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'Any emotion you may feel is the right one'

Pianist Sunwoo Ye-kwon says he tried to show more of the composer in 'Rachmaninoff: A Reflection'

Sept. 12, 2023 - 17:04 By Park Ga-young
Korean pianist Sunwoo Ye-kwon performs during a press conference at Kumho Art Hall Yonsei at Yonsei University, Seoul, on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

o Concerto No. 3 in the final round, released an album dedicated to the Russian composer on Tuesday.

Sunwoo’s second album, titled “Rachmaninoff. A Reflection,” is meant to commemorate Rachmaninoff, who was born 150 years ago, and also to reflect on the 34-year-old pianist himself.

“'Reflection' has various meanings. It can reflect me, and also signifies that I will examine myself through the album,” Sunwoo told reporters during a press conference held at the Kumho Art Hall Yonsei in Seoul on Tuesday. "Like looking into a mirror, sometimes it can be unpleasant to see, but it's still my own reflection. I wanted to face my true self."

“Also, I like reflections on the water's surface. On my way back one night before a recording, I saw the big moon reflected on the water, and I hoped that, even in the situation I was in, I would be able to do my best to raise it (meaning the recording) up as much as possible,” he said.

The "situation" he was referring to was having fallen ill at the time of the two-day recording. He had just completed four days of Army reserve training and was suffering from both sinusitis and tonsillitis with a high fever all at once. During the first recording, he even went to the hospital to get intravenous fluids.

After the recording, he pushed back listening to the recordings to give feedback to the recording company.

“When I think about this album, it brings back painful memories of that time, but at the end of the day, I’m satisfied with my album,” he said, his eyes getting teary and voice trembling ever so slightly.

The album released by Decca contains Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 and Kreisler’s Liebesleid (arranged by Rachmaninoff for piano) as well as the third movement from Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19 (transcribed by Volodos for piano). Other tracks in the album are Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 3 No. 2 and Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23. No.5 and Rachmaninoff's Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22.

The album was recorded in June this year at Tongyeong Concert Hall in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, one of the most sought-after venues for recording classical music. He explained he chose the concert hall where he could be more relaxed over a recording studio where his focus would have been on pursuing perfection.

As for his choice of Variations on a Theme of Corelli, the pianist said it was the first Rachmaninoff piece he learned in earnest when he was about 18 years old.

He reflected on his time after going to the US to study the music as a teenager and the time that came after a time of challenge.

“I was no child prodigy. I started to play the piano at the age of 8 and was learning slowly. When I went to the US, I didn’t know how to listen to the music, how to feel and how to express the music. After several challenging years, at about 18, I learned (Variations on a Theme of Corelli). I still remember my teacher’s performance and his singing of the melodies and that’s how I started learning to express the music,” he recalled. The teacher Sunwoo was referring to is the late Seymour Lipkin, who taught him at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Korean pianist Sunwoo Ye-kwon answers questions during a press conference at Kumho Art Hall Yonsei at Yonsei University in Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

“Other pieces are those that immediately come to mind or resonate in my heart when thinking about Rachmaninoff's music,” he explained.

By introducing variations, he wanted to show more of Rachmaninoff, he said. "Variations are a genre where composers express their own ideas and creativity."

He said he hopes this album resonates with listeners. “I don’t want to say comfort and healing. I just wanted this album to accompany the listeners, whatever situations they may be going through. Whatever feelings they might have listening to it, that’s the right answer -- unless the feeling is anger,” he said.

To celebrate the release of his album, the pianist will embark on a nationwide recital tour from Sept. 23 to Oct. 20, performing in 11 cities including Seoul, Busan, Daejeon, Ulsan, Hwaseong in Gyeonggi Province and Yeosu in South Jeolla Province.

The recital program includes Bach-Brahms’ “Chaconne in d minor for the left hand,” Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826, Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 and Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22.