United Kingdom Oxford Philharmonic Piano Festival  – Beethoven, Liszt: Sunwook Kim (piano), Oxford Philharmonic Piano Festival. Holywell Music Room, Oxford 4.8.2017. (CR)
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, ‘Pathétique’; Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op.27 No. 2, ‘Moonlight’
Liszt – Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année (Italie), S161
Replacing Menahem Pressler who was ill, Sunwook Kim gave a recital featuring these two 19th century giants of the piano. The pair of Beethoven sonatas – two of the most popular of the ‘New Testament’ of keyboard literature as Liszt put it – may be over-familiar, but their inclusion here demonstrated the loosening up of form which spurred subsequent composers such as Liszt to continue extending the type of music that could be written for the piano, not least in such cycles as the three parts of the Années de pèlerinage.
Kim played the ‘Moonlight’, in particular, less as a formally structured sonata than a more or less seamless unfolding of feeling (bearing in mind Beethoven’s marking quasi una fantasia) with hardly a pause once the last chord of the first movement died away, and only a few brief moments before launching into the finale, tracing a clear trajectory in the increasing speed and tension across its three movements. He maintained a consistent sense of momentum through playing the triplets of the first movement relatively briskly and without rubato, followed by a buoyant account of the second movement with almost bouncy syncopations in its middle trio section, finally issuing in the fury of the last movement. The whole might have been a tone picture (the Sonata acquired its nickname from the poet Ludwig Rellstab’s comparison of the first movement with a moonlit scene on Lake Lucerne) that could sit logically alongside the similar musical impressions of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage cycle.
The sense of drama which came about in both the ‘Moonlight’ and the ‘Pathétique’ was achieved more through nuances of timbre drawn out from the piano rather than more vividly delineated contrasts in structure. The pregnant opening chords of the latter Sonata were aided by the resonant middle register of the piano, though in the second movement this meant that the accompanying chords in the left hand sounded somewhat plodding and lacked sufficient variation between that movement’s contrasting sections, especially with its forthright character and also its agile pace in this performance that avoided any lingering emphasis at expressive moments. But Kim did sustain a fine cantabile line in that movement’s principal melody, and a crisp melody in the final Rondo, all providing contrast with the crashing chords and runs in the more volatile sections of this work, making this an excitable but controlled and not impetuous interpretation.
Form and content were more impressively unified in Kim’s readings of the seven movements which comprise the second set of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. Despite the disparate sections within given pieces, or the diversity of the material across them, Kim consistently drew out a warmly integrated quality of tone as the backdrop for the various sights, sounds, and thoughts stimulated by the composer’s visits to Italy. He sensitively shaded one section as it led into another (at the least a necessary concession to the dry acoustic of the Holywell Music Room), rather than simply letting a passage cease or hang in the air and moving on to a new passage inconsequentially. He therefore forged each piece into the well-rounded, indivisible expression of a multi-faceted experience. For example, the chant-like, unison opening of Sposalizio gave way to a dreamy development of its succeeding section, reminiscent of one of the Liebesträume, but then building up to a resounding climax. Sonetto 104 del Petrarca worked up methodically to a similarly impressive climax, but here more broad and in the manner of Rachmaninov, whilst its big chords were not as unduly emphasised as in the Beethoven Sonatas, but arose more naturally from within the texture Kim sculpted for the piece as a whole, as for others.
The rippling chords opening the following Sonetto 123 emerged as though spontaneously, but with a decidedly more Debussyan character, harking back to the foreshadowing of musical Impressionism in Sposalizio. That was dispelled by the powerful tritone octaves which with the last and longest piece, Après une lecture de Dante, commenced – marked by Liszt fantasia quasi Sonata, and so effectively coming full circle in form with the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata earlier, and observed by Kim with the compelling ardour and tension with which he scaled each section of this movement, pressing on from one to another through its climaxes and on to its unassuming but cathartic concluding bars. That ominous beginning matched the foreboding and brooding character of Il penseroso in the way that it sustained an atmosphere, in the latter case so much so as almost to sound sinister, as though looking ahead to Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. However well Kim executed individual sections within the sequence, though, it was the intelligence and stamina he brought to the cycle overall which stood out, making this a memorable performance.