Yekwon Sunwoo, 24, South Korea
Yekwon Sunwoo played a program that spanned the centuries as well as the repertoire. He gets one of my infrequently awarded gold stars for playing a contemporary work, Leon Kirchner’s dazzling Interlude II. He surrounded this with Scarlatti’s Sonata in D Minor, K. 213, Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien ("Carnival Scenes from Vienna"), op. 26, and Ravel’s La valse.
The Scarlatti was one of his slow and thoughtful compositions, which is unusual because pianists in competitions usually pick the bright, faster selections from the composer’s vast output. Sunwoo gave it an overly romantic reading that made it sound vaguely like Chopin.
The Schumann is a lengthy work consisting of five movements. Sunwoo gave the work a generous opening but failed to play the returning themes any differently than first presented. In fact, this was a problem with the entire reading of the piece. More variety throughout would have been welcome.
The Kirchner was a revelation. It is fast and features complex chords that border on dissonant without ever tipping over that line. It uses a collection of out-of-the-ordinary scales but is romantic by nature. You cannot help but wonder why it is not played more often, and some of the Liszt claptrap relegated to graduate recitals. The most vital test of any piece is the audience reaction, and they gave the Kirchner a warm reception.
Would that Sunwoo had ended then. His performance of Rasel’s La Valse was loud and raucous. This is a reduction done by the composer of a ballet for orchestra that he wrote for the great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Its difficulties are legendary, as are the problems encountered when playing a work originally written for orchestra. Ravel said this: "Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees, at letter A, an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo, letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855."
Sunwoo’s mists cleared almost immediately and he didn’t wait until letter B to burst forth. This was a loud and ugly performance, which was technically impressive but musically crude. He made some sounds on the piano that sounded like cannon fire and the word “overplayed” is inadequate for what went on. When he reached the ending, he was like a mad man, clobbering the instrument, trying to reach some level of fortissimo hitherto unknown—and unimaginable.
Sean Chen, 24, USA
Sean Chen gets the musical equivalent of a Purple Heart for even attempting to play Beethoven’s Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, op. 106, subtitled the "Hammerklavier.” Not only is it the most difficult of Beethoven’s works for the piano, many consider it to be one of the most difficult works for the instrument, period. Seeing it programmed has created much buzz in the press room and built some significant anticipation. To his credit, Chen made it through this complex work without any disasters—far from it—and he survived without even a noticeable miscellaneous error.
The main problem with his performance is one that you would expect from a young pianist, no matter how gifted. He didn’t have a plan for the dynamics. There are only a few places where Beethoven writes triple forte and those need to be carefully planned. Expending too much force before or in-between those special moments dulls the ear and leaves the pianist without enough arsenal to make them work.
Chen was outstanding in the soft playing. This was especially welcome in the scherzo that makes up the second movement. Here, he kept the dynamic range in check and it was the most effective playing of the performance. The Adagio opened with some impressive playing, but it was too loud and the una chorda and mezza voce markings should have created a hushed sound, which didn’t appear. The big fugue is always dangerous for the pianist in that it goes on for quite a while without much in the way of dynamic variation. This has to be superimposed by the pianist and that requires a degree of maturity that the 24-year-old Chen, or any 24-year-old for that matter, lacks. However, what he has already is a firm grasp on the notes and the beginning of an understanding of the piece. It will be one of his specialties one day and I hope to be able to hear him play it in the future.
Fei-Fei Dong, 22, China
Fei-Fei Dong was the last performer of the evening. She was resplendent in a maroon silk gown that was of similar cut to the black one she wore for her first outing. Her program featured two Scarlatti sonatas: D Major, K. 96, and the Minor, K. 466; Debussy’s Danse bohémienne and another trip through Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor.
The two Scarlatti sonatas made a matched pair; one fast and spritely and the other slow and melodic. In the first one in D major, she used some pedal but the staccato was still clear. It was too loud at the end, but still a fine reading. The second one was both beautiful and beautifully played. You hear the roots of Chopin in this piece and she played it in that manner. Even though there are only two lines going, the texture still sounded full.
The Debussy is a bright piece and Dong played it as more noisy than loud, which gave it the right feel. She tied in the calmer middle section by keeping the energy, but just under the surface. Even better, you could see that see was enjoying the performance and that came through in the music.
The Liszt Sonata remains a problematic work for anyone who tries to play it. In addition to its formidable technical demands, the sectional nature of the work is hard to hook up into a piece and the pomposity of some of its melodic material encourages overplaying. Liszt himself contributed to the eye-roll by giving out a tempo marking of one of the five melodic components of Grandioso (jeesh). With her nose practically touching the keyboard, the slow introduction was played completely out of a time signature and treated as a free fantasy. While this created some drama, it failed to keep the piece moving towards the first Allegro.
Once there, Dong took a very fast tempo, which impressed in her ability to sustain it. She played the Chopin-like lyrical, melodic material with sensitivity, and we were impressed again with Liszt’s ability to write a pretty tune.
The sonata is in four interconnected movements that are played without pause. This creates a problem for the pianist in tying it all together and avoiding the sense that the work is endless and repetitive. Dong did as good a job as possible in this regard by approaching all of the returning material slightly differently.
However, overall her performance suffered from the pitfall of exaggeration. The fast was too fast, the slow was too slow, the loud got to triple forte too quickly and too often, and many of the soft passages were too loud. This is not to say that she didn’t make a decent case for her conception—she did. But this piece needs to have everything in scale for it to work on those rare occasions when it does.
Why this piece is popular for competitions is beyond me. There are other virtuoso showpieces that don’t have all of these problems to overcome musically. Where, for example, is Samuel Barber’s piano sonata? It was a favorite of Van Cliburn and he worked mightily to promote it. You would think that in this year, when we honor his memory, at least some contestants would have had it on their program.
◊ Click here to see reviews of the Prelminary Recital/Phase I for Yekwon Sunwoo, Sean Chen and Fei-Fei Dong.