Among the many highlights of the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition, Yeol Eum Son’s sublime performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 in C major K.467 stood proud. The German-based South Korean pianist’s interpretation won the Best Chamber Concerto Performance title and helped her secure the prestigious competition’s Silver Medal. The YouTube video of her prize-winning Mozart has been viewed over nine million times, an astonishing figure for any classical artist online. Son’s insights into the work have evolved since her Moscow success, nourished by performances with leading orchestras and conductors. They deepened further in 2016 thanks to her experience of recording Mozart’s radiant composition with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and its 92-year-old founder, Sir Neville Marriner. The new album, which was destined to be the legendary conductor’s final recording, is set for international release on the Onyx label in Spring 2018.
British audiences can hear Yeol Eum Son’s latest thoughts on the work on Thursday 11 January when she makes her UK debut with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and Omer Meir Wellber at Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 is also on the bill for her first London appearance. She will join the Academy of St Martin in the Fields at Cadogan Hall on Friday 20 April 2018 for a programme that also includes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.8 in C major K.246 and orchestral works by Haydn. The pianist’s Birmingham and London concerts belong to her recent run of distinguished European debut dates where she performed piano concertos by Prokofiev, Gershwin and Rachmaninov with, among others, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, the Bergen and Dresden Philharmonics, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra under Valery Gergiev.
“I moved to Germany ten years ago, but this is first the opportunity I have had to perform in the UK,” observes Son. “I am looking forward to working with the CBSO and to being with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields again. They are such a wonderful band. It’s really exciting to be able to play K.467 with the Academy, having recorded it with them. The Cadogan Hall concert will be a great opportunity for us to play both works and to remember Sir Neville.”
Marriner and Son began by recording Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 and planned to record the Piano Concerto No.8 a few months later (she has all the Mozart piano concertos in her repertoire). Despite the conductor’s age, the pianist recalls that he appeared to be in good health and was certainly in fine form throughout the recording sessions. She was shocked to receive news of his death in October 2016. Son decided to complete her Mozart album with three solo works – the Nine Variations on ‘Lison dormait’ K.264, the Piano Sonata in C major K.330 and the Fantasy in C minor K.475 – and dedicate the performances to Marriner’s memory. During their collaboration, Marriner suggested that Son should record Mozart’s complete piano concertos. “I was thrilled to hear such praise from him,” she says. “It was a dream come true for me to record just one Mozart concerto with Sir Neville. Now I would like to follow his suggestion and record the whole cycle.”
Yeol Eum Son, born in 1986 in South Korea, recalls that she was around nine years old when she started playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21. “I performed it for the first time in public soon after in Boston and again at the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in 1997. And it was the piece I performed at my last competition in Moscow. So it was already an important part of my life when Sir Neville invited me to record it with him. It’s a piece that, especially in its wonderful slow movement, allows the audience and performers to interact, to explore the music together. Working with Sir Neville was a great experience. His interpretation was not so different from my own, but it was so refreshingly carefree and lively. Mozart, for me, needs to flow and to make people feel like they’re floating on air. It has to be light and free.”
Lightness and freedom – of rhythm and imagination – are among the qualities that have attracted so many to praise the YouTube posting of Son’s Tchaikovsky Competition Mozart performance. “I was surprised by the response,” she notes. “It’s not a virtuosic piece but it has touched so many people. I receive emails from viewers almost every day about what the performance means to them. Perhaps it shows that people still crave the traditional values of classical music, its sheer beauty, subtlety and combination of simplicity and complexity.”
While Mozart may occupy a special place in Yeol Eum Son’s affections, she is open to a strikingly wide range of music. Her repertoire includes everything from the great romantic concertos to works by Jolivet and Shchedrin. She is also known for her imaginative programming, clearly reflected in a recent recital project comprising Berg’s Piano Sonata Op.1, Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, four pieces by Gershwin, Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, and Ravel’s La valse. She is set to visit the United States next spring with an equally fascinating recital programme of works by Mozart, Pärt, Ravel, Schubert/Liszt, Rachmaninov and Friedrich Gulda.
“I love to explore pieces that are rarely performed and bring them to new audiences,” she comments. “I cannot live without this diversity. I need to break away from becoming too focused on just one thing. I find that repertoire variety frees the imagination, for the performer and the listener. I want the audience to feel the connections between different pieces and experience something that comes from that combination, like the ingredients coming together in a wonderful meal or the mix of colours in a painting.”