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[Herald Interview] Pianist puts himself in Beethoven’s shoes

Kim Sun-wook talks about preparing for his upcoming all-Beethoven recitals by imagining what the composer may have heard

Pianist Kim Sun-wook
Pianist Kim Sun-wook

Ludwig van Beethoven is an important figure for every musician, but for pianist Kim Sun-wook -- a promising South Korean composer -- it is more than that, he’s a role model given his life’s work.

Kim, the winner of the 2006 Leeds International Piano Competition, will hold a recital Sept. 13 at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul. The recital, initially scheduled to take place in March, was postponed due to the spread of COVID-19.

Celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, Kim will perform the German composer’s “Andante Favori,” WoO 57; Piano Sonata No. 30, Op. 109; Piano Sonata No. 31, Op. 110; and Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111.

“This time, I truly tried to listen to my inner soul. I have always known that Beethoven lost his hearing (by 1814), but I had not pondered much on what sounds he would have imagined while writing the scores,” Kim said in an email interview.

“Before practicing, I examined the scores, trying to think from Beethoven’s perspective, under the hypothesis, ‘what if I cannot hear anything,’” Kim, 32, said.

“I erased the music that I knew and tried to fill my head with new sounds. Then, every note came to me differently, and the dynamics between each note appealed to me more.”

The upcoming recital will be intense, performed for 80 minutes without an intermission. After the 10-minute- long “Andante Favori,” the three sonatas will be played consecutively for a total of 70 minutes.

“The three sonatas are connected to each other. They make up a whole story, with each sonata being a prayer, confession and sublimation,” he said before explaining the personal significance he sees in sonata No. 32.

“The second movement is a variation, a form which Beethoven was fond of. Variation, in a way, has this main theme -- which could be the absolute essence -- and continuously transforms itself,” the pianist said.

“This is similar to the journey of life, of how a life is born, transformed through process and ends. In a way, this sonata is structured like a life, with a beginning and an end, in a way.”

For Kim, who has chosen to focus his career on Beethoven’s repertoire -- his 2009 recitals featured the composer’s complete five-piano concertos while 2012-2013 recitals were of the entire 32-sonata cycle -- Beethoven is much more than a great figure in music history.

As the first mentee in a program run by the memorial foundation Beethoven-Haus Bonn, Kim gained access to a private archive of the composer’s handwritten scores, personal letters and private journals, helping him better understand the composer from almost two centuries ago.

“Bach may have influenced composers by expanding the universe of music, (but) Beethoven is the one who broadened the spectrum of music infinitely by fusing it with the spirit of the Enlightenment,” Kim explained.

“Beethoven was a person who could pursue his own path as he had strong belief in his art,” Kim said.

“Playing the music of Beethoven, I was captivated by Beethoven as a human being. He meets (the standard for) what I think is an ideal musician. Every time I play his music, I feel that I am developing.”

At the Seoul recital, every other seat will be left empty for social distancing reasons. Kim’s tour will also take him to Daegu, Goyang and Busan from Sept. 8-11.

Tickets are priced from 30,000 won to 100,000 won ($16.85 - $84.25).

By Im Eun-byel (