A masterly piano recital from Yeonjoon Yoon at Milton Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various, Um: Sprouting: Yeonjoon Yoon (piano), Yeji Kim (haegeum), Hannah Kim (percussion/voice), Milton Court Concert Hall, London, 17.5.2024. (MBr)

Yeonjoon Yoon

Bach – ‘Prelude No.3 in C-sharp major’, Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 848
Brad Meldhau – After Bach: Rondo
Schoenberg – Sechs kleine Klavierstücke
Isang Yun – Fünf Stücke für Klavier (I-V)
Chopin – Etude, Op.10 No.1
Glass – Etude Book 1, No.2
Yeonjoon Yoon – Etude No.1 ‘Recursion’; Um: Sprouting; Mu-ak: Shaman Dance; Improvisation; Kiwa Underwater; Jak-dal: Downpour; San-myeong: Trembling Peaks.
Sakamoto – Thousand Knives

I have long had an interest in Korean music. When I discovered some of the works by the great Korean composer Isang Yun I never quite looked back. Yun’s back story was strikingly relevant for the geo-political events of its time: the divisions of the Korean War, and the lasting legacy a difficult history that continues to exist today, not least in the displacement and alienation of Zainichi Koreans. Yun’s exile in Germany, and subsequent abduction by South Korean Secret Service, his imprisonment and torture – and release two years later amid international protest – was his own personal experience of totalitarianism that would find expression in his music, most notably in his 1981 work, Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju. His music has never lost its relevance as a symbol that taps into the repression and totalitarianism of people everywhere; it is timeless. Yun would spend the rest of his life advocating for the reunification of Korea – and although he never returned to South Korea, his legacy as a composer is perhaps more established today north of the 38th Parallel. Yun’s music even follows a kind of historical transformation: his early European period is closer to serialism and the avant-garde; his later music incorporates what would become Yun’s ‘Haupttöne’ style of multiple melodic strands. It all, however, mostly had some kind of Korean music fused into it.

Why this focus on Isang Yun? In a sense all – or certainly most – Korean composers in some way follow in his footsteps. If they have one thing in common it is that for many even a democratic Korea is a divided one and a very unequal one. Today’s composers are perhaps less overtly political than Isang Yun was, but their works still have the perspective of history in them – and Yeonjoon Yoon’s piano recital, the second half of which was devoted to his own pieces, defaulted to acknowledging some of this history. Music can always exist on its terms – but some of the most profound music inhabits a world far outside it. Musically, too, Yoon’s works owe as much to a western style as they do his Korean roots.

This was certainly a wide-ranging recital – both in terms of dates (beginning in 1722 and ending in 2024) and in the sheer range of styles. But what on paper might have looked a rather random set of piano works had a beautiful logic to them, and played in the order they were by the time we had moved through a number of centuries it was clear where Yoon’s style of composing had largely come from.

His way of playing Bach will not be to everyone’s taste. The Prelude No.3 in C-sharp major from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, BWV 848 was as unfussy as one could want – and also rather dryly done. If you wanted any colour or tone here, you would have found almost none. It was appealing because the playing was swift – but Bach puts melody and harmony in both hands with near equal measure, too. Yoon was much better here with the left than the right hand, a somewhat common thread throughout this recital in some respects.

Fast forward three-centuries to Brad Mehldau’s 2018 After Bach: Rondo and the improvisation you can do of Bach is considerably more inventive (Mehldau does, for example, transpose the order of the first theme). The piece is bigger in scale; its sonorities, if baroque, are of the sound of an organ in places rather than the piano. What is certainly clear is that this piece played to Yoon’s muscular and athletic way of playing to perfection, the stretch of his fingers clearly able to manage the complicated thumb extensions.

In Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke from 1911 Yoon opted to play on an upright piano and there were clear advantages to this: the lower resonance, brighter tone and narrower dynamics simply made the music sound more skeletal, more razor-edged and more brittle than it usually does. These were fabulous performances, too: concentrated and expressive, even a little psychologically draining. What they benefited from was lyrical clarity, but also an opening up of the density that often glues this music so tightly into opaque pieces of drama.

Isang Yun’s Fünf Stücke für Klavier (I-V), composed in 1958, were outstandingly done. They are among the earliest works Yun composed in Europe and clearly indebted to Schoenberg’s (the Op.11 especially). Every musical phrase here, every part of the expressive language is economic to the degree of being absolutely essential; what, I think, differs with these and the Schoenberg pieces is that Yun composed works that are sometimes on a more imposing scale, even if they are brief in time. It was bringing these two elements together that made Yoon’s performance such a powerful and unforgettable one of these pieces – a reminder of what masterpieces they are.

Suddenly going back to Chopin seemed a little surprising, although the last three works in the first half of this programme were all etudes. The Op.10 No.1 might certainly be one of the more easily visual of his Etudes to imagine – it is after all known as ‘Waterfall’. There were two things of note in Yeonjoon Yoon’s performance of this Etude, and neither are particularly to be taken for granted in most you will hear in the concert hall. The first was the sheer athleticism in the way he handled the arpeggios. These didn’t swell and fall – they flowed with a precision that was remarkably fluid. The arc was singular and unbroken, the leggiero lines just beautifully done. The second was that wonderful left-hand bass; resonant, powerful, a dominant anchor to the raging stream that surged in the right hand.

