Yunchan Lim in Poland – the refined beauty and maturity of a great artist

Quite overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of this teenager’s playing.A maturity way beyond his 18 years and a sensitivity to sound that was breathtaking.
I had heard about this young man presenting all the Liszt Transcendental studies in one of the rounds of the recent Van Cliburn competition.
Tired of the usual super proficiency of those that jump the most hurdles and get through to the final rounds,I only listened to his very exciting performance of Rachmaninov 3rd concerto which won him unanimously the Gold medal.
How many wonderfully trained pianists there are from South Korea and China winning gold medals right left and centre with their highly professional playing at such an early stage in their career.
Great artistry too instilled in them by their wonderful teachers.
Often short lived,disappearing into oblivion as soon as the next prize winner comes along.As they move into a professional career away from their instilled obedience to discipline and their long suffering mentors usually casualties themselves of the same vicious circle of events.
A good wine needs time to mature into a great one and I remember Ruggiero Ricci telling me that the world is going too fast for an artist to be able to mature.
When he was young,to go to the Americas involved many days on an ocean liner – precious time when an artist could think and relax and have time to mature.
We live in an age now when you could play a concert in one part of the hemisphere and already the next day play another in the other half.
As we do not have wings there are airports,hotels and transfers that take up the time the artist needs to be in his studio not only on stage.
So I was a bit sceptical when I saw that this young man was opening his programme not with transcendental Liszt or scintillating Rachmaninov but with the Four Ballades of Brahms not even Chopin!
Alexandre Kantarow – the winner of the Tchaikowsky competition – had played them in an empty Philharmonie in Paris during the pandemic in a memorable programme of Bach/Brahms Chaconne,Brahms Ballades and Rachmaninov first sonata.
All very ungrateful works in the wrong hands but in his it was one of the highlights of the pandemic and began to show me that many competitions now seem to be able to find real artists amongst the enormous amount of wonderful pianists that have applied and are sifted through with such skill.
I thought Kantarow was the most beautiful I had heard not having ever been able to hear Michelangeli live – although I queued up regularly for his London concerts that he would always cancel at the last minute!
But today I was not expecting playing of such maturity allied to a sensitivity to sound that was quite extraordinary.
The deep contemplation and melancholy of the opening Ballade was followed by the ravishing fluidity of the second awakened by the dynamic rhythmic drive of the third.The final Ballade was of such searing beauty words are not enough to describe it.
Mendelssohn that floated in as if on a great wave of sound as the character and ease he brought to this rarely heard work allowed one to revel in the charm ,scintillating bravura and beauty of Mendelssohn’s writing for the piano that we have overlooked for too long.
The almost inaudible murmured opening of Scriabin’s Fantasy Sonata was greeted by a luminous radiance of sound of stars shining brightly with passionate intensity.The transcendental command of the last movement was truly breathtaking and the spell was only broken by Beethovens call to arms with the opening E flat chord of the ‘Eroica’ Variations.
Played with the same driving energy of Serkin but with the sensibility of Lupu and the intelligence of Curzon .
What can I say : ‘Hats off ,Gentlemen,a genius!’

The four Ballades op 10 by Brahms were dated 1854 and were dedicated to his friend Julius Otto Grimm.Their composition coincided with the beginning of the composer’s lifelong affection for the pianist and composer Clara Schumann ,who was helping Brahms launch his career. They are arranged in two pairs of two, the members of each pair being in parallel keys.The first ballade was inspired by a Scottish poem ‘Edward’ found in a collection Stimmen der Völker in ihren Liedern compiled by Johann Gottfried Herder .It is also one of the best examples of Brahms’s bardic or Ossianic style where its open fifths, octaves, and simple triadic harmonies are supposed to evoke the sense of a mythological past.
D minor. Andante
D major. Andante
B minor. Intermezzo. Allegro
B major. Andante con moto
The tonal center of each ballade shows the inter relationship between them: the first three each include the key-signature of the ballade that follows it.
