Electrifying recital worthy of winner

8 August 2023

Jeonghwan Kim shows why he beat all comers for one of the world’s most prestigious piano prizes. Will Yeoman is in awe of his prowess.

Music on the Terrace: Piano Magic 
Government House Ballroom, 6 August 2023 

July was a big month for 23-year-old Jeonghwan Kim. The Berlin-based Korean pianist managed to fight off 31 other formidable contestants through a series of solo, chamber and concerto concerts to take home the $50,000 top prize in the prestigious Sydney Piano Competition. 

You might have thought he deserved a rest after accomplishing such a feat. Yet the winner is also committed to a national tour. And so Kim hit the road on 25 July, starting in Melbourne and ending here in Perth, for Music on the Terrace’s appropriately titled Piano Magic. 

The stamina and concentration required to win a major international piano competition and immediately embark on a national tour are beyond my imagining. By the end of Kim’s electrifying recital, I’m exhausted just having watched and listened to him for 70 minutes or so. 

Exhausted, but utterly elated. It’s not often you hear pianism of this calibre in Perth in solo recital, and I notice other music royalty in the capacity audience, including WASO’s principal conductor Asher Fisch, himself no mean pianist. 

Kim opens his recital with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.26 in E-flat major, nicknamed Les Adieux. The sonata’s three movements correspond to leave-taking, absence and return, and what a journey it is in Kim’s hands, with sparkling passagework and those rhetorical flourishes you generally only get in a live recital evoking the emotional ups and downs of parting and reunion. 

It’s not often you hear pianism of this calibre in Perth in solo recital.

There’s a little galloping rhythmic figure in the last movement of the Beethoven that has just enough similarity to a figure in the first movement of Prokofiev’s spiky, percussive Piano Sonata No.6 in A major to form a bridge between these two otherwise utterly dissimilar works. 

Written in 1940, this four-movement sonata is the first of the Russian composer’s three so-called War Sonatas. Riven with anxiety, anger and, yes, even tenderness, it requires every ounce of the remarkably mature musicianship and technique Kim brings to it – as well as the visual theatre of glissandi and smashing the Fazioli’s keyboard with a fist. 

Perhaps a little night music after such fury? Schumann’s four Night Pieces Op.23 are, alas, not the stuff of a Chopin or John Field nocturne. Beautiful, yes; but more like Chopin’s stormy middle sections, just cheerfully hyperactive rather than unsettled. These Kim despatches with a winning nonchalance, a sprezzatura, which flows into Chopin’s properly dreamy Berceuse in D-flat major.  

Ah, repose at last? 

No. Because suddenly we’re back in the land of that exuberant, percussive pianism we heard in the Prokofiev. This time courtesy of another 20th-century giant, Oliver Messiaen, and the Regard de l’Esprit de joie from his magnificent Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus

It’s fair to say the devoutly religious Messiaen was also far more of a keyboard colourist than Prokofiev and it’s this quality that blazes forth amongst Kim’s extraordinarily virtuosic feats as he immerses himself, and us, in what proves to be the best performance of the afternoon. 

Strange to say it but the following encore – more Chopin – merely intrudes on the mood of mystery and mysticism still hanging in the air.  

Make no mistake: Jeonghwan Kim is a pianist to watch. Look out for his debut recording on Decca. 

The next Music on the Terrace, Four Last Songs, featuring soprano Samantha Clarke, is at Government House Ballroom on 8 October 2023. 

Pictured top: Jeonghwan Kim plays with extraordinary skill and passion. Photo: Jaimi Joy

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Author —
Will Yeoman

Will Yeoman was literary editor at The West Australian before moving into arts and travel, and is now CEO of Writing WA, as well as artistic director of York Festival. Previously he was artistic director of New Norcia Writers Festival and Perth Festival Writers Week. He is a regular music critic for Limelight and Gramophone magazines and a keen classical guitarist who enjoys collaborating on spoken word and music performances. He favours the flying fox.

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