A Grand Leisure: Pianist Yekwon Sunwoo in Recital

With the ravishing, ecstatically brilliant final chords from Liszt’s La Campanella Etude – his one encore – still resounding through McAfee Performing Arts and Lecture Center, Saratoga, Sunday afternoon, October 8, an enchanted audience hailed Korean piano virtuoso Yekwon Sunwoo yet once more for what had clearly been a masterful recital, under the auspices of the Steinway Society the Bay Area. Sunwoo, the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist, demonstrated a staggering arsenal of color capabilities at the keyboard, in a recital of Schubert, Grainger, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel that, despite its obvious penchant for bravura and demonic virtuosity, no less presented a grand leisure in pacing and dramatic exposition that testified to a talent well beyond his years in musical maturity.

Sunwoo opened with Schubert’s late (1828) Piano Sonata in C Minor, D. 958, a dark opus that surely confronts Beethoven in several respects, not the least of which comes in the form of a clear allusion to that composer’s 1807 32 Variations in C Minor, WoO 80. A gloomy sense of Fate permeated the first movement Allegro, whose haunted sense of progression rarely made any concessions to the few interruptions in the major mode in E-flat. Sunwoo applied an extremely chaste, introspective approach, eschewing percussive gestures and emotional histrionics. We felt as if an acolyte of the Schnabel temper were before us, the musician rather than the virtuoso. The A-flat Adagio might have been extracted from lachrymose figures in the song cycle Die Winterreise, with its two episodes of ominous import. The Menuetto in C Minor hardly lightened the disquiet, although Sunwoo imbued the trio section, in triple meter, with a laendler character of rustic transparency. The last movement, in the form of a moto perpetuo or danse macabre, suggests both an accented tarantella and one of Schubert’s horse-back gallops into oblivion. Unlike Beethoven, the music does not concede to bliss or triumph, but settles into a grim resignation, which had us all thinking of the troubles of our time.

A long intermission led to Sunwoo’s traversal of a flagrantly kaleidoscopic treatment by Percy Grainger of themes, or in this case, “Rambles” on the Love-Duet from Der Rosenkavalier (1911) of Richard Strauss. This evocation of Old Vienna – the second such nostalgic moment would occur in the final offering, Ravel’s La Valse – seemed to arise from a gifted salon-performer in Sunwoo. Glistening arpeggios, pedaled, chromatic and polyphonic effects, smeared harmonies over the sustaining pedal, each contributed to a Romantic interlude in creamy, subdued colors. Love, the true “hero” of the opera, emerges in noble, aristocratic tones, charming and sensual, at once.

Following hard upon Strauss came the thundering opening of the Rachmaninov Second Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 36 (1913), in the 1931, revised edition. Now, Sunwoo could exploit his big gestures, crossed hands across several octaves, and waves of contrapuntal nostalgia. Cut from a single cloth, as it were, the music proceeds through-composed in the manner of Schubert or Beethoven, recycling various motifs in the first movement throughout the three movements, melded together in a kind of Lisztian fashion. At several moments, the various convulsions and sudden thrusts forward gather an arching momentum more than reminiscent of Wagner’s liebestod. Ringing bells and Russian Orthodox chimes permeate the progress of the work, and Sunwoo reveled in its ardor clangor. In the more pensive, introspective moments, Sunwoo proved as delicate and diaphanous as he could be stentorian and heroic. Many of us audience members felt that the missing ingredient to this pianist’s exquisite arsenal might lie in the music of Schumann.

Ravel’s La Valse (1920) hearkens, sympathetically or not, to Vienna in 1855, and its golden allure as captured in the music of the Strauss family. But the composer’s horror of war and the total destruction of much of European civilization from WW I left its mark on all of the composer’s major “dance” forms, since each of them virtually explodes at its peroration. Sunwoo opened with its shifting, ominous bass chords that soon coalesce into a ballroom scene, vibrant, undulating, and rife with erotic possibilities. The mood swiftly altered from colossal and nostalgic to eerily threatening, as Sunwoo increased the tempo of the shifting accents and irregular metrics. The last bars slipped quite out of waltz time into something apocalyptic, and the gentle walls of the past came tumbling down, to the wild delirium of Sunwoo’s public. The famous encore, Paganini’s “Little Bell” as transcribed by Liszt, had us recalling for Sunwoo the same terms in which Liszt praised his beloved Carl Tausig: “The infallible, with fingers of steel.”

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