In 2012, Sumi Hwang won second prize at the ARD Music Competition in Munich, followed this year by the Grand Prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. The Korean soprano showed why at her American debut recital, a knockout hour-long program presented on Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Collection.
Hwang’s lyric soprano voice has a pearly clarity, the intonation just, and the tone even and pretty across its range. She had a pleasing simplicity in a set of three songs from Schumann’s “Myrthen,” Op. 25, giving a sense of excitement to the often staid “Widmung” and a naive lilt to “Der Nussbaum.”
The top of her voice could be lofted airily, clean and pure up to the G-sharp at the climax of Liszt’s “Oh quand je dors,” held unflaggingly as the underpinning C-sharp chord turned from major to minor. Directors looking for a Nannetta with celestial high notes for their production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” should have her on their short list.
In other songs, like a fine selection from Berg’s “Seven Early Songs,” Hwang deployed those top notes at full wattage, sometimes a little too much power for the museum’s small music room but never ugly. The high B in Rachmaninoff’s “Zdes khorosho” was the only point that was a little dicey in terms of vocal control, but the high A in the same composer’s “Ne poy, krasavitsa” was lovely.
If there was a shortcoming, it was in the pronunciation of foreign languages, good but not great in German and French, for example, and in that last bit of interpretative acumen that would turn strong performances into indelible ones, as in a rather dull “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s “Rusalka.”
Pianist Jonas Vitaud could have taken more care in not pushing his partner with an overabundance of sound, but he certainly had the technical skill to create the torrential backgrounds of the more difficult Liszt and Rachmaninoff songs.
Downey is a freelance writer.