United Kingdom Dowland, Bach, Beethoven: Yunchan Lim (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 18.1.2023. (MBr)
John Dowland – Pavana Lachrymae (1590s, arr. William Byrd)
J.S Bach – 15 Sinfonias, BWV 787 – 801 (c.1720 rev. 1723)
Beethoven – 7 Bagatelles, Op.33 (1801-2); 15 Variations and a Fugue on an Original Theme in E flat (‘Eroica Variations’), Op.35 (1802)
There can be, I think, a fickleness to winning piano competitions. Some pianists achieve the aspirations of their win and have a long, even great career; others, for all kinds of reasons, don’t. The eighteen-year-old South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim, who won the Van Cliburn Competition last year summer, could go either way – but the second route would be one entirely of his own choice based very much on his own convictions. He is unusual, and perhaps the opposite of what one expects. His humbleness and humanity are striking although my feeling is that for Yunchan Lim the gift of music is to play it for those who are less privileged to hear it – and that was not particularly his audience in London. But there is another, more complex, side to him: the wild and romantic Heathcliff figure who will create danger at the keyboard; some of this recital felt like Lim was re-composing where he thought the music needed it so vivid and startlingly fresh is his imagination.
We did get to hear Lim at his quite remarkable best; very little here was uninspired, and some of it touched genuine greatness. Ironically, he does not resemble the pianist of the competition he won, Van Cliburn. I am more inclined to compare him with the winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1964 – Evgeny Mogilevsky, whose international career was somewhat hindered by Soviet refusal to grant him permission to play in the west. Mogilevsky won when he, too, was eighteen – playing the same Rachmaninoff concerto – but what both he and Lim share is a fabulous keyboard technique which is entirely centred around the possibilities of the instrument’s sound. Lim’s recital was that very rare thing – a genuine journey through what Bach and Beethoven can sound like if you actually apply colour to it. Mogilevsky became unwatchable in his later years (Lim is very far from that) but his hands always remained fascinating – the way they would float over keys, how they could achieve the warm tone and control, that resonant bass, it all remained a constant. His playing was astonishingly elegant, although his recordings never sounded just meticulous.
The first half of Lim’s programme didn’t perhaps highlight all of these parts – but then neither the Dowland nor Bach were written for the piano. Pavana Lachrymae began life as a work for lute but as arranged by William Byrd it is a tenebrous and ruminative piece that Lim brought deep repose to. It would have been easy to have just made it monochromatic, simple, but the warmth of tone here was exquisite and golden.
Bach’s Sinfonias – here the Third-Part Inventions – were played in Glenn Gould’s arrangement of them. In fact, given the kind of landscape that he had created throughout his performance there was some musical sense in ending with the grandest of the set – the F minor – rather than the numbered B minor, even though his tempi for the former were exceptionally slow – albeit with ravishing intensity. There were many wonderful moments in these performances – the competing voices in the E minor (No.6) that rather than clashing had a logical symmetry to them; the rich counterpoint in the E Flat (No.5) – which began with a monumental opening octave on the left hand. Although Lim’s playing of Bach tends to be quite tight in faster passages – although he never over-pedals – the room between the silence and the ability to play with tone and colour is clearly already there. He has a perception of colour and this erases any sense of simplicity in the scale of his Bach: even faster passages sounded impressively big.
The second half of this recital was devoted to Beethoven and in a sense Lim returned to the platform in a rather different frame of mind. Although the Bagatelles and the Eroica Variations come from roughly the same time (1801/2), they are markedly different works. If the Dowland and Bach had called for some restraint, then this particular version of Beethoven was ferocious, wild, untamed.
