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Boston in His Hands: Yunchan Lim’s Rachmaninoff

Yunchan Lim performs with the Orchestra de Paris during a Celebrity Series of Boston concert.
Yunchan Lim performs with the Orchestra de Paris during a Celebrity Series of Boston concert. By Courtesy of Robert Torres/Celebrity Series of Boston
By Bella Kim, Crimson Staff Writer

Yunchan Lim, a 19-year-old pianist and one of the fastest-rising stars of the classical world, returned to Boston on March 17 to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Dubbed “classical music’s answer to K-pop” by the New York Times, Lim first catapulted to the international stage in 2022 as the youngest winner of the Cliburn Competition, where his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 has amassed over 14 million views on YouTube. Currently a student at the New England Conservatory, Lim made his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in February featuring this very piece. This month, he returned to the Boston venue to deliver a concert with the Orchestre de Paris, under the baton of Klaus Mäkelä as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston.

The Orchestre de Paris prefaced the night with a poetic delivery of Debussy’s “Prélude à ‘L’après-midi d’un faune,’” a beautiful homage to the piece that premiered in Paris in 1894. The concert proceeded chronologically through musical history, next introducing its most anticipated act of the night, Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2.” Composed in 1901 following a disastrous reception of a previous work, the concerto is Rachmaninoff’s grandiose comeback, dedicated to his hypnotherapist who helped him recover from his musical devastation. This behemoth of a piece was widely loved in 20th-century Moscow and continues to captivate audiences today. Drawing the curtains to a close was the orchestra’s fiery rendition of Stravinsy’s “The Firebird,” a fairy tale-inspired ballet written in 1910 for a Parisian premiere.

Unaccompanied piano first broke the hall’s silence. Somber and compelling, the chords crescendoed into a tempestuous arpeggio, ushering in the iconic orchestral theme. Lim’s voice captured with versatility the drama that often defines Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre. Slipping into and out of character, Lim commanded an impressive range of temporal elasticity to accompany his own narrative. A memorable transition from the night was the lead-up to the Maestoso section in the latter half of the first movement, when fleeting, glassy runs were immediately followed by sumptuous, viscous chords reminiscent of folk stomps.

Sometimes endearingly called the “Rach 2,” the concerto is best known for its lyrical second movement, which was popularized by its appearance in David Lean’s 1945 film “Brief Encounter” and, more recently, on TikTok. It is tempting for any musician to become engulfed by this movement’s emotional density, and few artists can successfully balance expression and indifference to hit the sweet spot of musical intimacy. Sensitive but not overly dramatic, Lim exercised nuanced control over this movement. His sensitivity particularly shone through in this chapter, which featured melodic execution that was at times nonchalant and at others indulgent.

Persistent in Lim’s sound, however, is its bell-like quality. Many of his initial notes are percussive and assertive like the toll of a bell, but soon after, the sound becomes supple and giving, eventually resonating with a sweeter finish. This was especially evident in the third movement, where Lim emerged with piercing lucidity from the romantic nostalgia of the second. He eloquently delivered the rest of the scherzo, imbuing each musical syllable with a life of its own. While he invoked the same motifs from the previous movement, Lim conjured them with thunderous power and mobility in the third, demonstrating his ability to maneuver with both charisma and vulnerability.

The third and final movement culminated in a three-bow standing ovation, quelled only by an encore. Lim quickly silenced the audience with a meditative rendition of Chopin’s “Étude Op. 10: No. 3 in E Major” ‘Tristesse’ — a stark auditory contrast from the scherzo and the thunderous applause just moments prior. With his encore, Lim alluded to his upcoming debut album “Chopin: Études,” which is scheduled for release on April 19. After two more ovations, the audience finally allowed the pianist to retire. The Rachmaninoff was not only the crowning touch of the night, but also a testament to Lim’s prolific season. As much of a musical behemoth as “Rach 2” is, Lim seems well on his way to becoming one too.

—Staff writer Bella Kim can be reached at bella.kim@thecrimson.com.

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