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Pianist plays with grace under pressure

Yeol Eum Son. (Jaehyong Park)

The drama of a solo piano recital lies in a performer measuring herself against perilous musical demands. Yeol Eum Son, who won silver medals at the Van Cliburn Competition in 2009 and the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, plays with grace under pressure. The South Korean pianist’s recital Sunday afternoon, presented by the Phillips Collection at the International Student House, showed more than just steely nerve.

Sensitivity of touch and musical phrasing are not necessarily the stuff that wins competitions. In Mozart’s Fantasia in C Minor, K. 475, Son played with a dazzling range of dynamics, patiently giving each musical idea a semi-improvisatory spontaneity. The first part of the set of six pieces in Brahms’s Op. 118 did not flow as effortlessly, especially metronomic and uninspired in the yearning “Intermezzo in A Major.” Greater variety in the voicing of countermelodies lifted the last three pieces, particularly the wandering, enigmatic “Intermezzo in E-flat Minor.”

The low point of the program came with Arvo Part’s “Variations for the Healing of Arinushka for Piano.” Son took this simplistic set of six variations at a good clip, making the bell-like texture more trite than profound. The piece was over so quickly that the audience did not even realize it had come and gone, neglecting to applaud even though Son gave clear signs it was over.

When the program became more virtuosic, in Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales,” Son came back to life. With the first piece she took the listener by the collar and never let go, ranging from wispy and mysterious to a murky haze of sound in the smoky final waltz. Her showmanship came to the fore in the final work, Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz No. 1,” played with booming power and devilish ferocity in the cackling multi-trills and gossamer right-hand runs.

The first encore, Friedrich Gulda’s “Play by Play,” a bluesy romp, stayed in the same hot vein, while the second, Chopin’s “Waltz in G-flat Major,” Op. 72/1, cooled the audience back down to room temperature.