Yeol Eum Son plays Beethoven in her hometown and talks to Peter Quantrill of Pianist magazine.

Watching Yeol Eum Son on YouTube is one thing – and there’s a lot to see, from her winningly eager Mozart concerto at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011 to sundry chatshow appearances where she throws off showpieces from Bach to Liszt with disarming élan. Experienced live, however, in the functionally boxy space of Gangneung’s new Arts Center, she is a strikingly centred pianist. No extraneous movement, no funny business, but a concentrated engagement with the eerie magic of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

The occasion to see her perform in her home country – her home province, in fact, where her family still lives – was provided by the PyeongChang Winter Music Festival. Established in 2016 as a cultural counterpart to the 2018 Winter Olympics, the festival has gathered native and international musicians together in a two-week programme of traditional Korean music, jazz and classical events with this orchestral concert as the climax, featuring the Tongyeong International Music Festival Ensemble fluently steered by Shiyeon Sung, the first female chief conductor of a Korean symphony orchestra. Associated with the PyeongChang Summer International Festival since 2011, Yeol Eum is presently associate director of the Winter Festival and plans to take on more artistic responsibilities with the retirement of Kyung Wha Chung as joint artistic director; she has often played chamber music with Chung’s sister, the cellist Myung-Wha, who is the festival’s other director.

Meeting Yeol Eum the day before the concert, she was modest in the face of the concerto’s challenge – ‘there really are no words to describe this piece’ – but then she let her playing do the talking. And it was her articulate eloquence at the keyboard that held the attention right from the concerto’s opening stroke of genius. Developing the example of Mozart in his ‘Jeunehomme’ Concerto K271, Beethoven leaves the orchestra to watch on as the pianist sets the mood with a quietly assertive solo. Son made every note count. There was no suggestion of passagework in the linking sections that, at the work’s premiere in Vienna in 1804, the composer played from memory sending his page-turner into a tailspin.

‘In the second movement Largo,’ she had remarked, ‘I think so much more about the fingerings – how I’d change from one key to the next – even though it’s the slowest. This isn’t abstract music, it’s very specific. The story of Orpheus taming the Furies might be old but it’s classic: I love it very much.’ With different editions spread before us, we examined where the phrases breathe – ‘that’s the whole question’.

Son also showed a fine feeling for Beethoven’s characteristic and abrupt outbursts of temperament, not only in the dramatic dialogue of the Largo but the capricious mood-changes of the finale, turning on a sixpence from easy-going contentment to the kind of impulsive insistence that makes the concerto a contemporary of the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata. Across the square from the Arts Center, pucks zipped across the ice in the hockey stadium, but they can hardly have found their target as surely as Son’s bravura cadenza.

Author: Peter Quantrill

Photo credit: (c) PyeongChang Winter Music Festival / Moonjung Kim