IN: Reviews

Room at the Top 

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An 18-year-old Yunchan Lim was the youngest to win the gold medal in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; his Rach 3 had the conductor in tears, orchestral players applauding, an audience in a standing ovation, and the judges “experiencing magic.” Acclaim is now soaring for the nearly 20-year-old “destined piano superstar” and “classical music’s answer to K-Pop.”

At age 35 Ernst Chausson composed his only symphony. Some nine years later, his career beginning to flourish, he died in a bicycle accident. With returning conductor Tugan Sokhieve, Symphony in B-flat major, a BSO favorite masterpiece, proved to be a must-hear.

These two works of a Russian and Frenchman, composed only 19 years apart, share the spirit of the time: in a word, Romanticism. Completely instrumental expressions, Rachmaninoff and the concerto (1909), Chausson and the orchestra (1890), both representing crucial works in their respective outputs, show the Boston Symphony Orchestra summitting in concert programming.   

Thursday’s opener of a four-concert series allowing Boston audiences a first live look at the newest classical phenom had an expectant sold-out Symphony Hall welcoming Lim with applause comparable to a victory round. The monumental Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Opus 30 of Sergei Rachmaninoff has found another pianist among a finite number of those who can rise to its demands, both physical and musical. Lim’s Boston debut, while remarkable in a number of respects, disappointed. After a sublime beginning, Lim launched into the ensuing Bach toccata-like arpeggiation yet sounded distant. Further along in the Allegro ma non troppo it became ever more evident that balance mattered. With the BSO adopting a fuller, stronger presence, Lim’s part often appeared more in the role of orchestral instrument than of concerto soloist. 

Tugan Sokhiev conducts Yunchan Lim (Hilary Scott photo)

Lim played the longer, “ossia,” version of the first movement’s cadenza with extraordinary pianism. The 43-minute take of the concerto fell within standard timings. Throughout, marvels here and there lit up the keyboard, brilliant flashes of strength and agility, astounding moments of intricacy and delicateness—this from a nearly 20-year-old. All the while, a focused Lim demonstrated feats of accuracy, endurance, and memory over the course of some 30-plus thousand notes according to one source (though to another, the number seems low). The well-met physical demands, for both orchestra and soloist, somewhat concealed the emotional life of Rachmaninoff on Thursday night. 

Symphony Hall may have disagreed, awarding Yunchan Lim unanimous approval, Lim alternately bowing stoically and applauding the orchestra. His encore, Bellini’s “Casta Diva” from Norma arranged by Chopin, held listeners in you-could-hear-a-pin-drop mode.

With the Cliburn award in hand, Yunchan Lim’s ascent to international stardom has the pianist performing with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Other appearances include those with Chicago, KBS (Korea), Lucerne, and Tokyo symphony orchestras. There are more to come. And with such a slate of touring and world-wide attention, Lim continues being mentored by Minsoo Sohn at the New England Conservatory.

Tugan Sokhieve, who made his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut in 2018, was music director and chief conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and has appeared with the most prestigious orchestras around the world. He has a rich and varied discography including recordings with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse on Naïve and Warner Classics, winning the Diapason d’Or in 2020. At the outbreak of the Ukranian war, not yielding to calls denouncing Putin, the Russian conductor was forced to resign major appointments and guest appearances with major orchestras. However, his being in the forefront of symphonic and operatic conducting eventually prevailed.

Chausson: “There are moments when I feel myself driven by a kind of feverish instinct, as if I had the presentiment of being unable to attain my goal, or of attaining it too late.” Still, one of the world’s finest at French repertoire and Sokhieve (who has served as artistic director of the Franco-Russian Festival in Toulouse) minimalized those sentiments of the dark horse composer of Symphony in B-flat Major. Sokhieve and the BSO pronounced the work a masterpiece through what might be considered an apogee of collective achievement. 

Boldness, full-bodied action from Sokhieve evinced profound structural growth and emotional resolution from a dedicated and believing Boston Symphony Orchestra. Not shy on details, the tiniest of sharp rhythmic movements or the smallest of highly contained diminuendos from the podium, this rendering revealed an innerness. The mounting orchestral builds in all of the symphony’s three movements heightened the examination of human personality, moods, and mental states that Romanticism embraces. To the entire orchestra and, in particular, principal horn, Richard Sebring, a salute.

Add to the BSO’s list of recommended recordings of the Rach 3 those of Earl Wild and Alexis Weissenberg.

