Photo credit: Sangwood Lee
In a remarkable, marathon recital, the Korean pianist Ji — substituting for Seong-Jin Cho — performed music in such a way that attests to his love of sound and music more than to his love of keyboard celebrity, rare enough in any day and age. Reminiscent of the sensibility of such luminaries as Stokowski and Celibidache, Ji eschews the glamour element of concert appearance – sporting a seedy, “street clothes” look at his Saturday, November 4 venue at Le Petit Trianon for the Steinway Society – and requesting for his entire second half that the audience refrain from any applause. The effect, his having programmed the monumental Goldberg Variations for the first half, came to represent the 26-year-old pianist’s complex personality, which pays homage to tradition and discipline while embracing a thoroughly engaging, desultory confrontation with life and art as he sees them.
Ji opened with Bach’s 1741 Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, an aria and 30 variations, conceived as a huge architecture that embraces canons, rural and national dances, and arabesques as an incremental arch-form that culminates in a Quodlibet on quite “vulgar” motifs, so that the sacred and profane, the timely and the timeless, merge into a seamless unity. Ji presented an eminently “eccentric” or “idiosyncratic” realization of Bach’s masterpiece, eliding or retaining repeats ad libitum, and investing all sorts of rubato and luftpausen into the melodic and contrapuntal lines. What Ji accomplished, in fact, was to mesmerize us – as he would proceed to do throughout a long and provocative repertory – with no end of color combinations and a penchant terraced dynamics that might have made Beethoven at the keyboard envious! Later, in the course of astonishing, brilliant, and cascading renditions of both Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante and Ravel’s La Valse, I kept recalling my first experience of having heard Josef Hofmann in his 1938 appearance at the MET, for the sheer color range and control of progressive sound clusters. When the initial Aria returned, we felt a decisive angst, as though we had met either the Sphinx or the Cheshire Cat in all its existential permutations .
If the Bach Goldbergs had us talking to ourselves and others, the second half began with a kind of “apologia” by Ji himself, in which he explained his aesthetic, which embraces experience in a kind of Zen perspective, without prior judgments. He began anew with Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s chorale-prelude Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland, in pious and unexaggerated directness of expression, ardent and sincere. Then, attacca, to Ravel’s often sinister and wily La Valse, an evocation of an era and a dance form whose contortions and lurid eroticism literally exploded in dazzling glissandos and blizzards of scale patterns, a paroxysm of frenetic fff passages and swirling figures that convulsed into a St. Vitus Dance or Danse macabre. It had become clear that Ji thinks in Manichean terms of conflicting dualities in Nature, and he seeks a cosmic reconciliation. That seeking for a musical foil, or repose, to Ravel, came in the form of another Bach chorale-prelude, this the transcendent Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, from Cantata 140. Once more, Ji demonstrated his gift for applied layering of texture, along with sudden, convulsive shifts of register and dynamics, as he had prior, in the often amazing crossed-hands passages in the Goldbergs and in Ravel.
On another lovel of audacity, Ji programmed the John Cage 4’33” (of Silence), the 1952 bete noir that provokes all sorts of reaction about “musical expectations,” given that “complete silence” remains a mere logical possibility and not a reality. Having experienced a deprivation chamber, Cage himself “heard” both his heartbeat and his central nervous system. As the Chopin decayed, we simply beheld Ji in profile, and we wondered if we should move, look around, meditate, or even consider the riddle if Ji had missed a beat or two in the three “movements” Cage presents. Ji then broke the imposed silence with the low chords of Liszt’s Le mal du pays (“Homesickness”) from the first book of Years of Pilgrimage, “Swiss.” Arising in a sort of plainchant, the E Minor melody circulated in a kind of fantasy, mixing major and minor modes of the theme. The minor modes took us to G-sharp and B Minor, following an epigraph from Senancour that describes a mountain area of wilderness that abuts a pasture. Nature here has a temenos, or sacred grove, but Liszt’s harmonies invoke agitation; and even the return to E Major only provides temporary solace. The original tune, juxtaposed against Ji’s augmented sixth chords, left us ambivalent as to the permanence of metaphysical consolations.
Given Ji’s penchant for philosophical dualism, how fitting he should conclude with Schumann’s 1839 Arabesque in C Major, Op. 18. Set as rondo, the essentially wistful piece contrasts Schumann’s own psychological division, Florestan and Eusebius, as character traits, assertive and dreamy, akin to Nietzsche’s Dionysos and Apollo. Alternately poetic and declamatory, the music assumed a mesmerizing haze under Ji’s polished figurations and canny pedal. What is all of Schumann’s music – and perhaps all of Being as we mentally construe it? – the nostalgia for the dream.