HJ Lim

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas

(CD - EMI Classics / Warner Classics #5099946495228)

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The marketing of this collection of Beethoven's piano sonatas (minus the two small student pieces of Op. 49) may have overshadowed its musical content. The charismatic Korean pianist HJ Lim first gained a following on YouTube, where she posted her work from France in order to keep in touch with her parents back home. Her gutsy decision to plunge into the entire Beethoven cycle has been released digitally by EMI, at a bargain price, and heavily advertised on Facebook. Lim's sheer ambition is displayed in her organization of the set, which is not chronological but instead uses "themes": Heroic Ideals, Eternal Feminine -- Youth, Assertion of an Inflexible Personality, Nature, Extremes in Collision, Resignation and Action, Eternal Feminine -- Maturity, and Destiny. It might be objected that these are not satisfying as categories, and indeed they don't really hold together well, nor emerge convincingly in Lim's playing, which seems to approach each piece is a sort of free-flowing, rhythmically irregular way. Yet Lim defends her programming in a remarkable set of (digital) notes, making extensive biographical references to Beethoven's own writings and those of his assistant Schindler, among others. This is quite an intellectual feat for one who has made it through the rigors of conservatory training, and in many specific locations Lim's observations are both persuasive and generative of fresh interpretations. To take just one example, the placement of the Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 ("Waldstein"), in the "Nature" segment is surprising yet revelatory, as Lim turns the slow movement into a series of murky forest whispers and the finale into a blaze of sunny Romantic transcendence. She does a good job of backing up her more outrageous ideas with Beethoven's own words, many of them dealing with his always tempestuous love life, and at the local level, if not in wider thematic thrusts, her interpretations make sense, and she has the technical chops to pull them off. The best word for Lim at this point is "prodigy"; her talent is impressive but needs focus, and she gets extra points for a star quality that is well suited to the way EMI is trying to present this release. That star quality is, moreover, something much needed in mainstream classical music.

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