Written by: Colin Anderson
Kun Woo Paik has come a long way since his early days in Seoul, North Korea. He was born in 1946 and made his debut at the age of ten playing Grieg’s concerto. He now lives in Paris, which is where we meet, and has done so for the last twenty years. It was a recital in New York of the complete piano music of Ravel in 1971 that finally determined him to be a professional pianist.
“When I was seven, we bought a piano. My mother began to give lessons to other children. I started to play by myself, imitating the others. I suppose my parents saw that I was picking up faster than other students, and without lessons, so they thought I had some talent.”
At this time Paik had access to a “musical café where music-lovers could listen to LPs, all day long. I remember the Chopin concertos, Beethoven symphonies, Brahms. When I heard music at the café I would come home and play what I heard … it was a natural thing to express myself through the piano”. Paik particularly recalls the records of Rubinstein, Backhaus, Brailowsky and Serkin. There were also concerts in Seoul – “Serkin, Rubinstein, Schwarzkopf and Richard Tucker came to Korea – Schwarzkopf came to Korea to give a recital! – it was amazing and we didn’t even have a proper hall! I particularly remember Serkin, the lights went out and he continued to play in the blackout!”
“When I was over twenty, I was sent to New York by the Korean Government. Still, I did not think of myself as a pianist but people there said I should continue my studies. Rosina Lhévinne got me a scholarship to Juilliard, but it took me along a long time to decide. I arrived in New York having been pushed to play Pictures, the Paganini Rhapsody, the Ravel concerto; I was too young to understand. So in New York I wanted to get away from the piano. The love for music was so strong that I did everything else – accompanying singers, chamber music, opera and ballet répétiteur, everything except studying Beethoven sonatas. Madame Lhévinne used to say ’why don’t you study?’ As a youngster I thought that her school of piano playing was most natural – basic technique and repertoire. She was Schumann, Chopin and Brahms.”
“As a student I wanted to hear and see everything”. Paik’s biography lists that he plays Bach to Stockhausen. As well as Rosina Lhévinne, Paik studied in London with Ivona Kabos, in Italy with Guido Agosti, and with Wilhelm Kempff. “Agosti was a revelation – Liszt to Busoni. Kempff had a Beethoven course; his was the noblest playing you could find. He was humble, gentle, so refined, at the same time very profound. Agosti was all imagination, such imagination, so very powerful, and pianistically he was incredible. I think each one has been an influence; they have opened the door”. Kabos helped develop Paik’s communicative skills.
In recorded terms, Paik is especially associated with Russian music – Scriabin, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov. His accounts of Prokofiev’s concertos are on Naxos. “I suppose I was looking to identify myself in Western music. It seems that the Russian temperament and, curiously enough, the Korean temperament are very close. We are not the polite, shy image that you have; if you see the World Cup, they are very outgoing, excitable and emotional.”
These are very different feelings to those in Fauré’s piano music, Paik’s new CD release (Decca 470 246-2), which is elusive and poetic. “Fauré is a very individual composer. People used to say that he was a French Schumann, influenced by Chopin. But he developed his own language; it’s so personal that you do not find it in any other French composer. I think one of the reasons why Fauré suffers is because he is thought of as being salon-like. It’s not, it’s a confession, much more tormented, pessimistic; at the same time he has this incredible beauty and naivety.”
The layout of the new CD has been carefully thought about. “How can I introduce this composer? I chose something accessible to start, Romance sans paroles. Then the first nocturne gives a very clear idea what Fauré’s language is, and then goes slowly into his late period, and then coming back to the Ballade, one of his earliest successes: you have the global picture of Fauré without too much difficulty. I find Ballade is very pretty, very well written, there is so much colour and I see landscape, which is so particular – only the French can create that kind of sound”. I suggest the music is enigmatic. “It’s not an enigma, it’s the composer as a person – he is touched by language, history, landscape, food; he is surrounded. It is a product of what he inhaled. When he was in the South of France he breathed the air and felt the heat.”
Kun Woo Pail now records exclusively for Decca. His third CD is planned to be recorded next February, but the pianist will not say what. Last year, for his Decca debut, Paik recorded Bach transcriptions made by Ferruccio Busoni (467 358-2). “Bach never really specified an instrument. I share Busoni’s point of view – he takes a much larger meaning of the transcription; I’m not sure he even approves of the word because he believed that everything is a transcription. A Beethoven symphony is a transcription of what he heard; in other works of art, a poet transcribes a thought into words, a painter sees something then transcribes into painting.”
I suggest then that everything perceived as original has its basis in something; and there is always something beyond the original. “Exactly. It takes as much creativity to transcribe something into a whole new work. The violin chaconne transcription” (from Partita, BWV 1004) “you have to take as it is, you do not have to refer to the original. We tend to compare – this is not correct. I know some people who hate this chaconne by Busoni, saying that he destroyed the original. When I first heard it in New York with Alicia de Larrocha it was a shock!”
Busoni is a particular fascination for me; so too Paik. “What I like about Busoni is that while each composer belongs to a certain country and period, Busoni is a philosopher who could think about music as an outpouring, as something unconscious”. I mention his Italian/German conflict. “It was a good conflict because he doesn’t denote any one period and at the same time belongs to all periods as one work of art – that’s why you will have baroque to atonal music in one piece. For him the history of music does not divide into sections but the whole history belongs to our music. He embraces that history; that’s why ordinary people have a problem because they cannot place him. I keep saying to people that music is so rich – we reduce, reduce and reduce; I don’t understand why we make our life so poor”. As I’ve always thought, categorisation is self-defeating.
A rich time is promised in August during the Emerald Coast Music Festival in Dinard, France. This is its thirteenth year. “By chance, I became the music director after the fifth year when the founder had a stroke and died. I was involved anyway and got the city involved, and performers came for very little fee. The public is growing, and there are more and more sponsors. It’s three weeks of good company, food and music, a very friendly atmosphere.”
Paik’s future plans include a Brahms/Schumann recital “for the winter” – perhaps a clue to his next CD! – “and I recently did the last three Beethoven sonatas in many places. For me, it’s one of the best programmes I’ve ever done, just because the music is so fantastic. I haven’t played any Spanish music yet, very rich, formidable repertoire; it will need many years of study.”
I enjoyed the company of this thinking musician. Just the day before we met, Paik had watched ’The Art of the Piano’ on video. “You look at all these pianists – Paderewski, Horowitz, Serkin, Michelangeli, Arrau – and you just feel these people lived inside the music; whereas most of the performers you hear today are outside of the music.”
Paik acknowledges that there are “wonderful pianists” today, yet I think his point is well made. It’s partly to do with time; there is too much travelling, time only for preparing the notes. “I like to have time with the family, time to study, a quiet time to think; but you obliged to accept a concert.”
Direct communication is important to Kun Woo Paik. “Music is anything but intellectual; we analyse too much. Bernstein was able to explain and at the same time give pleasure. I hate to talk about first theme, second theme; it’s so irrelevant. Music has to touch other human beings; if it does not touch me I don’t see why I should do it.”