This young South Korean pianist is a new name to me. He started piano lessons young, and began winning competition prizes young, too. That would make him familiar among the younger players insofar as he is making the commitments needed to keep going in the face of competitions, early concerts, and the mixed pressures that always seem to be brought to bear on any young musician anywhere near to being a prodigy.
His win in South Korea got him sent to Moscow to study, first at the youth music school, then at the famed Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory as the youngest student who had ever matriculated there. He's attractive no doubt, and musical no doubt; chances are that if Tchaikovsky still taught there, he might have caught the composer's eye and ear. He kept entering competitions, and took prizes in the Busoni and other forums. By 2001, he won first prize in the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud competition in Paris, also being awarded an additional five other competition awards. He has been giving public concerts for a while now, and this disc is actually his third disc for EMI Classics. The first recording (2002) was in the EMI series called, Martha Argerich Presents. That one won the French Diapason d'Or award. Then he did a second (2004) EMI disc of Chopin, winning another French award, The Choc du monde of Le Monde de la Musique. This third EMI disc is him playing JS Bach.
It is very risky, indeed, for a player so young to tackle the Goldberg Variations. To be sure, Bach's commission was from Count Keyserling, meant to be played during long insomniac nights by the count's young assistant. Nevertheless, the composer did not stint on technical, nor musical challenges.
Fortunately, like the young Glenn Gould - but approaching Bach on the modern piano from his own point of view - this player makes it very worth while to give him your time. The piano on this disc is beautifully recorded, the venue being Henry Wood Hall. The engineers seem to have found that special sweet spot between getting enough of the keyboard close up to convey the player's relaxed and transparent physicality, while still letting enough of the air and the hall surrounding remain to amplify and bloom and gather. The more immediate comparison that quickly comes to mind is the newish release of Simone Dinnerstein playing the Goldbergs, and though I have not heard that disc completely, just going by excerpts, I think I prefer this one, based both on the sheer piano sound and the playing, too.
This young pianist has no need to hurry or slow, just for making cheap points with odd tempos. He handles the polyphony and the variations aspects in a most straightforward and engaging manner, just letting the Baroque spirit of invention and music speak through him. When it comes to slow playing, he can sustain both tempos and marvelously sung phrases. Several voices do not throw him off, all to the good when it comes to these high marks of Baroque style. When the music falls quiet, the player opens inward, and a subtilized (even spiritualized) flow wells up. There is a whole lot of music going on here, just lots. It is quite a good reminder to us of how deeply engaged some of the younger performers are today, even early on in their work. If you want a youthful match, compare the poise and wisdom of these Goldberg Variations with, say, Julia Fischer's solo violin sonatas and partitas.
Hard to recall that there was a time when JS Bach was something for students and teachers and professional musicians playing in private with friends and family, not mainly music for concert halls. Just imagine.
To wrap up on this disc, the pianist gives us Busoni's piano arrangement of the solo violin chaconne, the one that has long since become famous as a calling card for virtuosos. Occasionally portending the agony of wannabe virtuosos who cannot quite manage it. This piece comes off best if the player has both the technical chops to climb and hang unafraid off sheer mountain cliffs; and the musical heart to convey the piece as music, suitably enlarged by Busoni's grand piano imagination. On this disc, the chaconne comes off, beautifully and brilliantly on both counts. I haven't heard Busoni's chaconne done this well since the EMI debut of Awadagin Pratt.
No need to belabor unfavorable comparisons with the other label's bigtime Asian whiz kid, Lang Lang. Listen and make your own mind up. Given the songful poise and clarity and purpose of Dong Hyek Lim's playing, it is small wonder that he took first prize in the Long-Thibaud, nor that the French critics have fallen all over themselves to publish accolades. There really shouldn't be a dry eye or a hard heart in the house, if he keeps playing like this. Bravo. Bravo. Bravo.