23 year-old Berlin-based Korean pianist, Jeonghwan Kim, was the deserved 1st Prize winner of the 2023 Sydney International Piano Competition, which concluded at the Sydney Opera House last Saturday, July 22. After strong performances throughout the arduous 17-day event, one that requires over four hours of diverse repertoire, including chamber music and a pair of concertos, Kim’s utterly compelling performance of the super-virtuosic Bartok Piano Concerto No 2 with Ben Northey and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra propelled him into the winning position, winning over $60,000 in the process, as well as a tour of Australia, which commenced on Tuesday night at the Melbourne Recital Centre. A small but enthusiastic audience, most of whom had in all likelihood followed the competition online, looked forward to hearing Kim re-present some of his competition repertoire live.
The recital commenced with a polished reading of Beethoven’s only programmatic Piano Sonata, the composer-designated “Les Adieux” Sonata in E-flat, Op 81a, which musically depicts the Farewell, Absence, and Return of Beethoven’s friend and patron, the Archduke Rudolph. After a probing slow introduction, the musically-detailed first movement proper was characterised by razor-sharp articulation and a tautness of rhythm, all unified by the ever-present opening “Lebewohl” motif, revealed in continually varied musical guises. The ensuing Andante’s pathos emerged convincingly, as much by its sensitivity to harmonic nuance and control of pulse as by its poignant exploration of silence. The rambunctious Vivacissimo finale, with its lightning-fast cascading scales and broken octaves, exuberantly encapsulated the composer’s joy at the return of his patron.
The Sonata No 6 in A major is the first of the trilogy of so-called “War Sonatas” that Prokofiev completed, and then premiered himself, in 1940. The opening movement was approached with appropriately steely resolve and was characterised by starkly contrasting textures and dynamics, free-wheeling fist clusters and lightning-fast glissandos. The playfully sardonic scherzando humour of the Allegretto was well captured while the Vivace finale’s dashing brilliance, at times bordering on the vertiginous, explored the full range of the keyboard.
Unfortunately, tuning issues with the Steinway piano proved quite distracting in the first half of the concert, and Kim is to be commended for soldiering on. Happily, these issues were satisfactorily addressed during the interval.
The second half opened with Schumann’s rarely heard 4 Nachtstücke (Night Pieces) Opus 23, the highlight of which was the concluding Ad libitum – Einfach, which brought to the fore Kim’s eloquently poetic lyricism and detailed exploration of the softest dynamic range. Kim’s gossamer touch continued in Chopin’s Berceuse (lullaby). Here it was almost a case of 50 Shades of Pianissimo, such was the nuance and refinement in Kim’s tonal palette, allowing delicately underscored melodies and counter-melodies to emerge above the gentle rocking of the ostinato bass.
The recital concluded with one of the pivotal movements from French composer Olivier Messiaen’s keyboard magnum opus, the Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (20 Contemplations on the Infant Jesus), written in 1944 and dedicated to his future wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod – who incidentally performed the cycle here in Melbourne in 1988. Regard de l’esprit de joie is possibly the most performed of the Regards, and Kim clearly relished the opportunity to engage in its ecstatic fervour. Rich-toned, rhythmically-charged, and large-gestured, this was a thoroughly persuasive reading of one of Messiaen’s most dazzlingly, virtuosic keyboard works.
Overall, this was a stylistically diverse and thoroughly absorbing recital, one that highlighted the kaleidoscopic scope of Kim’s artistry, and it is easy to see why he emerged triumphant in the comprehensive and marathon-like competition that is “The Sydney”. For those interested, seek out on-line Kim’s July 22 performance of Bartok’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the SSO. On the evidence of that alone, Kim is a musical force to be reckoned with and it will be interesting to see how his career, initially with huge support from the Sydney Competition, will unfold. An engagement with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra would be a good place to start.
Glenn Riddle reviewed the piano recital given by Jeonghwan Kim, winner of the 2023 Sydney International Piano Competition, at the Melbourne Recital Centre on July 25, 2023.