Lim is nothing if he is not into playing accents in music – it was a notable feature of his Rachmaninoff Third. The E flat Bagatelle was blistering in the sforzando accents; they came like shell fire. Likewise, the C major with its repeating left-hand scale and devilish arpeggios was delivered with accuracy and assurance. Lim is, in many ways, a visual artist – in the Bagatelles his hand jumps and finger leaps were acrobatic but extraordinarily elegant; he is his own marionette, everything painstakingly designed to elicit the most perfect sound, the most perfect colour. The Bagatelle in A, for example, was just fabulous – the dexterity and muscle control in his left-hand fifth finger was quite outstanding; I have rarely heard left-hand bass triplets given with such depth and richness, but which yet retain their sonority too. Again, that ability to under-pedal meant his octaves in the right hand never over-produced so we got a perfect sound that ended precisely on the note and never elided beyond it. There was volatility and volcanic power in the last Bagatelle, too. Left-hand staccatos like lava and seizing the music by the throat when he needed to made for a fiery end.
Beethoven’s Eroica Variations probably has more to do with Prometheus but whatever its origins it is both a work of symphonic proportions and pianistic virtuosity. Yunchan Lim clearly knew where he was going to take us when he opened these variations on that massive fortissimo tonic chord – here we had Lim launching into a torrential storm of those eight notes. I am not sure one understands any performance of the Eroica Variations until one has heard how a pianist plays the Basso del Tema – and here Lim was all about that majestic sonority which would emerge later in the thunder of the fugue and the triumph of those opening chords when they are reinforced.
If one starts at the end of Lim’s performance one gets an idea of just how huge this was. He does, I think, have a real tendency to play with tempo – but that is not always obvious (he is, in that sense, very unlike a Pogorelich or Afanassiev). In the Bach Inventions he could either be fast or slow – rarely did he seem to be on the mark. These Eroica Variations, however, were very much weighted towards the end – especially XIV and XV. He brought considerable intensity to the chromatic passages in XIV, the weight of the playing allowing him to set the emotional core of the music to the correct temperature. His tendency to iron out the textures of Beethovenian decoration – as he does in Bach – added a degree of rawness here (the Tema in the XIV variation was particularly unusual). In the fugue itself we got rather more sustained pedalling from Lim – beautifully controlled.
Technically, the playing was superlative. His left hand is so powerful that bass chords were never occluded; they rang with glorious, bell-like richness. In his right hand, you got a feeling of remarkable tension when he played triplets, no matter how animated they became. In one passage, where he played thirty second part notes the rhythm was maintained with surgical precision. Repeated octave B-flats, or multiple A-flat octaves for the left hand – again at the return of the Tema – were mountainous. At fortissimo his sound was enormous, but never uncontrolled.
But the technique was just a means for Lim to achieve a performance of great musical insight. This was an Eroica Variations that melded tension with great insight. Lim used Beethoven’s score not to make the point of joining notes with notes, but of resolving conflicts within it. If octaves jumped from one to the next, or notes were hammered like nails onto the keyboard there was a narrational reason for it. In a piece that sometimes seems dry, Lim created a very living performance of it, albeit often symphonic in scale.
He offered two encores. The first, Bach’s Jesu, Joy, in the transcription by Myra Hess, was beautifully done – albeit entirely unlike anything Hess might have played. The second, Liszt’s Liebesträum No.3 was simply astounding. Quite where Lim pulled this one from was beyond me – the sheer beauty of it, the ravishing playing, the one-off craftsmanship, the incredible rubato was unforgettable. It reconfirmed that Lim, in my view, could become the greatest Liszt player of the age.
This was a superb recital, and I think Yunchan Lim is a pianist with a difference. I don’t particularly see in him the kind of standard virtuoso pianist we have too many of today; rather, he is a thinker, an individualist, a philosopher of the keyboard. I sometimes listen to his playing and I hear the great Japanese pianist Takahiro Sonoda, or even Edwin Fischer. He has been wisely grounded and mentored by the superb Korean pianist Minsoo Sohn – himself a wonderful Bach and Beethoven player. The very best that could happen to Yunchan Lim is that he follows and listens to his own convictions; the worst is that he doesn’t.
This recital can be heard on YouTube or the Wigmore Hall (click here) livestream channel for 90 days.