Over the past four decades, the small Swiss municipality of Ernen has witnessed a renaissance, in no small part because of a first-rate summer music festival that attracts artists and visitors from all over Europe. One of the great surprises of Musikdorf Ernen’s second concert week was the stunning performance of the 23 year-old Korean pianist, Chi Ho Han.

Chi Ho San © Sarah Batschelet
Chi Ho San
© Sarah Batschelet

Playing in the village’s lovely 16th century parish church – every pew filled − Han tackled a repertoire that was highly challenging. Sceptics might attribute that to the courage of youth, but Han was quick to show that he was no rookie to the concert stage. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 28 in A major, Op.101 had a tender beginning that seemed to float in thin air, but the movement gained in bearing quickly, coming around again and again to the theme as if to delay its ending. The second (march) movement was played with great fervour; the pianist as if in conversation with its nervous agitation and pointed dissonance; indeed, he often looked like he was talking to the piano keys under his breath as he played. The sonata’s third slow movement may have begun a little too lethargic, but went on to intensify a strong emotive component nicely, and the final Presto’s energy simply grabbed the audience by its bootstraps.

Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana was in much the same vein as the Beethoven when it came to shifting dynamic and tonal variation, but there was more magic in Han’s rendition of this second piece, the one the composer dubbed his “best piano work”. Schumann paid tribute to the E.T.A. Hoffmann figure that has been the subject of scholars’ “real-or-unreal?” debate for decades. Chi Ho Han gave the piece even greater dimension, setting unexpected accents and pointed animation. There were many alternating segments: the first one sounding bewildered, then excitable, another just delighted.. than suddenly confused – the composer working with opposites that he somehow merges into a single, extraordinary containment. He conjured up a series of visual images, too: in the third “very agitated” movement, for example, I could almost see the threatening tempest that fit an early critic’s description: “a raging violence not often met with.” Han hit that one on the mark.

A change of programme meant an intriguing work by the French-Canadian Marc-André Hamelin was next. Pavanne variée begins with the familiar Renaissance pavane, then opens up to a panopticon of musical styles that, taken collectively, more or less covers the history of Western music. The pianist gave us a veritable rollercoaster ride, pulling us through the sounds of Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Ligeti, Debussy, of modern machinery at work, pounding rain, even the sound of church bells. The latter was ironic, since a ringing of real-time bells here in Ernen delayed the beginning of the Chopin a few moments later. But Han filled this contemporary piece with a pathos that is rarely found in an artist his age, making Hamelin’s Pavanne a muscular mix of familiar sounds and dreamy sequences, all brought together to unravel the piano’s infinite possibilities. It was thrilling!

Last was Chopin’s unparalleled 24 Preludes, Op.28, all two dozen of them played in their intended order, since – citing Jeffrey Kresky, they are “once twenty-four small pieces and one large one”. Chi Ho Han explained his choice of repertoire for the evening had been steered by wanting to best express − and impart − a wide range of emotions, but also share a fair degree of fantasy.

Of the works he would perform, Han said the 24 Preludes were what he enjoyed playing the most: “Even the shortest of the preludes,” he said, “the number 9 − just 12 bars? It’s perfect in its place between Nos. 8 and 10.” And he cited the pieces’ as “so many kinds of music, every one of them as if from a new person.” What was extraordinary was that this promising virtuoso pianist had both discipline and the poetry at his fingertips that meant he could already make each of those preludes his own.