Cliburn Gold Medalist, Still Teenager, Soars Through Romantic Fare

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Yunchan Lim’s recital focused on the Romantic cornerstone of the solo piano repertoire. (Eliot Mandel photos)

EVANSTON, Ill. — The intriguing conundrum of pianist Yunchan Lim’s youth and mastery was on full display Oct. 20 when the prodigious South Korean delivered a blazing but also eloquent recital at Northwestern University, his 19th stop on a schedule of 33 international appearances this season, a victory lap after winning first prize at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition in June.

Van Cliburn was 23 when he won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. Kim is 18 years old. You must grasp that or, to paraphrase Dickens, there can be nothing wonderful in what I’m about to tell you. This teenager is a demonic pianist and a poet at the same time, and surely both beyond his years. Nominally in his second year at the Korea National University of Arts where he continues to work with his mentor Minsoo Sohn, Kim is the youngest winner of The Cliburn’s gold medal. His program in Northwestern’s 400-seat Galvin Recital Hall, an old-fashioned Romantic bill of fare, left no doubt how he might have snagged the Cliburn prize. He’s a technical wizard apparently without limits. But even more impressive, Kim is an elegant and thoughtful musician who, in his continuing studies, must have a veritable Yoda at his side to train him further.

It was two quiet encores that displayed the real depth of the young pianist’s art.

When the smoke had cleared in a recital aglitter with Lisztian (and Mendelssohnian) fireworks, Lim chose to send his clamorous listeners home with something for the soul — two encores that scarcely rose to mezzo-forte. In Schumann’s “Träumerei” (from Kinderszenen) and an arrangement of a Bach siciliano for flute and harpsichord, Kim revealed a sensibility that transcended mere lyricism. This was artistry turned inward, contemplative, private, and true. No heroics or acrobatics or grandiosity. It was beautiful playing that bespoke the ineffable quality that separates a few musicians from the rest. How does someone so young reach so deeply, so authoritatively into life beyond his experience?

Which takes us back to the printed part of Lim’s program and Liszt, represented by the rouge of the so-called Dante Sonata and the noir of Deux légendes. The noir, ecclesiastical contemplation that it is, came first. These two evocations of saintly legends, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis of Paola, spring from the religious fervor of Liszt’s later years. Whereas the first is aflutter with figurations suggesting the birds to whom Francis of Assisi preached, the second bears a solemnity that rises through chorales that buoy a saint who strode upon the waves. Lim invoked the winging birds with a finesse matched by the swelling sonorities that carried the other Francis across the water.

Lim provided all the virtuosity required in the blazing finales of works by Liszt and Mendelssohn. .

The Dante Sonata — or properly, Après une lecture du Dante (After a reading of Dante): Fantasia quasi Sonata — is quite another matter. Here is Liszt under full virtuosic sail, and Lim was wholly up to the boggling technical challenge, a showcase of agility, speed, power. The extended finale of this flamboyant fantasy calls for wave upon ever rising sonorous wave in runs of every fire-balling sort. Lim seemed to revel in those demands, and his blistering delivery brought an ovation of whooping delight.

Undeniably heady as the Dante delirium was, one could argue that Lim pursued the pianist’s art to a higher place in the rocketing finale to Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F-sharp, also known as the Scottish Sonata. He captured the sparkle of Mendelssohn’s nuanced music as assuredly as he managed all of its exhilarating fleetness.

Bravos and roses rained down at this victory-lap recital by the youngest winner of the Cliburn Piano Competition. .

The pianist opened his program with Brahms’ early Four Ballades, Op. 10, a cleverly integrated series of “narrative” essays set out in two pairs: D minor and D major, then B minor and B major, the four movements linked through internal harmonic schemes. The shadowy opening movement found Lim perhaps attuning himself to the room, the audience, the task at hand. For this brief first space in his recital, he seemed not quite confident, a little hesitant or self-conscious. But that uncertainty drained away with the brighter D major ballade, and by the scherzo-like episode in B minor, the pianist had hit his stride. The closing B major ballade is the centerpiece of the work — spacious, complex, moody, even rhapsodic in its unfolding. Lim was now in the phenomenal form that wowed the Cliburn judges, coaxing a thousand colors from the instrument, finding the fluidity of rhythms, probing the musical subtext. This 18-year-old pianist: wizard, poet, artist.

The remainder of Lim’s hopscotching world tour can be found here.