Sunwook Kim performs Brahm’s Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 2 with the Hallé

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Halle
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 2
PERFORMER: Sunwook Kim (piano); Hallé/Mark Elder
CATALOGUE NO: CDHLD 7546

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Performing these Herculean works end-to-end takes stamina. Sunwook Kim and the Hallé launch into the first of these as if pacing themselves carefully, but it also may reflect the tortuousness of the First Concerto’s gestation. As Anthony Burton’s liner note points out, it began life in 1854 as the first movement of a sonata for two pianos, then was recast as the first movement of a symphony, with its final form – which Brahms went on tinkering with after its first performance – only emerging in 1859.

But if soloist and orchestra are easing themselves into the opening Maestoso, their emotional restraint has its own allure, and when Kim cracks the whip for the development with fiery double octaves, the movement catches fire. In the second movement his lyricism is ruminative yet too tasteful to communicate the necessary ardour, but the Rondo sees him emerge in bold close-up, with pellucid articulation in the passage-work, including the devilish two-hand double trills.

This South Korean pianist, who won the Leeds competition in 2006, is a born classicist with a hotline to Beethoven and Schubert. And he seems more at home with Brahms’s magisterial Second Concerto than with his First, bringing a four-square beauty to the arpeggiations of the opening quasi-cadenza, and reflecting the first movement’s nobility. And if the Allegro appassionato feels too cautious and measured, the Andante – with its framing cello solo by the excellent Nicholas Trygstad – is exquisite throughout: in Kim’s hands the piano’s meditative commentary has winning charm. The opening phrases of the final movement – which most pianists deliver with exuberant attack – seem oddly held-in, but, as they reach the final sprint, Kim and the orchestra under Sir Mark Elder convey a joyful sense of release.

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Michael Church