Unlike the brittle rectitude narrow specialists sometimes apply, the most satisfying advocacy for Bach on the modern piano often comes from practitioners equally versed in the realms of Liszt and other Romantics. With tireless chops, one such keyboard artist, Minsoo Sohn, delivered to a full house at Rockport on Sunday afternoon an ever dignified, respectful, eventually exciting traversal of the Goldberg Variations. The 79 minutes became riveting.
From Seoul, Sohn’s artistic odyssey took him to Russell Sherman and Wha Kyung Byun at New England Conservatory, where he received his artist diploma in 2004. Two years later, Sohn became First Laureate of the Honens International Piano Competition, and prior to that he had taken top prizes in the Busoni, Cleveland, Rubinstein, Santander, and Queen Elizabeth competitions. Previously on the faculty of Michigan State University, he currently lives in Korea and is a professor at the Korean National University of Arts.
Expectations had been pumped by earlier reviews on this site and an audition of Sohn’s recent Goldberg recording. He made no coloring-book show of separating and overarticulating voices, nor did he dwell with soul-wringing on the slow material. He did have an end in sight when he began, however, and his soon apparent plan unfolded in a Shermanesque slow build.
Upon the artist’s request to protect retinas and enhance concentration, and to the relief of many (but not all), the woven wood panels at the back of the Shalin Liu stage rolled closed to banish the brilliant seascape. Sohn then invited us into a dark, intimate realm, from whence he commenced the Aria with luminous tone and metrically stable pleading, as if from Bach to us. He dispatched the first few variations with precision, predictability, even pulse, and elevated taste, even if some attacked like Gatling guns. By the time he got to the Fughetta (6), though, he began channeling a bit more wit, humor, individuality, and surprise. Canon alla quatro (16) provided a marvelously chewy chromatic argument among the voices. Variation 16, Overture, announced a freer and more outgoing sweep and dash. He seemingly began to revel, as 17 flew by like a Liszt etude; from that point we were in Sohn’s thrall. No. 21 Canone alla sentima carried an almost religious message from the immortal master through his gracious oracle, as did the longest, 25, which probed metaphysics before the next three smiled and danced by on a lighthearted velocipede. The operatic 29 and the scholarly yet humorous Quodlibet emphatically summed up the journey with lightning scales and confident, canonic high places from the fab father fuguer, who remains as fresh and theatrical as did the executant at the end. The slower recap of the Aria brought us briefly to whatever home we hope to reach ultimately.
Sohn executed with phenomenal concentration and control, Miesingly revealing God in the details, and could certainly hold this live outing up to his celebrated recording with pride. For something wilder and crazier, try the Busoni version [HERE], with Claudius Tanski beginning the aria at about half normal tempo but not stinting on velocity or fluorescent hues later. One should have both versions at least. And what of Landowska, who started it all for some of us? We can’t abide her twangy-clangy Aria, but some of the faster variations continue to convince [HERE] . Consider collecting the best of the recent batch Goldbergs: Perahia Hewitt, maybe even Staier on harpsichord…
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer