Sunwook Kim displays magnificent pianism and artistry in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto in Glasgow

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Beethoven: Sunwook Kim (pianist), Royal Scottish National Chorus (chorus director: Gregory Batsleer) and Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 14.3.2020. (GT)

Sunwook Kim

BeethovenCoriolan Overture, Op 62, Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major Op.73 ‘Emperor’

StravinskySymphony of Psalms

This marked the third in the ‘Beethoven Revolution’ series which is now under threat from wholly unmusical events elsewhere. Originally, we were to hear the UK premiere of a piece by Fazil Say called Grand Bazaar, however, due to the pianist’s indisposition, instead rather appropriately, Beethoven’s Coriolan overture was scheduled in its place.

The opening of the Coriolan Overture was impressively powerful – directed here with considerable gravitas by Thomas Søndergård – identifying with the dark spirits of the composer when he was writing this music for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s tragic play. The two violin sections were extraordinary again in Beethoven, equally eloquent were the cellos, and woodwinds were splendidly vibrant. However, there was not the same degree of excitement as in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s recent performance just weeks ago (review click here).

The opening of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms to verses from Psalm 38 was captivating and noticeably assisted by the eclectic ostinatos on the woodwind and by the two pianos occupying the space normally taken by the violins. The singing by the two women choruses in ‘Exaudi orationem meam, Domine’ was superlative, an indication of how well this chorus under Gregory Batsleer has diversified in repertoire in recent years. In the second movement setting to Psalm 39, there was especially fine articulation from Peter Dykes on the oboe in the first of the two fugues. In the rather plaintive idea, both the men and women choruses sang, almost weepingly, ‘Et immisit in os meum canticum novum’. The sopranos were divine, the flute of Harry Winstanley was stunning, and there was superb playing from Dávur Juul Magnussen on the trombone. The choral singing was almost terrifying in this passage leading to the breath-taking diminuendo. In the final movement – set to Psalm 150 – the Alleluia was magnificently performed to music originally set to the Slavonic prayer ‘Gospodi pomiluj’ in the composer’s first intentions. The beautiful voices were accompanied splendidly by Pippa Tunnell on the harp, and Lynda Cochrane and Judith Keaney on the two pianos. The trumpet fanfare at ‘Laudate eum in sono tubae’ announced an exciting majestic theme. The ladies chorus was heavenly, and with a slow soaring in the voices for ‘Omnis spiritus laudet Dominumi!’, the trumpets accompanying the choral ‘Alleluia’ brought this rarely heard masterpiece to a spectacular close.

Now joined by the Korean pianist Sunwook Kim, the orchestra continued their traversal of their ‘Beethoven Revolution’ series with the composer’s last and grandest concerto – the ‘Emperor’. We were fortunate to have this immensely gifted soloist available following the late cancellation by Fazil Say, for Kim has been a formidable interpreter of Beethoven and has made a recording of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto. The opening bars of the Allegro were suitably glorious, with beautiful piano chords, and crystal-clear intonation from David Hubbard on bassoon and the clarinet of Timothy Orpen. It was significant that the pianist was listening to the orchestra attentively, responding to their playing of the noble second idea by the horns with thundering chords, and presenting his particular concepts of the same melodies. Søndergård gave Kim sensitive accompaniment in following his pearly notes, which were embroidered with glorious trills, among cascading scales. Striking a more heroic element at times Sunwook Kim underlined why he was such a fine winner of the Leeds Piano Competition in 2006 – the youngest ever winner at eighteen years.

In the Adagio un poco mosso, Kim continued with some attractively flawless solo playing, not only impeccably played, but also taking his listeners into a magical lyricism with filigree song melodies against a serene chorale of strings. Hubbard’s bassoon led directly to the Rondo: Allegro, and swiftly the mood was thrillingly upbeat in tempo, assisted by Paul Philbert on the timpani, followed by a beautiful passage on the strings and the woodwind. There was more wonderful articulation from the Kim in a series of arpeggios, leading to a cadenza with the trill dying gently away. The orchestra reprised the first idea that was now shared between piano and orchestra and led to a variation of the main theme. The glorious music-making continued in almost endless revelling with buoyant harmonies before the joyous climax.

At the end of the concert, Thomas Søndergård expressed his thanks to the audience and hoped that this would not be the last of the season, as it may well sadly prove to be. This was a great concert, and with the programme announced for next season, the ‘Beethoven Revolution’ is expected to be completed in September at the 2020-2021 opening concert.

Gregor Tassie

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