The Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series features some of the best known stars in the classical music world such as Maurizio Pollini and Mitsuko Uchida as well as those at an earlier stage in their musical careers. 2006 Leeds prizewinner Sunwook Kim made his first appearance in the series on 3 March 2015 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. His chosen programme was nicely diverse: the Bach C minor Partita, Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
Kim has a habit of catching the audience unawares when he starts a piece, often not waiting before the audience settles before launching in. The Bach was an example of this, and almost as if to emphasise the point that he was in no mood for accommodation the fist C minor chord was attacked without compromise. The opening Grave adagio was not to be a gentle rumination – more a call to attention, and the ensuing andante and fast 3/4 section was played straight. Kim eased into the Allemande and Courante, relaxing the mood in preparation for a truly magical pianissimo Sarabande over which every creak in the audience’s chairs was painfully audible. This was the emotional heart of the work, after which the translucent textures and judicious ornamentation of the Rondeau and Capriccio sparkled like a celebratory champagne.
The Waldstein felt just right. An LKL correspondent listening to the live Radio 3 broadcast at home commented “Great Waldstein”, and I was tempted to agree. One moment had me raising an eyebrow, until I checked my score at home: Kim scrupulously observed Beethoven’s pedal markings at the the start of the Rondo, meaning that the harmonies became a confusing blur. But all doubts were forgotten in a reading full of drama and contrast which won Kim a deserved ovation as we left for the interval.
The Moussorgsky had plenty of virtuoso moments, and the promenades between the individual pictures were nicely contrasted: we walked with Kim around the gallery, some paintings catching us by surprise, others announcing their presence gently, and the final Great Gate of Kiev gave us a triumphant conclusion.
For me, the real unexpected treasure of the evening was the encore: Brahms’s own piano transcription of the theme and variations from his B♭ String Sextet, which he dedicated to Clara Schumann. While faithfully capturing the string writing it felt completely natural and idiomatic as a transcription and left us wishing that he had transcribed the rest.