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A Most Auspicious Philharmonic Debut

New York
Wu Tsai Theatre, David Geffen Hall
05/09/2023 -  & May 11, 12, 2023
Valentin Silvestrov: Prayer for Ukraine (arr. Eduard Resatsch)
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, op. 44
Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, op. 30

Yunchan Lim (piano)
New York Philharmonic, James Gaffigan (conductor)

Y. Lim (© Roman Markowicz)

Yunchan Lim is the 19 year old Korean pianist who one year ago created a sensation by winning the Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Forth Worth, Texas. Some of the commentators declared his performances of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes in the semifinals and the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto in the finals as the best they had ever heard. Were they exaggerating? Hardly! At the tender age of 18 he proved himself a master pianist who also has quite a lot to offer musically. Listening to his Liszt Etudes one had to admit that only the greatest technicians can muster such command of the keyboard.

It was his luck that there were some recent programming changes at the New York Philharmonic and that the shrewd artistic administration saw fit to offer the young pianist an opportunity to make his New York debut and to do it with the assistance of the great orchestra. The change also included the conductor, and for this subscription concert the impressive British maestro James Gaffigan was invited to conduct. He chose for the first half of the program Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, a work that is seldom performed; the last time we heard it with this orchestra was two decades ago.

Rachmaninov composed his Third Piano Concerto for his own American tour in the first decade of the XXth century. The premiere took place in New York City in 1909. If memory does not fail me, he later played the work again, this time conducted by Gustav Mahler, who apparently took his assignment as an “accompanist” very seriously, spending a lot of time training the orchestra and eventually transforming it into the New York Philharmonic.

This is a very difficult score and even some 70 years ago very few pianists attempted it. Today it seems if you don’t play it by the age of 15 you are a failure and your chances of becoming a successful pianist are slim. It should thus not be surprising that nowadays very young pianists use this monumental 40 minute long work as their competition vehicle. Yet what this young Korean showed his New York audiences was still an extraordinary feat and his performance left no doubt that we are dealing with yet another great pianistic talent from South Korea or China.

Mr. Lim, who is still barely known outside his native country, has mentioned in a press interview that it was Vladimir Horowitz’s performance he has listened to “thousand of times”. One may hear in Lim’s interpretation more than a shade of the great old master who himself championed the work as a teenager and whose own performance cemented a lifelong friendship with Rachmaninov, the pianist considered by many colleagues to be the greatest of them all. Luckily, Mr. Lim, even if imitating, took only the best from Horowitz. What we heard was a little hesitation here and there, a little expressiveness lingering in a phrase, all done with taste and without exaggeration. To top it off, he dazzled us with staggering technique and an astonishing command of the keyboard.

Yunchan Lim’s is a rare talent. So it was a special treat for the audience to observe such radiant youthful exuberance and self‑confidence. Besides his maturity and the ease with which he conquered all the obstacles of the score, there was in his playing plenty of natural beauty and attention to sound production. He could be thundering one moment and then, on a dime, become as delicate, introspective and translucent as this music demands. Someone commented that “Lim was born with a keyboard under his fingers” and I see very little exaggeration in this statement. There might have been a few moments in the first movement where his hesitations and prolonged breaths were not terribly convincing, but at this point, they seem to be one of his trademarks. These little mannerisms might change and simplicity can once again dominate his quiet playing. His tone was special too; as mentioned, he was able to muster a mighty sound in places that demanded it, but there were also many hushed, introspective stretches played with crystalline transparency and a ringing sound.

The first movement’s so‑called “big” cadenza which the composer himself passed up in his own recording, received an enormously imposing rendition, and in such moments of animation Mr. Lim’s otherwise neatly groomed hair would fly all over his face. If you ask me for one really magical moment in the concerto’s first movement, it would belong to the orchestra, specifically to the brass entrance right after the cadenza dies out; it was a beautiful, velvety, soft, precise entry, perfectly in tune. This orchestra astonishes me every time I hear it. Possibly the players just hear themselves better in the new auditorium now named Wu Tsai Theater. (Repeat after me: Wu Tsai Theater). I heard the third of four performances and by that time all the initial problems of coordination between conductor, pianist, and orchestra were already ironed out and what we experienced were chamber music‑like moments when the pianist and orchestra soloists cooperated beautifully. In the second movement, there were tons of scintillating, lace‑like, whirlwinds playing with some individually accented notes that spiked the musical texture.

