"Mozart is probably the most difficult composer to perform"
Written by journalist Young-Jin Hur
Interview in London on 11 March 2019
March in London is a pleasant affair. With winter's trail just timid on the edges, the wind carries memories - both charmingly and with a hint of wist - of last year's spring-coming. And where the mind journies in these unhurried ways, it also welcomes future days, perhaps knowing that they, too, will one day become another time's past.
It was in one of these personable late winter and early spring mornings I met William Youn near London's Wigmore Hall, where he was to perform in the evening. While this meeting being our first face-to-face encounter, this was, in fact, not my first acquaintance with the pianist. Some years ago, I had been involved in a couple of William's Mozart piano sonata releases, once as a record sleeve writer and once as a reviewer. That these seemingly separate episodes will one day come together as a conglomerate of something fond, how little I had known.
To finally meet William in person was both a revelation yet not without familiarity. The surprise arose from just how composed, calm, and insightful he was, the familiarity from just how his manners appeared to reflect the composure, calmness, and insight of his brilliantly cut Mozart recordings. During the 30 minutes we had, we talked about his Wigmore Hall programme, the beauties of pain reflected in German Romanticism, his repertoire, historically informed performance traditions, playing Korean music, and a lot on Mozart, especially the difficulties of performing Mozart's music.
Below is a transcript of our conversation, translated from Korean.
Young-Jin Hur (YH): Hello William, it's a pleasure to have you as a guest. I reviewed one of your Mozart discs a few years ago. It's refreshing now that I have a chance to interview you in London. What does London mean to you?
William Youn (WY): Yes, I recall that your review came out while I was in London promoting that Mozart recording for In Tune at the BBC. Overall, today counts as part of my fifth visit to London. I was very young when I first visited the city - everything seemed magical then. Since then, every time I visit this city, I feel something new, something more personal and more relatable than before. Overall, I guess I'm getting to know London.
YH: In your first visit to London, did you consider that you might perform here one day in the future?
WY: Yes, that was a dream I had. When I first visited London, I was in high school and I came here as an exchange student. I had flown in from the USA. I visited various concert halls including the Purcell Room and the Royal Festival Hall. Perhaps owing to the fact that it was my very first visit, everything was quite overwhelming. I remember thinking to myself, "ah, life goes on in this big city, too." But now I'm here, ready to perform at the Wigmore Hall.
YH: Indeed. You'll be performing later tonight with Nils Mönkemeyer. For how long have you known him?
WY: We've played together for almost 10 years. We've made two recordings together and we still have a number of ongoing projects. Nils has previously played at the Wigmore Hall, but it's the first time we perform as a duo.
YH: Given the novelty of your collaboration, how did you come up with tonight's programme?
WY: The programme we are staging is called "Night Songs." As you can infer from the title, we'll be presenting pieces with nocturnal themes. Unintentionally, there is an underlying Britishness, too; we have a piece called Lachrymae by Benjamin Britten and we finish the concert with Rebecca Clarke's viola sonata.
I am especially excited about Rebecca Clarke's work, a female composer who never enjoyed the fortune of wide-spread popularity. There is a sad story behind this sonata we are performing tonight. When Rebecca Clarke won a composition competition through this sonata, her prize was taken away due to the fact that she was a woman. Later in life, she moved away to the USA, where she lived through the rest of her life, but away from much musical activity. Rebecca Clarke herself was a violist and her viola sonata, in my opinion, is her best work. The original score includes an epigraph that describes the night. The piece has qualities that are quintessentially British but also with an unmistakable personal touch unique to Rebecca Clarke.
YH: Night, as a theme, evokes Romanticism.
WY: One could say so. As previously mentioned, we'll perform Benjamin Britten's Lachrymae. We will also perform Mozart's K.360 variations in G minor on Hélas, j’ai perdu mon amant, which is based on a song that laments the death of a close one. So overall, many of our pieces have to do with endings and the night. I think the night can symbolise the end of things. However, the night opens up possibilities of innermost fantasies. So the night can also be a celebration of discreet things in life.
YH: I can see there are many layers of complex emotions.
