Ex-heartthrob Lim Dong-hyek matures as a pianist

Pianist Lim Dong-hyek showcases a part of Schubert's "Piano Sonata No. 20 in A Major D. 959," which is included in his sixth album during a press conference held in Seoul to mark the 20th anniversary of his debut. [YONHAP]

Koreans went gaga over pianist Cho Seong-jin when he became Korea’s first-ever Chopin Piano Competition winner in 2015, even those with little interest in classical music. Because of Cho’s large fan base, he is regarded as the pianist who sparked a craze for classical music among the Korean public.

But more than a decade before Cho, there was Lim Dong-hyek, who pulled large crowds of young female fans whenever he gave concerts. They staked out the back door of concert venues to catch the glimpse of their heartthrob — or take pictures with him if they got lucky.

In October 2005, Lim participates in the 15th International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. He shared third place with no second place winner with his older brother Lim Dong-min. They had the highest scores in the competition until Cho
In June 2007, Lim performs during the 13th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where he shared fourth prize with Sergei Sobolev. [JOONGANG ILBO]

In fact, before Cho’s Chopin win, the Korean pianists with the highest scores in the competition was Lim and his older brother Lim Dong-min, who shared third place with no second place winner in 2005.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Lim's debut as a professional solo pianist with an album of music by Chopin, Schubert and Ravel released by the “Martha Argerich Presents” series in 2002. His fans have gotten on in years, as has Lim, and there are no longer group of passionate young female fans waiting outside the halls.

“Such times are remembered as a pleasant memory,” said Lim .

The 37-year-old pianist added that he doesn’t miss the days as his main focus now is becoming a “better pianist.”

“I worked frantically in my teens and 20s,” said Lim, who held a press conference last week for the first time in seven years. "It was all about winning a prize at different competitions and showing good enough results.

“After turning 30, I was able to finally concentrate on the performances I present to audiences as a professional solo musician. Now in my late 30s, I really want to become a better musician who gives performances that deeply resonate with people.”

Lim recently released his sixth album "Schubert Piano Sonatas" for his 20th anniversary. [WARNER CLASSICS]
In 2001, Lim became the youngest pianist ever to sign a recording contract with EMI Classics (now Warner Classics) and has released six albums so far. [WARNER CLASSICS]

For his 20th anniversary, Lim released his sixth album with Warner Classics (previously called EMI Classics), entitled "Schubert: Piano Sonatas.” The album consists of two of three final sonatas for solo piano – Piano Sonata No. 20 in A Major D. 959 and No. 21 in B Flat Major D. 960 – written by Schubert during the final months of his life.

Lim also kicked off a 20th-anniversary recital tour in Korea on March 18. He will play six recitals in six different cities through June 1, including a concert at the Seoul Arts Center on May 24. Lim will perform the two pieces from his sixth album during those recitals. It’s the first time he’s playing the two pieces together in a single recital in Korea.

“They make a good pair because they are very contrasting,” he said. “D. 959 conveys [Schubert's] message more clearly and is brighter and more classical compared to D. 960, which is a little more romantic, softer and possibly more ambiguous. I can’t say Schubert himself knew he was going to die that year, but I can feel the depth in this music. The second movement contains sounds that seem as though they are signaling death."

Though the pianist was nicknamed the “Chopin specialist” for his triumphs at two Chopin competitions, Lim has frequently expressed his affection for Schubert.

“It’s not like I think about or plan which pieces to play and record at a certain age,” said Lim. “I naturally found myself playing Schubert’s final pieces before his death in recent years. I guess his music didn’t really move me as much when I was in my early 20s. The more I played his music, I wanted to record it, though it may not be the perfect version of my performance of Schubert. I may be able to play it better 20 years later. But just as you want sometimes to take a picture and have it framed for memory,I wanted to record my performance of his pieces at this time of my life.”

After 20 years. Lim’s reputation and fame seem almost inevitable. But looking back, it wasn’t a smooth journey.

Lim during his teenage years is captured on photograph practicing the piano. [JOONGANG ILBO]

Though the pianist managed to bring home many awards from prestigious competitions — the youngest winner of the Premier Grand Prix in the history of the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud International Competition in Paris in 2000 and fourth prize, which he shared with Sergei Sobolev in the 13th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2005 — he also created controversy. In 2000, Lim won fifth prize at the International Busoni Piano Competition in Italy but several judges resigned after the announcement, claiming other judges were biased. In 2003, Lim refused to accept third prize in the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Brussels complaining that the jury was biased.

Lim says he would probably not refuse to take the award if he could go back in time as it did more harm than good to his career.
For the sixth album and the series of recitals, Lim said he hopes to hear a lot of comments and critiques as “they allow me to set a direction for the next step of my life.”

“As I said, I may be able to play Schubert’s final pieces for Piano Sonata better when I’m much older, but I know I want to capture this moment in my life with his pieces and I know it’s the best I could give,” said Lim.