Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


WGBH Radio WGBH Radio

Yunchan Lim Live From The Cliburn - Liszt: Transcendental Etudes

Release Date: 07/07/2023
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30217
Composer:  Franz Liszt Performer:  Yunchan Lim

In June 2022, Yunchan Lim became the youngest person ever to win gold at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; his performances throughout showcased a “magical ability” and a “natural, instinctive quality” (La Scena) that astounded listeners around the world. As Jury Chair Marin Alsop expressed: “Yunchan is that rare artist who brings profound musicality and prodigious technique organically together.”nThe depth of his artistry and connection to listeners also secured him the Audience Award and Best Performance of a New Work. Lim’s astounding performance of Liszt’s complete Transcendental Etudes from the semi-final round of the Van Cliburn Competition is available on his Steinway & Sons debut album.

Read more Credits:
Recorded June 10, 2022 at Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Texas
Semifinal Round of the Sixteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
Producer: Jacques Marquis, President and CEO, The Cliburn
Recorded, Engineered, and Mastered by Tom Lazarus

Executive Producers: Eric Feidner, Jon Feidner, Vivian Chiu
Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Design: Cover to Cover Design, Anilda Carrasquillo
Cover Photo: Richard Rodriguez, The Cliburn
Inside Photos: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Artist Liaison: Rosalie Burrell
Production Assistant: Renée Oakford
Piano: Steinway Model D #607046 (New York)

In 2022, Yunchan Lim of Korea won the Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, at the age of 18. He was the youngest winner in the history of the competition.

He had impressed in the semifinals with Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante, and this recording was made live at that performance.

It offers one of the most fascinating interpretations I have heard of this twelve-part work, not because Lim has such a supremely brilliant technique and can play with enormous virtuosity, but because he has so internalized Liszt’s tonal language that everything sounds very natural and indeed transcendental.

In addition, there are other positive points: Lim’s sense of form is highly developed; he can play rapidly, but also lyrically, gently and poetically. Above all, his playing always remains finely elegant as well as tonally beautiful and never becomes a thundering roar. All this shows both the intelligence and the sensitivity, in other words the musicality of this young pianist, who captivates us with inner fire and a pronounced artistic urge to communicate.

-- Pizzicato

The world awoke to Yunchan Lim in the Rachmaninov concerto final of the Van Cliburn competition when the conductor, Marin Alsop, was seen wiping away a tear in wonderment at this astonishing young talent. Just 19 at the time, Yunchan has been pursued ever since with media deals. He says he prefers to spend his time on a Korean mountain, contemplating infinity.

This, his debut recording, is a live take of the semi-final round of the Van Cliburn, issued by its piano sponsor. The audience is inaudible except at start and finish and the ambience is intense. A professional record label might have made the piano sound less clattery but there is no smidgeon of fault to be found with the staggering playing.

Where mature pianists tend to show off in Liszt, Yunchan veers to introspection, looking for the transcendence of the work’s title rather than instant stardom. The effect is hypnotic from the prelude on. Yunchan plays the notes – all of them – as pathways to a surreal elsewhere.

At molto vivace he is at least twice over the speed limit. In the Eroica movement he is thoughtful, reserved, far removed from Lisztian extravagance. This is an artist with a mind of his own. We shall hear a lot of him when he chooses to share more of himself. Meantime, just listen to this.

