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Brent Auerbach
American Record Guide, March 2011

Delightful and original release from Ian Yungwook Yoo. Yoo, who won first prize at the 2007 Beethoven Competition in Bonn, delivers these variation sets with incredible panache…the full 74 minutes are filled with powerful and technically brilliant playing.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Paul Orgel
Fanfare, January 2011

This disc is most welcome for the inclusion of four seldom-heard and very entertaining sets of variations based on themes by Beethoven’s Viennese contemporaries Haibel, Wranitsky, Salieri, and Süssmayr. The pieces come from Beethoven’s “works without opus” and were composed between 1796 and 1799. Ian Yungwook Yoo has chosen some of the more virtuosic of Beethoven’s many variation sets, others of which are more modest teaching pieces. The Six Variations, op. 76, on the Turkish march from The Ruins of Athens is encountered a little more often and the “Eroica” set is well known, but not recorded all that often. The least formulaic and most enjoyable of the lesser-known sets is the 12 Variations on the Russian Dance from Paul Wranitzky’s Waldmädchen. (Wranitzky’s Singspiel Oberon served as a model for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte). Maybe a catchier title would entice more pianists to take up this piece, but it has not gone unnoticed by the likes of Ashkenazy, Gilels, and Cziffra, who recorded it.

Yoo plays with all of the energetic assurance that one would expect from a Juilliard-trained winner of several major competitions. He relates well to the tongue-in-cheek humor, and the typically Beethovenian combination of rambunctiousness and elegance in these display pieces. The only other performance that I know of these works is Alfred Brendel’s early Vox recording, and Yoo’s version surpasses it with more fluent, happier-sounding playing. (A John Ogden recording of some of them looks intriguing.)

Yoo’s “Eroica” Variations, while very efficiently played, are not as successful. The problem may lie with the work’s title. If it were not associated with the later “Eroica” Symphony and known only as “15 Variations on a Theme from the Ballet The Creatures of Prometheus,” pianists might be more likely to perceive that the work is in large part comic and not heroic in tone. (That is, if they aren’t misled by the connotations of “Prometheus” and concentrate on “ballet.”)

In the three short variations that add voices to the opening bass line, Yoo sounds earnest rather than playful, missing some possibilities of comic timing that are inherent in the staccatos, rests, and fermatas if treated simply. (He’s certainly capable of this kind of playing. Just listen to the opening of the Süssmayr variations to hear a gentler touch and more elegant timing.) The comic mood of the subsequent theme and 13 variations ranges from light-hearted to nose thumbing. Yoo plays them with speed and control but I hear few if any interpretive decisons—an unusual voicing, pedaling, or tempo choice—that sound like distinctive, personal touches. (Olli Mustonen’s quirky performance goes to an opposite, sometimes self-indulgent extreme, but its improvisatory quality is appropriate.)

With the serious, chromatic 14th variation in E♭-Minor, a transformation of tone begins. No. 15 is an unexpectedly elaborate and deeply felt largo, followed by a brilliant fugue and finally an elaborated restatement of the theme in a slower, more serious guise than at first. (Beethoven develops the same sequence on a larger scale to conclude the Diabelli Variations.)

The 15th variation needs a more patient approach than Yoo’s and perhaps a slower tempo to provide repose after the preceding tumult. It’s relatively easy to create generic “intensity” with every sforzando a jolt and every “hairpin” an official crescendo, but the gentleness and sense of repose that are needed here are harder to achieve and they seem to be elusive qualities to capture in modern piano recordings.

Keith Anderson’s notes are readable and very informative. The piano is a bright instrument—Naxos credits Yoo’s Henle edition but doesn’t say what the piano is—and the recorded sound is fine.

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, November 2010

The cover presents a striking image: the conquering hero, immortalized in stone, looks out over a sea of fire. He stands alone against the flames, boldly unconcerned. It is a wonderful image of Beethoven the warrior, the master of musical struggles.

The contents of this CD come from a very different side of Beethoven. This recital showcases Beethoven’s witty side, his penchant for virtuosic invention, and his growth as a creative mind. These are six sets of themes and variations, only two of them published. The other four are early works which reveal the genesis of ideas and techniques which would later become the composer’s mainstays. Any lover of Beethoven ought to hear this.

