Sunwook Kim speaks to Nina Large about his relationship with the Hallé, pre-concert nerves and his musical influences


Author: Nina Large


You won the Leeds competition in 2006 playing Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with the Hallé Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder. This began what has gone on to become an important relationship for you and you are about to go on a six-date UK tour with them. Can you tell me about working with them?
There was an extraordinary relationship between me as soloist and the orchestra and conductor, right from the start – we were like a family. As a soloist you often feel anxious and nervous about how to fit your ideas into the orchestra who already have their own ideas from all their experience of playing these works, but even the first time, it felt very intuitive with them. I have played a lot of repertoire with them over the years and they know my musical tastes and they know how I construct the music I make. When you understand each other it makes it so much easier and you can make a great musical ‘shape’ together. There are very few orchestras I have that relationship with. It means I can go to the absolute maximum limits of my expression. I don’t have to worry about anything. I can express and show what I want with the strong belief that they will support me.

Mark Elder is in the middle of it all. He is a truly great conductor. I remember when we did Prokofiev – it was a few years since we had last worked together and before we met we spent two hours on the phone. I was playing to him down the line, and it was amazing to have a conductor so eager to understand how I was playing and what I was doing – all this even before the rehearsal. He is the most down to earth conductor I have ever known. There is a large age gap between us but he treats me like a valuable soloist, and like a friend.

At first I felt I didn’t want to interrupt his way of music making and should follow his ideas but now it is like we make music absolutely together. I don’t even have to express everything by words; everything just comes automatically through the music.

Your forthcoming tour with the Hallé is with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Is this a change in direction for you?
All music, whether it is Beethoven or Rachmaninov, is from the heart.

In some ways perhaps Rachmaninov is more comfortable for lots of players, in the really technical but also emotional way. Of course you approach it in a different way but the fundamental thing is all the same. Most of the music I make is from a very instinctive place.

We are playing three dates at Bridgewater Hall, our base, and then taking the music to our neighbours in Blackburn King George’s Hall and City Hall in Sheffield. It will be good to meet new audiences and to introduce myself and take the relationship I have with the Mark Elder and the Hallé, to a new place. Of course for me playing a concert is always the same no matter who will be there and no matter where it is, I need to produce high quality piano playing regardless. It will be the same work played on different pianos in each hall and I need to meet every condition of each piano when I play, so that is challenging.

Later this year you will be recording both the First and Second Brahms Piano Concertos with the Hallé for their own label. That’s going to be special for you no doubt.
Yes, the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 which I did for the competition in 2006 I worked really hard at for nine months. It was a hard time but also a really happy time. So the recording next year will commemorate it – it will be 10 years. Mark and I strongly felt we should do it – there are millions of Brahms recordings of course but we really hoped we could create a one of a kind.

You’ve also got another disc coming out this autumn. Your debut recital disc featuring two Beethoven sonatas, Waldstein and Hammerklavier  – how did you choose them?
I chose them because those sonatas I feel most comfortable with and I enjoy them the most. I’ve played all the sonatas but those were the right ones for this recording.

Playing a sonata is like building a monument.  The scaffolding is the bass and the structure, the form, – once you understand the theory and form you put the material on it, the harmonies, but also the way you play those harmonies, with a little bit more bass or whether you need to make something a little bit hidden –and then you add colour with the sound – staccato, more brilliant or rounded, the pedal – it is all calculated from the beginning. I like that sense of control.

What is it about German/ Romantic music that appeals to you so much?
It is the musical form which makes such an impression on me: as I say it’s a bit like when you see great architecture there are all the details, the colours, the shape, the form. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms – they created really firm ‘architecture’ and as a musician I want to find all the details. Which material they used, where the ideas came from, all the details, the windows, the design of the door! It is always really fascinating to me to deconstruct all these details so that I can uncover it all.

I think with German music the ‘textbook’ is so strong. That’s why a lot of musicians struggle with it – they are slaves to the textbook, serving the composer all the time. My view is a little bit different. Of course we all serve the music but I like to bring my own sense of perfection to the music as well and this balance is what I find fascinating in the process of playing German music.

