The pianist entered the stage to begin his recital. According to the program, he was to begin it in an arresting way—with Beethoven’s Variations in C Minor. That work has an exceptionally arresting opening. It is almost like an announcement. But the pianist faced the audience and said, “I’m sorry to speak before I play anything.”

I was sorry too! The talk immediately yanked the evening into the world of the mundane. The magic of a recital—especially the opening moments—was upset. Why do they do this? Why do musicians talk from the stage, habitually? Contagion, I think. They see others do it and think they have to.

At any rate, our pianist was Yekwon Sunwoo, winner of the Van Cliburn Competition last year. It seems to me that the Van Cliburn is a smaller deal than it once was in our national life, or national cultural life. Maybe that’s because culture—high culture—is a smaller deal. Sunwoo is from South Korea and came to America as a teenager to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Yekwon Sunwoo at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which he won in 2017. Photo: Carolyn Cruz.

In New York, he was playing at the International Keyboard Institute & Festival, now in its twentieth year. It is run by its founder, the pianist Jerome Rose, and the festival director, Julie Kedersha. ikif is an excellent showcase for both pianists and piano repertoire—including unusual and neglected repertoire. Sunwoo was playing on the stage of the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College.

What is it about Beethoven and C minor? He chose that key for some of his most bracing expressions. Think of the Fifth Symphony, just for starters. In the Variations, Sunwoo was a little stiff and ungainly. His playing would have benefited from more suspense. I thought of a line I read long ago, from the composer and pianist Ernst Bacon: “If there is one trait common to all great interpreters, it is their capacity for intensification.” Also, Sunwoo could have used more warmth in a C-major variation, chorale-like. In general, his Beethoven was respectable, but he can do better . . .

. . . as he did in the next work, by Schubert. This was that composer’s D. 935, Four Impromptus. In the first impromptu, the pianist must capture Schubert’s sweet sadness. Sunwoo largely did. He sang, too, as the music requires. (I mean, he sang on the keyboard, not with his mouth, as Glenn Gould liked to.) As I listened to the second impromptu, I thought, “Here is a young man playing old man’s music. Backhaus music.” Twilight music, transcendental. I’m glad that Sunwoo likes this music, already. He played it well, employing intelligent rubato, for example.

No. 3 is simple and profound at the same time. (Very Schubertian.) The pianist understood this. In No. 4, he was violently impish, which was fine—it made you sit up straighter in your chair. Yet the closing measures were too blunt and ugly for Schubert.

By the way, Yekwon Sunwoo is a head-shaker. He shakes his head as he plays, especially when he is “feeling” the music. It’s like he’s saying “No, no, no.” There are head-nodders among pianists, too. Evgeny Kissin is the best of them. The head-nodders usually play vertically—all too—whereas the -shakers lean toward the horizontal.

After intermission, Sunwoo sat down to something really unusual—unusual, old-fashioned, and wonderful: Percy Grainger’s Ramble on Love, which treats Der Rosenkavalier, the Strauss opera of 1911. This opera made a big impression on composers and millions of others. Grainger’s “ramble” is what Liszt might have called a “fantasy” or a “paraphrase.” But “ramble” is a wonderful old word, isn’t it? Specifically, Grainger treats the final duet of the opera, “Ist ein Traum.” He does it woozily, sensually, and Straussily. Sunwoo was pretty good in it.

He was really good in the next work, another rarity, though of a much different character: Brahms’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Op. 2. This is a very early work. It happens to be earlier than Brahms’s Op. 1, which is his Piano Sonata No. 1 in C major. How’s that? The Sonata No. 2 was written first but published second. I consider it sort of a starter symphony. It is sprawling and ambitious. The second movement, Andante con espressione, is a weird one. Almost modernistic. It is a striking piece of music, deserving of wide notice. The Sonata No. 2 is hard to manage, technically and interpretively, and Sunwoo was assured and manful in it.

Good for him for championing this under-programmed work. It occurs to me that two staples of my youth are no longer on pianists’ menus, much: the Handel Variations and the Paganini Variations. Repertoire fashion is an interesting topic.

Sunwoo closed with La valse, the Ravel hit. He was very bold in it—fine—but short on panache. In any event, he had played an appealingly varied program, and it will be enjoyable to follow his career, as he goes from the Cliburn gold medal to who knows what heights?

Incidentally, I have long complained of performers’ bios: they contain precious little biographical information. They are usually long and boring lists of cities, orchestras, and conductors. But how about the way Yekwon Sunwoo’s bio ends? I have no complaint about it: “A self-proclaimed foodie, Mr. Sunwoo enjoys finding pho in each city he visits and takes pride in his own homemade Korean soups.”

As every summer, the Mostly Mozart Festival unfolded at Lincoln Center. A concert of the festival orchestra had a bonus—not after the fact but before the fact: a pre-concert recital. This was a guitar recital, by Jiji. That is her stage name, in the tradition of Midori, the violinist, and Cher (who sings). Her full name is Jiyeon Kim. Like Yekwon Sunwoo, Jiji is a South Korean who has studied at, among other places, the Curtis Institute.

