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Fei-Fei is one of my two favorites to win the competition. She has a maturity and depth to her playing that isn't found among all of the competitors. For her, the music is about expression instead of fireworks. I only saw a bit of her solo recital, and all of her Brahms Quintet, but I was blown away by not only the musicality of her playing but also her stage presence. She communicated the music better than any of the other competitors I watched.
I only caught the Schumann Quintet of Rana and was impressed, although not floored by her playing. It had energy and poise if not an overt musicality to it. This could be caused as much by the piece (which has its moments, although I don't love overall) as by her playing. I really liked her interviews though and at moments I could sense a real passion coming through the music. She's up first in the finals with Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto.
Mndoyants is the only finalist who I didn't see perform so I won't comment on him but I like his repertoire. In the semi-final round, apart from the commissioned piece, he performed Scarlatti, Debussy, and Mussorgsky. Definitely breaking the mold of a typical Cliburn repertoire.
One can't write about American Sean Chen without writing about his hair. He's got insanely great hair. It waves in front of his face when he plays. There, I've done it. To be honest I'm a bit surprised to see Chen in the finals. I felt conflicted while watching him play his program. I loved his fire, especially on the commissioned work, Theofanidis' Birichino, as well as his Ligeti etude and Petrouchka but I thought that his often reckless and mistake prone playing style would keep him out. In retrospect I'm thrilled that it didn't. He took huge risks both in his programming and his approach to performance and I'm glad the judges rewarded him for it. Also, his Trois movements du Petrouchka only seemed to have Deux movements. He made some slick arrangement of the Cliburn mainstay Petrouchka which bypassed or at least shortened the slower second movement, while adding in extra voices and parts heard only in the orchestral version. The audience adored him for it. I think Stravinsky would have been a bit perturbed, but so what?
Vadym is by far my favorite competitor, and possibly an unlikely audience favorite as well. I say unlikely because he is neither young (but Cliburn standards) nor is he particularly gregarious. He makes extremely funny faces when he plays (but can't hold a stick to Italian pianist Allesandro Deljavan) and is one of the most interesting and complete pianists I've ever heard perform. He performed the entirety of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes (except no. 9) with a deep passion and intellectualism that Liszt deserves but doesn't always receive. His technical mastery is evident (he's in the damn Cliburn) but he brought feeling and deep unspeakable emotion to the music. He took a risk with his programming decision in the semi-finals both because the Liszt etudes are thought of as too overdone historically, as well as the risk of only programming one thing (beside the commissioned work) which doesn't show a wide breadth of style. Oh, and did I mention I actually really liked his chamber recital? I am extremely excited for his final round performances in which he'll be playing Mozart's 21st Concerto, and Prokofiev no. 3.
Tomoki Sakata is another potential audience favorite. He's the youngest competitor (19 years old) and has a soft but engaging personality. His interviews are adorable but his playing is mature and laden with sensuality and emotion. His Debussy Etudes in the semi-final round were exciting, as was his Schumann Piano Quintet. I don't find his playing as complete as Khodolenko or Dong but he's got an incredible career in front of him. I wouldn't be surprised to see him win the whole thing actually. His playing is absolutely in the top three or four and the Cliburn really likes young pianists. (although his age would not be the biggest reason for a win). I like him a lot and am hoping he returns in 2017.
If you want to catch the final rounds, you can stream them all at the Van Cliburn website.
Click here for a complete schedule of the final concerto round.