You also have an interesting link with the Beethoven Haus in Bonn which must add to that.
Yes, the Beethoven-Haus is great. I am the first beneficiary of their new mentoring scheme.  I have had a lovely time there, looking through all the manuscripts and playing the original pianos and harpsichords. It all really adds to your understanding of Beethoven, and of course there are scholars there who can help further too.

How about chamber music? You make a point of having chamber music a part of what you do, what have you been up to?
I think pianists especially need to play a lot of chamber music. Firstly because while there are many wonderful sonatas and concerti, there are also a lot great pieces for piano trio and piano quintet for example, and if you don’t play those pieces then that is really a big miss. Secondly in terms of interacting with other musicians: Pianists are used to practising alone, performing alone, travelling alone, they don’t have that interaction with other players, as much as string players for example. But also lastly and most importantly, playing chamber music makes you listen. This is crucial. To listen to what you are playing, to give you a better idea of how you sound and to play together, every moment is different. I enjoy it much more because I am not nervous! I share the adrenaline with other people which is a relief.

The last few months I have really enjoyed chamber music at festivals in Israel and Germany. In Jerusalem I was doing Dohnányi, Janáček and Bloch – very different composers and I enjoy that repertoire very much. There are lots of other things I would like to explore, one day. I would like to do Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and the Mahler piano quartet, for example.

You mentioned you get nervous when you perform. How do you manage that?
The only thing I can do is to trust myself.  Once you have started you forget everything but it’s just the ten minutes before…

I think musicians are addicted to it somehow!  I feel so nervous going on stage but if I didn’t have concerts for two months I would feel very uncomfortable, I just need to perform on stage.

In what way does having an audience affect your playing?
There are some musicians who want to really communicate with the audience and interact with them, but personally I am not like that. I play for the music. If I think about the audience for even one second it is really distracting.

It sounds like a contradiction, but I need an audience. I play differently when I am on my own. The audience makes me concentrate even more on the music; their presence makes me go further into the music. I hadn’t really thought about it in this way before but when I am on the stage, live, it’s like I am transformed to a different person.

What about 21st Century music?  Last year you performed and recorded fellow Korean Unsuk Chin’s Piano Concerto with Myung-Whun Chung and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.
The piano repertoire is vast but I think it is important to play the music of musicians who are alive now. I feel partly a sense of duty to do that. Unsuk Chin is a really great composer and when I listened to her music it really motivated me. I’ve also worked with Dai Fujikura. I feel so lucky to be dealing with composers who are alive. I would have loved to have met Beethoven and Brahms! It is amazing to live and talk with these composers who are writing now.

How you do approach this kind of music?
Modern music can be very difficult to play.  In other repertoire you might have to think a lot about tone and quality of sound but with 21st century music they are wishing us to play with the greatest imagination, with even more expression, dynamics and articulation. In fact playing the right note is not always their prerogative. I enjoy that challenge it’s a different view for me, and I need to have that as well as playing what I might call my ‘absolute’ music.

Mark Elder has obviously been a hugely important influence in your life. Do you seek the advice of any other musicians you admire?
Myung-Whun Chung is very important to me. I became a big fan of his when I was 5 years old so have been aware of his great work my whole life.

I also have a great relationship with Andràs Schiff, in fact it was he who introduced me to the Beethoven-Haus. I first met him when I was doing a master class at my university in Korea. He is somebody who has influenced me a lot in terms of my music making and knowledge of the piano and we meet up quite often.

I asked Andràs recently what he was doing when he was in his 20s. He said, he was doing the same thing he is now; trying to find the answers. You might think someone like him would say something different but really it is all craftsmanship. That is the key: to be the craftsman, endless everyday discipline.  So when I see that he is still studying and still working hard it makes believe I am on the right track and that makes me feel more safe.

Radu Lupu is another idol of mine. They make the piano sing. They are the ones who make a path for the next generation and I am grateful for that, for seeing how they serve the music and appreciate it. I can learn from it and then make my own way. I listened to their recordings a lot when I was young, following what they were doing, trying to imitate them. Now I have my own space so I don’t need to, but having those idols is important. One day I would like to become a musician like them, if the next generation might like to walk in my path too that would be an amazing thing.

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