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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse M.72 [11:57]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961) / Richard STRAUSS (1964-1949)
Ramble on the Lost Love-Duet from Der Rosenkavalier [6:48]
Marc-André HAMELIN (b. 1961)
Toccata on "L'homme armé" [4:46]
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Sonata No. 58 in C Major Hob XVI: 48 [11:54]
Franz LISZT (1811-1888) / Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Litanei s.562 No. 1 (Am Tage Aller Seelen D. 343) [4:10]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor Op. 36 [19:53]
Yekwon Sunwoo (piano)
rec. live, 28, 30 May and 3 June 2017, Bass Performance Hall, Texas
DECCA GOLD 4815527 [59:30]

Yekwon Sunwoo is a 28-year-old South Korean pianist and winner of the fifteenth Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. The recordings on this disc, taken from the competition, go to show that he is a worthy winner and a rising star in the piano firmament. He is a thoughtful and serious musician, and clearly has a prodigious technique.

Sunwoo opened with Ravel's glittering and highly virtuosic transcription of his choreographic tone poem, La Valse. This piece gave Sunwoo the opportunity to demonstrate his full technical arsenal. He played with crystalline clarity throughout, layering the textures beautifully and bringing out Ravel's multiple inner voices. Sunwoo demonstrated enormous refinement in this performance. He artfully shaped Ravel's swirling arabesques while characterising the various transformations of the waltz theme beautifully. The piece becomes increasingly frenetic and hysterical in the final section. Sunwoo rose to the challenge: he brilliantly gave us thrilling, high voltage playing before bringing the house down with a virtuoso tour de force. The best performance I have heard of this piece in recent years is by Yuja Wang. Sunwoo matches her both in terms of technical polish and virtuoso firepower.

I was pleased that Sunwoo included Percy Grainger's Ramble on the Lost Love-Duet from Der Rosenkavalier. It is a mystery to me why pianists do not perform this piece more often. Sunwoo’s performance was both sumptuous and fragile, perfectly depicting the famous scene where Octavian presents his silver rose. Grainger’s own performance of the Ramble is quite extraordinary. I do not think anyone will ever match it but Sunwoo’s performance certainly came close and was absolutely spellbinding. Sunwoo also gave a highly convincing performance of Hamelin's Toccata on "L'homme armé". Hamelin was on the jury of the Van Cliburn competition, so one can only assume that he had a high regard for Sunwoo’s performance of his own work.

With his performance of Haydn’s C Major Sonata Hob. XVI: 48, Sunwoo showed that he is more than capable of flexing his musical as well as his technical muscles. The first movement was light and crisp, with Haydn’s lines delineated cleanly. Sunwoo’s articulation was superb, and there was close attention to the composer’s detailed markings throughout. The Presto second movement had wit and charm, and Haydn’s scampering passagework was a delight. Brendel perhaps brings a greater sense of drama and more heightened tonal contrasts to this work but Sunwoo’s performance was highly accomplished.

The final work on the disc is Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata, which the composer wrote in 1913 and revised in 1931. Horowitz created his own version of the sonata, which combines elements of the original and revised versions. A number of pianists have followed his lead. Sunwoo opted to play the shorter 1931 version. The first movement opened in dramatic, imposing fashion. Sunwoo did an excellent job of capturing the brooding agitato feeling. I was struck by the variety of tone colours and the way in which Sunwoo navigated his way so seamlessly through this long and complex movement. The slow movement was poetic and refined, and Sunwoo’s handling of the final cadenza was awe inspiring. Occasionally, I would have liked to hear more of the raw emotional punch which one associates with this music, but there is no doubting Sunwoo’s burnished beauty of tone. The finale had rhythmic propulsion and dynamism, and the final coda was a blistering tour de force. I particularly like Lugansky’s performance of this work; for my money he brings a wider range of sonorities and captures perfectly the quintessential Russian soul of this music. Having said that, Sunwoo’s was once again a great performance. He is clearly a Rachmaninov interpreter to be reckoned with.

Overall, this is an outstanding disc. Sunwoo is clearly destined for great things in the classical music world.

Robert Beattie



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