Friday, August 4, 2023

Korean piano virtuoso stuns Wesley audience with enthralling concert

South Korean pianist Jeonghwan Kim. Photo courtesy Harris International Piano Series 2023 collection.

by Tony Magee

Jeonghwan Kim, winner of the recent Sydney International Piano Competition (now renamed “The Sydney”), enthralled a packed house in a spectacular concert at Wesley Uniting Church in Forrest, last night.

Kim, from South Korea, is just 23 years old and already displayes an incredible command of the keyboard. Total assurity and confidence at every moment, he played with a maturity way beyond his years.

Opening with Sebastian Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in A minor”, Kim launched into the piece with a commanding flourish with plenty of volume and displaying a dazzling technique as he progressed.

With wonderful, highly sensitive cadence points he also brought out bass line melody with great clarity - something many pianists overlook.

His dynamic range is extensive, demonstrated by his delicate pianissimo in the second section of the piece before increasing into a magnificent rage .

Here we heard and witnessed a style of playing which is essential to quality, gifted playing: the ability to create huge, voluminous sound without bashing.

It is a hallmark of the best late 19th century pianists, an era considered by many as the greatest period of pianistic interpretation and tone production.

How is it done? By using what is referred to as a relaxed “weight” technique.

Rather than just jabbing at the keyboard with the wrist and forearm, which creates a wholly unpleasant percussive, wirey sound, the whole body almost “falls” on the keyboard, with extreme accuracy, creating a singing tone.

Through Kim’s playing, we heard hints of the pianistic performance hallmarks of Ferruccio Busoni, Josef Hofmann, Theodore Leschetizky, Franz Liszt, Camille Saint-Saëns, Leopold Godowsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff and others.

Canberra’s Larry Sitsky is one of the last living pianists who has a full understanding of this style of playing and it comes through in everything he performs.

Martha Argerich, arguably today’s greatest living pianist, has these qualities in abundance as well.

It is rapidly becoming a lost art and it was comforting, if not exhilarating, to see Kim displaying some of these qualities, although, being at the beginning of his career, he still has much to learn and explore. I hope he continues to refine his ability to create immense dynamic range whilst still delivering bell-like clarity and a singing tone from the instrument.

Pianists who can’t do this, or don’t understand this, are destined for failure. And they abound everywhere around the world.

Continuing with the “Sonata in B minor” by Chopin, Kim played with beautiful lyrical phrasing delivering sounds of great beauty and refinement. He virtually “owned” the piece, such was his confidence and command.

His body language suggests he is totally immersed in his music making - often looking skywards, it was as beautiful to watch as it was to listen to.

During the second movement, incredible dynamic range once again shone forth, ranging from the most delicate pianissimos to triple forte. Playing with a fluid, liquid technique he once again displayed his penchant for bringing out bass line melody with immense clarity and tone production, something which many pianists gloss over.

During the third movement, I felt Kim was just on the verge of rushing the tempo slightly. I’ll put that down to youthful exuberance.

Returning to the printed program, Schumann’s “Nachtstücke Op. 23” in four movements followed after interval.

The first, entitled “Meh langsam, oft zurückhaltend”, once again beheld left hand melody of clarity and superb tone production with wide dynamic range.

“Markiert und lebhaft” revealed lively, joyfulness with fast staccato passages and bell-like clarity in the treble.

“Met großer Lebhaftigkeit” saw a molto vivace approach, almost an “attack” on the keyboard, settling back into a serene melody of exquisite beauty.

“Ad libitum - Einfach” started with a delicate slow paced opening - gentle strumming of the strings and a singing tone. Kim brought out the inner voices wonderfully, another hallmark of late 19th century performance style.

Kim also has a penchant for “bravura” style playing, somewhat reminiscent of Vladimir Horowitz and Franz Liszt.

Chopin’s “Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57” followed. It was a delicate and passionate rendition.

Messiaen’s “Regard de L’Espirit de joie” from his “Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus” closed the show. Intense bass melody, this time in octaves, was complimented by thunderous crashing treble chords in oblique harmonies. All a great contrast to his previous repertoire.

A technical nightmare for most pianists, Kim played it with immense assurity and confidence. The piece makes full use of the entire piano keyboard. Mostly all in triple forte, the piece does have moments of pianissimo and delicacy, something which Kim used to great effect as a stand-out contrast.

Another passage within the piece began with a creeping, almost sinister bass motive, dissolving into a massive block chordal structure. Passages of fury, almost frightening and terrifying were a feature. Only a pianist with the most refined technique could handle this vast and difficult work.

The audience was treated to a short encore - Chopin’s “Etude No. 1, Op. 25”. A subdued and serene reading, it brought to a close a magnificent evening of music making, showcasing an immensely talented pianist of great musical insight.

Thunderous applause ensued.