Time Stolen, Time Repaid: A Recital by pianist Yeol Eum Son

It seems beyond appropriate that pianist Yeol Eum Son played but one encore after her dazzling recital at the Petit Trianon Theatre for the Steinway Society, Sunday, May 6: the Etincelles of Moritz Moszkowski, Op. 36, No. 6, his musical evocation of “Sparks” or “Sparklers.” The little gem in B-flat Major, 3/8, asked Son to exploit her facility in staccato scale passages, a requirement her deft fingers executed with that same aplomb and wicked confidence that had marked her performances in music by Mozart, Pärt, Ravel, Schubert, and Rachmaninoff.  The audience, ravenous for more of Son’s magic, had to accept to the one encore, so often the vehicle for Vladimir Horowitz to say farewell at his marathon concerts.

Son opened with Mozart’s 1778 Nine Variations on Lison dormait, K. 264, an arietta from the opera Julie by Dezede. Typical of Mozart’s Parisian keyboard works, the music exploits the composer’s gift for turning a second-rate salon piece into a marvelous study in keyboard flourishes and invention. Already, just after a few measures, we could relish the clarity of Son’s attacks, her limpid touch and flexible phraseology, the musical intellect behind the fingers. Each emergent variation held its own, articulate, clarion, with a sonority that, in its more enriched harmonies, approached “concerto” proportions. The fifth variation in the minor held true to the keyboard’s vocal ability. The eighth variation anticipated the encore, since Mozart wanted a similar exalted lightness of articulation in hemi-demi-semi quavers (64th-notes). The brief cadenza confirmed the concertante character of the work, moving in triple time and diminished chords to a mocking statement of the original tune, Mozart’s having revealed powers the original did not imagine it possessed.

Son then proceeded to play Arvo Pärt’s 1977 miniature Variations for the Healing of Arinushka, a deceptively ‘simple’ piece that opens by having the keyboard pressed silently and then intoning brief clusters of unadorned notes in spare rhythms above the depressed notes, the resultant sound’s often resembling distant church bells. Through its course of six variations, the piece moved from the Aeolian mode to a major mode, the whole set as tintinnabuli (little bells”) in the manner of the Poe poem that no less inspired Rachmaninoff. The minimalist ethos prevails, but Son rendered the discrete and diaphanous sounds so effectively we could only confess to having been charmed.

Then pianist Son altered the sonic image with Ravel’s set of percussive Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911), after Schubert. The juxtaposition of Pärt’s rarified air and Ravel’s canny cosmopolitanism took us by storm, given the often hard patina Son could elicit from her Steinway. Still, the requisite Viennese lilt and nostalgic affection for a lost “world of yesterday,” to paraphrase Stefan Zweig, flowered forth. The eight waltzes alternately capture Ravel’s ironic depiction of various emotions: love, hope, and rejection. By the time Son closed with the Epilogue: lent, the wistful figures had well defined our sense of regret for a rarified, perfumed existence that lingers as an exquisite teardrop.

Son concluded her first half with another programmed allusion to the world of Horowitz: the Liszt arrangement of Schubert, here, his (c. 1852) Soirée de Vienne: Valses-caprices d’apres Schubert, No. 6. Liszt assembled a group of Schubert waltzes for his own paraphrase treatment, often employing, besides new modulations, scalar and ornamental figures to raise the level of virtuosity, especially in their emphases on flexible wrist-action. Here, Son’s innate rhythmic flexibility, her capacity – which would be ideal in Chopin – for tempo rubato (“stolen time”) invested the liquid periods with that refined magic which makes Schubert’s waltzes both ingenuous and ingenious.

The second half of Son’s recital claimed the complete Op. 32, the 13 Preludes of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1910), works Son claims to be her favorites. Consensus seems to accord this latter set of Preludes, after those of 1904, to be more harmonically complex and advanced in style. Several of the preludes provide complementary pairs, like those in Bach’s set for WTC; but the emphasis lies in the dramatic and sonorous power of each to set a motor or emotional affect that dominates its progression, in the manner of Chopin.

Many of the preludes capitalized on the composer’s penchant for Russian bells, as in No. 3 in E, No. 8 in A Minor, No. 10 in B Minor, and No. 13 in D-flat Major. We virtually “discovered” the ballade-like power of No. 4 in E Minor, the longest of the set, driven by triplets and proceeding in variation. Son’s realization of this minor epic had the sullen authority of an equivalent work by Nikolai Medtner. In No., 3 in E Major, Son proffered a magnificent march, rife with heavy chords and octaves. Every audience member relished Son’s playing of the G Major, its lovely nocturnal sounds watery and diaphanous, the fluttering arpeggios a reminder to the cognoscenti of old of Benno Moiseiwitsch. The No. 10 Rachmaninov used to call “The Return,” its ponderous and elegiac figures moving to a paean to nostalgia. Several of the preludes could pass as etudes, like those in F Minor and F Major, demanding active triplets in both hands or a duet for alternative hands. In the F Minor, especially, Son achieved the status of a tempest, the composer’s compressed equivalent of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata in the same key. With the last resounding – even Wagnerian – chords from the final D-flat Major Prelude, the audience could no longer contain its wild admiration for time borrowed and returned at such generous points of interest.

To conclude her program, Son gave us a red-hot jazz improvisation from the brilliant and decidedly eccentric Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000): his Play Piano Play, Nos. 1 & 6 (1971). Marked Moderato and Presto possibile, the two etudes invited Son to pretend she was Oscar Peterson, riding swing and stride riffs with a brazen authority to keep ears ringing and toes tapping. Son tossed off blues syncopes and jabbing repeated notes  with the same glee that had defined her runs and pungent eighth notes. In a matter of minutes Son had proved herself a gifted champion of diverse musical styles whose technical and imaginative arsenal seems boundless.



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