Ms. Son’s performance of Debussy’s Preludes nos. 3–8, while mostly note-perfect, was marked by a tentativeness that kept any of them from really blossoming.
By Jonathan Blumhofer.
“My father would not let me take up the piano,” Hector Berlioz wrote in his Memoirs. “I should no doubt have turned into a formidable pianist in the company of forty thousand others.” Pianist Yeol Eum Son, who performed on Wednesday night at Mechanics Hall as part of the 152nd Music Worcester Festival, is in the top tier of that 40,000, having taken prizes at the Tchaikovsky and Van Cliburn Piano Competitions and performed with numerous orchestras, including the New York and Israel Philharmonics. Her recital in Worcester, which consisted of pieces by Baldassare Galuppi, Debussy, Prokofiev, and Liszt’s arrangement of the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, demonstrated great technical accomplishment, while also suggesting that there are some areas in which she might yet develop, interpretively.
Ms. Son began with Galuppi’s Keyboard Sonata no. 5. Galuppi is now a footnote in music history, though he was a prolific eighteenth-century, Italian composer whose career began as Bach’s reached its peak in the 1720s and ended the year of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (1786). The present Sonata, one of several hundred that he wrote for the instrument, falls into three movements, the first slow, the second two fast. Ms. Son proved herself perfectly at home in Galuppi’s clear-textured idiom, nicely drawing out the lyrical qualities of the score while also catching its spirited moments. If the piece became rather tiresome as it progressed, that was less Ms. Son’s fault than Galuppi’s: a big part of his compositional technique in the Sonata involves repeating nearly every two- or three-bar phrase at least once, which becomes redundant after a while. Even so, Ms. Son’s performance perfectly captured the score’s inherent charm and naïveté.
Her next selection, though, of six preludes from Book One of Debussy’s collection, was problematic. Perhaps better than any other keyboard composer, Debussy succeeded in making the piano sound like an orchestra—one finds instrumental colors in these Preludes, for instance, that one expects from a sumptuous Straussian orchestra rather than a single instrument—and in the best performances of this repertoire, these sonorities come vividly to life. Additionally, in the Preludes Debussy aided (or hindered, depending on your point of view) both performer and audience by supplying singular, evocative titles for each movement. Thus, each prelude can be understood as a miniature depiction of a specific scene.
Ms. Son’s performance of Preludes nos. 3–8, while mostly note-perfect, was marked by a tentativeness that kept any of them from really blossoming. This was most true in the slower movements, though the faster ones might have been more strongly etched, too. For instance, her take on the opening prelude, titled “The Wind in the Plain,” was more evocative of a breeze through a thick forest, a rather lethargic exploration of the dynamic range between mezzo piano and mezzo forte. Similarly, Prelude no. 6 (“Footsteps in the Snow”), while perhaps emphasizing the undulating quality of a snowy landscape, came across as a vague, shapeless musical entity that would have benefited from weightier bass and a stronger delineation of structure.
Throughout her reading, it seemed as though whenever Ms. Son was about to take an interpretive leap, she suddenly drew herself back, either worried about the musical consequences or unsure of her take on these pieces. It was all rather frustrating. Happily, she closed with a thoroughly satisfying rendition of the best-known movement, “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair,” sensitively drawing out Debussy’s flowing melodic writing; one hopes her readings of the other five movements will eventually be realized with similar conviction.
Liszt’s arrangement of the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream then brought the first half of the concert to a rather raucous close. Despite the attention showered on his music during his bicentennial last year, Liszt remains one of the most underrated of major composers. There are plenty of valid reasons for this—the shamelessly flashy virtuosity that drips off every page of this arrangement being one of them—but if ever a composer deserved a serious reassessment, Liszt is the one, a case this same arrangement makes strongly.
What happens in the piece follows: each of the main themes of the Wedding March are given very involved, pianistic treatment, replete with cadenzas and glittering trill-figures. About two-thirds of the way through, Liszt interpolates the opening of the “Fairy’s Dance” (also from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) into the musical texture, and he closes everything out with an energized take on Mendelssohn’s rather stodgy original ending. Though many of the technical tricks Liszt wrote into the piece are stock devices from his pianistic canon—effects to be found in other arrangements, his concerti, and so forth—his treatment of the individual themes and, especially, his incorporation of the “Fairy’s Dance” into the Wedding March are ingenious, the work of a serious composer and a thoughtful musician.
Though these Liszt arrangements aren’t exactly fashionable nowadays, I was very pleased that Ms. Son included this one on her program. After her indistinct take on the Debussy, she launched into Liszt’s bravura writing and never looked back, navigating all its twists and turns without once flinching, and making a thoroughly convincing argument for the arranger.
As things turned out, the Liszt was something of a warm-up to the fireworks that followed intermission in Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no. 8. This is wartime Prokofiev, written in 1944, just before the famous Fifth Symphony, and, while Steven Ledbetter’s program notes might have emphasized the influence of Prokofiev’s wife, Mira, on the Sonata’s composition, the same dark undercurrents found in the later Symphony lurk just below the Sonata’s surface, too.
Ms. Son, again, approached the piece fearlessly, drawing out its lyrical qualities—which are many: Prokofiev was one of the greatest tunesmiths of the twentieth century—while not shying away from its craggier moments. Her performance of the violent development section in the huge first movement evoked shrapnel and flying steel, while the gentler second movement was marked by graceful melodies and pungent harmonic turns. The finale felt a bit more episodic than inevitable, though its overarching character was ever-present: not many composers can make B-flat major sound as disturbing as Prokofiev does in this piece (and in the Fifth Symphony, for that matter), and this performance was unsettling in all the right ways.
Afterwards, Ms. Son treated her audience to not one but three encores: Moszkowski’s Étincelles; an arrangement of the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony; and a cheeky, ragtime arrangement of the finale of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A minor. One might question the wisdom of programming such trifles after the drama of the Prokofiev, but Ms. Son and her audience clearly enjoyed themselves, and she let her hair down a bit with some of her most relaxed playing of the evening.