Pianist Ian Yungwook Yoo, who is qualified for the job by his first-prize triumph at the 2007 Beethoven Competition in Bonn, tackles the legendary ‘Eroica’ variations first. He is clearly an advocate of ‘big,’ old-fashioned pianism, and the powerfully sustained opening chord establishes this immediately. But he also sets free his inhibitions, indulges Beethoven’s violent dynamic changes (3:27–3:43), lets the left hand interrupt lyrical moments such as that at 7:00, and matches Beethoven’s playfulness smile-for-smile in variations like the one beginning at 5:21. This is supreme musical mischievousness!

The bulk of the CD is concerned with unpublished variations on themes by other composers. None of these writers are remembered with anything like the fondness we have for Beethoven, and (as with the Diabelli Variations) we can safely say that Beethoven’s achievements with these variations exceed the originals in every case. Salieri’s opera Falstaff has been recorded several times, including performances on Chandos and Hungaroton and even a DVD, but none of the “originals” to the other works here have been recorded. Indeed the catalogues at Arkivmusic and MDT have no listings at all for CDs of music by Jakob Haibel.

The primary interest of these works is as a fascinating catalog of Beethoven’s early treatment of the variation format. Theme-and-variations was arguably the central form of the composer’s career: consider the mighty variation movements in the Third, Fifth, and Ninth symphonies, the piano sonatas opp. 109 and 111, and the monumental Diabelli set. If you are at all fond of those works, you should listen to the early Beethoven variations, for they really do provide great insights into his evolving language and his way of creating something stupendous out of nothing.

I say “nothing” because one of the insights on offer here is that Beethoven consciously chose bare, bland, maybe even poor themes for his variations. The Diabelli waltz theme is, in that sense, perfect for Beethoven’s purpose: if you set it alongside Wranitzky’s dull Russian Dance, or Haibel’s genial but forgettable minuet, or (dare I say it) the Eroica tune, you see that they really are all cut from the same cloth; the rhythmic similarity between Diabelli’s theme and Salieri’s is truly striking. The themes are canvases on which Beethoven paints; in fact they are rather cheap canvases from the supermarket chosen in order to demonstrate all the more clearly that the credit belongs solely to the painter.

Typical of this style is the Haibel set: immediately, with the first variation, Beethoven leaps into a wholly different mood and style. Not for him the classical-era plan of simply ornamenting the tune with little decorations, then having the left and right hands switch, then altering the melody by one or two notes. Beethoven leaps in at the deep end. Already we can hear his adventurousness and his conception of variations as transformative. This structure will be taken to more profound heights in works like the last piano sonata but even in the 1790s Beethoven was writing “theme and transformations”.

The first variation of the Wranitzky set is more conventional, but in exactly five minutes the theme is rendered completely unrecognizable and the work becomes wholly Beethoven’s. And there are vintage Beethoven moments all through these early works, like his habit—to be highlighted in the piano and orchestral Eroica variations—of leaving melodies hanging confidently in midair halfway through, pausing, and then rolling in with the resolutions. The luminous Wranitzky variation at about 3:35 presages some of Beethoven’s transcendent writing in the last sonatas; the fact that Beethoven cannot even wait until Salieri’s theme is over before beginning to toy with it brought a smile to my face. The Salieri set, although a bit monotonous, does introduce the classically Beethovenian idea of bringing back the original theme at the end, subtly transformed. The ‘Turkish march’ variations Op 76 make a delightful encore.

The only real competitors in this quiet corner of the Beethoven repertoire are Alfred Brendel on Brilliant Classics, John Ogdon on EMI, Ronald Brautigam on Globe, and Gianluca Cascioli on DG, though the last two are quite hard to find and indeed the latter is out of print. Florian Uhlig on Hänssler has recently recorded the Wranitzky set. The unpublished variations are probably not interesting enough to merit duplicating if you already have one of those recordings, although I should point out that Brendel omits the Haibel and none of them can match the Naxos sound quality.

There are many Eroica variations out there, and everyone will have a favorite (Gilels looms large), but Ian Yungwook Yoo really does bring everything to this performance: showmanship, drama, great wit, playfulness, sensitivity (8:59–10:02, 15:11–17:20), and superb technique. He is recorded in finer sound than any competitor, although you will want to turn the volume up. He is less sober than Bernard Roberts on Nimbus, more ‘grand’ and romantic than Jenö Jandó, and a full three minutes slower than Brendel, to Yoo’s advantage; Brendel treats the humorous and merely virtuosic variations with one fleet-fingered, undifferentiated style.

