Kun Woo Paik’s subdue virtuosity on piano works of Ravel

With a humble appearance, the calmness of Kun Woo Paik stands great contrast with his splendid virtuosity. He performs all solo piano works of Maurice Ravel in one evening at the 2012 Hong Kong Arts Festival.

This is not the first all-Ravel recital; Mary Wu, the then artist-in-residence of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, challenged this task in a campus performance back in 2004, with all four major multi-movement works in one evening. Mr. Paik goes one step further with performing all shorter pieces together along with Le tombeau de Couperin, Gaspard de la nuit, Sonatine and Miroirs. The no-pause performance from one piece to another dwarfs the exhilarating show-piece Jeux d’eau into just a tiny creature.

The programming, albeit single-mindedly all-inclusive, is thoughtful. Mr. Paik dedicates the first part of the concert to the works tracing back to the classical era or earlier. Menuet antique, Ravel’s first published work, sets the tone of traversing the oeuvre of the composer who is equally known as an impressionist and classicist. Born to a Swiss watchmaker father and a Basque mother, Ravel is always an interesting mix of passion and precision. Menuet antique looks way back to the galant menuet, something that even Mozart might be unfamiliar. With this piece, Ravel’s harmonic language matures into his very own. After the shorter Prélude and Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn, Mr. Paik plays Jeux d’eau with a delicate touch. Le tombeau follows, however, not as effective; at times the music sounds rough and the attention the articulations distracted. The Toccata is a usual flare of virtuosity with dots of scars at the bass.

After the break the unevenness of the first part vanishes. Perhaps the choice of music suits him best; with Valse noble et sentimentale and Gaspard de la nuit, this part turns the focus to Ravel’s other half of passions and grandeur. The sensual rubato wonderfully waltzes with the subtle colouring of interwoven melodies. Mr. Paik’s grasp of melodies spanned through the whole keyboard and sonority of immense depth makes way into Gaspard, which is a breathtaking success. The shimmering water of Ondine vividly sets the scene of a wavy lake under the sun with the fairy appears causing ripples after ripples. Mr. Paik finds no difficulty in the quick reiterations of chords and the sweeping runs, which make this one of the most demanding music of the piano repertoire. The suspense of Le gibet is less terrifying as it may have been, with the ostinato ringing from afar and the tension toned down. The subtle change of tone colour, however, is a marvel. It is not only a technical display in Scarbo but a thrilling saga told with superb command. It indeed is one of the most memorable Ravel that I have encountered.

The third part continues with the most famous Pavane pour une infante défunte. The dense chords are toned down and the music rendered is calm. Mr. Paik’s heavy touch and deep sonority go surprisingly well with the Sonatine, which is classical in design yet highly dramatic. The five movements of Miroirs concludes with a showcase of Mr. Paik’s virtuosity in every way he could; from the introspective Oiseaux triste to the sarcastic (yet sometimes reflective) Alborada del gracioso, the most impressive piece goes to Une barque sur l’océan, another watery music of a lone boat on a stormy sea. This is also one of the most impressive performances when it comes to make piano fluid and rippling. From the deepest void Mr. Paik concludes with the La vallée des cloches, again with distant bells, this time even more muffled. Perhaps it is climatically unfavourable to end a concert with the softest and most introverted piece among Ravel’s piano work, this also shows the true self of Mr. Paik and his virtuosity humbly radiating from his sound.

Date: February 11, 2012
Venue: Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Photo © Yun Jung-hee

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