William Youn: Laughter and Tears…

Artist photography: Irène Zandel

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William Youn has been establishing a growing international reputation as a “genuine poet” of the piano (as one critic eloquently put it).

His recording of Mozart’s complete piano sonatas for Oehms Classics has received particular and extensive critical acclaim, and now he brings us his debut recital disc for major label Sony Classical.

The Programme

For his programme, Youn has chosen an enterprising selection of German Romantic works, its central focus launched with Schumann’s too-rarely-performed Humoresque, composed during his visit to Vienna from October 1838 – March 1839.

Youn writes in the CD booklet:

“The Humoresque is one of my favourite pieces by Schumann. It is a turning point and a highlight of his early period. I have a feeling that what Schumann presents here is a kind of interim outcome of his inner conflicts, and the triumphant ending allowed him to bid farewell for a moment to the doubts and contradictions of the preceding years.”

Youn’s interpretation is certainly alive to the details that underscore the fleeting emotional contrasts and outbursts in this work, from the coy uncertainty of the opening melody to the astonishing euphoria that rapidly unfolds thereafter in the first movement. “Laughter and tears so close to each other…” as the pianist later suggests in his booklet comments.

Each subsequent movement adds further colour, Youn’s vivid and superbly controlled playing bringing to life the composer’s inner world with an artistic depth and conviction which belies his years.

It was during this visit to Vienna that Schumann met Ferdinand Schubert, brother of the late composer whose death in 1828 had left the young Schumann distraut. Several previously neglected manuscripts were now rediscovered, famously including the “Great” C Major Symphony, which Schumann immediately recognised and hailed as a ground-breaking masterpiece.

It is therefore particularly fitting that Youn follows Schumann’s Humoresque with a personal selection of short waltzes from Schubert’s Valses Sentimentalise D.779.

These delightful bonbons encapsulate the Viennese spirit, and were popular works of their time; indeed, Schumann himself had played them for many years. They are presented here with generous charm and panache, Youn combining his choice of 13 of the 34 pieces into a coherent whole that juxtaposes contrasting movements with the same flair that Schumann himself showed in his early masterpiece Papillons.

And there’s more …

The latter part of the disc includes a selection of miniatures which shed further light on the overall theme of Schumann, his circle, and the musical world of Vienna.

Franz Liszt’s sparkling arrangement of Schubert’s song Auf den Wasser zu singen heralds the more virtuosic music that follows, which includes the same composer’s arrangements of Clara Schumann’s Ich has’ in Deinem Auge and Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort as well as Schubert’s popular Ständchen.

Included between these lieder arrangements, Clara Schumann’s own Piano solo Scherzo No.2 Op.14 is a stunning, if brief, concert work which shows her indebtedness to her husband’s compositional approach, while also foreshadowing the style of Brahms.

Liszt’s Soirées de Vienne, while hardly one of the composer’s obvious masterpieces, brings the main recital to a most fitting conclusion, its fizz and sparkle compensating for its somewhat repetitive compositional design. Here again Youn proves an ideal advocate for the music.

The disc ends with a “bonus track”, the valedictory Albumblatt (Erinnerungen aus Wein) by little-known composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (1875-1942), a work whose post-chromatic reflections evoke the glories of Viennese treasures past, thus bringing the recording to a gorgeous autumnal conclusion.

The Recording

Youn delivers this recital disc on a grand piano by C. Bechstein D 282 at Andreaskirche Berlin-Wannsee. The programme was recorded in December 2017, and Sony’s team deserve high praise for the admirable warmth and clarity of detail throughout. There is an informative booklet article written by Anselm Cybinski.

It’s worth mentioning that in the UK at the time of writing the CD has an unusually high import price tag, so readers will perhaps want to initially investigate the recording on Apple Music, Spotify, or the streaming service of their choice.


Two factors made this recording an easy choice for January Recording of the Month.

Firstly, the programming here is enterprising, intelligent, and has an artistic coherence which enable it to immediately stand out as a release that has special significance. How fabulous it is to hear these neglected Schumann and Schubert works presented centre-stage; the brilliant music of Clara Schumann and incandescent Liszt miniatures are a marvellous added attraction.

Secondly, William Youn continues to delight with his deft touch, mature interpretation and artistic depth. Most impressively, he truly makes the instrument sing – such an important point in this essentially lyrical music.

This is a disc which will surely bring more laughter than tears, and comes very strongly recommended.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.