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When the virtuoso is also a musician

New York
Weill Recital Hall
11/15/2021 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No.6 in F Major op.10 No.2
Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata No.8 in B flat, op.84
Johannes Brahms: Sonata No.3 in F minor, op.5

Sae Yoon Chon (piano)

S. Y. Chon (© Roman Markowicz)

The young South Korean pianist, Sea Yoon Chon, came to Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall as a 1st Prize winner of the prestigious Dublin International Piano Competition. Before becoming a piano student of the eminent Robert McDonald at The Juilliard School, he was trained in Toronto, where he was a recipient of numerous prizes. Other than winning 2018 Dublin Competition, most recently he was awarded the Tabor Foundation Award at the renowned Verbier festival.

For his Carnegie Hall recital debut, he chose three sonatas of which the last two belong to the most complex works of the piano repertory: the Prokofiev Sonata No.8 and Brahms’ youthful work Sonata No.3. He opened his program with an early Beethoven Sonata, the op.10 No.2, and upon request of the Carnegie Hall Management played his daunting program without an intermission. I understand it has become the performing venue’s demand as one of the somewhat draconian Covid rules. In such situations, the artists are expected to perform their programs without a break and the audience is expected to sit through more than 90 minutes of uninterrupted music. I will address that controversial issue at the end of my review.

In his early sonatas, Beethoven had already demonstrated prodigious inventiveness and a full command of the sonata form. In addition, he demanded of the performer highly developed virtuosity: for example, the last movement, marked Presto, is quite a romp and a relentless run of sixteen notes that weave between both hands that sometimes causes pianists to twist their fingers. Fortunately, our young virtuoso sailed through the treacherous swirls of notes with utmost ease and full command. His performance of this good-humored sonata had poise and charm; it was not only technically unblemished but also very musical.

The Beethoven sonata was followed by the last in the trilogy of so-called “war sonatas” of Serge Prokofiev. The work on the Sonata No.8 commenced in 1939. Prokofiev completed this sonata in 1944 when the War was still raging, and it was premiered in December of that year by the eminent Russian virtuoso Emil Gilels. This is the largest of the three and the most profound in the power of expression and variety of moods. For the pianist, the difficulty lies not only in the purely technical demands in the fiery, maniacal, tarantella-like finale, but in the ability to hold together the very long structure. The opening movement is marked, a little misleadingly in my opinion, Allegro, yet the prevailing mood is that of hopelessness, melancholy and desolation. It possesses a rhapsodic narration with moments of disquiet and mystery, as when the line of the opening theme appears under the scurrying runs.

For quite a long time, I was not aware that much of the material utilized in the war sonatas was created simultaneously, and only later was assigned to different movements in each of the sonatas. Thus, if one is surprised by the tranquility and tenderness of the 2nd movement Andante sognando, it is a revelation that the Andante was to be Lisa’s song, in the never realized movie based on Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades. It’s a slow, tender and ruminative waltz which allows us to believe the hyperbole that Prokofiev’s lyrical music is “Schumann in a dissonant skin”. The sense of inquietude returns in the nervous, edgy tarantella which is twice interrupted: first by a military-type, menacing waltz, then, as the waltz fades, the theme of yearning from the 1st movement returns. That is the only moment of respite that the performer gets before the brutality of tarantella returns, accumulating ever increasing tension, volume and nervousness.

In Mr. Chon, Prokofiev’s sonata found an unusually fine performer: it always surprises me how such a slim bodied person is able to produce such a substantial piano sound and retain his stamina, but obviously that’s what good piano playing is about. But full sound, and the ability to conquer the myriads of problems the composer presents his performer with is not all. Chon captured the multi-faceted character of the work, and demonstrated full command of the form. Furthermore there was logic and clarity in his interpretation as well as the ability to capture the mercurial shifts of mood. There are other pianists who might have brought more biting, piercing sound quality, or created sharper edges in the more terse moments, but there was nothing that one could object to in Mr. Chon’s superbly realized version. And where any seasoned virtuoso might want to collapse after getting through the fierce coda of this sonata, Mr. Chon had one other major work to play for us with barely a few seconds of intermission.

