Fort Worth — In his debut in a Fort Worth recital as the newest Van Cliburn International Piano Competition gold medalist, Yekwon Sunwoo presented a program to boldly state that he was not all technical flash and excessive bombast, as was observed in the competition. Most of the recital, Tuesday at Bass Performance Hall, featured pieces by Mozart and Schubert that would not be out of place on an undergrad recital. Only the last piece, Ravel’s La Valse, is a showpiece and he even took a welcome laissez-faire approach to that.
Mozart’s Romance in A-flat major (K. Anh. 205) is a puzzlement. The first part is reportedly a fragment of a lost piece for winds, but the last part is of questionable attribution. If you listen carefully, it does sound more like early Beethoven, but no one knows for sure. The Rondo in A minor (K. 511) is exactly opposite of most pieces that are in rondo form. It is slow, dark and morose and is also a set of variations that depends on increasing ornamentation of the theme. In the final return, the theme is almost unrecognizable. The Sonata in C major (K. 330) is undated, so it is impossible to know if it is a late or early work. The slow middle movement is particularly lovely and that is achieved by using only the simplest of musical materials.
Schubert’s Moments musicaux was specifically written for non-professional pianists and the moments are all relatively dark, reflecting the dire circumstances of the composer at the bitter conclusion of his all to brief existence.
What all this music has in common is that they are considered easy to play. The sonata was the first Mozart I ever played as a child. Musically, however, nothing is easy with either composer. You will never hear a cleaner performance of all the above than what Sunwoo delivered on in this recital. The problem is that he lavished them with romantic rubato, especially the Mozart, which almost sounded like Chopin. This is a valid approach, I suppose, but the trend today is attempting to achieve a more classically oriented interpretation. Slow tempi, especially, suffered from a sluggish stride.
Not so in La Valse. The Sunwoo of the Cliburn was back tutta forza. But this was still a quite intelligent, even quite Viennese in style, and not overplayed performance of one of the more difficult works in the repertoire. Only one low note in the left hand exploded enough to pop your eyes open (but shame on you if they were closed). When it occurred again, he gave it the same bombast, but would have been better played somewhat differently. This was an impressive performance and he refrained all its infamous difficulties from overwhelming the music.
It is obvious that Sunwoo is a major talent and well on his way to a major career. The Cliburn Gold brings a plethora of performances and it will be of great interest to hear him again when his four-year reign ends. Nothing refines a pianist more than a packed schedule. Hopefully, he will be able to show us the breath and depth of his musicianship without making such an obvious point of it.