Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Piano Sonatas
see end of review for details
HJ Lim (piano)
rec. July-August 2011, Faller Hall, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
EMI CLASSICS 464952 2 [8 CDs: 73:25 + 77:25 + 58:56 + 62:38 + 49:43 + 79:51 + 53:55 + 79:57]
Korean pianist HJ Lim, 25 years old at time of writing, signed up to EMI Classics in September 2011 and this Beethoven cycle is her first recording project for the label. She had already proven herself in this repertoire in live performance, performing the cycle over eight consecutive days in Paris in August 2010.There is really no doubting that the concerts and this recorded cycle are remarkable achievements. Lim recorded the sonatas on a Yamaha CFX concert grand piano in just two months, July and August 2011. I believe many of us would have been on holiday about then, which makes you think.
After living with this set for a few weeks my general feelings regarding the ‘vibe’ of this collection are fairly positive, so let’s have a few critical comments out of the way first. Even as a cycle without extras, a complete Beethoven sonatas set on 8 CDs would seem to be a bit tight. These are all well filled discs and speeds are swift, but Lim has missed out the sonatas No. 19 in G minor op. 49 no. 1 and No. 20 in G major op. 49 no. 2, stating “As the sonatas Op. 49 Nos. 1 and 2 were meant as exercises for students and published against the composer’s will”. HJ continues, “I have chosen to respect Beethoven’s intentions by leaving them out of this great cycle.” I don’t know about you, but all this does is make me want to listen to the Op. 49 pair to remind myself of what I’m missing. If we all went around respecting the wishes of composers long dead there might, for instance, be mass withdrawals of ancient sacred music being used for profane purposes, and advertising execs would be more than merely bereft. Lim also adds that “I have organised the remaining sonatas by theme.” This is another mildly controversial topic which I promise not to bore on about, at least not for too long. Many Beethoven sonata cycles are ordered pretty much chronologically, and mixing things up as they have been here is interesting and intriguing. If you look at the full track listing you will see the eight themes into which this set has been ordered, and I remain a touch resistant to having subjective associations applied in blanket fashion to individual works let alone whole clutches of sonatas. Yes, there are easy connections to be made, such as ‘Nature’ to the ‘Pastoral’ sonata, but the whole point in Beethoven’s sonatas is that each one is a myriad cosmos of contrasting messages, the meanings of which will, or should be unique to the listener. Lim writes extensive notes for each album setting out her thoughts on the sonatas and these are usefully insightful, but even so giving a title like ‘Heroic Ideals’ to any set of these pieces would be like painting the Winged Victory of Samothrace bright red just because that’s the way you happen to think its visual semantics are best expressed. I reserve the right to listen to this music without labels. Such titles point us in one direction and exclude too much, and my only real concern is that the new audiences attracted by this brave young star will be sent along too narrow a pathway when approaching these pieces.
The piano sound for this collection is, on a first superficial listen, perhaps not quite as immediate and stunning as one might expect from such a vibrantly profiled project. The acoustic plays a significant role in the general picture, which lends a chamber-music rather than a concert-hall feel to the music. Lim does however frequently play in concert-hall fashion, so the sonic message is a bit mixed. This is by no means to say that this is a poor production in terms of sound quality, but it is by no means the most pleasant piano sound I’ve heard. Lim plays on a Yamaha piano, which I am told are modelled somewhat on Steinway instruments. The reputed brightness you might expect is not extreme or annoying, though this is a piano with quite an effervescent character. Turn up the volume reasonably and you will be provided with plenty of detail, rich lows and a sparkling treble. Your ears and mind soon accept the realities of the sound, and there is no real problem if you are prepared to lean back and take what is given. Even the encroachment of a slightly tubby acoustic is better than a fatiguing overly-dry sound or too close-up perspective.
I know of no other set of Beethoven’s sonatas which begins with the Hammerklavier, and this might seem the kind of tough crust to bite through which might see new audiences running for the hills before we’ve even had lift-off. This work stands as a representative of Lim’s strengths however, making this most demanding of these works into something exciting and approachable. The opening is a genuine curtain raiser, and with Lim’s transparency of touch she can just about get away with having this as a first work. Both Lim and András Schiff make a point of observing Beethoven’s metronome marks for this work, though Lim still manages to undercut Schiff’s timings. Schiff is more flexible in his rubati, more exploratory in feel and if anything more extreme in his observation of accents and dynamics.
