Maintaining a tradition of bringing Van Cliburn Piano Competition winners to the Newport Music Festival, the most recent champion, Yekwon Sunwoo, performed Thursday evening at The Breakers.
The Korean-born 2017 winner performed a virtuosic range of pieces — some from his competition repertory. Sunwoo’s gifts are impressive: sturdy left hand, deep confidence with the material, some profound insights. His program ranged wildly: Grainger to Brahms, and a fiendish Toccata by Marc-André Hamelin; then four Schubert Impromptus, and Ravel’s macabre “La Valse.”
It had a piecemeal feeling. More like “this is what I’m playing now,” rather than a carefully curated, thoughtfully matched set of works. But that will come.
Sunwoo had a firm grip on the three shorter works: Grainger’s “Ramble,” a short fantasy on a theme from Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”; the Hamelin “Toccata,” which was a requirement for all the Cliburn competitors; and Ravel’s growling “La Valse.”
Each work was deftly wrought, in their own way. Grainger’s tender rumination on a love duet leaves plenty of openings for sadness, and Sunwoo etched that all carefully. Hamelin’s fiery work — not for the faint of heart — showed off Sunwoo’s dramatic technique.
“La Valse” started as a tribute to Johann Strauss II — the Waltz King. It ended up being a sort of surreal amalgam of a happy waltz tune, and Ravel’s traumatic view of Europe during World War I. A beautiful dance theme tries to emerge, but gets battered into submission time after time. Sunwoo made sure we heard the beauty, as well as the cannon.
Longer works — Brahms F sharp minor sonata, and the Schubert Impromptus (D. 935), were unevenly offered. Brahms’s sonata is a terrifically difficult piece, hard to articulate. Sunwoo showed prodigious technique, but many phrases were puzzling, as if he were simply running through the notes. They were all there, but didn’t sound cohesive.
The four Impromptus all had richness, but some slender playing as well. The second, a minuet with a familiar slow melody, had a lovely cadence, shifting gracefully up to a major key just before vanishing.
After pounding out “La Valse,” Sunwoo had to settle his audience down. His encore, “Autumn Song (October)” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons,” did that gracefully.
The Newport Music Festival runs through July 22 at various locations in Newport.