-- La Scena

In today’s seemingly unending parade of outstanding young pianists, a few stand out as much for their musicality as for their technical abilities and their competitive accomplishments. Most of the attention lavished on South Korea’s Yunchan Lim has come from his winning the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2022 at the age of 18, making him the youngest performer ever to win gold since that competition began in 1962. Cliburn himself was 23 when he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow that propelled him to worldwide fame and indirectly spawned the event that bears his name; and he was notably modest afterwards in asserting that the honors accorded to him really belonged to classical music rather than to a single individual. Lim made no such statement after his victory, but his playing of Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante makes the assertion on its own. A new Steinway & Sons CD gives listeners the opportunity to hear the actual live performance given by Lim at the Cliburn competition and to share both in a sense of history and in an interpretation that brought Lim the Audience Award as well as the gold medal. It is really an astonishingly good reading, filled with all the technique and emotionalism that Liszt packed into this exceptional set of 12 studies. The very brief Preludio showcases impeccable fingering and an understanding of pedal use that helps turn this curtain-raiser into a delightful introduction to and promise of what is yet to come. And then, for more than an hour, Lim produces delight after delight as Liszt’s music goes through its always remarkable twists and turns, its tremendous expressiveness designed to emerge from a keyboard command so thoroughgoing that the extreme virtuosity needed to play the études sounds entirely natural, unforced – and, strangely enough in this context, easy. In other words, the extreme technical requirements of the Transcendental Études must, in the best performances, sound as if they are not there at all, or are at most irrelevant – it is the feelings and emotions communicated through technique that need to come to the fore. And this is precisely why Lim’s performance is so good: he showcases without overtly showing off. Yes, his technique is marvelous throughout, whether in the individual-note clarity of the runs in the Molto vivace, the pounding chords of Wilde Jagd, or the evanescent fragility of Chasse-neige. But it is the scenes that Lim paints through his impeccable playing that are the focus of his rendition: the intense drama of Mazeppa, the flickering filigree of Feux follets, the extended emotionalism brought forth through delicate finger work in Ricordanza. Every single one of the études is captivating in its own way, with Lim performing each as a complete work in itself while also approaching every one as part of a larger whole in a way that creates breath-holding anticipation for what will come next. This is a stunning performance, electrifying in its combination of sheer bravura with emotionally trenchant expressivity. The opportunity to listen to it repeatedly on this disc, exploring new aspects of its intricacies on each hearing, is a most welcome one.

-- Infodad

Steinway's newest release is Yunchan Lim's Liszt Transcendental Etudes, recorded live at the 2022 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. In due course, Yunchan Lim became (at age 18) the youngest-ever winner of the Gold Medal at The Cliburn. (He also won the Audience Prize, and the prize for the best performance of a new work.) This Fall, Lim will begin his studies at the New England Conservatory of Music. Which I, for one, find simply mind-boggling.

However, the All-Time (and perhaps forever) Record and Award for Being a Musical Child Prodigy belongs to Clara (Reisenberg) Rockmore (1911 - 1998), who, at age FOUR, was accepted as a violin student of Leopold Auer's at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Four years old. Clara Rockmore later helped Léon Theremin refine his self-named electronic instrument; she became the Theremin's foremost advocate, as well as its greatest virtuoso performer.

Back to Young Master Lim. I'd be tempted to say that Liszt's Transcendental Etudes are the musical equivalent of climbing to the top of Mount Everest. But perhaps it would be better to say that Transcendental Etudes are the musical equivalent of climbing to the top of Mount Everest without oxygen tanks. There are places in the scores where it certainly sounds as though you are listening to "piano four hands" rather than to just one pianist.

That said, I feel compelled to tell you that if I were being shipped off to that fanciful Desert Island of BBC Radio fame, and I could only choose between the complete works of Liszt and the complete works of Chopin, I'd choose Chopin, and I'd never look back.

So, by all means, visit Steinway Streaming and prepare for much slackery of your jaw as you listen to Yunchan Lim.

-- John Marks, Positive Feedback

"What aplomb Lim brings to the opening C major curtain-raiser, what fierce clarity to the intricate patterning of the following A minor… Elsewhere his command is as unfaltering as it is head-spinning, ablaze with strength and savagely fast tempos that few would risk."

-- International Piano

Could it be that Yunchan Lim’s famous performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition last year was somehow not his most impressive work there? That that account, which so moved its conductor Marin Alsop that she wiped away a tear as she put her baton down, was not, by some freakish accident of musical history, the summit of the South Korean teenager’s early achievements?

It may well be. Watch the Rachmaninoff today, like the 12 million viewers who have marveled at it on YouTube already, and it remains undeniably impressive, eloquent and virtuosic and much else besides. But this Liszt performance, from the competition’s semifinal round, which can also be seen online, is stupefying.

Gawp as Lim’s tremolos flutter then thunder in his “Chasse-neige,” and wonder how he gives each of them such poetic meaning. Tremble as he stomps his way through “Mazeppa,” then forgive yourself for swooning so readily at the twilight magic of his “Harmonies du soir.” Yes, Lim is rough on his Steinway, and no, not every bar of every étude works out. But when he can play “Feux follets” like the devil, it’s hard really to care.

