From time to time a record appears of such startling and heroic brilliance that you are brought up short; compelled to catch your breath. And so, it is with 20-year-old Yunchan Lim and his eagerly awaited first Decca disc, a youthful throwing down of the gauntlet at the Chopin Etudes opus 10 and 25(he omits the 'Trois Nouvelles' Etudes; music for a later recording).

 

The Etudes remain among the severest challenges in the repertoire. Their difficulties, unlike Liszt's which are of a wider, often quasi-symphonic scale and grandeur, are fiercely concentrated so that whether you are confronted by thirds, sixths, octaves, arpeggios etc, the focus is relentless and few pianists would claim that they are equally comfortable or at home in all of them. More significantly, the Etudes lift such mundane considerations far above themselves, transforming pragmatism into poetry. The musical demand transcends the technical demand and the successful crossing of the Rubicon from one thing to another becomes the pianist's golden, if elusive goal. As the American pianist, Ruth Laredo so graphically put it, ' Boy! Did they ever give me grief.' Even for major pianists the Etudes can remain a ball-and chain- associated with long and often painful hours in the practise room.

 

Not for Yunchan Lim who, having stunned his audience and jury at the Van Cliburn Competition with his prize-winning performances of Liszt's 12 Transcendental Etudes and to a still greater extent, Rachmaninov's Third Concerto, now finds himself in the spotlight of post- competition euphoria, rocketed, in journalistic terms, from far down the alphabet into A list status. Already he feels the need to distance himself, to allow his playing to blossom and evolve naturally away from many outwardly beguiling enticements, and it has to be said that his London debut recital at the Wigmore Hall was a triumph of a more inward musicianship, far remote from public glitter and glamour. Here, all associated pressure, the adrenalin and tension associated with the competition arena, were resolved, not only in his choice of repertoire (Dowland/Byrd, Pavana Lachrymosa, Bach's Three-Part Sinfonias (Inventions), Beethoven's opus 33 Bagatelles and the 'Eroica' Variations, but also in Liszt's 'Un Sospiro' Etude added as a memorably inflected encore; a nostalgic backward glance at earlier romantic leanings.  The entire evening was as haunting as it was unexpected. There you heard a young pianist revealed as an artist of astonishing range and inwardness, already his repertoire richly inclusive rather than narrowly focused. 

 

And so, to my prime interest and consideration; Yunchan Lim in the Chopin Etudes. What unnerving mastery, what colour, light and shade within an imperious pace and authority in Chopin's curtain-raiser, in opus 10 No 1, his so-called 'run-away chorale'. Here arpeggios-- cruelly for small hands-- stretch over an interval of a tenth prompting the German critic Ludwig Rellstab into a caustic summation. 'Those who have distorted fingers may put them right by practising these studies, but those who have not should not play them, at least not without a surgeon handy.'  The musical, to say nothing of the physical novelty, proved too much for a dour and sarcastic ('we implore Mr Chopin to return to nature’) Berlin critic For Lim the Etudes are a source of joy and scintillation. He is not without a touch of mischief notably in No 2 in A minor, his cross voicing and accentuation sparking through the chromatic texture and the relentless tic-toc left hand, while in No 3 in E major the composer's supposed cry, 'Ah! Mon patrie' never tempts him into sentimentality. No 4 in C sharp minor is indeed, 'a lance of virtuosity, its rocket- fuelled revisit of Bach's two part writing an opportunity for Lim's shot--from- guns bravura. What brio in No 5 in G flat, the black key Etude where Chopin sports with the keyboard, yet there is a no less apt response to the dark-hued melancholy, to the near Wagnerian harmony of No 6 in E flat minor. In No 7 in C, surely Chopin's 'Toccata,' Lim rivals Ignaz Friedman's celebrated agility, followed by a nonchalant dismissal of No 8's dipping and soaring cascades?

 

Moving ahead, Lim is fuller and less ethereal than is customary in opus 25 No 1 in A flat, Schumann's beloved 'Aeolean' harp, finding a high degree of drama beneath its lyricism. In No 4 In A minor, the pace is fast and furious, a blaze of A minor, while in No 5 in E minor, the musical equivalent equivalent of hiccoughs, resolved in a richly ornamented melody, haunting even by Chopin's standards everything as always with Lim is precisely and exactly in place; you hear every note in the elaboration of the already elaborate right hand figuration. In No 9 in G flat, he makes no concession to the publisher's attachments or subtitle, whether 'Butterfly,' Tristesse' or 'Winter wind' etc. True, Cortot felt himself within bounds by adding picturesque verbal additions to Chopin (for him the storming Prelude No 16 in B flat minor was 'the road to the abyss') But a modern and contemporary pianist feels little need, any more than the composer, for such additions. For Lim as for Chopin, music is sui generis, illustrating Mendelssohn’s aphorism that music is too precise rather than too vague for language, Again, for Chopin the finale of his B flat minor Sonata was simply two voices chattering together in unison. He left others to speak of winds over graves or a network of rooks in the twilight.'

