Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Piano Sonatas
see end of review for individual CD listings
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]
If HJ Lim’s Beethoven playing style was a fictional character, it would be either Del Griffith in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, or Mr Lucas in Are You Being Served? That is, HJ Lim’s Beethoven is rambunctious, loud and decidedly unfit for polite company, but still sort of likeable, because something about its shabbiness is kind of fun. Maybe it’s the improbability that anyone would want to play Beethoven this way. Maybe it’s like watching Mr Lucas at work: as he mires himself deeper in seedy misdeeds, you can’t help but laugh. Sadly I don’t think EMI released this set to give Beethoven connoisseurs a laugh.
I’m not going to cover every sonata, for which I have two defenses. (1) MusicWeb sent its review copy to Dominy Clements, who incidentally liked the set a good deal more than I did; I listened on my own. (2) Despite the cover statement, HJ Lim did not record the “Complete Piano Sonatas.” She has chosen to omit Op. 49, assuring us in an essay that those two sonatas really don’t count. This should give you an idea of the kind of interpreter we’re dealing with.
I’ll discuss the sonatas in the very random order I listened. Opus numbers are bolded should you wish to skip to your favorite, as is the start of my summary. Number 18 (Op. 31/3) gets an account laden with slapstick humor and notes which resemble pratfalls. The moment in the first movement’s transitional material where the pianist hits sequential notes in descending octaves sounds like someone slipping on a banana peel placed at the top of a staircase. The scherzo, at 4:22, is a veritable toccata. The first movement of No. 27 (Op. 90) can fall over itself in the rush sometimes, and Lim’s speeding through the phrase at 2:48 in the final movement is indicative of her general hatred of all things sensitive, slow, soft, or sensual.
That crudeness botches No. 12 (Op. 26), the lyrical opening andante of which is hopelessly dry and flat. She restrains her madcap tendencies in the faster variations, but the slower ones, especially at the beginning, are viewed with the disdain a teenager at a school dance has for her chaperones. Most of the funeral march is (to paraphrase Disney cartoon villain Heinz Doofenshmirtz) too march-y and not funeral-y enough, although the staccato chords at the climax kind of work. The ending gets sloppy with missed notes; some of the trickier bits sound like a gooey mudslide.
The Moonlight sonata (Op. 27/2) starts off promisingly; Lim’s tempo for the hackneyed first movement may, at 4:27, blow the cobwebs off. Unfortunately she attacks the cobwebs with a broom, and the account is hampered by arch pauses and a tendency to loud banging. Pause to reflect: loud banging about the keyboard in the Moonlight’s adagio! Compare the sonata as a whole to François-Frédéric Guy’s recording from last year, which is almost exactly as fast but far softer in the adagio, far more sensitive to the music’s emotional core, and far clearer in articulating the speedy stuff. The Pastoral (Op. 28) sees its allegro taken as andante and its andante taken as allegro, with right-hand filigree in the second half that borders on silly; similarly, the runs in the final rondo are flashy in a technical sense, but you’d rather hear them in a Lisztian potboiler.
Tiny No. 25 (Op. 79) is treated like a lap around the race-track, with the andante whipped out in 1:39 (checking my iTunes library, I see 2:09 from Ronald Brautigam, 2:41 from Wilhelm Kempff, 3:17 from Andrea Lucchesini, and 3:37 from Emil Gilels; Gilels doubles Lim’s time). I don’t think I could pick out a single Most Perverted Performance from this set, but the second movement of Op. 79, with Lim’s left hand suggesting a gallop and the main tune’s lyrical wings clipped off with hedge-trimmers, is a serious contender.
In the very next sonata, “Les Adieux,” (Op. 81a) Lim manages tenderness like we hear almost nowhere else in the set, until the adagio opening ends, at which point we’re plunged into a clattering main allegro with a somewhat unsteady left hand accompaniment. No surprise that the aria-like melody in the second movement is delivered with cold, steely haste. Skipping back to No. 13 (Op. 27/1), we find the beginning taken briskly with some staccato elements, although the ensuing material sounds out satisfyingly. The central outburst sounds as if it is a parodic Prokofiev. Lim plays the middle two movements without pause, which actually works. But the finale, marked ‘allegro vivace – presto,’ unsurprisingly begins at presto and in the coda Lim can only stick to the tempo she established before.
Lim’s ‘Appassionata’ (Op. 57) is one of the best parts of her cycle. I should have known this would be. It has all the traits in which she excels: loudness, speed, emotional distance, forbidding unknowability, and brutal coldness. The first movement sizzles, the second maintains a stoic mask such that its inner peace is always in question, and the finale is more or less a headlong blitz to the finish except when the ‘presto’ coda arrives and she, of course, slows down, broadening the coda’s first chords so wide you could sit on them. Only some watery, stumbling runs up and down the keyboard and botched chords serve to remind us of the fundamental enigma of HJ Lim: that she wishes to play everything like a demon-possessed super-pianist without having the ability to actually do so. Compare to another mad scientist who plows through ‘Appassionata’ with even more (!) haste: Fazil Say. Say, humming off-key like Glenn Gould (or a lunatic) and devouring the notes like crisps, actually achieves a brutal perfection. Lim is like an asylum escapee screaming down the street; Say is like Jack Nicholson holding an axe.