No surprise, word is out. Saturday and Sunday concert’s seats are long gone.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces

15 Comments »

15 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. It was as tremendous a concert Thursday night as Mr. Patterson indicates. What I loved about Lim’s playing was its tenderness. And there was no banging! I’ve heard performances of this work where it seemed all the pianist did was bang. Lim not only delivered the goods and then some, but there was an eloquence to his reading which defies his years. We are so fortunate that he’s a student at NEC. I would imagine we’ll be hearing him each season in Boston in the coming years. I can’t wait for his next concert.

    Also, kudos to the BSO for some really outstanding playing Thursday night. Sure, there was an occasional flub here and there, but overall the orchestra was superb. And Maestro Sokhiev did a wonderful job as well. It was a very enjoyable and life-affirming evening of outstanding music-making all around!

    Comment by Mogulmeister — February 16, 2024 at 6:53 pm

  2. Yunchan’s birthday is March 20th 2004. He is 19 years old.

    Comment by Correction — February 16, 2024 at 9:54 pm

  3. With all due respect for Professor Patterson’s informed and excellent opinion, I remain unconvinced that Chausson’s symphony is a “masterpiece.” Maestro Sokhiev and the BSO did a wonderful performance, yes, but the work itself has some weaknesses. The Wagnerian impulses felt undigested to this lowly listener — unintegrated with the lighter aspects. It is very sad that Chausson died before developing his musical vision further, but his only existing symphony, while full of promise, perhaps, falls short.

    Comment by Ashley — February 17, 2024 at 7:03 am

  4. Ashley, I happen to have a very high opinion of the Chausson Symphony, but I had serious problems with Sokhiev’s approach.
    There’s a fabulous recording with Munch and the BSO (recorded in 1961, not 1962 as the program book states)that clocks in at 31:35. Sokhiev must be significantly longer than that, especially in the introduction. (Another great recording is Paray and the Detroit Symphony. They clock in at 31:07.)
    Along with the really plodding tempos, the dynamics were too loud too often, so that the really big climaxes didn’t have the impact they should. Balances were such that, too often, everyone was playing “all-out”. It wore on the ears.
    Is it a masterpiece? Well, it certainly needs to be played more than once every 30 years. Tanglewood could stand a performance.
    But Chausson’s greatest work? For that I award his Poeme for Violin and Orchestra. It is in the repertoire of every major soloist, but it hasn’t been on a BSO Symphony Hall program since 1979 when Joseph Silverstein was soloist with Seiji Ozawa. Tanglewood last heard it with Joshua Bell in 2008 (and before that 1999). Besides Joshua Bell, all the performances of the Poeme since 1988, according to “Henry” have been by the Boston Pops! It hasn’t been on a standard subscription week since 1974 with Szeryng. And a great, and truly historic recording of the Poeme, indicating a small thaw in the Cold War? That would be Munch/BSO and David Oistrakh, December 1955. Essential listening to any fan of great music, and a forgotten chapter of international relations in the 20th Century.

    Comment by Brian Bell — February 17, 2024 at 8:47 am

  5. To a certain degree I agree with the “all out” playing described above which surprised. The further into the work the better I understood this live rendering, its robustness affirming the Symphony’s singular qualities, its flaws and all. There is room at the top.

    Comment by David Patterson — February 17, 2024 at 11:54 am

  6. Mogulmeister In regard to his being a student at NEC, that is true, but it seems that he is enrolled in a special one-year program so that he can continue studying with Minsoo Sohn, a faculty member there. I was curious what’24 GC meant after his name and that is what the NEC admissions office told me. Therefore, you may not get as many opportunities to hear him “in the coming years” as you may be expecting.

    Comment by Bennett — February 17, 2024 at 2:44 pm

  7. Regarding Brian Bell’s comment about Chausson’s Poeme for Violin and Orchestra: Is it really “in the repertoire of every major soloist”? I wish it were so, but then why have I never heard it in concert? I guess I missed Silverstein’s performance 45 years ago. I suppose it used to be in the repertoire, but it’s one of those shorter pieces that are neglected these days (e.g. Havanaise by Saint-Saens.) As for Chausson’s “greatest work?”: perhaps his Concert for Violin and String Quartet.

    Comment by George Hungerford — February 17, 2024 at 8:35 pm

  8. George, it turns out (if you can plow through the terrible online layout at the BSO’s website), that the Chausson Poeme IS being played this summer with Leonidas Kavakos on August 24th.

    And the Concerto for Piano, Violin and String Quartet (note standard title) is worthy of discussion. It shows up at many a self-respecting chamber music site. I’m partial to Heifetz on that one, in spite (because of?) of the cuts. I’m also a huge fan of the pianist in that recording, Jesus Maria Sanroma.

