With a Haydn sonata, a Bach partita, a late Beethoven sonata, and a Liszt opera paraphrase on her program, pianist Hwa-Jin Kim had her work cut out for her, and the appreciative audience that filled the downstairs of Pack Place’s Diana Wortham Theatre clearly responded to her performance. While the theatre’s Model B Hamburg Steinway is well shy of a full-sized concert grand and simply lacks the resonance of a larger instrument, Kim nonetheless made the most of the instrument’s sonic resources, rendering a satisfying program of great stylistic breadth.
A graduate of her native Seoul National University, Kim earned both her master’s and doctoral degrees from the Manhattan School of Music and has performed internationally and taught at several schools in the northeast, among them the Manhattan School of Music and Brown University. Now an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music at UNC-Asheville, she remains active as a performer, lecturer, teacher, and competition adjudicator.
Her program began with Haydn’s Piano Sonata Hob. XVI:48 in C. This work was written in 1789 and consists of only two movements — in the first, a theme and variations movement, Kim set a beautiful mood of seriousness and intimacy in its opening measures, where a wealth of galant-style ornaments were flawlessly executed. The second movement rondo, light-hearted and potentially humorous, was played in too much of a rush without much inflection with some audible pedal thumping; what I wanted more of was the shaping and framing of its contents.
Next on the program was the crown jewel of the afternoon, Bach’s demanding Partita No. 6 in E minor, S.830, from his Clavier-Übung. Kim was definitely in her element with this iconic work. The opening Toccata was beautifully executed with the kind of improvisatory expansiveness and freedom that breathes life into the work. The third movement, a rhythmically complex Corrente, was an astonishing and devilishly delightful amalgam of steady left-hand notes and right-hand figurations in and out of sync until each section’s cadence. The fifth movement Sarabande unfolded in a filigree of ornaments so beautifully played they sounded spontaneous, as Bach must have intended. (Just committing all these ornaments to memory is a feat unto itself.) The final movement Gigue harbored the suite’s surprise, a three-voiced fugue with one of the funkiest and most experimental subjects ever. Yes this is cerebral, superbly crafted music, but not without a generous dose of humor.
After intermission came Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat, Op. 110. Written in 1821, this was his next-to-last work in the genre and exhibits his continued experimental approach to piano composition into his final years, long after he had ceased playing in public. The first movement marked Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo and in sonata form, is a piece of rumination and inner reflection. Kim established well its air of introspection, which is so mesmerizing because it occurs at the outset, unframed by anything before it. The brief second movement Allegro Molto is an irrepressible tirade of a scherzo with some wicked passagework that erupts out of nowhere. The soul of the work lies in the final movement which alternates between slow arioso sections with the character of a lament and a fugue. This powerful movement is darkly fascinating with its rhetoric of repeated notes and chords articulating key points in the form, key changes, and manipulation of its fugal elements. Though Kim’s performance was evocative and sensitive — I sensed that by the final return of the fugue she was fairly fatigued and stressed by the program’s demands.
The following work was Liszt's Rigoletto: paraphrase de concert, S.434 of 1859, one of several adaptations Liszt composed of melodies from Verdi’s operas. I was amazed at Kim’s resilience in rallying to play this difficult work after all that had come before, but rally she did. Her rankings of the compositional elements of melody and accompanying filigree were musical and clearly voiced, and she negotiated the etude-like music with technical aplomb.
The program ended sweetly with a short piece, “Gabriel’s Oboe” from the film The Mission, performed by Kim and her two daughters who play violin and flute.