Thursday, May 6, 2010

Music review: Pianist Ahn impressive in solo, duo recital

Pianist Hyojin Ahn.

By Greg Stepanich

Although it was billed as a solo recital,‭ ‬pianist Hyojin Ahn‭’‬s concert Wednesday afternoon at the Duncan Theatre‭’‬s Stage West also featured a violinist in a major modernist work from the‭ ‬1920s,‭ ‬and that piece as much as anything else‭ ‬Ahn did helped make this musical event a memorable one.

Ahn,‭ ‬32,‭ ‬a South Korea-born musician who is a piano fellow at Miami Beach‭’‬s New World Symphony,‭ ‬appeared earlier this season in the Stage West series as accompanist to New World alumna Yuki Numata,‭ ‬a Canadian-born violinist.‭ ‬She distinguished herself then as an able,‭ ‬flexible accompanist,‭ ‬and she showed the same kind of range and skill by herself Wednesday.

Ahn opened the recital with Maurice Ravel‭’‬s‭ ‬Miroirs,‭ ‬long a milestone of the‭ ‬20th-century piano repertoire for‭ ‬its difficulty and expressive‭ ‬power.‭ ‬It takes a strong technician to play the five pieces of this suite,‭ ‬and Ahn is certainly that,‭ ‬rattling off the repeated notes in the‭ ‬Alborada del Gracioso with snap and enviable finger-switching accuracy,‭ ‬and demonstrating a formidable left hand in the pitch and roll of‭ ‬Une barque sur l‭’‬océan.

She also has a fine grasp of Ravel‭’‬s variety of mood as exhibited in this work.‭ ‬The moths of‭ ‬Noctuelles flittered attractively under Ahn‭’‬s light,‭ ‬precise approach,‭ ‬and she gave the landscape of‭ ‬Oiseaux tristes a tightly controlled sense of space and‭ ‬desolation by keeping the back-and-forth chord progressions down to a murmur and then marking the bird calls crisply.‭ ‬In the closing‭ ‬La vallée des cloches,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬Ahn worked‭ ‬hard,‭ ‬and successfully,‭ ‬to give the music its sound of distant blurring.

What was missing here,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬was a sense of suavity and a fuller palette of color.‭ ‬Ahn‭’‬s ability to play all those notes and rhythms brilliantly was apparent and very impressive,‭ ‬but a piece like the‭ ‬Alborada also needs a sharper feeling of wit and style‭; ‬that main theme is almost smirky,‭ ‬and it needs to come across that‭ ‬way,‭ ‬not just with clarity.‭ ‬And much of this music can sound quite similar from piece to piece if the all the shades of which the piano is capable are not brought into play,‭ ‬and here the two slower pieces‭ (‬Oiseaux tristes and‭ ‬La vallée des cloches‭) ‬could have used more distinction from one another.‭

I would hazard a guess that Ahn has only recently added‭ ‬Miroirs to her recital programming,‭ ‬and that now that she has mastered the notes,‭ ‬some more interpretive depth will follow as she continues to play it.

The second half of the program opened with the Moritz Moszkowski arrangement of the‭ ‬Liebestod scene from Wagner‭’‬s‭ ‬Tristan und Isolde.‭ ‬This differs from the more frequently encountered Liszt version in that Moszkowski begins‭ ‬20‭ ‬bars or so of‭ ‬music from the‭ ‬opera‭’‬s prelude,‭ ‬which Ahn said in remarks to the audience that she thought made a good transition to the‭ ‬Liebestod,‭ ‬and indeed it does.

This transcription‭’‬s closing pages,‭ ‬while hugely virtuosic,‭ ‬are also less relentlessly bombastic than Liszt‭’‬s,‭ ‬which made it easier to hear how surely Wagner‭’‬s music builds to its plateau.‭ ‬Here again,‭ ‬Ahn had full command of the technical mastery needed to bring this off‭ (‬a missed note at the top of one of the run-ups at the end notwithstanding‭)‬,‭ ‬and her steady progress from the first notes of the‭ ‬Mild une leise to the end had a satisfying narrative strength.‭ ‬But the Prelude section was‭ ‬rather dry,‭ ‬partly a consequence of this music‭’‬s need for its orchestral garb,‭ ‬but also for Ahn‭’‬s need to figure out a richer way to‭ ‬play it‭; ‬this,‭ ‬after all,‭ ‬is some of the most influential,‭ ‬important music in the whole Romantic repertoire,‭ ‬and fervid‭ ‬color is part of its DNA.

The concert ended with an appearance by violinist Ko Sugiyama,‭ ‬also a New World player,‭ ‬who‭ ‬joined Ahn for the three-part‭ ‬Mythes‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬30‭)‬,‭ ‬written in‭ ‬1921‭ ‬by the great Polish composer Karol Szymanowski.‭ ‬These are extraordinary pieces,‭ ‬and Sugiyama and Ahn gave them a wonderful reading.

Both instruments in this near-decadent late Romantic work have monstrously difficult parts to play,‭ ‬and Sugiyama and Ahn‭ ‬appeared to bring out the best in each other as they made their way through the piece.‭ ‬The piano part is often quite similar to the Ravel in its figurations,‭ ‬though more astringent harmonically,‭ ‬while the violin part is showy and aggressive,‭ ‬with double and triple stop glissandos,‭ ‬long stretches of harmonics,‭ ‬and straining,‭ ‬striving music at the very top of the instrument‭’‬s register.‭

Sugiyama proved to be a marvelous player,‭ ‬completely capable of tackling Szymanowski‭’‬s virtuosic layout and the possessor of a highly communicative,‭ ‬intense tone that worked beautifully for the composer‭’‬s‭ ‬most ecstatic pages.‭

All three movements received excellent performances,‭ ‬of which the best perhaps was the second,‭ ‬Narcisse,‭ ‬which is unified by a four-note barcarolle-style motif that appear throughout,‭ ‬and which Ahn and Sugiyama used to build the climactic sections of the movement to powerful examples of musical partnership in the service of exceptionally demonstrative writing.

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