Chopin Études Op.10 & 25 Decca

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Études, Op.10
Études, Op. 25
Yunchan Lim (piano)
rec. 2023, Henry Wood Hall, London
Decca 4870122 [57]

Yunchan Lim, a young pianist who won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2022, aged only 18, here presents his debut album on Decca Classics – the Chopin Études, Op.10 & Op.25. He was born in Siheung, South Korea in 2004. Early piano lessons from the age of seven revealed a precocious talent, and he was admitted to the Music Academy of Seoul Arts Centre a year later. This was followed by a period of study at the Korea National University of Arts, and from there he progressed to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston under the guidance of Minsoo Sohn. Since his Van Cliburn win he has been eagerly sought after, with numerous invites from some of the most prestigious orchestras and concert halls worldwide.

In the accompanying booklet, in conversation with Jessica Duchen, the pianist discusses his relationship with the Études. He’s been playing them since early on and for him they span a universe: “Within the Études, there are such things as the agony of the earth, the regrets of an older person, love letters, longing, and freedom.” He discusses each, and the thoughts they evoke, with reference to literature, nature, travel and theatre. Listening to the great pianists of the past, he’s been influenced by Ignaz Friedman, Alfred Cortot, Vladimir Horowitz and Youri Egorov.

Lim’s virtuosity, musicality and precision all combine to make this cycle one of the finest I’ve heard. It can certainly hold its own when compared to the likes of Pollini (EMI 1960 recording), the early Ashkenazy recording, Juana Zayas and Valentina Lisitsa, just to name four of my favorites.

We get off to positive start in Chopin’s first Étude of Op. 10. Here the right hand arpeggios flow fluently and with overall shape. There’s flawless clarity and expressiveness with no hint of tedium. No. 3 is tender and expressive with a gentle hint of wistful regret. No.5 the ‘Black Key’ Étude is finely spun and effervescent, and No. 6 is particularly effective, imbued throughout with sadness and remorse. No. 8 is my favorite of the Op. 10 set, and Lim successfully conveys the left hand melody against the rippling arpeggios of the right hand. The ‘Revolutionary’ Étude which completes the set is notable for its passion, drama and turbulence.

Op. 25 opens with a delicate ‘Aeolian Harp’, where the melody is eloquently picked out above the rippling arpeggios. In No. 2 the finger work is flawless, as are the treacherous thirds in No. 6. There’s a perfect balance between the left hand melody and the arpeggio accompaniment in No. 5 in E minor.  No 7 in C-sharp minor is marked Lento and is often referred to as the ‘Cello’ Étude. Lim infuses his reading with introspection and melancholy but, for me, it doesn’t quite capture the unique haunting quality of Vladimir Horowitz, whose voicing in this beautiful Étude is quite magical and colour infused.  The ‘Winter Wind’ (No. 11) is evocative and filled with intense drama.

So there we have it. It’s an excellent debut by any standards, and I’m sure Lim will go from strength to strength. His playing balances a wondrous technique, formidable musicianship, sophistication and style. He’s been well-served with an exceptionally fine recording, responsive venue and a well-regulated piano. Liner notes are in English, French, German and Korean.

Maybe a contender for one of my Recordings of the Year.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Marc Bridle (April 2024 Recording of the Month)

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