Question: what’s the connection between South Korea and 19th-century Bohemia? Answer: I have no idea, but there clearly is one, since Korean pianists Jaekyung Yoo and Yoon-Jee Kim play Smetana and Dvořák’s music as if they ingested it with their mothers’ milk. Their rendering of Smetana’s transcription for piano four-hands of Vltava from Má Vlast was supremely evocative – as much as any performance of the far better known orchestral version. The famous melody, painted delicately in the treble keys, shimmered over the rumbling thunder of the mighty river in the bass. You can accuse the melody of being a piece of schmaltz (particularly if you’re Jewish and recognise its kinship with the Israeli national anthem) but it brings tears to my eyes every time, and in this performance, I was rapt.

Joekyung Yoo and Yoon-Jee Kim © Miguel Bueno
Joekyung Yoo and Yoon-Jee Kim
© Miguel Bueno

In both the Vltava and a set of three of Dvořák's Slavonic Dances, Yoo and Kim showed complete mastery of Eastern European music with its lilts, its accenting and slightly broken rhythms, bringing the music to life in a way that you just wouldn’t expect from musicians not native to there. They also create the desired illusion that you are listening to single four-armed person playing the piano: in an hour’s music, not once could I spot the joins as runs and arpeggios were interchanged between them. There were the odd errors and fluffs, but none that spoilt the overall enjoyment, and I’ll willingly trade those for the level of excitement that their playing generated.

China, the second of Benjamin Yusupov’s Cultures of the past, composed for the occasion, was considerably more successful than yesterday’s Egypt. Much of the sound palette was similar – rolling arpeggios, strident chords in the highest octaves, and various others – but the piece was given shape by the recurring use of a pentatonic melody immediately recognisable as Chinese, and Yoo and Kim clearly brought out shifts in mood from contemplative to majestic.

The concert started with a W.F.E. Bach sonata and Mendelssohn’s Allegro Brillant, Op.92. The Bach was played with crispness, clarity and invention, while the Mendelssohn was a showpiece, designed to impress us with the pianists’ versatility. Both were carried off with aplomb. The only misfire of the concert, for me, was Fauré’s Dolly Suite, in which the starting lullaby was played at quite some pace – I imagined the baby in its cradle feeling rather shaken – and generally, I felt that Yoo and Kim struggled to portray the delicate childhood fragility of Fauré’s score. They seemed considerably more comfortable in the vivacious Spanish dance which closes the suite.

I hope this young piano duo have good careers in front of them. They bring crispness, verve and energy to their playing in a way that promises to leave many audiences with smiles on their faces. They may currently lack the last word in technical perfection or elegant refinement, but I’m sure that will come in time. For today, I was happy to enjoy the ride.

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