The Third Piano Concerto of Beethoven is an indelible masterpiece, but it’s not the first choice a pianist would make for bravura display.
And yet the young South Korean pianist Yoonie Han, simply by turning up the heat here and there Sunday afternoon, gave the work a bit more of the fire it must have had when it was new. And that made the Boca Raton Symphonia concert for which she was the soloist a more exciting event than it might otherwise have been.
Han, a winner of the Fulbright Concerto Competition and a finalist for the Michelangeli Prize, announced her approach to the Beethoven from the very first scales that open the work, ending each of them with a forceful punch at the top. And when she entered with the theme a few seconds later, it was with an emphasis that said: I have arrived.
Which is, admittedly, what you would expect a soloist to do. But Han played the whole concerto this way, giving each phrase as personal a stamp as she could. Her technique was mostly faultless as she raced up and the down the piano, and she has a fine singing tone that made passages such as the secondary theme of the first movement especially warm and sweet.
In the second movement, which opens with the piano by itself, Han was again highly personal, with an long-breathed, intensely interior mood in which she stretched the tempo out like someone thinking solitary thoughts, idly brooding on a keyboard. At the end of the cadenza, she did the same thing, giving the final notes a lonely, glacial grace. And then she was back at the races, punching the tops of phrases for the third movement, and driving conductor Philippe Entremont and the orchestra on.
It was an exceptionally exciting reading of this venerable concerto, though she and the Symphonia were often at cross-purposes throughout, with Han getting ahead of the orchestra repeatedly. It was frustrating, but also engagingly chaotic, because it raised interest in what Han was doing.
After considerable applause, she returned for a solo performance of Liszt’s La Campanella, his blazing reworking of the final movement of Paganini’s Second Violin Concerto. Han, whose work with the music of Federico Mompou has made her solo appearances here in past years notable, proved to be a very fine Liszt player as well.
She made this piece’s fearsome difficulties sound easily conquered, playing with dazzle, fire and personality, as well as brilliant accuracy. She has the right approach for Liszt, with all the big gestures the composer called for, but without sacrificing any of the notes; they were all there, and only some slight muddiness in the last extravagant measures kept it from being spotless. The large house at the Roberts adored it, drowning Han in bravos and rapturous applause.
The concert opened with Mozart’s overture to his opera Le Nozze di Figaro, which Entremont led at a nice clip. Ensemble was generally good, though intonation in the violins wasn’t solid, and you could hear a slightly different opinion about the center of the notes in the mix that took away from its sense of unity.
The concert’s second half was devoted to a relatively brief work, the Second Symphony (in A minor, Op. 55) of Camille Saint-Saëns. This is an early piece (1859) of Saint-Saëns, and it’s almost never heard in concert. That’s a shame, because it is a welcome change from the Romantic standards – Mendelssohn, Schumann – that chamber orchestras often program.
The chief difference is muscle: Saint-Saëns was clearly influenced by the example of Beethoven for this symphony, and the first movement, built around a diminished chord and a minor triad (but broken back to back in the opening measures, making it sound more like a jazz 13th), has an athletic kind of counterpoint and energy that Saint-Saëns didn’t explore often enough in his considerable work catalog.
The second movement is a short, delicate piece that evokes the music of the early 18th century, while the Scherzo returns to Beethovenian punch and shock, and the finale, a busy Presto that stops in mid-flight for a look back at the slow movement, is a more forceful, harder-driving take on a Mendelssohn last movement.
The Symphonia played this work with a sense of discovery, with wide contrasts and vivid melodic underlining. Ensemble was often iffy, though, with good overall polish but tentativeness in exposed portions such as the first bars of the second movement, which also could have used some more subtlety and artifice to make its character more evident. Nevertheless, it was a welcome piece of fresh programming, and the Symphonia deserves credit for recommending it to our attention.
The Boca Raton Symphonia’s next concert is set for March 24 at the Roberts Theater on the campus of St. Andrew’s School west of Boca Raton. Flutist Jennifer Grim will be the soloist in the Flute Concerto No. 1 (in G, K. 313) of Mozart. Ottorino Respighi’s The Birds also is on the program, along with Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite. Call 376-3848 for more information or visit www.bocasymphonia.org.