ConcertLive Music/GigMusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

Leeds Piano Festival: Sunwook Kim – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Soloist: Sunwook Kim (piano)

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The first Leeds Piano Festival runs from May 14th to 23rd, celebrating the famous Leeds International Piano Competition with concerts at the Wigmore Hall, London, and the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Sunwook Kim, who won the “Leeds” in 2006 at the age of 18, presented a varied programme at the Howard, technically spectacular and frequently exhilarating, even if his choice of encore was a reminder that his Wigmore Hall programme which included Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata had more emotional depth.

Ferruccio Busoni’s transcriptions of J.S. Bach are in fact far more than transcriptions in line with the composer’s intention of bringing to life the scores “by cleansing them of the dust of tradition “ and attempting to “make them young”.  The Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, which began Kim’s programme, is a flamboyant showpiece, full of dynamic contrasts as Busoni attempts, with considerable success, to reproduce the range and power of the organ for which it was originally written. This was very much Bach filtered through a 19th-Century romantic sensibility and Kim relished the drama of the mighty Toccata and the spectacular fugue which sandwiched an almost exaggeratedly delicate Adagio. 

This love of extremes of volume and tempo certainly made Sunwook Kim’s performance exciting, but it did nothing to impose a sense of unity on Robert Schumann’s Humoreske – or maybe that’s not possible in a work where the composer specifically used double barlines to indicate changes of mood or tempo. The individual sections – lyrical, dancing, dramatic, frequently virtuosic – gave pleasure without suggesting any overall unity and Kim relished Schumann’s love of the surprising and unexpected.

Less flamboyant, but more satisfying, was Sunwook Kim’s choice for the opening of the second half: Claude Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, four short pieces inspired by the poetry of Verlaine, impressionistic, but also infused with the spirit of the baroque. The beauty of Claire de lune, played by Kim with luminous serenity, has brought it enduring popularity as a concert piece in its own right, but it gained impact from being placed between two lively classical dances: Menuet and Passepied.

Finally came Johannes Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Always a master of the variations form (notably in the famous Haydn Variations) Brahms seems to have delighted in the opportunity to look back to classical and baroque pieces and, at the same time, forward in, for example, his advanced harmonic treatment. So it was with his Handel Variations, the theme (an “aria” from an orchestral suite) presented first with baroque style and grace: one feels that Handel would have recognised his music in Brahms’ hands much more readily than Bach would have with Busoni! Again Kim brought out all the contrasts in a wonderful work which adds humour and a vigour reminiscent of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances to lyricism, virtuosity and the occasional drama.

Reviewed on 21 May 2018 | Image: Contributed

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