Tony Yun, piano
Steinway Hall, New York, NY
November 14, 2017
Though only sixteen years old, Tony Yun has enjoyed a robust performing career for some years now—he is currently a student in the prestigious Juilliard pre-college division and has won numerous competitions. On this occasion, he was presented at Steinway Hall by the Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Competition, of which he is the most recent prize winner (October 2017).
At times it seemed as though there were two pianists present (and not because of the enormous amount of notes played): one, an impetuous, boyish virtuoso with technique to burn, the other, an introspective poetic dreamer. I preferred the latter pianist, though impetuosity also has its place. I fervently wish that he will meld these aspects together as he matures. This is a big, big talent, and anything I have to say below is only meant in the spirit of getting Mr. Yun to scrutinize all his pianistic and musical decisions carefully.
The recital opened with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903. Rosalyn Tureck always said the Fantasy was as close as possible to hearing what Bach extemporizing might have sounded like. The great thing about it is that no two people ever realize it the same way. Mr. Yun displayed creativity in his rendering of the many arpeggios that are not written out, only signified by half- or whole-note chords. I did not feel that he revealed the full sorrow of the immense chromatically descending section at the end. His Fugue, more rapid than most, achieved a playful quality. That is a valid choice, though again I feel that the ascending half-steps of the subject, which mirror the descent previously mentioned, should be experienced with a greater sense of mystery and struggle. I think Ms. Tureck, a formidable woman, but an open-minded musician, would have been happy with it.
Next came the one Beethoven sonata that is forbidden on most conservatory audition programs: No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Quasi una fantasia,” known universally as the “Moonlight.” The first movement had become so hackneyed through amateur renderings, even transposed in some “easy” piano methods to C minor (!). Nevertheless, it is a haunting and progressive member of Beethoven’s canon. Mr. Yun really observed the indication of “delicacy with the damper pedal depressed throughout,” managing to create some daring blends on the modern Steinway, whose tonal weight is way too large, necessitating some compromises. I felt the tempo, though musicologically defensible, was too fast. Liszt called the second movement “a flower between two abysses,” and here the articulation of the phrasing was charming. The third movement, a gigantic sonata-allegro form, was Mr. Yun’s best of the three, remaining light while really showing off his rapidity, and he took advantage of every lyrical moment.
The first half concluded with Liszt’s Réminiscences de Norma/Grande Fantaisie, S. 394, a huge potpourri of themes from Bellini’s opera Norma. The story of a Druid priestess who loves a Roman soldier who deserts her for her best friend, and who then eventually offers herself as a sacrificial victim, is heavy going for a teenage boy. However, Bellini was twenty when it was produced, and probably a teen himself when composing it. Here, the “two pianists” theory of Mr. Yun was fully in evidence. The stentorian louder sections were all projected with superior virtuosity, but sometimes too harsh a sound, and a forgetting of the vocal nature of the music (still: always exciting). But when it came to the long, melting B minor/major theme in the middle, his poetic side created absolutely mesmerizing sounds, full of longing, and the rubati were perfection. The grande réunion des thèmes, a staple of all such transcriptions (not just Liszt’s) and the “three-hand” work were presented with complete mastery. Of course, to be able to play this at all is a triumph.
After intermission, Mr. Yun returned with another gigantic transcription: Busoni’s fleshing out of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor originally for solo violin. Busoni, I always felt, created a piece that is one composer’s emotional response to the spiritual message of the older composer’s piece, nothing to do with “faithful adherence” to the texture of the original, which would have been restricting (see Brahms’s left-hand alone version). Mr. Yun alternately thundered and whispered wherever required, with superb voicing and control over this very busy score.
He followed this with an incredibly mature, poised performance of Première communion de la Vierge (No.11: First Communion of the Virgin), from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus. This is one of Messiaen’s twenty “looks” at the baby Jesus, in which Mary adores the baby still inside her, shortly after the Annunciation. Redolent with Messiaen’s system of mystical leitmotifs, established earlier in the cycle, the dynamic palette is mostly hushed, befitting the adoration. Mr. Yun’s colors and his patience with the slow tempo were exquisite. In fact, they made me think that if I was his current teacher I’d put him on a diet of only p, pp, or ppp pieces for a year, to develop this side of himself that is so hypnotic. Remember, you can always impress a lot of people with rapid, loud, accurate playing—but you will really move people emotionally with your lyric warmth.
Now with what could he possibly top that? Stravinsky’s Firebird of course (L’Oiseau de feu– ballet presented in Paris in 1910 by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes), in the fierce transcription by the neglected Italian virtuoso pianist/composer Guido Agosti. This again showed Mr. Yun’s affinity with bold, fearless virtuosity, which is the only way to negotiate such a monstrously difficult score. He also really tried to evoke the spastic orchestral outbursts, particularly the wind sonorities. His blurred hush in the Berceuse was trance-like, another example of the “two Yuns.”
Mr. Yun favored the audience with Schubert’s Moment Musical No. 3 in F Minor, which was presented with innocence.