beethoven barber lim

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.5 in E flat major “Emperor” Op. 73 (1809)
Isang Yun (1917-1995)
Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju (1981)
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Adagio for Strings (1936)
Federico Mompou (1893-1987)
Jeunes files au Jardin No.5 from Scènes d’enfants Calme (1918)
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)
Poème Op. 69/1 Allegretto (1913)
Feuillet d’album Op. 45/1 Album piacevale (1905)
Yunchan Lim (piano)
Gwangju Symphony Orchestra/Seokwon Hong
rec. 2022, Tongyeong Concert Hall, Gwangju, South Korea
Deutsche Grammophon 4858327 [76]

One of the slightly disappointing things about the individual arms of the major record labels is that they do not always have a universal policy of distributing or even releasing CDs in all territories. This is most often the case with the artists of specific countries, especially in Japan and South Korea. Try getting hold of Hyungi Kim’s or Suyoen Kim’s complete Bach Sonatas & Partitas, respectively on Sony and DG, and only issued in South Korea, for example. 

Although I did receive this disc from Korea (and which is available in various packaging) your only current option with this CD, released on DG, is going to be via a download. My recommendation is to get it in the best sound you can, the reason being there is some profoundly good music here. It’s not just for its young emerging star pianist, Yunchan Lim, but for some unusually fine (of very common) Barber and one of the most important (not to say thrilling) works by Isang Yun which makes this disc so desirable.

But Beethoven first. Yunchan Lim is unquestionably nothing other than exceptional in the “Emperor” concerto. It’s a riveting performance, quite beautifully played and – as is always the case with Lim – layered with magical touches that are uniquely his. I’m not sure that the microphones have given us the truest picture of this performance, however. I sometimes felt as if I were sat right on top of the piano listening to him play. But Lim isn’t an over-pedaller and nor do his fingers vibrate against the keys; he may sometimes be a forceful pianist but he is never an insensitive one. Nor does he lack the strength in his right hand fourth and fifth digits to crack top notes. His left hand produces a bass that is both rich and powerful. Technically, there is very little wrong with the sound he actually makes at the keyboard. It’s just that I often thought this was an “Emperor” – although Beethoven made no inference to any actual emperor – of one particular emperor, perhaps at the Battle of Austerlitz.

What makes Lim special, however, is the thought that has gone into his interpretation, the sense that we are hearing very much more than his own short past. An entire history of “Emperors” seems to run through this performance so wonderfully does Lim’s playing conjure up the memory of ghosts from the past. One of the reasons Lim’s Rachmaninoff Third ­– which won him first prize at the Cliburn last year – was so good (although hardly radical or ground-breaking) was because he created something that seemed informed by the greatest performances of a golden age and he welded it into something entirely his own. This “Emperor” follows a similar pattern.

Many pianists approach this particular Beethoven concerto with a degree of reverence but arguably Lim’s version of it is more humane, more humble than most. It is pitch-perfect for a measure of vulnerability, although Lim is just too flawless to be truly fallible. The central movement, so often a metaphorical poem, is here unusually heartrending; the elision you hear with many pianists that somehow slides without a sense of life, has not often sounded quite like the pumping heart it does in Lim’s performance. He eschews grandeur in the bigger statements of the outer movements for something altogether more modest – but it’s on the side of being broadly Romantic nevertheless. This is still a tempestuous struggle, however, but the terms are set on quite a different level. It’s the Beethoven of a young emperor just not one fully into his long reign.

Until recently Lim did not apparently have much affection for the “Emperorconcerto (indeed, the problematic Third possibly suits him better). But he has clearly thought rather deeply about this work. In the opening bars of the Adagio, for example, he avoids the approach of Claudio Arrau in his final recording with Colin Davis: a perfunctory view of this music, driving through it with rapid, but little deviation of tempo. Nor is he like the interventionist Valery Afanassiev, less likely to sound strictly Beethovenian – toying with both the music’s dynamics as well its tempi; Afanassiev decides on the Celibidachean long view, and is remarkably consistent with it, if without a clear ear for inner detail or flexibility.  Lim is perhaps closest to pianists like Edwin Fischer, Takahiro Sonoda (in his recording with Heiichiro Ohyama), and Joseph Hoffman. What Lim manages to do here is sustain an almost perfectly ideal tempo, at just the right dynamic, with just the right amount of weight on the keyboard to hint at colours that are neither too dark nor too bright. It’s a synthesis that is calibrated to perfection.

