Saturday, July 7, 2012

H J Lim and Beethoven

In May of this year the young South Korean pianist H J Lim released a recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas for piano. This is hardly typical repertoire for a young virtuoso looking to make a name--a lot of the newer pianists on the scene, like Yuja Wang and Khatia Buniatishvili seem to actively avoid Beethoven. Usually one waits for the fullness of maturity to record this music. Here is an article in the Telegraph on H J Lim and the recording. Like Valentina Lisitsa, H J Lim has had a lot of exposure on YouTube. Let's listen to some of her Beethoven. Here is the last movement of "Les Adieux" Piano Sonata No. 26, op 81a:

Nothing wrong with that, is there? I might have liked a bit more shaping of the rhythms that would have been possible with a slower tempo, but Beethoven apparently disagrees with me as he marks the tempo Vivacissimamente! Perhaps we might compare this performance to some others. Here is Barenboim live in Berlin:

That is certainly a more seasoned performance, with more flexibility in tempo. The ending with its pull back to Poco andante and then return to the original tempo is handled with more aplomb and in general, Barenboim responds very subtly to Beethoven's harmonic peregrinations. But H J Lim's performance is certainly much crisper. Here is Friedrich Gulda playing the whole sonata. The last movement starts at the 9:17 mark:

Of the three, Gulda is the only one that makes the rhythmic and melodic texture really clear in mm 16, 18, 20 and 21 with that tricky little turn figure with the big leap at the end. Gulda is sometimes accused of being too technical and unemotional, but I like his muscular Beethoven because it is always very accurate.

I could go on and make a few more comparisons, but you could do that yourself. It is always interesting to compare different performances of the same piece by different performers. With YouTube, it is now very easy to do. I think that what one learns is that, yes, there are lots of different ways to play the same piece. But in fact, something like a 'standard' interpretation tends to develop and those artists who really diverge from it are few *cough* Glenn Gould *cough*. The bottom line here is that H J Lim is well up to playing this music and I would love to hear her record the sonatas again in ten or twenty years.

UPDATE: I'm not a music reviewer, though I do talk critically about recordings from time to time, so this post is not a CD review. I just ran across a review of Lim's whole Beethoven cycle and it is worth reading. The most interesting information I gathered from the review was the brief quotations from Lim's liner notes. Here is the first:
When it came to the sonatinas Op.49 Nos. 1 & 2, educational pieces that were composed to train pupils and published against the composer’s wish and well before the Sonata Op.2 No.1 in F minor which he wanted to be published as his first ever sonata and indeed, here, the Beethovenian signature is strongly impregnated, I chose to respect the latter’s intention by separating them from the main cycle.
Yes, the two sonatas op 49 were not intended by Beethoven to be published--they were sent to the printer by his brother without his knowledge. While they are certainly piano sonatas by Beethoven, they are really juvenilia and I think dropping them from the cycle is the right decision. Interesting and odd that only Lim seems to have thought of it. Here is the other quote:
While the aesthetic laws of music are a microcosmic interpretation inspired by the secret laws of the universe, and a musical idea carries a certain universality, the first explosive chords of the first movement could be described as the Big Bang, the creation of the world, the trigger of all sonata movements human conscience…
This is written, by H J Lim, about the "Hammerklavier" sonata. The oddities of her prose style that appeared in the first quote ("...the Beethoven signature is strongly impregnated...") here are more evident. I'm sure that English is Lim's third or perhaps fourth language, but don't they have editors at EMI any more? I have a lot more trouble with her writing and the assumptions behind it than I do with her playing! There are no "aesthetic laws" in music or anywhere else. There are aesthetic virtues and sins as I have posted about. What could possibly be meant by "microcosmic interpretation inspired by the secret laws of the universe" I have no idea. If the "laws" of the universe are secret, then how does Lim know what they are? This is a very strange kind of writing where the words don't have their normal meanings, but rather New-Agey slipperiness. This is the liner note equivalent to ambient music--no direction, no meaning. So, my advice is, ignore completely anything written in this offering except the titles of the pieces.

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