The arpeggios of the Chopin Op.10 No1 reach a kind of resolution in the minimalism of Philip Glass, especially his own piano Etudes. As with Chopin, the first book of Etudes are technical: arpeggios, complex rhythms, jumps and leaps. As with Chopin’s Op.25, the Glass, too, is more emotionally challenging. Yoon’s playing of the Book 1, Etude No.2 was superb: sonically brilliant to the extent it was rather hypnotically done.

Yoon’s own Etude No.1 ‘Recursion’, composed this year, is slightly more idiomatically approachable than his description of the work suggests. Musically the work has its origins in the composer’s obsession with groove and the UK Garage genre. Perhaps more interestingly is a visual component – Sangnam Lee’s geometric paintings, often repeatedly ground down with sandpaper, a manual process that gives an entirely different perspective on both surface and light. If the components of groove are there in Yoon’s Recursion Etude, as well as the geometry of Lee, so too is that complexity of rhythm you get in both Chopin and Glass. Rhythm is rarely in the same hand at all in Yoon’s Etude. The playing was hugely stylish and exercised with the kind of virtuosity other pianists would clearly struggle to match.

Um: Sprouting – and the title given to this recital – was written during Yoon’s military service in South Korea during the pandemic, although the work is dated 2023. From the Korean 움트다 (um-teu-da) – ‘to sprout’ – the work’s aspirations look towards unity, notably for the reunification of the two Koreas, but also for the mind and body, and spirit and other. If the rhythms are complex – as they also were with the second work in this half, Mu-ak: Shaman Dance – the melody finds itself at one end of the keyboard only. If there is unity it is in the pianist’s ability to get his timing right. The savage repetitions in Um: Sprouting were either written as I saw Yoon playing them, or he rather struggled to co-ordinate some of his fingering in the left hand (this is quite an insane work out for a pianist). Not that it mattered – the playing was muscular and thrilling.

The third piece was simply called Improvisation. As Yoon described it in his notes, improvisation is ‘exploring the world of the subconscious, where there is no room for judgment. It is an investigation into the world of 선 (Seon) or Zen’. Improvisation largely avoided tuned use of the keyboard opting instead for clusters, sweeping string arpeggios, pizzicato, adjusting the piano hammers – here the instrument’s rumbles, grates, and keys were often blunter in sound and the pitch differences obvious to the listener. But the work also involved a haegeum player – Yeji Kim – and the instrument offered a revelatory contrast to the piano. Improvised performances are what they are; they work on the basis of time and place. They can explode or implode depending on what the dynamics of a performance become. Here the circumstances aligned perfectly; something that began unstructured had both the chemistry of its players and the physics of the music to create something that fired with energy and motion.

The remaining three pieces by Yoon all incorporate themes of nature or landscape in some form. Kiwa Underwater evokes roof tiles as seen through Korean scenery, Jak-dal: Downpour of heavy rain and San-myeong: Trembling Peaks the multitude of sounds and images that come from the In-wang mountain. The final two works incorporate both the haegeum and percussion (with voice) – Hannah Kim – and if the piano sometimes seemed a little obscured in Jak-dal: Downpour at times it was also a most creative piece of writing that steered a dramatic course between some of the more conventional style of the piano, with the more searing edginess of the haegeum and lashings of hard-stick playing on the percussion. Trembling Peaks – more loosely translated from the Korean ‘resonating mountains’ – belied some rather brutalist stretches of piano writing beside more haunting writing elsewhere. Performances were uniformly persuasive and compelling.

The final work on the programme, an arrangement by all three musicians of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Thousand Knives, was wonderfully done. Coming from Sakamoto’s debut album way back in 1978 (the album title supposedly referencing mescalin) the composer originally performed the work in a reggae style (if I remember). If there is one thing that Yoon simply doesn’t lack it is rhythm and he had it in spades here – though reggae it wasn’t. The free-wheeling relaxed and beautifully improvised style he played this piece with – and with such natural rhythm, too – made me think he might have a not inconsiderable nightlife career playing Blues and Jazz.

It takes a pianist of some brilliance to navigate three centuries of music in a single recital, tie the music together and make some artistic argument for programming it all in the first place. This recital did precisely that. Yeonjoon Yoon does occasionally cut something of an introspective figure on the stage and this rather belies his pianism which is, I repeat, both athletic and muscular. Contradictions are always revealing. There is also a degree of virtuosity to his playing that isn’t simply there to demonstrate he plays complex and demanding music – there is considerable musical insight, dramatic scale and a vision of what he wants to give his audience as well. As a composer his own works are skilfully written and I found each of them interesting.

A masterly recital – and a pianist I will certainly hear again.

Marc Bridle

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