“I don't really feel a nationality in my music making. Music is so universal.” A native of South Korea, Hjun Jung (HJ) Lim trained in France and now lives in Switzerland. Her recording debut was of the complete sonatas of a German and her second CD features music by a Frenchman and a Russian. Thankfully, those reviews of years ago when we were told that you had to be Russian to perform Prokofiev, or that Debussy could only be fully appreciated by the French, are long gone. That was nonsense then, and it’s nonsense now as we find musicians from the East demonstrating complete understanding of staples of the Western musical genres - not just classical.
HJ Lim’s complete set of Beethoven sonatas
generated more than its fair share of debate and criticism. Although I tend to prefer the relatively sober and straightforward approach to Beethoven as exemplified by, say, Jonathan Biss, the sheer idiosyncrasy of her performances continues to hold my attention every time I listen to them. They constitute a useful comparison baseline at the less orthodox end of the scale, faint praise though that may seem.
Ravel and Scriabin seem more natural territory for HL Lim than Beethoven. Not forgetting Beethoven’s two sonatas Op. 27 ‘Quasi una Fantasia’, the very early 20th
century works on this CD seem to offer more opportunities for the exercise of a fantastical sensibility. I would say that this is how it works out, that the two best items on the disc are Scriabin’s 5th
sonata and Ravel’s La Valse
, both works of towering difficulty with a decidedly phantasmagorical air about them.
At the first performance of the Valses nobles et sentimentales
, the audience was asked to guess the identity of the composer. Many guesses were wrong; even now, hearing certain bars might lead one in the direction of Berg or Kodály. Ravel himself described the work as “the delicious and ageless pleasure of a useless occupation” though we should not be misled by such self-deprecation. There is so much music here, whether taken at face value or as a sort of ‘meta-waltz’, commentary on the form. HJ Lim plays around with the score more than other pianists, Alexandre Tharaud, Jean-Philippe Collard and Sigurd Slåttebrekk in their complete collections, for example – and perhaps more than the composer himself would have liked – but I find her interpretation essentially very musical. The second valse
is indeed sentimental, the third dances delightfully and she probes deeply as the set progresses, taking a slow — too slow for some? — and considered approach to the final Épilogue
, a piece as serious as anything Ravel ever wrote.
That this may not be the only version you want to have also goes for the Sonatine which is more ‘classically’ played by Tharaud, Thibaudet, Collard, and others. I prefer Alessandra Ammara’s gentler and statelier treatment – at a much slower tempo – of the minuet in her justly esteemed Ravel recital, though HJ Lim’s forthright approach in the third movement comes closer to Ravel’s requirement for it to be played “without prudence or mercy”.
The outstanding Ravel performance on the disc is that of La Valse
where HJ Lim has the technique required to clarify the complicated textures of what might have once been called a ‘piano reduction’, though that seems an inapposite term for a work so teeming with notes. The arrangement gives a far different, less dance-like, effect from the orchestral version and, indeed, from the two-piano transcription which seems even scarier to me, at least in the hands of the recent recording by Martha Argerich and Gabrieli Baldocci. HJ Lim brings a febrile intensity to the score.
As regards the Scriabin performances on this disc, though none of HJ Lim’s accounts tops the list individually, as a whole they do not disappoint. The most impressive Scriabin 5 performance of recent times seems to me to be that of Yevgeny Sudbin, combining overwhelming power with subtle delicacy. Even with her steely brilliance in the chordal passages, HJ Lim does not quite approach that level but her approach convinces nevertheless. Mikhail Pletnev brings more languor to the first movement of the 4th
sonata as does Yuki Matzusawa but HJ Lim’s Prestissimo Volante
is suitably agitato
Sudbin has described the Waltz Op. 38 as “stylish, elegant, sensual and sophisticated”, and his performance is just that. HJ Lim’s is perhaps a little too capricious and does not have the same elegance. At the opposite pole, Maria Lettberg offers a slightly slower and dreamier alternative in her complete Scriabin edition.
Although HJ Lim’s account of the Poème Op 32 No. 1 is among the faster on record, the overall impression is of an erotic languor. I prefer her yielding approach to that of the more strait-laced Lettberg who tends to play through the opportunities. My favourite performance is that of Yuja Wang on her ‘Fantasia’ disc; she achieves a highly perfumed effect without pulling the piece about, though I confess to a soft spot for Anatol Ugorski’s gentle rubato
on his ‘Short Stories’ album.
Taken as a whole then, this record offers a representative profile of this distinctive pianist. While one might not always agree with her sometimes off-beat approach, she does show how these two composers are more similar than one might think. Along the way she gives performances which, unlike others as idiosyncratic, bear repeated listening.