Wednesday 9 November 2022


KUN WOO PAIK Piano Recital

YUNCHAN LIM Piano Recital

Victoria Concert Hall

Friday & Sunday (4 & 6 November 2022)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 November 2022 with the title "South Korean pianists raise the roof".


Presented by Altenburg Arts, two South Korean pianists from extreme ends of their performing careers showed that age mattered little in terms of artistry. Kun Woo Paik, now 76, is a concert veteran, having  multiple appearances in Singapore since the 1990s. Making his debut here is Yunchan Lim, whom at 18 became the youngest winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held earlier this year.


Despite their common cultural heritage, both presented very different yet utterly valid vistas of piano playing. Paik’s programme, centred on the theme of love and death, had long been determined before last weekend’s Halloween tragedy at Itaewon, Seoul, where over 150 people lost their lives. As if serving as a requiem, it opened with Frenchman Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, six movements dedicated to friends who died in the First World War.


Each movement was a dance inspired by the French Baroque, beginning with a swift flowing Prelude and academic Fugue. Paik did not treat these as mincing miniatures of antiquity but rather like monuments, carved out with big-boned bravura. Whether it was a fancy Forlane, rousing Rigaudon or merry Minuet, each sounded epic, rounded up with a rumbling Toccata that threatened to raise the roof.

Photo: PianoManiac


Similarly writ large was Spanish composer Enrique Granados’ Goyescas, six essays based on by paintings of youthful gentry by Francisco Goya. Despite its courtly subjects, there ran undertones of seriousness throughout. One can be young and in love, but mortality has the final say. While the first three pieces, based on dances, sounded loud and brash, it was the famous Maiden and the Nightingale which tugged on the heartstrings.


Most impressive was the Lisztian Balada, El Amor y La Muerte (Love And Death), which had an expressive power that swept all that had come before. Paik played like his life depended on it, before closing with the ghostly Serenade To A Spectre. Instead of ending quietly on a downer, a built-in encore, El Pelele (The Strawman), was a coruscating dance that drew a standing ovation.    

Photo: PianoManiac


Much was expected from Yunchan Lim following his Cliburn triumph. The sober first half, beginning with Brahms’ Four Ballades (Op.10), had the reverential quality of a communion service. In this anti-virtuoso music, he exhibited a rare maturity and depth associated with artists far older. This continued into the deeply reflective Mendelssohn Fantasy in F sharp minor (Op.28) with its hymn-like countenance before letting rip in the finale’s prestidigitations.


Lim has developed a reputation as a supreme Liszt player, and he did not disappoint in the Two Legends, which exploited extreme ends of the keyboard. St Francis Of Assisi’s Sermon To The Birds revelled in trills and twitterings in high registers while St Francis of Paul Walking On The Waves stormed with roulades of raging octaves and massive chords.

Photo: PianoManiac

The sheer sonorities Lim achieved without recourse to banging was awe-inspiring, further realised in the Dante Sonata, a harrowing journey into the Inferno of the Italian poet’s Divine Comedy. Often hammered to death in piano competitions, he made it sound fresh and unhackneyed, even finding new textures from depths of the abyss.    


The resulting applause and cheers were deafening, as if the Victoria Concert Hall faithful had morphed into screaming K-pop fans. His two gentle encores made this recital even more special. Leopold Godowsky’s transcription of Saint-Saens’ The Swan has never sounded this seductive since the late great Shura Cherkassky’s take in 1994, while Alfred Cortot’s Arioso (after J.S. Bach) provided the perfect benediction to take home with. 

Photo: PianoManiac

All photographs by Ung Ruey Loon unless otherwise specified.

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