Jed Distler's Cliburn Blog No 4

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Older masters and a young hopeful

Yunchan Lim, 18, from South Korea: 'I’m sure Chopin himself would have revelled in Lim’s sheer agility and rhythmic verve' in the 'Là ci darem la mano' Variations
Yunchan Lim, 18, from South Korea: 'I’m sure Chopin himself would have revelled in Lim’s sheer agility and rhythmic verve' in the 'Là ci darem la mano' Variations

Saturday’s eighth and ninth Preliminary Round concerts featured six older candidates who are probably familiar names to those who avidly follow the international piano scene, along with one exciting 18-year-old newcomer.

A semi-finalist in the 2017 Cliburn, Honggi Kim’s return to Fort Worth showcased the South Korea native’s ripening artistry. He opened his Scarlatti group with two popular B minor Sonatas (Kk87 and Kk27) that focused on nuance and tone color. By contrast, the two G major Sonatas (Kk13 and Kk455) were about point and precision; Kim’s scintillating repeated notes and nicely turned ornaments impressed in Kk455. His steady pulse and feeling of air between the notes in Sir Stephen Hough’s commissioned Fanfare Toccata contrasted to some of the contest’s more impetuous readings. I would have liked more lightness and fantasy in Mikhail Pletnev’s transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, yet one couldn’t deny Kim’s easy command of the elaborate runs and merciless chordal leaps.

Kate Liu came to international attention when she won the Bronze medal and Audience Prize at the 2015 Warsaw Chopin Competition. She, too, has deepened as an artist. Bar lines gave way to pure expression and no artifice whatsoever in her gripping performance of Schubert’s Allegretto in C minor, D915. Even after hearing the Hough over and over again these past days, Liu’s smartly structured and characterfully varied rendition made a fresh impression, notwithstanding a few heavy-handed moments. In Prokofiev’s long and difficult-to-sustain Eighth Sonata, Liu’s attention to the composer’s sometimes underrated lyricism and detailed dynamic and articulation directives transformed the piano into a chamber orchestra led by a great conductor. I noticed the music much more than the piano itself.

Next up was Jinhyung Park, another Warsaw veteran (he participated in the 2015 and 2021 competitions). He followed a fine if occasionally slapdash Hough opener with Debussy’s three Images Book I, where solid finger work compensated for Park’s tendency to get too loud too soon at times. He’s not a particularly colourful Liszt player, but his intelligent pacing and harmonic awareness held interest throughout the Venezia e Napoli triumvirate from Années de pèlerinage Book 2.

The Ukranian pianist Dmytro Choni first came to my attention when he won the 2018 Paloma O’Shea Santander International Piano Competition. I found his 2020 debut recording on Naxos alternately exciting and fussy, depending on the composition. However, he played Hough’s Fanfare Toccata in a straightforward if slightly dry manner, and forthrightly integrated Schumann’s sometimes rambling Eighth Novellete from Op 21 into a tightly packaged whole. As such, I expected a more delineated and less generalised Rachmaninov Second Sonata from this pianist.

Changyong Shin is another frequent competition denizen whom I first encountered on record. I’ve enjoyed some of his Beethoven recordings, but I liked his live Haydn C major HobXVI:50 Sonata even more, mostly in the crystal-clear outer movements. Shin played the Hough piece’s notes proficiently, waxed languidly over Chopin’s Op 62 No 1 Nocturne, and concluded with a crisply animated though not particularly idiomatic reading of ‘Los requiebros’ from Granados’s Goyescas.

I last heard Russian pianist Ilya Shmukler when he made it to the 2017 Cliburn Quarter final round, recalling his all-over-the-place Stravinsky Three Movements from Petrushka. He brought Petrushka back for his 2021 Preliminary set, and what a difference this time around! Shmukler was in complete control, and in his barnstorming element. He’s not the subtlest artist in the shed, but there was plenty of power, projection and communicative immediacy to his Hough and his big-boned Bach-Busoni Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major.

Eighteen-year-old Yunchan Lim from South Korea opened the Preliminary segment’s final set with a confident reading of the Hough; slower than what we’ve been hearing, yet focused in every bar. A sensitive and elegant ‘La Couperin’ from (you guessed it) Couperin’s Pièces de clavecin Book 4 provided an ideal bridge into Lim’s well-nigh flawless and stylishly sparkling Mozart D major Sonata, K311. Lim finished with Chopin’s flashy Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’, Op 2. I couldn’t help but compare Lim alongside the extraordinary Bruce Liu performance that took the 2021 Chopin Competition by storm. While Lim’s interpretation hardly matches Liu’s imagination, finesse and old-school charm, I’m sure Chopin himself would have revelled in Lim’s sheer agility and rhythmic verve.

All seven pianists I’ve discussed in this blog entry have progressed to the Quarter final rounds that run on Sunday and Monday, along with Andrew Li, Uladzislau Khandohi, Anna Geniushene, Frederico Gad Crema, Marcel Tadokoro, Yuki Yoshimi, Albert Cano Smit, Yutong Sun, Clayton Stevenson and Denis Linnik. Needless to say, I look forward to this next phase. Jed Distler June 5

To watch more videos of the performances discussed above, visit the Cliburn International Piano Competition website: cliburn.org

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