December 5, 2018
Minju Choi, piano
Navona Records 6192
Total Time: 62:59
Three modern works for solo piano are featured in this recital by Korean-American pianist Minju Choi. She studied with Jerome Lowenthal and Gilbert Kalish as she pursued her academic and technical development. Her devotion to American composers has led to many premieres and collaborations. She currently teaches at Missouri State University in Springfield.
Up first is Ching-Chu Hu’s (b. 1969) four-movement work, Pulse (2015). It was commissioned by Choi and follows an overall traditional sonata structure. The opening movement, “Anxious”, features a flurry of glissandi interspersed with dense harmonies. These ideas work in alternation in spirts of energy. Sometimes the extended harmonies and syncopations have a slight jazz feel, but the melodic contours also have unique shifts that reference Chinese concepts of line. The return of these ideas and gestures helps lend the movement its shape. Hu intentionally creates gestures that refer to Asian instruments (in this case the sheng and zither). These nervous flurries also appear in the second movement, “Anticipation”, which has a line that flits across the keyboard. In the slower movement, “Dream”, some of these earlier concepts will reappear in a more reflective atmosphere. There are some quite telling moments of beauty that have a romantic quality to them, floating out like late Debussy or Ravel. The final “Adrenaline” creates the sense of a more scattered bursts of excitement. Hu’s music has a sort of post-Impressionist feel in this work with its suggestive program providing some additional narrative to his engaging work which features a great sense of proportion across the four movements. It also displays Choi’s virtuosic technique and abilities to create crystal clear articulations and textures.
The central work on the album also explored the blend of Western classical music with global infusions. Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) explores Andean folk music in her Sonata Andina No. 1 (2000) which also suggests traditional instruments (drums, flutes) and performance styles. “Allegro Aymara” explores interesting rhythms and repeated motifs that create an interesting sense of drumming amidst repeated lines in Frank’s modernist style. In “Himno Inca”, she continues this exploration of rhythm, which here also includes some percussive clapping and taps by the performer. The chords and motives repeat, with swells that are quite fascinating in an almost modified minimalist approach. These circle around with certain chords becoming moments of cadence that create signposts in the movement. The slow movement, “Adagio Illariy”, takes these flurries of sound and expands them in an expansive exploration of the keyboard whose repeated motifs create a sense of darkness to light. The “Finale Saosampillo” reveals Frank’s own appreciation of Ginastera with its suggestions of guitars, marimba, and savage dance. It is a most invigorating and engaging piece well worth its time with its natural continuation of the Classical music of South America. Choi’s performance here again really gives the listener a chance to admire her technical skill but also her shaping of lines and rhythmic clarity.
Philip Lasser (b. 1963) completed his Sonata for Piano, Les Hiboux Blancs in 1996. This is the revised published version from 2001 which Choi has premiered. The three movements have a traditional fast-slow-fast template upon which Lasser paints some rather vivid music. The opening movement is in a modified sonata form where the ideas of the exposition are switched for the recap. The music is fairly traditional harmonically with engaging rhythmic design. It is what makes the impressionistic reflective central movement quite stunning with its rich harmonic writing that ends questioningly. The finale is a demanding toccata putting Choi’s technical skills to the test.
Choi’s program features three very different musical voices, but each sonata here makes for an excellent introduction to the music of these unique composers. From blends of global musical instruments woven into the fabric of the music to the more abstract thematic lines of the final piece, these works invite the listener into their explorations of what the piano can do. In the hands of Minju Choi, one may overlook the difficulty of these often virtuosic vehicles which she has so perfectly mastered here. The recording itself is stunning in its capture of the sound. It is a highly-recommended release.