beatrice Rana made strong final bids for the 2013 Cliburn gold medal Saturday night at Bass Performance Hall in their second concerto performances. In the process, they brought the luster back to a final round that had at times been mired in mediocrity.

Mndoyants, whose front-ranking position had weakened with a sometimes ponderous rendition of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on Thursday night, definitely regained momentum as he opened the evening with a beautifully paced, elegantly shaped performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. Conductor Leonard Slatkin and the Fort Worth Symphony have been giving the competitors a firm foundation on which to build impressive performances, but Mndoyants was the first, with his Mozart, to really take advantage of the fine sense of impetus and architecture Slatkin provides. Indeed, Mndoyants managed to return to that sense of artistry—of virtuosity dedicated to making music rather than winning a contest—that had characterized his semi-final performance, as he, Slatkin, and the orchestra joined in the magical journey from darkness to light contained in this piece.

Mndoyants also took an admirable bit of risk at the two points in the concerto at which Mozart, in keeping with the custom of his time, allowed for the soloist to improvise a long cadenza. Rather than falling back on one of the standard, expected cadenzas, Mndoyants performed a chromatic, adventurous cadenza of his own, written in a style far removed from Mozart’s. Purists may complain, but, to my ears, Mndoyants’ daring twenty-first century take on eighteenth-century melodic material was quite in keeping with the often whimsical spirit of this concerto.

(Given his already high ranking in the Cliburn, it’s likely that Mndoyants will appear with the Dallas Symphony in the near future; it would be intriguing to hear a collaboration of Mndoyants with Jaap van Zweden or Paul Phillips in this or any Mozart Concerto.)

Chinese pianist Fei-Fei Dong filled the second slot of the session with her performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G. As in her offering of Rachamaninoff’s Third on Friday, one could notice some striking gestures and a sparkling tone in the midst of a structurally disjunct, generally exploitative approach to the material.

Interestingly, in the final item on the evening’s agenda, Italian Rana gave a more thoroughly convincing performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 than Mndoyants had on Thursday. Relying on a generous, assertive rubato in the opening theme, she joined conductor Slatkin and the orchestra to create the sense of drama that was lacking in Mndoyants’ version. Like Mndoyants on Thursday, she seemed pushed to the edge of her technique in the murderously difficult cadenza in the first movement. However, the rest of the performance, including the sweeping tornado of notes in the second movement and the glassy brilliance of the third, were perfect, leading to a genuine feeling of arrival in the final measures.

At this point, only Ukrainian Vadym Kholodenko, who will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 as part of the final session on Sunday afternoon, poses a serious threat to a gold medal for either Mndoyants or Rana.

Photos (from left): Vadym Kholodenko, Nikita Mndoyants, and Beatrice Rana