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The 18-year-old South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim receives the applause of the audience in his debut recital in Hong Kong. Photo: Kurt Chan @ HKU Muse

Review | Wunderkind Korean pianist Yunchan Lim dazzles on Hong Kong debut, matching power and pyrotechnics with poise

  • Lim, still only 18, shows why he won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition with a breathtaking performance that matched force with finesse
  • He used too much power in a Mendelssohn Fantasia, but found hidden depths in a Brahms ballade and used all of his slight frame in Liszt’s Dante Sonata
Edison Hung

The anticipation was palpable as Yunchan Lim, fresh from winning the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, stepped onto the stage at the University of Hong Kong’s Grand Hall on November 11.

The question on everyone’s mind: just what does this 18-year-old wunderkind possess that moved jury chair Marin Alsop to tears when she conducted Lim and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto in the final round of the prestigious contest?

The recital in Hong Kong was the latest stop in a whirlwind post-competition world tour by the second year student at the Korea National University of Arts. Lim began with Brahms’s four Ballades, written when the German composer was still in his twenties.

The South Korean started slowly, with judicious use of the pedal, his legato phrasing supported with adequate bass to produce a rich texture. As the music built to a climax, his body remained perfectly still as his fingers pounded the keys.

Yunchan Lim soaks up the applause at the University of Hong Kong Grand Hall. Photo: Kurt Chan @ HKU Muse

The second Ballade began even more slowly than one would expect, suggesting a tendency to reinforce and dramatise contrasts. Lim managed the transitions smoothly, showing the different colours of the piano splendidly and leaping from powerful explosions back to lyrical lightness.

The delicacy of the high notes in the third Ballade, played as he looked to the ceiling, was transcendental. Lim created a solemn ambience, as if he was urging the audience to hold their breath until the very end.

The delicacy of the high notes in the third of four Brahms Ballades, played as Lim looked to the ceiling, was transcendental. Photo: Kurt Chan @ HKU Muse

The last piece in the set showed his deep understanding of the music and revealed overlooked melodies. His hands were steady, his playing meticulous in its detail, and the control he exuded reminiscent of former International Chopin Piano Competition winner Garrick Ohlsson.

The first half of the concert ended with the Fantasia in F sharp minor, Opus 28, by Mendelssohn. This piece features ample virtuosic passages, which Lim played with great clarity and dexterity. He maintained the momentum of the energetic music and kept up the tension in the long phrases.

However, his playing was too loud for a piano piece by Mendelssohn, especially in the light and lively second section. It sounded as if Lim was playing a concerto with a full orchestra. He generates power effortlessly, like a kung fu master who can knock over a mighty opponent with a little push.

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The second half featured three works by Liszt. Lim appears particularly fond of the Hungarian composer’s works – he played his twelve Transcendental Studies in his semi-final recital in the Van Cliburn competition.

The first piece was inspired by the story of St Francis of Assisi and features a long, birdlike trill that Lim played with alternating hands so seamlessly it was impossible to notice the change of hands. After several minutes there was a pause – representing the attentiveness of the birds to St Francis’ teaching, and offering a moment to draw breath amid the intensity of the music.

The second piece was a complete contrast, with bass trills imitating swelling waves. There was a particularly memorable moment when Lim lifted his hands from the keyboard after the final chord, yet the sound of the piano continued to resonate around the concert hall.

The notes of the chord faded one by one to leave a dissonance, but as Lim sat motionless on his stool a tonic E note restored harmony. Never before had I heard an effect like this. It was magical.

Yunchan Lim’s Hong Kong debut was received rapturously by the audience at the University of Hong Kong Grand Hall, and the 18-year-old rewarded them by playing three encores. Photo: Kurt Chan @ HKU Muse

The last piece of the night was Liszt’s Dante Sonata, a work in which Lim made full use of his power. His previously still body bounced up and down as he attacked the keyboard, producing a gigantic wall of sound yet not at the expense of the work’s poetry.

The audience was in raptures, and Lim ended the evening with three encores.

Chen Sa, the Chinese pianist who was one of the jurors for the International Chopin Piano Competition last year, appealed for pianists to exhibit more individual character. Lim has that in spades.

He has fire and also the craftsmanship and insight of someone much older. Without a doubt he will match the artistic excellence of compatriots like Cho Seong-jin and Paik Kun-woo.

“2022 Van Cliburn Gold Medalist: Yunchan Lim HK Debut”, Grand Hall, The University of Hong Kong. Reviewed: Nov 11, 2022