She strode onto the stage in her trademark silk trouser suit, casually tossed a handkerchief into the piano and launched immediately into the intensity of the first of Rachmaninov’s Etudes Tableaux Op 33. HJ Lim’s debut at the Wigmore had departed. As when a bus driver puts his foot on the accelerator before his passengers have sat down, you could almost feel the sense of “Woah: hold on there!” coursing through the audience as they were hurled back into their seats. It was going to be a rollercoaster ride, but through spectacular scenery.
If you wanted to pause for breath at the next bus-stop, you were to be disappointed. The pieces followed almost without a break, taking us on a seamless journey through Rachmaninov’s magical landscapes. This was gripping, intense music making, and the first set of 6 studies was over before you knew it. But as Lim got up to give her bow, the expression on her face was as if she had just given a performance of Chopsticks, and not a very good one at that. The face was blank, almost uneasy, as if she couldn’t wait to get off the stage, and she certainly did not display any indication that she’d just travelled on a dark journey through the depths of Han.
I wondered if something was wrong, and whether she would re-emerge onto the stage for Op 39. Thankfully, she did. The journey restarted, and a firestorm of notes was released. Lim was warming up – in between studies she needed to reach into the piano to fish out her handkerchief to mop her brow. And by the end of the Rachmaninov she was much more at ease, maybe even beginning to enjoy herself.
The audience had been thrilled at the ride, but the piano had taken a pounding, and the Yamaha engineers had to give the instrument a quick re-tune during the interval to prepare it for the onslaught of the second half.
The start of the Hammerklavier was like the start of the Rachmaninov, the thundering opening fanfare echoing round the hall almost before the audience had settled. The leap from the bottom to the top of the keyboard was taken at the stated metronome mark of minim = 138. The final fugue was similarly taken at a blistering speed (crotchet = 144). As Lim said in her interview with John Suchet at her Abbey Road launch event, she takes Beethoven’s metronome marks seriously, though as she admits in her programme notes that Beethoven eventually became frustrated with the device: “No metronome! If you have the right feeling, you do not need one. If you do not, the metronome will be of no use to you!”
Now she was definitely enjoying herself, so much so that she gave 7 encores, and seemed to be ready for more if time had not been against her:
Debussy’s Claire de Lune, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, a Chopin Waltz and Etude, some French modern jazz, some Moskovsky and Scriabin’s Pathetique Etude, all stunningly played, but again launched into before the audience was ready. She herself was clearly mentally ready – each encore immediately captured the spirit of the piece. But for the audience maybe a bit more breathing space would have been welcome.
After the performance Lim was to be found in the Bechstein Room signing copies of her Beethoven CDs and happily chatting to members of the audience. Lim is as enthusiastic a comunicator in conversation as she is with the keyboard, and she was making plenty of friends among the audience.
Altogether a stunning debut, and the audience will be looking forward to her Albert Hall debut on 24 September this year, when she will be playing Rachmaninov’s second concerto.
HJ Lim’s Wigmore Hall debut was on 20 July. Programme was Rachmaninov Études-tableaux Opp. 33 & 39 and Beethoven ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata Op. 106.