Honggi Kim

Cliburn Semifinal Round 2

Reviews of the second semifinal recital session at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Yutong Sun and Honggi Kim.

published Friday, June 2, 2017

Reviews of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Semifinal Recital Round, session two (2:30 p.m. Friday, June 2). You can see bios and complete repertoire of all pianists here.

For quick links to all our Cliburn reviews, click here.




China, 21


BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 26 in A-flat Major, op. 81a (“Les Adieux”)
LISZT Un sospiro
MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Yutong Sun


Technically, “adieux” is not the correct word. Beethoven wanted the German word “Lebewohl.”

The difference is immense. It was written when the Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven’s patron, had to run out of the city when Napoleon’s army was advancing. “Lebewohl” is more “farewell,” without a return in sight. “Adieux” is “goodbye” with “see you tomorrow” in mind. Actually, “Lebe” means “live” and “wohl” means “well.” Reminiscent of the Vulcan greeting on Star Trek, “Live well and prosper.”

So, Beethoven uses a three-note motive that says “Lebewohl” in the language of music. Sun took lots of time saying these three syllables (notes) so that they would stick in everyone’s mind; but they were individual notes, and at that tempo a sense of meter is lost. Such was not the case soon after the introduction.

Each of the movements has a title. The first is “Das Lebewohl” (or “Les Adieux” if you wish). The second, describing the time when the Archduke is away, is “Abwesenheit” (“The absence”). The last movement is the happy time of (“Das Wiedersehen” or “The Return”).

In the first movement, Sun caught Beethoven’s oscillation between being upset paired with some melancholy remembrances of time past.

The second movement is primarily based on harmonic changes and Sun drew a solid line between them. Arpeggios are based on a diminished chord alternating with passages based on the appoggiatura (a pick-up note). He used a lot of rubato, but the subject matter, and thus the music, demands it. The material repeats quite often in this movement and it would have been nice if Sun had shown a subtle difference each time.

The last movement expresses the joy at the Archduke’s return and moves very quickly and is marked Vivacissimamente—which means as fast as you can play it (not really, just faster than a plain Vivace). Sun certainly played it quickly, but he softened that with lots of rubato.

This sonata is very short and he began the Liszt immediately afterwards. Those in the audience unaware of the Beethoven’s brevity couldn’t miss the change to the completely different character of the Liszt, with its rolling chords and lovely melody. Once again, he used lots of rubato, but that is a requirement in Liszt’s relaxed music with a beautiful tune. He played it with lots of color and it was entrancing.

Once again, he cut off applause and went directly into Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, another surprising stylistic change. As stated in an earlier review of another pianist, this piece is a risk in a competition. For one thing, it is unfairly considered to be a student piece. But the real drawback is that each movement is based on a different piece of art work. Being a visual piece, the pianist must attempt to convey an unseen picture, or at least the mood it creates to the viewer, with the music.

In this endeavor, Sun did a fine job. The very different promenades, from one picture to the next, were still related and all of them conveyed walking. He also gave special attention to the relationship between the first two movements and the last two: one majestic and the other grotesque. The final movement, usually played triple forte part of the way, took on shape with Sun’s reading. In all the big builds, he would back away and drop the dynamic level so he could take another run. When the promenade reaches the apotheosis in the final movement (“The great gate of Kiev”). He had plenty of very loud dynamic in reserve. He didn’t play it a full volume until the very end making it more effective than it is in the hands of less musical pianists.




South Korea, 25


VINE Sonata No. 1
SCHUMANN Kreisleriana, op. 16
TCHAIKOVSKY-FEINBERG Scherzo from Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Honggi Kim


Kudos go to Kim for programming a sonata that was recently written in 1990 (27 years ago is recent in classical music terms). Carl Vine is not a familiar name, even to frequent concertgoers. It is a murderously difficult piece and not for the faint-hearted. In fact, the score contains a warning: "A complex and challenging piano sonata composed by Carl Vine for the Sydney Dance Company in 1991.”

Kim, who has one of the best techniques in the competition (and that is saying a lot), gave it a virtuoso performance, but with his eye always on expressing the music rather than showing off. It is a difficult piece to listen to as well. It is very dissonant and hard to follow. Kim gave a jaw-dropping performance and met every technical challenge with an almost relaxed way of playing (using “relaxed” as opposed to “frantic,” and not that he trivialized the sonata). He mastered fistfuls of notes, some going very fast and others demanding great strength. By the end, he demanded and received our undivided attention. We marveled at his facility, but he drew us into the piece by the time it ended.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana has been played before in the competition. Kim brought a different interpretation to the eight movements that are based on a fictional character. Kreisler appears in the fantastical literary works of E.T.A. Hoffmann and is an eccentric and unpredictable, to say the least, conductor. He created such vivid characterizations that it is easy to get what he is aiming for with his playing.

Next came an oddity: an arrangement for piano of the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique.” Unlike Liszt’s overworked takes on existing works, Tchaikovsky’s actual music is not changed, but translating this work form piano presents significant challenges to the pianist. Kim used it as an ender to the recital and a way to display his remarkable technical prowess without resorting to something bombastic and of little musical value. It was very exciting: the familiarity of the audience with the music from the symphony helped.

He turned in a magnificent performance that will be hard to top.





See links to all of our reviews that have posted here.

See the schedule of semifinal performances here.



  • Thursday, June 1: 7:30 p.m. (recital)
  • Friday, June 2: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (recital)
  • Saturday, June 3: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (concerto)
  • Sunday, June 4: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (concerto)
  • Monday, June 5: 2:30 (recital) and 7:30 p.m. (concerto)



  • Wednesday, June 7: 7:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 8: 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, June 9: 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, June 10: 3 p.m.


  • Saturday, June 10: 7 p.m.
 Thanks For Reading

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Cliburn Semifinal Round 2
Reviews of the second semifinal recital session at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Yutong Sun and Honggi Kim.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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