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Rachmaninov, Flamenco and Han: LKL meets pianist HJ Lim

LKL is surprised four times in the space of a twenty minute interview with Korean pianist HJ Lim, and ends up an even bigger fan than before.

H.J. Lim
HJ Lim. Photo © Mat Hennek courtesy of EMI Classics

Having enthusiastically listened to HJ Lim’s industry debut at Abbey Road Studios in May, and having purchased her boxed set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, we’re really looking forward her official London debut at the Wigmore Hall next Friday. So when EMI Classics offered the opportunity of an interview, I leapt at the chance.

The interview had to be done over the phone – Lim was up in Chester for a recital, which is a dry run for the Wigmore concert: Rachmaninov Études-tableaux and the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata.

Which are you playing first? “The Rachmaninov, of course!” she says, in charming French-accented English. Well, I suppose the Hammerklavier is not a piece to warm up with, but even so I’d have thought that launching directly into the pain and nostalgia of Rachmaninov requires a lot of both performer and audience.

And the pain and nostalgia in Rachmaninov is something that’s close to the heart of Lim’s view of the composer. Lim is a passionate and articulate communicator, both musically and verbally. In interviews she fires her audience with her enthusiasm and depth of thought behind what she is saying, and that same depth of thought is evident in her communication via the written word: she wrote the sleeve notes for her Beethoven CD set, and she has written the programme notes for her Chester and Wigmore recitals.

“I see on your website you have an article about P’ansori,” she says.

Surprise number one, that a busy pianist should bother to browse LKL before an interview from its editor.

“In my programme notes,” she continues, “I make a connection between Korean traditional music, especially P’ansori, Russian music such as Rachmaninov, and Flamenco. They are three genres of music that speak to you very directly. There is no making it up, there is no sublimation at all, it’s so authentic.”

Surprise number two, that within two minutes of the start of an interview about her Wigmore debut we should be talking about P’ansori.

“What, you think there is Han in Rachmaninov?” I prompt.

“Absolutely. In my programme notes I talk about Han. I don’t know how to describe it to an English audience. It’s like this great, deep despair, or nostalgia, which in Korea is not only at the level of the individual but also at the level of the nation. It’s the nostalgia of the whole Korean people, the nostalgia of the Russian people, it’s the sadness in Flamenco. And you know how in Flamenco they use this broken, raucous voice? That’s so similar to Korean traditional singing like P’ansori. That’s why playing Rachmaninov is for me like exploring my childhood.”

The words and the ideas come tumbling out, full of energy and passion. She’s clearly condensing a lot of thought into a few sentences as she leaps from Northern Europe to Asia and back to the Mediterranean, talking about nostalgia, childhood and vocal styles.

And now we’re both surprised, that within five minutes of the start of an interview we’re talking about Han, that most unfathomably Korean of concepts. I had to pull back before I was hopelessly out of my depth. Having got so deep so quickly I was almost not in the mood to go through my prepared list of questions, but Lim is easy to talk to.

There was never a time when Lim decided that she wanted devote her life to music. It just seemed natural from the start. She came to Europe aged 12 to broaden her outlook, and with the ultimate aim of studying at the Paris Conservatoire. Why there? “It’s where Debussy was a student, where Ravel was a student, and where Faure was a director. I absolutely wanted to follow their steps.”

This interested me. Did she have a special affinity for the French composers? “No, not particularly. I love Bach, Brahms and Beethoven as much as I love Debussy and Ravel.” Bach. A fourth surprise, that Lim, who I had assumed would be devoted to the Romantic pianists, should love Bach, my own musical hero. “I am just crazy about the Well Tempered Klavier but I love the St John and St Matthew Passion too.”

Pianistic role models? The greats from the early 20th century: Rachmaninov himself, Ignaz Friedman (the great Chopin interpreter), Alfred Cortot (known for his Chopin and Schumann performances), and Georges Cziffra (a Lizst specialist). “Their heritage was from the 19th Century, and in the 19th Century everything in art was about individualism, so their playing was very personal – there was nothing conventional about them, each one was unique, and that’s why I love them.”

We talk about the international music competition circuit (an aspect of the music business which Lim has consciously avoided), about chamber music, about the acoustics in the Albert Hall (where Lim will be playing Rachmaninov’s second concerto on 24 September this year) but I’m still reeling from the surprise of talking about Han.

I wished her the best for the Chester recital, said I looked forward to her Wigmore recital, and we say farewell. But what I’m most looking forward to is hearing the Han in Rachmaninov.

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