Thursday, November 22, 2007

Costa Blanca Arts Update - A piano recital by Young-Joo Lee in Palau Altea, Altea, Spain

I claim to be a music lover and I attend a lot of concerts and recitals, so I don’t try to write a review every time, except for a few notes for my journal. But sometimes the playing is so perfect, the interpretations so poignant that the experience demands a record, if only to help publicise real, perhaps exceptional talent. 

And so it was with Young-Joo Lee, a Korean pianist. She gave her concert to the Amigos de la Musica de la Marina Baixa on November 9 2007 in Altea’s Palau on Spain’s Costa Blanca. In summary, her programme looked rather conventional. It featured Haydn, Rachmaninov, List, Ravel and Prokofiev. I envisaged a classical sonata played as a loosener, a couple of preludes, a showpiece, perhaps a little dead princess and then something from the tuneful end of Prokofiev to round things off. I am not suggesting that concert programmes offered to the Amigos de la Musica tend to be predictable. Quite the contrary, they tend to the ambitions, but then I am always sceptical of programmes that list only the composers’ names.

Young-Joo Lee did start with a Haydn sonata, but it was much more than the predicted loosener. She played the piece, Hob XVI:34 in E-minor, with charm, wit and real invention, with some of the rhythmic turns and cadences being delivered with an air of unexpected surprise. Haydn sonatas are rarely played this well, and, when they are, they are a revelation, a real ear-opener. 

She followed on with a quite rarely played set of variations by Rachmaninov. We all know the Paganini Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, but how many of us have ever heard a concert performance of the composer’s opus 42, the Variations on a Theme by Corelli? It’s a late work, written in a tougher style than the composer’s more familiar and generally more popular works. But it is a remarkably demanding piece, both in its execution and its realisation. Its twenty variations, plus intermezzo and coda, present a formidable challenge to the performer. They begin after the statement of Corelli’s little, apparently stalling tune, and require tremendous interpretive skill as well as technical mastery and Young-Joo Lee displayed brilliance in both areas to bring out the very best in the music. 

A set of variations can often descend into the presentation of a list, with each item interesting in itself, but the whole lacking coherence. Not so with this Rachmaninov, and much of the credit must go to the performer’s ability to identify and then communicate the grand design. Then we did have a real showpiece. Young-Joo Lee played the last of Liszt’s Paganini Etudes. It’s in A-minor and is based on the well known theme of the 24th Caprice for solo violin, the same theme that Rachmaninov used for his Rhapsody. Liszt’s treatment of the material is nothing less than pyrotechnic and as Young-Joo Lee played, there were times when her hands and arms were nothing but a blur. But often pianists present such pieces as if they were nothing more than a gymnastic display. It’s essential that everything should be in the right place, of course, but to achieve that state many players sacrifice the musical vision, as elegance and interpretation are muscled out by sheer technique. 

Not so with Young-Joo Lee. Not only was the piece a pianistic tour de force, it was also a thoroughly satisfying musical experience. The pyrotechnics made sense and became much more than the coloured bangs and flashes of random display. 

After the interval Young-Joo Lee presented her Ravel, which was the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. Essentially this was the third piece in variation form on the trot. Under lesser hands, this could easily have become tedious, but Young-Joo Lee made it into a triumph. It was more than just an opportunity to show that she could handle the legato ambiguities of Ravel’s idiom after the confident force of the Liszt. She played with poignancy and power when needed. But she also never let the sense of the waltz become subsumed within the detail.

And then the Prokofiev. Young-Joo Lee offered us no less than the Seventh Sonata. Now the pianistic pyrotechnics needed an extra toughness, an almost industrial delivery through which the composer’s thematic and harmonic genius must shine. And Young-Joo Lee’s playing was not only up to the piece, it provided a complete revelation. To say that in the third movement she drove the car straight into the garage would be an understatement! It’s a piece that races towards its abrupt end, but to work it must be utterly relentless in its pursuit, never stalling, never anticipating. To describe her playing as close to perfect would be to do her an injustice. It was much better than that and, frankly, I think the audience was left utterly stunned. 

She offered a perfect encore in the form a Piazzolla tango and then retired for a well-deserved rest. Young-Joo Lee is an incredible talent. I do hope that her career as a soloist blossoms.

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