The first Ballade was beautifully balanced ,deeply contemplative and movingly shaped and was an opening statement of great weight.His supreme sensitivity and control gave a poignant sense of melancholy from the very first notes.His magic sonorities excluded any hardness as there was a richness to the sound of string quartet quality.A truly passionate climax that dissolved into a very delicate legato return of the opening but this time with a staccato accompaniment in pianissimo showing an unbelievable tour de force of tonal control.The second Ballade opened with a melodic line of liquid beauty played with great sensibility and shape contrasting so well with the velvet richness of the chords that followed .All played with a wonderful flexibility and sense of colour of someone who was listening to every sound he produced.Could the return of the opening melody have been more ravishing than in the hands of this teenager?Pure magic!
The third Ballade brought a complete change of character with a demonic sense of rhythmic energy full of menace and the unexpected.Contrasting with the heavenly sounds on high with the bell like call (similar to Le Gibet) creating a truly magic atmosphere.The fourth Ballade entered as a whisper of such sublime beauty and the searing intensity of the central section was almost unbearable in it’s subtle emotional impact . The return of the opening theme was even more ravishing with a staccato left hand that showed a phenomenal technical control as this young man listened so intensely – Je joue-je sens-je trasmet – an apparition that was unforgettable
Mendelssohn was among many nineteenth-century German composers, among them Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Bruch, who were fascinated by Scotland, by its folk music, history and literature. Mendelssohn was the only one of these six who visited Scotland, when at the age of twenty during the summer of 1829 he found the inspiration for his Scottish Symphony at Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh and for the ‘Hebrides’ Overture (also known as the ‘Fingal’s Cave’ Overture) on the desolate island of Staffa off the coast of Mull in the Hebrides. But well before he made his celebrated walking tour of Scotland in 1829, he was reading the poetry and novels of Sir Walter Scott, and was acquainted with the ‘Ossianic’ poems. In the early 1820s he composed two settings of verses from Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake (including the Ave Maria, also set by Schubert). Then, probably in 1828 or early 1829, the young composer attempted his first full-scale work inspired by a Scotland he had not yet seen or experienced. The three-movement Fantasia in F sharp minor, Op 28, eventually released in 1834, took shape originally as a ‘Sonate écossaise’, mentioned already in family correspondence from early 1829. Four years later, early in 1833, Mendelssohn revised the work, still titled ‘Sonate écossaise’, but then published it the following year as a Fantasia, without its Scottish attribution.
The three movements are con moto agitato-Andante,Allegro con moto,Presto.
An opening flourish that linked Brahms to Mendelssohn with such ‘fantasy’ leading to the Andante played with great sensibility and ravishing beauty interspersed with shimmering cascades of notes.Contrasting so well with the quixotic rhythmic energy of the Allegro con moto before the scintillating virtuosity of the Presto.
Not since Serkin or Perahia have we heard Mendelssohn restored to his rightful place with the seriousness of a great interpreter and not the usual heart on sleeve note spinner!
Scriabin’s Sonata n. 2 op 19, also titled Sonata-Fantasy took five years for him to write. It was finally published in 1898, at the urging of his publisher. The piece is in two movements Andante and Presto.
The precedent of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata allowed Scriabin the luxury of an opening slow movement to his Second Sonata, whose programme reads thus: “The first section represents the quiet of a southern night on the seashore; the development is the dark agitation of the deep, deep sea. The E major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming up after the first darkness of night. The second movement represents the vast expanse of ocean in stormy agitation.”The opening was barely audible with a wonderful sense of legato where Scriabin’s golden and silver strands united in a melodic line of luminous radiance.The rhythmic energy and passion he brought to the second movement were breathtaking in their sweep and conviction.
