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CD Review

Piano Recital

  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata #26 in E Flat Major "Les adieux", Op. 81a
  • Lowell Liebermann: Gargoyles, Op. 29
  • Juan de Dios Garcia Aguilera: Flores para Julia
  • Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Yutong Sun, piano
Naxos 8.573178 77min
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Yutong Sun (b. 1995) was just seventeen when he captured first prize at the 2012 Jaén Competition in Spain. This recording, made that same year, was one of the first prize benefits. Sun plays with a keen if flawed grasp of the musical essence of the Beethoven Les adieux Sonata and the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition. I must confess I am less familiar with Liebermann's Gargoyles, a collection of pieces I have heard on one or two previous occasions, and Garcia Aguilera's Flores para Julia, a work new to me. In both of these, Sun impresses me as having a mastery one would normally associate with a seasoned virtuoso. But, of course, it is the opening and closing works which will have the most appeal to listeners and in these Sun also acquits himself quite admirably.

The Beethoven Les adieux begins with an appropriately wistful sense, and when the tempo switches to Allegro and the main thematic material is presented, Sun interprets the music in a fairly straightforward manner, with dynamics slightly favoring fortes and pacing on the moderate side. On the whole, the first movement is well played though there is a somewhat stiff manner about the phrasing and dynamics. The second movement fares better, not least because of the brisk tempos and the subtly dark atmosphere. The finale is bright and witty but in the outer sections a bit too powerful in dynamics. That said, the sometimes strident dynamics may well be a by-product of the sound reproduction which, throughout the disc, produces piano tones that are a tad overly reverberant and at times a little harsh. While this account of the Les adieux won't make you forget Schnabel, Brendel and other notable Beethovenians, it is a formidable effort still.

Liebermann's 1989 Gargoyles collection consists of four pieces that last about ten minutes. They are all brilliantly played by Sun. He not only captures fully the hypnotic character of #2 and 3 but manages to make the most of the exciting opening and closing works. Their Prokofievian and Lisztian elements come at you with a freshness of character. Indeed, they don't sound like imitations of works by those composers but like imaginative inspirations incorporating a few of their stylistic traits to forge music of breathless excitement and brilliant virtuosity. The more I listen to Gargoyles, the more I realize all four are very attractive works that just may be regarded as masterpieces.

Juan de Dios Garcia Aguilera's Flores para Julia (Flowers for Julia) was a work commissioned for the 2012 Jaén Competition. It is a moody piece of substantial technical challenge that most listeners will find difficult at first hearing. Lasting over eight minutes, it is divided into ten short sections played without a pause. Sun performs the piece brilliantly, deftly wringing from the music all its quirky but naturally flowing character: flowers sprout, blossom, wither and then die, the process yielding both beauty and a sense of loss.

Sun performs the various Promenade movements of Pictures with a good sense for their stateliness, grandeur and festive atmosphere, as well as for their sometimes more gentle character. Gnomus and Old Castle are atmospheric and utterly haunting, while Tuileries is deliciously playful and the ensuing Bydlo domineering and threatening. Sun's Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells is frolicsome and witty, and the same kind of infectious energy and color are found in The Market in Limoges. The Hut on Fowl's Legs is vehement and menacing and if The Great Gate of Kiev isn't quite as powerful and imposing as it could be it is mighty impressive still. All in all, this is a fine Pictures, and while Sun won't erase memories of Richter here, he does show imagination and his technical skills are potent indeed.

As I mentioned above, the sound is overly reverberant and maybe also a tad shrill, but is otherwise adequate. In sum, if you want to hear a very young talent likely to achieve great success on the concert stage, this debut disc, with its staggeringly divergent repertory, is likely worth your while.

Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings