Minsoo Sohn’s GOLDBERG VARIATIONS: a CD Review by Stanley Fefferman

Minsoo Sohn, the 2006 Honens First Laureate, established himself for me in performance at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. I wrote then that he ” has a Gouldian presence at the keyboard. His body moves fluidly as he is stirred by his passion for the music, and indeed, for the instrument which he seems at times to be embracing. His hands are poetic, caressing the keys lightly or striking them with great force, but always precisely, and always bringing out subtlety in the phrasing that individualizes the character and feeling of the music.” I keep this live image in mind as I listen to his CDs.

Mr. Sohn’s first CD, Liszt’s transcriptions of works by Bach, Paganini, Beethoven and Mozart is riveting.  His newest recording, Bach’s Goldberg Variations—the Everest of young pianists—could earn him a place in the company of the 19 year old Rosalyn Tureck and the 23 year old Glenn Gould: their 1950’s recordings remain current classics.

The Aria that introduces Bach’s 30 variations gives a sense of the whole performance: the tone is sonorous, the touch gentle, the line relaxed, the ubiquitous sarabande bass lightly shadowed, and the tempos conservative at 75 minutes (including repeats). The feeling of this Aria is quite similar to the “Black Pearl” variation 25 which testifies to Mr. Sohn’s care and attention to the overall architecture.

The variations come in groups of three: first a rhythmic dance, then a virtuosic arabesque, followed by a formal canon. The emotionality of the dances are separated from the hierarchical canons by the ear-candy of the arabesques. My favourite variations here are the 7th—a four-voiced canon, playful and rhythmically nuanced with romantic colourings; the 10th, a ‘fughetta’ with strong declamatory voices; the vivid 14th, quick and quirky; the melancholy and reflective ‘Canone alla settima’, with its lovely, songlike melody.

Minsoo Sohn’s “Black Pearl” at 8 minutes is utterly poetic. It opens with an elegant reverie in the mood of Mozart’s “Elvira Madigan” theme, slows and darkens to a ‘palely loitering’ pace into a Keatsian dream of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and closes with a sense of the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”

The novelist Richard Powers imagined he ‘almost’ heard in these variations (Glenn Gould’s 1981 performance) the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching parallel the coding of DNA’s double helix. The key ideas are ‘imagine’ and ‘almost’. We ‘almost’ get the Goldbergs: they ‘tease us out of thought’. It’s like being at a multi-generational family gathering and imagining we ‘almost’ see how each face figures into the family carpet.

Minsoo Sohn’s articulated offering will likely figure in the imaginings of future Goldbergers. Goto http://www.honens.com/Multimedia.aspx if you would like to audit and purchase this highly recommended album.

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