Korean pianist Ko-Eun Yi thrilled an audience of piano lovers yesterday afternoon as she performed a recital for the Aptos Keyboard Series at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist. Artistic Director of the series Josef Sekon continues to surprise us by discovering new young talented artists and bringing them to central California.
Juilliard trained pianist Yi may have looked very young, fragile and vulnerable as she sat down at the piano. However, from the first notes of her opening work, Scarlatti’s Sonata in c-sharp minor, K. 247, L. 256, she revealed not the demeanor of a playful kitten, but that of a ferocious tiger, as she devoured each work on the program and left us thirsting for more by the end of the program.
The Scarlatti Sonata she had chosen, K. 247, is not one of the most frequently performed of his 555 sonatas, but it is one that was championed by such distinguished pianists as Fou Ts’ong and Emil Gilels. This sonata is also not one of the many Scarlatti sonatas that feature the dazzling pyrotechnics of rapid scales, crossing of hands and awkward leaps all over the keyboard, but rather one of the slower and more contemplative sonatas. What we heard from Yi was a romantic approach at slower tempos of legato lines that interwove with each other to create interesting textures and phrases. She performed this sonata with a variety of dynamics and expressive devices that could only be dreamed of by a harpsichordist, and it contributed to a very satisfying performance.
The work that followed, Suite Bergamasque is one of Claude Debussy’s most popular works, and we can safely say that every amateur pianist in the world has at one time or another attempted to play the famous and ubiquitous Clair de lune. Yi’s lovely performance of Clair de lune achieved colorful depths of expression and feeling that transported us to a magical place. Her aggressive performance of the opening work of the suite, Prélude, made a bold statement as did the Menuet which followed, although the Menuet achieved some startling moments of calm serenity as well. The Passepied that ended the suite showed Yi’s immaculate rhythm and articulation to great advantage. Since she proved she has a very masterful and profound grasp of Debussy’s style, we can just imagine what she might do with Ravel’s great masterpiece, Gaspard de la nuit — something to look forward to in a return engagement.
Next we heard a performance of Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor. It was a powerful performance — almost too powerful at times — that strained the limits of the piano in the reduced acoustical environment of the church. However, Yi constantly exploited the changing characters of each variation to achieve a startling variety of dynamics and ultimately a satisfying and rewarding performance.
After intermission we heard Ms. Yi perform the mighty Liszt Piano Sonata in B Minor. This is an amazing piece, and on this occasion it received an amazing performance that ran the gamut from unrestrained virtuosity to carefully controlled loving expression in tender moving phrases that transported us to a very special place. This was a performance we didn’t want to end.
Responding to bravos and a standing ovation Yi rewarded us with one encore — a very moving performance of Träumerei from Robert Schumann’s Scenes From Childhood. It was gorgeous.