The violin semi-final was a five-plus hour marathon in the hot Herkulessaal of the Munich Residence with one break. Six Mozart concertos and six performances of Poul Ruders’ “Summer’s Prelude & Winter’s Fugue” by Lily Francis (Connecticut), Hyeyoon Park (Korea), Sophie Heinrich (Germany), Sergey Dogadin (Russia), Kei Shirai (Japan), and Andréa Tyniec (Canada/Poland), three each in each half, were on the program.
Lily Francis , the first to go, stepped out in a phenomenally stylish blue dress, the perfect marriage of elegance and simplicity. It would be too easy to say the same of her playing, but then it wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Mlle. Francis’ playing is a bit more earthbound than that, though, she displays a refreshing absence of artifice, there is nothing either too refined, much less ‘precious’ or treacly. Her Mozart Concerto in A major wasn’t at all “impressive”, it was pleasant—level-headed, of natural grace, somber, a bit bland, and a bit gray in comparison what came after. She did play the Fugue of Ruders’ piece like no one else, though: the flageolet notes, the flautando notes, and the meticulousness set the standard for the night.
Hyeyoon Park was shockingly different. The girl in the feisty tube-top dress is ready-out-of-the-box for the stage. Her staccato opening was an immediate exclamation mark, the crisp defined sound was bold, reminding first of Olympia (“Les contes…”), and eventually of Anne Sophie Mutter in projection, if not always result. Having a Storioni violin helps, of course. Her tone clear, the lows wonderfully chocolaty, the vibrato lavish, this technicolor bravura performance might have been thought of as vulgar by antwacky purists—the rest will have been entertained by the glamour-ride that made of the D major Concerto. She followed it up with a wonderfully over-the-top Prelude in Ruders’ (just as he had asked for it in the impossibly fast marked opening jaunt), but her Fugue wasn’t as ethereal as Francis’.
Sophie Heinrich , alone among the competitors to play the opening tutti part (A major Concerto) with the ever-marvelously performing Munich Chamber Orchestra, was closer in style to Park than Francis, but maybe tried too hard. Indulgent, with forced explosiveness, and with mistakes as the consequence, I liked the idea behind the approach more than the result. The Adagio was more successful, but with too much ‘makeup’? Putting lipstick on a pig (talking about her Mozart, not the very lovely Mlle. Heinrich) doesn’t quite suffice in making a grand dame. Her slow movement’s clucking cadenza, though, was one of the bright moments of the concert, along with the beginning of her Ruders Prelude where she got the Western-fiddle element out most notably.
I may not have liked Sergey Dogadin’s very ambitious, slick and saturated performance of the Mozart (the chamber-music like G-major concerto), but I thought it was faultless competition playing: Very easy to admire—if one manages to stay awake. Perhaps it was the ostensible show of ‘feeling’ in what should have been a terrific, lyrical slow movement, that didn’t sit well with me. But even I was certain he would advance—and when he didn’t, I was surprised. Everyone else—the jury apart—was shocked. He might yet win the price for the best interpretation of Summer’s Prelude & Winter’s Fugue: the nutter played it from memory!
More perplexing yet was Kei Shirai’s advancing. The kindest way to describe the 16 year old player’s Mozart (A Major) might be “neutral”. I prefer “harmless”. It was admittedly difficult to still pay as much attention now, almost four hours into the concert, but what I liked best about his performance was that it made Francis’ look more colorful. His Ruders Prelude was glossed over but at least fast; the Fugue carefully executed.
Andréa Tyniec had to go last—last to play Mozart then last to play Ruders. A squeaky beginning of the Mozart led to a stunning virtuoso cadenza in the first movement that made very obvious the absurdity that audiences have conditioned themselves to resist the natural applause-impulse. This time around the Prelude & Fugue (no relation to Bach or Vivaldi but rather Bartók) didn’t sound very musical, to the extent I was still interested in hearing for the sixth time (and well after midnight) what is far and away the finest commissioned composition of this year’s competition.
Apart from Kei Shirai, Hyeyoon Park and Lily Francis were advanced to the finals.