A Winner of The Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition
Johann Sebastian Bach: Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903 – Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004: Chaconne (arr. Ferruccio Busoni)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, op. 27 No. 2
Franz Liszt: Réminiscences de “Norma”
Olivier Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus: XI. “Première communion de la Vierge”
Igor Stravinsky: Three Fragments from the “Firebird” Suite (arr. Guido Agosti)
Tony Yun (Pianist)
Tony Yun is a 16-year-old pianist of Chinese origin, born in Toronto and now studying in the Pre-College Division of the Juilliard School. Recently, as the winner of the Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition, he gave a recital at Steinway Hall in New York.
I am often prodded to attend a performance by yet another “young and talented competition winner” and sometimes my reluctance to do so is justified. That, however, was not the case in the recital by this young man whose playing already makes one’s proverbial “jaw drop”. Not having known the requirements of the competition I assumed them to be an entire J.S. Bach program, but young Tony presented a varied repertory where Bach was only one of the works. I indicate one, because it was the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, the only original work. He opened the second part of his recital with one of the most famous transcriptions of Bach, but this version was more about the virtuosity of Busoni’s arrangement than an original work for Violin Solo.
The “original Bach” received a thoughtful and stylish rendition that belied the pianist’s age. It was a very convincing performance with some individual touches in the realization of sketchy parts of the Fantasia, where pianists usually show their sense of style. In comparison with a very recent all-Bach recital by famed Angela Hewitt, this youthful performance seemed much more individual and convincing.
What grabbed my attention was superbly clear articulation even though this pianist doesn’t subscribe yet to performing Bach without the use of sustaining pedal. There were also certain “mannerisms” more characteristic of harpsichord performances, when the player has to compensate for the lack of dynamics with a subtle rhythmic hesitance. I found it quite appropriate even on a concert grand piano. Also appealing was Yun’s experimenting with registers, as if he was attempting to imitate the sound of a harpsichord. The theme of the fugue was played with a slightly peculiar staccato articulation but it worked; it was superbly clean playing, a tad relentless but still very commendable.
Even more surprising was the perennial “Moonlight” Sonata or more properly Sonata Quasi una fantasia in C-sharp minor. Here Mr. Yun seemed under the influence of András Schiff; thus far Schiff is the only other pianist I have heard whose somewhat controversial treatment of the first movement has not found many followers, though it makes a lot of sense. Schiff stipulated – and he is not alone in his belief – that the triplets in the first movement must be played “alla breve”, in other words two beats to a measure, with its dotted rhythm closer in character to a funeral march than to any semblance of a “moon shining over Lake Lucerne”, as Beethoven’s contemporary Ludwig Rellstab described it. What is even more surprising is that our young virtuoso adhered to the often ignored pedal suggestion, holding it just as the composer indicated. On a modern Steinway this creates a haziness to which our ears are not accustomed. As revelatory was the last Presto agitato, played not only with tremendous energy but also with attention paid to dynamics, which permitted the fortissimo chords to sound like real explosions. It was a masterful, exciting interpretation with perfect control, where the truly fast tempo for once didn’t create a sense of senseless rushing.
And then came the following work, Liszt Réminiscences de “Norma” (1841), that fiendishly difficult paraphrase-transcription based on a several themes from the then-popular opera by Bellini dating from 1831. Liszt wrote it at about the same time as his other famous operatic “reminiscences”, which were based on the themes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Liszt used themes from Norma not to fashion a transcription or even a fairly close paraphrase, but to create a fantasy piece of great dimensions, suited to the piano, with no serious attempt at emulating orchestral or vocal sonorities. However, Liszt incorporates the seven different themes from the opera, stitching them together here in a slightly different order. This paraphrase is considered by many pianists and connoisseurs as undoubtedly one the most difficult of all Liszt’s piano works and only the greatest virtuosos attempt to tackle a piece in which the composer mercilessly throws at the performer everything in his pianistic pyrotechnics vocabulary except the proverbial kitchen sink. I must say the other now legendary live performance I heard was Marc-André Hamelin’s, a truly jaw-dropping display of pianistic skills yet never slipping to the realms of vulgarity. In addition, this phenomenally gifted pianist seemed to play without much effort, strain, or fatigue, his resources completely intact.
The second half of the recital featured a pair of transcriptions by Italian pianists, with one movement of Messiaen sandwiched between. The Bach was transcribed by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924); Stravinsky’s Three Fragments from the “Firebird” Suite were transcribed by Guido Agosti. Busoni made out of the Bach Chaconne a gargantuan augmentation obviously with organ sonorities in mind. Where this Bach solo piece only implies harmony, Busoni provides it in spades. Where the original is chaste, Busoni applies counterpoint and makes it almost another composition, a very good one. Yun adhered to a rather quick pulse beneficial to the structure of the 13 minutes-long composition. I guess it goes without saying that all the technical aspects of the Chaconne were handled with almost disdainful ease.
No less impressive was No. 11 “Première communion de la Vierge” from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. The range of dynamics, ravishing subtlety sound, variety of touch and expressiveness, were all prominent elements of this segment. The striking Agosti arrangement of the Firebird Suite by Stravinsky consists of three fragments: “Danse infernale”, “Berceuse” and “Finale”. It is virtuosic, colorful and an excellent vehicle to show effective sonorities that nearly match the sound of the orchestra – nearly, because it is almost impossible to translate the brilliant scoring to the sphere of the piano. It received an enthusiastic and sparkling performance that had one wishing to hear Yun in Stravinsky’s own version of the Petrushka Suite.
Tony Yun is now only sixteen years old and still in the pre-College Division of the Juilliard School, where he is progressing nicely under the evidently careful and wise guidance of Matti Raekallio. If he develops along the same trajectory and based on one recital only, I dare say that he is going to be one of the leading virtuosos and musicians of the next decade. I will certainly try to keep him on my musical radar. If I had any regrets it would be only that the acoustical properties of the new Steinway Hall on Avenue of Americas are a far cry from Steinway’s old residence on 57th Street. There we experienced a much warmer, more resonant and vibrant sound, absent, alas, in the new Steinway venue. Here even the very good concert instrument didn’t do this young man justice. I am sure some newly won competition will reward our young Tony with a place where he will be able to much better demonstrate not only his technical brilliance but also what he can do with the sound of the piano.