Review: Yunchan Lim, Teenage Piano Star, Arrives in New York

“He plays like a dream,” we say about musicians we like, meaning simply that they’re very good.

But when I say that Yunchan Lim, the 19-year-old pianist who made a galvanizing debut with the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall on Wednesday, played like a dream, I mean something more literal.

I mean that there was, in his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, the juxtaposition of precise clarity and expansive reverie; the vivid scenes and bursts of wit; the sense of contrasting yet organically developing moods; the endless and persuasive bendings of time — the qualities that tend to characterize nighttime wanderings of the mind.

This dreamy concert was among Lim’s first major professional performances outside his native South Korea, though he is already world-famous for this concerto. His blazing account of it secured his victory last June as the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition’s youngest-ever winner, and the video of that appearance has been viewed millions of times on YouTube.

That is, of course, hardly a guarantee of quality; there are many overhyped artists who go viral. But Lim’s preternaturally poised and poetic, tautly exciting Rachmaninoff deserved the clicks.

He was not scheduled to join the Philharmonic this season; this weekend was supposed to bring Shostakovich’s mighty “Leningrad” Symphony. But when the conductor Tugan Sokhiev canceled in December — pretty much the last minute in the glacially planned world of classical music — a new program was brought in with Lim and, on the podium, James Gaffigan.

Next season, Lim will do solo Chopin on Carnegie Hall’s main stage, but catching him now was a coup for the Philharmonic. On Wednesday, he played the Rachmaninoff concerto, one of the most difficult and popular in the repertoire, with clean, confident technique; silkily smooth tone; and rare relish in passages of sprightly humor. (Who knew this piece was so funny?)

Lim’s playing had a quietly, calmly penetrating lucidity that made his sound especially simpatico with the winds, as in his subtle interplay in the first movement with the oboe and, in the finale, with the flute.

But he was unafraid of power. In his hands, the great, pounding first-movement cadenza was granitic, though never sludgy. And at the highest reaches of the piano, he had pinging intensity. By the end of the piece, his upper body was jackknifing toward the keys at flourishes, with his left foot stomping.

Especially given the acoustics of the renovated Geffen Hall — which don’t immediately place soloists in sonic boldface, rather integrating them into the ensemble — this was very much a duet with a Philharmonic that played under Gaffigan with transparency, warmth and restraint.

Some of the best moments were the quietest ones: In the third movement, the passage in which the piano plays as the strings lightly tap with their bows gave the effect of a snow globe, air full of swirling ice crystals. All in all, this was the kind of performance that made me want to hear how it develops over the course of a weekend, as these players and Lim get even more comfortable with each other.

Oh, and the concert had a first half, too: an instrumental arrangement of Valentin Silvestrov’s tender choral “Prayer for Ukraine” and a rare, excellent rendition of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, from the late 1920s.

For New York opera lovers, there was some poignancy to hearing this symphony, since Prokofiev drew its musical material from his memorably extreme “The Fiery Angel,” the Metropolitan Opera premiere of which was canceled (and not rescheduled) during the pandemic. Gaffigan — throughout the concert, drawing out playing that was controlled and urgent but also delicate and natural — emphasized the eerily seductive beauties of this grand, colorful, astringent score, with all its subdued sourness and shivery anxiety.

The Prokofiev alone would have made Wednesday’s program a highlight of the Philharmonic’s season, but it’s understandable if many in the audience will think immediately of Lim when they recall this concert. If certain of his phrases in the Rachmaninoff could have relaxed just a shade more, his encores — yes, plural — were pure eloquent serenity.

The second, a Lyadov prelude, was lovely. But the first, Liszt’s arrangement for piano of “Pace non trovo,” one of his songs to Petrarch texts, was more than that: wistful yet fresh, altogether elegant.

He played it like a dream.

New York Philharmonic

This program continues through Friday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan;

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