Introducing HJ Lim: The Complete Beethoven Piano Sonata
Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas (8CDs), HJ Lim, piano; EMI Classics
Almost overnight, 24-year old Korean pianist HJ Lim has catapulted into the international spotlight, seemingly part of EMI’s attempt to compete with Deutsche Grammophon in sponsoring young artists with the magnetism of Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. Her story is really quite remarkable. With her mother’s strong support ‘to pursue her dream’, HJ Lim left South Korea to study in France at the age of 12 with the promise that she would always keep her family ties intact through the internet. Uploading her performances to the web all the time on Youtube indeed got more than her family’s attention; many thousands of others also watched. And while she did win a variety of honours in France, and was known to be able to play the complete Beethoven sonatas by the age of 16, it was probably sheer internet exposure (in particular, a dazzling performance of Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-Tableaux uploaded from a 2009 concert in Basle) that prompted her EMI recording contract.
HJ Lim’s recording of the Complete Beethoven Sonatas was released on iTunes this May; the CD set later in the summer; her debut concert at Wigmore Hall, London in fact took place just over a month ago. All of this is unprecedented. No EMI artist has ever attempted this sonata cycle so early in their careers; Daniel Barenboim was in fact one year older, Alfred Brendel’s first cycle was in his early thirties. Furthermore, even Lang Lang, Yundi Li, and Yuja Wang only started from a single ‘debut’ CD (perhaps of Chopin, Liszt, or Rachmaninoff) not an 8CD set of some of the most challenging music ever written. For young pianists, the complexity and range of Beethoven’s sonatas are typically forbidding. But HJ Lim apparently does not have such fears, referring to these sonatas endearingly as her ‘childhood friends’.
So what are these performances like? I cannot say that I have digested her approach fully, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise for listeners, but I can say that they do offer a distinctive approach to the music. The most obvious feature is just how quickly a lot of this music is played: HJ Lim’s gets through the complete cycle over an hour shorter than her next quickest competitor. The artist points directly to Beethoven’s own tempo markings, many of which are so fast that no one can play them. But HJ Lim can indeed play at this speed and maintain the music’s logic; her technical facility is almost superhuman. The other obvious feature is her use of a Yamaha piano; light and quite dry, sounding almost like the fortepiano of Beethoven’s day. So, on both grounds, one might claim that this cycle has an authenticity that others do not.
There is no doubt that the playing has an attractive energy and enthusiasm throughout. But the sheer speed does remove some of Beethoven’s granite-like structural weight and contemplative demeanor. This is a Beethoven more immediately reactive, driven and capricious than we might be used to, and less probing in the slow movements. It will likely divide opinion: traditionalists may think that HJ Lim lets technical virtuosity run over some of the subtle and searching qualities in the music; others will welcome the freshness of her inspiration, potentially casting Beethoven in a new light. In all this, we do have to remember that HJ Lim was trained in France, not Germany. If we go back to Yves Nat’s classic complete cycle of the sonatas in the 1950’s, we do see a lighter, more mercurial, and less romanticized presentation from the French.
In any case, for HJ Lim and the recording industry, this is a really big event. To dip in to it, the best place to start is with the artist’s (many) YouTubes; the ‘Les Adieux’ clip may give some idea of style and sound.
© Geoffrey Newman 2012