The eleventh sonata (Op. 22) begins at a rather absurd tempo, and Lim is in danger of overheating at 1:16. The adagio’s quick speed (6:13) actually works, because Lim voices it like an operatic aria, with a beautiful continuous flow. I only wish she knew how to play softly, so that more of the aria wasn’t so clangy and unpleasant. Those adjectives could also be used to describe her way with the finale, where, like so much of this music, Lim attacks the notes like Michael Phelps attacks a buffet line.
Sonata No. 16 (Op. 31/1) starts quietly, then speeds up for tons of clattering about and ridiculous runs up and down the keyboard. The second subject is totally detached in tempo, feeling like a Strauss polka and nominating itself for the aforementioned Most Perverted Performance trophy. The adagio becomes brutally ugly from 4:15 on, even technically as Lim’s technique can’t hold on to the trills. The very ending of the sonata, surprisingly, lacks panache, humor, and glitz compared to someone like Gilels.
I next listened to the fifth through seventh sonatas (Op. 10) in a row. No. 5’s opening theme is swatted away so quickly and casually that it loses its emotional heft. You’d think Lim would opt for high drama here, but she chooses to be flippant instead. This theme gets the same coarse treatment with every appearance, which makes it jarring that the rest of the movement is well-managed. Lim’s slow movement begins with great majesty, but her sudden ability to shape a melody in a songlike arc gradually fades, presumably because slow music bores her.
Nos. 6 and 7 are quite possibly the best performances so far; Lim gets a lot (if not all) of the Haydn-style wit in No. 6 and dashes through at fortepiano-like speeds, but without any of the crass loudness that mars most of her readings. By the Seventh sonata, I’m beginning to suspect I’m listening to a different pianist altogether, so I decide to back-to-back Lim’s readings with those of Ronald Brautigam and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Nope: both eclipse Lim in Op. 10. Brautigam’s fast and classical accounts give a firmer sense of structure and more consistent phrasing (versus Lim’s arch insertion of pauses), and Bavouzet schools both on how to play with delicacy and refinement.
At this point I jumped on to the Waldstein (Op. 53), a fast, strong-boned account much like Brautigam’s classic recording, but more prone to impulsive speeding-up and crashing halts, with no consistent tempo maintained in the first movement. In its development the tempo briefly runs away from Lim’s technique. The slow movement is acceptable but not especially sensitive, and the start of the finale also matches that description: if you’d never heard Schnabel, or Gilels, or Lucchesini, you probably wouldn’t notice the missing sense of magic and ethereal beauty. As soon as Lim arrives above forte she starts cavorting about like a hyperactive retriever. The ending, with its intentionally abbreviated chords, zaps all the emotional impact away.
There are now only a few sonatas left in my partial survey: the Tempest, a Thérèse, the Pathétique, and the final trilogy. You’d have to pay me to sit through her Hammerklavier. The Tempest (Op. 31/2) is not on the level of the Appassionata. It starts well but mannerisms and blunted chords start creeping in at 0:36. The adagio balances moments of great competence with an absolutely infuriating left-hand accompaniment blurred together into angry thuds. As I feared, the finale’s opening is where Lim’s poor taste shows: the main theme is overwhelmed by too-loud accompaniment, although it’s only at the four-minute mark that I started to get truly irritated by the finicky, quasi-improvised rewritings of dynamics.
Lim’s Pathétique (Op. 13) starts with a rolled chord, and the first movement is generally fairly aggressive, although Glenn Gould does it with greater conviction (and Eric Heidsieck greater still). The adagio suffers from the tiniest little flaws — inconsistencies of tempo, phrases which are not quite soft enough, a central episode in which Lim wants to both push forward and pause dramatically. Lim’s finale hits the spot, though. The tiny sonata No. 24 (Op. 78) is so ugly it chafes, and I played it back-to-back with François-Frederic Guy, whose piano is warmer in sound, whose playing is lighter and elegant in touch, and whose sense of where phrases begin and end is clearly superior.
This leaves the final trilogy: my three favorite piano sonatas by anyone. Lim actually gets through the first movement of Op. 109 in very good form; only at a few moments did I find something too rushed, too impulsive; there’s a notated pause that she skips, too. That said, it’s a mostly good start, and the second movement is right up Lim’s alley. It’s only at 3:28 in the variations that her mania starts to intrude — but when it does, it results in more than one laugh-out-loud moment. Parts of this performance really are funny. It’s almost disappointing she takes the ending seriously, since this makes the variations seem like a party that’s just over.
