In the first half of the St John’s recital on Thursday, Lim Hyung-joo concentrated on the more classical end of the popera spectrum. There was a microphone on stage, and Lim stood behind it, but up until the interval the evening was un-miked. Having heard a couple of his performances on YouTube I was wondering whether he had the voice for opera, but for the first half of the programme he cranked up his vocal volume and his voice was much more operatic than his YouTube videos led me to expect.
Dressed in a mid-grey tail-coat with contrasting reveres on the collar, one’s ears were expecting a showy performance to fit in with what the eyes were seeing. Looking at the programme there was a mixture of slow and up-tempo numbers, which promised well.
We started with an un-advertised slow Handel aria, and Lim immediately had the audience’s attention with a more mature voice than you hear on his recordings. He showed himself familiar with the style, using intelligent ornamentation with well-controlled trills, but my early doubts about his powers of breath control were immediately confirmed when he took an unexpected breath after the first syllable of the word liberta at the end of the aria. It was obviously done with prior consideration, because he did the same in the da capo repeat.
Next came a very Purcellian aria advertised as being Antonio Caldara’s Alma del core, which suited Lim well, and this was followed by a fiery Vivaldi number, advertised as Sposa Son Disprezzata from the opera Bajazet but in fact something completely different but in any event sounding Vivaldian. It was, I think, one of those lively arias where a feisty woman is furiously ranting about the inconstancy of her lover, with the repeated word No! emphasising that the guy was definitely not going to be getting any favours in the near future. Lim showed great agility in the passage-work, but was unequal to the drama of the piece, greeting each No! with a truculent shake of his mane which came across as rather camp.
From this point on, the order of events followed what was on the programme. We were next treated to a vocalise on Albinoni’s Adagio which showed off the beauty of Lim’s tone. But he can do more. His ornamentation in the Handel and Caldara (and indeed, mutatis mutandis, in the more popular numbers which followed in the second half) showed that he can improvise sensitively and provide variety. The Albinoni was crying out for some of this, for Lim to play around a bit. Instead, it was sung very straight, but with a worrying tendency to snatch at the end of a phrase, aggressively ending the sound rather than letting a note drift off into the acoustic.
The remainder of the first half provided some agile black notes and superb top notes in the Alleluia from Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, and beautiful-sounding renditions of Franck’s Panis Angelicus and Donizetti’s Una Furtiva Lagrima.
So the first half involved some beautiful sound (and his accompanist Alexei Grynyuk produced a beautiful mellow tone on the Steinway), but it was all a bit samey, a bit bland. There needed to be more emotion, more play-acting, more drama and more fire.
Lim had a change of clothes in the interval, returning to the stage in a black tailcoat and taking a live mike in his hand. The effect was immediately more intimate. Lim could switch out of semi-operatic mode and into the mode which I think suits him better – strangely, communication with the audience worked a lot better when intermediated through the amplifier. The Salley Gardens opened the second half, beautifully sung (apart from that distracting and unnecessary breath in the middle of snow-white), and possibly the highlight was a criminally gorgeous Londonderry Air, with some wonderfully schmalzy harmonies on the keyboard. This number, though, identified a slight schizophrenic quality in Lim’s voice. The very top notes were beautifully floated and unstrained – as if he could go a few notes higher still; but when reaching a slightly lower peak Lim’s voice sometimes switched into operatic mode, which sounded rather pinched compared with the sound of the rest of the phrase. But Balfe’s I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls was beautifully sung throughout.
Another high-point of the second half was a flawless Once upon a Dream from Wildhorn’s musical Jekyll & Hyde. As we headed towards the close of the concert, Lim switched to some Korean songs, sensitively sung, and the encores included an unaccompanied Amazing Grace and Korean National Anthem, with audience participation.
There was no doubt that the second half more suited Lim’s current vocal style. Maybe in the future he will develop more on the operatic side, but to do that he also needs to develop some showmanship and sense of the dramatic. On the more popular side, he’s got a great niche and he should mine it well. He’s young, at the start of his career, and has a voice to die for. I look forward to hearing him again in the future and seeing how he matures.