-- New York Times

This is, unquestionably, a great piano recording. In this young pianist’s hands you will hear one of the finest-ever performances of the 12 Transcendental Studies, and I include all those made in the studio (and thus assembled from several takes) or captured, as here, live in front of an audience without a safety net – and as far as I can tell without any subsequent patching. To play this ferociously demanding music with such technical perfection and poetic insight in any concert performance is something, but to do so while taking part in the semi-finals of a major international piano competition is nothing short of miraculous. Yunchan Lim’s audacious account is a standout in the annals of the Van Cliburn. Seasoned pianophiles will not hesitate to have this in their collection, but I would also urge the Liszt naysayers who can’t stand a note of music the man wrote not to miss this simply stunning display of piano-playing.

Applause at the beginning and end has thankfully been retained. That aside, there are few aural indications an audience is present at all, helped by the fact that most people in the half-full hall were holding their breath with their mouths open. The long gap between the end of ‘Wilde Jagd’ and the beginning of ‘Ricordanza’ when the pianist paused to mop his brow and wipe the keyboard has been edited out, sensibly, but otherwise, this is exactly how the Études were heard in June 2022 in Fort Worth.

Yunchan Lim launches into the opening ‘Preludio’ before the applause has died down, a statement of intent if ever there was one. For once, the brief three pages really do sound like the introduction they were intended to be. Here is a pianist who is going to throw caution to the wind and offer, as every recital should, an experience the audience will never forget. Without going through all 12 études, some things maintain throughout. Lim’s full-blooded realisation of Liszt’s extreme dynamic and expression markings and directions underlines the fact that, while there are many lyrical and restful pages in the set, it is electrifying energy and passion that dominate: frequent triple fortes, con strepito, martellato, presto furioso, molto appassionato, disperato (Étude No 11) and, not least, trionfante which ends ‘Mazeppa’ (the final bar under which Liszt appends a line from Victor Hugo: ‘Il tombe enfin!… et se relève Roi!’, superbly dramatised by Lim). ‘Feux follets’ (No 5), always described as the most treacherous of the 12, is tossed off like child’s play, strongly projected but with wit and delicacy.

I could go on, but perhaps this is enough to indicate what an exceptional release this is from a musician who has already embarked on what will be a major career. This is certainly one of the finest and most compelling performances of the Transcendental Études I have ever heard. Gold Medal, yes, and other awards to follow, I suspect and hope.

-- Gramophone

Unusually for a brand new compact disc release this is a recording and performance that piano aficionados have been able to hear (and watch) for over a year now. This is because it is the genuinely remarkable semi-final recital given by the young South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim at the 2022 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The organisers of the competition video record all the performances. So Lim’s complete performance can be viewed here [already watched 3.7 million times] and I would strongly urge anyone with the slightest, even passing interest in piano music, the art of performance or even just curiosity to see the arrival on the world stage of an astonishing talent and watch part of this performance at least.

There are several factors that lift this event – performance seems too modest a word – to the level of extra-ordinary. Not least that Lim was just eighteen years old at the time he won the Cliburn – giving an equally breathtaking performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3 [seen a remarkable 12 million times to date and which Lim apparently considers as only “30% successful…”] as his final concerto choice. However, returning to the semi-final, Lim’s audacious decision, rather than a carefully balanced and contrasted recital displaying his range of technique and musicianship, was to throw down a musical gauntlet by performing only the Liszt Transcendental Études complete. The extreme technical and physical demands performance of the complete set without breaks requires takes this beyond the ability musically, physically or indeed emotionally of all but a very few players. A good example is following the titanic power of Mazeppa [study No.4] immediately with arguably the hardest movement of all Feux follets. Lim briefly wipes his brow and within a few seconds starts the next etude. With no caveats or allowances Lim triumphs to a breath-taking degree. Part of the reason I would encourage the curious to look at the video of this performance is to be able to see just how poised, focussed and unfussy Lim is at the keyboard. For such a young man he has a calm authority that puts many of his contemporaries who, for all their technical brilliance, seem more focussed on mannered visual display and promotional gimmickery or label-driven A&R flummery.

