2012 Winner, Jaen Prize International Piano Competition / Yutong Sun

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YUTONG SUN: PIANO RECITAL • Yutong Sun (pn) • NAXOS 8.573178 (76: 48) MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition. LIEBERMANN Gargoyles. AGUILERA Flores para Julia. BEETHOVEN...

YUTONG SUN: PIANO RECITAL Yutong Sun (pn) NAXOS 8.573178 (76: 48)

MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition. LIEBERMANN Gargoyles. AGUILERA Flores para Julia. BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 26

In the decades since the Great Cultural Revolution, China seemingly has turned 180 degrees in its attitude towards Western music. Evidence of this is provided by the tremendous number of brilliant pianists, violinists, saxophonists, and other musicians produced by Chinese musical institutions. Pianist Lang Lang is but only one of the numerous Chinese superstars on the current classical music scene, and Yutong Sun may be next in line, as winner of the 54th (2012) Jaén Prize International Piano Competition. Sun was born in 1995 and studied piano at the Beijing Central Conservatory with Hua Chang and Izolda Zemskova. He also received tutelage from Boaz Sharon. He has been a prize winner in several competitions, and has undertaken tours throughout China, Russia, Ukraine, France, Spain, and the USA.

From the beginning of the recital, which opens with Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata, one immediately hears a pianist well attuned to the aesthetic of early Romanticism. The nostalgic opening gives way to a moving exposition that suggests a time of transition in life. Sun’s conception strikes me as unusually mature for his tender years. The repeated octave Cs in the bass line in the opening movement are nicely shaped and phrased, and he is careful to weight the melodic lines against the countersubjects and underlying harmonies. His caressing of the single notes midway through the movement depicting the departure from Vienna of Beethoven’s friend, patron, and pupil Archduke Rudolph suggests a respite for refreshment during the long journey. The nostalgia suggested in the introduction of the first movement is extended and amplified in the second, marked “Abwesenheit” (absence). In this movement, I was particularly impressed by Sun’s sudden contrasts in mood, almost as if the subject was struck by a sudden recollection of his friend. The Finale, “Wiedersehn” (return) is as joyously rendered as I can remember having heard it, with every note in the numerous runs being evenly placed.

The Gargoyles of Lowell Liebermann forms quite a contrast with the Beethoven stylistically, but seems a very appropriate discmate on the basis of its basic musical building materials. Like the Beethoven, Liebermann’s lines and textures are generally quite lean, with only occasional outbursts in the form of denser block chords. The work is cast in four movements, a brief and vigorous Presto , and a following Adagio semplice that lives up to its name in its appealing simplicity. The final two movements increase in tempo and vigor, the third being an especially beautiful exercise employing a simple melody with gorgeous underlying arpeggiation, while the closing movement sounds like a toccata with much figuration, and harmony reminiscent of Prokofiev. I haven’t heard previously more than a few works by Liebermann, and this exquisite suite certainly whets my appetite for more.

The recital continues with Flores para Julia (Flowers for Julia) by Spanish composer Juan de Dios Garcia Aguilera, who was commissioned to write the mandatory work for the latest Jaén Prize International Piano Competition. Garcia Aguilera, born either in 1959 or 1972, depending on which part of the notes you believe, has written an appealing freely tonal work that effectively contrasts gentle Carl Vine-like (i.e., harmonically complex, but containing internal logic) chords with sections that are more linear and virtuosic. The piece does occasionally verge towards atonality. There are 10 connected sections, each of which serves to test a pianist in various musical and technical ways. But this piece transcends competitions and such, and passes muster on a purely musical level: it is a fine piece of writing.

With that warhorse of warhorses, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Sun proves right off the bat that: a) he has found an edition of the piece that corresponds perfectly to Mussorgsky’s autograph, and b) he has been taught exceptionally well the performance practice of the piece. Consequently, given his technical command and musical insights, he does nearly everything right in this work. Just about the only place I can fault him in either area comes in measure 95 of “Baba-Yaga,” where he fails to adequately differentiate the speed of the 16th triplets with the following tremolo in measure 108. This is the bane, in fact, of numerous pianists, including Rudolf Firku?ný in his otherwise stellar performance of the work. Elsewhere, there is little to fault and much to praise. I am especially taken with his effective use of hesitation here and there in numerous (and appropriate) places, such as on the downbeat of measure 57 of “Byd?o,” where it suggests that the oxen are recognizing that their burdensome journey is coming to an end. Sun’s traversal proves that he is a master at bringing out subsidiary lines (as he was in the Beethoven), and recognizing the distinctive and differing character of each of the Hartmann sketches. The downside of knowing performance practice of well-worn works such as those by Beethoven and Mussorgsky is that Sun seems reticent to take risks. Consequently, there is nothing in either of these readings that I would consider revelatory, such as I found in Georgy Tchaidze’s reading of Pictures. That aside, this performance will not disappoint, and will stand up well in comparison to traversals by pianists far better known than Yutong Sun is today.

So, to whom do I recommend this CD (and I certainly do recommend it!)? It is worthy of the attention of all serious collectors of piano recordings, especially to those who are interested in the younger generation. It is also worth purchasing by repertory collectors who are interested in brilliant new works for the keyboard. The latter group will also enjoy the performances of the Beethoven and Mussorgsky that they will encounter herein.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield

Product Description:

  • Release Date: June 25, 2013

  • UPC: 747313317875

  • Catalog Number: 8573178

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Juan de Dios Garcia Aguilera, Lowell Liebermann, Ludwig van Beethoven, Modest Mussorgsky

  • Performer: Yutong Sun