The Center for Musical Excellence Presents Simon Hwang in Review
The Center for Musical Excellence Presents Simon Hwang
Simon Hwang, Piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 6, 2017
A very auspicious recital debut was performed last Thursday by Simon Sunghoon Hwang at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. It is difficult to believe that this was actually his New York debut, as this pianist has already accumulated such a long list of credentials. There was no question of his being more than ready for the occasion.
Mr. Hwang’s biography lists forty prizes in piano competitions, in addition to special interpretive awards. As Min Kwon (Director of the Center for Musical Excellence) quipped during her introductory remarks, “I didn’t know there even were that many competitions.” As an extremely active professor and pianist herself, of course Ms. Kwon was joking, but what is clear is the formidable work that Mr. Hwang has done. To compete in such pianistic trials, one needs considerable polish, a grasp of repertoire from various style periods, and perhaps most of all, nerves of steel – Mr. Hwang appears to possess all of these, plus a burning commitment to his profession. One might not have agreed with each interpretive decision in his highly varied program, but that’s the nature of the art, and there was little question of the engagement and intent behind each work.
His first half opened with Alborada en Aurinx by Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002), moving on to Haydn’s great Sonata in E-flat Hob. XVI:52, and concluding with the monumental Chaconne in D minor, arranged by Ferrucio Busoni from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 BWV 1004. A second half of Scriabin Deux Poèmes Op. 32, Liszt Ballade No. 2 in B minor, and Ravel’s La Valse made up a program of considerable technical, stylistic and coloristic demands.
The opening Montsalvatge was a joy to hear. First of all, it is seldom played, so it was a fresh experience – I’ve actually never heard it in recital until this week, only on recording. Secondly, having heard it only in recordings in which the challenging, dissonant nature of it rendered it rather inaccessible, I was pleasantly surprised to hear it start with such sensitivity of phrasing and gentle colors, sensuous evocations of dawn. It built to quite a fever pitch in what was an altogether winning opening.
Haydn, next, was a good change of style, though I had trouble agreeing with Mr. Hwang’s conception. I always think of this Sonata as one of the more Beethovenian of the Haydn Sonatas, with its declamatory, almost gruff opening setting off an ensuing drama of contrasts. It is the last of Haydn’s Sonatas, perhaps the most substantial, yet in Mr. Hwang’s reading it seemed light almost to the point of being facile, a quality underscored by some superfluous hand gestures. Again, such differences of opinion often arise, and one has to be glad for them. Also, if all seemed to veer towards the Mozartean side of the classical spectrum, one wonders whether perhaps this interpretation was colored by Mr. Hwang’s decade-plus of work in a piano duet ensemble called Duo Arte Mozart (with pianist Alexey Lebedev). At any rate, his suave approach was most effective in the last movement, where some witty turns of phrase and harmony were highlighted.
The Bach-Busoni Chaconne was a rousing closer before intermission, and Mr. Hwang played it with tremendous intensity. Some pianists tend to favor more unity of tempo in this work than he does, but again there are umpteen different plausible interpretations possible here. Minor differences of opinion aside, it was a dramatic and virtuosic performance. He brought out interesting inner voices and lines and created interesting washes of sound with the pedal, all which marked his as an individual interpretation. Also – and it probably goes without saying, based on his competition track record – he missed nary a note!
The second half of the program exploited Mr. Hwang’s gifts for color in the Scriabin Op. 32, and the first Poème was especially sensitively played. The craggy second Poème was bursting with passion, and Mr. Hwang was persuasive and committed in each musical impulse.
Liszt’s Ballade in B minor, up next, was well-played with stormy bravura. It served as an effective transition to Ravel’s La Valse, the finale of the program, which again built to quite a furor. La Valse is an immensely difficult piece to play, as one strives for effects best conveyed (obviously) by a full orchestra to send the waltz airborne – but by the end Mr. Hwang triumphed. His pacing proved ultimately masterful. Whatever one might have missed in orchestral color initially was somehow made up for in the building swirl of momentum and thunderous climaxes.
An enthusiastic ovation resulted in an encore – Earl Wild’s Etude on “Embraceable You.” This piece is now nearly ubiquitous in recitals, but justifiably so, as it does make a sweetly sentimental encore. It was lovingly played here, actually one of the highlights of the evening.
Congratulations are in order for what was, all in all, a very successful debut. There is little question as to Mr. Hwang being safely ensconced in his pianistic role.