What he shares with Edwin Fischer, and to a certain extent Hoffman, is this unique ability to just touch the keyboard and immediately hook you into the performance by making it feel completely alive. Fischer may have been in the studio recording his performance of the “Emperor but as soon as he placed his fingers on the keyboard they became organic and breathing parts of the performance. Fischer does the most miraculous things here – a slight push or pull of the finger on the key and you feel a pulse; the gentlest of in stringendo phrasing, like an almost indiscernible breeze, and the performance takes on a life of its own. Lim feels the music in a similar way. It all comes down to degree; refracting details, but with considerable freedom of movement.

It’s true that the very forward recording can make the performance sound much bigger than I think it intentionally is. The opening of the third movement, for example, is quite dramatic in scale. Lim can, however, produce a huge sound when he wants – and his left hand in particular can sometimes sound as if it is in isolation to the rest of his body so out of sync can it occasionally get. Even the closing rapid scales of this “Emperor sound larger than life – but are they over-contextualized or just a wild tempest of youth? The orchestral accompaniment, so typically Korean in many ways, hardly undermines that feeling of sheer size.

Lim’s encores look on the short side, at just over a couple of minutes each. But his repertoire is challenging. Here we have three pieces, two by Scriabin (“Poeme Op. 69/1” and “Feuillet d’album Op. 45/1”) and one by Fredrico Mompou, “Jeunes filles au jardin”. The playing is superb, although none of these pieces are powerhouse works – rather they are complex, but delicate, miniatures but on an endlessly improvisatory canvas, works of expressionism but also of extreme precision.

I still think Yunchan Lim doesn’t conform to the model of a piano virtuoso, nor perhaps does he want to; and perhaps the philosophy and influence of Minsoo Sohn is the key to that here. But there are contradictions. In temperament he may well be quite close to Glenn Gould. His Bach at Wigmore Hall earlier this year (where there was also a nod to Gould), revealed an intimacy to his interpretations which sometimes seemed at odds with the concert hall; the inwardness of his playing does not, I think, make him an outwardly warm player. The depth of this “Emperor’s Adagio makes me wonder for whom he plays his music. Perhaps his true conversations aren’t in concert halls, much as Afanassiev’s musical conversations are with the composers he plays in a very metaphorical way. Yunchan Lim’s musicmaking can be both volcanic and seismic or infer a deep interior core that is spiritual; neither is incompatible in the same performance just as Afanassiev’s Schumann using his fingers as a quill to scribble out what Schumann wrote isn’t improbable either. These pianists just belong somewhere else perhaps.

I never quite know how to feel about performances of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, especially from live concerts. The work is invariably frontloaded with meaning in most performances and in a sense listening to it can be a little like imposing yourself into someone else’s grief. The twentieth century is rife with works that in some way are indelibly linked to history or can be played as a response to someone else’s history. Barber’s Adagio is perhaps the most celebrated and universal example of this – although during the devastation of an East European Spring last year I was reminded whilst listening to a towering performance of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra how universal the message of that symphony is, even with its purpose and power surely reversed today.

Barber’s Adagio often, or sometimes not even barely, reflects the actual time a performance takes. I have known slow performances take no time at all, and swift ones seemingly go on forever. At nine-minutes, Seokwon Hong is near the norm – unlike, say, Gustavo Dudamel who takes eleven-minutes with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and in a perhaps uncharacteristic performance, though understated one, Sergiu Celibidache and the Münchner Philharmoniker who get through this work in slightly over nine-minutes. In one sense, programming Barber’s Adagio in this concert seemed entirely apposite – Isang Yun’s Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju is a powerful work about social unrest and rebellion against the authoritarianism of the state. If Seokwon Hong’s performance with the Gwangju Symphony Orchestra lacks a contemporary perspective, there is absolutely no lack of voltage here – quite the contrary in fact. I cannot remember, in fact, when I last heard a performance of Barber’s Adagio which had quite this much sheer power, heft and almost brutal rawness and sparseness. And yet, the playing of the orchestra’s strings is outstanding for almost the opposite reason. The richness of their sound is entirely resonant – even in the upper harmonics of the violins, which is distinctly unusual in this work. Cellos are gorgeous, with a sound that rises from the bottom of the orchestra, even as the bows sing beautifully across the strings.

One of the dominant characteristics of Isang Yun’s music is liberation and freedom. One sees it in his Chamber Symphony II, written in 1989, and subtitled “To the Victims of Freedom”. As with so much of Yun’s work of protest it is not so much the context of freedom that matters rather that of the victims, something which the composer himself experienced directly throughout periods of his own life as a composer in South Korea.

