Chopin is all the rage in 2010, the 200th anniversary year of the composer’s birth. (A few months ago I even saw Lang Lang roar out some Chopin at the Apple store in Midtown Manhattan.) “Global Chopin party still going strong,” as the Toronto Star puts it. And it was a party of sorts at the Down Town Association, one of New York’s oldest private clubs (and, I gather, lowest-profile, as I had never heard of it before), when the wonderful young Korean pianist Yoonjung Han performed a Chopin-themed recital last night.
Chopin’s longer works often leave me relatively cold. They tend to come off as a sequence of not very related passages, frequently beautiful, but at the same time lacking the intense melodic brilliance that blooms so effortlessly through the shorter works like the preludes and nocturnes. Chopin is like a great short story writer who was never quite cut out to write novels.
The Piano Sonata #3 in B minor formed the second half of the program and I found the piece, as usual, slightly chilly in spite of all its romantic flourishes. Ms. Han approached it with what struck me as the ideal air of studied emotion. She is one of those natural-born performers who become one with the instrument—not trying to surmount it, as a more showy pianist might, but rather losing herself in the music like an actor merging magnetically with a role. Her performance didn’t change my mind about the piece, but it made a valiant opposing argument and I certainly enjoyed it.
The revelatory part of the program came earlier, with an poetic, thrilling, and just-stormy-enough rendition of Chopin’s Fantasie in F minor, and, more interestingly, with a sparkling performance of Federico Mompou’s “Variations on a Theme of Chopin.” (The theme is the famous Prelude in A major, Opus 28 no. 7.) I’d never heard this piece of Mompou’s before and in fact, I wasn’t familiar with the Spanish composer at all until a friend recently introduced me to a bit of his exquisite and intriguing piano music. Evidently Mompou, who died in 1987, is beginning to get his due in the zeitgeist.
The 12 variations aren’t explosive or overly virtuosic. As variations are supposed to, they demonstrate the composer’s ability to develop a theme in a variety of styles, but these, as interpreted by Ms. Han, did more—they revealed uncharted and sometimes startling possibilities behind and inside the relatively simple chord structure and lilting melody of the Prelude. It was a lovely piece full of witty surprises—dry rhythmic shortcuts, jazzy harmonies, a quote from an entirely different Chopin piece—matched by a captivating performance.
Look for Yoonjung Han to become one of the premiere young pianists of the new decade. If you didn’t hear it here first, congratulations, you’re one up on me.
Here’s a video of an earlier performance by Ms. Han of the first movement of the Sonata #3.