For Beethoven lovers and aficionados his early variations are essential listening and have greatly aided me in my listening to his late masterworks in the genre. If you are a casual fan, you may find this music to be of less obvious interest, since so much of it is light, witty, and clever, rather than fiery as the cover might imply. It is not ‘vintage Beethoven’ by any means. But hints of ‘vintage Beethoven’ are to be heard in every work, and that is why real devotees of the composer will find this volume fascinating.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, September 2010

It's a constant source of amazement to me how foreign-born (in the non-European sense) artists are able to absorb western music (and other art form) values, and revel in them. Here is a case in point: this Korean-born pianist could hold his own, and even better many of his western contemporaries. Moreover, not only does he more than do justice to the monumental "Eroica" variations; he is to be doubly congratulated for unearthing a slew of other - albeit minor variations, that quite possibly are unavailable on other labels. Bravo!, September 2010

These are display pieces, plain and simple, mostly created before Beethoven’s encroaching deafness marked the beginning of the end of his virtuoso career around the turn of the 19th century. Actually, the “Eroica” variations—the best-known work here—date to 1802, and the Variations in D Major (whose theme is familiar from The Ruins of Athens) were written as late as 1809. But the principle underlying all these works nevertheless holds: make considerable technical demands of the performer without expecting much from him intellectually, and without asking much of the audience other than to pay attention and enjoy the many ways a theme can be twisted and rearranged hither and yon. Yoo’s performance fits the music admirably: it is bright and brash, even a bit pounding, without subtlety but with plenty of flair. The quieter variations are not particularly thoughtful, really—they are more in the nature of pauses to allow pianist and audience to get ready for the next burst of virtuosity. Yoo is technically very impressive...The “Eroica” variations lead to his impressive handling of the fugal voices before the brilliant conclusion. The four sets of variations on popular music of Beethoven’s time, if not as elaborate as the ones that Liszt would create some decades later, are all well put together, and all take not-terribly-significant music and spin it out in entertaining ways. Yoo shows himself an impressive technician in this light repertoire, and the CD is fun to hear...

James Manheim, September 2010

With the exception of the Six variations for piano in D major, Op. 76, all the music here comes from early in Beethoven’s career, and all of it is, sure enough for piano and in the variation form. Yet in some respects the pieces are an odd grouping, consisting of one large, ambitious piece and five rather lightweight ones. Of the latter, Beethoven declined to assign opus numbers to four of them, and even the Six variations, which share a theme with the flamboyant theater music for The Ruins of Athens, contrast in their idiom with the intricate and personal piano sonatas and quartets of the period. There’s some second-drawer Beethoven here, and the young Korean pianist Ian Yungwook Yoo seems to recognize this, bifurcating his style sharply between the Eroica Variations and Fugue on an original theme in E flat major, Op. 35, and the rest of the music. In the smaller pieces he is technically clean and circumspect, but in the Eroica variations he offers a daring reading. This variation set shares a theme with not one but two other pieces, the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and the finale of the Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55, “Eroica,” and Yoo seems to want to delve into why Beethoven was fascinated by it. He offers a dramatic version that emphasizes the theme’s odd shape and full stop on the high dominant B flat, repeated three times in a manner reminiscent of music for the stage. Yoo’s muscular reading is backed up by full technical facility and definitely holds the listener’s attention...the recording stands out from the crowd and can start interesting debates among people who know the piece well. Strong sound from the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto is a plus.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2010

Critics are not the only ones who misjudge the importance of composers, Beethoven obviously believing that the names of Haibel, Wranitzky, Salieri and Sussmayer would live on. In fact only the composer of the theme for the ‘Eroica’ Variations was to live on, and that was Beethoven. It was to be, together with his ‘Diabelli’ Variations, among the great works in this genre, the remaining scores simply earning a living for a hard-working composer. The performances come from the Korean-born pianist, who, I presume, recorded Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven songs under the name of Wook Yoo Yung. His tempos for the ‘Eroica’ are well-chosen, always thrusting forward with a degree of urgency, adding his own presence with judicious rubatos. His articulation is so clean that notes sparkle, and it is this characteristic he carries over into the remainder of the disc. All five works are bedecked with much filigree in the right hand, the variations based on a theme from Jakob Haibel’s ballet-pantomime, Le nozze disturbate, almost frivolously happy in Beethoven’s world. The one really good and interesting theme comes from Paul Wranitzky’s ballet Waldmadchen, a violinist friend of the composer, its texture lightweight but much in the Beethoven mould. Having passed through two short works on operatic themes by Antonio Salieri and Franz Sussmayr, the Six Variations, of academic rectitude, closes the disc, The recording comes from the Glen Gould Studio of CBC in Toronto and has its own particular piano sound.

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