August 29, 2014

If you ain't first, you may last longer...

German-trained South Korean pianist William Youn won the 3rd prize at the 2009 Cleveland International Piano Competition.  All to the better, given the usually perverse rankings in such competitions.  After all, the list of pianists who failed to win First Prize in Cleveland over the years includes Jean-Yves Thibadeaut (2nd, 1979), Angela Hewitt (3rd, 1979), Nicholas Angelich (2nd, 1989), and  Gilles Vonsattel (4th, 2001) - all familiar names, and all still very much before the public.  By contrast, the only First Prize winner likely to be well-known to pianophiles is Sergei Babayan (1989), and his reputation is primarily that of a much sought-after teacher rather than a concert performer.  As for many others - well, if you never heard a concert or a recording by, say, Edward Newman, you may find comfort in the fact that Newman won the 1st prize in Cleveland in the same year when Thibaudet and Hewitt were judged by the jury to be lesser artists at the keyboard.

Youn's career seems to have developed nicely since his 2009 Cleveland gig, with several CDs recorded for the Oehms and Ars labels and a busy concertizing schedule in Europe.  I would expect at least this much on the basis of his superbly played (and excellently engineered) live recordings from Cleveland.  In some of these performances Youn' pianism reminded me of Till Fellner, although Youn's playing is less cerebral and a bit more emphatic than Fellner's.  In a wide ranging repertoire of Scarlatti, Haydn, Faure, Liszt, Brahms, and Schumann, Youn's immaculate finger technique and coolly elegant phrasing are completely immune not only to the stress of a public performance, but a public performance before a competition jury.