From the age of 11, right up to the year of his death aged only 35, Mozart composed 27 piano concertos, and the South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son has every one of them under her fingers.
Early in the new year, she makes her UK debut with the CBSO, playing the much-loved 21st concerto, K467 in C major, a work with which she won the Silver Medal as well as the Best Chamber Concerto Performance title in the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition. It is a performance which has been viewed more than nine million times on YouTube.
The work has always played a significant role in Yeol Eum’s career. She first played it at the age of nine, soon afterwards performing it publicly in Boston, and later at the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in 1997. She was then aged 11.
More recently, she recorded the work in 2016 with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under its founder Sir Neville Marriner; this turned out to be the late conductor’s final recording, and is set for international release on the Onyx label in Spring 2018.
So K467 has obviously been an important thread throughout Yeol Eum Son’s performing career. How have her thoughts about it been developing over all this time?
“I’m not sure if it has been developing at all ever since, or if there’s anything left the same. Maybe both!” she says. “There are pieces which you feel completely different about, even after six months, but this concerto to me has never been one of them. I almost feel the same vibes that I felt from it in 1996 (the year I first started this concerto). Perhaps the most different view I have from then to now is my intention to polish it with a million-dollar simplicity.
“I always have found this concerto highly operatic – so many faces and gestures, nuances, etc. Yet, I more and more feel that its edge is very sharp and simple. I wish not to miss that.”
With all Mozart’s 27 Piano Concertos in her repertoire, how has Yeol Eum found opportunities to perform the little-known very early ones?
“I have studied, and worked on all Mozart Concerti but I only had limited chances to perform them at stages, as you could (a bit pitifully) imagine.
“The concertos that I have previously performed on stage with orchestras are: K 450, 466, 467, 482, 488, 491, and 595, plus K 242 & 365 for 3 & 2 pianos – Except K 450, all the super famous concertos. It would be lovely to have a chance to play more of the less-known but incredibly charming concertos.”
She describes how she collaborates with conductors when she is preparing performances for these works which are so dear to her personally.
“It is indeed a big question how to share this highly personal perspective with collaborating musicians including conductors,” she admits.
“But I would actually say that the case of Mozart, at least to me, is easier than others because playing Mozart concertos together is more about an organic music-making – off and on stage – than building a careful plan.
“Once you’re settled in a good pulse (rather than a ‘tempo’) and a good engine, you become totally free to do anything.
“Maybe there are two or three spots in the entire concerto that I have to defend to the death, but even that, with a good big structure, it should come naturally, I believe.”
Yeol Eum Son’s recital-programming is interesting, spanning a range of composers and styles. She tells me how she sets about exploring repertoire.
“To me, the top priority of the process of programming is usually who the audience is,” she explains. “If they have a strong preference in their general taste, then, I get to think of a main piece. If it’s something like Hammerklavier Sonata, Diabelli Variations, or Goldberg Variations, all the rest could be just ornaments.
“If it’s something more compact like Liszt’s B minor Sonata, Schumann’s Fantasie, which still needs the other good half, a few options are ahead for the other half – to be equivalent? Or scattered? Same story? Or more contrast? And so on.
“Then I focus on different things for every time, such as a narrative of the whole programme, or a hidden theme, even if nobody would really notice it, or a pianistic pleasure that I will achieve through the programme, and so on and so on.”
She reveals her excitement at the prospect of performing with one of the world’s greatest orchestras – the CBSO – in one of the world’s greatest concert-halls, Symphony Hall.
“I am totally excited! I have been a big follower of the orchestra for a long time, and especially feeling grateful to be able to play with them one of my dearest concertos.
“I believe that the concert hall is almost as important as all the other matters in a concert, if not more! It is thrilling to be debuted in THE famous concert hall, indeed.”
- Yeol Eum Son plays Mozart’s C major Piano Concerto, No.21 K 467 with the CBSO at Symphony Hall on January 11, conducted by Omer Meir Welber, who also directs Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (7.30pm).