That was the stormy Sonata in F minor by Johannes Brahms. It is the largest of the three early Brahms sonatas and remains the most challenging for performers. It already shows his magnificent command of the sonata form, thematic development and inventiveness, which prompted Robert Schumann’s enthusiastic reception and response. The second pianist to learn the demanding score, after the composer himself, was Schumann’s wife Clara. She played it for the young composer who commented that she played it “just as I conceived it, but more nobly, with more serene enthusiasm, and on top of that, cleanly and with purity...all kinds of small advantages she has over me”.

Mr. Chon employed a measured though not at all sluggish approach to the stormy 1st movement, which in addition to the Allegro notation, indicates “maestoso”. In that movement, he straddled both youthful abandon and maturity, because they both apply itself in this stormy music. In the second movement, Andante espressivo, Brahms created a little tone poem together with the quotes from Otto Sternau’s poem at its head, but it should be noted that all three Brahms sonatas, written when he was barely twenty years old, contain literary references in their content. Chon’s was a deeply felt, poetic reading and he brought out in the music the yearning qualities and the sense of love described by the poet. One could perhaps wish for more momentum and forward motion, but this is a matter of personal preference.

What we might have missed in the Andante was compensated with the furious Scherzo: though it initially lost its generally dancing character due to the pianist’s “overtly enthusiastic” approach, it got on the right track with the repeat. Mr. Chon didn’t pay heed to the tempo indication in the Finale marked Allegro moderato ma rubato and took this movement at quite a hasty clip. To his credit, he never allowed the music to sound rushed, and one could marvel at his control of the fiendishly uncomfortable passage work which yet never sounded muddy, strained or effortful. This fine technical control was sustained to the end: here in the virtuosic coda, Brahms, as he would do often in later compositions, doubles the tempo to Presto and skillfully, if mercilessly for the performer, combines all the themes of the movement. If, in the Finale one would perhaps have longed for a slightly more substantial, meaty sound that one remembers from the performances of Mr. Chon older colleagues (masters such as Zimerman, Ohlsson or Freire come to mind), I am convinced that with years to come, Mr. Chon will improve also that quality of his playing.

Yet, if anyone had even for a moment doubts about his ability to create a beautiful, colorful, singing line, one had only to hear his singular encore: it was Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand Alone and, as the saying goes, it alone was worth the price of admission. In that work, the composer demands that one hand creates the multi-dynamic effects of two hands, playing both melody and accompaniment. Mr. Chon, seemingly without effort, created that effect where the beautiful, swirling arabesques weaved around the singing melody of the upper voice. It was a masterful interpretation, and the crowning achievement of a very successful New York debut. Mr. Chon gathered a very enthusiastic audience which often showed its love for the artist by applauding between the movements. This was annoying for some of us, but fortunately didn’t seem to affect pianist’s concentration.

Coming back to the question posed at the beginning of my review: must we indeed be subjected to the “necessity” of sitting through a full length recital – or any other performance – without a customary break? It seems to me that the decision of Carnegie Hall, and other music institutions (though not the recently visited Alice Tully Hall, a part of Lincoln Center!), is arbitrary and hardly enhances audience safety. Is Mr. Chon’s wearing a face-mask while sitting at the piano on an empty stage anything other than an example of virtue signaling, or indeed is his worry not to infect anyone in the audience, or God forbid, get infected? Is the throng coming out of the sold-out Weill Hall going to be safer crowding next to each other at the narrow exit door than it would have been during the intermission? Are we as the audience happier and listen more attentively with our bladders bursting after sitting nearly two hours without a chance to visit a restroom? And finally: may we have a fervent hope that the present state of Covid rules-and-regulations is not going to become our “new normal”?

Roman Markowicz



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