I’ve been living with Alfred Brendel and Louis Lortie’s sets for years now and appreciate the qualities in both, but recently discovered Friedrich Gulda’s 1967 cycle, originally released on the Amadeo label but more recently appearing on Brilliant Classics, cat. 92773. If you are looking for a combination of high-octane excitement and remarkable clarity then recording is really rather special. Lim is also an exciting player, and it is easy to hear why EMI wanted to promote her Beethoven, with at least one commentator indicating that this is the kind of release which will save the classical recording industry. Some might argue that it doesn’t need saving, but with bargain download deals to be had for a limited time after release this cycle will attract and stimulate new audiences, and will certainly be a boost in the right direction.
Without picking over every sonata, I would say that you can find great enjoyment with HJ Lim, but even with gruff Beethovenian directness, tremendous verve and some remarkably expressive moments and passages, this is not a set which will dislodge the great names - nor, I suspect, is this the intention. From the same label, EMI for instance, she comes up against Steven Kovacevich (5 62700-2), whose combination of power and profundity is hard to beat by any standards. As a younger artist you might expect some impetuosity, and Lim’s tendency on occasion is to speed up, such as in the final movement of the Sonata No. 13. Hertempi are at times the enemy of clarity, and others something of a helter-skelter ride which leaves you breathless, such as the opening Allegro of the Sonata No. 9.
There is depth of expression to be heard, for instance in the second movement of the Sonata No. 4 Op. 7, which is marked Largo, con gran espressione. You may prefer Lim’s view, but plucking Gulda’s recording from the heap and you can hear where a little more space around the notes and a little more dramatic sustain in the horizontal movement of lyrical lines and harmonic rhythm can make quite a difference. Lim’s drama is more immediate, with plenty of impact and climactic awareness, but less probing of Beethoven’s poetry. What she loses in statesmanlike sagacity she however gains in freshness and a feeling of spontaneity which is a real asset to this set as a whole. One track which people will make a beeline for is the first movement of the Sonata No. 14, ‘Moonlight’. Lim’s timing undercuts many by quite a long way, turning this Adagio sostenuto into more of a lied, or perhaps relating this ‘new testament’ highlight to the opening arpeggios of the Book 1 Prelude in C major of Bach’s ‘old testament’. Out with stuffy old prayer-like lingering: in with directness and expression without sentimentality or pain.
Lim’s freshness of touch suits the three earlier sonatas Opp. 2 & 3 nicely, with open and song-like melodic shaping, and wit if not too much humorous eccentricity in the rhythmic asymmetries of movements such as the Menuetto of Sonata No. 1. The gorgeous Largo appassionato of the Sonata No. 2 is taken more as a light scherzo than anything else, so you can tell which way we are still heading - this is something shared by the second movement Andante of the Sonata No. 15, ‘Pastoral’. The Sonata No. 3 is beautifully played, with some touches of prestidigitatory madness reserved for the final Allegro assai. The Sonata No. 21 ‘Waldstein’ becomes a genuinely symphonic statement for Lim, something which can stand next to the ‘pastoral’ symphony as an equal.
Love it or not, Lim whips up a pianistic storm in the Sonata No. 18, with tempi which make many competitors seem pedestrian. A highlight of the third volume is the Sonata No. 28, and although there is very little march-like in the second movement, there are jewels to be found in the Empfindung of the first. I’m not so sure Lim is able to create as much of a sense of direction in those intermezzo/transition-like movements such as the section which precedes the final Presto, and for me it is still András Schiff who is the best at finding the magic in such in-between places.
I like Lim’s directness in the Sonata No. 27, which emphasises the ‘sturm und drang’ sensibilities in the work. She makes a good deal of the human narrative in these pieces, stating that “to perform Beethoven’s sonatas is not just to interpret music, but also an attempt to understand the multi-faceted psychology of a human being. If Beethoven’s music can help us understand the human being that he was, so entering Beethoven’s life can help us understand his music.” This is a place in which she comes closest to conveying this, the music allowing for that sense of conflict, of tenderness and passionately dramatic outburst we associate with the composer. The lyrical charm of the second if these two movements might have benefited from a lighter touch in the accompaniment, and perhaps a little more space in terms of tempo. This is one of the few places where Lim is undercut by Gulda in terms of timing, though he does manage more effective dynamic layering, allowing the songlike line a more independent character. The Sonata No. 30 is another big favourite, and nicely played by Lim. Players sometimes tend to disguise the slow-waltz feel of this sonata’s final movement but Lim’s forward momentum emphasises this more, and the spirit of Chopin lives in some sections. Again with the Adagio opening of the last movement of the Sonata No. 31 I think we could have had some more of a sense of anticipation rather than meandering, with those remarkable initial repeated notes at 0:40 telegraphed in rather than carrying much dramatic weight. Schiff is once again magical here, even though this lonely sounding final recording is my least favourite of his complete cycle.