As such, normal critical commentary seems superfluous if not presumptuous. Instead this should really simply document the event which I would not be surprised if it became a modern-day legendary performance by a player who must surely go onto have an enduring international career. For sure there may be moments within any given etude where scouring the catalogue might result in potential preferences or miniscule miscalculations. But this is a single sweep of an interpretation and I am sure if Lim ever considered doing the same again he would make different choices but that is ultimately irrelevant because for the listener there is a remarkable sense of being swept along in this moment in this performance by the sheer musical conviction and technical mastery of Lim’s playing. Perhaps a measure of just how well Lim plays is that while the listener is clearly aware of just how hard this music must be to play he presents it with no apparent strain or limitation. Not that I intend to do a compare and contrast review but in dipping into other well-regarded recordings (presumably made in studio conditions over a period of time) they can sound relatively cautious. But make no mistake this is not simply a case of Lim bulldozing his way through this work. Yes, he produces an astonishingly wide dynamic range when required but the abiding impression is of the sophistication of his expressive range too with lyrical passages delivered with sensitivity and restraint. Another recurring, indeed striking, feature of this playing is the clarity – not just of note to note articulation but of musical thought and process. To my mind this is in part why the listener’s awareness of the sheer difficulty of this music falls away leaving instead an appreciation of the musical line and goals of any given passage or study.

As a document of a live performance listeners should be aware that applause covers the very first chords of the work and that there are a few occasional audiences noises during the performance. Likewise, enthusiastic applause breaks out immediately at the work’s conclusion. However, to my mind such is the stature and significance of this recital that to avoid it on those grounds alone would be to miss one of the most impressive musical events in recent times. The piano sound as recorded is perhaps not as ideally warm as I would have liked – it is good and certainly not harsh but there is occasional glare which I hear as part of the recording in the Bass Performance Hall rather than the actual playing. The Steinway & Sons presentation of the disc focuses wholly on Lim and the competition although it manages to miss out stating the date or location let alone a word about the work. Marin Alsop who chaired the competition jury as well as conducting the final concerti is quoted as saying; “Yunchan is that rare artist who brings profound musicality and prodigious technique organically together”.

This disc bears witness to the international arrival of a musician of authoritative stature and charismatic presence. The hope must be that the remarkable promise of this debut recital is triumphantly realised. In the meantime this is genuinely transcendent playing that demands to be heard.

-- MusicWeb International

The teenage pianist Yunchan Lim has gotten reams (or gigabytes) of good press, yet listeners may have any number of reasons for being skeptical. Lim’s K-pop looks are not everyone’s cup of tea, and on his debut album, while showing plenty of promise, he seemed oddly reluctant to take the spotlight. Any doubts, however, will be put to rest by Lim’s performances, recorded here, in his winning career in the 2022 Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. They are astonishing. Competition performances often have a well-practiced, safe quality, but not this one; Lim goes out onto the edge and stays there. Sample at will, and note that he tends to give quieter passages an almost harsh quality; his method is to raise the tension, which he knows he can dissipate in brilliant, tumultuous passagework. What’s more, he accomplishes these utterly distinctive performances in Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, often-recorded works that are commonplace in the competition repertory. The title of this collection is slightly mistranslated from its French original, Études d’exécution transcendante (“Etudes of Transcendental Execution”). The original points up the degree to which, for all the storm and thunder, these are true etudes, posing specific technical problems for the player, and Lim sets the rigorous and the fantastic elements against each other brilliantly. One need only add that Steinway’s live sound is superlative. Everything one has heard is true, and this album made classical best-seller charts in the summer of 2023.


This dazzling reading of Liszt’s Transcendental Études helped the teenage piano phenomenon Yunchan Lim in 2022 to become the youngest-ever gold medalist at the Van Cliburn competition – he had just turned eighteen at the time. We might have come to expect Chinese superstars to be a regular product of the country’s vast music system, which is akin to Russians becoming grandmasters at chess – the more people who play, the greater the odds that exceptional talents will emerge. With very few exceptions, the most famous being Daniil Trifonov, the technically brilliant Chinese pianists tend to be in a class of their own (conceding, however, that as the bar rises, the next generation aims higher everywhere).