The last movement that follows the middle Andante, attaca with a brief cadenza started with not so much energy as ferocity. The tempo was very brisk, probably because Mr. Lim could play it and control it too. It had that youthful abandon of a pianist who thinks himself invincible and he was! In the closing pages, which again were taken at an unusually vigorous clip, I was reminded of the famed Vladimir Horowitz debut with the same orchestra, though for that occasion he played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in a performance so untamed that it prompted one New York critic to compare him to “the wild tornado from the steppes”. So with the concluding pages of the concerto we witnessed a similar burst of unleashed energy, power and speed of almost inhuman ferociousness. Yet rarely if at all did I experience any harshness in sound, and his remarkable finger strength allowed him to create sonorities that towered over the orchestra or created ringing, pearl‑like, musical droplets. And whereas, according to reviewers at Mr. Horowitz NY Phil debut in 1928, that pianist left his then conductor, Thomas Beecham (later Sir Thomas) well behind, Mr. Gaffigan perfectly followed the temper of his soloist and stayed tight with him. One also can’t overstate the contribution of the orchestra’s luminous warmth in the strings and spectacular playing in the brass and wind sections. This was a far cry from the level of playing demonstrated some decades ago in the recorded 1978 Vladimir Horowitz version. The orchestra at the time was a very good ensemble under Eugene Ormandy, Horowitz’s chosen conductor as well as a legendary accompanist. Today we had a virtuoso orchestra with a stunning level of playing and finally the ability to show refinement as well as might. As for the performance itself, was it the best ever, as some commentators would have it? Would I replace all other great versions I have heard? No to both. Yet, this certainly was one of the most exciting, virtuosic and memorable performances in recent memory. Mr. Lim might have made some interpretive decisions I would question: excessive liberty in phrasing for one, but those “sins” were easy to forgive.

In the end, there was a predictable standing ovation with the kind of reception for our soloist that is usually reserved for pop stars. I must add that a large percentage of the Friday afternoon crowd was Korean and, as I have observed on numerous occasions, this ethnic group treats their countrymen and women not only with eagerness but adulation. I can hardly blame them. We hope they will see more of their favorite son on American stages, especially New York City’s.

I don’t remember any other artist offering his fans three substantial encores after a concerto performance while the orchestra remains seated behind their music stands! But that’s exactly what happened. The first encore, a work unknown to me, was Anatoly Lyadov’s Prelude, first of his 3 Morceaux op. 57, a charming, soul‑pinching miniature typical of Lyadov’s music. Next came Anton Rubinstein’s Melody in F, once a popular standard, today far more seldom performed. Here Mr. Kim’s approach could be called vintage, even old‑fashioned. Where did he learn this “Golden Age of Piano Playing” style? The third and final encore was Liszt’s “Sonetto 104 del Petrarca,” the best‑known of the three songs the composer arranged for piano. Nowadays one rarely hears such an extraordinary combination of virtuosity and affectionate, seductive playing.

Whereas in Rachmaninov’s Concerto, our young soloist “floored” the audience with his outstanding, transcendental technique and youthful temperament, in his encores he presented a new face as an old‑fashioned master. The nuanced sound he was getting out of the piano, the level of subtlety, differentiation of voicing, ability to really sing on the piano, and show an infinite variety of dynamics made this listener listen with his jaw dropped. I don’t recall this type of piano magic since the days of such giants as Horowitz and Cherkassky, who very well might have been his models. Well, if you want to use someone as a model, at least choose the best. At the same time, Mr. Lim seemed to internalize the Romantic sensibility, sounding really natural, and not at all like an imitation. And for goodness sake, he is only 19!

As for Mr. Lim’s attire, he eschewed the slovenly style of the younger generation for formal concert tails. What a nice bow to the almost forgotten, old‑fashioned tradition and what a gracious gesture of courtesy toward his listeners. My only objection, one I suppose could be easily corrected, was the fact that when playing encores Mr. Lim didn’t give his large audience a chance to sit down between one standing ovation and another. It takes a moment or two for 3,000 people to recover after every eruption! Thus, we barely heard the encores’ opening measures. Maybe someone will forward my little request to this wonderful young pianist?

Post script: An unexpected, prolonged and nerve‑wracking delay in the subway service, with the train being caught for 30 minutes between the stations, caused me to miss both works performed in the first half of the concert. It was particularly regrettable as I have never heard Prokofiev’s Third Symphony in a live performance and the audience reports during the intermission were enthusiastic.

Roman Markowicz



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