Jenna Sung’s Poetic Piano Debut

Wigmore Hall, London, UK, November 16, 2014–As part of her first prize award in the annual Jaques Samuel Intercollegiate piano competition, Jenna Sung gave her London recital debut at Wigmore Hall November 16 to  a full and appreciative house. I first heard Sung during the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, and her artistry has ripened and evolved in the interim. She continues to command a masterful and effortless technique on all levels, yet never treats virtuosity as an end in itself, focusing instead on details of dynamics, tonal shadings, and expression.

One noticed this in the finale of Haydn’s wonderful two-movement C major sonata Hob. XVI:48, where Sung tellingly gauged echo effects and subtle contrapuntal interplay between the hands. Although her relatively fast basic tempo for the first movement didn’t quite allow embellishments and decorative passages sufficient breathing room, the wistful final pages gently soared.

Sung’s gifts for multi-textural contouring came into their own during the next selection, Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne for the left hand. Melodic lines and accompaniments seemingly emerged from many hands and instruments, as opposed to just five fingers and one remarkably resplendent Fazioli concert grand. In the first half’s concluding work, Chopin’s B minor sonata, Sung came into focus during the first-movement development section’s complex polyphony, and played down the Scherzo’s surface scintillation with unusual voicings and accents. Lots of young pianists heave and sigh over the Largo, but Sung kept the tempo rock-steady and the form air tight, making expressive points through color and inflection alone.

Sung dedicated the second part of her recital, which included two world premieres, to “all that lost their lives at sea,” taking impetus from the April 16, 2014 Korean ferry MV Sewol tragedy where more than 300 of its 476 passengers, mostly children, were killed. She opened with Chopin’s Barcarolle, understating the main theme while spinning out gorgeous legato double notes. Both passion and patience characterized Sung’s unfolding of the sublime coda’s imitative writing, long trills, and rarely projected left-hand countermelodies.

A new barcarolle by Stephen Montague called “Nun-mul” (the Korean word for tears) began with slow upward arpeggios and lilting figures that suggest the ruminative style of certain Brahms late piano pieces. Later on, gnawing clusters sneak up, kick in, and eventually descend to the keyboard’s lowest registers while a treble melody hangs by a thread. The piece is relatively short and succinct, and leaves not one note unaccounted for or wasted. Gwyn Pritchard’s “Tide” is more prolix, dissonant, and pianistically complex. It’s packed with speed-ups, slow-downs, and lots of sostenuto pedal trickery right out of the Berio Sequenza IV playbook. It required and received prodigious feats of agility, timbral contrasts, and rhythmic acumen from the pianist, who was on top of as well as inside of the notes.

Likewise, Sung has internalized Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit to a revealing degree since I heard her play it in the 2010 Queen Elisabeth. She pushed Ondine to languid extremes, imposing all sorts of fanciful rubatos and reversed dynamics, yet never lost control, save for one teensy stumble from which she quickly rebounded. Conversely, Le Gibet proceeded straight as a tack and impeccably poised, with its obsessive repeated B-flats and billowy chords outlined in the exact dynamic perspectives that Ravel requests yet rarely gets. Sung made child’s play out of Scarbo’s difficulties with deliciously scurrying runs and nuanced rapid chords, achieving an impressive fusion of playful fantasy and dramatic abandon. God only knows why 80 percent of pianists worldwide dutifully give Chopin’s youthful, posthumously-published C-sharp minor Nocturne as an encore, including Sung. But it turned out to be a palate cleanser for a dazzling and individually phrased Chopin Op. 10 No. 4 Etude. That was Sung’s real encore.