The beauty and depth of Yunchan Lim

Above: Yunchan Lim after his recital, photographed by Abby Wasserman. Click for full image.


The audience in San Jose’s Montgomery Theater September 18 were clearly fans, for when 2022 Cliburn gold medalist Yunchan Lim walked on stage he was greeted with a roar of applause, cheers and whistles. But the moment he sat to play, the capacity crowd settled into profound quiet. During the long program of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Liszt, sponsored by the Steinway Society of the Bay Area, there were no audible coughs, no throat-clearing, no shuffling in seats, and no bursts of spontaneous applause to interrupt the music’s flow.

South Korean-born Mr. Lim, who at eighteen demonstrates impressive musical maturity, wove a musical spell with beautiful tone, exquisite voicing, great technical virtuosity and an uncanny ability to capture the spirit of each composer.  His power seemed to spring from an inner stillness and relaxation that make one willing to follow wherever he leads, to the heights and depths of human emotion. His choice of program evoked in vivid colors the human struggle between dark and light impulses, the glory of nature and the quest for spiritual redemption.

Brahms’ four Op. 10 Ballades began the recital. His immediate inspiration for the 1854 works was a collection of Scottish folk ballads, and the composer organized the pieces into two pairs in parallel keys. Scholars have suggested that because of their close affinity they are essentially a sonata of four movements. The first, in D minor (Andante), is a tragic narrative, and Brahms writes plaintive triad chords in the right hand and open fifths in the left. Musical questions and answers recur in nuanced variations. The pianist’s interpretation achieved great tension through masterful use of rubato and micro-moments of silence that, like held breath, made the music’s harmonies and inner voices more dramatic.

The second, in D major begins tenderly and ascends momentarily to a heavenly realm. A second theme, march-like and inexorable, breaks the mood. There are eloquent inner voices in the left hand that oppose soft broken chords in the right, leading to a mournful close. The third Ballade in B minor is a disturbing scherzo, ending with shimmering arpeggios. The last, in B major, featured whispered arpeggios and hushed harmonic dissonances. Yearning and sadness dominated in equal measure. Again, Mr. Lim’s chordal voicing was beautiful.

The artist then performed Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F-sharp Minor (“Scottish Sonata”), Op. 28. The form of this work appears to have been inspired by Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata and like it, both the first and third movements are set in a minor key.

The first movement, con moto agitato, opens with a low, pedaled F sharp, from which a rippling arpeggio rises, the first of several glissando passages that mark divisions in the movement. A chorale-like theme, simple and elegant but weighted with melancholy, enters; it will be repeated again with small differences. The mood intensifies, arpeggios become more chromatic, and a turbulent section ensues. A tiny fugue is followed by another glassy run up and down the keyboard and a stripped-down reprise of the theme. The movement ends where it began, on a somber low, pedaled F-sharp. Mr. Lim’s interpretation created suspense throughout, capturing turbulent Mendelssohnian drama.

The charming second movement (Allegro con moto), in 2/4 time, was played with strong rhythms and created a bright respite between the deep and passionate movements that preceded and followed it. The finale movement was performed at breakneck speed but with nuanced voicing, precise articulation and skillful pedaling that created a clarion and thrilling conclusion to the work.

In the second half, Mr. Lim performed three bravura works by Liszt: St. François d’Assise: La Prédication aux oiseaux, S. 175/1; St. François de Paule: marchant sur les flots, S. 175/2, both from the 1863 Deux Légendes; and Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata, S. 161/7. Both Légendes are set in A major, and the first is based on a Giotto fresco portraying the patron saint of animals preaching God’s message to a flock of birds. Mr. Lim’s lovely trills, singing arpeggios and pizzicato chirps brought the birds to exuberant life and a resonant tenor voice intoned the saint’s message to the birds.

In the companion piece, St. Francis Walking on the Waves, Mr. Lim shifted his musical mood entirely, and his playing brilliantly evoked churning water, howling wind, racing clouds and a wild journey.

The D Minor Dante Sonata found the artist playing descending double notes as the chords rose, and in slow ascending passages the angelic sounds of this music were captured by Mr. Lim’s virtuosity and focus on the increasing unease that was signaled by passionate rumbling in the bass. A single bass note was answered by harp-like, rippling octave playing. It was a finely textured performance, revealing the orchestral richness in the music.

At the conclusion the audience erupted in an ovation, standing through three curtain calls, until Mr. Lim performed his first encore, the lovely Siciliano, Alexander Siloti's transcription from Bach's Flute Sonata in E-flat, BWV 1031. Its transparent beauty was played to perfection. After four more curtain calls, the artist seemed to hide a shy smile behind his hand (belying the impression that he’s always serious), and performed Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9, no. 2 - unadorned, graceful, tranquil and clear as fine glass. It was a perfect benediction.

Although scores of fans gathered in the lobby hoping to see Mr. Lim, there was no reception, and it took many minutes for disappointed fans to disperse.

Published at September 23, 2022.