This simple, but finely crafted program of variations for keyboard instrument by the brilliant young pianist Minsoo Sohn, whose work I have followed for several years, was an important concert. It was not Mr. Sohn’s New York debut, but it showed New Yorkers the fully mature pianism of an exceptionally gifted musician who will surely be one of the major figures over the next generations. He began the evening with Webern’s Variations, Op. 27, continued with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Handel, and concluded with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which he has recorded. The concert was sponsored by the Honens Foundation of Canada and Michigan State University. Mr. Sohn is the 2006 Honens Prize Laureate, and he currently teaches at Michigan State at East Lansing.
Mr. Sohn studied piano at the New England Conservatory with Wha Kyung Byun and her husband Russell Sherman. I first heard him play at a recital of Mr. Sherman’s, who follows the generous practice of inviting his students to play at his own recitals. He has acquired a powerful technique from his teachers, as well as an admirable command of color. However, he doesn’t use it in the sensuous way Russell Sherman uses it to reveal such wonders in Liszt and Debussy; his method is rather more severe, concentrated on a beautiful crystalline treble and rich, but clear notes below middle C. The result was a consistent and handsome piano sound in the niggardly Zankel Hall acoustics. It brought a special beauty to the Webern and clarity to the Brahms. Sohn managed to remain true to modern pianistic technique in the Bach, while respecting its Baroque origins. These were deeply considered, tightly knit performances in which every bar seamlessly followed another and also filled its right place in the whole. It is virtually impossible to pick his interpretations apart, point to details, and observe that Minsoo Sohn is doing this with the music here and that there. It all seemed consequent and inevitable.
In a letter to Eduard Steuermann, for whom he composed his Variations, Op. 27, Webern explained this brief, three-movement work, “The first movement is like an Andante, the second a scherzo (it is a two-part, ‘never-ending’ canon, eternal within its two sections, but also in relation to them both; it is to be played—or rather striven for as something friendly; despite the fast speed one should bring out the expressive quality of the figures [almost cantabile]). The third movement is structurally really a set of variations. (The penultimate variation is to be perceived in the spirit of a lively melody; the character of the others and of the theme itself can scarcely be misunderstood.)” In this way the work recalls Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 109, which similarly leads the listener to a set of variations via a prelude-like first movement and a scherzo, as well as Op. 111, in which the first movement and the scherzo are compressed into one. In this Beethoven was looking back to precedents by Haydn and Mozart. The elimination of tonality in favor of a twelve-tone row, which functions within itself through variation, rather changes the game in this, but the variations of the row in the first two movements and their contrast with the actual variation movement are clear enough.
If Webern was delving back into tradition in his compact work, Brahms had his own expansive way of celebrating the past. Handel revivals had simmered continually since only a few years after his death and even before, but each had its own character. Brahms developed his Handelmania in the shadow of Mendelssohn. It is interesting that Clara Schumann, the dedicatee of the Handel Variations, played its premiere. Judging from its extensive scale, second only the Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Bach’s Goldberg, and the imposing power it demands from the pianist, one would assume that Brahms wrote it for himself, and in technique and style, relatively youthful work that it is (1861), it seemed entirely consistent with Brahms’ overall approach, as we heard it all together this past summer in Gerhard Oppitz’s four concert survey of his piano work. This kind of monumentality is not what Clara Schumann was best known for in her maturity, but in her youth she had often played big works by Liszt and others. Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C, which is as close as Schumann gets to the Handel variations in scale and texture, was dedicated and premiered by Liszt. Clara herself did not attempt the Fantasie until 1866, five years after the Handel Variations. Schumann also warned Clara off from performing the Symphonic Études in public, but for other reasons. It seems, then, that Brahms wrote the variations for himself, even though he dedicated the work to a piano virtuoso to whom he was deeply devoted. We can perhaps attribute this to Brahms’ inexperience at the age of 28, as well as to the indelibility of his own pianistic imprint.
Brahms gave his passion for Baroque music free rein in the Handel Variations, introducing ornaments and dance forms which corresponded to his concept of the period. He also blended this archaic musical language with his own personal Romantic idiom as well as compatible variants of this and of the Baroque style. It is necessary for the pianist to balance these stylistic nuances, to let them express themselves without taking over the piece. Minsoo Sohn adopted a somewhat cool middleground from which he could reach out both to the Handelian past, to Brahms’ present, and to the future, in which we live. With his outstanding technique he was able to give us a great deal of detail, precise rhythms, and clearly articulated phrases. He used the pedal to produces restrained coloristic effects and to compensate for the dryness of the hall. (Sohn himself said he didn’t think about the hall acoustics to any great extent.) When emotive expression was called for, it was there to be felt—and with perfect taste. There was a time when people thought that only the technical monsters of the keyboard could approach this work with any confidence, and their playing was not always the most musical or subtle. Even after Oppitz’s authoritative, bravura rendition of the work this summer, Sohn’s was thoroughly impressive, and more.
Bach’s Goldberg Variations remain unshaken in the piano repertoire in spite of the growth of historically informed interpretation. My impression, in fact, is that harpsichord recitals have become more specialized in their appeal, although the work even grows as one of Bach’s most popular. It is almost invariably performed with the repeats. Even if the interpreter is playing the variations in an entirely modern style, omitting the ornamentation that was the repeats’ raison d’être, he or she will usually keep them, making for a work that is over an hour and a quarter long, usually programmed with less substantial companions than here. The organizers requested that Minsoo Sohn play the work without repeats, in order to keep the length of the program within bounds. I’ve actually never heard the Goldberg without repeats, and normally I disapprove of omitting them, but in this case, their omission gave the overall work a continuous flow and the listener a clear sense of its shape and structure. (In his recording of the Goldberg Mr. Sohn plays the repeats.)
His performance stood out for its steady pace and progression, its splendid clarity and consistency of tone, and the elegance of the melodic lines. Playing a modern instrument in the same way he played the Webern and the Brahms, he was able, as I mentioned above, to do justice to modern technique and the Baroque origins of the music. As in the Brahms, Sohn’s approach was so free from mannerisms and so well integrated that it is hard to pick out an single variation in which he seemed to be imposing some intriguing idea of his own on the music. In Bach that doesn’t really work. In its rigor, elegance, and integrity, Minsoo Sohn’s interpretation is the most satisfying I have heard in recent years.
As an encore, Minsoo Sohn played Franz Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s “Der Müller und der Bach”, one of six settings he made from Die schöne Müllerin. The pianist is very fond of Liszt transcriptions from opera and the Lied, but this one, an especially restrained treatment, has its own special relationship to what went before.
This was a memorable recital, which received a long, loud, and warm ovation from a near-capacity audience, all on their feet. Minsoo Sohn clearly has a wealth of mature understanding and beauty to contribute to the world of music.
I should add that the program note for the concert, written by Dr. Michael Callahan, Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Michigan State, was refreshingly perceptive, helpful, and to the point. Very few program notes come near this level.