Yekwon Sunwoo

Cliburn Gold 2017: Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

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The Cliburn competition in Texas was one of the forerunners of the abundance of classical competitions that cover the landscape today, not always to the good. However, this one still carries some of the sense that its namesake had for connecting with general audiences, and the decision to release prizewinning performances on disc is welcome. Yekwon Sunwoo, the 2017 gold medal winner, offers the technical fireworks you would expect, and then some. He plays virtuoso works, you might say, in four different modes, and nails them all, beginning with the sheer density of Ravel's nearly unplayable single-piano transcription of La valse. Percy Grainger's Ramble on the Last Love-Duet from Der Rosenkavalier is showy, brilliant, light, a bit humorous, and also not terribly common: kudos to Sunwoo for finding unfamiliar but brutally challenging works. Marc-André Hamelin's showpiece Toccata on "L'homme armé" is another one, showing the contrapuntal arrow in Sunwoo's quiver. Not until after some Haydn and Liszt do we arrive at a standard work: Rachmaninoff's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36. A good deal of crowd reaction is retained, and there's no getting around it: Sunwoo has steely technical command to a rare degree, and the ability to inject excitement for the music into what he does as well. He is a young pianist to watch, perhaps one of the group for whom this prize has been a springboard to a major career.

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