Cliburn Gold 2017: Yekwon Sunwoo
The Van Cliburn International Competition does not have a great history of choosing winners. The 28-year-old Yekwon Sunwoo from South Korea was by no means everyone’s choice for the gold medal at this year’s play-off. I did not hear any of the other rounds, though I am told his concerto performance (Rachmaninov No 3) was sensational. I have just this debut disc to go on and can only ‘speak as I find’. It opens with a technically awesome account of La valse with bombshell fortissimo chords, crystalline articulation and a keyboard attack of regimental precision. It is very fast and very powerful and has the desired effect on the audience who, predictably, greet its conclusion with effusive whoops.
Perhaps, I thought, as I sat there like a stone, there would be something to engage my emotions beyond respect for the highly drilled fingers and years of dedicated hard work. It was not to be. Here was Percy Grainger’s sweet Ramble on Rosenkavalier (how one longed for the soft caress and improvisatory charm of the composer’s own recording) and, later, Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s ‘Litanei’, bland and anonymous.
In between came Marc-André Hamelin’s specially commissioned piece, a terrifyingly difficult toccata treatment of the French secular song ‘L’homme armé’, mother’s milk to Sunwoo, who dispatched its scintillating pages with relish. This was followed by the little two-movement C major Sonata of Haydn, HobXV1:48, a favourite of Hamelin’s, as it happens, who plays it with infinitely greater delicacy and wit, and without any pronounced pedal thumps.
The recital ends with Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata (the 1931 version, if you are interested; the record label assumes you are not, since the booklet is silent on the matter, as it is on all the other music and composers featured). As a heartless finger-fest and note-perfect delineation of the score, Sunwoo’s account is hard to beat and he joins the now long list of brilliant Asian-born American-trained pianists undistinguishable one from another in character and sound.