Can anyone ruin the first few divine chords of Op. 110? HJ Lim cannot. The pattern from the last sonata repeats itself: the first two movements go fairly well - though Lim seriously tries her own ability in the allegro’s trio - then the big finale has an aria devoid of feeling and a fugue which feels like Bach carousing at the local tavern. The emotional swings don't make sense, although they'd have made even less sense if the interludes weren't so unfeeling. The switch back to fugue tempo at its second arrival feels like a mistake.
I expected Lim to deliver with force in the very last sonata (Op. 111), so the first movement took me back. It’s, well, boring. It lacks the violent force of Pollini or Brautigam, let alone the fire of Richter on Brilliant’s Historic Russian Archives. Part of this might be the piano and recording, because Lim is fast and sloppy but somehow lacking in heft. Then there’s the arietta, just 14:34 of it, although that Richter reading is a similar 14:50. The theme is played very well; the first variation is too; then it starts getting a little hairy. The famous “boogie” variation sees its rhythms go without much emphasis, as if they’re not that interesting, and Lim is playing so quickly that she actually skips a chord. Beginning at 12:05 we reach the climactic variations, where Lim is far too bland compared to basically every other pianist; consider Richter, Pollini, Crawford.
At this point I feel it would be appropriate to answer a question.
A Question Which the Intelligent Reader May Wish to Put to the Present Author: Is There a “Right” Way to Play Beethoven?
No. There is no “right” way to play Beethoven. Those more doctrinaire than I might argue that there indeed is, which is to play his music exactly the way Beethoven wished it to be played. We can never really know how to do this, barring use of a time machine, which is why even the strictest of literalists - Jeno Jandó might well be one of these - sound quite different.
Then there is a whole wide range of styles which pianists bring to these sonatas. Someone once said Wilhelm Kempff does not sound like he is performing at all, but playing the music to himself. Young Daniel Barenboim is the opposite, ever a showman. Annie Fischer is white-hot with passion and determination; Emil Gilels surrounds everything with a halo of spiritual peace. François-Frédéric Guy can be impulsive and idiosyncratic, but in a tasteful way which suggests Beethoven the rebel; Andrea Lucchesini evokes a more romantic poet. None is “right,” and at the same time all are “right.” None offers the “truth,” yet all of them feel “true.”
HJ Lim has a consistent vision, too, and she must be given credit for that. Her vision reminds us that there are wrong ways to play Beethoven. One of them is to be boring, but that is only rarely Lim’s failing. She has a consistent inability to see further than five notes away; every phrase is overindulged, to the point where fast movements are riddled with hyperactivity, self-indulgent showing-off, and irritating underlinings and sudden pauses. There is a way to put an individual stamp on Beethoven, but it requires taste.
Lim has other failings. Her adagios almost all reveal an insensitivity and impatience which defies belief. A few sonatas reveal that she does not have the technical skills necessary to keep up with her own blazing speeds. The endless tinkering with dynamics has a way of ruining a work’s structure. Most damningly, though: Lim cannot play softly. There may be five chords in this set that are mezzopiano or quieter. Even her slow movements have a way of getting louder as they go. Compared to someone like Bavouzet or Schnabel, HJ Lim’s inability to play a quiet note is a bit of a shock. This flaw alone single-handedly ruins one-third of the set.
Even though there are okay performances here, occasionally, they are all sunk by one additional flaw: the sound. Part of this, again, is Lim’s fault. She has chosen a Yamaha piano which has shockingly little warmth or resonance; it’s the piano equivalent of a buzzing yellow fluorescent light. The acoustics don’t help, either, adding yet another layer of coldness and thinness to the final product. Aside from Stewart Goodyear’s sadly cramped sonics, this is the worst-sounding recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas I’m aware of in the past twenty years. Even Jandó’s piano and engineering are preferable. As my colleague Kirk McElhearn wrote on his blog, “it sounds like Lim is playing on icicles.”
Initially listening to HJ Lim was a pleasure to me, almost identical in type to the pleasure of watching Killer Klowns from Outer Space. But, unlike Killer Klowns, which maintains a perverse hilarity throughout, HJ Lim’s Beethoven gradually began to wear on me, and I started to think of listening as a chore. Some disasters are fun and some are simply painful; this manages to be both. The variations of Op. 109 had me laughing out loud, but the entirety of Op. 78 had me gritting my teeth in agony. There are quite a few critics who have enjoyed this set for its intensity, its wildness, and its “youth,” but I am not one of them. Plenty of people have done intense, wild, thrilling Beethoven before, and they’ve all done it better. If HJ Lim had only produced a single CD (containing, say, Opp. 27, 31/3, 79, and 109) it would have been a reliable source of cruel laughter, but a box set of the (in)complete Beethoven sonatas? That’s depressing.
Maybe I was wrong about HJ Lim’s Beethoven being like Mr Lucas. Maybe her playing style is more like Adam Sandler: at first it was kind of funny, but the more we’re exposed to it, the more we wish it would just bloody stop.
See also review by Dominy Clements (from which track listings below are copied)
Barring the unforeseen, the worst recording of the year. An extraordinary train-wreck good for mockery and drinking games. The Adam Sandler of Beethoven sonata cycles.
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]