Damian Thompson Damian Thompson

Yunchan Lim’s Chopin isn’t as good as his Liszt or Rach

The Van Cliburn winner doesn't let the melodies sing in this new album of Chopin études

Grade: B-

In 2022 the South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim became, at 18, the youngest winner of the Van Cliburn competition, displaying a virtuosity that stunned the judges. You could see conductor Marin Alsop’s astonishment as he bounded through the finale of Rach 3, combining accuracy and swirling fantasy at daredevil speed. It’s been viewed nearly 15 million times on YouTube. In truth, though, he’d have had to screw up badly not to win, because he’d already dispatched Liszt’s fiendish Transcendental Études with perfect articulation and mercurial wit; in places he out-dazzled even the current master of this repertoire, Daniil Trifonov.

Decca snapped him up and here’s his first studio album: both sets of Chopin’s Études. Again, Lim’s dexterity almost defies comparison. The most difficult étude is reckoned to be Op. 25 in G-sharp minor, whose finger-twisting thirds are hated by pianists because they expose the tiniest unevenness. Here they descend in perfect shining cascades; Lim’s dynamics reveal phenomenal muscle control. (It’s not surprising, but worrying, that he recently pulled out of a Wigmore recital with hand strain.)

But there’s something missing. Chopin weaves in delicious melodies; Lim is far too intelligent not to pick them out, but he doesn’t sing them. Even the steely Pollini leaned more into the melodies, and Alfred Cortot in his 1933-34 recordings does nothing but sing, albeit at the cost of a few smudged notes. You could say Lim falls into the trap of playing Chopin like Liszt. At any rate you’re better off listening to those miraculous Van Cliburn Transcendental Études, released last year by Steinway.


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