    Comment by Brian Bell — February 18, 2024 at 7:36 am

  9. What was the encore on Saturday night?

    Comment by Cecilia — February 18, 2024 at 11:03 am

  10. Same as Thursday night

    Comment by Rob Schmieder — February 18, 2024 at 2:00 pm

  11. I attended Sat 8:00 performance. I thought Lim’s playing was exceptional. Chausson’s symphony was a pleasant surprise. I enjoyed it but didn’t go out of the concert humming any particular theme from it.

    One take away from the concert was when my wife and I returned to our seat in the 2nd balcony. We were met by 4 very young men all dressed the same walking towards us joking and having too good a time. They looked like four beetles who escaped from Harvard with mop black hair and in black suits with collage scarfs. After my brain processed the visuals of who passed, I said, “That was LIM!” Sure enough he and a group of his friends went to the center of the 2nd balcony to pose for pictures with the BSO getting ready for Chausson in the back round. It was funny to watch.

    I also noticed that a lot of people left after Lim’s performance. It looked like half the population of Asians departed after his performance.

    Comment by Dave Gordon — February 18, 2024 at 2:56 pm

  12. The encore, all three nights, was “Casta diva” from Bellini’s opera Norma, in a nocturne-like arrangement attributed to Chopin. It was pretty enough, and I even found a score on IMSLP, but I think the piece is spurious. Indeed, nothing could persuade me that it’s genuine Chopin short of an autograph manuscript, of evidence for which I have found no mention in the Chopin literature. A better choice for a piece of that kind would be Chopin’s variation on the March from Bellini’s I Puritani, which is definitely authentic; it’s part of the Hexameron, in which Chopin shared authorship with five other composers; and it would honor Bellini, Chopin’s friend, as well.

    I wasn’t able to attend any of the performances, but I listened on the radio. I still love the Chausson Symphony, 68 years after getting to know it well. I followed the broadcast with score, and was amused to find some old markings still in it, for instance a metronome marking of 44 to the quarter above the woodwinds, and 58 to the quarter above the strings in the same measure. (Many of those 19th-century scores by Choudens, Hamelle, et al., remain poorly engraved and even more poorly proofread.) Yes, there are definite weaknesses in the symphony itself — abruptnesses in form, too-much varied rhythm, and some clumsy orchestration — but these are more than compensated by the rich and original harmonic design, and the organ-like expressiveness that reflects its model, the Symphony in D minor by Chausson’s teacher Franck. It’s a work with much beauty and power to surprise still. And Saturday’s performance was pretty good, although the finale was too fast — my score says Animé, cut time, with 88 to the half note above the woodwinds, and 92 to the half note above the strings, but I couldn’t tell which was right from the performance.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — February 18, 2024 at 4:39 pm

  13. I attended the Thursday and Sunday performances. The encore on Thursday and Saturday (per the audio stream) was indeed “Casta Diva”. Its attribution to Chopin could certainly be questioned, but what Lim played and what can be heard on YouTube uploads by others is somewhat more elaborate than the IMSLP score. I have it on good authority from someone who attended the Friday performance that the encore was Chopin’s Etude Op. 25, No. 7. The encore on Sunday was a medley: I believe the first part was the 2nd of Chopin’s Trois Nouvelles Etudes with, in place of its last measure, a direct segue to the Aeolian Harp Etude Op. 25, No. 1. The microphones and audio engineers had the day off, so no evidence available for review!

    Comment by Gerry — February 19, 2024 at 7:52 am

  14. Professor Patterson knows a lot and is unafraid to show it. But I suspect his familiarity with Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto comes more from recordings than from concert halls. In parts of the first movement, he writes that “Lim’s part often appeared more in the role of orchestral instrument than of concerto soloist.” I know the parts of the piece to which Professor Patterson refers and I wish to tell him that it is only on recordings that pianists sound the way he desires. Mr. Lim’s performance was not only among the most sensitive I’ve ever heard, but also among the most powerful. If any pianist plays loud enough even to be heard at all in those moments of the first movement then he or she is playing very powerfully indeed. I’ve been acquainted with this piece in “live” performances since 1957, and the only pianists I’ve heard who matched the dynamic levels Mr. Lim achieved in his Saturday night and Sunday afternoon performances were Alexis Weissenberg, Jorge Bolet, Grigory Sokolov and Denis Matsuev. And all of them had to pound; only Mr. Lim — in my opinion — managed to sing.

    Comment by steve wigier — February 21, 2024 at 1:06 am

  15. To underscore Steve Wigier’s excellent point, compare the live sound in the hall with the CRB audio stream. Those closely placed microphones will do it every time! As a postscript to my earlier comment, I was able to locate some empirical evidence that confirmed the listed Sunday encore medley components.

    Comment by Gerry — February 21, 2024 at 8:33 am

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