Last year, at the age of 18, the Korean Yunchan Lim became the youngest ever winner of the Van Cliburn piano competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Since it was established in 1962, and named after the US pianist who had won the first Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow at the height of the cold war in 1958, the Van Cliburn has had a patchy record of rewarding pianists who have gone on to enjoy really significant international careers. But the word was that this time the winner was the real deal, and on Wednesday night the Wigmore Hall was packed to the rafters for Lim’s London debut.
In the competition it had been performances of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto that had made the deepest impression, but Lim’s programme for his Wigmore recital steered well clear of that high romantic repertoire,; Liszt only made an appearance for his second encore, the third of the Liebesträum.
The selection seemed intended to demonstrate that he was a pianist who could offer much more than outstanding technique. A first half of Dowland – William Byrd’s richly ornamented keyboard arrangement of Pavana Lachrymae – and JS Bach’s 15 Sinfonias, the first versions of what are better known as the Three-Part Inventions, was certainly not conventional debut fare. But the performances were unaffected models of clarity and articulation, even if at times in the Bach they seemed to strive just a bit too hard to make expressive points.
But the Beethoven after the interval suggested that even if Lim’s talent is shiningly obvious, there is still plenty of scope for his performances to deepen and mature. In the seven Bagatelles Op 33 it seemed to be Beethoven’s quirkiness that was constantly emphasised, with explosive sforzandos and violent dynamic contrasts rather than any of the music’s more sly subtleties, while in the Eroica Variations Op 35, it was always the virtuosity of the piano writing that came first, so that one longed at times for a bit less brilliance and a bit more poetry.