Her pre-concert recital took place in David Geffen Hall—previously Avery Fisher Hall—on the same stage that the festival orchestra would assume. Really, a guitar recital in that big hall, much criticized for its acoustics? The guitar is just about the softest instrument, and it was unaccompanied, in this case (as almost always). Jiji made it work, beautifully.

The guitarist Jiji. Photo: Franci Virgili.

She began with “Asturias,” from Albéniz’s Suite española, which is originally for the piano but which has been appropriated by guitarists for years. Jiji drew you in, playing softly. She also played idiomatically. She did not say, “Guess what? I’m playing in the Spanish style. See how Spanish I am?” No, she was subtly idiomatic, without self-consciousness. She was accurate, too, which is important in this piece (even more than in others). And she was so smooth, so beautiful. You could have heard a pin drop as she played. Rarely do you hear—or not hear—an audience so rapt.

In writing about Xuefei Yang, the Chinese guitarist, and others, I have often noted that every guitarist is a Spaniard, no matter where he’s from. I had that thought and another one, when listening to Jiji: the universality of music is hard to deny (and so, come to think of it, is the universality of man).

After her Albéniz, Jiji played some Marais—Marin Marais, the Frenchman who lived from 1656 to 1728. He got a boost in 1991, when his music was featured in the movie Tous les matins du monde, and he himself was portrayed by no less than Gérard Depardieu. Jiji played Les Voix humaines, and was just as she should have been: courtly, gracious, and neat. Then she favored her audience with some Bach, his Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, originally for lute (not so distant from the guitar). Finally, she offered a piece that every musician appropriates, Paganini’s Caprice No. 24.

This is the piece that Brahms went to town on, in those variations I mentioned above, which do not grace programs very often these days.

Was Jiji virtuosic in her Paganini? Oh, yes, very—but she was always mindful of music and its beauty. She is not just a guitarist but an artist, this Jiji. Her bio ends almost as interestingly as Sunwoo’s: “In her spare time, she enjoys cooking and creating weird sounds on Ableton.” I had to look up that last word, that name: “a software music sequencer and digital audio workstation for macOS and Windows.”

The concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra was a Baroque affair: Handel on the first half, Bach on the second. On the podium was Richard Egarr, an English early-music specialist. They seem to grow such musicians on trees. Egarr is the music director of the Academy of Ancient Music, having succeeded Christopher Hogwood in the role. I said that he was “on the podium”: in reality, his feet were on the stage, as he conducted. And he did a lot of conducting from the harpsichord.

He and the mmfo began with Handel’s Concerto Grosso in B flat, Op. 3, No. 2. The entrance was inexact, which is an unhappy way to begin. The orchestra’s sound was notably thin—that was unhappy, too. But the principal oboe, Max Blair, delivered in the Largo, singing beautifully on his instrument. At the harpsichord, Egarr did much conducting with his body, and his instrument could hardly be heard. I sort of wondered what the point was. Maybe all concerned would have been better off with a full-time conductor, so to speak, and someone else (more dispensable) at the keyboard?

A word about the music: In the third movement, Allegro, Handel goes fugal, magnificently. At the very end of the concerto, he is all happiness. Handel is one of the great conveyors of happiness in music. It is one of his gifts to the world.

Richard Egarr at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concerts in March 2017. Photo: Patrick Harrison.

After the concerto, Maestro Egarr turned to the audience and talked, of course. They all do. But the Brits talk so charmingly, it’s hard to knock them, as I’d like. The evening proceeded with Handel’s Sonata a cinque, in which the concertmaster was outstanding. He is Ruggero Allifranchini, and he played with taste and beauty. Egarr, at the harpsichord, imparted vigor and precision.

The all-Handel half ended with excerpts from Water Music. To my way of thinking, the slow parts were too punchy and the fast ones too lightweight, or pipsqueak. Is it really a sin for George Szell to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in this music? No, but that is an old debate, of which people long ago tired . . .

The Bach half of the evening began with more talking, then the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, with a chamber ensemble, rather than the orchestra proper. This little group made less sound than Jiji alone, I think. Most gratifying was Jasmine Choi, the flute. (She is another musician from South Korea, who, in fact, studied at the Curtis Institute.) Choi was warm, musical, and poised. Her sense of rhythm was exemplary. Egarr’s harpsichord playing, I could barely hear. The instrument emitted faint tinkles. Thinking sinfully, I was sort of wishing for a Steinway or—extra-sinful—a Bösendorfer.

To conclude the program was Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D. I have written in jocular style, but have no doubt about this: Richard Egarr is a very, very good musician and his love of music is both obvious and catching. This is what you want in a conductor or other musical leader.