 

Yet Lim's greatest surprise comes in the last three Etudes, music of epic proportions. If as the Chopin scholar Arthur Hedley put it, after hearing Horowitz play the B minor 'octave' Etude, the only reasonable thing to do was to have a heart attack, the same could be said of LIm's hardly less brilliant fury. Here he reminds you that if Chopin is often relatively benign in the key of A flat, he is at his darkest and most turbulent in B minor (the First Scherzo immediately comes to mind).

 

So, what is my final response to Lim's astonishing record? Naturally, I have been thinking of a wider context, of other legendary recordings. Cortot may be battle-scarred-- a far cry From Lim's precision-- but his instinct for poetry remains indelible. Again, I would never want to be without Vladimir Ashkenazy's first recording of the Etudes, made when at twenty-two, he was only marginally older than Lim. Pollini's first EMI recording of the Etudes, issued initially against his wishes and the result of a hard fought fight by both myself and by the late Stewart Brown of Testament, remains high on my list with its marginally freer, more flexible response when compared to his later DG version, Murray Perahia, wryly anxious to record the Etudes before it became too late, also joins the Parthenon of great recordings.  Impossible, too, not to mention individual favourites played by pianists unwilling to put down a complete set.  I have already mentioned Horowitz in the B minor, 'octave' Etude, Ignaz Friedman in opus 10 No 7, and then there is Martha Argerich in opus 10 No 1, Benno Moiseiwitsch in a frustratingly brief selection of four Etudes, alive with a magical old-fashioned caprice. Rubinstein's failure to record the Etudes after an unsuccessful try out (the only major Chopin genre he omitted) remains a sad loss.

 

But, all in all, Yunchan LIm's recording is everything it could possibly be and more, a young pianist's vision and joy in his own capacity and aplomb. His ruthless focus and concentration lead to vivid and mesmeric results… And for those inclined to speak of a still fuller engagement in years to come I can only quote Daniel Barenboim who, when asked why he chose to record Mozart's complete Piano Concertos and Beethoven's complete Piano Sonatas while still in his twenties, sagely replied that his performances represent the outlook and response of a young pianist and as such they have their own validity. Later in his thirties and forties his take would be different, not necessarily better, but different. In a stroke he banished cliches regarding age, and precisely the same critical criteria could be applied to Lim, radically different repertoire notwithstanding. His Chopin Etudes cone up new minted, as if composed yesterday Nothing eludes his eagle ear and eye. To describe him as a young Turk of the keyboard would be seriously misleading; his Chopin is as sensitive as it is imperious and the burning clarity of his vision makes-- to take a singular comparison-- Cziffra’s legendary volatility and distortion sound oddly extraneous. 

 

I can only end by hoping that Lim finds a pace natural to his prodigious talent. For some, a concert a night and a record every other month is the norm (often with a disfiguring and damaging effect as routine and career phase out a finer commitment and sense of occasion.) Lim is a star in the musical firmament and Decca's sound is as brilliant and compulsive as the playing. The accompanying notes include Lim's own touching response to the Etudes in particular and music in general.

 

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Finally, an anecdote. The French pianist Philippe Entrement once told of an experience that has never left him. Packing to leave his hotel and en route for another concert he turned on his radio and started listening to a performance of the Chopin Etudes that quickly left him hastened and bemused. The playing was extraordinary in its freedom, in its poetic uplift so that it seemed to soar far above the score into the stratosphere. It was Alfred Cortot and Entrement claimed he was so mesmerised that he ended up missing his flight. 

 

Style and approach differ more rapidly than is often considered and I can only say that Lim casts a radically different yet no less authentic light on music that prompts the widest variety of responses. At the same time, you can only end by being lost in wonder, at 'the achieve of, the mastery of the thing'('The Windhover' by Gerard Manley Hopkins). No lover of such early and phenomenal command can afford to be without this disc.

 

 

Bryce Morrison