Sunwook Kim opened his January 14 Portland Piano International recital with J.S. Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564, written for organ (think majestic, reverential, full-voiced) and ran furiously through the opening toccata. The word, toccata, comes from the Italian toccare, to touch, and Kim certainly had touch: his technical virtuosity, his fingers dancing like glittering lights, was unquestionable. But what about dynamics?
In 1900 when Busoni published his piano transcription of Bach’s original (likely written about 1712; most of the dates of Bach’s organ works are undocumented), he took plenty of liberties, including with dynamics, though like a harpsichord, an organ’s dynamics can be hard to express. But Busoni is reputed to have rescued Bach’s work from overwrought romanticism anachronistically imposed by other arrangers, and by the time Kim finished the three-movement piece, he showed he had far more than bravura in his tonal repertoire. The subtle touch and varying dynamics that surfaced there continued throughout his recital.
Kim won the prestigious International Leeds Piano Competition when he was 18. He was the first Asian to do so and the youngest winner in 40 years. Since then, the 29-year-old Korean pianist has carried a heavy load in his lithe hands to keep up the international reputation, but he’s doing quite well at it, playing with some of the world’s best orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw and the Berlin Radio Symphony, among them.
Portland Piano International presented him on Jan. 13 and 14 in its Solo Series at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. His two-hour recitals, featuring different repertoires, fell smack in the middle of MLK weekend. The 475-seat auditorium wasn’t full on Jan. 14 for the concert I heard, but he didn’t seem to mind. Blessed with sleek hair long enough to fling creatively but short enough to stay out of his eyes, he filled the hall with technically precise, multi-dimensional music, though he does have a jones for the Germans.
Kim knows their music well. He played works by Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann. Though he did not make a special request for the PSU Hamburg Steinway, he sounded quite comfortable with it. Europeans are used to playing Hamburgs over the New York version. The Hamburgs have a slightly thicker soundboard than the New York-made pianos, so their sound is a bit more subdued. Kim produced a lot of sound out of that Hamburg, and there was nothing subdued about his performance. Again, he was all over the range of dynamics.
Kim’s choice to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op. 13, No. 8 proved his expressiveness. The now-familiar “Pathetique” put Beethoven on the map at 29, and suddenly the upstart composer’s musically adventurous voice was a contender. And could he evoke emotions! “Pathetique” is better associated with tragedy and melancholy than pity, in Beethoven’s case. Any piano student who has struggled through the second movement Adagio Cantabile could appreciate the poetry that Kim infused into this overplayed classic.
The Schumann pieces most exactingly showcased Kim’s versatility and range. The 30-minute Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13, a series of 17 parts, volley from tempo to tempo, mood to mood, dynamic to dynamic. Cloudlike serenity is juxtaposed to manic raucous energy. Things change fast from etude to etude. Schumann was said to have bipolar-like mood swings and certainly this piece shows his ups and downs. These etudes are way beyond finger exercises. They are technically demanding and Kim breathed life and definition into them.
After his two-hour (including intermission) performance, Kim was called back for an encore. He said quietly and modestly — after receiving a bunch of long-stemmed red roses —“one more.” He is not a flamboyant performer, other than flinging about his beautiful polished hair, which by the last piece, was pasted with sweat to his face, and it was clear he was worn out. He lives in London, where he had been 24 hours earlier. But the audience wanted more and he gave us Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2, a much-beloved introspective piece. If any doubts existed about Kim’s restrained and tender touch, this 5-minute encore erased them.
This season ends Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen’s curating leadership of Portland Piano International. Series founder Harold Gray will choose musicians for 2018/19, and in 2019/2020, a guest curator will take charge. So far this year, Cohen’s picks of Koreans Kim and Van Cliburn winner Yekwon Sunwoo, and the remarkable Naughton twins have proved top-notch in unleashing talent and entertainment.