Sunwook Kim’s Beethoven

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 30-32 / Sunwook Kim, pno / Accentus Music ACC30527

Korean-British pianist Sunwook Kim, only 32 years old at the time of this recording, presents here one of the summits of the piano literature, the last three piano sonatas of Beethoven. It would be easy to dismiss this as a media stunt, particularly since it is being released simultaneously on DVD and Blu-Ray discs in addition to CD, but even a cursory listen will tell you that Kim is a very serious artist indeed.

This release follows on the heels of his 2015 release of the Waldstein and Hammerklavier sonatas and his 2017 issue of the Pathétique, Moonlight and Appassionata sonatas for the same label. Those recordings received some very negative reviews regarding Kim’s “somewhat stark yet limited dynamic range and sort of plain playing,” and that may well be so, but the last sonatas can be played in this manner and not suffer as much. They are not heaven-storming works but, rather, intimate conversations that the composer had with himself.

In these works, Kim generally doesn’t play the sonatas at Beethoven’s written tempi, but the tempi he chose are close enough to convey the feeling in the music. His lean tone may sound a little strange to those accustomed to such big-boned pianists as Kovacevich, but not to those of us who were raised on Schnabel. The point is that, in these specific sonatas at least, his work is quite satisfactory. Many years ago, I heard Claude Frank play the Sonata No. 32 live in concert, and he just didn’t have the right feeling. Kim does.

But to circle back a bit, although these are very good readings of these sonatas they’re not definitive or different enough from others who came just a bit closer. In that category, I put Schnabel (though I prefer his 1942 RCA recordings of Sonatas 30 & 32 to the EMI versions from the 1930s), John O’Conor and Michael Korstick. Their performances move me just a bit more than Kim’s, good as his are.

This is another one of those cases where, if I heard him play these in a concert, I’d applaud him well for his efforts, but as a permanent record of the event I wouldn’t rate it as highly as those others.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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