FORT WORTH -- Yeol eum Son returned to Bass Hall Tuesday evening with a big program that was warmly received by the audience.
Son is still remembered for her thrilling performance in 2009 at the 13th Van Cliburn Piano Competition, when she won the Silver Medal and the Steven De Groote Memorial Award for the Best Performance of Chamber Music.
More recently, she won second prize at the XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. She received two additional prizes there: Best Chamber Concerto Performance and Best Performance of a Commissioned Work.
Tuesday's performance was one in the Cliburn at the Bass concert series.
She opened with Beethoven's 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, which were originally scheduled for the second half of the program. It was a wise move to play it first.
Beethoven's variations on Diabelli's unremarkable waltz are a study in compositional craft. Beethoven loved variations and reportedly would sit and improvise them for hours. These are a scholarly study of the form and a virtuoso act of composition. However, they require concentration on the part of audience and performer, making them best suited for the first half.
Son played them with the same attention to constantly changing style and pianistic technique as the composer lavished on them. She repeated each variation, which Beethoven indicated with a repeat mark, but which many performances omit. However, without the repeat, some of the variations pass by too quickly, and hearing them again is time well spent.
These are not flashy pieces, although some are very difficult. They are meant to be savored as a whole, as Diabelli's waltz metamorphoses through Beethoven's musical magic. The piece might have been too esoteric for some.
The second half supplied some of the fireworks that the audience wanted, but even these selections were not the big virtuoso pieces that some expected.
Franz Liszt's transcription of Carl Maria von Weber's Overture to his opera Der Freischütz required little from Liszt to make into a virtuoso showpiece. Son made it sound orchestral as she played the gigantic fistfuls of notes and didn't allow the tempo in the fast parts to sag for a moment.
She also kept the very fast tempo going in Felix Mendelssohn's Scherzo from his incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, as arranged by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Once again, the complexity of the orchestral score meant that Rachmaninoff didn't need to add much to increase the difficulty of his piano transcription. This scherzo occurs between Acts One and Two, when used with the play, and thus was designed to set the mood for the entrance of Oberon. Son kept it as light as the fairies that will soon appear on the stage.
In between, Son played two lovely and unassuming transcriptions of Schubert songs by pianist Leopold Godowsky. These are simple and unadorned versions of the songs, and Son did a beautiful job of keeping the singing line legato and layering the accompaniment just enough underneath to be supportive.
The final selection was a transcription by Carl Tausig of a waltz by Johann Strauss II, Man lebt nur einmal! This is usually translated as "You only live once" and the exclamation point in actually in the title.
Tausig was a pupil of Franz Liszt and one of the leading pianists of his day. This arrangement brings out some of the impressive virtuoso flourishes for which Liszt was known. Son dashed them off with obvious delight.
Her encore was also delightful. She easily moved into the jazz style of playing with Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin's Concert Etude Op. 40 No. 7, subtitled "intermezzo."