Sunday, May 6, 2018

Yeol Eum Son Debuts with Mixed Results

Last night in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco presented the San Francisco debut of Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son. She prepared a program of prodigious breadth, suggesting that she is as interested in discovering new repertoire as in exploring the many different facets of the old. As is often the case, however, the extensive exploration of diversity yielded mixed results.

Things were at their best during the second half of the program, which was devoted primarily to a complete account of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 32 collection of thirteen preludes. (The indication in the program book that she was playing selections from Opus 32 was erroneous.) Whether or not Rachmaninoff intended the complete set to be performed as an integrated whole can be debated. The decision to alternate major and minor keys was probably deliberate; and the progression of tonalities seems to suggest a logic of progression, a welcome contrast to those sets of 24 preludes that traverse either the chromatic scale (as in Johann Sebastian Bach) or the circle of fifths (Frédéric Chopin).

More important was how attentive Rachmaninoff was to establishing a contrast between each prelude and its successor. This would certainly support the position that these thirteen preludes were intended to be played as a single set, amounting to a journey at the end of which the tonal center has shifted only a semitone from where it began. Son was clearly sensitive to the full spectrum of Rachmaninoff’s contrasts, always finding a way to endow each prelude with its own distinctive rhetorical stance. On the technical side her command of the many challenges that Rachmaninoff placed before the performer was always secure; and, in what is too often the fog of the composer’s thick embellishments, she always found a way to provide the clearest account of the marks he had committed to paper.

Son then decided to conclude her program with challenges from a later age, so to speak. She played the first and sixth of the ten studies collected in Friedrich Gulda’s Play Piano Play. As a pianist Gulda was as comfortable in a jazz club as he was in a recital hall. Through Son’s two selections one could appreciate his conviction that virtuosity knew no genre boundaries. On the one hand his studies pose challenges as imposing as those Rachmaninoff had served up in his Opus 32, but at the same time he embedded those challenges in the frenetic rhetoric of the masters of stride piano during the first half of the twentieth century. Mind you, many of those masters (Thomas “Fats” Waller comes to mind) had no trouble “looking over the fence” for source material, with no qualms about appropriating material from Rachmaninoff, not to mention earlier composers. Son was at her most joyous in playing her Gulda studies, which would probably explain why she played another one for her encore.

Sadly, none of the offerings during the first half of the program rose to the heights of her expressive powers during the second. The composer who fared least effectively was Maurice Ravel, represented by his “Valse nobles et sentimentales” journey though a diversity of emotional dispositions. Son never seemed to be aware of that diversity, perhaps because she came off as struggling with Ravel’s full-handed phrases. Indeed, she seemed to be so wrapped up in her finger-work that one barely noticed the three-quarter essence of waltz rhetoric, let alone Ravel’s coy alternation of three-beat and two-beat pulses.

That sense of waltz was much clearer in her account of the sixth piece in Franz Liszt’s collection Soirées de Vienne: 9 Valses caprices d’après Schubert. Each of these twelve pieces draws upon the large collection of German dances that Schubert composed for solo piano. Each Liszt piece integrates several of these into a continuous suite, which is then overloaded with embellishments that are way beyond the rhetoric of Franz Schubert’s wheelhouse. Son was as capable of taking on Liszt’s demands as she was in her approach to Rachmaninoff, but there was no sense of Viennese spirit. Given the title of the collection, there is no reason to assume that Liszt had intended to abandon that spirit, simply to provide it was a bit of what he would have called sprucing up for a later age.

Even more awkward was her approach to her opening selection, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 264 set of nine variations on “Lison dormait.” Even when the theme is being established, it is easy to appreciate the extent to which Mozart was being playfully coy in writing this piece. Most likely it was written not only for his personal fun but also to allow him to strut indulging in that fun before an audience.

Most important is how Mozart’s approach to variation invites the pianist to play with the underlying sense of pulse. The theme itself has moments that tease the listener over waiting to find out what happens next, and each of the variations has its own way of playing with that tease. Unfortunately, Son never seemed to be aware that such teasing was taking place. As a result, she delivered a disciplined account that fell flat in the lack of any ability to take a rhetorical stance.

The remaining work on the first half of the program was Arvo Pärt’s “Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka” (variations for the healing of Arinushka). This piece provides one of the clearer instances of the composers Tintinnabuli style. However, just as Son never found the right way to manage pulse to do justice to Mozart, she never quite homed in on timing to allow the reverberations behind Pärt’s style to work their magic. Thus, while the diversity of her approach to repertoire is impressive on the surface, it is clear that some of her interests are more equal than others.

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