Isang Yun was born in Korea in 1917 (then a united country), but his musical education had largely been in Japan where he remained until 1941. An opponent of Japanese rule in Korea he was tortured in 1943 and again in 1967 when he was kidnapped by the Korean Secret Service from Berlin, where he had lived since 1964. Imprisoned on charges of being a communist, after a political show trial, and amid international protests, Yun was released in 1969, and was returned to West Germany, where he became a citizen in 1971. He spent his remaining years in exile calling for the democratisation of South Korea and the reunification of the two divided countries.

Isang Yun was commissioned by West German Radio to compose Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju in 1981. The work’s origins come from the Gwangju Uprising (or the 5/18, after the date it began on) a period that coincided with the assassination of South Korea’s dictator Chung-Hee Park in October 1979 and the seizure of power by a new one, Doo-Hwan Chun, in March 1980. The day before May 18th, the government declared martial law, arrested the political opposition and banned all political activity. What began as a student protest in Gwangju escalated into a civilian struggle which Chun suppressed with military force. The massacre that resulted lasted nine days, until 27th May.

Gwangju has become a symbol for anti-totalitarianism as well as democratisation in South Korea and Isang Yun composed Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju relatively quickly. He composed the work in Germany and it is perhaps this internationalist identity which gives the piece its universal message. It clearly carries through its twenty-minutes of vast symphonic paragraphs Yun’s rage at events in Gwangju; but it is also so clearly a work that taps into the plight of people under the screw of repression and totalitarianism elsewhere.

Although in a single movement, Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju is in three distinct sections. The first – the most dramatic part of the work – depicts the demonstration and the massacre. The second, the unfolding horror of the events and the beginning of mourning. The final section is Yun’s message of hope for a future where people are free of tyranny. Musically, the central part of the work is almost like an Adagio with both the outer movements containing music of extraordinary violence and power. If much of the orchestration is standard – the percussion that Yun uses is enormous, and it is this which gives the work such a graphic, seismic quality. Much of the first part is written at fff or ffff for the brass, too. There are three tams-tams – each pitched differently. Timpani are instructed to use hard mallets, not wooden ones. This is music that is designed to throttle the senses; but it is there to express violence, rage and terror, too. Isang Yun’s language is less reactionary than Bartók’s was in The Miraculous Mandarin, but Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju is ancestrally related to it as few twentieth century works are.

Such is the quality of this work the performances of it that exist are rarely less than excellent, although the most widely available recording of it – Byung-Hwa Kim’s with the State Symphony Orchestra, on a box set with Yun’s complete symphonies on CPO – is the least convincing. The Asian premiere performance, given by the Tokyo City Philharmonic and Yuji Takahashi on 20th May 1981, shortly after the world premiere in Germany conducted by Hiroshi Wakasugi, is an enormously powerful performance, however – committed, dramatic and played with a rawness that was typical of Japanese orchestras during the 1980s.

Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju is best experienced in the most explosive sound possible. We have that on this recording. The performance, too, by the Gwangju Symphony Orchestra and Seokwon Hong is absolutely superb – but given this work is performed annually in Gwangju perhaps the work has become a part of this orchestra’s musical fabric; if not necessarily symbiotic with this composer, there is certainly an organic bloom. We hear very much more than a symphonic performance here – it is almost factualised as film, or archived in its historical relevancy. The playing of the orchestra goes beyond the music into something distinctly cinematic but documented through every note of the score.

The massacre itself has overwhelming presence on the recording – climaxes are colossal in their dimensions, but the nuances in the orchestration, in what can sometimes be quite a dense score, has remarkable clarity at times. You won’t really forget the dramatic impact of the percussion here anytime soon; in a way, what Isang Yun starts here is something that South Korean composers, like Jeajoon Ryu, have brought into their music with such devastating impact today. There’s is a profound sense of unease in the central section, too. One gets this in the Hong-Jae Kim performance with the Tokyo Philharmonic, too (on a Sinnara Music CD) – but perhaps Hong is just a little more unsettling, more convincing in his portrayal of the vision of devastating mournfulness that follows the hollowing out of death from the suppression from the first part of the work. Yun’s view of the future is in part a cynical one, I think. His own past haunts this work because his own experiences are never free from whatever he composes. Hong gets the mood of this music at just the right temperature – and the violence of the end, if not perhaps as incendiary as Hong-Jae Kim makes it, comes very close to it. The orchestral playing is superlative in a work that places considerable demands on its players.

Whether you manage to source this disc from South Korea, or buy the download, the quality of the music here is just exceptional – but the tipping point for me is Isang Yun’s Exemplum in memoriam Kwangju. It’s a wonderful work, given a great performance.

Marc Bridle

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