Sunwook Kim Romances Portland
By Meg Corner
On January 13 & 14, Portland welcomed Korean pianist Sunwook Kim to town to play two recitals showcasing some of the best solo piano works of the Romantic era. To be honest, this repertoire is some of the least unfamiliar for me, as someone who devoted their musical life mostly to music between 1400 and 1750. But knowing the caliber of the musicians on Portland Piano International’s SOLO series, I had no doubt that I would be hearing something extraordinary. Spoiler: I was right.
The pieces featured on the weekend were by Bach/Busoni, Beethoven, and Schumann on Saturday, Schubert and Beethoven on Sunday. They were on the longer side, comparatively speaking, and during these extended periods of sustained music we had the luxury of time to engage deeply – to reflect on the soundscape saturating Lincoln Hall, be astounded by technical feats, and be moved, surprised, startled, or even perplexed by what was reaching our ears.
Prior to the concerts I watched the audiences file in, sit down, and eagerly await the entrance of Sunwook Kim and the start of the recital. Sunday was particularly striking by the number of connections happening in the seats between families and friends. I heard a few exchanges of “Did you buy the whole season?” “Oh yes, yes!” People were genuinely happy to be there – the apparent reunions made it seem like Old Home Week!
Saturday’s recital started with the Bach/Busoni Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564. Like I mentioned before, my life in music was in early music, so you can imagine how curious I was to hear this Busoni transcription of Bach’s organ work. Kim arrived on stage, sat down and immediately began playing. The piece was bombastic and strong – almost virile. The powerful passages were aplenty but the sections that really resonated with me were the lighter, imitative passages. I was also astonished at his sense of pulse – it was pervasive, magnetic, beyond simple accuracy; it gave us all a beacon to hold on to. It was a magnificent way to start the concert.
After that we were treated to one of the most recognizable works in the solo piano literature, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 13, No. 8 "Pathetique." I really liked the way he used silence at the start of the sonata – perhaps more than you might be accustomed to, but I loved the drama inherent to it. There were lots of textures throughout – soft and gentle moments, strong and powerful ones, bright sounds, bell sounds, abrupt sounds, and wonderfully articulated passages. The third movement brought us to these amazing extended idiomatic sections that made the instrument sing.
After intermission, Kim played two sets of pieces by Schumann – 4 Nachtstücke, Op. 23 and Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13. It was here that I came to believe that this was Kim’s piano “language” – he sounded so at home in this repertoire, communing closely with the music’s aesthetic and expressive demands. Whether he was engrossed in the triumphant opening of the first Nachtstücke, the reflection of the second movement or the world of arpeggios, it was as if Kim was born to play this music. The Symphonic Etudes were also completely in his wheelhouse, and he pulled a nice resonant sound out of the instrument. There were a huge variety of textures throughout, and at times it was almost like he was creating the music himself, on the fly. Only a master of the instrument could do such a thing. The audience responded with a standing ovation.
He played us an encore, the Brahms Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2, a sweet caress to the end of an awesome afternoon of live music.
Sunday’s recital consisted of two pieces and no encore. The first half was Schubert’s 4 Impromptus, D. 935. To me, this was the heart of the weekend. The pieces on Saturday seemed to serve as a showcase for virtuosity and extroverted technical prowess. With the Schubert, the connection Kim had with the instrument felt deeper than in previous pieces – it was as if we saw the core spirit of who Sunwook Kim was as a musician and artist. You could see it in his body, in the sound that came out of the instrument, and in his face where, at times, he seemed moved to ecstasy. It was truly something to behold. It was pure joy.
From a technical standpoint, the most delightful details were his light and flirty ornaments and use of rhetoric in expression. I thoroughly enjoyed the way he plays Schubert.
The second half was devoted entirely to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 120. This was about an hour’s worth of music, and although that sounds like a lot, the time just flew by – a testament to Kim’s connection to this literature and the instrument. He entertained us with so much authority, strength, technique, and playfulness during the journey through the 33 variations – not to mention stamina, which was thrilling all on its own. To understand how a pianist keeps all of this clear in their head, along with the technical mastery and ability to go from one feeling to another, from variation to variation – their mind would blow your mind.
The variations move among different time signatures, gestures, tempos and expressive vehicles, and Kim maneuvered through them brilliantly. For me it was a thrill to end on two pianissimo chords; after 33 verbose variations, it was unexpected – “The delight is the surprise,” to quote poet Louise Glück. As Kim sustained those two chords for what seemed like ages, he kept the audience spellbound. Eventually silence arrived, Kim relaxed, and the audience was so blown away they delivered a standing ovation complete with cheering and clapping. It was a remarkable end to a concert.
We are grateful to have had the chance to hear Sunwook Kim perform and we wish him all the best as he travels to other parts of the globe to share his beautiful music making.