Lim is South Korean, not Chinese, born in Siheung in 2004 and serving as a reminder that Korea has had a long head start in Western classical music, unimpeded by such disastrous setbacks as Mao’s Cultural Revolution. I eagerly anticipated this new release after hearing Lim’s YouTube account of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, also from the Van Cliburn (the video received 10 million views in its first eight months). Trifonov, who has made sterling recordings for DG of both the Liszt and the Rachmaninoff, comes to mind because his astonishing technical command allows him to bypass any show of exertion. He creates a space for the music to breathe, which is so rare in the Transcendental Études that even an esteemed interpreter like György Cziffra seems to be focusing primarily on technical demands.

Of course, extreme facility is no guarantee that a performer will be just as impressive interpretively – that’s a separate gift. Lisztian rum-tum is seductive, and audiences love it. Lim gives in to the temptation in “Mazeppa,” which he delivers as the brass-plated warhorse it is. Trifonov defies expectations by not losing all restraint in the exciting big tune; Lim goes for broke. He has a huge tone and an exceptionally powerful left hand, so thrills are guaranteed. It’s easy to be in a forgiving mood, because in the earlier études (“Preludio,” “Fusées,” and “Paysage”), he shows the kind of technical freedom and musicality that brings up Trifonov as a viable comparison.

Lim has other qualities pianophiles look for. The texture of “Feux follets” is gossamer, the rhythms buoyant, and the independence of the pianist’s two hands remarkable. You have to turn to Sviatoslav Richter to remind yourself that there are higher degrees of magic. I also don’t find that Lim was given the best recorded sound – the bass is a little twangy, and the overall timbre turns metallic at loud dynamics. Under better sonic conditions Lim’s sonorous tone would be even more of an asset.

At other times, as in “Visions,” he aims for blatant effects, being too forceful compared with Trifonov’s subtlety, but we can’t expect finished artistry at this early stage. The panache and flair with which Lim attacks big bow-wow études like “Eroica” and “Wilde Jagd” make up for a lot. My touchstones among the 12 études are the last two, “Harmonies du soir” and “Chasse-neige,” because they are the most poetic and give the performer scope to merge virtuosity seamlessly into the overall effect.

Happily, Lim rises to the occasion with some of his most satisfying playing and no hint of callowness. He has the invaluable gift of presence, which a star cannot do without. Lim has already distinguished himself in remarkable ways, so a boundless future seems to be in the offing.

Brief applause is included at the beginning and end of the performance.

-- Fanfare

The announcement that 18-year-old Yunchan Lim planned to devote his entire Van Cliburn International Competition semi-final recital to all twelve Liszt Transcendental Etudes created a buzz throughout the international piano community. Could this youngest of the 2022 contenders bring off such an audacious test of technical wherewithal, musicianship, and stamina? As it happened, Lim made it to the semi-finals, and delivered the goods big time. He went on to win the Gold Medal, following a performance of the Rachmaninov Third concerto that was the talk of the town.

Lim’s effortless virtuosity and total immersion into Liszt’s idiom indeed define transcendental. His shapely and perfectly proportioned Preludio sets the stage for numerous felicities to come, such as the pianist’s playful command of the Second Etude’s unwieldy leaps and broken double notes. When hearing Paysage live, I initially thought Lim’s rubato to be a bit contrived, but now the tempo manipulations seem all of a piece. His suave and sweeping dispatch of Mazeppa’s thorny textures conveys minimum bluster and maximum nobility.

For all of the awesome speed and offhanded lightness in Feux follet’s double notes, Lim hardly neglects the left hand in a performance to place alongside those of Sviatoslav Richter and Minoru Nojima. The power of Vision’s arpeggios is akin to nondestructive tidal waves, while Lim’s pliable wrist action in Wild Jagd’s interlocking octaves make George Cziffra sound arthritic by comparison.

Most young pianists ramble through Ricordanza, but Lim’s long-lined phrasing has direction aplenty, with no dead spots. The same goes for Harmonies du soir. No. 10’s cascading runs and agitato tunes are impeccably aligned, while the pianist’s variety of voicings and tonal shadings give depth and character to Chasse-neige’s potentially clattery tremolos.

