Pianist Yunchan Lim exploded onto the international music scene in 2022 when he won the gold medal at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, joining the ranks of past winners like Radu Lupu and Olga Kern.
Yunchan Lim was born in March 2004 in South Korea and studies at the Korea National University of Arts. His first big victory on the international competition circuit came in 2018 when he won the second prize at the Cleveland International Piano Competition for Young Artists at the age of just fourteen. He was only eighteen when he brought home the gold medal at the Van Cliburn competition, making him the youngest gold medalist in the competition’s history.
Although he is still in his teens, Yunchan Lim has already given some truly remarkable performances. Today we look at some of his most popular performances and what makes them so special.
7. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, Rondo. 629k views.
Watch out for: the dynamic contrasts!
This performance was recorded live with the first-rate Gwangju Symphony Orchestra in October 2022, a few months after Yunchan Lim won the Van Cliburn Competition.
The entire performance is delightful thanks to his customary clarity and sumptuous tone. But my favorite thing about it is the way he plays with the dynamic contrasts in Beethoven’s score: i.e., how he moves between loud and soft dynamics, and vice versa. Whether the transition is rapid and cheeky or luxuriously drawn-out, each and every one makes this performance continually interesting to listen to.
6. J.S. Bach: Siciliano BWV 1031. 682k views.
Watch out for: the subtlety!
This is a solo Bach encore played while the orchestra sits rapt listening, and it is exquisite.
Like in the Emperor Concerto performance, one of the things that makes the playing here so special is all the gradations of dynamics that Yunchan Lim has at his disposal. This incredible control – and his ability to make each gradation sound newly discovered, as opposed to overly rehearsed or intellectualized – makes this performance incredibly special.
Watch out for: the rubato!
Most classical music lovers have heard this nocturne many times, but Yunchan Lim makes it sound new by the way that he pushes and pulls at the tempo of the melody (a practice known as rubato). It’s almost too much, maybe, at least from a modern perspective, where we’re used to more rhythmically strict interpretations. But more than most other performances, this freedom makes the nocturne sound as if it’s being improvised on-the-spot, which is how listeners would have heard it in Chopin’s day.
4. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22. 3.1 million views.
Watch out for: the delicacy of the articulation!
This is the first of the Van Cliburn Competition videos to make it on this list. It comes from the semifinal round, which required the performance of a Mozart piano concerto. The Fort Worth Symphony has some rocky moments in the performance, but Yunchan Lim’s playing more than makes up for them.
From the opening notes at 2:55, it’s clear that he is going to use articulation to reach his very specific musical goals. Mozart can so easily sound choppy or even outright uninteresting if a pianist’s touch isn’t subtle enough. But Yunchan Lim’s constant fluidity in the way he approaches the articulation here makes this performance gripping, helping to reveal the sass and pathos of Mozart’s score.
3. Liszt: Transcendental Etudes. 3.3 million views.
Watch out for: the sheer stamina
The Cliburn Competition’s semifinal round also included an hour-long recital, which Yunchan Lim chose to fill with Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, some of the most difficult works ever written for piano.
The Youtube channel “tonebase Piano” created an entire series of videos on Yunchan Lim’s Cliburn performances. Just this analysis video of his performance of the fifth Transcendental Etude, Feux follets, has, as of the time of this writing, garnered nearly 750k views! You can see that analysis here, if you’re interested in delving deeper.
Yunchan Lim LAUGHS in the face of Liszt’s hardest piece (Feux follets)
So what made this particular recital so gripping to millions of people? So many reasons, but the first probably has to be the superhuman endurance that Yunchan Lim exhibits during the performance. A pianist’s semifinal recital is supposed to be 60 minutes, but his clocked out at 67. And through it all, his energy never seems to flag.
By chance, I happened to pop in to the Youtube livestream during the competition’s initial broadcast in the summer of 2022, and even though I’m only an amateur pianist who hasn’t played in years, it was clear to me within literally ten seconds that Yunchan Lim would take the gold medal. This performance is astonishing.
2. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3. 3.6 million views.
Watch out for: the stage presence!
The Van Cliburn Competition’s final round requires the performance of two piano concertos. Very loosely speaking, one has to come from a more classical list and the second has to come from a more romantic list (the full list of acceptable concertos is available on the Cliburn’s website here, if you’re interested in browsing it yourself: cliburn.org/2022-competition-rounds-and-repertoire/). Yunchan Lim chose the elegant, emotional Beethoven 3 from the first list.
The whole thing is immensely enjoyable and worth a listen, but one of my favorite moments comes when Yunchan Lim isn’t playing at all: between the first and second movements. Usually in this piece, if one moves from the fast drama of the end of the first movement to the slow unaccompanied chords that begin the second, it’s easy to feel whiplash.
But Yunchan Lim really takes the time to breathe and to set a pace and a mood. The final notes of the first movement sound at 18:45. The audience coughs, the musicians shift in their seats and turn the pages, and Yunchan smooths out hair that has gotten into his face. But he doesn’t even really rest his hands on the keys again until 19:16, and he doesn’t actually play until 19:23. Those sound like short intervals, but time them out, or watch the video, and you’ll see how long this silence is, and how effective it is at setting a mood.
But the peak of his Van Cliburn Competition performance was yet to come, when he played a concerto from the second list…
1. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3. 10 million views.
Watch out for: Everything!
This is the performance that blew the roof off the auditorium and made conductor Marin Alsop brush away a tear. The original version has gotten an unbelievable ten million views, and that’s not even counting all the other reuploads people have made of the performance. Youtube channel “tonebase Piano” put out an entire 30-minute video analyzing the performance and asking the question: “Is Yunchan Lim’s Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto the greatest ever?”
Is Yunchan Lim’s Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto the greatest ever?
The original Van Cliburn Competition video provoked over 15,000 comments, many of them asking a question along the same lines. Why? Because this performance brought together all of the elements I’ve been pointing out in the other videos on this list. Dynamic contrasts. Subtlety. Rubato. Delicacy of articulation. Sheer stamina. Stage presence.
It’s not fair to pin the weight of the entire classical music world on a teenager. Yunchan Lim should not be expected to become the next Horowitz, or judged if he decides he wants to do other things with his life besides becoming a touring performing artist. He’s still very young and has so much life to experience. That said, we’ve been given a great gift to hear the performances he has already given us. And if he decides he wants to continue performing in the years to come, watching his career blossom is going to be a true joy.
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