With the final disc of this set we have a sense of arrival in the Sonata No. 8, ‘Pathétique’, which Lim plays with remarkable authority and panache. Her Sonata No. 23, Apassionata’ is also tremendous, with a fine sonority in the Andante con moto. The whole epic journey ends appropriately with Beethoven’s last, the Sonata No. 32 Op. 111. Lim states that “to perform Beethoven’s sonatas is not just to interpret music, but also an attempt to understand the multi-faceted psychology of a human being. If Beethoven’s music can help us understand the human being that he was, so entering Beethoven’s life can help us understand his music.” To this we can agree, but we find out as much about Lim as we do about Beethoven through this cycle, and tastes will differ as to whether one agrees with her approach - whipping up excitement and always on a search for added meaning in the notes. This is interesting of course, but comes across in ways which can become wearing after a while.
Reading back it looks as if I’ve been a bit picky with this set, mostly pointing out negative aspects or preferred versions. This is perhaps a little unfair, but with so many options to choose from there will always be plenty of examples against which ambitious new recordings need to be compared. HJ Lim’s Beethoven is indeed a remarkable achievement in very many ways, and certainly deserves hearing. If you are a younger collector and looking for sensational playing from someone who seems less remote than some of our grandees of the keyboard then this may very much be the set for you - to be downloaded soon, before the special bargain offers expire. As you grow older you may find yourself questioning some of the exaggerated certainties asserted in these recordings. You may want to find someone who can tell you different things about those more mysterious and enigmatic passages - Schiff, or who has a thicker patina of life experience - an extra layer of introspection with which to temper the impetuosity which sometimes threatens to engulf some of Lim’s sonata movements - Brendel. I have found listening to these recordings an uplifting experience, playing them all at high volume hot on the heels of Friedrich Gulda on nice long car journeys and finding a whole lot of new associations to connect with old favourites. If you want new Beethoven; swift, polished and shorn of old-fashioned reverence, then HJ Lim might just push the right buttons for you.
Theme I: Heroic Ideals
No. 29 in B flat major op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’ (1817-18) [37:22]
No. 11 in B flat major op. 22 (1800) [26:29]
No. 26 in E flat major op. 81A "Les Adieux" (1809-10) [14:33]
Theme II: Eternal Feminine - Youth
No. 4 in E flat major op. 7 (1796-7) [24:21]
No. 9 in E major op. 14 no. 1 (1798) [11:59]
No. 10 in G major op. 14 no. 2 (1799) [13:55]
No. 13 in E flat major op. 27 no. 1 (1800-01) [13:14]
No. 14 in C sharp minor op. 27 no. 2 ‘Moonlight’ (1801) [13:54]
Theme 3: Assertion of an inflexible personality
No. 1 in F minor op. 2 no. 1 (1793-5) [15:40]
No. 2 in A major op. 2 no. 2 (1794-5) [19:40]
No. 3 in C major op. 2 no. 3 (1794-5) [23:35]
Theme 4: Nature
No. 15 in D major op. 28 ‘Pastorale’ (1801) [22:08]
No. 21 in C major op. 53 ‘Waldstein’ (1803-04) [22:54]
No. 22 in F major op. 54 (1804) [9:47]
No. 25 in G major op. 79 (1809) [7:48]
Theme 5: Extremes in collision
No. 5 in C minor op. 10 no. 1 (1795-7) [16:01]
No. 6 in F major op. 10 no. 2 (1796-7) [11:41]
No. 7 in D major op. 10 no. 3 (1797-8) [18:00]
Theme 6: Resignation and action
No. 16 in G major op. 31 no. 1 (1802) [20:14]
No. 17 in D minor op. 31 no. 2 ‘Tempest’ (1802) [20:32]
No. 18 in E flat major op. 31 no. 3 (1802) [20:23]
No. 28 in A major op. 101 (1816) [18:41]
Theme 7: Eternal Feminine - Maturity
No. 24 in F sharp major op. 78 (1809) [9:02]
No. 27 in E minor op. 90 (1814) [11:44]
No. 30 in E major op. 109 (1820) [16:35]
No. 31 in A flat major op. 110 (1821-22) [16:33]
Theme 8: Destiny
No. 8 in C minor op. 13 ‘Pathétique’ (1797-8) [17:09]
No. 12 in A flat major op. 26 ‘Funeral March’ (1800-01) [16:54]
No. 23 in F minor op. 57 ‘Appassionata’ (1804-05) [22:37]
No. 32 in C minor op. 111 (1821-22) [23:16]
Fresh new Beethoven: lively and accessible, stimulating - and frustrating.