A little audience rustle is a small price to pay for what must be the best live integral performance of the Transcendental Etudes ever preserved in sound. Let’s hope that Lim will sustain this level of artistic and pianistic brilliance over the course a long and fulfilling career.


The nineteen-year-old South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim, who won the gold medal at the 2022 Van Cliburn Competition, has received some garishly hyperbolic praise. Online enthusiasts describe his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto as the “greatest ever,” implying that they have somehow travelled back in time, heard the composer’s own 1910 account with Mahler conducting, and found it wanting. Lim is, indeed, extraordinarily good in the Rachmaninoff concerto, but he is not necessarily world-shaking. In Liszt’s Transcendental Études, however, he makes the pianistic planet tremble underfoot. His traversal of the complete set, also recorded at the Cliburn, has now appeared on the Steinway & Sons label. Lim’s titanic technical command is unsurprising; his unflagging communicative passion is less common; and his instinctive understanding of Liszt’s hyper-Romantic language, his native grasp of phrase and texture and tempo, is something entirely out of the ordinary. Listen to how he ends “Paysage” in a state of unhurried repose, with stately figures unfurling in the bass of the piano. Then hear how he throws himself into “Mazeppa” at a demonically galloping pace. I can think of no greater compliment than to say that Lim plays as if he is making it all up on the spot. He has the potential to become a once-in-generation pianist, one who combines astounding virtuosity with interpretive depth. Let’s hope that he is given the space to develop at his own pace. So far, despite having signed to Decca, he seems happily indifferent to the classical hype machine.

-- New Yorker

This is a remarkable disc. Yunchan Lim’s bravura technique is what we have come to expect from the current generation of competition winners. The poetry and subtlety of touch that he displays here is perhaps less anticipated.

Lim was born in South Korea in 2004. In 2022, at the age of 18, he became the youngest pianist ever to win the gold medal at the Van Cliburn Competition. As if that were not enough, he also won two other prizes at the competition, the Audience Prize and the Best Performance of a New Work. His performance of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto at the Cliburn competition has already become a YouTube hit. For Lim’s third-round recital, he played Liszt’s Transcendental Études, and this is the unedited recording of his achievement. Given the fiendish difficulty of these pieces, Lim’s accuracy alone would be impressive. But it is the beauty of tone in his soft playing of pieces like “Ricordanza” and “Harmonies du soir,” along with the overall assurance and musicality of the performance, that really distinguish him as an artist.

Lim has the instinct for shaping a melody in the way a great singer might. The opening phrases of the final Étude, “Chasse-neige,” demonstrate this, along with an unerring sense of balancing different voices. As the difficulties in “Chasse-neige” increase, Lim continues to articulates each note in perfect balance with every other; nothing is smudged, nothing stands out more than it should.

Lim’s sense of drama is evident from the beginning, where he bursts into “Preludio” before the introductory applause has died down. For the ensuing 65 minutes it is clear that he owns the hall. There are virtually no audible audience noises on the recording until the final ovation. Lim plays with a sense of freedom, employing considerable but subtle rubato throughout. He slows down at the end of No. 3, “Paysage,” and plays with an extremely hushed pianissimo, which allows for a dramatic contrast with the opening of No. 4, “Mazeppa.” It is in “Mazeppa” that Lim’s extraordinary talent becomes truly apparent. He displays a huge dynamic range, with many gradations of forte and fortissimo. In No. 6, “Vision,” Lim keeps building layers of sound until you think he’s reached either his limits or the piano’s, and then he finds just a bit more.

He also displays wit. We sense him virtually smiling and winking as he negotiates the flurry of notes in No. 5, “Feux follets.” Contrasts of dynamics and tempo are emphasized, never with vulgarity but always for dramatic effect. The clarity and evenness of articulation in the final minute of “Feux follets” are awe-inspiring. He positively revels in the volatility of No. 8 “Wilde Jagd.

For a pianist to display this level of musicality, assurance, and technical accomplishment at 18 is astonishing. The recorded sound is occasionally a bit closer to the piano than I would have preferred, but in the end it doesn’t matter. This is playing that justifies the term legendary.

