The New York Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009 - Written by Allan Kozinn

Demonstrating the Power of the Piano, First Thunderous, Then More Subtle

The International Keyboard Institute and Festival has an embarrassment of riches this summer. With twice as many recent competition winners and established pianists as there are days in the festival, the recitals at Mannes College the New School for Music are offered in nightly pairs: one at 6 and a second at 8:30, both full-length programs.

The juxtapositions can be a bit odd stylistically. At the early performance on Monday, Sofya Gulyak, a Russian pianist who won the William Kapell International Piano Competition in 2007, played a varied program — Bach-Busoni, Clementi, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt and Shostakovich — all in a thundering, steel-tread style in which virtuosity is almost everything, and subtlety is an occasional footnote.

Yuan Sheng, the Chinese pianist who played the late show, addressed a more constricted group of composers: just Bach, Schubert and Chopin. But he created a distinct sound world for each, and he shaped the works at hand so thoughtfully that his program seemed kaleidoscopic.

Ms. Gulyak began promisingly. The Bach-Busoni Chaconne benefited from the style of solid, assured pianism that she brought to it, and there was something appealing about the apparent ease with which she sailed through this difficult, monumental score.

In Clementi’s Sonata in C (Op. 33, No. 3), you could convince yourself, briefly, that Ms. Gulyak was intent on presenting this largely overlooked Romantic as a fire-breathing proto-Liszt, decades ahead of his time. But Clementi’s music does not sustain that approach, and even when Ms. Gulyak shifted down, in the almost Mozartean central slow movement, the explosive spirit of the opening Allegro con spirito lingered.

Her approach to Brahms’s Fantasies (Op. 116) and Schumann’s Intermezzi (Op. 4) were also hard-driven. Even Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s bittersweet “Widmung” was transformed into a brisk, almost breathless showpiece. Occasionally — in the quiet section of the prelude from Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in D flat (Op. 87, No. 15), for example — Ms. Gulyak showed a capacity for delicacy and introspection. But those moments were fleeting.

Mr. Sheng brings considerable power to his playing, too, but he husbands it carefully. His opening pieces, the A major and A minor Preludes and Fugues from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” Book 1, were models of clarity, balance and proportion. That is not to say that they were straightforward or unmediated: Mr. Sheng made the A minor Prelude into a fiery drama, with the equally energetic but stunningly voiced Fugue as an otherworldly rejoinder.

The qualities that made Mr. Sheng’s Bach so appealing were also present, though configured differently and with a more Romantic brand of elegance, in Schubert’s Sonata in G (D. 894). Mr. Sheng knows how to make a Schubert theme sing, and when Schubert packs his textures with several melodies at once, Mr. Sheng’s ear for balance is unfailing.

In the Andante, for example, he created the illusion of a three-dimensional space in which themes and counterthemes, each with its own dynamics and coloration, appeared to move at different distances from the listener.

If the cerebral and the dramatic found common ground in Mr. Sheng’s Bach and Schubert, the prevailing passion in his Chopin, to which he devoted the second half of his program, was impetuousness. But as he demonstrated in his six selections, impetuousness comes in many forms.

In a stormy account of the Ballade No. 1 (Op. 23) it was an insistent swirl that pulled you in; in the Berceuse (Op. 57) it was a gentle fleetness. In two dances — a Mazurka (Op. 30, No. 4) and a Tarantella (Op. 43) — the attraction was entirely visceral. And in the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise (Op. 22), Mr. Sheng revisited all those qualities and ratcheted up the fire as well.

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