YH: The reason that I brought up Romanticism is that you recently released an album that is heavily imbued with Romanticism. In these recording, you present pieces by Schumann, Liszt, and Schubert, for example. Talking to you about your programme tonight, you sound quite a Romantic yourself. Oddly, this is quite a jump from the classical Mozart, the focus of many of your celebrated earlier releases.
WY: If I'm honest, I am much more comfortable with Romanticism.
YH: Oh really?
WY: In some ways, Mozart has always been a personal challenge of mine. This is why I was eager to play his works. In fact, I do not believe there are many people who are comfortable with playing Mozart. On the other hand, Romanticism is more natural for me to play, especially German Romanticism.
YH: What is it about German Romanticism that makes it easier for you?
WY: What Schumann and Brahms, for example, portray are serious emotions that present concentrations of self-expression. Their compositions lack superfluous decorations. Therefore, in playing their works, I can actually feel the personalities of these composers. I enjoy being in touch with these human qualities through music. Of course, by playing, for example, Beethoven, you can never grasp the composer's specific ideologies about life, but I still feel Beethoven's pieces have this communicative quality. Especially for Schumann and Brahms, it feels as though their compositions paint elevation through life's pain and suffering.
YH: Yes. On a psychological sense, isn't it contradictory that one can experience elevation or joy through pain? After all, joy and pain are opposites. How do musicians deal with this contradiction?
WY: I think Schumann understood this contradiction most well. His Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, begins with an epigraph describing how joys and sorrows are mixed together. From this, I gather that Schumann, from a young age, knew exactly how beauty and sadness are interchangeable experiences. I think another composer to express this wisdom of sadness in beauty and vice versa so well is Schubert.
YH: I wonder if great beauty naturally evokes multiple emotions. If a piece were only joyful or only sad - not that I know pieces like this - that would rather be one-dimensional. Besides, if there was only sadness, how do we know what sadness is?
[Note. The following is the epigraph to Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6:
In all und jeder Zeit
Verknüpft sich Lust und Leid:
Bleibt fromm in Lust und seid
Dem Leid mit Mut bereit
(In each and every age
joy and sorrow are mingled:
Remain pious in joy,
and be ready for sorrow with courage)]
YH: How do you select your repertoire in general?
WY: As a performer, I believe I should perform pieces that I am confident about. Considering Liszt's Hungarian rhapsody, for instance, I won't have a problem at all in preparing it. However, I cannot imagine I will be happy during this preparation. Not long ago, I told someone that one of my weaknesses as a performer is that I try to personalise my repertoire too much. What I mean is this. If one looks at people like András Schiff or Lorin Maazel, there is usually an impression of objectivity in that they seem to keep a cool distance. This makes their style hugely adaptable to a wide range of repertoire. If one may find a parallel in the world of acting, I think of Meryl Streep; because of her sense of distance, she is able to portray a wide range of roles and personalities. On the other hand, people like Radu Lupu and Maria Callas focus on pieces that only fit in with who they are. I think I might be in the latter camp of performers (WY laughs).
YH: I suppose there are pros and cons of having this approach?
WY: I guess so. These days, I play Schubert's last piano sonata quite often. But when I play this piece, I realise that I am incredibly moved, to the degree that I start questioning if this is an appropriate response. I think that the audience should be listening to Schubert's expressions, instead of me, the performer, being moved by the music!
WY: It's not that I am moved by my own performance but that I am moved by Schubert's score so much.
YH: On a technical level, if performers are too affected during performances, I suppose this can disrupt their rhythms or melodic lines?
WY: I think so. This is why I am always careful to control myself and to not get too immersed in the score. I tell myself I am just a medium that links the composer and the audience. Still, as someone with plenty of emotions, self-control is something I will always be wary about. But returning to my initial point, I try to play pieces that fit my preferences. So when I recorded Schumann's Humoreske, I chose this piece because I felt had plenty to say something about it. I was always happy and comfortable during the recording session.
YH: I can see this. Still, your Mozart recordings have collected so much global praise despite you finding the music very difficult. In this light, the relationship between preference and external appraisal seems quite complex.
WY: Of course, I became more comfortable with Mozart's music as the recording sessions continued. For me, the appreciation that so many people showed me for those recordings was confirmation that what I set forth to do is accepted by others. This made me happy. Nevertheless, I stand by the view that Mozart is probably the most difficult composer to perform.
