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Competition Standard High at CMIM 2024 Semi-Final

While I was in China visiting my grandma this May, I spent a lot of time at home with her. One of my favorite activities was listening to the CMIM piano competition on YouTube while my grandma cooked in the kitchen. Since she suffers from osteoporosis, she mostly stays at home. Here's the semi-final review.

Michelle Candotti, Italy (27)

A 2nd prize winner in numerous international competitions and one of only two female pianists in the semi final of CMIM 2024, Candotti humorously started her performance with the “Coronavirus Etude for Piano and Disinfecting Wipe.” In her introduction, she confidently talked about her repertoire, highlightly Franz Liszt’s Dante Sonata – Fantasia Quasi Sonata, a composition deeply intertwined with her cultural heritage and inspired by Victor Hugo’s Divine Comedy. 

With poignant verses echoing Hugo’s words,  Candotti’s playing delved into the depths of the inferno, evoking haunting wails of anguish that mirrored the intensity of her gaze, resonating with the ominous “devil’s interval.” Yet, amidst the darkness, moments of celestial joy emerged, flowing gracefully into technically demanding passages of octaves.However, despite her undeniable talent,  Candotti’s performance may have faltered in fully capturing the dynamic contrasts and internal struggles inherent in this piece. This may have left her just shy of advancing to the final round.

In comparison to her colleague Vitaly Piserenko, hailing from the same esteemed school of Dmitri Alexeev, a member of this year’s competition jury, or even when measured against Elias Ackerley,  Candotti’s rendition fell short of attaining the infernal heights sought by the discerning judges. The execution of fast passages left something to be desired in terms of velocity. Furthermore, minor disruptions, such as a brief interruption in left-hand pedalling during the piu tosto ritenuto e rubato quasi improvisario section, and the need for longer pauses to allow the audience to fully immerse themselves in the lugubrious ‘death’ motif (culminating in a 16-minute performance), likely contributed to this divergence in evaluation.

Elias Ackerley, Korea/UK (22)

Ackerley’s demeanour echoed his playing, embodying a blend of humility and profundity, He revealed little overt emotion or extroversion in the introductory speech. However, within this quiet presence lay a captivating depth of focus and inner expression.

In his performance of the Dante Sonata during the first round, he seamlessly intertwined themes of heaven and hell. With commanding authority, Ackerley effortlessly guided the piano. His mastery of technique and artistic insight elevated his performance beyond mere proficiency, evoking comparisons to Liszt himself. His interpretation also delved into the pursuit of purity and asceticism against the backdrop of human complexity. Next, Ackerley immersed us in Scriabin’s introspective Sonata No. 4 Op. 30.

In the first movement, he painted with light, shadow, and colour, infusing each note with a hint of longing and curiosity. The Prestissimo volando of the second movement swiftly shifted the narrative, each recurrence of the motif marking a new chapter, while the finale erupted in jubilant celebration, signalling a triumphant emergence from confusion and desolate desperation. Despite a few noticeable wrong notes in both Liszt in the first round and Beethoven in the second round, Ackerley’s artistry earned him the jury’s forgiveness. 

Jaeden Izik Dzurko, Canada (24)

Dzurko commenced his performance quite unusually with Barbara Assiginaak’s Canadian composition, performed entirely from memory. This choice not only showcased his technical prowess but also underscored his dedication to championing the works of Canadian composers. As the sole contestant born and raised in Canada, Dzurko garnered dual honours: the prix André-Bachand for the best performance of a Canadian work and the accolade for the best rendition of a Sonata. 

Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 1, though less renowned than his 2nd sonata, required exceptional stamina, precise control of dynamics, and unwavering intensity to deliver the drama to its audience. Dzurko tackled these demands with remarkable skill. In the first movement, he captured the fiery passion Rachmaninoff intended, evoking the spirit of Faust. The second movement shimmered with innocence, providing a stark contrast to the infernal ascent of the third movement. He was able to navigate Rachmaninoff’s complex emotional landscape with subtlety and depth, making it seem almost effortless on the stage with his big hands.

Derek Wang, United States (25)

From the 1st round of the competition with Don Juan, Wang demonstrated a mature musicianship and technical prowess, underscored by his recent 2nd prize in the Liszt competition in Utrecht. His performance exuded a sense of inevitability, as if destined to captivate all who listened.

In the semi-final round, Wang ingeniously interwoven Francis Poulenc’s Nocturne No. 4 in C minor amidst two improvisations from the same composer. His rendition of the lyrical Nocturne was delivered with such intimacy that it seemed he was immersed in its melody with eyes closed, earning the admiration of the audience. While Barbara’s piece encountered a minor stumble at the beginning, Wang’s confidence shone through.

Executing Beethoven’s notoriously challenging Hammerklavier Sonata with unwavering dedication to the score, Wang’s powerful finger articulation flew past its demanding passages with promise. The syncopated rhythms of the sonata echoed the jazzy elements introduced earlier by Poulenc, infusing the classical competition with a touch of spontaneity and flair. 

Jakub Kuszlik, Poland (22)

Having heard some unusual rubato in Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau,” juxtaposed with a nearly flawless rendition of Chopin’s Sonata no.3 in the first round, one might perceive Kuszlik’s performance as somewhat unstable, or, unpredictable? 

Opting for Mozart’s comparatively simpler Fantasie no.3 in the second round, which Kuszlik delivered with purity and innocence, albeit lacking a touch of the precision demonstrated by Derek Wang’s Fantasie no.4 in the first round. Additionally, his stage presence seemed somewhat mismatched with the innocent Mozart. However, his interpretation of Brahms was delivered convincingly and resonated with the audience.

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