The following week, another concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra featured a musician who both played and conducted—this was Christian Zacharias, the German pianist (and conductor). He is one of the great Mozart players of our time. And, as it happened, this concert was all-Mozart (not just mostly Mozart). It began with a piano concerto, one of Mozart’s biggest and best: No. 25 in C major, K. 503.

It began with a lousy entrance, a lousy way to begin. (Have I said that in this chronicle before?) But Zacharias played with his usual excellence, more or less: his limpidity, his verve, his stylishness. A turn or two was muddy, uncharacteristically, but this did little harm. Zacharias played his own cadenza, which was inventive, but not overly inventive. What I mean is, the musician made sure that his cadenza was of a piece with the concerto, rather than (too stark) a departure from it.

In this first movement, as throughout the concerto, the sound of the piano was swallowed. Muted. Why was that? The acoustics of David Geffen Hall, which are alleged to be poor? (I have never quite bought this.) No, I think it had to do with the position of the piano on the stage: it went into the orchestra, of course, with the keyboard front and center, so that Zacharias could conduct the orchestra, as he played.

The pianist and conductor Christian Zacharias with the San Francisco Symphony in October 2014. Photo: Courtesy Christian Zacharias.

He conducted whenever he could—whenever he had a hand free, or, failing that, with his head or shoulders or even his playing. Inevitably, play-conducting soloists alter their playing so as to influence what the orchestra does. They conduct through their playing. Inevitably, both playing and conducting suffer.

It got worse in Mozart’s middle movement, the Andante. Clearly, Zacharias changed his phrasing in order to lead the orchestra, or keep it together. He would not have phrased this way under different circumstances. And this movement was far less good than a Zacharias performance of Mozart should be. Why not get the concertmaster to conduct and simply let Zacharias play? Or call on the orchestra’s music director, Louis Langrée, to do the honors? I should record, too, that the horns of the orchestra had a terrible time in this movement, provoking mainly sympathy in me rather than scornful judgment. “Son nata a lagrimar,” goes a duet from Julius Caesar (Handel): “I am born to cry.” Horns seem born to struggle and flub.

In the third movement, Allegretto, Zacharias conducted with his left leg, stomping a bit. This, I had never seen. With his fingers, he did some lovely playing, as he can’t really help doing, being Zacharias—but neither the pianist nor the concerto was shown to best effect on this evening.

Now it was time for some singing—by Rosa Feola, the Italian soprano. She is favored by Riccardo Muti, the conductor, which is a commendation: I think I first heard her in a Muti-led Carmina Burana, several years ago, and I again heard her in a Muti-led Falstaff (in which Feola sang the part of Nannetta). With Christian Zacharias and the mmfo, she sang one of Mozart’s concert arias, “Ch’io mi scordi di te? . . . Non temer, amato bene.”

The Italian soprano Rosa Feola, who sang with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Her account of this aria was not perfectly clean. She did some unwanted scooping toward the beginning (i.e., she approached a note or two from below, undesirably). But these imperfections were relatively trivial. Feola has a beautiful voice, free and light on the top and velvety on the bottom. She sang her Mozart fearlessly. She did not handle him with sugar tongs but with confidence and appreciation. Zacharias did some more play-conducting—this piece requires a piano—and did so purely.

To begin the second half of the program, Feola sang another concert aria (this one without need of a pianist): “Bella mia fiamma . . . Resta, o cara.” She put the most beautiful double-m in “fiamma.” And she sang the whole aria beautifully. This account was cleaner than the first, which was clean enough, and I want to stress how beautiful this singing was (in addition to the other things singing must be). Mozart would have sighed with pleasure.

Maestro Zacharias closed the evening with a symphony, No. 38 in D major, K. 504, the “Prague.” He knew exactly what he was doing. The conducting was much better than the playing. (I often say this when Monsieur Langrée is in front of his orchestra, too.) The players could not quite deliver sound or technical deftness—but the basic ingredients were there, thanks to the abundant understanding and musicality of Zacharias. At the end, the audience clapped and clapped, much longer than audiences habitually do in this hall for the New York Philharmonic, during the regular season. Why is that? Are people less rushed—less in a hurry to leave—in the languid summer?

This concert had, not a pre-recital, à la Jiji, but an after-recital, up in Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse. It was given by Paul Lewis, the English pianist, and it was all-Haydn: three of that composer’s sonatas. At the beginning, Lewis talked, of course—but, as a Brit, he was utterly charming and hard to knock, even for me. About his playing, I will be brief, in my final lines here: It was mature, reasonable, and self-assured. It favored the bold and strong over the smooth and graceful. It was in the tradition of—let’s call some of the rollSchnabel, Kempff, Serkin, and Brendel. That is classy company to be in. Personally, I like my Haydn a little less crunchy (and my Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, too), but Lewis is a worthy representative of a school. And if it is your school, all the better.

The pianist Paul Lewis with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in June 2017. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 46
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