The Variations and Fugue for Piano in E♭ major, Op. 35 are a set of fifteen variations for solo piano composed by Beethoven in 1802.Known as the Eroica Variations because a different set of variations on the same theme were used as the finale of his Symphony n.3 Eroica composed the following year.Beethoven opens the work not with the main theme, but the bass line to the main theme. He then follows with three variations of this bass line before finally stating the main theme.This approach was carried over from the ballet music, where it represented the gradual creation of life forms by Prometheus. The variations in the Eroica Symphony follow this same pattern. In another departure from traditional variation form, after the fifteen variations of the main theme, Beethoven finishes the work with a finale consisting of a fugue followed by an Andante con moto.
And what a journey this young man treated us to!This Shigaru Kwai was of such sumptuous sound – the best of Bosendorfer and Steinway combined into one glorious sound of a richness and colour.
The Beethoven was played with the same rigour and vigour that has remained in my memory from Serkin’s Beethoven performances.A clarity and precision of sound where there was no doubt about the intent of the performer as a true medium for the composer.The variations at the end of of the fugue reminded me of the 32 variations in C minor written only two years later.A work that Beethoven was not happy with and of course compared to this masterpiece you could see why.Even though the 32 variations proved popular, receiving a favorable review in Leipzig in 1807.They remain popular today mainly as a vehicle for advanced music students unfortunately.There are though some memorable performances of Emil Gilels and Annie Fischer and more recently Radu Lupu.Nevertheless, Beethoven did not see fit to assign it an opus number.It is said that later in his life he heard a friend practicing it. After listening for some time he said “Whose is that?” “Yours”, was the answer. “Mine? That piece of folly mine?” was his retort.
There is no doubt after this young man’s performance of the ‘Eroica’ Variations that this is a work of absolute genius from the opening call to arms to the final weaving and teasing of the last bars.
I was surprised that Lim played the bare opening notes so short but that is only a mere detail in a performance of an intellectual rigour of masterly maturity.The ‘a due’ and ‘a Tre’ were of such beautiful legato of musical wizardry contrasting of course with the bare bones of the theme .There was a wonderfully clear but rich sound to the’a quattro’ with the same dynamic energy of a Serkin before the entry of the theme played with the same energy but with subtle phrasing.There was the pure charm of the first variation played with ease but also great determination.It contrasted with the second bathed in pedal that gave such sonority to the cascades of notes leading to the cadenza and the impish reappearance of the theme.Chords spread over the entire keyboard in the third played with devilish energy before the deliciously insinuating left hand of the fourth over which Beethoven mischievously adds the melodic line.There was a complete change of colour with the fifth that of a music box played with improvised ease.Menacing left hand of the sixth and the teasing pointed finger determination of the seventh.What beautiful fluidity he found for the eighth with Beethoven’s long pedal so beautifully interpreted.A rude awakening with the rumbustuous chords of the ninth followed by an intricate web of notes played with teasing energy.The charm of the eleventh with the grace of Beethoven’s question and answer so eloquently described.Octaves abound in the twelfth before the crazy dissonances that Beethoven beguiles us with before the Bachian solemnity of the fourteenth.The final Largo was played with mature intensity with the beautiful bel canto embellishments transformed by the genius of Beethoven into a great statement of weight and significance.The coda was pure musical magic where this teenager had been able understand and distil the absolute genius of Beethoven who in just a few bars could describe a universe.
Of course Beethoven’s long pedal markings were scrupulously interpreted by our young guide.It led to the simplicity and clarity of the fugue that was played with the rhythmic energy and intensity of the ‘Hammerklavier ‘ that was to follow nearly twenty years later as op 106.After a great climax it took just two carefully placed staccato chords to bring us back to the charm of the theme -Andante con moto and it’s extraordinary variants taking us as I have already described to the final two chords.
Three Russian encores of teasing tonal finesse was his way of thanking the audience for the absolute concentration they had shown during his performances .The final encore just a handful of notes by Scriabin where all Lim’s artistry had been distilled into a few minutes of absolute magic.
Piotr Paleczny,Artistic director of the truly remarkable Duszniki International Piano Festival

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