The New Criterion - Saturday, September 1, 2018 - Written by Jay Nordlinger

New York chronicle

The pianist entered the stage to begin his recital. According to the program, he was to begin it in an arresting way—with Beethoven’s Variations in C Minor. That work has an exceptionally arresting opening. It is almost like an announcement. But the pianist faced the audience and said, “I’m sorry to speak before I play anything.”

I was sorry too! The talk immediately yanked the evening into the world of the mundane. The magic of a recital—especially the opening moments—was upset. Why do they do this? Why do musicians talk from the stage, habitually? Contagion, I think. They see
others do it and think they have to.

At any rate, our pianist was Yekwon Sunwoo, winner of the Van Cliburn Competition last year. It seems to me that the Van Cliburn
is a smaller deal than it once was in our national life, or national cultural life. Maybe that’s because culture—high culture—is a smaller
deal. Sunwoo is from South Korea and came to America as a teenager to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

In New York, he was playing at the International Keyboard Institute & Festival, now in its twentieth year. It is run by its founder, the
pianist Jerome Rose, and the festival director, Julie Kedersha. IKIF is an excellent showcase for both pianists and piano repertoire—
including unusual and neglected repertoire. Sunwoo was playing on the stage of the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College.

What is it about Beethoven and C minor? He chose that key for some of his most bracing expressions. Think of the Fifth Symphony, just
for starters. In the Variations, Sunwoo was a little stiff and ungainly. His playing would have benefited from more suspense. I thought of a line I read long ago, from the composer and pianist Ernst Bacon: “If there is one trait common to all great interpreters, it is their capacity for intensification.” Also, Sunwoo could have used more warmth in a C-major variation, chorale-like. In general, his Beethoven was respectable, but he can do better . . .

. . . as he did in the next work, by Schubert. This was that composer’s D. 935, Four Impromptus. In the first impromptu, the pianist must capture Schubert’s sweet sadness. Sunwoo largely did. He sang, too, as the music requires. (I mean, he sang on the keyboard, not with his mouth, as Glenn Gould liked to.) As I listened to the second impromptu, I thought, “Here is a young man playing old man’s music. Backhaus music.” Twilight music, transcendental. I’m glad that Sunwoo likes this music, already. He played it well, employing intelligent rubato, for example.

No. 3 is simple and profound at the same time. (Very Schubertian.) The pianist understood this. In No. 4, he was violently impish,
which was fine—it made you sit up straighter in your chair. Yet the closing measures were too blunt and ugly for Schubert.

By the way, Yekwon Sunwoo is a head-shaker. He shakes his head as he plays, especially when he is “feeling” the music. It’s like he’s saying “No, no, no.” There are head-nodders among pianists, too. Evgeny Kissin is the best of them. The headnodders usually play vertically—all too—whereas the -shakers lean toward the horizontal.

After intermission, Sunwoo sat down to something really unusual—unusual, old-fashioned, and wonderful: Percy Grainger’s Ramble on Love, which treats Der Rosenkavalier, the Strauss opera of 1911. This opera made a big impression on composers and millions of others. Grainger’s “ramble” is what Liszt might have called a “fantasy” or a “paraphrase.” But “ramble” is a wonderful old word, isn’t it? Specifically, Grainger treats the final duet of the opera, “Ist ein Traum.” He does it woozily, sensually, and Straussily. Sunwoo was pretty good in it.

He was really good in the next work, another rarity, though of a much different character: Brahms’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Op. 2. This is a very early work. It happens to be earlier than Brahms’s Op. 1, which is his Piano Sonata No. 1 in C major. How’s that? The Sonata No. 2 was written first but published second. I consider it sort of a starter symphony. It is sprawling and ambitious. The second movement, Andante con espressione, is a weird one. Almost modernistic. It is a striking piece of music, deserving of wide notice. The Sonata No. 2 is hard to manage, technically and interpretively, and Sunwoo was assured and manful in it.

Good for him for championing this under-programmed work. It occurs to me that two staples of my youth are no longer on pianists’ menus, much: the Handel Variations and the Paganini Variations. Repertoire fashion is an interesting topic.

Sunwoo closed with La valse, the Ravel hit. He was very bold in it—fine—but short on panache. In any event, he had played an appealingly varied program, and it will be enjoyable to follow his career, as he goes from the Cliburn gold medal to who knows what heights?

Incidentally, I have long complained of performers’ bios: they contain precious little biographical information. They are usually long and boring lists of cities, orchestras, and conductors. But how about the way Yekwon Sunwoo’s bio ends? I have no complaint about it: “A self-proclaimed foodie, Mr. Sunwoo enjoys finding pho in each city he visits and takes pride in his own homemade Korean soups.”

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