Masters of architecture: Sunwook Kim plays Franck and Brahms

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Korean pianist Sunwook Kim (born 1988) came to international prominence in 2006 when he won the Leeds International Piano Competition at the age of 18. Since then he has spent much time giving concerts and exploring repertoire, developing his own style, sound and ideas about the music he plays. By his own admission, he has now arrived at a point in his career and development as an artist where he feels ready to demonstrate “a more romantic, dramatic and yet refined pianism”. In doing so, his new CD, on the Accentus label, brings together two of his favourite works – Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Choral et Fugue and Johannes Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor. It is an unusual pairing, which reflects Sunwook’s interesting in programming, and in it he aims to show the link between the two composers, despite their stylistic differences: here are two composers, both pianists, who paid a special hommage to the music of the past. Both revered the spirit of Classicism and Bachian polyphony, as well as a love of proportion and well-ordered architectural structures within music. Thus, on this disc two great musical edifices are placed side by side, and the result is magisterial.

The Prelude, Choral et Fugue is the work of a composer at the height of his powers. Composed 1884, the work displays cyclic and thematic relationships, particularly in the recall of the Prelude and Choral in the Fugue, and the tripartite structure, probably inspired by Bach’s BWV 564, lends considerable weight and emotional power to the work. Franck was also an organist, and Sunwook Kim is sensitive to the full-bodied textures which recall the sonorities of the organ, while never comprising on clarity of tone and articulation. The work unfolds with a darkly dramatic grandeur, growing progressively more intense as the music approaches its denouement in the final passages of the Fugue. Such is Sunwook’s skilled sense of pacing that the opening Prelude in particular has the spontaneity and improvisatory qualities one expects to find in similar works by Bach. By the time we reach the central Choral, with its rich broken chords which recur throughout the piece and link the three sections, the music’s message and monumental architecture is driven home authoritatively, all handled with consummate skill and dramatic tension by Sunwook.

In contrast Piano Sonata No. 3 is a young man’s work, composed in 1853 when Brahms was just twenty. It was inspired by Beethoven and Schubert, and like the Prelude, Choral and Fugue, the five individual movements are linked with each other through subtle unifying themes. Sunwook displays sensitivity to the architecture of the music, building and emphasising structure through intelligently-paced climaxes, but just as in the Franck, there’s spontaneity too, particularly in the grander gestures. In contrast, the second movement is played with an unassuming and tender lyricism. The third movement begins with virtuoso panache, all dancing dotted rhythms, before the music moves into a hymn-like middle section. Again, the contrasting moods and textures are adeptly handled. The fourth movement opens like an intermezzo, intimate and expressive, but the serenity is quickly disturbed by an ominous low motif in the bass. The finale has everything in it – a jaunty main theme, sweeping lyrical melody, stately marches, a fugue, and moments of real pianistic bravura and high-octane energy. Sunwook’s crisp articulation and awareness of Brahms’ shifting moods, structures and soundscapes makes this a rewarding and absorbing performance. The recording has a bright yet warm clarity, the acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin ideal for this music. The CD comes with comprehensive notes, including an introduction to the pieces by the pianist himself.

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Sunwook Kim, piano

César Franck
Prélude, Choral et Fugue
Johannes Brahms
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, op. 5

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