Friday, May 22, 2009

Eduard Kunz

I've said it before: The last slot on the first day of the competition is the worst time for a Cliburn contestant to go. It's Friday, most people in the audience have been at work all day, and they've expended the last of their mental energy on the evening's first two players. Indeed, the hall emptied out significantly after Spencer Myer's performance. The ones who stayed to hear Eduard Kunz, however, seemed glad that they did, and so was I.

The Russian started off with five Scarlatti sonatas, and while he was playing them, I realized something about Scarlatti. The composer, wildly popular in his own lifetime, was obscure for centuries until Vladimir Horowitz started playing his sonatas. Scarlatti's music never soars and indeed seldom raises its voice, probably because of the limitations of keyboard instruments in his day. Yet he finds ways to express many different moods, from pathos to hilarity, and he does it in a Latin-inflected style all his own. (Scarlatti was Italian, but he was music teacher and composer to the royal families of Portugal and Spain.) A well-chosen selection of Scarlatti sonatas is a great way for a pianist to show what he can do. Glenn Gould once dismissed Scarlatti's sonatas as "popcorn." He was wrong. They make an excellent appetizer.

Anyway, Kunz did pretty well with his Scarlatti choices. Then he played one of Haydn's sonatas. I must confess I've never found a way in when it comes to Haydn's keyboard music, and this performance didn't present me with one. What really impressed me and the rest of the audience was the pianist's last two choices. He played Busoni's transcription of Bach's Chaconne in D minor, in which the 19th-century German-Italian pianist/composer turned a Baroque piece into a monumental Romantic Era work. (If you've never heard Ferruccio Busoni, seek out his music. It's a bit hard to find, but it often sounds like it was written last Wednesday. Not bad for a composer who died in 1924.) Kunz' rendition was massive but never impersonal, and loud without resorting to banging on the keys. Indeed, Kunz did exert himself so forcefully that he pushed himself back from the piano several inches, coming perilously close to falling off the bench. Yet he still managed to produce huge waves of sound. His final piece was Siloti's transcription of Bach's B minor Prelude, which turned Bach into something sounding like Rachmaninov.

This was when Kunz' programming choices became clear to me. He started with Baroque music and then chose the last two pieces not just to prove that he could sound good in other idioms, but also to show how Bach's genius bled into the fabric of 19th-century Romanticism, emphasizing the continuity between centuries. It was inspired, bold, creative, and ambitious. Most of all, it worked.

So, out of six pianists on the first day, I've identified three who I'd like to see in the semis: Beus, Myer, and Kunz. (Weird how they all have four letters in their last name.) If the competition continues at this rate, the first round will be a smashing success.

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