[Note. One can view that, ultimately, the relationship between what one likes, what one finds challenging, and what one does well, may have a complex relationship. For example, one may find value and beauty in incomprehensible and abstract ideas, one may thrive in what one does not necessarily enjoy doing, and one may achieve great things in what one finds immensely frustrating and time-consuming. The half-joking phrase, "there is a PhD in this", applies itself to this inquiry, I hope, as lesser of a joke than genuine intrigue.]
YH: Indeed. In a past interview, you said that you came to Mozart late. I have heard similar anecdotes from conductors on Mozart. Why is Mozart such a difficult composer?
WY: I think one's taste and appreciation in music develops with time. For example, when I was young, I couldn't fully understand why people hailed Wilhelm Kempff as one of the greatest pianists. For me, his music-making was dry, blunt, and even blemished with mistakes. But as I experienced more music and the art world in general, I came to see the beauties and merits of these performances. In terms of composers, I have come to appreciate Bruckner and Bach more than I appreciate Wagner. Likewise, the concertos by Mozart show up more frequently on my playlist than the concertos by Rachmaninov. I don't know why these changes occur, but they undeniably exist.
With Mozart, I was certainly cognisant all my life of the outer pleasantness in his music. When I was young, this obvious joyfulness even felt like a limit of musical expressiveness. In fact, when I heard pianists play Mozart's music, I thought to myself, "yes, they are playing all the right notes with clarity; that sounds easy." Nowadays, if I listen to these recordings, I understand just how difficult it is to play Mozart with such lightness of touch. When describing Mozart's music, I often think about the comparison between a fresco and a nicely framed painting. A fresco is impressive in its scale and largeness. However, the beauty of a small painting lies in the genius of capturing delicacy and intricacy in a limited physical space. The latter is what Mozart does; using small instrumental forces, he is able to cultivate the greatest and the most universal of all possible human expressions. Mozart is a marvel.
YH: Was there anything you wanted to achieve in particular, in approaching such a difficult composer?
WY: As I went through a number of existing Mozart recordings in the market, I realised that none of them was fully satisfactory. I thought that there were many things to learn from the more traditional readings such as the ones by Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff, and Edith Fischer. But listening to many of the more recent recordings, I thought something was missing. By the way, I am only referring to piano playing; I think Mozart's orchestral music has seen a vast improvement in performance over the years. In the end, I wanted to find a balance between drama and clarity.
YH: How much time do you devote to research before committing yourself to recordings?
WY: For my Mozart recordings, I took lessons from Andreas Staier. Andreas Staier, a recognised fortepiano player, approaches music with academic rigour. My time with him was one of the most modern and innovative lessons I've ever received. This was when I learned how revolutionary historically informed performance techniques were. One could say I was enlightened.
YH: This is also how you became interested in the fortepiano?
WY: Yes, that's correct.
YH: How much of this historically informed performance approach influences your playing in general, outside of Mozart?
WY: I think my approach depends on the style of music. For example, if you listen to the playing of some of Clara Schumann's students, there is an abundance of rubato and rhythmic flexibility. The phrasing is incredibly free; they play the piano as if they are speaking to someone. This is the style of playing that represents Romanticism.
YH: I'd like to conclude with one last question. It's somewhat common in the classical music world that musicians play music from their culture or their part of the world. While you did say earlier that you identify with German Romanticism, do you have any plans to play music from Korea? I am thinking of works by Isang Yun and Unsuk Chin.
WY: Given that I am a Korean, I naturally have an interest in playing the music by Korean or Korea-related composers. For this reason, I have played pieces by Unsuk Chin quite recently in Berlin. Likewise, I have played Isang Yun's music in the past. Next season, I will perform the music of Klaus Huber, who was the husband of Youngji Pagh-Paan, another Korean composer. Of these composers, Isang Yun can be said to be the most explicitly Korean, given his tendency to use Korean folk melodies and traditional Korean sonorities. When it comes to performers, conductor Shiyeon Sung is someone I respect immensely and someone I enjoy performing with. That said, music is a universal language. Especially in our generation, we travel abroad so easily and have numerous international collaborations. Because of this, I do not always make decisions based on my Korean nationality.
YH: I understand. With this, I would like to conclude the interview. Thank you very much.
WY: Thank you.