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at the Van Cliburn Competition,



As the saying goes, either you have it or you don't. From the opening seventh chord of Schumann's gentle  Blumenstück, Roger Wright, whose entry to the Cliburn competition was only confirmed a week ago, demonstrated just what 'it' is. Rarely has a pianist communicated the spirit of a work with such poignance and immediacy, which was abundantly evident, even over the airwaves, from the hushed reaction of the audience.

My admiration for Roger Wright is no secret; I have reviewed him in concert and on disc on several occasions. As he proved again today, he is without question the greatest pianist that America has produced since William Kapell. His playing seems to grow exponentially with each performance, blossoming  into something deeper and more complex. Abundantly detailed and passionate, intelligent yet unafraid of risks, here is a pianist who simply has it all, and then some. There is an edge to his music making that rivets for its vivid dynamic intensity and dramatic audacity, informed by a firm rhythmic spine that refuses to compromise musical values for cheap effect.

In Chopin's august evergreen, the B flat minor Sonata, Mr Wright, a native Texan and one of only two Americans competing, pulled out all the stops, exploiting it for its cumulative energy while cultivating its bel canto with the deft gentility of a hothouse gardener. Even so, his playing of the last three movements was oddly more restrained -- or should I say compressed --  than his performance at Sydney (now gloriously preserved on CD), perhaps due to nerves. But even that contributed to a powerful, intense reading that is very much his own. Indeed, Mr Wright sounds like no one else, which is much to his advantage in a world of piano playing mediocrities, if not necessarily in a contest that has traditionally thrown its weight behind routine and status quo interpreters. Rzewski's outrageous, often violent and picaresque homage to farm machinery, the Winsboro Cottonmill Blues, became a larger than life tour de force in Mr Wright's wonderfully able hands.

Roger Wright at the Eleventh Van Cliburn Competition

There is something disarmingly naive about Mr Wright's playing; one could almost say, American. That is hardly to say that Mr Wright is not one of the most intellectually savvy pianists around these days; he most certainly is. But he sounds like no one else, and his way with music evokes something of a pioneer spirit for its refusal to indulge in sentimentality at the expense of rhythm and structure, and for its many moments of exquisite tenderness. Nowhere to be found in his playing is the rhapsodic didacticism favored by the Russians, the sunny laissez faire of the Italians, or even the gemütlichkeit of the Viennese. Mr Wright, on the other hand, is his own country. Digging deep, he knows just how to flesh out a work from the inside, as it were, filtering it through his own prismatic imagination. By some miracle he has not born the influence of any single 'school'. It is precisely this plurality of affect, given to a fierce independence of thought and spirit, that makes his playing so compelling and unique. He is, like Kapell, an authentic original, and as such, will most certainly develop into one of the greatest pianists of the 21st century.


Copyright © 31 May 2001 John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA




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