Yekwon Sunwoo in the semifinal recital

Cliburn Semifinal Round 4

Reviews of the fourth semifinal recital session at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Tony Yike Yang and Yekwon Sunwoo.

published Saturday, June 3, 2017

Reviews of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Semifinal Recital Round, session 5 (2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 3). You can see bios and complete repertoire of all pianists here.

For quick links to all our Cliburn reviews, click here.



Canada, 18


SCARLATTI Sonata in A Major, K. 212
SCARLATTI Sonata in D Minor, K. 9
CHOPIN Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, op. 35
MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Yekwon Sunwoo in the semifinal recital


Scarlatti’s short sonatas have long been a standard of the piano literature. While mostly in the Baroque style, they look forward to the Classical one yet to come. Yang played them cleanly and with clarity, with little bravura. The first one was very fast, bordering on frantic. The second was slower and in just two lines, one in the right hand and the other in the left. He did a fine job of balancing the two.

People may not know much of Chopin’s second sonata, but the slow movement, a funeral march, is universally known. Even children sing the first phrase when things are dire. 

This is Chopin’s best work in a larger form. To play it successfully, the pianist must carry the grandeur of the opening all the way through the sonata, no matter how different it is. Parts of the first movement were rushed, but the music could be clearly heard. The scherzo was also too fast, but you can get away with a quick tempo in a scherzo. He relaxed in the trio and the transitions to and from the Scherzo were deftly handled. The famous funeral march was played in a stately manner and was played mostly at a good tempo, only occasionally slowing down. He kept the second subject in the general mood, but gave us a little respite from the heavy feel of what followed.

The last movement was incredibly fast seeing as how it is filled with technical challenges, with some Liszt-type double octaves. Once it starts, it never stops; the tempo must be chosen carefully at the beginning. Yang started it dangerously fast. The opening sounded like chaos, but we needn’t have worried. His masterful technique conquered it all. He turned in a very exciting performance, as much for his musicianship as his technical fireworks.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, usually a rarity on competition programs, received another airing (the fifth so far in the competition). He did an excellent job with it. The audience might not be familiar with the art work on which Mussorgsky based this tour of an art gallery, interspersed with a promenade, or a stroll from one to another.

Yang took some quick tempi, which worked most of the time. Some movements, such as “The Ballet of the Unborn Chicks,” was too fast to be a ballet—maybe better suited to the Whirling Dervishes. Not really, but a handful of the movements suffered this same fate. He brought out the virtuosic elements in the piece, some manufactured by an increase in tempo. He puts on a show as he plays, bending over the keyboard and dramatically pulling his hands off the keyboard after short of loud notes as well as at the end. It’s as if the piano delivered an electric shock. But antics aside, this was an excellent performance, intelligently played and technically nearly perfect.




South Korea, 28


BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 30 in E Major, op. 109
STRAUSS-GRAINGER “Ramble on the Last Love-duet” from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier
PROKOFIEV Sonata No. 6 in A Major, op. 82


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Yekwon Sunwoo in the semifinal recital


Beethoven’s sonata was written right after the very difficult “Hammerklavier,” conceived as a long work. (We heard that sonata yesterday). This sonata is smaller in time and intent. However, it still departs from the standard sonata form and the third movement is the pinnacle of the entire piece. Sunwoo did a fine job of connecting the scherzo-like first theme, which only lasts for eight bars, to the next phrase, which is very different.

The second movement is a race to the end. Marked prestissimo, Sunwoo took that tempo indication and ran with it. The last movement is a theme and variations, a form much beloved by Beethoven. Sunwoo always kept the subject, or the remains of it, apparent and easy to identify.

Bravo for including a piece by the eccentric genius, Percy Grainger. We have heard pieces based on something from an opera before; this is Grainger’s graceful take on the final duet from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. After all the machinations in the opera, Strauss ends with this gorgeous duet that is remarkable for its simplicity. Some other takes of operas, such as the bombast from Liszt, do not match the intent of the opera’s composer and only overwork the melodic material. Sunwoo gave it a graceful performance, minimizing the folderol to let us hear this glorious music.

Sunwoo ended with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, which is in the first of his so-called “war sonatas” (we heard the stormy seventh earlier). It is full of dissonance and Prokofiev disguises the key (he doesn’t even bother to put in a key signature). So, saying that the sonata modulates frequently is not exactly true if it isn’t firmly in a key from which to modulate.

This work still requires the brutal approach that many of his war sonatas require and Sunwoo proved his ability to rumble with the composer right from the beginning. Super-accented chords, or sometimes a single note, gets a fiery attack that borders on an uppercut. He used a liberal amount of the sustaining pedal, sometimes for phrasing, others to blur or to sustain a complex harmony built from the proceeding notes. He took he second movement differently, relaxing a little and giving the march a realistic tempo for marching. But he really came into his own in the last movement. He took it at a very fast tempo and all the cross-hands work was a visual treat. The uproarious ending elicited the same kind of ovation from the audience.






See links to all of our reviews that have posted here.

See the schedule of semifinal performances here.



  • Thursday, June 1: 7:30 p.m. (recital)
  • Friday, June 2: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (recital)
  • Saturday, June 3: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (concerto)
  • Sunday, June 4: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (concerto)
  • Monday, June 5: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (concerto)



  • Wednesday, June 7: 7:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 8: 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, June 9: 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, June 10: 3 p.m.


  • Saturday, June 10: 7 p.m.
 Thanks For Reading

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Cliburn Semifinal Round 4
Reviews of the fourth semifinal recital session at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Tony Yike Yang and Yekwon Sunwoo.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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