Expecting to get romantic in the new year? It would be hard to find a better enhancement than Hollywood Romance from Yoonie Han. The pianist’s new album consists not of music written for films, but of classical pieces that have been used in memorable Hollywood pictures over the years.
It’s been a year of concept albums from classical pianists – so many that this review is appearing only now, in 2021. Maybe the pandemic and the lockdowns were a factor; in any case, last year saw themed releases from Simone Dinnerstein, Hélène Grimaud, Khatia Buniatishvili, and Alexandre Tharaud with soprano Sabine Devieilhe, to name only those I had the opportunity to review. Building an album around a theme is a time-tested marketing tactic, but it can also spur an artist’s creative vision and offer new perspectives to the listener.
A lush, exciting interpretation of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (used in Woody Allen’s Manhattan), featuring much tasteful rubato and some unorthodox syncopations, displays the gift Han has always had for drawing out a piece’s high romance while remaining true to the composer’s intent. As the tempos rise and fall like a boat on choppy waters, one can almost imagine one is hearing this chestnut for the first time. It can also be risky to offer a set of mostly very familiar music. But this Rhapsody proves that Han is an original interpreter of the highest order. The album also includes a deliciously schmaltzy, Liszt-like arrangement of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” a good showcase for Han’s knack for fulsome romanticism.
Han’s take on Debussy’s “Claire du Lune” shines with spectral charm. The piece has lent its celestial beauty to numerous films; Han notes Frankie and Johnny. Satie’s melancholy “Gnossiene No. 1” will be familiar, if not by name, to just about any consumer of Western popular culture. Han approaches it with the same tasteful delicacy she brings to the arias “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s opera Norma (in an arrangement by Sigismond Thalberg) and “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (in a heart-tugging transcription by Yvar Mikhashoff).
She beautifully negotiates multiple parts in “Le Cygne (The Swan)” from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, and displays her own arranging skills in a flowery, slightly dark transcription of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”
Some of the selections have enlivened films about their composers. The pianist cites 1947’s Song of Love, about Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, as her film source for two pieces. Robert Schumann’s sublime “Träumerei” is sure to evoke sweet memories in onetime piano students (like yours truly). “Widmung (Dedication)” is Franz Liszt’s flowery arrangement of a piece that Robert dedicated to Clara as a wedding gift. Both are in the film, which depicts their love story and stars Katharine Hepburn, Paul Henreid, and Robert Walker.
Another arrangement by Liszt, of “Ständchen,” from Franz Schubert’s Schwanengesang (Swan Song), appeared in Sérénade (1956), a fictional romance between Schubert and an English dancer. Its delicate shifts between major and minor have always made this one of my favorite romantic pieces. Han interprets it with graceful grandeur.
Of course, you don’t need the film references to enjoy these renditions. Offenbach’s “Barcarole” sways with dreaminess. Ignaz Friedman’s transcription of Bach’s “Siciliano” makes me feel I’m sliding gently over the waves of the Mediterranean. All the evocative selections on this album are certified classics, tailor made, it might seem, for Yoonie Han’s multifaceted romantic sensibility. It would be a great gift for a loved one – or for yourself – as you welcome a new and, we hope, much better year complete with all the romance you desire.