-- Fanfare

These are bountiful years for Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. In my recent review of Alim Beisembayev’s recording (Warner, S/O 2023) I listed 8 other recent ones and also mentioned Yunchan Lim’s stunning performance at last year’s Van Cliburn Competition, suspecting that it would appear on CD sooner or later. Now here it is, together with yet another new one, by an earlier Cliburn gold medalist (2009), Haochen Zhang.

As is my habit, I chose a recording from my collection to compare directly to these newcomers, and in this case I took the opportunity to listen again to Beisembayev because I had a feeling that I had not done him full justice in my review. I compared the three recordings piece by piece. It was quite a feast, for all three are excellent.

Lim (b 2004) was the youngest Cliburn winner ever, and he triumphed over many seasoned competitors without controversy. Educated entirely in Korea, where they must have excellent teachers (his most recent one was Minsoo Sohn), he not only played Liszt and Rachmaninoff brilliantly but also was impressive in Beethoven’s Cminor Concerto and Eroica Variations and furthermore was awarded the prize for the best (required) performance of a new work, Fanfare Toccata by Stephen Hough. I listened to his performances online at the time.

The Steinway disc reproduces this (presumably unedited) competition performance. (But why such a long delay?) It is superlative, full of drama and passion. Lim’s flawless and seemingly unlimited virtuosity is always at the service of the music. His touch is strong when required but never harsh, and he commands a wide range of dynamics. His tempos are well chosen and flexible, and his control of expressive timing is masterly. There is really nothing to criticize. Once or twice I felt he could have brought out a left-hand melody more clearly, and in ‘Harmonies du soir’ he plays a few curiously dry arpeggios. That’s it. The recorded sound is very good, but at some fff moments there is a metallic ringing from the piano. The audience is extremely quiet, obviously mesmerized. This is a performance for the ages.

Haochen Zhang (b 1990) was almost as young as Lim when he won the Cliburn, sharing first prize with the blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii. He has had a fine career since then and has made several recordings for BIS. Most recently, he tackled all five Beethoven concertos, and Stephen Wright (M/A 2023) found Zhang’s playing “poised, unhurried, and Apollonian, often reminiscent of Wilhelm Kempff”. But earlier releases did not fare so well with our reviewers. Commenting on a recording from the 2009 Cliburn, Brent Auerbach thought Zhang “conspicuously lacks expressive power”. When I reviewed another mixed program (J/A 2017) I found his playing beautiful but slow and a little boring. And Stephen Estep (N/D 2019) was not taken with Zhang’s traversal of Prokofieff and Tchaikovsky concertos, considering it “clean and thoughtful but creat[ing] no atmosphere”.

Seen against that critical background, Zhang really did very well with Liszt’s Trancendental Etudes, thanks to his superb technique and analytic approach. The clarity of his playing is most impressive. If you want to hear every note, this is the recording for you. He is certainly not lacking in expression, but he has neither the ardor of Lim nor the poise of Beisembayev. He pedals sparsely and often stabs at chords. I expected him to be slower in everything, but that is not the case. Sometimes there is unnecessary rubato of the kind that a strained player would make (especially in ‘Mazeppa’). There are some passages that sound mechanical. In ‘Paysage’ there is metrical ambiguity probably not intended by Liszt. ‘Eroica’ is rather deliberate, not heroic. ‘Ricordanza’ is too lyrical and pensive all the way. ‘Harmonies du soir’ is too fast, not only lacking in atmosphere but also making the repeated chords muddy, contrary to the great clarity of almost everything elsewhere. But Zhang gives ‘Chasse-neige’ the best ending—a very quiet chord after a long pause. And his recorded sound is state of the art.

While I am not as enthusiastic about Zhang’s interpretations as about Lim’s, I did find much to enjoy in them. Where does this leave Beisembayev? He is the least individual of the three, but he has infallible musical judgement, a lovely touch, and recorded sound as good as Zhang’s. He is not as riveting as Lim but deeply satisfying, down to the last detail. Moreover, I really have taken a liking to this amiable guy, just from his photographs, whereas Lim looks intense and Zhang introverted. So here is my recommendation: To sit down and enjoy, get Beisembayev. To stand up with respect, get Zhang. To be swept off your feet, get Lim.

-- American Record Guide Read less