When a record company launches a new young star, there’s always a slight suspicion that content is taking second place to style and presentation. But with Korean pianist HJ Lim EMI Classics are unapologetic, and with every justification.
HJ (Hyun-jung) Lim has come to fame not via the conventional international music competition circuit: EMI’s PR handouts say that she came to the public’s attention via YouTube. But at her official launch event at Abbey Road Studios last week, Andrew Cornall, the EMI’s head of A&R, focused on not on her YouTube videos but on her live performance in Lisbon which he attended at the invitation of her agent Harrison Parrott. He was so impressed that he wanted to sign her on the spot.
They proposed as a first recording the repertoire that she was playing at that sparkling recital: Scriabin and Ravel. They received an unexpected reply: she would only sign if her first recording could be the complete Beethoven Sonatas.
For a 24-year-old to record to complete Beethoven is precocious. John Suchet, the well-known newsreader who seems to be something of a goodwill ambassador for EMI Classics, interviewed Lim after her performance of Beethoven’s Op 109 sonata at Abbey Road, in front of an audience of music industry people (and a solitary K-blogger). The audience were surprised at the passionate but intellectual responses from Lim, in fluent, French-accented English. Lim has been immersing herself in a deep study of Beethoven – she said she has almost been “living with him” for many years – and she felt a compulsion to record the complete set. She talked about Beethoven as the first psychoanalyst, and claimed that each sonata told us something new and different about Beethoven the man. She also reminded us that Beethoven was 25 when he composed his first three sonatas (Op 2) – so there should be no barrier to someone in her mid-20s (Lim is currently 24) tackling the works.
She also spoke on the subject of Beethoven’s metronome markings – quoting a remark Beethoven made when musicians complained about the seemingly impossible speed required of them in the final movement of his first symphony. She herself therefore takes his metronome markings seriously. The opening bars of the Hammerklavier take on an extra danger when played at the specified tempo.
Her deep respect for Beethoven shone through in her animated conversation. And this respect extends to her excluding from her “complete” cycle two sonatas (Op 49) which she says Beethoven didn’t want to be received as part of the canon. So her complete cycle is of 30 rather than the usual 32 sonatas. Another unusual feature of her recording is that she groups the sonatas not chronologically but by theme, such as Heroic Ideals and The Eternal Feminine Youth, reflecting her psychoanalytical approach.
In terms of results, the speed at which she took some of the faster variations in last movement of Op 109 was furious. It certainly made the work demanding both to play and to listen to, but Lim led us on a path through the dark, dense forest of notes. Late Beethoven doesn’t always make for easy listening and it doesn’t hurt us to be challenged once in a while. Comparing her performance to my recording by Wilhelm Kempff, recorded in 1964 when he was in his late 60s, Kempff has a much more straightforward reading, where the structure of the piece is much clearer and simpler, while Lim generates excitement and conflict. Ars est celare artem is the approach followed by Kempff, while Lim almost seems to seek out challenges and conflict to resolve.
Meanwhile, in her performance of two Scriabin miniatures1 and Ravel’s La Valse it is easy to see what grabbed EMI’s A&R chief in that recital in Lisbon. She was completely at home in the exotic scented atmosphere of Scriabin, while sparks and passion flew in her performance of the Ravel.
Both in her conversation and in her playing, HJ Lim comes across as a force of nature. Definitely a pianist to watch, with great technique, passion and intellectual insight to match.
HJ Lim’s London solo debut is at the Wigmore Hall on 20 July 2012. I just booked my tickets in the front row.
- Some of HJ Lim’s live performances on YouTube
- HJ Lim’s official website
- Buy HJ Lim’s complete set of Beethoven Piano Sonatas on Amazon.co.uk
Thanks to Paul Wadey at the KCC for the tip-off about the Abbey Road launch event on 2 May 2012, which was held in the very studio that the Beatles recorded some of their most famous albums.
- Two Poems, in F# major and D major